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Chapter 23: around Richmond.

  • Seven Pines
  • -- war at the very gates -- harrowing scenes -- woman's heroism -- crowded hospitals -- a lull -- Jackson's Meteor campaign -- Ashby dead! -- the week of blood -- southern estimate of McClellan -- what “might have been” -- Richmond under ordeal -- “the battle rainbow” -- sad Sequelke -- real sisters of mercy -- beautiful self-sacrifice.
    In the dead stillness of the afternoon of May 30th, the dull thunder of artillery and the crackling roll of musketry were distinctly heard in every house in Richmond.

    Deep and painful suspense filled all hearts; until at night it was known that the enemy had been driven back and badly punished.

    The history of “Seven Pines” is familiar to all. Some days previous, General Keyes' division had been thrown across the Chickahominy, for the purpose of feeling the Confederate lines and throwing up works that would secure the Federals that stream. The river, swelled by recent rains, rose so suddenly as to endanger Keyes' communications with his rear; and Johnston determined to attack, while he could thus strike in detail. The miscarriage of part of his planby which Huger's troops did not join the attack-and his own wound, by a piece of shell, late in the afternoon, alone prevented Johnston's utter destruction of this Federal corps. As it was, the enemy was driven two miles back of his camp. Heavily re-enforced next day, he resisted and drove back a desperate attack about Fair Oaks.

    Now, for the first time, the people of Richmond began to see the realities of war. When the firing began, many ladies were at work for the soldiers in the churches. These flocked to the doors, pale and anxious, but with a steady determination in their faces, vainly looked for in many of the men. Gradually wagons and ambulances began to come in; slowly at first, toward nightfall more rapidlyeach one bearing some faint and suffering form. Then, and not till then, those women left their other work and tended the wounded men; giving “the little cup of water” so precious to them, speaking brave words of cheer while their very souls grew sick at the unwonted sight of blood and suffering.

    One poor old man, dirty and ragged, lay in a rough, springless cart; his hard, shoeless feet dropping out at its back, and his long, [199] gray beard drenched in the blood that welled from his chest at every jolt. By his side, in the gathering twilight, walked one of Richmond's fairest daughters; her gentle voice smoothing the rough way to the hospital, and her soft hand wiping the damps from his forehead.

    And there was no romance in it. He could not be conjured into a fair young knight-old, dirty, vulgar as he was. But he had fought for her — for the fair city she loved better than life-and the gayest rider in all that band were not more a hero to her!

    Next morning the usual stillness of Sunday was broken by the renewed rattle of musketry-though farther off and less continuous than the day before; and by the more constant and nearer rumble of ambulance and dead cart. At dawn many of the townspeople had gone in buggies, wagons, and even the huge vans of the express companies, taking with them food and stimulants, to aid the very limited ambulance corps of the army.

    All day long the sad procession came in. Here a van with four or five desperately wounded stretched on its floor; now a buggy with a faint and bandaged form resting on the driver; again the jolting coal cart with the still, stiff figure, covered by the blanket and not needing the rigid upturned feet to tell the story. The hospitals were soon overcrowded; huge tobacco warehouses had been hastily fitted up and as hastily filled; while dozens of surgeons, bare-armed and bloody, flitted through them, doing what man might to relieve the fearful havoc man had made.

    Women of all ranks and of all ages crowded to them, too; some wan and haggard, seeking with tearless suspense the dear one they knew to have been stricken down; some bearing baskets of stimulants and nourishing food; but one and all eager and willing

    To do for those dear ones what woman
    Alone in her pity can do.

    The struggle had been brief but bitter. Most of the wounds were above the waist, for the fighting had been among undergrowth and partly against abatis; but the short-range volleys had mowed the men down by ranks. More warerooms and even stores on Main street were opened, fitted with bunks, and filled with the maimed and suffering.

    At all hours, day and night, the passer down Main street would see through the open doors long, even rows of white bunks, each one [200] bearing some form distorted with agony, or calmly passing away; while the tireless surgeon moved from cot to cot. And at the head of each a still, patient form, almost motionless, waved the ceaseless fan or breathed the low promise of the Living Word, to one who trembled on the verge of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

    The war was at the very gates now. These palpable witnesses were too numerous to doubt. But the lips of every gaping wound spoke an eloquent pledge that, while such as these kept watch and ward, the city was safe.

    Little by little the hospitals thinned; the slightly wounded went back to duty and the badly hurt began to hobble about. But on every hand were the gaunt, sad forms stretched on the narrow cots over which Life and Death wrestled for the mastery. And still the tireless love of woman watched by them-and still unworded prayers went up that the Destroyer might not prevail.

    The stillness that followed “Seven Pines” was not unbroken. The armies were so near together that the least movement of either brought on a collision, and constant skirmishing went on. Not a day but had its miniature battle; and scarce an hour but added to the occupants of the hospitals. As these conflicts most frequently resulted in a Confederate success, they only served to encourage the people, and to bring them to the high pitch necessary for the prolonged note of war that was soon to sound so near them.

    Just a month after the repulse of the iron-clads from Drewry's Bluff, the bold and daring “Pamunkey raid” still further aided in this effect. General J. E. B. Stuart had by his successful conduct of the cavalry, no less than by his personal gallantry, worked his way from the colonelcy he held at Manassas to a major-generalcy of all that arm of the Virginia army. He had gained the confidence of General Lee and the greatest popularity in and out of the army; and, ably seconded by his brigadiers, “Jeb Stuart” was expected to do great deeds in the coming campaign.

    Information being desired of the enemy on certain points, he volunteered to obtain it. With the advice and direction of the commanding-general, Stuart started from Richmond; made his reconnaissance; penetrated to the White House on the Pamunkey and burned the depot there; whipped the enemy's cavalry wherever he met them; and, making a complete circuit of the Federal rear, with all his captured men and horses, rode back into the city in triumph. [201]

    Whatever may be said of raids in the abstract, this was certainly a most dashing one; and was received with loud acclamation by army and people. The latter were by this time in better spirit to receive encouragement; and, dazzled by its brilliance, rather than weighing its solid advantages, placed this achievement perhaps above the more useful success at Williamsburg.

    Then came the news from the Valley.

    That wonderful campaign — which far exceeds in strategic power, brilliant dash and great results any other combination of the warhad been fought and won! It has been justly compared, by a competent and eloquent critic, to Napoleon's campaign in Italy; andpal-ing/all his other deeds — it clearly spoke Stonewall Jackson the Napoleon of the South.

    Coolly looking back at its details, the thinker even now is struck with respectful wonder.

    Hurling his little force against Front Royal; flashing to Winchester and routing Banks; slipping between the close converging lines of Fremont and Shields-just in time to avoid being crushed between them-and bearing with him miles of wagon train and spoils; turning on the pursuing columns of Fremont, driving him back, and then sweeping Shields from his path like chaff-Jackson clears his way and marches on for Richmond!

    Still onward, scarcely halting for food or rest-ever on to strike new terror when thought far away; weary, footsore — with scarcely one-half its former number, but flushed with victory and panting for further fame — the little band toils on, passes around Richmond and, just as the opposing cannon begin their last grim argument for her possession, hurl themselves like an Alpine torrent on the flank of the enemy!

    The loss in this wonderful campaign was comparatively small, when we consider the rapidity of the movements; the terrible marches and the stubborn fighting against overwhelming numbers.

    But there was one place vacant that none could fill. There was one name that brought the cloud to the brow of the giddiest youth, or the tear to the eye of the toughest veteran in those sturdy ranks; one name that stilled the song on the march and hushed the rough gossip of the bivouac to a saddened whisper. Turner Ashby was dead! [202]

    True knight-doughty leader — high-hearted gentleman — he had fallen when the fighting was well-nigh over — his devoir nobly done and his name as stainless as the bright blade he ever flashed foremost in the fight!

    Chivalric — lion-hearted — strong armed--

    Well they learned, whose hands have slain him,
    Braver, knightlier foe
    Never fought ‘gainst Moor or Paynim-
    Rode at Templestowe!

    All the country missed Ashby. But Virginia mourned him most; and among her stricken sons, those hard-handed, ragged heroes of Jackson's Old Guard-who had marched the furthest and fought the hardest following him — were the chiefest mourners. Jackson had reared a noble monument, to be viewed from all the dimmest vistas of the future. But the fair column was shattered near its top; and the laurel leaves that twined it were mingled with evergreen cypress.

    Then the strained suspense was broken. On the 26th of June began that memorable series of fights that northern and southern history-voluminous reports of generals and detailed accounts of newspapers, have made familiar to all who care to read of battles.

    A. P. Hill's steady attack at Mechanicsville, though at great cost, drove the enemy's right wing back; to be struck next morning on the flank by Jackson and sent, after a sullen and bloody resistance, to the works near Gaines' Mill. Still on the barefooted boys press with resistless rush, leaving dead or mangled brothers and writhing foemen in their gory track! Never pausing to look back, but each successive day driving the enemy at the bayonet's point from works frowning with cannon.

    Cold Harbor has told its brilliant story. Frasier's Farm is fought and won!

    With ranks fearfully thinned, scant of food and pausing not to rest, the struggling men press on-ever on! Weary and faltering on the march, the first sharp crack of the rifle lights a new fire in every eye; and drinking the hot breath of the battle,

    Stalwart, they court like Anak's sons
    The rapture of the fight!

    The tide of the battle swung round and the retreating army of McClellan-fighting steadily by day and retreating noiselessly in the night-fronted from the city which now lay on its left flank. [203]

    The Federals were neither demoralized, nor panic struck, as has been sometimes believed; and such an error, while it has bloody refutation in the nameless graves that make the track of these fights precious to the southron-does less than justice to the constancy and enduring valor of the little army that wrung the victory from them at such fearful cost.

    Their retreat was orderly and steady. Driven each day from works on which they relied-marking their path with untold destruction of munitions, supplies and even of food on which they depended --the soldiers of the North were well held together; never refusing to turn and face the resistless foe that hurled itself against them, careless alike of cannon and steel, weariness and death!

    There can be little doubt now of the consummate tact of McClellan's retreat. It is the bright page in the northern annals of strategy. Beaten each day and driven from his well-chosen strongholdsclear-ly chosen with a view to such necessities-he still held his army thoroughly in his grasp and carried it off in such order as no Federal force had yet preserved in the face of retreat. Only the resistless impetuosity of the southern troops drove all before them; and though careful analysis may prove in theory that, but for the blunder of a subordinate, Lee could one day have utterly destroyed him, this fact should not detract, in the impartial mind, from the great ability of McClellan which really prevented it.

    Still, up to the last bloody day at Malvern Hill, the city lay open to the Federal general had he known the truth. Between him and the coveted prize was a mere handful of men, who could have offered but slight resistance to his overwhelming numbers; the main army of defense was in his front, further away than many points of his retreat; and, had he fully understood the position, a bold and dashing stroke of generalship might have turned the scale, spite of all the red successes of southern arms. More than once in the “Seven days” a rapid march by the flank would have put McClellan in possession of the Capital and secured him in its strong defenses; from which the wearied troops of Lee could scarcely have ejected him.

    But it was not to be. When the shattered and torn Confederates drew off, like-lions at bay, from the horrid slopes of Malvern Hillleaving them drenched with priceless blood and piled thick with near one-third their number-McClellan declined further battle and withdrew his beaten army to the fleet. [204]

    He had made a great retreat. But he had lost his great stake.

    When the armies lay at Mechanicsville, both were plainly visible from many points in the city. From the Capitol, miles of encampment could be seen, spreading out like a map; and in the dusk the red flash of each gun and the fiery trail of its fatal messenger were painfully distinct. The evening before Hill's advance, the poetlibra-rian of the Capitol was pointing out the localities to a company of officers and ladies. Among them was a lady who had suffered much in the flesh and been driven from her home for brave exertions in that cause, which was in the end to leave her widowed spirit with no hope on this side of the narrow house. A terrific thunderstorm had just passed over the hostile hosts; but the dense masses of cloud had rolled away to the river, leaving it in deep shadow, while a bright reflection from the sunset wrapped both camps in a veil of mellow light. Not a shot disturbed the still peacefulness of the scene, to give token of the wild work already shaped out for the next week. Suddenly a glorious rainbow shaped itself in the transparent mist over the Confederate camp, spanning it from end to end. The lady pointed it to the poet.

    “ I hail the omen!” she said. “It is a token of God's promise that yonder flood will not overwhelm us! That His hand will be raised as of old, to hurl it back from His chosen people!”

    And when the omen was accomplished and Richmond was safe, the poet sent the lady those classic lines so well-known in the South --“The battle rainbow.”

    Next afternoon the great fight began. The sharp, quick rattle of small arms, and the dull incessant boom of artillery told of hot work even nearer than “Seven Pines.” So sharp and clear were the reports that it seemed the fight must be on the very edge of town; and the windows rattled at every discharge.

    Almost every man, worthy of the name, was at the front; but the brave and steadfast women of Richmond collected in groups andwhile they listened with blanched faces and throbbing hearts-still tried to cheer and comfort each other.

    They spoke of the past; of their faith in the flower of the South at that moment battling for them; and they heard the sound of the cannon growing farther and fainter, only to feel more loving trust in those who, under God, had saved them from that chiefest of ills! [205]

    Day by day, as the tide of battle surged farther off, it sent into Richmond cheering news that nerved afresh these brave hearts for the horror to come. Gaines' Mill, Cold Harbor and Frasier's Farm rolled back their echoes of triumph; news came of the strait into which McClellan was driven and that one day more must see him a prisoner in the city he had dared-his splendid host swept away and destroyed. Finally the news of Malvern Hill — the wild shout of battle scarce drowning the death-cry-sent a thrill of mingled agony and pride to their very heart's core.

    But day by day, as the red tide rolled back, it swept into Richmond terrible fragments of the wreck it had made. Every conveyance that could follow the army, or could be pressed from the almost stripped country around it, bore in from the River Road its load of misery. Manassas had hinted the slaughter of a great fight; Seven Pines had sketched all the hard outlines of the picture; but the Seven Days put in the dismal shadows, with every variation of grotesque horror.

    In the dearth of transportation and the hurry of onward movement, many had been left for days with stiffening wounds on the field, or roadside. Others had undergone the loss of limbs at field hospitals; some were bent and distorted in their agony; and again the stiff, set jaw and wide, glassy eye, told that the journey was over before the end was reached.

    The chain of regular hospitals and even the temporary one-nearly emptied since Seven Pines-now rapidly filled and overflowed. Private houses swung wide their doors and took in wounded menbrothers alike if gentle-blooded Louisianian, or hard-handed mountainmen-and the women, one and all, wrought as if their energies had never before been taxed or even tested.

    But a black shadow had come and brooded deep over Richmond. Half the gentle forms gliding noiselessly among the suffering were draped in black; and many a pale face was saddened with an anguish deeper than furrowed those resting on the coarse pillows around.

    The fight was won. The enemy that had for months flaunted his victorious flag in full sight of the Capitol was baffled and beaten. New glories had clustered round the flag of the South; new quarrels and doubts had been sent to the North. Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, the Hills and Hood had added fresh laurels to brows believed to have [206] room for no leaf more. Almost every officer had proved himself worthy of the prayers of such women as the South owned — of that even higher glory of leading such troops as fought to defend them.

    But at what awful cost had all this been bought! The slaughter of their nearest and dearest had been terrific: women, the highest and lowliest, met by the cot of the sufferer; and, in the free masonry of love, tended the living and comforted each other for their dead.

    But through the brave endeavor of their sacred office, these noble sisters of mercy showed no yielding to the claims of self. Over their own sorrows they rose triumphant-tended the faint-cheered the despondent-filling the place of wife and mother to those who should nevermore see home-even while

    The air is filled with farewells to the dying
    And wailings for the dead;
    The voice of Rachel for her children crying
    Can not be comforted.

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