The Sunset of the Confederacy: VI
SHERIDAN, on starting from Prospect Station with Custer’s and Merritt’s divisions, took the road nearest the river, the one that leads by way of Walker’s Church, leaving orders for Crook to keep on that which runs along the railroad, notifying him that he would be followed by the infantry.
Newhall says that Sheridan only halted once for rest and water, and, while waiting, sent a regiment to Cutbank Ford on the Appomattox to see if any of the enemy were heading for the south side of the river. The regiment he dispatched was the Second New York, under the command of Colonel A. M. Randol. It was against this reconnoitring party that Lee’s inspector-general, Peyton, was posting the last of the First Virginia when Colonel Claiborne asked him the question,
‘ Does General Lee know how few of his soldiers are left, or to what extremities they are reduced?’
Sheridan tells us that on the previous evening his scouts reported to him the presence of four railroad trains with supplies for Lee’s army at Appomattox Station, and I have no doubt they did; but scouts were as a rule such infernal liars, that I doubt very much if he felt absolutely sure of the truth of their story. At any rate, the other afternoon, as we looked off on the sea at Gloucester, General Pennington told me that he and Custer and Randol, who had returned from his scout, were dismounted and lay resting under the shade of some trees by the roadside a mile or more from Appomattox Station, when the whistle of a locomotive was borne to them. The sun was about an hour high. Custer jumped to his feet, exclaiming, ‘By George! there’s a train, let’s go for it!’ and sprang into his saddle. Randol says his regiment set off at a trot, and that Custer rode up and laying his hand on his shoulder said, ‘ Go in, old fellow, don’t let anything stop you: now is the chance for your stars; whoop ’em up and I’ll be after you.’
Randol, followed by Pennington, at once struck into a gallop. The leading troopers, catching sight of the trains at the station just getting under way, for they had taken alarm, circled ahead of them, and, spurring up alongside the engines, covered the engineers with their revolvers and told them to throw the levers and stop; which orders they wisely obeyed. Randol then called for men to man the trains, and old firemen and engineers gladly threw themselves off their horses and, mounting the cabs, started the trains, with bells ringing and whistles blowing, and soon were out of reach toward Farmville.
Randol then pushed out from the station over the several roads which radiated from it through the thick growths of jack-oak and scrub-pine toward the Lynchburg Pike, a mile or more away. Twilight was about to give way to night.
It will be recalled that Walker’s column of sixty-odd pieces of reserve artillery had bivouacked in supposed security in the open fields along the pike; but to their amazement they heard Randol’s men engaging some of their stray flankers, and at once rushed to their guns. But the horses were barely hitched when the cavalry were on them. The cannoneers, however, had had time to load their pieces with canister, and companies of artillery whose guns had been abandoned and who had equipped themselves as infantry were able also to get into line, and together they met our men with a destructive fire which swept them back into the woods.
Pennington came on at a gallop with the rest of the brigade, but so dense were the scrub-pines and oaks, and so stubbornly did the enemy hold their ground, that he could not budge them. Custer hurried on the field with the other brigade and sent them in with his usual vehemence, but owing to the darkness and his ignorance of the lay of the land, he made no headway. But the fighting kept on.
In the midst of the din Randol ran across Custer who, now wild with desperation, was dashing here and there, his bugle sounding the charge, trying to push his men up against the enemy’s line, although he was guided alone by the flash of their guns. Randol screamed to him that if he would let him get his regiment together he believed he could break through; but Custer exclaimed, ‘Never mind your regiment, take anything and everything you can find, we must get hold of that road to-night’; and then roared out to his adjutant-general, ‘Go tell the men that those guns must be taken in five minutes.’ Off went the adjutant-general, and the woods rang with the cheers of the cavalrymen as they heard him shouting Custer’s words through the black night. Almost simultaneously they charged in among the batteries, and the day and the road were theirs.
Meanwhile Sheridan had come up and sent Devins of Merritt’s division to Custer’s right; hut before t hey could get ready to attack, the victory had been won and the uncapt ured guns and wagons were fleeing, — a few westward and out of danger toward Lynchburg, but the bulk backward and downward toward the Court House, pursued by the Fifteenth New York Cavalry. At the head of this regiment was Colonel Root on a white horse, whose wild speed soon carried him to the edge of t he village. There he met a volley from Wallace’s brigade, which, as soon as the retreating mob of men, batteries, and wagons would allow, had formed across the road. Root fell dead in the street, and his horse wheeled madly and dashed out of the withering fire which our men were glad to run from.
It was now nine o’clock and after, and that was the end of the day’s operations on Lynchburg Pike; Custer captured twenty-five pieces of artillery, over two hundred wagons, and many prisoners, and Lee’s last chance was gone. By their triumph, every one will agree that Sheridan’s cavalry had earned the country’s gratitude.
It may be interesting to repeat in substance what Dr. Claiborne and General Pendleton, already quoted, have to say of their experiences in this spirited combat. Both happened to be with Walker when Randol’s bugles sounding a charge were heard, and, says Pendleton in his report, ‘to avert immediate disaster demanded the exercise of all our abilities.’ The infantry and artillery were prompt and resolute, as we know, in repulsing Randol at first; and Pendleton, concluding the affair was over and receiving a message that he was wanted at Lee’s headquarters, left Walker and had got within a short distance of the Court House when — this is his language—‘the enemy’s cavalry came rushing along firing upon all in the road, and I only escaped being shot or captured by leaping my horse over the fence and skirting for some distance along the left of the road toward our column then advancing, until I reached a point where the enemy’s charge was checked.’
He must have skirted pretty widely, for he did not get to Lee’s headquarters till I A.M., and from where he leaped the fence it could not have been more than two miles, and in four hours a horse can cover quite a bit of ground. But the country was very rough and new to him; besides, he had to find some place to cross the river. The old general, what with having to carry the unpleasant resolve of the council to Lee, and then being hustled so suddenly, unexpectedly, and disagreeably by Sheridan’s cavalry, had certainly had a bad day.
Dr. Claiborne and his two companions, Doctors Field and Smith, had unsaddled their horses near Walker’s command, and with the saddles for their pillows were enjoying some sleep, when Claiborne’s attendant, Rurkhardt, a soldier Quaker, leaning over, shook the Doctor rudely by the shoulder and cried, ‘Doctor! The Yankees be upon thee!’ It is not necessary to say that there was no delay in waking up or disappearing in the black jackoaks. The Yankee cavalry charging with yells and clanking sabres in every direction, the doctors made good time, as doctors should when suddenly called upon in any emergency. They rambled round till the fight was over, and then raked some leaves together and bivouacked in the corner of a fence. I have often thought that it would have been an amusing sight if one could have sat on the old fence when day broke and seen these doctors as they eyed each other on waking. There is something funny about it to me. Well, they had barely left their bed of leaves when in the mist loomed one of our cavalry videttes, who pulled a heavy revolver, and they were soon taken to the rear as prisoners.
That night Sheridan made his headquarters in a little frame house not far from the station, and, stretched out on a bench in the cheerful parlor lighted by a bright wood-fire, dictated a dispatch to Grant. It was dated 9.20 p.m., and after telling Grant what had been accomplished, it ended, ‘If General Gibbon and the Fift h Corps can get up to-night we will perhaps finish the job in the morning. I do not think Lee means to surrender until compelled to do so.’ At an earlier hour Sheridan had sent back word to Ord that, he was across Lee’s front, and urged him to bring up the infantry with all speed, for he felt sure that Lee would try to break through. Ord communicated the news to Gibbon and Griffin, and they continued the march till well on toward midnight; and on halting, the men were so tired by their march of nearly thirty miles, that they did not stop to make coffee but sank down beside their gun-stacks and fell asleep.
As soon as Crook came up, Sheridan had him join his right to Devins’s left and establish a line squarely across the road; Custer’s men being occupied meanwhile in clearing the field of their captures, regaining their organizations, finding and caring for their stricken comrades. Custer, before going into bivouac, rode to the hospital and visited his wounded. ‘Had it been daylight,’ says Tremain, ‘he would have seen green saplings, about which his men so valiantly and successfully fought, bent and split by canister from the artillery. The trees and artillery carriages in the park were perforated with bullet-holes; horses wallowed in the bloody mud, and the first dawn of the day upon the spot would tell any observer of the deadly character of that evening’s contest. Surgeons of wide experience in the cavalry remarked that they never treated so many extreme cases in so short a fight.’
It was toward one o’clock when the videttes of the First Maine Cavalry, under Colonel Cilley, Crook’s division, took their position. It was across the road at a point within three quarters of a mile of the Court House, and t he colonel, after posting them, attracted by the noises which came through the darkness from the Confederate artillery camping in the valley below him, dismounted and passed through his line. He approached near enough to hear distinctly the angry exclamations of the drivers and teamsters at their poor, famished horses, and then, returning, sat at the foot of a chestnut tree where he had planted the standard of his regiment. Up to him as he sat there drowsing were borne the confused sounds of the enemy’s corps, and over him, and over friend and foe, bivouacking or moving, fleets of clouds were drifting mid pools of starry light. And now while the hours draw on, let us turn and see what was transpiring, first at Grant’s and then at Lee’s headquarters.
Grant’s, as well as Meade’s, were at J. I. Crute’s, a large white house on the stage road about two and a half miles south of Curdsville. The plantation was called Clifton.
In the afternoon Grant was taken with one of his severe headaches, and at night threw himself on a sofa in the room to the left of the hall. Unfortunately for his comfort there was a piano in the opposite room, about which after supper the young officers of the respective staffs gathered, caroling and bellowing out choruses. Grant with his usual forbearance bore the racket for quite a while, hoping the buoyant youngsters would soon tire out; but at last, satisfied that they had no intention of ending the nuisance, he sent word asking them to stop; and I think I can see them tiptoeing away from the dumfounded old piano that had never been called on for anything but hymns, ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag,’ and ‘Dixie.’
Grant had accompanied Meade so that he would be in quick reach of Lee’s reply to his second letter, which he had good reason to believe would be answered promptly; but the afternoon and half the night passed before the expected response came to hand. Lee, as will be seen, for some reason or other, did not receive Grant’s letter till a late hour. I am perfectly free to confess that there is something unaccountable in the four or five hours’ delay of that mighty important communication, for it entered Lee’s lines before 11 o’clock A.M., and an aide ought to have overtaken him in two and a half hours at most. If I were to guess what delayed it, I would say that the foxy Fitz Lee intimated to the aide entrusted with it not to be in too big a hurry to find the general. Let the explanation be what it may, Alexander says it was answered by the roadside and that Lee’s reply was delivered to Humphreys after sundown. But it must have been considerably after sundown, for Major Mason of Fitz Lee’s staff brought it to Colonel Egbert ’s line of skirmishers, One Hundred and Eighty-third Pennsylvania, who were not put in the advance till after eight o’clock — and whenever it reached Humphreys after that hour, it did not reach Grant till about twelve o’clock. Up to that time, on account of his headache, he had not been able to get much sleep. Rawlins took the dispatch to him; after making a few comments, — probably to the effect that Sheridan was right, that Lee did not mean to surrender till he was forced to do so, — he lay down on the sofa again. Here is the letter.
April 8, 1865.
GENERAL, — I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the object of all, I desire to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot therefore meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States’ forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. to-morrow on t he old stage road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.
R. E. LEE, Gen.
Lee then bivouacked and his campfire was started, the last that should blaze ere the flames of his hope were quenched; for before the next was kindled he had drunk the bitter cup of defeat and the end had come. But when I visited the spot on a still, golden October morning, a belated single daisy on a frail leaning stalk was blooming up out of its ashes, and amid the rug of fallen and falling russet oak and yellowing chestnut leaves, a black gum’s waxy, scarlet leaf here and there lay blazing like a living coal of that last old fire itself, and off in the surrounding woods from time to time a bird fluted a soft, pensive, farewell note.
Early in the evening, and doubtless on account of hearing Walker’s guns pouring their rapid fire into Custer, Lee sent orders for the cavalry to be moved to the front, and its commander, Fitz Lee, to report, to him in person, inasmuch as he had decided to hold a council of war with his three corps commanders. For the boom of that artillery was ominous, and, figuratively, he was like the captain of a ship on a tempestuous night who is feeling his way to a harbor and suddenly hears the breakers thundering on the bar.
When Fitz Lee arrived at headquarters, which had neither chairs, tents, nor campstools about it, he found Longstreet there, his arm in a sling and smoking a pipe; and soon after Gordon appeared. And then, before the low-burning camp-fire, overarched and darkened by leafy trees, — moreover, there was no moon, and the sky was heavily patched with surly, fast-drifting clouds, — they sat down on blankets and saddles and listened to Lee.
With clouded face, but in complete command of himself, he set forth the situation. It was not necessary for him to tell t hem what had happened since they left Petersburg: that the capital had fallen, that the chance to consult Mr. Davis and his Cabinet was gone, that the supplies were gone, and that thousands and thousands of weak and disheartened soldiers were gone; all that they already knew, but the correspondence he had had with Grant in reference to the surrender of the army, that they did not know definitely, and he read it to them. And the question then was, what next?
And now, Reader, before the momentous question is discussed in all of its phases and then answered, I beg for a pause. For we have reached one of those solemn hours when the hand of the Inevitable is on the wheel of Fortune. Yes, it is one of those hours so fatal to institutions that are sham, corrupt, and sordid in this world, and to states and conditions which have had their day of shutting out ideals with the smoke of sacrifices on the altars of Mammon. Yes, and also, for reasons incomprehensible, the wheel has turned more than once, involving the just and the unjust; and nations with all their ties, aspiration, and glory, have passed away like a mist of the morning and are gone.
And now that same mighty, fatal wheel is about to turn again and crush a cause which God has been implored to bless, and for which many a life has been laid down. Let us not say who is right or who is wrong, but put yourself in the place of that group and forget not the dooming hour, forget not to credit each with a sense of selfrespect and a conscience like your own. Think of the sacrifices that they had made beyond measure in a cause which they believed to be just, and remember that now at last, notwithstanding all, they were face to face with defeat, which meant that social, domestic, and economic condit ions were bound to be disrupted into utmost chaos. Think it all over as you evoke the scene.
And so, then, Nephew Fitz Hugh, and you, Gordon, and Longstreet, hero old and tried, what next? Shall the Army of Northern Virginia, after all its defiance of the North, and after all its confident assertion and roassertion of ultimate victory, lay down its arms, and the South acknowledge that it has been utterly defeated? For with that army’s surrender the Confederacy plunges into an abyss beyond reach of recovery.
And with that dire result a fact, what political steps would necessarily follow? Were the leaders civil and military to be disfranchised till death overtook them?
And how about the states? Were they to be held as conquered provinces and never allowed to take their places again, clothed in their native sovereignty, in a Union which they had helped to form? And how about the future of the slaves themselves? What was to be their status?
Again, whatsoever the terms which Grant might make, how far would they bind his government ? Had it not notified him peremptorily, ‘You are not to decide, discuss, or confer upon, any political question’? Our arms laid down, let the implacable radicals cry for vengeance: what would t he government do then? Would it yield to them and invoke the penalties of treason? — Treason! You are a dread old word, whether heard under the oaks of England or under the oaks of Virginia; and when had there ever been a rebellion in England that the land did not groan under the shadow of gibbets? — Had not these men, brought up on the Spectator, these lovers of Shakespeare, more than once read Prince John of Lancaster’s cruel speech to the rebellious Scroop, Archbishop of York?
Moreover, what was to be the character of the ceremony of surrender? Is it unfair to assume that Lee, Longstreet, and Gordon had read Livy? Fitz Lee at least had had to study Blair’s Rhetoric in his course at West Point, while his uncle Robert E. was superintendent, and surely was familiar with the story of the legions’ anguish at the prospect of having to pass under the yoke after the Caudine Forks. Was Robert E. Lee on Traveller to head the Army of Northern Virginia in a march of humiliation before the Army of the Potomac? These were questions stalking round that fire like grim spectres, and calling on the members of that last council for an answer. Let there be no mistake. This is not fancy; they were there in awful reality, cold-eyed, hollow-cheeked, and clad in steel. Gordon himself says that ’if all that was said and felt at that meeting could be given, it would make a volume of measureless pathos.’
But let us come to the main issue.
Should they try to force a passage through the Army of the Potomac and join the pleading standard on the Roanoke? And, if the latter were impossible, then, with the fragments which might elude capture, should they continue a desultory guerilla warfare till the government should grow weary and grant a peace on humane terms? It is needless to speak of how their swords, pride, and self-respect, and the wounds they bore, — for each of them had been carried bleeding from the field, — clamored in favor of the high attempt; it is needless, finally, to record that they won the day.
There is every reason to believe that Lee was glad when they decided as they did; and I am glad, too: for the sake of enduring peace, I am glad that the Army of Northern Virginia took war’s last hazard, notwithstanding t hat scores of noble-spirited youths on both sides lost their lives. For when Victory finally illumined the torn banners of the Union, nowhere within the range of endeavor’s vision was there a single lost opportunity to save the Confederacy; all had been done by the Army of Northern Virginia that fortitude and courage could call upon it to do.
To carry out the decision they had reached, Gordon and Fitz Lee, accompanied by four or five batteries, were to move at one o’clock, get into position by daylight, and then attack Sheridan. Longstreet was to follow after them with his heroic corps, and in case they were successful, take a stand at the Court House, and hold Humphreys back till the trains were out of the way, Mahone meanwhile guarding their left.
Then the three corps commanders left Lee, to rejoin t heir shattered, sleeping forces. Gordon, while thinking intently and rapidly over the coming enterprise, suddenly bethought him, ‘Where, after throwing off Sheridan, shall 1 halt and camp for the night.?’
It was an important question, and he sent an aide back to Lee to have him settle the matter.
‘Yes,’ said Lee after hearing the serious aide; ‘ tell General Gordon that I should be glad for him to halt just beyond the Tennessee line,’ — which was only about two hundred miles off to the west, amid the Alleghany Mountains!
Lee, as the world knows, was not inclined to be facetious, but this reply under all the circumstances bubbles with such spontaneous humor that I am sure that it will bring him closer to my readers.
The batteries, with Gordon’s infantry and Fitz Lee’s cavalry, took up the march at a very early hour; the latter, through the waning camp-fires of Longstreet’s corps, faintly twinkling by the roadside, — for in those dark, still hours the fairy spinner, Mist, was weaving her veil deeply over the face of the fields and woods. Lee’s staff, and a part of Gordon’s and Longstreet’s, lay down on the ground near the roadside, after the conference, their saddles for pillows, their horses picketed to the trees and gnawing every little while at the bark for want of better provender.
Lee rose at three o’clock and rode forward through the rear of Fitz Lee’s and Gordon’s troops to a commanding point overlooking the mist-covered valley below. There he reined up and waited, as they filed down the road past him; and the time must have seemed long till dawn. But at last it came, and with its approach, the pale fog, as if it had heard a mysterious signal, began to lift slowly, and the surrounding region became visible.
Meanwhile Grimes of Gordon’s corps, to whom Bushrod Johnson’s divisions had been assigned, had crossed the river, and passing through the village had formed athwart the Lynchburg Road. James A. Walker’s division drew up in the fog-gray darkness on Grimes’s left, and Evans, under whose command was all that survived of the old Stonewall Jackson Virginia Brigade, on Walker’s left.
Grimes put Bushrod Johnson on his right, Cox’s brigade of North Carolinians holding the extreme flank. The cavalry formed on the infantry’s right, first W. H. F. Lee’s division, then Rosser, and then the young, gallant Munford, all under the command of stocky, blue-eyed, full-rusty-bearded, jolly Fitz Lee, — but he was not in a joking mood that morning. A little before daylight Gordon, accompanied by him, came to where Grimes stood, and began in his presence to talk about what should be done. Gordon, says Grimes, was of the opinion that the troops before them were cavalry, and that Fitz Lee should begin the attack; Fitz Lee thought they were infantry, and that Gordon should at tack. They discussed the matter so long that Grimes got impatient and blurted out that it was somebody’s business to attack at once, and that he was sure he could drive our forces from the Bent Creek Road, which it had been decided the Confederate trains were to take.
It may help to vivify the landscape if we stand where Gordon and Grimes stood and look at it through their eyes. They were within one hundred yards of the McLean house, on the edge of the village and facing south. Before them, spread out like a tilted fan, old fields, veiled with mist and creased with gentle folds, rose toward the south, crowned at last with misty, circling woods. About midway of the incline the Bent Creek Road strikes off westward from the Lynchburg, and after a while rambles back into it again beyond Appomattox Station. It will be remembered that the First Maine’s videttes, carbine in hand, were posted along it, and that their division, Crook’s, was back of them up in the woods a half mile or more, dismounted, their horses browsing, and some of the men behind a line of temporary defenses of rails, brush, and pieces of old logs, whose centre was on the Lynchburg Road; and that while Gordon and Grimes were having their interview, Mackenzie’s small division was moving under orders from Sheridan to take position on Crook’s left.
‘Well!’ Gordon replied, to Grimes’s soldierly, blunt remark, ‘drive them off!’
‘I cannot do it with my division alone,’ observed Grimes.
‘You can take the other two divisions!’ responded Gordon.
Grimes then rode to Walker and asked him to go with him; for daylight was breaking while he pointed out Crook’s position and explained his plan of attack. The cavalry, it was decided, should circuit around Crook’s left, and when all were ready, a combined onset should be made to clear the road.
The early movements of Gordon and Fitz Lee were sluggish, and it was not till my classmate ‘Jim’ Lord, by order of Colonel Smith of the First Maine, let drive a few rounds from his battery, pushed well up on the encircling ridge, down in among the swarm of cavalry, infantry, and wagons dim in the enshrouding fog, that any advance was made. Grimes started a light force up the pike and drove the videttes from the Bent Creek Road back on the main line.
The road clear, the right of Fitz Lee’s command, Rosser and Munford, took it, moving briskly, and Grimes with lines extended waited for them to get to Crook’s left. Meanwhile, the sun rose, as did the fog, and the dewy tree-tops on the timbered hills, which zigzag round the head of the Appomattox, began to loom free against the fresh sky of that Palm Sunday morning, a sky that soon, North and South, would hear the bells of many a steeple ringing.
But before they move let us turn to Ord’s troops, who had bivouacked at midnight within four or five miles of Appomattox Station. They were called from their slumbers at 3 A.M., and although weary and foot-sore, and without breakfasting, — ‘ but a few had had anything to eat since noon of the previous day,’ say the War Records, — fell in without murmuring, and resumed the march. Foster’s division of Gibbon’s corps was in the lead; then Turner, and behind him Griffin, with the Fifth Corps.
About the time Gordon was replying to Grimes, Foster had reached the vicinity of Sheridan’s headquarters, the little frame house just south of the station, and halted for breakfast. Their fires were barely started when Ord rode up, dismounted, and, after a short consultation with Sheridan, started Foster on at full speed, and then rode back to hurry on the rest of the infantry, for word had just come in that the enemy were moving.
Rienzi was stamping in front of the door; Sheridan mounted him, and dashed for the front. Having gained a point where he could get a good .view of Gordon’s infantry, he halted.
They were now advancing firmly with colors, and there were so many standards crimsoning each body of troops, — to their glory the Confederate color-bearers stood by Lee to the last, — that they looked like marching gardens blooming with cockscomb, red roses, and poppies. One glance told Sheridan that Crook and Mackenzie could not possibly hold their ground, and he sent word to them to fall back slowly. He also sent orders to Custer and Devins who, after their severe trials of the night before, had retired for a little rest near his headquarters, to come on the field at once.
Meanwhile, the Confederate batteries which, under Alexander had jarred earth and sky at Gettysburg just before Pickett’s charge, had opened and were thundering well. And as I loitered last October on the spot where they stood that Sunday morning in 1865, the spirits of Confederate cannoneers approached me, asking, ‘Can you tell us where we can find our old commanders, Pelham, Alexander, Dearing, ‘Joe’ Blount, Brown, and Carter?’ Yes, if you will follow a road upward, upward past moons and stars, the road that the sound of the churchbells took that Palm Sunday morning, it will lead you at last to where you will find them all.
The sound of the firing reached Ord’s column, stepping briskly, and with cheers they broke into double-quick. Pennington of Custer’s division, who had not found rest until after midnight, was fast asleep on a quilt of pineneedles in a grove traversed by the sunken road on which the men were marching. Their eagle-like scream awakened him, and as far as he could see the road was packed with men, their faces grimly ablaze, colors flying, and over them, like a wavering shield of steel, were their muskets at rightshoulder-shift, as they trotted forward to the sound of the now booming guns; for Gordon’s and Fitz Lee’s veterans were answering the last call of the Confederacy with their old-time spirit.
Fitz Lee, having gained a position to the left and rear of Mackenzie, assailed him violently, and swept his small brigade out of the way before he could establish due connection with Crook. Reader, for the sake of a boy’s love for another, let me say that Ronald S. Mackenzie (we always called him Mack) graduated at the head of my class, and that a braver, a more modest, or truer-hearted boy never lived, and that many and many a happy hour I passed with him and our fellow classmates as we sat and smoked and talked, — oh, so young and care free! — before call to quarters at West Point. Poor Mack! His mind became clouded, but death released him at last, and I know he rests in peace, for Honor and Valor saw to it that his pillow was soft.
Well, at about Mackenzie’s critical moment, Grimes, supported by four or five batteries under Colonel Thomas H. Carter, struck Crook in front, and, although his dismounted men held on stubbornly, they were forced to give way finally, and mighty fast, too, at that, for W. H. F. Lee was charging squarely against their left flank and rear. Back through old fields and heavy copses of young pine and surly jack-oaks, Crook and Mackenzie were driven, their led horses and batteries retreating in great confusion, leaving a gun, and perhaps two of them — for the number is in doubt — in the enemy’s hands, captured by Beal’s and Roberts’s brigades of W. H. F. Lee’s division. The Confederate infantry had come on, too, and soon the Lynchburg Road was clear, and the tattered forces that had cleared it burst into cheers.
But their victorious shouts had hardly broken before on through the mob of fleeing cavalry came Ord’s troops and, with the greatest promptness, without regard to its own flanks, his leading brigade, Osborn’s, — Thirtyninth Illinois, Sixty-second and Sixtyninth Ohio, — sought and rushed at the flanking cavalry. To Osborn’s right and left the other brigades of Gibbon’s corps, Turner’s division, and the brigade of colored troops, hurried, and forthwith all fought their way to the open, where rested the right of the main body of the Confederate infantry. Several batteries now, at pointblank, fired shell and canister into Gibbon’s men, and held them for a while, but were quickly driven from their position with the loss of a 20pound gun, captured by the Eighth Maine, Fairchild’s brigade of Foster’s division.
Meanwhile, the Fifth Corps, Chamberlain’s brigade in front, on reaching the station had been deflected to the right, and soon Pearson’s brigade, second in line of the front division, was ordered to line up alongside of Ord’s left. Obliquely to the northwest into double-quick they broke, and orders from Bartlett came sharp and fast: ‘ One Hundred and Fifty-Fifth Pennsylvania, forward as skirmishers!’ ‘On centre!’ ‘Take intervals!’ and away they go to the front, the cavalry parting and falling back through them. When deployed, their right was near the Trent house. Chamberlain continued the march rapidly, heavy guns answering each other fiercely, their lordly roar mingling with the spiteful crack of carbines and muskets, which every little while were drowned in the crash of a volley. One of Sheridan’s staff dashed at full speed up to the gallant Chamberlain, exclaiming, ‘General Sheridan wishes you to break off from the column and come to his support. The rebel infantry is pressing him hard. Our men are falling back; don’t wait for orders through the regular channels, but act on this at once.’
At a run t hey followed the staff officer to where Sheridan sat on fiery Rienzi in the smoke of the batteries, man and horse living embodiments of tumultuous energy.
I do not know just the spot where Sheridan stood that morning, but for a clearer understanding let us paint the view that was swept by his blazing eye.
There is a little brook called Plain Run which has its source in woods not far from Appomattox Station, and, after creeping out into the sunshine, flows northeastwardly in a shallow valley to the Appomattox. Along the western rim of its cradle is the Lynchburg Road. On the eastward rim, which is somewhat higher, is a country road that starts at the station, and after traversing three or four large plantations, the Inge, Sears’s, and Le Grande’s, enters the Walker’s Church Road heading westward within less than a mile of the Court House; thence the two glide on together down to Plain Run, which at this point is only a few hundred yards from the faint-beating heart of the old hamlet. Thus the shallow valley is bounded by these roads. On its gently-sloping sides are fields that last October were dun, covered with broom-grass, and dotted with low, green-tufted pines; and some of the fields bore rows of ripened, shocked corn. By the Trent house and then the Sears, the run wanders at the foot of these fields, and a lowing cow on its banks in the still hours of the night can be heard from road to road.
When I visited the field I went to the Sears house and from thence to the run itself, a few hundred yards away, for I wanted to see it at about the point where Chamberlain crossed it. I found it stealing through willows and alders, and under half-grown trees interlaced with wild grape-vines. The water, like that of Siloam, was flowing, softly, softly, from one shadowed pool to another. A little alarmed bird was chirping nervously in the alders, a yellow butterfly wavered by me to join a colony, sitting close together with upright, bladed wings, gilding a spot on a black, damp bar, — all of them resting as though in the dream of a distant summer day, — and from the direction of the Court House came faintly the intermittent jangle of a cow-bell.
I went back, up to the Le Grande Road, and there lay the scene swept by Sheridan’s blazing eye. And what did he see? His cavalry falling back down the sloping fields from the Lynchburg Road, and on their crest Gordon’s men cheering, shrouded in the smoke of battle, with scores and scores of crimson banners flying. O stormy sea of four long years! Your last triumphant wave is breaking, but not, not forever, like a shadow, are you gone, for there is a beach in men’s hearts which God in his wisdom hath made to respond to echoes of wars like this, and that creative, musical beach is emotion.
War’s tumult is loud, volleys are crashing, hills and woods are throwing back madly each sullen cannon’s roar, men arc falling mangled and bleeding; the ultimate crisis of the war is at hand. Ord’s left is drawing near the Bent Creek Road. Gibbon, Turner, and Bartlett are all surging through the timber toward the cheering Confederates.
But hark! Abruptly that cheering stops; stops as abruptly as though a deadly pang had struck each breast, or a sheeted ghost had risen before them. What has delivered the darting pang or evoked the forbidding spectre to change the mood of those cheering veterans? Lo! a mighty host with colors, fields of stars and bands of white and crimson, is pouring from the green leafy depths of the woods, and in full view across the valley the old Fifth Corps has risen up out of the earth, as it were, and in two lines of battle is swinging down past the Sears house with flags rippling gayly; flags that waved so opportunely on Round Top that second day at Gettysburg; and the cheering stops.
Sheridan’s bugles are calling triumphantly shrill; the scattered cavalry respond to their notes and gather in high spirits promptly to their standards; and Custer, at the head of the clanking column, gallops up the Le Grande Road, drawing sabres for a charge toward the Court House itself. Sheridan, as he leaves Chamberlain to join them, grits out, ‘Now smash ’em, I tell you; smash ’em!’ and gives the bit to the champing, restless, head-tossing Rienzi.
As Chamberlain crosses the little run, all the troops on his left press forward, and the whole Confederate line, now full of despair and heartache, begins to fall back. But as they retire, Cox gives to his North Carolina brigade the command, ‘Right about face!' Behind them their young, stately commander stands, his body bearing the scars of eleven wounds. As one they whirl. Firmly rings his voice again: ‘Ready! Aim! Fire!’ and from leveled guns pours the last volley that will be fired by the Army of Northern Virginia. Manly was he in the morning of life; manly is he in its evening; and his heart still youthful notwithstanding its weight of seventy-odd years. Here is my hand, gallant Cox, and may your last days be cloudless and sweet!
Behold, Reader; while the smoke of his brigade is billowing up, let me tell you a monument marks the spot where that last volley was fired; and, if ever you visit the field, — and I hope it will be in October, — do go to that stone: the tall, slender, gray-bodied, twilight-holding young pines that have grown up thickly in front of it, and the purple asters blooming round it, if you lend your ear, will welcome you to its proud record.
In vain the volley is fired, for fate’s invisible hands are loosening the curtains that in a few minutes more will fall on the drama, ending the long, fierce struggle. Yes; let it roar on past Gordon. He will wonder whether it was fired by friend or foe; but whichsoever, it matters not: his hope has flickered and gone out, for he sees Ord beginning to form up in the fields along the Bent Creek Road; Gibbon’s, Turner’s, and Griffin’s corps, through veils of musketry and artillery smoke, coming out from the timber; Custer on the point of charging down into the village, threatening to cut off all communication between the wings of the Confederate forces. The sight was appalling, andCuster’s threatening charge called for immediate action. Gordon sent a brigade of engineer troops, under that mild and well-bred gentleman, Colonel Talcott, to stay him, and orered Cox and the infantry to fall back to the village.
Fast now they recoil, leaving many a brave comrade behind them. They pass, on their way, the spot where a gun (or guns) was captured; and there lies Wilson, the color-bearer of the Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry, mortally wounded, his beautiful bay marc standing beside him. He has just bade his friend Moffett good-bye, murmuring, ‘Moffett, it is hard to die just as the war is over!’ And so it was, dying color-bearer; and when I stood where you fell, Wilson, my heart beat tenderly for you. Autumn flowers were blooming there, and a mist, like that of the morning when you made your last charge, was drenching the field, and here and there had gathered like tears at the tips of the bending grass.
The galloping column of cavalry, with golden-locked Custer at its head, has almost reached the Walker’s Church Road; drawn sabres are glinting; guidons are fluttering; foam is spotting the breasts of the horses who spring to the bugle-notes ready for the charge.
A Confederate battery gallops up, unlimbers at the left of the Peet house at the edge of the village, its right section in front of the rear door, and opens at Custer and Chamberlain’s right, firing shell and shrapnel as
fast as the cannoneers can load the guns. Longstreet, watching Gordon’s attack from the other side of the river, and seeing that it is failing, tells Alexander, who is at his side, to form a line quickly as a rallying-point for the retreating forces. Alexander plants battery after battery, and Wilcox and the fragments of Hill’s old corps and of Pickett’s and Kershaw’s divisions form in line. Heth takes his place on the left; and Heth by the way was a young, spare-faced, blue-eyed, and very lovable West Point man. His portrait, now adorns the walls of the Westmoreland Club in Richmond.