CHAPTER I. — A DESPATCH FOR LONGSTREET
It was a bare, plain interior,—the low table at which he sat an unplaned board, his seat a box, made softer by a folded blanket. His only companions were two aides, standing silent beside the closed entrance, anxious to anticipate his slightest need.
He will abide in my memory forever as I saw him then,—although we were destined to meet often afterwards,—that old gray hero, whose masterly strategy held at bay for so long those mighty forces hurled on our constantly thinning lines of defence. To me the history of war has never contained his equal, and while I live I shall love and revere him as I can love and revere no other man.
“General Lee,” said one of the aides, as I passed the single sentry and drew aside the flap to step within, “this is Captain Wayne.”
He deliberately pushed aside the mass of papers which had been engaging him, and for an embarrassing moment fixed upon me a glance that seemed to read me through and through. Then, with simple dignity, far more impressive than I can picture it in words, he arose slowly and extended his hand.
“Captain Wayne,” he said gravely, yet retaining his grasp, and with his eyes full upon mine, “you are a much younger man than I expected to see, yet I have selected you upon the special recommendation of your brigade commander for services of the utmost importance. I certainly do not hold your youth to be against your success, but I feel unwilling to order you to the performance of this duty, which, besides being beyond the regular requirements of the service, involves unusual risks.”
“Without inquiring its nature,” I said hastily, “I freely offer myself a volunteer for any service which may be required either by the army or yourself.”
The kindly face brightened instantly, almost into a smile, and a new look of confidence swept into the keen gray eyes.
“I felt, even as I spoke,” he said, with a dignified courtesy I have never marked in any one else, “that I must be doing wrong to question the willingness of an officer of your regiment, Captain Wayne, to make personal sacrifice. From our first day of battle until now the South has never once called upon them in vain. You are from the ranks, I believe?”
“I was a corporal at Manassas.”
“Ah! then you have won your grade by hard service. You take with you one man?”
“Sergeant Craig of my troop, sir, a good soldier, who knows the country well.”
He lowered his eyes to the numerous papers littering the table, and then, leaning over, traced lightly with a colored pencil a line across an outspread map.
“You speak of his knowing the country well; are you aware, then, of your destination?”
“I merely inferred from what Colonel Carter said that it was your desire to re-establish communication with General Longstreet.”
“That is true; but do you know where Longstreet is?”
“Only that we of the line suppose him to be somewhere west of the mountains, sir. It is camp gossip that his present base of supplies is at Minersville.”
“Your conjecture is partly correct, although I have more reason to believe that the head of his column has reached Bear Fork, or will by to-morrow morning. Kindly step this way, Captain Wayne, and make note of the blue lines I have traced across this map. Here, you will observe, is Minersville, directly beyond the high ridge. You will notice that the Federal lines extend north and south directly between us, with their heavier bodies of infantry along the Wharton pike, and so disposed as to shut off all communication between us and our left wing. Now, the message I must get into Longstreet’s hands is imperative; indeed, I will say to you, the very safety of this army depends upon its reaching him before his advance passes Bear Fork. There remains, therefore, no time for any long detour; the messenger who bears it must take his life in his hands and ride straight westward through the very lines of the enemy.”
He spoke these words rapidly, earnestly; then suddenly he lifted his eyes to mine, and said firmly: “I am perfectly frank with you. Are you the man?”
I felt the hot blood leap into my face, but I met his stern gaze without flinching.
“If I live, General Lee, I shall meet his advance at Bear Fork by daybreak.”
“God guide you; I believe you will.”
His words seemed uttered unconsciously. He turned slightly, and glanced toward the door. “Major Holmes, will you kindly hand me the draft of that despatch?”
He took the paper from the outstretched hand of the aide, read it over slowly and with great care, wrote a word of explanation upon the margin, and then extended it to me.
“Commit that, word by word, to your memory; we must run no possible risk of its ever falling into the enemy’s hands.”
I can see it now, that coarse yellow paper,—the clear, upright penmanship, the words here and there misused and corrected, the sentence scratched out, the heavy underlining of a command, and his own strangely delicate signature at the bottom.
“Headquarters, Army Northern Virginia,
“In the field, near Custer House,
“Sept. 22, 2 P.M.
“Commanding Left Wing.
“Sir: You will advance your entire force by the Connelton and Sheffield pikes, so as to reach Castle Rock with your full infantry command by daybreak, September 26th. Let this supersede all other orders. I propose to attack in force in the neighborhood of Sailor’s Ford, and shall expect you to advance promptly at the first sound of our artillery. It is absolutely essential that we form prompt connection of forces, and to accomplish this result will require a quick, persistent attack upon your part. You are hereby ordered to throw your troops forward without reserve, permitting them to be halted by no obstacle, until they come into actual touch with my columns. The success or failure of my plans will depend utterly upon your strict observance of these orders.
“R. E. LEE, “Gen’l Commanding”
I handed back the paper, and lifted my hand in salute.
“You have memorized it?”
“Word for word, sir.”
“Repeat it to me.”
He held the paper before him as I did so, and at the close lifted his eyes again to my face.
“Very good,” he said quietly. “Now let there be no mistake; repeat it over to your companion as you proceed until he also has memorized it, and one of you must live long enough to reach Longstreet. I advise you to take the Langley road,—it is the most protected,—and not try to pass beyond the old Coulter plantation until after dark, or you will run the risk of being observed by the enemy’s pickets. Beyond this I must leave all to your own discretion.”
He paused, and I still lingered, thinking he might have something more to add.
“Are you one of the Waynes of Charlottesville?” he asked gravely.
“Colonel Richard Wayne was my father, sir.”
“Ah, indeed! I remember him well”; and his face lit up with a most tender smile. “We were together in Mexico. A Virginia gentleman of the old school. He is dead, I believe?”
“He was killed, sir, the first year of the war.”
“I remember; it was at Antietam. And your mother? If my memory is not at fault she was a Pierpont?”
“She is now in Richmond, sir, and the old plantation is but a ruin.”
“War is indeed sad,” he said slowly; “and I often feel that our Southern women are compelled to bear the brunt of it. What heroines they have proven! History records no equal to the daily sacrifices I have witnessed in the past three years. God grant it may be soon ended.”
Then, as if suddenly moved by the impulse of the moment, he again extended his hand.
“Well, lad,” he said kindly, the same grave smile lighting his face, “our country needs us. We must not waste time here in conversation. I am very glad to have been permitted to meet the son of my old friend, and trust you will remember me to your mother. But now good-bye, Captain, and may He in whose hand we all are guide and guard you. I know that a Wayne of Virginia will always do his duty.”
Bareheaded and with proudly swelling heart I backed out of the tent as I might have left the throne-room of an emperor, but as I grasped the reins and swung up into saddle, I became conscious that he had followed me. Craig flung up his hand in quick, soldierly salute, and then, with a single rapid stride, the General stood at his horse’s head.
“Sergeant,” he said,—and I was struck by the incisive military tone of his voice, so different from the gentleness shown within,—“I am informed that you are intimately acquainted with the roads to the westward.”
“Every bridle-path, sir, either by night or day.”
“Then possibly you can inform me whether the Big Hickory is fordable at Deer Gap.”
“Not for infantry at high water, sir; but there is another ford two miles north where it is never over waist deep.”
“That would be at Brixton’s Mill?”
“No, sir; the other way.”
Lee smiled, and rested his hand almost caressingly on the trooper’s knee.
“You are a valuable man for us to risk on such a ride,” he said kindly. “But I desire you to understand, Sergeant, how deeply I value the service you are about to render, and that I shall never permit it to be forgotten or go unrewarded. And now, good-night, Sergeant; good-night, Captain Wayne.”
As we turned into the main road, riding slowly, I glanced backward. The General was yet standing there in front of his tent, gazing after us, the rays of the westering sun gleaming on his gray hair.
Categories: English Literature