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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter VIII - The Last Stand
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The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter VIII - The Last Stand Post by :Roy_Claridge Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :1187

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter VIII - The Last Stand (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter VIII - The Last Stand

In the face of a damp April wind a remnant of Lee's army pushed forward
along an old road skirted by thin pine woods. As the column moved on
slowly, it threw out skirmishers on either flank, where the Federal cavalry
hovered in the distance. Once in an open clearing it formed into a hollow
square and marched in battle line to avoid capture. While the regiments
kept in motion the men walked steadily in the ranks, with their hollowed
eyes staring straight ahead from their gaunt, tanned faces; but at the
first halt they fell like logs upon the roadside, sleeping amid the sound
of shots and the stinging cavalry. With the cry of "Forward!" they
struggled to their feet again, and went stumbling on into the vast
uncertainty and the approaching night. Breathless, starving, with their
rags pinned together, and their mouths bleeding from three days' rations of
parched corn, they still kept onward, marching with determined eyes to
whatever and wherever the end might be. Petersburg had fallen, Richmond was
in flames behind them, the Confederacy was, perhaps, buried in the ruins of
its Capitol, but Lee was still somewhere to the front, so his army

"How long have we been marching, boys? I can't remember," asked Dan, when,
after a short rest, they formed again and started forward over the old
road. In the tatters of his gray uniform, with his broken shoes tied on his
feet and his black hair hanging across his eyes, he might have been one of
the beggars who warm themselves in the sun of Southern countries.

"Oh, I reckon we left the Garden of Eden about six thousand years ago,"
responded a wag from somewhere--he was too tired to recognize the voice.
"There! the skirmishers have struck that blamed cavalry again. Plague them!
They're as bad as wasps!"

"Has anybody some parched corn?" inquired Bland, plaintively. "I'll trade a
whole raw ear for it. It makes my gums bleed so, I can't chew it."

Dan plunged his hand into his pocket, and drew out the corn which he had
shelled and parched at the last halt. As he exchanged it for the "whole raw
ear," he fell to wondering vaguely what had become of Big Abel since that
dim point in eternity when they had left the trenches that surrounded
Petersburg. Then time was divided into periods of nights and days, now
night and day alike were made up in breathless marching, in throwing out
skirmishers against those "wasps" of cavalrymen, and in trying to force
aching teeth to grind parched corn. Panting and sick with hunger, he
struggled on like a driven beast that sees the place ahead, where he must
turn and grapple for the end with the relentless hunter on his track.

As the day ended the moist wind gathered strength and sang in his ears as
he crept forward--now sleeping, now waking, for a time filled with warm
memories of his college life, and again fighting over the last hopeless
campaign from the Wilderness to the trenches where Petersburg had fallen.
They had yielded step by step, but the great hunter had pressed on, and now
the thin brigades were gathering for the last stand together.

Overhead he heard the soughing of the pines, and around him the steady
tramp of feet too tired to lift themselves from out the heavy mud. Straight
above in the muffled sky a star shone dimly, and for a time he watched it
in his effort to keep awake. Then he began on the raw corn in his pocket,
shelling it from the cob as he walked along; but when the taste of blood
rose to his lips, he put the ear away again, and stooped to rub his eyes
with a handful of damp earth. Then, at last, in sheer desperation, he
loosened the grip upon his thoughts, and stumbled on, between waking and
sleeping, into the darkness that lay ahead.

In the road before him the door at Chericoke opened wide as on the old
Christmas Eves, and he saw the Major and the Governor draining their
glasses under the garlands of mistletoe and holly, while Betty and
Virginia, in dresses of white tarleton, stood against the ruddy glow that
filled the panelled parlour. The cheerful Christmas smell was in the
air--the smell of apple toddy, of roasted turkey, of plum pudding in a
blaze of alcohol. As he entered after his long ride from college, Betty
came up to him and slipped a warm white hand into his cold one, while he
met the hazel beams from beneath her lashes.

"I hope you have brought Jack Morson," she said. "Virginia is waiting. See
how lovely she looks in her white flounces, with the string of coral about
her neck."

"But the war, Betty?" he asked, with blinking eyes, and as he put out his
hand to touch the pearls upon her bosom, he saw that it was whole again--no
wound was there, only the snowflakes that fell from his sleeve upon her
breast. "What of the war, dear? I must go back to the army."

Betty laughed long and merrily.

"Why, you're dreaming, Dan," she said. "It all comes of those wicked
stories of the Major's. In a moment you will believe that this is really
1812, and you've gone without your rations."

"Thank God!" he cried aloud, and the sound of his own voice woke him, as he
slipped and went down in a mudhole upon the road. The Christmas smell faded
from his nostrils; in its place came the smoke from Pinetop's pipe--a
faithful friend until the last. Overhead the star was still shining, and to
the front he heard a single shot from the hovering cavalry, withdrawing for
the night.

"God damn this mud!" called a man behind him, as he lurched sideways from
the ranks. Farther away three hoarse voices, the remnant of a once famous
glee club, were singing in the endeavour to scare off sleep:--

"Rally round the flag, boys, rally once again!"

And suddenly he was fighting in the tangles of the Wilderness, crouching
behind a charred oak stump, while he loaded and fired at the little puffs
of smoke that rose from the undergrowth beyond. He saw the low marshland,
the stunted oaks and pines, and the heavy creepers that were pushed aside
and trampled underfoot, and at his feet he saw a company officer with a
bullet hole through his forehead and a covering of pine needles upon his
face. About him the small twigs fell, as if a storm swept the forest, and
as he dodged, like a sharpshooter from tree to tree, he saw a rush of flame
and smoke in the distance where the woods were burning. Above the noise of
the battle, he heard the shrieks of the wounded men in the track of the
fire; and once he met a Union and a Confederate soldier, each shot through
the leg, drawing each other back from the approaching flames. Then, as he
passed on, tearing at the cartridges with his teeth, he came upon a
sergeant in Union clothes, sitting against a pine stump with his cocked
rifle in his hand, and his eyes on the wind-blown smoke. A moment before
the man may have gone down at his shot, he knew--and yet, as he looked, an
instinct stronger than the instinct to kill was alive within him, and he
rushed on, dragging his enemy with him from the terrible woods. "I hope you
are not much hurt," he said, as he placed him on the ground and ran back to
where the line was charging. "One life has been paid for," he thought, as
he rushed on to kill--and fell face downward on the wheel-ruts of the old

"Rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,"

sang the three hoarse voices, straining against the wind.

Dan struggled to his feet, and the scene shifted.

He was back in his childhood, and the Major had just brought in a slave he
had purchased from Rainy-day Jones--"the plague spot in the county," as the
angry old gentleman declared.

Dan sat on the pile of kindling wood upon the kitchen hearth and stared at
the poor black creature shivering in the warmth, his face distorted with
the toothache, and a dirty rag about his jaw. He heard Aunt Rhody snorting
indignantly as she basted the turkeys, and he watched his grandmother
bustling back and forth with whiskey and hot plasters.

"Who made slavery, sir?" asked the boy suddenly, his hands in his breeches
pockets and his head bent sideways.

The Major started.

"God, sir," he promptly replied.

"Then I think it very strange of God," said the boy, "and when I grow up, I
shall set them all free, grandpa--I shall set them free even if I have to
fight to do it, sir."

"What! like poor free Levi?" stormed the Major.

"Wake up, confound you!" bawled somebody in his ear. "You've lurched
against my side until my ribs are sore. I say, are you going on forever,
anyhow? We've halted for the night."

"I can't stop!" cried Dan, groping in the darkness, then he fell heavily
upon the damp ground, while a voice down the road began shouting, "Detail
for guard!" Half asleep and cursing, the men responded to their names and
hurried off, and as the silence closed in, the army slept like a child upon
the roadside.

With the first glimmer of dawn they were on the march again, passing all
day through the desolate flat country, where the women ran weeping to the
doorways, and waved empty hands as they went by. Once a girl in a homespun
dress, with a spray of apple blossoms in her black hair, brought out a
wooden bucket filled with buttermilk and passed it along the line.

"Fight to the end, boys," she cried defiantly, "and when the end comes,
keep on fighting. If you go back on Lee there's not a woman in Virginia
will touch your hand."

"That's right, little gal!" shrieked a husky private. "Three cheers for
Marse Robert! an' we'll whip the earth in our bar' feet befo' breakfast."

"All the same I wish old Stonewall was along," muttered Pinetop. "If I
could jest see old Stonewall or his ghost ahead, I'd know thar was an open
road somewhere that Sheridan ain't got his eye on."

As the sun rose high, refugees from Richmond flocked after them to shout
that the town had been fired by the citizens, who had moved, with their
families, to the Capitol Square as the flames spread from the great tobacco
warehouses. Men who had wives and children in the city groaned as they
marched farther from the ashes of their homes, and more than one staggered
back into the ranks and went onward under a heavier burden.

"Wall, I reckon things are fur the best--or they ain't." remarked Pinetop,
in a cheerful tone. "Thar's no goin' agin that, you bet. What's the row
back thar, I wonder?"

The hovering enemy, grown bolder, had fallen upon the flank, and the
stragglers and the rear guard were beating off the cavalry, when a regiment
was sent back to relieve the pressure. Returning, Pinetop, who was of the
attacking party, fell gravely to moralizing upon the scarcity of food.

"I've tasted every plagued thing that grows in this country except dirt,"
he observed, "an' I'm goin' to kneel down presently and take a good square
mouthful of that."

"That's one thing we shan't run short of," replied Dan, stepping round a
mud hole. "By George, we've got to march in a square again across this
open. I believe when I set out for heaven, I'll find some of those
confounded Yankee troopers watching the road."

Forming in battle line they advanced cautiously across the clearing, while
the skirmishing grew brisker at the front. That night they halted but once
upon the way, standing to meet attack against a strip of pines, watching
with drawn breath while the enemy crept closer. They heard him in the
woods, felt him in the air, saw him in the darkness--like a gigantic coil
he approached inch by inch for the last struggle. Now and then a shot rang
out, and the little band thrilled to a soldier, and waited breathlessly for
the last charge that might end it all.

"There's only one thing worse than starvation, and it's defeat!" cried Dan
aloud; then the column swung on and the cry of "Close up, there! close up!"
mingled in his ears with the steady tramp upon the road.

In the early morning the shots grew faster, and as the column stopped in
the cover of a wood, the bullets came singing among the tree-tops, from the
left flank where the skirmishers had struck the enemy. During the short
rest Dan slept leaning against a twisted aspen, and when Pinetop shook him,
he awoke with a dizziness in his head that sent the flat earth slamming
against the sky.

"I believe I'm starving, Pinetop," he said, and his voice rang like a bell
in his ears. "I can't see where to put my feet, the ground slips about so."

For answer Pinetop felt in his pocket and brought out a slice of fat bacon,
which he gave to him uncooked.

"Wait till I git a light," he commanded. "A woman up the road gave me a
hunk, and I've had my share."

"You've had your share," repeated Dan, greedily, his eyes on the meat,
though he knew that Pinetop was lying.

The mountaineer struck a match and lighted a bit of pine, holding the bacon
to the flame until it scorched.

"You'd better git it all in yo' mouth quick," he advised, "for if the smell
once starts on the breeze the whole brigade will be on the scent in a

Dan ate it to the last morsel and licked the warm juice from his fingers.

"You lied, Pinetop," he said, "but, by God, you saved my life. What place
is this, I wonder. Isn't there any hope of our cutting through Grant's
lines to-day?"

Pinetop glanced about him.

"Somebody said we were comin' on to Sailor's Creek," he answered, "and it's
about as God-forsaken country as I care to see. Hello! what's that?"

In the road there was an abandoned battery, cut down and left to rot into
the earth, and as they swept past it at "double quick," they heard the
sound of rapid firing across the little stream.

"It's a fight, thank God!" yelled Pinetop, and at the words a tumultuous
joy urged Dan through the water and over the sharp stones. After all the
hunger and the intolerable waiting, a chance was come for him to use his
musket once again.

As they passed through an open meadow, a rabbit, starting suddenly from a
clump of sumach, went bounding through the long grass before the thin gray
line. With ears erect and short white tail bobbing among the broom-sedge,
the little quivering creature darted straight toward the low brow of a
hill, where a squadron of cavalry made a blue patch on the green.

"Geriminy! thar goes a good dinner," Pinetop gasped, smacking his lips.
"An' I've got to save this here load for a Yankee I can't eat."

With a long flying leap the rabbit led the charge straight into the enemy's
ranks, and as the squirrel rifles rang out behind it, a blue horseman was
swept from every saddle upon the hill.

"By God, I'm glad I didn't eat that rabbit!" yelled Pinetop, as he reloaded
and raised his musket to his shoulder.

Back and forth before the line, the general of the brigade was riding
bareheaded and frantic with delight. As he passed he made sweeping gestures
with his left hand, and his long gray hair floated like a banner upon the

"They're coming, men!" he cried. "Get behind that fence and have your
muskets ready to pick your man. When you see the whites of his eyes fire,
and give the bayonet. They're coming! Here they are!"

The old "worm" fence went down, and as Dan piled up some loose rails before
him, a creeping brier tore his fingers until the blood spurted upon his
sleeve. Then, kneeling on the ground, he raised his musket and fired at one
of the skirmishers advancing briskly through the broom-sedge. In an instant
the meadow and the hill beyond were blue with swarming infantry, and the
little gray band fell back, step by step, loading and firing as it went
across the field. As the road behind it closed, Dan turned to battle on his
own account, and entering a thinned growth of pines, he dodged from tree to
tree and aimed above the brushwood. Near him the colour bearer of the
regiment was fighting with his flagstaff for a weapon, and out in the
meadow a member of the glee club, crouching behind a clump of sassafras as
he loaded, was singing in a cracked voice:--

"Rally round the flag, boys, rally once again!"

Then a bullet went with a soft thud into the singer's breast, and the
cracked voice was choked out beneath the bushes.

Gripped by a sudden pity for the helpless flag he had loved and followed
for four years, Dan made an impetuous dash from out the pines, and tearing
the colours from the pole, tossed them over his arm as he retreated rapidly
to cover. At the instant he held his life as nothing beside the faded strip
of silk that wrapped about his body. The cause for which he had fought, the
great captain he had followed, the devotion to a single end which had kept
him struggling in the ranks, the daily sacrifice, the very poverty and cold
and hunger, all these were bound up and made one with the tattered flag
upon his arm. Through the belt of pines, down the muddy road, across the
creek and up the long hill, he fell back breathlessly, loading and firing
as he went, with his face turned toward the enemy. At the end he became
like a fox before the hunters, dashing madly over the rough ground, with
the colours blown out behind him, and the quick shots ringing in his ears.

Then, as if by a single stroke, Lee's army vanished from the trampled
broom-sedge and the strip of pines. The blue brigades closed upon the
landscape and when they opened there were only a group of sullen prisoners
and the sound of stray shots from the scattered soldiers who had fought
their way beyond the stream.

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The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter IX - In the Hour of Defeat The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter IX - In the Hour of Defeat

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As the dusk fell Dan found himself on the road with a little company ofstragglers, flying from the pursuing cavalry that drew off slowly as thedarkness gathered. He had lost his regiment, and, as he went on, he begancalling out familiar names, listening with strained ears for an answer thatwould tell of a friend's escape. At last he caught the outlines of agigantic figure relieved on a hillock against the pale green west, and,with a shout, he hurried through the swarm of fugitives, and overtookPinetop, who had stooped to tie his shoe on with a leather strap."Thank God, old man!" he

The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter VII - The Silent Battle The Battle Ground - BOOK FOURTH - THE RETURN OF THE VANQUISHED - Chapter VII - The Silent Battle

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Despite the cheerfulness of Betty's letters, there were times during thenext dark years when it seemed to her that starvation must be the only end.The negroes had been freed by the Governor's will, but the girl could notturn them from their homes, and, with the exception of the few field handswho had followed the Union army, they still lived in their little cabinsand drew their daily rations from the storehouse. Betty herself sharedtheir rations of cornmeal and bacon, jealously guarding her small suppliesof milk and eggs for Mrs. Ambler and the two old ladies. "It makes nodifference what I eat," she