THE GUNS OF BULL RUN
A STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR'S EVE
by JOSEPH A. ALTSHELER
Harry saw an increase of energy after the arrival of
P. G. T. Beauregard. There were fresh rumors about the great fleet the North was going to send down for the relief of Sumter. Major Anderson, the commander in the fort, steadily refused all demands for surrender. It was said freely that the Northern States did not intend to let their Southern sisters go in peace. The Mercury, with all the power and fire of the Rhett family behind it, thundered continually for action. Sumter with its guns menacing the city should not be allowed to remain under the hostile flag.
It seemed to Harry afterward that he was in a sort of fever, not a fever that parched and burned, but a fever that made his pulse leap faster, and his heart long for the thrill of conflict. Often he sat with St. Clair and Langdon on their earthworks, and looked at Sumter.
"I wonder when the word will come for us to turn these big guns loose?" Langdon said one day, as he looked at the cannon. "Seems to me we ought to take Sumter before that fleet comes."
"But wouldn't it be better for them to make the first hostile movement, Happy?" asked Harry. "Then we'd put them in the wrong."
"What difference does it make if we should happen to fight them, anyhow? The question who began it we'd settle afterwards on victorious fields. Oh, we're bound to win, Harry! We can't help it. If there's any war, I expect inside of a year to sleep with my boots on in the President's bed in the White House, and then I'd go on to Philadelphia and New York and Boston and show myself as a fair specimen of the unconquerable Southern soldier."
"Happy," said Harry, in a rebuking tone, "you're the most terrific chatterer I ever heard. Before you've done anything whatever, you talk about having done it all."
"And they call us Charlestonians fiery boasters," said St. Clair. "Why, there's nobody in all Charleston who's half a match for this sea islander, Happy Tom Langdon."
Lincoln's threat and gave it back. Many were glad that he had made the issue. The enthusiasm swelled yet further, when they heard that the Confederate envoys at Washington, treating for a peaceful separation, had left the capital at once when Lincoln had sent his message that Sumter would be relieved.
"It looks more like war now," said Langdon, with satisfaction, "and I may make my victorious march into the North after all."
Harry said nothing. As events marched forward on swift foot, he felt more intensely their gravity. For every month that had passed since he put the Tacitus in his desk at Pendleton Academy, the boy had grown a year in mind and thought. So, that rumor about the relieving fleet had come true and they might look for it in Charleston in two or three days.
Harry had his place in one of the batteries nearest Sumter, and he often went with Colonel Talbot on tours of inspection and once or twice he was in General
Beauregard's own party. The fact that his father had been a graduate of West Point and for years an officer, was of the greatest service to him. In the little army of the United States before the Civil War, the officers constituted a family. Everybody knew who everybody else was, and those of the same age had been at West Point together.
General Beauregard and Colonel Kenton had met often, and the Southern commander became very partial to the Colonel's son.
Harry was present when Beauregard, some of his more important officers and the civil authorities of
Charleston, conferred after Lincoln's warning message came.
"If Lincoln's fleet tries to force the harbor," said Rhett, "we must fire upon it. Sumter should be ours, and if Lincoln succeeds in revictualling the fort it will be a great blow to our prestige. It will hurt the whole South. What do you think, General?"
"I think as you do, Mr. Rhett," replied
Toutant Beauregard. "But have no fear, gentlemen. No fleet that
Lincoln may send can reach Sumter. Our batteries are able to blow out of the water every vessel that flies the Northern flag."
"We must reduce Sumter itself before the fleet comes," said Jamison, of Barnwell.
Beauregard smiled slightly.
"We can do that, too," he said, "and I am glad to see that you gentlemen are for action. The fleet, I am accurately informed, consists of the
warship Baltic, three sloops of war and two tenders. The Baltic, with Fox, the assistant secretary of the Northern Navy, on board, left New York two days ago. The other vessels started earlier, and we may expect the whole fleet in a day."
"Then," said Rhett, "we must send to Sumter another and a final demand for its surrender."
They were all agreed, and Beauregard chose his messengers, putting Harry among the number. Hoisting a white flag, they entered a large boat and were rowed by powerful oarsmen toward Sumter. Harry, looking back, saw the whole front of the harbor lined with people. Even at the distance it looked like a holiday crowd. He saw hundreds of women and girls in white and pink dresses, and there were roses of the same colors in hats and bonnets. Great parasols of every shade threw back the brilliant sunlight. It was still a holiday spectacle, a pageant, and many of the light hearts along the sea wall could not realize that it might yet be something far more.
Anderson, the commander of Sumter, appeared upon the esplanade to meet the boat coming with the white flag. Harry watched him closely. He saw a face worn, but set hard and firm, and a figure upright and steady. The Southerners tied their boat to the wall and climbed upon the esplanade.
"What do you want, gentlemen?" asked Anderson.
"We have come with our final demand for your surrender," replied the chief Southern officer. "If you do not yield we fire upon you."
Anderson shrugged his shoulders.
"I hear that a fleet from New York is coming to my relief."
"It will never be able to force a passage into the harbor."
"That may or may not be, but in any event, gentlemen, I tell you that the flag will not come down. If you fire, we fire back."
He spoke with no quiver in his voice, although his supply of ammunition was low, and the fort had a food supply for only four days.
"Then it is scarcely worth while for us to talk longer."
"No, it would be a waste of time by both of us." The Southerners turned back to their boat. Harry was the last and Anderson said to him in a low tone:
"I am sorry to see your father's son here."
"I am where he would wish me to be," replied the boy stiffly.
"Even so, I hope you will come to no harm," said Anderson in a generous tone.
After such a noble rejoinder Harry's heart softened instantly, and he returned the wish. Then he followed the others into the boat, and they pulled back to the mainland.
The crowd surmised from the quick return of the boat the nature of the answer that it brought. It seemed to feel one gigantic throb of passion, and perhaps of relief also, that the issue was made after so many weeks of waiting. Yet the holiday aspect disappeared, as if a cloud had passed suddenly before the sun.
Harry noted the shadow even before he landed. The people had become silent, and faces that had laughed turned grave. As they set foot upon the mainland, they told their news freely, and then the crowd dispersed almost in silence. It was the first time that Harry had seen Charleston, gay and light of heart, in the shadow, but he was sure that it could not last long. His errand over, he returned to his own battery and told Langdon and St. Clair of everything that had happened.
"It's all for the best," said Langdon cheerfully. "Sumter will be ours in another day."
"Wait and see, Happy," said Harry.
"All right, old Wait-and-See, I will," returned Langdon.
Harry tried to suppress, or at least conceal his intense excitement. The whole city was in the same state. The batteries were filled with men of wealth and position, serving as mere volunteer privates. The wives and daughters of many of them were at the Charleston Hotel or the Mills House, or at such inns as that kept by Madame Delaunay. Governor Pickens and his wife were at the Charleston Hotel, and with them were chief officers of the city and state. Nearly everybody knew that something was going to happen, but few knew when it would happen.
Harry noticed a tightening of discipline at their battery. The orders were sharp and they had to be obeyed. Nothing was wasted in politeness. Visitors were no longer allowed to gratify curiosity. Women and girls in their white or pink dresses were not permitted to come near and smile at their husbands or brothers or sweethearts in the trenches. The ammunition was stacked neatly behind the guns, and every man was compelled to be ready at an instant's notice.
"Looks like business," Langdon whispered joyfully to his comrades. "I'm hoping that fleet will come just as soon as it can."
"Happy, you sanguinary wretch," Harry whispered back, "I'm thinking the fleet will come soon enough for you and all the rest of us."
The afternoon faded. The sun sank in the hills behind them, and dusk came over city and harbor. But Harry, from the battery, could still see the black bulk of Sumter, and above it the gleaming red and blue of a flag.
Coffee and food were served to his comrades and himself in the battery, and then they remained by their guns waiting. The night deepened. Harry could yet see the flash of waters and the dim bulk of Sumter, but the flag itself was no longer visible. No sound came from the city. The silence there seemed singular and heavy.
The boy felt the night and the waiting. Even Happy Tom ceased to be light and frivolous. The three had nothing to do and they sat together, always looking toward the sea where the smoke of the relieving fleet might appear. Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Major Hector St. Hilaire passed together on a tour of inspection. They gave approving looks to the three trim youths, with the frank open faces, but said nothing and went on. Harry heard their footsteps for a moment or two, and then the oppressive silence came again.
The same stillness endured for a long time, so long that the three began to believe nothing would happen. Despite himself, Harry began to nod and he was forced to bring himself back to earth with a jerk. Then he stretched a little and peered over the earthwork. It was brighter now. A fine moon rode high, and the sea was dusted with starshine. The bulk of Sumter, black no longer, was coated with silver.
"Looks peaceful enough," whispered Langdon. "The ships have heard that you and St. Clair and I are here waiting for them and have turned back."
Harry made no answer. This waiting in the silence and the night made his blood quiver just a little. He was about to turn back when he saw a sudden flash of fire from another point further up. It was followed by a heavy crash that echoed and re-echoed over the still sea and city. Harry's heart leaped, but his body stiffened to attention. Tom and St. Clair by his side pressed against the earthwork.
"What is it?" they whispered.
"The moonlight is good," replied Harry, "but I don't see any ship. It must be a signal of some kind."
"Hush!" said Langdon, "there it goes again!"
Another cannon thundered, and the echoes, as before, came back from sea and shore, followed, as the echoes died, by that strange, heavy silence. But, straining their eyes to the utmost, the three boys could see nothing on the sea. It swayed gently like a vast mass of molten silver in the starshine, and lapped softly against the shore. The report of a third heavy gun came, and then the reports of several more. After that the silence was complete. It had seemed to Harry, his brain surcharged with excitement, like the tolling of great bells. Langdon and St. Clair whispered together, but he said nothing.
It was permitted to the three to lie down in their blankets in the earthwork and sleep, but they did not think of trying it. They wished to know the meaning of those cannon shots and they waited, tense with excitement. It was nearly midnight when Colonel Leonidas Talbot came.
"We have learned that the Northern vessels will appear before
Charleston tomorrow," he said, "and the shots were a signal to all our people to be ready. The attack on Sumter will begin in the morning. Now you three boys must go to sleep. We shall need tomorrow soldiers who are fresh and strong, not those who are worn and weak from loss of sleep."
They tried it and found it easier now because they knew the mystery of the shots. Harry became conscious that the night was crisp and cold, and, wrapped in his blanket, he lay with his back against an inner wall of the earthwork. The blood, the result of his tension and excitement, pounded in his ears for some time, but, at last, his pulses became quiet, and his heavy eyes closed.
He was awakened at the first shoot of dawn by Colonel Leonidas Talbot.
"Up, boys!" he said, "snatch a bite of food and a drink of coffee, and make yourselves as neat as possible.
General Beauregard is coming to this very battery."
His voice was quick and sharp, and the boys obeyed with the lightning speed of youth. It was a pale dawn. Gray clouds drifted along the sea's far rim, and a sharp wind came out of the Northwest. Heavy waves rolled into the mouths of the narrow and difficult passes that led into the bay.
"The Lord Himself fights for us," Harry heard Colonel Leonidas Talbot murmur. "No ships on such a sea would dare the passes in the face of our guns."
The pale light widened. Sumter was black and threatening again, and the flag waved there before it.
General Beauregard, his staff and a body of civilians arrived, and almost overflowed the battery. Harry noticed among the civilians an old man, seventy-five at least, with long hair, snow white. Despite his years, his face was as keen and eager as that of any boy.
"Who is he?" Harry whispered to St. Clair, who knew everybody.
"His name's Ruffin, but he's not a South Carolinian. He's a Virginian, but he has come to join us, and he's heart and soul with us. He's ready to fight at the drop of a hat."
Harry--their battery stood on Coming's Point--glanced toward the city and uttered a low cry of surprise.
"Look!" he said to his friends, "all Charleston is here."
"Yes, and a lot more of South Carolina, too," said St. Clair.
The people, learning the meaning of those signal guns in the night, were packed in every open space, and the very roofs were black with them. Forty or fifty thousand, men, women and children, were looking on, but nothing more than a murmur ran through the great mass. Harry knew that every heart in the fifty thousand beat, like his own, with strained expectancy.
A great gun in the battery was trained upon Sumter, and the gunner stood ready at the lanyard, but the old man with the long white hair and the keen, eager face, stepping forward, begged General Beauregard to allow him the honor of firing the first shot. The General consented at once, and the old man pulled the lanyard.
There was a terrific crash that almost deafened Harry, a gush of flame, followed by smoke, and a shell, screaming in a curve, dropped upon Sumter. For a few moments no one spoke, and Harry could hear the blood pounding in his ears. In a sudden flash of insight he saw a long and terrible road that they must tread. But neither he nor any other present realized to the full what had happened. The first real shot in the mightiest war of history had been fired, and the years of promises, kept or broken, of mutual jealousies and mutual abuse had ended at the cannon's mouth.
The silence was broken by a shout like the roar of a storm, that came from the people in the town. A puff of smoke rose from Sumter and the fort sent its answering shot, but it struck no enemy and again the shout came from the town, now a cry of derision.
Then all the batteries in the wide curve about Sumter leaped into fiery life. Cannon after cannon poured shot and shell against the black walls. The fort was ringed with fire. It seemed to Harry that the earth rocked. He tried to speak to his comrades, but he could not hear his own voice. He thought he was about to be deafened for his whole life, but Langdon handed him pieces of cotton which he quickly stuffed in his ears. Langdon and St. Clair had already taken the precaution. Happy Tom had proved himself the most forethoughtful of them all. And yet Langdon, careless and easy, was aflame with the fire of battle. It seemed to Harry that he thought little of consequences.
"Listen to it!" he shouted in excited tones to Harry and St. Clair. "Hark to the thudding of the great guns! It's war, the greatest of all games!"
Harry felt an intense excitement also. These were his people. He was of their bone and sinew, and he was with them, heart and soul. He did his part at the guns, and, although his excitement grew, he said nothing. He saw that the return fire from the fort was far inferior to that of the South Carolinians, and that it was doing no damage.
"Using their light guns only," he heard Colonel Talbot say during a momentary lull. "They must be short of ammunition."
The morning wore slowly on. From every battery along the mainland and on the islands, the storm of projectiles yet beat upon Sumter, and, at intervals, the fort replied, still using the light guns. Once Harry heard the whistle of a shell over his head, and he ducked automatically, while the others laughed. Another time, a solid shot sent the dirt flying in all their faces, stinging like driven sand, but that was the nearest any missile ever came to them.
Beauregard, after a while, gave an order for the firing to cease, and the city and harbor rose again, clear and distinct, in the pale sunlight. The great crowd of people was still there, all watching and waiting, The fort was battered and torn, but above it still hung the defiant flag, and there was no offer of surrender.
"Look! Look!" Langdon cried suddenly, reckless of all discipline, as he pointed a forefinger toward the sea.
Harry saw a column of smoke rising, and defining itself clearly against the pale blue sky.
"The Yankee fleet!" cried one of the officers, as he put his glasses to his eyes.
General Beauregard, General Ripley, and officers in every other battery, also were watching that new column of smoke through glasses. The dark spire in truth rose from the Baltic, the chief ship of the Union, having on board the energetic Fox himself, and two hundred soldiers. But chance and the elements seemed to have conspired against the secretary. One of his strongest ships had gone to the relief of another fort further south, others had been scattered by a storm, and the Baltic had only two sister vessels as she approached, over a rolling gray sea, the fiery volcano that was once the peaceful harbor of Charleston.
Harry saw the first column of smoke increase to three, and they knew then that the number of the Union vessels was far less than had been expected.
"Will they undertake to force the harbor and reach Sumter?" he asked of Colonel Talbot, who was then in the battery.
"If they do," replied the Colonel, "it will be a case of the most reckless folly. They would be sunk in short order, as they come right into the teeth of our guns. The sea itself, is against them. The waves are rolling worse than ever."
Colonel Talbot knew what he was saying. Vainly the men in Sumter looked for relief by sea. They, too, had seen the three ships off the harbor, and they knew whence they came and for what purpose. But they had reached the end of their journey, and had fallen short with the object of it in sight. They were compelled to swing back and forth, while they watched the circle of batteries pour a continuous fire upon the crumbling fort.
After the Southern officers had taken a long look at the Union ships, and had seen that they could do nothing, the fire on Sumter was renewed with increased volume. It lasted all through the day and the vast crowd of spectators did not diminish in numbers. Many of the wealthier were in carriages. If one went away for food or refreshment another took his place.
When the wind at times lifted the smoke, Harry saw that the wooden buildings standing on the esplanade of the fort were burning fiercely, set on fire by the bursting shells. The iron cisterns, too, although he did not know it until later, were smashed, and columns of smoke from the flaming buildings were pouring into the fort, threatening its defenders with destruction.
Night came on, and most of the people, lining the harbor, were compelled to go to their homes, but the fire of the Southern batteries continued, always converging upon the scarred and blackened walls of Sumter, from which came an occasional shot in return. Harry had now grown used to this incessant, rolling crash. He could hear his comrades speak, their voices coming in an under note, and now and then they discussed the result. They agreed that Sumter was bound to fall. The Union fleet could bring it no relief, and such a continuous rain of balls and shells must eventually pound it to pieces.
They ate and drank after dark. They had food in abundance and delicacies of many kinds from which to choose. Charleston poured forth its plenty for its heroes, and in those days of fresh young enthusiasm there was no lack of anything.
"The Yankees hold out well," said Langdon, "but I'm willing to bet a hundred to one that nobody sleeps in that fort tonight. You can't see the smoke of the ships any more. I suppose that for safety in the night they've had to go further out to sea. I'm glad I'm not on one of them, rolling and tumbling in those high waves. Well, everything is for the best, and if Sumter doesn't fall into our laps tonight she'll fall tomorrow, and if she doesn't fall tomorrow she'll fall the next day. What do you say to that, old Wait-and-See?"
"Wait and see," replied Harry so naturally that the others laughed.
The bombardment went on all through the night. Harry continually breathed smoke and the odor of burned gunpowder, which seemed to keep his nerves keyed to a great pitch, and to maintain the heat of his blood. Yet, after a while, he lay down, when his turn at the guns ceased, and slept through sheer exhaustion. His eyes closed to the thunder of cannon and they awoke at dawn to the same heavy thudding.
The fire had not ceased at any time in the course of the night, and Sumter looked like a ruin, but the flag still floated over it. St. Clair and Langdon were awakened a few minutes later, and they also stood up, rubbed their eyes, stared at the fort and listened to the firing. Harry laughed at their appearance.
"You fellows are certainly grimy," he said. "You look as if you hadn't seen water for a month."
"We can't see ourselves, old Wait-and-See," retorted Langdon, "but I guess we're beauties alongside of you. If I didn't have the honor of your acquaintance, I wouldn't know whether you came from the Indian Territory, Ashantee or the Cannibal Islands."
"And the music goes merrily on," said St. Clair. "I went to sleep with the cannon firing, and I wake up with them still at it. I suppose a fellow will get used to it after a while."
"You can get used to anything," said an officer who heard them. "Now, you boys eat your breakfasts. Your turn at the guns will come again soon."
They took breakfast willingly, although they found a strong flavor of smoke, sand, and burned gunpowder in everything they ate and drank. Then they went to their guns, but, when a few more shots were fired, a trumpet blew a signal, and it was echoed from battery to battery. Every cannon ceased, and, in the silence and under the lifting smoke, Harry saw a white flag going up on the fort.
Sumter was about to yield.