The Shades of the Wilderness
Joseph A. Altsheler
Part 6 out of 6
The day had been comparatively quiet and the Army of Northern Virginia
had devoted nearly the whole time to fortifying with earthworks and
breastworks of logs. The young aides, as they rode on their missions,
could easily see the Northern lines through their glasses. Harry's heart
sank as he observed their extent. The Southern army was sadly reduced
in numbers, and Grant could get reinforcement continually.
But such is the saving grace of human nature that even in these moments
of suspense, with one terrible battle just over and another about to
begin, soldiers of the Blue and Gray would speak to one another in
friendly fashion in the bushes or across the Po. It was on the banks of
this narrow river that Harry at last saw Shepard once more. He happened
to be on foot that time, the slope being too densely wooded for his horse,
and Shepard hailed him from the other side.
"Good day, Mr. Kenton. Don't fire! I want to talk," he said, holding up
both hands as a sign of peace.
"A curious place for talking," Harry could not keep from saying.
"So it is, but we're not observed here. It was almost inevitable while
the armies remained face to face that we should meet in time. I want
to tell you that I've met your cousin, Richard Mason, here, and his
commanding officer, Colonel Winchester. Oh, I know much more about you
and your relationships than you think."
"How is Dick?"
"He has not been hurt, nor has Colonel Winchester. Mr. Mason has
received a letter from his home and your home in Pendleton in Kentucky.
The outlaws to the eastward are troublesome, but the town is occupied by
an efficient Union garrison and is in no danger. His mother and all of
his and your old friends, who did not go to the war, are in good health.
He thought that in my various capacities as ranger, scout and spy I might
meet you, and he asked me, if it so happened, to tell these things to
"I thank you," said Harry very earnestly, "and I'm truly sorry,
Mr. Shepard, that you and I are on different sides."
"I suppose it's too late for you to come over to the Union and the true
"You know, Mr. Shepard, there are no traitors in this war."
"I know it. I was merely jesting."
He slipped into the underbrush and disappeared. Harry confessed to
himself once more that he liked Shepard, but he felt more strongly than
ever that it had become a personal duel between them, and they would meet
yet again in violence.
That night he had little to do. It was a typical May night in Virginia,
clear and beautiful with an air that would have been a tonic to the
nerves, had it not been for the bitter smoke and odors that yet lingered
from the battle of the Wilderness.
Before dawn the scouts brought in a rumor that there was a heavy movement
of Federal troops, although they did not know its meaning. It might
portend another flank march by Grant, but a mist that had begun to rise
after midnight hid much from them. The mist deepened into a fog, which
made it harder for the Southern leaders to learn the meaning of the
Just as the dawn was beginning to show a little through the fog, Hancock
and Burnside, with many more generals, led a tremendous attack upon the
Southern right center. They had come so silently through the thickets
that for once the Southern leaders were surprised. The Union veterans,
rushing forward in dense columns, stormed and took the breastworks with
Many of the Southern troops, sound asleep, awoke to find themselves in
the enemy's hands. Others, having no time to fire them, fought with
Harry, dozing, was awakened by the terrific uproar. Even before the dawn
had fairly come the battle was raging on a long front. The center of
Lee's army was broken, and the Union troops were pouring into the gap.
Grant had already taken many guns and thousands of prisoners, and the
bulldog of Shiloh and Vicksburg and Chattanooga was hurrying fresh
divisions into the combat to extend and insure his victory. Through the
forests swelled the deep Northern cry of triumph.
Harry had never before seen the Southern army in such danger, and he
looked at General Lee, who had now mounted Traveller. The turmoil and
confusion in front of them was frightful and indescribable. The Union
troops had occupied an entire Confederate salient, and their generals,
feeling that the moment was theirs, led them on, reckless of life,
and swept everything before them.
Harry never took his eyes from Lee. The rising sun shot golden beams
through the smoke and disclosed him clearly. His face was calm and his
voice did not shake as he issued his orders with rapidity and precision.
The lion at bay was never more the lion.
A new line of battle was formed, and the fugitives formed up with it.
Then the Southern troops, uttering once more the fierce rebel yell,
charged directly upon their enemy and under the eye of the great chief
whom they almost worshiped.
Now Harry for the first time saw his general show excitement. Lee
galloped to the head of one of the Virginia regiments, and ranging his
horse beside the colors snatched off his hat and pointed it at the enemy.
It was a picture which with all the hero worship of youth he never
forgot. It did not even grow dim in his memory--the great leader on
horseback, his hat in his hand, his eyes fiery, his face flushed, his
hand pointing the way to victory or death.
It was an occasion, too, when the personal presence of a leader meant
everything. Every man knew Lee and tremendous rolling cheers greeted
his arrival, cheers that could be heard above the thunder of cannon and
rifles. It infused new courage into them and they gathered themselves
for the rush upon their victorious foe.
Gordon of Georgia, spurring through the smoke, seized Lee's horse by the
bridle. He did not mean to have their commander-in-chief sacrificed in a
"This is no place for you, General Lee!" he cried. "Go to the rear!"
Lee did not yet turn, and Gordon shouted:
"These men are Virginians and Georgians who have never failed. Go back,
I entreat you!"
Then Gordon turned to the troops and cried, as he rose on his toes in his
"Men, you will not fail now!"
Back came the answering shout:
"No! No!" and the whole mass of troops burst into one thunderous, echoing
"Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!"
Nor would they move until Lee turned and rode back. Then, led by Gordon,
they charged straight upon their foe, who met them with an equal valor.
All day long the battle of Spottsylvania, equal in fierceness and
desperation to that of the Wilderness, swayed to and fro. To Harry as he
remembered them they were much alike. Charge and defense, defense and
charge. Here they gained a little, and there they lost a little.
Now they were stumbling through sanguinary thickets, and then they rushed
across little streams that ran red.
The firing was rapid and furious to an extraordinary degree. The air
rained shell and bullets. Areas of forest between the two armies were
mowed down. More than one large tree was cut through entirely by rifle
bullets. Other trees here, as in the Wilderness, caught fire and flamed
Midnight put an end to the battle, with neither gaining the victory
and both claiming it. Harry had lost another horse, killed under him,
and now he walked almost dazed over the terrible field of Spottsylvania,
where nearly thirty thousand men had fallen, and nothing had yet been
Yet in Harry's heart the fear of the grim and silent Grant was growing.
The Northern general had fought within a few days two battles, each the
equal of Waterloo, and Harry felt sure that he was preparing for a third.
The combat of the giants was not over, and with an anxious soul he waited
the next dawn. They remained some days longer in the Wilderness, or the
country adjacent to it, and there was much skirmishing and firing of
heavy artillery, but the third great pitched battle did not come quite as
soon as Harry expected. Even Grant, appalled by the slaughter, hesitated
and began to maneuver again by the flank to get past Lee. Then the
fighting between the skirmishers and heavy detached parties became
During the days that immediately followed Harry was much with Sherburne.
The brave colonel was one of Stuart's most trusted officers. Despite the
forests and thickets there was much work for the cavalry to do, while the
two armies circled and circled, each seeking to get the advantage of the
Sheridan, they heard, was trying to curve about with his horsemen and
reach Richmond, and Stuart, with his cavalry, including Sherburne's,
was sent to intercept him, Harry riding by Sherburne's side. It was near
the close of May, but the air was cool and pleasant, a delight to breathe
after the awful Wilderness.
Stuart, despite his small numbers, was in his gayest spirits, and when
he overtook the enemy at a little place called Yellow Tavern he attacked
with all his customary fire and vigor. In the height of the charge,
Harry saw him sink suddenly from his horse, shot through the body.
He died not long afterward and the greatest and most brilliant horseman
of the South passed away to join Jackson and so many who had gone before.
Harry was one of the little group who carried the news to Lee, and he saw
how deeply the great leader was affected. So many of his brave generals
had fallen that he was like the head of a family, bereft.
Nevertheless the lion still at bay was great and terrible to strike.
It was barely two weeks after Spottsylvania when Lee took up a strong
position at Cold Harbor, and Grant, confident in his numbers and powerful
artillery, attacked straightaway at dawn.
Harry was in front during that half-hour, the most terrible ever seen on
the American continent, when Northern brigade after brigade charged to
certain death. Lee's men, behind their earthworks, swept the field with
a fire in which nothing could live. The charging columns fairly melted
away before them and when the half-hour was over more than twelve
thousand men in blue lay upon the red field.
Grant himself was appalled, and the North, which had begun to anticipate
a quick and victorious end of the war, concealed its disappointment as
best it could, and prepared for another campaign.
Grant and Lee, facing each other, went into trenches along the lines
of Cold Harbor, and the hopes of the young Southern soldiers after the
victory there rose anew. But Harry was not too sanguine, although he
kept his thoughts to himself.
The officers of the Invincibles had recovered from their wounds, and
Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire,
sitting in a trench, resumed their game of chess.
Colonel Talbot took a pawn, the first man captured by either since early
"That was quite a victory," he said.
"Not important! Not important, Leonidas!"
"And why not, Hector?"
"Because you've left the way to your king easier. I shall promptly move
along that road."
"As Grant moved through the Wilderness."
"Don't depreciate Grant, Leonidas. He never stops pounding. We've
fought two great battles with him in the Wilderness and a third at Cold
Harbor, but he's still out there facing us. Can't you see the Yankees
with your glasses, Harry?"
"Yes, sir, quite clearly. They're about to fire a shot from a big gun in
a wood. There it goes!"
The deep note of the cannon came to them, passed on, and then rolled back
in echoes like a threat.
Appendix: Transcription notes:
The following modifications were applied while transcribing the
printed book to etext:
Page 6, para 1, change "criticise" to "criticize", for consistency
Page 20, para 6, fix typo, "calvaryman"
Page 21, para 8, change "things" to "thing"
Page 35, para 2, add missing hyphen in "commander-in-chief"
Page 48, para 1, change "where-ever" to "wherever"
Page 49, para 2, fix typo, period should be comma
Page 49, para 2, change "gaints" to "giants", which is my best guess
as to what it should be
Page 74, para 7, add missing period
Page 124, para 6, fix typo "qouth"
Page 132, para 14, "Pleasonton" should be "Pleasanton"
Page 182, para 5, add missing close-quotes
Page 208, para 6, add missing close-quotes
Page 229, para 3, fix typo, "dulplicate"
Page 245, para 3, change "with" to "was"
Page 260, para 2, removed a badly-misplaced comma
Page 301, para 4, moved a badly-misplaced comma
Chapter 2, page 34, para 3 contains the phrase "rest and realization".
Probably should be "relaxation", but maybe not, so I left it as is.
The following words were printed with accented vowels or with the "ae"
ligature, but these few occurrences hardly warrant an 8-bit version of
cooperation fete reentered Plataea Thermopylae
As with all the books in this series, there are many instances where
commas seem to be missing or misplaced, but, except as noted above,
I refrained from "fixing" these.
Back to Full Books