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Joseph Altsheler
The Star of Gettysburg: A Story of Southern High Tide

"Our imaginations are too vivid, Harry. But look how that darkness closes in on everything! Now the Yankee cannon and the Yankee army are gone! The river itself is fading, and there goes the town! Now, see the lights spring up on the far shore!"

"It's supper and sleep for me," said Harry. "It doesn't do to let your imagination run away with you. You know that Lee and Old Jack and Jim Longstreet have arranged for everything."

They ate their suppers, and, the general giving them leave, they lay down in the tent next to his, wrapped in their blankets. Harry slept soundly, but while the pitchy darkness of a winter night still enclosed the land he was awakened by a heavy rumbling noise. His nerves had been attuned so highly by exciting days that he was awake in an instant and sprang to his feet, Dalton also springing up with equal promptness.

They saw General Jackson standing in front of his tent and peering down in the darkness toward the river. Other officers were already gathering near him. Harry and Dalton stood at attention, where he could see them, if he wished to send them on any errand. But Jackson was silent and listening.

The heavy rumbling reports—cannon shots—came again, but they were fired on their side of the river.

"Gentlemen," said General Jackson, "the enemy has begun the passage. Those are our guns giving the signal to the army."

Harry's pulses began to throb. But, although fires flared up here and there, little was to be seen in the darkness. Fortune seemed to have shifted suddenly to the side of the Union. Not night alone protected the bridge builders, but a thick, impenetrable fog, rising from the river and the muddy earth, covered the stream and its shores. The Southerners could not see just where the bridge head was and their cannon must fire at random through the heavy darkness. Sixteen hundred Mississippians were stationed in Fredericksburg below, well concealed in cellars and rifle pits, but they could not see either, and for the present their rifles were silent.

But Harry's imagination immediately became intensely vivid again. He fancied that he could hear through all the shifting gloom the sound of axes and hammers and saws at work upon that bridge. These army engineers could throw a bridge across a river in half a day. He recognized at all times the great resources and the mechanical genius of the North. The South had good bridge builders herself, but she had bent all her powers to the development of public men and soldiers. Harry felt more intensely all the time the one-sided character of her growth and its defects.

Dalton stood by Harry's side, and the darkness was so intense that he seemed but a shadow. A little further away was Jackson. No fires had been lighted in his camp, but nevertheless he was not a shadow. That personality, quiet and modest, was so intense, so powerful that it seemed to Harry to become luminous, to radiate light in the blackness of the night. It was imagination, he knew, at work again, but it was Jackson who had loosed its springs.

"Can you see your watch, George?" he whispered to Dalton.

"Yes, and its says only twenty minutes past three in the morning."

"And our signal guns began about twenty minutes ago. They will have nearly four hours in which to work before the sun rises and we can see them well enough to take good aim."

"And maybe longer than that, Harry. The whole night is permeated with the heaviest inland fog I ever knew. Maybe it will take the sun a long time to strike through it or drive it away. It's bad for us."

"But we'll win anyhow. I tell you, we'll win anyhow! Do you hear me, George?"

"Yes, Harry, I hear you. You're excited. So am I. There are mighty few who wouldn't be at such a time; but look at the general! He stands like a statue!"

General Jackson did not move, save to lift his glasses now and then, as if with their magnifying powers he could pierce the dark. But the night and the swollen fog still hid everything going on beyond the river from those on the heights. Down by the shore the Mississippians in their rifle pits might see a little, and the scouts undoubtedly had seen much, else the signal guns would not be firing.

Harry's pulses, after a while, began to beat more smoothly and there was not such a painful and insistent drumming in his head. Emotions yielded now to will and he waited patiently. General Jackson for the first time told some of his young officers that they could lie down and rest.

"There can be no action before daylight," he said, "and it's best to be fresh and ready."

He spoke to them with the grave kindness that he always used, save when some great fault was committed, and then his words burned like fire. Harry and Dalton procured their blankets from their tents, wrapped them about their bodies and lay down on the dryest spots they could find, but they had no thought of sleep. They permitted their limbs to relax, and that was a help to the nerves, but neither closed his eyes.

Those dark hours seemed an eternity to Harry. The floating fog seemed to grow thicker and to enter his very bones. He shivered and drew the blanket close. Now, with his ears close to the earth, he was sure that he could hear the axes and the saws and the hammers beating on steel rivets on the other side of the Rappahannock.

The Confederate cannon still fired the signals of alarm at regular intervals, but the night and the fog always closed in again quickly over the flash that the discharge had made. After a while a murmur came from the long Southern line along the heights and on the ridges. Horses stirred here and there, cannon, moved to new positions, made sighing sounds as their wheels sank in the mud; sabres and bayonets clanked, thousands of men whispered to one another. All these varying sounds united into one great soft voice which was like the murmur of a wind through the summer night.

Toward five o'clock in the morning, when the darkness had not diminished a whit, a messenger from General Lee rode up with a note for General Jackson. It merely stated that all was ready and to hold the positions that he had taken up the night before. Jackson wrote a brief reply by the light of a lantern that an orderly held, and the messenger galloped away with it. It was the only incident that had occurred in a long time.

"They're not using many lights on the other side of the river," said Harry, although he noted an occasional flame in the darkness. "Of course, they want to hide their bridge building, but you'd think they'd have fires burning elsewhere."

"They've learned the value of caution," said Dalton. "I'm bound to say they're going about the first part of their work with skill."

He spoke with the calm superiority of a young Officer.

Harry took out his own watch, and by holding it close to his eyes was able to read its face.

"A quarter to six," he said. "According to the watch it is less than three hours since we first heard those alarm guns, but my five known senses and all the unknown tell me that it has been at least a week."

"In an hour we should see something," said Dalton. "Confound this fog. If it weren't so thick we could see now."

Harry's pulses began to beat hard again in the next hour. He strove with glasses even for a glimpse of the winter sun which he knew would come so late, but as yet the fog showed nothing save a faint luminous tinge low down in the east. An orderly brought food to them, and while they ate they saw the luminous tinge broaden and deepen.

"The sun's rising behind that fog," said Dalton, "but here comes a little wind that will drive away the fog or thin it out so we can see."

"Yes, I feel it," said Harry, "and you can see the dull, somber red of the sun trying to break through. Look, George, unless I'm mistaken the fog's moving down the river!"

"So it is, there's the flash of the stream, the color of steel, and by all the stars, there's their bridge two-thirds of the way across!"

Heavier puffs of wind came and the fog billowed off down the river. The whole gigantic theater of action sprang at once into the light. There were the two great armies clustered on opposing ridges, there was the deserted town, there was the deep river, the color of lead, flowing between the foes, two-thirds of its width already spanned by the Union bridge, the bridge itself covered with workmen, and boats swarming by its side.

Harry felt a thrill and a shudder which were almost simultaneous. Then came a deep muffled roar from the two armies on the ridges looking at each other. But as the roar died it was succeeded by the rapid, stinging fire of rifles. The Mississippians in their pits and cellars near the bank of the river were sending a hail of bullets upon the bridge builders.

The rest of the Southern army stood by and watched. Harry knew that Lee and Jackson would make their chief defense on the ridges, but the Mississippians were there to keep the enemy from being too forward. So deadly were their rifles that every workman fled off the bridge to the Union shore, save those who were struck down upon it, falling into the water.

Then came a pause, a period of intense waiting, short, but seemingly long, even to the veteran generals, after which the gallant builders, who truly deserved the name of the bravest of the brave, ventured again upon the bridge in the face of those terrible Mississippi rifles. A blast of death again blew upon them. Bullets in hundreds struck upon bodies or rattled on timbers. The workmen could not live in the face of such a fire, and those who had not been slain retreated again to their own side of the stream. A third time the heroic bridge builders returned to their work, and a third time they were driven back by the deadly Mississippi hail. Harry felt pity for them.

"I never saw anything braver," he said to Dalton.

"Nor did I, Harry, nor anything more useless. The bridge builders never had a chance before the rifles. But now their supports, which should have been there all the time, are coming up."


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