previous next

[472] The brigades of Burnside are in heavy column; they will not give way before a bayonet-charge in line, and the rebels think twice before they dash into those hostile masses.

There is a halt, the rebel left gives way and scatters over the field, the rest stand fast and fire. More infantry comes up; Burnside is outnumbered, flanked, compelled to yield the hill he took so bravely. His position is no longer one of attack; he defends himself with unfaltering firmness, but he sends to McClellan for help.

McClellan's glass for the last half-hour has seldom been turned away from the left. He sees clearly enough that Burnside is pressed — needs no messenger to tell him that. His face grows darker with anxious thought. Looking down into the valley where fifteen thousand troops are lying, he turns a half-questioning look on Fitz-John Porter, who stands by his side, gravely scanning the field. They are Porter's troops below, are fresh and only impatient to share in this fight. But Porter slowly shakes his head, and one may believe that the same thought is passing through the minds of both generals. “They are the only reserves of the army; they cannot be spared.”

McClellan remounts his horse, and with Porter and a dozen officers of his staff rides away to the left in Burnside's direction. Sykes meets them on the road — a good soldier, whose opinion is worth taking. The three Generals talk briefly together. It is easy to see that the moment has come when every thing may turn on one order given or withheld, when the history of the battle is only to be written in thoughts and purposes and words of the General.

Burnside's messenger rides up. His message is: “I want troops and guns. If you do not send them, I cannot hold my position half an hour.” McClellan's only answer for the moment is a glance at the western sky. Then he turns and speaks very slowly: “Tell Gen. Burnside this is the battle of the war. He must hold his ground till dark at any cost. I will send him Miller's battery. I can do nothing more. I have no infantry.” Then as the messenger was riding away he called him back. “Tell him if he cannot hold his ground, then the bridge, to the last man!--always the bridge! If the bridge is lost, all is lost.”

The sun is already down; not half an hour of daylight is left. Till Burnside's message came it had seemed plain to every one that the battle could not be finished to-day. None suspected how near was the peril of defeat, of sudden attack on exhausted forces — how vital to the safety of the army and the nation were those fifteen thousand waiting troops of Fitz-John Porter in the hollow. But the rebels halted instead of pushing on; their vindictive cannonade died away as the light faded. Before it was quite dark the battle was over. Only a solitary gun of Burnside's thundered against the enemy, and presently this also ceased, and the field was still.

The peril came very near, but it has passed, and in spite of the peril, at the close the day was partly a success; not a victory, but an advantage had been gained. Hooker, Sumner, and Franklin held all the ground they had gained, and Burnside still held the bridge and his position beyond. Every thing was favorable for a renewal of the fight in the morning. If the plan of the battle is sound, there is every reason why McClellan should win it.

He may choose to postpone the battle to await his reenforcements. The rebels may choose to retire while it is possible. Fatigue on both sides may delay the deciding battle, yet if the enemy means to fight at all, he cannot afford to delay. His reenforcements may be coming, but where are his supplies? His losses are enormous. His troops have been massed in woods and hollows, where artillery has had its most terrific effect. Ours have been deployed and scattered. From infantry fire there is less difference.

It is hard to estimate losses on a field of such extent, but I think ours cannot be less than six thousand killed and wounded--it may be much greater. Prisoners have been taken from the enemy; I hear of a regiment captured entire, but I doubt it. All the prisoners whom I saw agree in saying that the whole army is there.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Burnside (18)
Fitz-John Porter (10)
George B. McClellan (10)
Sykes (2)
E. V. Sumner (2)
William J. Miller (2)
Joseph Hooker (2)
W. B. Franklin (2)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: