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Chapter 15: after Manassas.

  • How rumors came
  • -- jubilation and revulsion -- anxiety for news -- the decisive charge -- an Austrian view -- the President's return -- his speech to the people -- the first train of wounded -- sorrow and consolation -- how women worked -- material and moral results of Manassas -- spoils and Overconfidence -- singular errors in public mind -- General belief in advance -- the Siesta and its dreams.
    By noon on the 2nd of July the quidnuncs found out that the President had left that morning, on a special train and with a volunteer staff, for Manassas. This set the whole tribe agog, and wonderful were the speculations and rumors that flew about. By night, certain news came that the battle had raged fiercely all day, and the sun had gone down on a complete, but bloody, victory. One universal thrill of joy went through the city, quickly stilled and followed by the gasp of agonized suspense. The dense crowds, collected about all probable points of information, were silent after the great roar of triumph went up at the first announcement. The mixed pressure of grave, voiceless thankfulness and strained anxiety, was too deep for words; and they stood still-expectant.

    By midnight the main result of the day's fight was known beyond a doubt; how the enemy, in heavy masses, had attacked the Confederate left, and hurled it back and around, entirely flanking it; how the raw troops had contested every inch of ground with stubborn valor, but still gave way until the change of front had made itself; how the supports brought up from the right and center — where a force had to be maintained to face the masses threatening them-came only to meet fresh masses that they could only check, not break; how the battle was at one time really lost!

    When science had done all it could to retrieve the day, but the most obstinate even of the southern troops-after doing more than desperate courage and determined pluck could warrant — were breaking and giving way, then the wild yell of Elzey's brigade broke through the pines like a clarion! On came that devoted band, breathless and worn with their run from the railroad; eight hundred Marylanders-and only two companies of these with bayonets-leading the charge! On they came, their yells piercing the woods before they are yet visible; and, as if by magic, the tide of battle turned! The tired, worn ranks, all day battered by the ceaseless hail of death, [123] catch that shout, and answering it, breast the storm again; regiment after regiment hears the yell, and echoes it with a wild swelling chorus! And ever on rush the fresh troops-past their weary brothers, into the hottest of the deadly rain of fire-wherever the blue coats are thickest! Their front lines waver-General Smith falls, but Elzey gains the crest of the plateau-like a fire in the prairie spreads the contagion of fear-line after line melts before the hot blast of that charge — a moment more and the “Grand army” is mixed in a straining, struggling, chaotic mass in the race for life — the battle is won!

    I have heard the fight discussed by actors in it on both sides; have read accounts from northern penny a-liners, and English correspondents whose pay depended upon their neutrality; and all agree that the battle was saved by the advent of Kirby Smith, just at that critical moment when the numbers of the North were sweeping resistlessly over the broken and worn troops of the South. Elzey's brigade no doubt saved the day, for they created the panic.

    “But I look upon it as a most causeless one,” once said an Austrian officer to me, “for had the Federals stood but half an hour longer-which, with their position and supports, there was no earthly reason for their not doing — there could have been but one result. Smith's forces could not have held their own that much longer against overwhelming numbers; and the weary troops who had been fighting all day could not even have supported them in a heavy fight. Had Smith reached the scene of action at morning instead of noon, he, too, might have shared the general fate, and a far different page of history been written. Coming as he did, I doubt not the battle turned upon his advent. The main difference I see,” he added, “is that the Confederates were whipped for several hours and didn't know it; but just as the Federals found it out and were about to close their hands upon the victory already in their grasp, they were struck with a panic and ran away from it!”

    By midnight the anxious crowds in Richmond streets knew that the fight was over,

    And the red field was won!

    But the first arrivals were ominous ones-splashed and muddy hospital stewards and quartermaster's men, who wanted more stretchers and instruments, more tourniquets and stimulants; and their stories [124] threw a deeper gloom over the crowds that-collected at departments, hotels and depots-spoke in hushed whispers their words of solemn triumph, of hope, or of suspense. They told that almost every regiment had been badly cut up — that the slaughter of the best and bravest had been terrible — that the “Hampton Legion” was annihilated-Hampton himself killed-Beauregard was wounded-Kirby Smith killed — the first Virginia was cut to pieces and the Alabama troops swept from the face of the earth. These were some of the wild rumors they spread; eagerly caught up and echoed from mouth to mouth with a reliance on their truth to be expected from the morbid anxiety. No one reflected that these men must have left Manassas before the fighting was even hotly joined; and could only have gained their diluted intelligence from the rumors at way-stations. As yet the cant of camp followers was new to the people, who listened as though these terrible things must be true to be related.

    There was no sleep in Richmond that night. Men and women gathered in knots and huddled into groups on the corners and doorsteps, and the black shadow of some dreadful calamity seemed brooding over every rooftree. Each splashed and weary-looking man was stopped and surrounded by crowds, who poured varied and anxious questioning upon him. The weak treble of gray-haired old men besought news of son, or grandson; and on the edge of every group, pale, beseeching faces mutely pleaded with sad, tearless eyes, for tidings of brother, husband, or lover.

    But there was no despairing weakness, and every one went sadly but steadily to work to give what aid they might. Rare stores of old wines were freely given; baskets of cordials and rolls of lint were brought; and often that night, as the women leaned over the baskets they so carefully packed, bitter tears rolled from their pale cheeks and fell noiselessly on bandage and lint. For who could tell but that very piece of linen might bind the sore wound of one far dearer than life.

    Slowly the night wore on, trains coming in occasionally only to disappoint the crowds that rushed to surround them. No one came who had seen the battle-all had heard what they related. And though no man was base enough to play upon feelings such as theirs, the love of common natures for being oracles carried them away; and they repeated far more even than that. Next day the news was more [125] full, and the details of the fight came in with some lists of the wounded. The victory was dearly bought. Bee, Bartow, Johnson, and others equally valuable, were dead. Some of the best and bravest from every state had sealed their devotion to the flag with their blood. Still, so immense were the consequences of the victory now judged-to be, that even the wildest rumors of the day before had not told one half.

    At night the President returned; and on the train with him were the bodies of the dead generals, with their garde d'honneur. These proceeded to the Capitol, while Mr. Davis went to the Spotswood and addressed a vast crowd that had collected before it. He told them in simple, but glowing, language that the first blow for liberty had been struck and struck home; that the hosts of the North had been scattered like chaff before southern might and southern right; that the cause was just and must prevail. Then he spoke words of consolation to the stricken city. Many of her noblest were spared; the wounded had reaped a glory far beyond the scars they bore; the dead were honored far beyond the living, and future generations should twine the laurel for their crown.

    The great crowd listened with breathless interest to his lightest word. Old men, resting on their staves, erected themselves; reckless boys were quiet and still; and the pale faces of the women, furrowed with tears, looked up at him till the color came back to their cheeks and their eyes dried. Of a truth, he was still their idol. As yet they hung upon his lightest word, and believed that what he did was best.

    Then the crowd dispersed, many mournfully wending their way to the Capitol where the dead officers lay in state, wrapped in the flag of the new victory. An hour after, the rain descending in torrents, the first ambulance train arrived.

    First came forth the slightly wounded, with bandaged heads, arms in slings, or with painful limp.

    Then came ugly, narrow boxes of rough plank. These were tenderly handled, and the soldiers who bore them upon their shoulders carried sad faces, too; for happily as yet the death of friends in the South was not made, by familiarity, a thing of course. And lastlylifted so gently, and suffering so patiently-came the ghastly burdens of the stretchers. Strong men, maimed and torn, their muscular hands [126] straining the handles of the litter with the bitter effort to repress complaint, the horrid crimson ooze marking the rough cloths thrown over them; delicate, fair-browed boys, who had gone forth a few days back so full of life and hope, now gory and livid, with clenched teeth and matted hair, and eyeballs straining for the loved faces that must be there to wait them.

    It was a strange crowd that stood there in the driving storm, lit up by the fitful flashes of the moving lanterns.

    The whole city was there — the rich merchant — the rough laborer --the heavy features of the sturdy serving-woman — the dusky, but loving face of the negro — the delicate profile of the petted belle-all strained forward in the same intent gaze, as car after car was emptied of its ghastly freight. There, under the pitiless storm, they stood silent and still, careless of its fury — not a sound breaking the perfect hush, in which the measured tramp of the carriers, or the half-repressed groan of the wounded, sounded painfully distinct.

    Now and then, as a limping soldier was recognized, would come a rush and a cry of joy-strong arms were given to support himten-der hands were laid upon his hair-and warm lips were pressed to his blanched cheek, drenched with the storm.

    Here some wife, or sister, dropped bitter tears on the unconscious face of the household darling, as she walked by the stretcher where he writhed in fevered agony. There

    The shrill-edged shriek of the mother divided the shuddering night,

    as she threw herself prone on the rough pine box; or the wild, wordless wail of sudden widowhood was torn from the inmost heart of some stricken creature who had hoped in vain!

    There was a vague, unconscious feeling of joy in those who had found their darlings-even shattered and maimed; an unbearable and leaden weight of agonizing suspense and dread hung over those who could hear nothing. Many wandered restlessly about the Capitol, ever and anon questioning the guard around the dead generals; but the sturdy men of the Legion could only give kindly and vague answers that but heightened the feverish anxiety.

    Day after day the ambulance trains came in bearing their sad burdens, and the same scene was ever enacted. Strangers, miles from home, met the same care as the brothers and husbands of Richmond; and the meanest private was as much a hero as the tinseled officer. [127]

    It is strange how soon even the gentlest natures gain a familiarity with suffering and death. The awfulness and solemnity of the unaccustomed sight loses rapidly by daily contact with it; even though the sentiments of sympathy and pity may not grow callous as well. But, as yet, Richmond was new to such scenes; and a shudder went through the whole social fabric at the shattering and tearing of the fair forms so well known and so dear.

    Gradually-very gradually — the echoes of the fight rolled into distance; the wildest wailing settled to the steady sob of suffering, and Richmond went her way, with only here and there a wreck of manhood, or pale-faced woman in deepest mourning, to recall the fever of that fearful night.

    Though the after effect of Manassas proved undoubtedly bad, the immediate fruits of the victory were of incalculable value. Panicstruck, the Federals had thrown away everything that could impede their flight. Besides fifty-four pieces of artillery of all kinds, horses and mules in large numbers, ammunition, medical stores and miles of wagon and ambulance trains, near six thousand stand of small arms, of the newest pattern and in best condition, fell into the hands of the half-armed rebels.

    These last were the real prize of the victors, putting a dozen new regiments waiting only for arms, at once on an effective war-footing. Blankets, tents and clothing were captured in bulk; nor were they to be despised by soldiers who had, left home with knapsacks as empty as those of Falstaff's heroes.

    But the moral effect of the victory was to elate the tone of the army far above any previous act of the war. Already prepared not to undervalue their own prowess, its ease and completeness left a universal sense of their invincibility, till the feeling became common in the ranks-and spread thence to the people — that one southern man was worth a dozen Yankees; and that if they did not come in numbers greater than five to one, the result of any conflict was assured.

    Everything was going smoothly. The first rough outlines had been laid in, with bold effectiveness, a rosy cloud floated over the grim distance of the war; and in the foreground-only brilliant and victorious action.

    The Confederate loss, too, was much smaller than at first supposed, [128] not exceeding eighteen hundred; and many of the slightly wounded began already to hobble about again, petted by the communities and justly proud of their crutches and scars. The Federal loss was harder to estimate. Many of their wounded had been borne away by the rush of the retreat; the Government, naturally anxious to calm the public mind of the North, made incomplete returns ;. while large numbers of uncounted dead had been buried on the field and along the line of retreat, both by the victorious army and country people. From the best data obtainable, their loss could not have been much short, if at all short, of five thousand. The army was satisfied, the country was satisfied, and, unfortunately, the Government was satisfied.

    Among the people there was a universal belief in an immediate advance. The army that had been the main bulwark of the National Capital was rushing — a panic-stricken herd-into and beyond it; the fortifications were perfectly uncovered and their small garrisons utterly demoralized by the woe-begone and terrified fugitives constantly streaming by them. The triumphant legions of the South were almost near enough for their battle-cry to be heard in the Cabinet; and the southern people could not believe that the bright victory that had perched upon their banners would be allowed to fold her wings before another and bloodier flight, that would leave the North prostrate at her feet. Day after day they waited and — the wish being father to the thought-day after day the sun rose on fresh stories of an advance---a bloody fight — a splendid victory-or the capture of Washington. But the sun always set on an authoritative contradiction of them; and at last the excitement was forced to settle down on the news that General Johnston had extended his pickets as far as Mason's and Munson's hills, and the army had gone into camp on the field it had so bloodily won the week before.

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