Harry Wallbridge, awaking with a sense of some alarming sound, listened intently in the darkness, seeing overhead the canvas roof faintly outlined, the darker stretch of its ridge-pole, its two thin slanting rafters, and the gable ends of the winter hut. He could not hear the small, fine drizzle from an atmosphere surcharged with water, nor anything but the drip from canvas to trench, the rustling of hay bunched beneath his head, the regular breathing of his “buddy,” Corporal Bader, and the stamping of horses in stables. But when a soldier in a neighboring tent called indistinguishably in the accents of nightmare, Bader’s breathing quieted, and in the lull Harry fancied the soaked air weighted faintly with steady [Page 174] picking-firing. A month with the 53rd Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Cavalry had not quite disabused the young recruit of his schoolboy belief that the men of the Army of the Potomac must live constantly within sound of the out-posts.
Harry sat up to hearken better, and then concluded that he had mistaken for musketry the crackle of haystalks under his poncho sheet. Beneath him the round poles of his bed sagged as he drew up his knees and gathered about his shoulders the gray blanket damp from the spray of heavy rain against the canvas earlier in the night. Soon, with slow dawn’s approach, he could make out the dull white of his carbine and sabre against the mud-plastered chimney. In that drear dimness the boy shivered, with a sense of misery rather than from cold, and yearned as only sleepy youth can for the ease of a true bed and dry warm swooning to slumber. He was sustained by no mature sense that this too would pass; it was with a certain bodily despair that he felt chafed and [Page 175] compressed by his rough garments, and pitied himself, thinking how his mother could cry if she could see him crouched so wretchedly that wet March morning, pressed all the more into loneliness by the regular breathing of veteran Bader in the indifference of deep sleep.
Harry’s vision of his mother coming into his room, shading her candle with her hand to see if he were asleep, passed away as a small gust came, shaking the canvas, for he was instantly alert with a certainty that the breeze had borne a strong rolling of musketry.
“Bader, Bader!” he said. “Bader!”
“Can’t you shut up, you Wallbridge?” came Orderly Sergeant Gravely’s sharp tones from the next tent.
“What’s wrong with you, Harry, boy?” asking Bader, turning.
“I thought I heard heavy firing closer than the picket lines; twice now I’ve thought I heard it.”
“Oh, I guess not, Harry. The Johnnies [Page 176] won’t come out no such night as this. Keep quiet, or you’ll have the sergeant on top of you. Better lie down and try to sleep, buddy; the bugles will call morning soon now.”
Again Harry fell to his revery of home, and his vision became that of the special evening on which his boyish wish to go to the war had, for the family’s sake, become resolve. He saw his mother’s spectacled and lamp-lit face as she, leaning to the table, read in the familiar Bible; little Fred and Mary, also facing the table’s central lamp, bent sleepy heads over their school-books; the father sat in the rocking-chair, with his right hand on the paper he had laid down, and gazed gloomily at the coals fallen below the front doors of the wood-burning stove. Harry dreamed himself back in his own chair, looking askance, and feeling sure his father was inwardly groaning over the absence of Jack, the eldest son. Then nine o’clock struck, and Fred and Mary began to put their books away in preparation for bed. [Page 177]
“Wait a little, children,” Mrs. Wallbridge said, serene in tone from her devotional reading. “Father wants that I should tell you something. You mustn’t feel bad about it. It’s that we may soon go out West. Your Uncle Ezra is doing well in Minnesota. Aunt Elvira says so in her letter that came to-day.”
“It’s this way, children,” said Mr. Wallbridge, ready to explain, now that the subject was opened. “Since ever your brother Jack went away South, the store expenses have been too heavy. It’s near five years now he’s been gone. There’s a sheaf of notes coming due the third of next month; twice they’ve been renewed, and the Philadelphia men say they’ll close me up this time sure. If I had eight hundred dollars—but it’s no use talking; we’ll just have to let them take what we’ve got. Times have been bad right along around here, anyhow, with new competition, and so many farmers gone to the war, and more gone West. If Jack had stopped to home—but I’ve had to pay [Page 178] two clerks to do his work, and then they don’t take any interest in the business. Mind, I’m not blaming Jack, poor fellow,—he’d a right to go where he’d get more’n his keep, and be able to lay up something for himself,—but what’s become of him, God knows; and such a smart, good boy as he was! He’d got fond of New Orleans,—I guess some nice girl there, maybe, was the reason; and there he’d stay after the war began, and now it’s two years and more since we’ve heard from him. Dead, maybe, or maybe they’d put him in jail, for he said he’d never join the Confederates, nor fight against them either—he felt that way—North and South was all the same to him. And so he’s gone; and I don’t see my way now at all. Ma, if it wasn’t for my lame leg, I’d take the bounty. It’d be something for you and the children after the store’s gone.”
“Sho, pa! don’t talk that way! You’re too down-hearted. It’ll all come right, with the Lord’s help,” said Harry’s mother. How [Page 179] clearly he, in the damp cold tent, could see her kind looks as she pushed up her spectacles and beamed on her husband; how distinctly, in the still dim dawn, he heard her soothing tones!
It was that evening’s talk which had sent Harry, so young, to the front. Three village boys, little older than he, had already contrived to enlist. Every time he saw the Flag drooping, he thought shame of himself to be absent from the ranks of its upholders; and now, just as he was believing himself big and old enough to serve, he conceived that duty to his parents distinctly enjoined him to go. So in the night, without leave-taking or consent of his parents, he departed. The combined Federal, State, and city bounties offered at Philadelphia amounted to nine hundred dollars cash that dreadful winter before Richmond fell, and Harry sent the money home triumphantly in time to pay his father’s notes and save the store.
While the young soldier thought it all over, carbine and sabre came out more and more [Page 180] distinctly outlined above the mud-plastered fireplace. The drizzle had ceased, the drip into the trench was almost finished, intense stillness ruled; Harry half expected to hear cocks crow from out such silence.
“Listening for them, his dreamy mind brooded over both hosts, in a vision even as wide as the vast spread of the Republic in which they lay as two huddles of miserable men. For what were they all about him this woful, wet night? they all fain, as he, for home and industry and comfort. What delusion held them? How could it be that they could not all march away and separate, and the cruel war be over? Harry caught his breath at the idea,—it seemed so natural, simple, easy, and good a solution. Becoming absorbed in the fancy, tired of listening, and soothed by the silence, he was falling asleep as he sat, when a heavy weight seemed to fall, far away. Another—another—the fourth had the rumble of distant thunder, and seemed followed by a concussion of the air. [Page 181]
“Hey—Big Guns! What’s up toward City Point?” cried Bader, sitting up. “I tell you they’re at it. It can’t be so far away as Butler. What? On the left too! That was toward Hatcher’s Run! Harry, the rebs are out in earnest! I guess you did hear the pickets trying to stop ’em. What a morning! Ha—Fort Hell! see that!”
The outside world was dimly lighted up for a moment. In the intensified darkness that followed Bader’s voice was drowned by the crash of a great gun from the neighboring fort. Flash, crash—flash, crash—flash, crash succeeded rapidly. Then the intervals of Fort Hell’s fire lengthened to the regular periods for loading, and between her roars were heard the sullen boom of more distant guns, while through all the tumult ran a fierce undertone,—the infernal hurrying of musketry along the immediate front.
“The Johnnies must have got in close somehow,” cried Bader. “Hey, Sergeant?” [Page 182]
“Yes,” shouted Gravely. “Scooped up the pickets and supports too in the rain, I guess. Turn out, boys, turn out! there’ll be a wild day. Kid! Where’s the Kid? Kid Sylvester!”
“Here! All right, Barney; I’ll be out in two shakes,” shouted the bugler.
“Hurry, then! I can hear the Colonel shouting already. Man, listen to that!”—as four of Fort Hell’s guns crashed almost simultaneously. “Brownie! Greasy Cook! O Brownie!”
“Here!” shouted the cook.
“Get your fire started right away, and see what salt horse and biscuit you can scare up. Maybe we’ll have time for a snack.”
“Turn out, Company K!” shouted Lieutenant Bradley, running down from the officers’ quarters. “Where’s the commissary sergeant? There?—all right—give out feed right away! Get your oats, men, and feed instantly! We may have time. Hullo! here’s the General’s orderly.”
As the trooper galloped, in a mud-storm, [Page 183] across the parade ground, a group of officers ran out behind the Colonel from the screen of pine saplings about Regimental Headquarters. The orderly gave the Colonel but a word, and, wheeling, was off again as “Boot and saddle” blared from the buglers, who had now assembled on parade.
“But leave the bits out—let your horses feed!” cried the Lieutenant, running down again. “We’re not to march till further orders.”
Beyond the screen of pines Harry could see the tall canvas ridges of the officers’ cabins lighted up. Now all the tents of the regiment, row behind row, were faintly luminous, and the renewed drizzle of the dawn was a little lightened in every direction by the canvas-hidden candles of infantry regiments, the glare of numerous fires already started, and sparks showering up from the cook-houses of company after company.
Soon in the cloudy sky the cannonade rolled about in broad day, which was still so gray that [Page 184] long wide flashes of flame could be seen to spring far out before every report from the guns of Fort Hell, and in the haze but few of the rebel shells shrieking along their high curve could be clearly seen bursting over Hancock’s cheering men. Indistinguishably blent were the sounds of hosts on the move, field-guns pounding to the front, troops shouting, the clink and rattle of metal, officers calling, bugles blaring, drums rolling, mules screaming,—all heard as a running accompaniment to the cannon heavily punctuating the multitudinous din.
“Fwat sinse in the ould man bodderin’ us?” grumbled Corporal Kennedy, a tall Fenian dragoon from the British army. “Sure, ain’t it as plain as the sun—and faith the same’s not plain this dirthy mornin’—that there’s no work for cavalry the day, barrin’ it’s escortin’ the doughboys’ prisoners, if they take any? —bad ’cess to the job. Sure it’s an infantry fight, and must be, wid the field-guns helpin,’ and the [Page 185] siege pieces boomin’ away over the throops in the mud betwigst our own breastworks and the inner line of our forts.
“Oh, by this and by that,” the corporal grumbled on, “ould Lee’s not the gintleman I tuk him for at all, at all, —discomfortin’ us in the rain,—and yesterday an illigant day for fightin’. Couldn’t he wait, like the dacint ould boy he’s reported, for a dhry mornin’, instead av turnin’ his byes out in the shlush and destroyin’ me chanst av breakfast? It’s spring chickens I’d ordhered.”
“You may get up to spring-chicken country soon, now,” said Bader. “I’m thinking this is near the end; it’s the last assault that Lee will ever deliver.”
“Faith, I dunno,” said the corporal; “that’s what we’ve been saying sinst last fall, but the shtay of them Johnnies bates Banagher and the prophets. Hoo—ow! by the powers! did you hear them yell? Fwat? The saints be wid us! who’d ’a’ thought it possible? Byes! Bader! [Page 186] Harry! luk at the Johnnies swarmin’ up the face of Hell!”
Off there Harry could dimly see, rising over the near horizon made by tents, a straggling rush of men up the steep slope, while the rebel yell came shrill from a multitude behind on the level ground that was hidden from the place occupied by the cavalry regiment. In the next moment the force mounting Fort Hell’s slope fell away, some lying where shot down, some rolling, some running and stumbling in heaps; then a tremendous musketry and field-gun fire growled to and fro under the heavy smoke round and about and out in front of the embrasures, which had never ceased their regular discharge over the heads of the fort’s defenders and immediate assailants.
Suddenly Harry noted a slackening of the battle; it gradually but soon dropped away to nothing, and now no sound of small-arms in any direction was heard in the lengthening intervals of reports from the siege pieces far and near. [Page 187]
“And so that’s the end of it,” said Kennedy. “Sure it was hot work for a while! Faix, I thought onct the doughboys was nappin’ too long, and ould Hell would be bullyin’ away at ourselves. Now, thin, can we have a bite in paice? I’ll shtart wid a few sausages, Brownie, and you may send in the shpring chickens wid some oyshters in the second coorse. No! Oh, by the powers, ’t is too mane to lose a breakfast like that!” and Corporal Kennedy shook his fist at the group of buglers calling the regiment to parade.
In ten minutes the Fifty-third had formed in column of companies. “Old Jimmy,” their Colonel, had galloped down at them and once along their front; then the command, forming fours from the right front, moved off at a trot through the mud in long procession.
“Didn’t I know it?” said Kennedy; “it’s escortin’ the doughboys’ prisoners, that’s all we’re good for this outrageous day. Oh, wirra, wirrasthru! Police duty! and this calls itself [Page 188] a cavalry rigiment. Mounted Police duty,—escortin’ doughboys’ prisoners! Faix, I might as well be wid Her Majesty’s dhragoons, thramplin’ down the flesh and blood of me in poor ould Oireland. Begor, Harry, me bhy, it’s a mane job to be setting you at, and this the first day ye’re mounted to save the Union!”
“Stop coddin’ the boy, Corporal,” said Bader, angrily. “You can’t think how an American boy feels about this war.”
“An Amerikin!—an Amerikin, is it? Let me insthruct ye thin, Misther Bader, that I’m as good an Amerikin as the next man. Och, be jabers, me that’s been in the color you see ever since the Prisident first called for men! It was for a three months’ dance he axed us first. Me, that’s re-enlishted twice, don’t know the feelin’s of an Amerikin! What am I here for? Not poverty! sure I’d enough of that before ever I seen Ameriky! What am I wallopin’ through the mud for this mornin’?” [Page 190]
“It’s your trade, Kennedy,” said Bader, with disgust.
“Be damned to you, man!” said the corporal, sternly. “When I touched fut in New York, didn’t I swear that I’de never dhraw swoord more, barrin’ it was agin the ould red tyrant and oprissor of me counthry? Wasn’t I glad to be dhrivin’ me own hack next year in Philamedink like a gintleman? Oh, the paice and the indipindence of it! But what cud I do when the country that tuk me and was good to me wanted an ould dhragoon? An Amerikin, ye say! Faith, the heart of me is Amerikin, if I’m a bog throtter by the tongue. Mind that now, me bould man!”
Harry heard without heeding as the horses spattered on. Still wavered in his ears the sounds of the dawn; still he saw the ghostlike forms of Americans in gray tumbling back from their rush against the sacred flag that had drooped so sadly over the smoke; and still, far away beyond all this puddled and cumbered [Page 190] ground the dreamy boy saw millions of white American faces, all haggard for news of the armies—some looking South, some North, yearning for the Peace that had so long ago been the boon of the Nation.
Now the regiment was upon the red clay of the dead fight, and brought to halt in open columns. After a little they moved off again in fours, and, dropping into single file, surrounded some thousands of disarmed men, the remnant of the desperate brigades that Lee had flung through the night across three lines of breastworks at the great fort they had so nearly stormed. Poor drenched, shivering Johnnies! there they stood, not a few of them in blue overcoats, but mostly in butternut, generally tattered; some barefoot, some with feet bound in ragged sections of blanket, many with toes and skin showing through crazy boots lashed on with strips of cotton or with cord; many stoutly on foot, streaming blood from head wounds. [Page 191]
Some lay groaning in the mud, while their comrades helped Union surgeons to bind or amputate. Here and there groups huddled together in earnest talk, or listened to comrades gesticulating and storming as they recounted incidents of the long charge. But far the greater number faced outward, at gaze upon the cavalry guard, and, silently munching thick flat cakes of corn-bread, stared into the faces of the horsemen. Harry Wallbridge, brought to the halt, faced half round in the saddle, and looked with quick beatings of pity far and wide over the disorderly crowd of weather-worn men.
“It’s a Louisiana brigade,” said Bader.
“Fifty-three, P.V.V.C.,” spoke a prisoner, as if in reply, reading the letters about the little crossed brass sabres on the Union hats. “Say, you men from Pennsylvany?”
“Yes, Johnny; we come down to wake up Dixie.”
“I reckon we got the start at wakin’ you this mornin’,” drawled the Southerner. “But say,— [Page 192] there’s one of our boys lyin’ dyin’ over yonder; his folks lives in Pennsylvany. Mebbe some of you ’ud know ’em.”
“What’s his name?” asked Bader.
“Why, Harry—hold on!—you ain’t the only Wallbridges there is. What’s up?” cried Bader, as the boy half reeled, half clambered from his saddle.
“Hold on, Harry!” cried Corporal Kennedy.
“Halt there, Wallbridge!” shouted Sergeant Gravely.
“Stop that man!” roared Lieutenant Bradley.
But, calling, “He’s my brother!” Harry, catching up his sabre as he ran, followed the Southerner, who had instantly divined the situation. The forlorn prisoners made ready way for them, and closing in behind, stretched in solid array about the scene.
“It’s not Jack,” said the boy; but something in the look of the dying man drew him on to kneel in the mud. “Is it you, Jack? Oh, now [Page 193] I know you! Jack, I’m Harry! don’t you know me? I’m Harry—your brother Harry.”
The Southern soldier stared rigidly at the boy, seeming to grow paler with the recollections that he struggled for.
“What’s your name?” he asked very faintly.
“Harry Wallbridge—I’m your brother.”
“Harry Wallbridge! Why, I’m John Wallbridge. Did you say Harry? Not Harry!” he shrieked hoarsely. “No; Harry’s only a little fellow!” He paused, and looked meditatively into the boy’s eyes. “It’s nearly five years I’ve been gone,—he was near twelve then. Boys,” lifting his head painfully and casting his look slowly round upon his comrades, “I know him by the eyes; yes, he’s my brother! Let me speak to him alone—stand back a bit,” and at once the men pushed backward into the form of a wide circle.
“Put down your head, Harry. Kiss me! Kiss me again!—how’s mother? Ah, I was afraid she might be dead—don’t tell her I’m [Page 194] dead, Harry.” He groaned with the pain of the groin wound. “Closer, Harry; I’ve got to tell you this first—maybe it’s all I’ve time to tell. Say, Harry,”—he began to gasp,—“they didn’t ought to have killed me, the Union soldiers didn’t. I never fired—high enough—all these years. They drafted me, Harry—tell mother that—down in New Orleans—and I—couldn’t get away. Ai—ai! how it hurts! I must die soon’s I can tell you. I wanted to come home—and help father—how’s poor father, Harry? Doing well now? Oh. I’m glad of that—and the baby? there’s a new baby! Ah, yes, I’ll never see it, Harry.”
His eyes closed, the pain seemed to leave him, and he lay almost smiling happily as his brother’s tears fell on his muddy and blood-clotted face. As if from a trance his eyes opened, and he spoke anxiously but calmly.
“You’ll be sure to tell them I was drafted—conscripted, you understand. And I never first at any of us—of you—tell all the boys [Page 195] that.” Again the flame of life went down, and again flickered up in pain.
“Harry—you’ll stay by father—and help him, won’t you? This cruel war—is almost over. Don’t cry. Kiss me. Say—do you remember—the old times we had—fishing? Kiss me again, Harry—brother in blue—you’re on—my side. Oh I wish—I had time—to tell you. Come close—put your arms around—my neck—it’s old times—again.” And now the wound tortured him for a while beyond speech. “You’re with me, aren’t you, Harry?
“Well, there’s this,” he gasped on, “about my chums—they’ve all been as good and kind—marching, us all wet and cold together—and it wasn’t their fault. If they had known—how I wanted—to be shot—for the Union! It was so hard—to be—on the wrong side! But—”
He lifted his head and stared wildly at his brother, screamed rapidly, as if summoning all his life for the effort to explain, “Drafted, [Page 196] drafted, drafted—Harry, tell mother and father that. I was drafted. O God, O God, what suffering! Both sides—I was on both sides all the time. I loved them all, North and South, all,—but the Union most. O Got, it was so hard!”
His head fell back, his eyes closed, and Harry thought it was the end. But once more Jack opened his blue eyes, and slowly said in a steady, clear, anxious voice, “Mind you tell them I never fired high enough!” Then he lay still in Harry’s arms, breathing fainter and fainter till no motion was on his lips, nor in his heart, nor any tremor in the hands that lay in the hand of his brother in blue.
“Come, Harry,” said Bader, stooping tenderly to the boy, “the order is to march. He’s past helping now. It’s no use; you must leave him here to God. Come, boy, the head of the column is moving already.”
Mounting his horse, Harry looked across to Jack’s form. For the first time in two years [Page 197] the famous Louisiana brigade trudged on without their unwilling comrade. There he lay, alone, in the Union lines, under the rain, his marching done, a figure of eternal peace; while Harry, looking backward till he could no longer distinguish his brother from the clay of the field, rode dumbly on and on beside the downcast procession of men in gray. [Page 198]