Joseph A. Altsheler
The Star of Gettysburg: A Story of Southern High Tide
THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY
A youth sat upon a log by a clear stream in the Valley of Virginia, mending clothes.
He showed skill and rapidity in his homely task. A shining needle darted in and out of the gray cloth, and the rent that had seemed hopeless was being closed up with neatness and precision. No one derided him because he was engaged upon a task that was usually performed by women. The Army of Northern Virginia did its own sewing.
"Will the seam show much, Arthur?" asked Harry Kenton, who lay luxuriously upon the leafy ground beside the log.
"Very little when I finish," replied St. Clair, examining his work with a critical eye. "Of course I can't pass the uniform off as wholly new. It's been a long time since I've seen a new one in our army, but it will be a lot above the average."
"I admire your care of your clothes, Arthur, even if I can't quite imitate it. I've concluded that good clothes give a certain amount of moral courage, and if you get killed you make a much more decent body."
"But Arthur St. Clair, of Charleston, sir, has no intention of getting killed," said Happy Tom Langdon, who was also resting upon the earth. "He means after this war is over to go back to his native city, buy the most magnificent uniforms that were ever made, and tell the girls how Lee and Jackson turned to him for advice at the crisis of every great battle."
"We surely needed wisdom and everything else we could get at Antietam—leadership, tenacity and the willingness to die," said Dalton, the sober young Virginia Presbyterian. "Boys, we were in the deepest of holes there, and we had to lift ourselves out almost by our own boot straps."
Harry's face clouded. The field of Antietam often returned to him, almost as real and vivid as on that terrible day, when the dead lay heaped in masses around the Dunkard church and the Southern army called forth every ounce of courage and endurance for its very salvation.
"Antietam is a month away," he said, "and I still shudder at the name. We didn't think McClellan would come up and attack Lee while Jackson was away at Harper's Ferry, but he did. How did it happen? How did he know that our army was divided?"
"I've heard a strange story," said Dalton. "It's come through some Union prisoners we've taken. They say that McClellan found a copy of General Lee's orders in Frederick, and learned from them exactly where all our troops were and what they intended. Then, of course, he attacked."
"A strange tale, as you say, a most extraordinary chance," said Harry. "Do you think it's true, George?"
"I've no doubt it fell out that way. The same report comes from other sources."
"At any rate," said Happy Tom, "it gave us a chance to show how less than fifty thousand men could stand off nearly ninety thousand. Besides, we didn't lose any ground. We went over into Maryland to give the Marylanders a chance to rise for the South. They didn't rise worth a cent. I suppose we didn't get more than five hundred volunteers in that state. 'The despot's heel is on thy shore, Maryland, my Maryland,' and it can stay on thy shore, Maryland, my Maryland, if that's the way you treat us. I feel a lot more at home here in Virginia."
"It is fine," said Harry, stirring comfortably on the leaves and looking down at the clear stream of the Opequon. "One can't fight all the time. I feel as if I had been in a thousand battles, and two or three months of the year are left. It's fine to lie here by the water, and breathe pure air instead of dust."
"I've heard that every man eats a peck of dirt in the course of his life," said Happy Tom, "but I know that I've already beat the measure a dozen times over. Why, I took in a bushel at least at the Second Manassas, but I still live, and here I am, surveying this peaceful domestic scene. Arthur is mending his best uniform, Harry stretched on the leaves is resting and dreaming dreams, George is wondering how he will get a new pair of shoes for the season, and the army is doing its autumn washing."
Harry glanced up and down the stream, and he smiled at the homely sight. Thousands of soldiers were washing their ragged clothes in the little river and the equally ragged clothes of many others were drying on the banks or on the bushes. The sun-browned lads who skylarked along the shores or in the water, playing pranks on one another, bore little resemblance to those who had charged so fiercely and so often into the mouths of the cannon at Antietam.
Harry marvelled at them and at himself. It seemed scarcely possible that human nature could rush to such violent extremes within so short a space. But youth conquered all. There was very little gloom in this great army which disported itself in the water or in the shade. Thousands of wounded, still pale, but with returning strength, lay on the October leaves and looked forward to the day when they could join their comrades in either games or war.
Harry himself had suffered for a while from a great exhaustion. He had been terribly anxious, too, about his father, but a letter written just after the battle of Perryville, and coming through with unusual promptness by the way of Chattanooga and Richmond, had arrived the day before, informing him of Colonel Kenton's safety. In this letter his father had spoken of his meeting with Dick Mason in his home at Pendleton, and that also contributed to his new lightness of heart. Dick was not a brother, but he stood in the place of one, and it was good to hear again of him.
The sounds of shouts and laughter far up and down the Opequon became steady and soothing. The October winds blowing gently were crisp and fresh, but not too cold. The four boys ceased talking and Harry on his bed of leaves became drowsy. The forests on the far hills and mountains burned in vivid reds and yellows and browns, painted by the master hand of autumn. Harry heard a bird singing on a bough among red leaves directly over his head, and the note was piercingly sweet to ears used so long to the roar of cannon and rifles.
His drowsy lids sank lower and he would have gone to sleep had he not been roused by a shouting farther down the little river. His eyes opened wide and he sat up.
"What is it, George?" he said to Dalton.
"I don't know, but here comes Captain Sherburne, and I'll ask him."
Sherburne was approaching with long strides, his face flushed with enthusiasm.
"What is it, Captain?" asked Harry. "What are the boys shouting about?"
"The news has just reached them that Old Jack has been made a lieutenant-general. General Lee asked the government to divide his army into two corps, with Old Jack in command of one and Longstreet in charge of the other. The government has seen fit to do what General Lee advises it to do, and we are now the Second Army Corps, two thousand officers, twenty-five thousand men and one hundred and thirty guns, commanded by Lieutenant-General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, better known to his enemy as 'Stonewall' Jackson and to his men as 'Old Jack.'"
"Splendid!" exclaimed Harry. "Never was a promotion better earned!"
"And so say we all of us," said Happy Tom. "But just a moment, Captain. What is the news about me?"
"About you, Tom?"
"Yes, about me? Didn't I win the victory at the Second Manassas? Didn't I save the army at Antietam? Am I promoted to be a colonel or is it merely a lieutenant-colonel?"
"I'm sorry, Tom," replied Sherburne with great gravity, "but there is no mention of your promotion. I know it's an oversight, and we'll join in a general petition to Richmond that you be made a lieutenant-colonel at the very least."
"Oh, never mind. If it has to be done through the begging of my friends I decline the honor. I don't know that I'd care to be any kind of a colonel, anyhow. I'd have to pass the boys here, and maybe I'd have to command 'em, which would make 'em feel bad. Old Jack himself might become jealous of me. I guess I'm satisfied as I am."
"I like the modesty of the South Carolinians, Tom," said Dalton. "There's a story going the rounds that you South Carolinians made the war and that we Virginians have got to fight it."
"There may be such a story. It seems to me that it was whispered to me once, but the internal evidence shows that it was invented by a Virginian. Haven't I come up here and shed some of my blood and more of my perspiration to save the sacred soil of the Mother of Presidents from invasion? And didn't I bring with me Arthur St. Clair, the best dressed man in Charleston, for the Yankees to shoot at? Hello, what's that? This is a day of events!"
Hoots, cat-calls, and derisive yells arose along a long line. A trim young officer on a fine bay horse was riding down a path beside the Opequon. He was as beautifully dressed as St. Clair at his best. His hands were encased in long white buckskin gloves, and long brown mustaches curled beautifully up until they touched either cheek. It was he, this Beau Brummel of the Southern army, who had attracted the attention of irreverent youth. From the shelter of trees and bushes came a chorus of cries:
"Take them mice out o' your mouth! I know they're there, 'cause I see their tails stickin' out!"
"What kind o' hair oil do you use? I know your head's oiled, or it wouldn't shine so."
"Be sure you keep your gloves on or the sun'll tan your hands!"
"Oh, my, it's mother's pretty boy, goin' to see his best girl!"
The young officer flushed crimson through his brown, but he knew it was no use to resent the words of his tormentors, and he rode steadily on, looking straight before him.
"That's Caswell, a Georgian, of Longstreet's corps," said Sherburne; "a good soldier and one of the bravest men I ever saw."
"Which proves," said St. Clair, in a tone of conviction, "that clothes do help make the man."
Caswell passed out of sight, pursued by derisive comment, but his place was taken quickly by a new victim. A man of middle age, in civilian clothes, came riding slowly on a fat horse. He was a well-known sutler named Williams and the wild lads did not confine themselves to hidden cries, but rushed from the shelter of trees and bushes, and held up worn articles of apparel, shouting in his ears:
"Hey, Mr. Williams! The soles of these shoes are made of paper, not leather. I bought leather, not paper."
"What's the price of blue silk neckties? I've got a Yankee sweetheart in New York, and I want to look well when our conquering army marches into that city!"
"A pair of blankets for me, Mr. Williams, to be paid for when we loot the Yankee treasury!"