Chapter 5

 

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Up | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16

THE GUNS OF BULL RUN

A STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR'S EVE

by JOSEPH A. ALTSHELER

    V.    THE NEW PRESIDENT

 Their great day came.  Clear sunlight shone over the town, the hills and the brown waters of the Alabama.  It was a peculiarly Southern country, different, Harry thought, from his own Kentucky, more enthusiastic, perhaps, and less prone to count the cost.  The people had come not only on the railroad, but they were arriving now from far places in wagons and on horseback.  Men of distinction, almost universally, wore black clothes, the coats very long, black slouch hats, wide of brim, and white shirts with glistening or heavily ruffled fronts.  There were also many black people in a state of pleasurable excitement, although the war--if one should come--would be over them.

Harry and his two young friends were anxious to visit Montgomery and take a good look at the town, but they did not ask for leave, as Colonel Talbot had already sternly refused all such applications.  The military law continued to lie heavily upon them, and, soon after they finished a solid breakfast with appetites sharpened by the open air, they were ordered to fall into line.  Arrayed in their fine new uniforms, to which the last touch of neatness had been added, they marched away to the town.  They might see it as a company, but not as individuals.

They walked with even step along the grassy slopes, their fine appearance drawing attention and shouts of approval from the dense masses of people of all ages and all conditions of life who were gathering.  Harry, a cadet with a small sword by his side, felt his heart swell as he trod the young turf, and heard the shouting and applause.  The South Carolinians were the finest body of men present, and they were conscious of it.  Eyes always to the front, they marched straight on, apparently hearing nothing, but really hearing everything.

They reached the houses presently and Harry saw the dome of the capitol on its high hill rising before them, but a moment or two later the Guards, with the Palmetto flag waving proudly in front, wheeled and marched toward the railroad station.  There they halted in close ranks and stood at attention.  Although the young soldiers remained immovable, there was not a heart in the company that did not throb with excitement. Colonel Talbot and Major St. Hilaire were a little in advance, erect and commanding figures.

Other troops, volunteer companies, were present and they spread to right and left of the South Carolinians.  Behind and everywhere except in the cleared space before them gathered the people, a vast mass through which ran the hum and murmur of expectancy.  Overhead, the sun leaped out and shone for a while with great brilliancy.  "A good omen," many said. And to Harry it all seemed good, too.  The excitement, the enthusiasm were contagious.  If any prophet of evil was present he had nothing to say.

A jet of smoke standing black against the golden air appeared above a hill, and then came the rumble of a train.  It was that which bore the President elect, coming fast, and a sudden great shout went up from the multitude, followed by silence, broken only by the heavy breathing of so many.  Harry's heart leaped again, but his will kept his body immovable.

The rumble became a roar, and the jet of smoke turned to a cloud. Then the train drew into the station and stopped.  The people began a continuous shout, bands played fiercely, and a tall, thin man of middle years, dressed in black broadcloth, descended from a coach.  All the soldiers saluted, the bands played more fiercely than ever, and the shouting of the crowd swelled in volume.

It was the first time that Harry had ever seen Jefferson Davis, and the face, so unlike that which he expected, impressed him.  He saw a cold, gray, silent man with lips pressed tightly together.  He did not behold here the Southern fire and passion of which he was hearing so much talk, but rather the reserve and icy resolve of the far North.  Harry at first felt a slight chill, but it soon passed.  It was better at such a time to have a leader of restraint and dignity than the homely joker, Lincoln, of whom such strange tales came.

Mr. Davis lifted his black hat to the shouting crowd, and bowed again and again.  But he did not smile.  His face remained throughout set in the same stern mold.  As the troops closed up, he entered the carriage waiting for him, and drove slowly toward the heart of the city, the multitude following and breaking at intervals into shouts and cheers.

The Palmetto Guards marched on the right of the carriage, and Harry was able to watch the President-elect all the time.  The face held his attention.  Its sternness did not relax.  It was the face of a man who had seen the world, and who believed in the rule of strength.

The procession led on to a hotel, a large building with a great portico in front.  Here it stopped, the bands ceased to play, Mr. Davis descended from the carriage and entered the portico, where a group of men famous in the South stood, ready to welcome him.  The troops drew up close to the portico, and back of them, every open space was black with people.

Harry, in the very front rank, saw and heard it all.  Mr. Davis stopped as soon as he reached the portico, and Yancey, the famous orator of Alabama, to whom Harry had delivered his letters in Charleston, stepped forward, and, in behalf of the people of the South, made a speech of welcome in a clear, resonant, and emphatic tone.  The applause compelled him to stop at times, but throughout, Mr. Davis stood rigid and unsmiling.  His countenance expressed none of his thoughts, whatever they may have been.  Harry's eyes never wandered from his face, except to glance now and then at the weazened, shrunken, little man who stood near him, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, who would take the oath of office as Vice-President of the new Confederacy.  He had been present throughout the convention as a delegate from Georgia, and men talked of the mighty mind imprisoned in the weak and dwarfed body.

Harry thrilled more than once as the new President spoke on in calm, measured tones.  He was glad to be present at the occurrence of great events, and he was glad to witness this gathering of the mighty. The tide of youth flowed high in him, and he believed himself fortunate to have been at Charleston when the cannon met the Star of the West, and yet more fortunate to be now at Montgomery, when the head of the new nation was taking up his duties.

His gaze wandered for the first time from the men in the portico to the crowd without that rimmed them around.  His eyes, without any particular purpose, passed from face to face in the front ranks, and then stopped, arrested by a countenance that he had little expected to see.  It was the shadow, Shepard, standing there, and listening, and looking as intently as Harry himself.  It was not an evil face, cut clearly and eager, but Harry was sorry that he had come.  If Colonel Talbot's beliefs about him were true, this was a bad place for Shepard.

But his eyes went back to the new President and the men on the portico before him.  The first scene in the first act of a great drama, a mighty tragedy, had begun, and every detail was of absorbing interest to him. Shepard was forgotten in an instant.

Harry noticed that Mr. Davis never mentioned slavery, a subject which was uppermost in the minds of all, North and South, but he alluded to the possibility of war, and thought the new republic ought to have an army and navy.  The concluding paragraph of his speech, delivered in measured but feeling tones, seemed very solemn and serious to Harry.

"It is joyous in the midst of perilous times," he said, "to look around upon a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and actuates the whole; where the sacrifices to be made are not weighed in the balance against honor and right and liberty and equality. Obstacles may retard, but they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified in justice and sustained by a virtuous people. Reverently let us invoke the God of our fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which by his blessing they were able to vindicate, establish, and transmit to their posterity. With the continuance of his favor ever gratefully acknowledged we may look hopefully forward to success, to peace and to prosperity."

The final words were received with a mighty cheer which rose and swelled thrice, and again.  Jefferson Davis stood calmly through it all, his face expressing no emotion.  The thin lips were pressed together tightly.  The points of his high collar touched his thick, close beard. He wore a heavy black bow tie and his coat had broad braided lapels. His hair was thick and slightly long, and his face, though thin, was full of vitality.  It seemed to Harry that the grave, slightly narrowed eyes emitted at this moment a single flash of triumph or at least of fervor.

Mr.  Jefferson Davis was sworn in and Mr. Stephens after him, and when the shouting and applause sank for the last time, the great men withdrew into the hotel, and the troops marched away.  The head of the new republic had been duly installed, and the separation from the old Union was complete. The enthusiasm was tremendous, but Harry, like many others, had an underlying and faint but persistent feeling of sadness that came from the breaking of old ties.  Nor had any news come telling that Kentucky was about to join her sister states of the South.

The Palmetto Guards marched back to their old camp, and Harry, Langdon, and St. Clair obtained leave of absence to visit the town.  Youth had reasserted itself and Harry was again all excitement and elation. It seemed to him at the moment that he was a boy no longer.  The Tacitus lying peacefully in his desk was forgotten.  He was a man in a man's great world, doing a man's great work.

But both he and his comrades had all the curiosity and zest of boys as they walked about the little city in the twilight, looking at everything of interest, visiting the Capitol, and then coming back to the Exchange Hotel, which sheltered for a night so many of their great men.

They stayed a while in the lobby of the hotel, which was packed so densely that Harry could scarcely breathe.  Most of the men were of the tall, thin but extremely muscular type, either clean shaven or with short beards trimmed closely, and no mustaches.  Black was the predominant color in clothing, and they talked with soft, drawling voices.  But their talk was sanguine.  Most of them asked what the North would do, but they believed that whatever she did do the South would go on her way.  The smoke from the pipes and cigars grew thicker, and Harry, leaving his comrades in the crowd, walked out upon the portico.

The crisp, fresh air of the February night came like a heavenly tonic. He remained there a little while, breathing it in, expanding his lungs, and rejoicing.  Then he walked over to the exact spot upon which Jefferson Davis had stood, when he delivered his speech of acceptance. He was so full of the scene that he shut his eyes and beheld it again. He tried to imagine the feelings of a man at such a moment, knowing himself the chosen of millions, and feeling that all eyes were upon him. Truly it would be enough to make the dullest heart leap.

He opened his eyes, and although he stood in darkness on the portico, he saw a dusky figure at the far edge of it, standing between two pillars, and looking in at one of the windows.  The man, whoever he was, seemed to be intently watching those inside, and Harry saw at once that it was not a look of mere curiosity.  It was the gaze of one who wished to understand as well as to know.  He moved a little nearer.  The figure dropped lightly to the ground and moved swiftly away.  Then he saw that it was Shepard.

The boy's feelings toward Shepard had been friendly, but now he felt a sudden rush of hostility.  All that Colonel Talbot had hinted about him was true.  He was there, spying upon the Confederacy, seeking its inmost secrets, in order that he might report them to its enemies.  Harry was armed.  He and all his comrades carried new pistols at their belts, and driven by impulse he, too, dropped from the portico and followed Shepard.

He saw the dusky figure ahead of him still going swiftly, but with his hand on the pistol he followed at greater speed.  A minute later Shepard turned into a small side street, and Harry followed him there.  It was not much more than an alley, dark, silent, and deserted.  Montgomery was a small town, in which people retired early after the custom of the times, and tonight, the collapse after so much excitement seemed to have sent them sooner than usual into their homes.  It was evident that the matter would lie without interference between Shepard and himself.

Shepard went swiftly on and came soon to the outskirts of the town. He did not look back and Harry wondered whether he knew that he was pursued.  The boy thought once or twice of using his pistol, but could not bring himself to do it.  There was really no war, merely a bristling of hostile forces, and he could not fire upon anybody, especially upon one who had done him no harm.

Shepard led on, passed through a group of negro cabins, crossed an old cotton field, and entered a grove, with his pursuer not fifty yards behind.  The grove was lighted well by the moon, and Harry dashed forward, pistol in hand, resolved at last to call a halt upon the fugitive.  A laugh and the blue barrel of a levelled pistol met him. Shepard was sitting upon a fallen log facing him.  The moon poured a mass of molten silver directly upon him, showing a face of unusual strength and power, set now with stern resolution.  Harry's hand was upon the butt of his own pistol, but he knew that it was useless to raise it.  Shepard held him at his mercy.

"Sit down, Mr. Kenton," said Shepard.  "Here's another log, where you can face me.  You feel chagrin, but you need not.  I knew that you were following me, and hence I was able to take you by surprise.  Now, tell me, what do you want?"

Harry took the offered log.  He was naturally a lad of great courage and resolution, and now his presence of mind returned.  He looked calmly at Shepard, who lowered his own pistol.

"I'm not exactly sure what I want," he replied with a little laugh, "but whatever it is, I know now that I'm not going to get it.  I've walked into a trap.  I believed that you were a spy, and it seemed to me that I ought to seize you.  Am I right?"

Shepard laughed also.

"That's a frank question and you shall have a frank reply," he said. "The suspicions of your friend, Colonel Talbot, were correct.  Yes, I am a spy, if one can be a spy when there is no war.  I am willing to tell you, however, that Shepard is my right name, and I am willing to tell you also, that you and your Charleston friends little foresee the magnitude of the business upon which you have started.  I don't believe there is any enmity between you and me and I can tell the thoughts that I have."

"Since you offered me no harm when you had the chance," said Harry, "I give my word that I will seek to offer none myself.  Go ahead, I think you have more to say and I want to listen."

Shepard thrust his pistol in his belt and his face relaxed somewhat. As they faced each other on the logs they were not more than ten feet part and the moon poured a shower of silver rays upon both.  Although Shepard was a few years the older, the faces showed a likeness, the same clearness of vision and strength of chin.

"I liked you, Harry Kenton, the first time I met you," said Shepard, "and I like you yet.  When I saw that you were following me, I led you here in order to say some things to you.  You are seeing me now probably for the last time.  My spying is over for a long while, at least. A mile further on, a horse, saddled and bridled, is waiting for me. I shall ride all the remainder of the night, board a train in the morning, and, passing through Memphis and Louisville, I shall be in the North in forty-eight hours."

"And what then?"

"I shall tell to those who ought to know what I have seen in Charleston and Montgomery.  I have seen the gathering of forces in the South, and I know the spirit that animates your people, but listen to me, Harry Kenton, do you think that a Union such as ours, formed as ours was, can be broken up in a moment, as you would smash a china plate?  The forces on the other side are sluggish, but they are mighty.  I foresee war, terrible war, crowded with mighty battles.  Now, I'm going to offer you my hand and you are going to take it.  Don't think any the less of me because I've been playing the spy.  You may be one yourself before the year is out."

His manner was winning, and Harry took the offered hand.  What right had he to judge?  Each to his own opinion.  Despite himself, he liked Shepard again.

"I'm glad I've known you, but at the same time I'm glad you're leaving," he said.

Shepard gave the boy's hand a hearty grasp, which was returned in kind. Then he turned and disappeared in the forest.  Harry walked slowly back to Montgomery.  Shepard had given him deep cause for thought.  He approached the Exchange Hotel, thinking that he would find his friends there and return with them to the camp.  But it was later than he had supposed.  As he drew near he saw that nearly all the lights were out in the hotel, and the building was silent.

He was sure that St. Clair and Langdon had already gone to the camp, and he was about to turn away when he saw a window in the hotel thrown up and a man appear standing full length in the opening.

It was Jefferson Davis.  The same flood of moonlight that had poured upon Shepard illuminated his face also.  But it was not the face of a triumphant man.  It was stern, sad, even gloomy.  The thin lips were pressed together more tightly than ever, and the somber eyes looked out over the city, but evidently saw nothing there.  Harry felt instinctively that his thoughts were like those of Shepard.  He, too, foresaw a great and terrible war, and, so foreseeing, knew that this was no time to rejoice and glorify.  Harry, held by the strong spell of time and place, watched him a full half hour.  It was certain now that Jefferson Davis was thinking, not looking at anything, because his head never moved, and his eyes were always turned in the same direction--Harry noticed at last that the direction was the North.

The new President stepped back, closed the window and no light came from his room.  Harry hurried to the camp, where, as he had surmised, he found St. Clair and Langdon.  He gave some excuse for his delay, and telling nothing of Shepard, wrapped himself in his blankets.  Exhausted by the stirring events of the day and night he fell asleep at once.

Three days later they were on their way back to Charleston.  They heard that the inauguration of the new President had not been well received by the doubtful states.  Even the border slave states were afraid the lower South had been a little too hasty.  But among the youths of the Palmetto Guards there was neither apprehension nor depression.  They had been present at the christening of the new nation, and now they were going back to their own Charleston.

"Everything is for the best," said young Langdon, whose unfailing spirits bubbled to the brim, "we'll have down here the tightest and finest republic the world ever heard of.  New Orleans will be the biggest city, but our own Charleston will always be the leader, its center of thought."

"What you need, Tom," said Harry, "is a center of thought yourself. Don't be so terribly sanguine and you may save yourself some smashes."

"I wouldn't gain anything even then," replied Langdon joyously.  "I'll have such a happy time before the smash comes that I can afford to pay for it.  I'm the kind that enjoys life.  It's a pleasure to me just to breathe."

"I believe it is," said Harry, looking at him with admiration.  "I think I'll call you Happy Tom."

"I take the name with pleasure," said Langdon.  "It's a compliment to be called Happy Tom.  Happy I was born and happy I am.  I'm so happy I must sing:

    "Ol Dan Tucker was a mighty fine man,      He washed his face in the frying pan,      He combed his hair with a wagon wheel      And died with a toothache in his heel."

"That's a great poem," said a long North Carolina youth named Ransome, "but I've got something that beats it all holler.  'Ole Dan Tucker' is nothing to 'Aunt Dinah's Tribberlations.'"

"How does it go?" asked St. Clair.

"It's powerful pathetic, telling a tale of disaster and pain.  The first verse will do, and here it is:

    "Ole Aunt Dinah, she got drunk,      Felled in a fire and kicked up a chunk,      Red-hot coal popped in her shoe,      Lord a-mighty! how de water flew!"

"We've had French and Italian opera in Charleston," said St. Clair, "and I've heard both in New Orleans, too, but nothing quite so moving as the troubles of Ole Dan Tucker and Ole Aunt Dinah."

They sang other songs and the Guards, who filled two coaches of a train, joined in a great swinging chorus which thundered above the rattle of the engine and the cars, so noisy in those days.  Often they sang negro melodies with a plaintive lilt.  The slave had given his music to his master.  Harry joined with all the zest of an enthusiastic nature. The effect of Shepard's words and of the still, solemn face of Jefferson Davis, framed in the open window, was wholly gone.

Spring was now advancing.  All the land was green.  The trees were in fresh leaf, and when they stopped at the little stations in the woods, they could hear the birds singing in the deep forest.  And as they sped across the open they heard the negroes singing, too, in their deep mellow voices in the fields.  Then came the delicate flavor of flowers and Harry knew that they were approaching Charleston.  In another hour they were in the city which was, as yet, the heart and soul of the Confederacy.

Charleston, with its steepled churches, its quaint houses, and its masses of foliage, much of it in full flower, seemed more attractive than ever to Harry.  The city preserved its gay and light tone.  It was crowded with people.  All the rich planters were there.  Society had never been more brilliant than during those tense weeks on the eve of men knew not what.  But the Charlestonians were sure of one fact, the most important of all, that everything was going well.  Texas had joined the great group of the South, and while the border states still hung back, they would surely join.

Harry found that the batteries and earthworks had increased in size and number, forming a formidable circle about the black mass of Sumter, above which the defiant flag still swung in the wind.  The guards were distributed among the batteries, but St. Clair, Langdon, and Harry remained together.  Toutant Beauregard, after having resigned the command at West Point, as the Southern leaders had expected, came to Charleston and took supreme command there.  Harry saw him as he inspected the batteries, a small, dark man, French in look, as he was French in descent, full of nervous energy and vitality.  He spoke approving words of all that had been done, and Harry, St. Clair and Tom, glowed with enthusiasm.

"Didn't I tell you that everything would come just right!" exclaimed Happy Tom.  "We're the boys to do things.  I heard today that they were preparing a big fleet in the North to relieve Sumter, but no matter how big it is, it won't be able to get into Charleston harbor.  Will it, old fellow?"

He addressed his remarks to one of the great guns, and he patted the long, polished barrel.  Harry agreed with him that Charleston harbor could be held inviolate.  He did not believe that ships would have much chance against heavy cannon in earthworks.

He was back in Charleston several days before he had a chance to go to Madame Delaunay's.  She was unfeignedly glad to see him, but Harry saw that she had lost some of her bright spirits.

"Colonel Talbot tells me," she said, "that mighty forces are gathering, and I am afraid, I am afraid for all the thousands of gallant boys like you, Harry."

But Harry had little fear for himself.  Why should he, when the Southern cause was moving forward so smoothly?  They heard a day or two later that the rail-splitter, Lincoln, had been duly inaugurated President of what remained of the old Union, although he had gone to Washington at an unexpected hour, and partly in disguise.  On the same day the Confederacy adopted the famous flag of the Stars and Bars, and Harry and his friends were soon singing in unison and with fiery enthusiasm:

    "Hurrah!  Hurrah! for Southern rights, hurrah!      Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star!"

The spring deepened and with it the tension and excitement.  The warm winds from the South blew over Charleston, eternally keen with the odor of rose and orange blossom.  The bay moved gently, a molten mass now blue, now green.  The blue figures could be seen now and then on the black walls of Sumter, but the fortress was silent, although the muzzles of its guns always threatened.

Harry received several letters from his father.  The latest stated that he might want him to return, but he was not needed yet.  The state had proved more stubborn than he and his friends had expected.  A powerful Union element had been disclosed, and there would be an obstinate fight at Frankfort over the question of going out.  He would let him know when to come.

Harry was perhaps less surprised than his father over the conflict of opinion in Kentucky, but his thoughts soon slipped from it, returning to his absorption in the great and thrilling drama in Charleston, which was passing before his eyes, and of which he was a part.

April came, and the glory of the spring deepened.  The winds blowing from the soft shores of the Gulf grew heavier with the odors of blossom and flower.  But Charleston thrilled continually with excitement. Fort after fort was seized by the Southerners, almost without opposition and wholly without the shedding of blood.  It seemed that the stars in their courses fought for the South, or at least it seemed so to the youthful Harry and his comrades.

"Didn't I tell you everything would come as we wished it?" said the sanguine Langdon.  "Abe Lincoln may be the best rail-splitter that ever was, but I fancy he isn't such a terrible fighter."

"Let's wait and see," said Harry, with the impression of Shepard's warning words still strong upon him.

His caution was not in vain.  That day the rulers of Charleston received a message from Abraham Lincoln that Sumter would be revictualled, whether Charleston consented or not.  The news was spread instantly through the city and fire sprang up in the South Carolina heart. The population, increased far beyond its normal numbers by the influx from the country, talked of nothing else.  Beauregard was everywhere giving quick, nervous orders, and always strengthening the already powerful batteries that threatened Sumter.

 

 

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