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THE FALL OF RICHMOND By Joseph Alexander Altsheler


THE FALL OF RICHMOND By Joseph Alexander Altsheler

Two long lines of earthworks faced each other across a sodden field; overhead a chilly sky let fall a chilly rain; behind the low ridges of earth two armies faced each other, and whether in rain or in sunshine, no head rose above either wall without becoming an instant mark for a rifle that never missed. Here the remorseless sharpshooters lay. Human life had become a little thing, and after a difficult shot they exchanged remarks as hunters do when they kill a bird on the wing.

If ever there was a “No Man’s Land,” it was the space between the two armies which had aptly been called the “Plain of Death.” Any one who ventured upon it thought very little of this life, and it was well that he should, as he had little of it left to think about. The armies had lain there for weeks and weeks, facing each other in a deadlock, and a fierce winter, making the country an alternation of slush and snow, had settled down on both. The North could not go forward; the South could not thrust the North back; but the North could wait and the South could not. Lee’s army, crouching behind the earthen walls, grew thinner and hungrier and colder as the weeks passed. Uniforms fell away in rags, supplies from the South became smaller and smaller, but the lean and ragged army still lay there, grim and defiant, while Grant, with the memory of Cold Harbour before him, dared not attack. He bided his time, having shown all the qualities that were hoped of him and more. Tenacious, fertile in ideas, he had been from the beginning the one to attack and his foe the one to defend. The whole character of the war had changed since he came upon the field. He and Sherman were now the two arms of a vise that held the Confederacy in its grip and would never let go.

Prescott crouched behind the low wall, reading a letter from his mother, while his comrades looked enviously at him. A letter from home had long since become an event. Mrs. Prescott said she was well, and, so far as concerned her physical comfort, was not feeling any excessive stress of war. They were hearing many reports in Richmond from the armies. Grant, it was said, would make a great flanking movement as soon as the warmer weather came, and the newspapers in the capital gave accounts of vast reinforcements in men and supplies he was receiving from the North.

“If we know our Grant, and we think we do, he will certainly move,” said Prescott grimly to himself, looking across the “Plain of Death” toward the long Northern line.

Then his mother continued with personal news of his friends and acquaintances.

* * * * *

“The popularity of Lucia Catherwood lasts,” she wrote. “She would avoid publicity, but she can scarcely do it without offending the good people who like her. She seems gay and is often brilliant, but I do not think she is happy. She receives great attention from Mr. Sefton, whose power in the Government, disguised as it is in a subordinate position, seems to increase. Whether or not she likes him I do not know. Sometimes I think she does, and sometimes I think she has the greatest aversion to him. But it is a courtship that interests all Richmond. People mostly say that the Secretary will win, but as an old woman–a mere looker-on–I have my doubts. Helen Harley still holds her place in the Secretary’s office, but Mr. Sefton no longer takes great interest in her. Her selfish old father does not like it at all, and I hear that he speaks slightingly of the Secretary’s low origin; but he continues to spend the money that his daughter earns.

“It is common gossip that the Secretary knows all about Lucia’s life before she came to Richmond; that he has penetrated the mystery and in some way has a hold over her which he is using. I do not know how this report originated, but I think it began in some foolish talk of Vincent Harley’s. As for myself, I do not believe there is any mystery at all. She is simply a girl who in these troublous times came, as was natural, to her nearest relative, Miss Grayson.”

* * * * *

“No bad news, Bob, I hope,” said Talbot, looking at his gloomy face.

“None at all,” said Prescott cheerily, and with pardonable evasion.

“There go the skirmishers again.”

A rapid crackle arose from a point far to their left, but the men around Talbot and Prescott paid no attention to it, merely huddling closer in the effort to keep warm. They had ceased long since to be interested in such trivialities.

“Grant’s going to move right away; I feel it in my bones,” repeated Talbot.

Talbot was right. That night the cold suddenly fled, the chilly clouds left the heavens and the great Northern General issued a command. A year before another command of his produced that terrific campaign through the Wilderness, where a hundred thousand men fell, and he meant this second one to be as significant.

Now the fighting, mostly the work of sharpshooters through the winter, began in regular form, and extended in a long line over the torn and trampled fields of Virginia, where all the soil was watered with blood. The numerous horsemen of Sheridan, fresh from triumphs in the Valley of Virginia, were the wings of the Northern force, and they hung on the flanks of the Southern army, incessantly harrying it, cutting off companies and regiments, giving the worn and wounded men no respite.

Along a vast, curving line that steadily bent in toward Richmond–the Southern army inside, the Northern army outside–the sound of the cannon scarcely ever ceased, night or day. Lee fought with undiminished skill, always massing his thin ranks at the point of contact and handling them with the old fire and vigour; but his opponent never ceased the terrible hammering that he had begun more than a year ago. Grant intended to break through the shell of the Southern Confederacy, and it was now cracking and threatening to shatter before his ceaseless strokes.

The defenders of a lost cause, if cause it was, scarcely ever knew what it was to draw a free breath. When they were not fighting, they were marching, often on bare feet, and of the two they did not know which they preferred. They were always hungry; they went into battles on empty stomachs, came out with the same if they came out at all, and they had no time to think of the future. They had become mere battered machines, animated, it is true, by a spirit, but by a spirit that could take no thought of softness. They had respected Grant from the first; now, despite their loss by his grim tactics, they looked in wonder and admiration at them, and sought to measure the strength of mind that could pay a heavy present price in flesh and blood in order to avoid a greater price hereafter.

Prescott and Talbot were with the last legion. The bullets, after wounding them so often, seemed now to give them the right of way. They came from every battle and skirmish unhurt, only to go into a new one the next day.

“If I get out of all this alive,” said Talbot, with grim humour, “I intend to eat for a month and then sleep for a year; maybe then I’ll feel rested.”

Wood, too, was always there with his cavalry, now a thin band, seeking to hold back the horsemen of the North, and Vincent Harley, ever a good soldier, was his able second.

In these desperate days Prescott began to feel respect for Harley; he admired the soldier, if not the man. There was no danger too great for Harley, no service too arduous. He slept in the saddle, if he slept at all, and his spirit never flinched. There was no time for, him to renew his quarrel with Prescott, and Prescott was resolved that it should never be renewed if there were any decent way of avoiding it.

The close of a day of incessant battle and skirmish was at hand, and clouds of smoke darkened the twilight. From the east and from the west came the low mutter and thunder of the guns. The red sun was going down in a sea of ominous fire. There were strange reports of the deeds of Sheridan, but the soldiers themselves knew nothing definite. They had lost touch with other bodies of their comrades, and they could only hope to meet them again. Meanwhile they gave scarcely a glance at the lone and trampled land, but threw themselves down under the trees and fell asleep.

A messenger came for Prescott. “The General-in-Chief wishes you,” he said.

Prescott walked to a small fire where Lee sat alone for the present and within the shelter of the tent. He was grave and thoughtful, but that was habitual with him. Prescott could not see that the victor of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville had changed in bearing or manner. He was as neat as ever; the gray uniform was spotless; the splendid sword, a gift from admirers, hung by his side. His face expressed nothing to the keen gaze of Prescott, who was now no novice in the art of reading the faces of men.

Prescott saluted and stood silent.

Lee looked at him thoughtfully.

“Captain Prescott,” he said, “I have heard good reports of you, and I have had the pleasure also to see you bear yourself well.”

Prescott’s heart beat fast at this praise from the first man of the South.

“Do you know the way to Richmond?” asked the General.

“I could find it in a night as black as my hat.”

“That is good. Here is a letter that I wish you to take there and deliver as soon as you can to Mr. Davis. It is important, and be sure you do not fall into the hands of any of the Northern raiders.”

He held out a small sealed envelope, and Prescott took it.

“Take care of yourself,” he said, “because you will have a dangerous ride.”

Prescott saluted and turned away. He looked back once, and the General was still sitting alone by the fire, his face grave and thoughtful.

Prescott had a good horse, and when he rode away was full of faith that he would reach Richmond. He was glad to go because of the confidence Lee showed in him, and because he might see in the capital those for whom he cared most.

As he rode on the lights behind him died and the darkness came up and covered Lee’s camp. But he had truly told the General that he could find his way to Richmond in black darkness, and to-night he had need of both knowledge and instinct. There was a shadowed moon, flurries of rain, and a wind moaning through the pine woods. From far away, like the swell of the sea on the rocks, came the low mutter of the guns. Scarcely ever did it cease, and its note rose above the wailing of the wind like a kind of solemn chorus that got upon Prescott’s nerves.

“Is it a funeral song?” he asked.

On he went and the way opened before him in the darkness; no Northern horsemen crossed his path; the cry of “Halt!” never came. It seemed to Prescott that fate was making his way easy. For what purpose? He did not like it. He wished to be interrupted–to feel that he must struggle to achieve his journey. This, too, got upon his nerves. He grew lonely and afraid–not afraid of physical danger, but of the omens and presages that the night seemed to bear. He wondered again about the message that he bore. Why had not General Lee given some hint of its contents? Then he blamed himself for questioning.

He rode slowly and thus many hours passed. Mile after mile fell behind him and the night went with them. The sun sprang up, the golden day enfolded the earth, and at last from the top of a hill he saw afar the spires of Richmond. It was a city that he loved–his home, the scene of the greatest events in his life, including his manhood’s love; and as he looked down upon it now his eyes grew misty. What would be its fate?

He rode on, giving the countersign as he passed the defenses. With the pure day, the omens and presages of the night seemed to have passed. Richmond breathed a Sabbath calm; the Northern armies might have been a thousand miles away for all the sign it gave. There was no fear, no apprehension on the faces he saw. Richmond still had absolute faith in Lee; whatever his lack of resources, he would meet the need.

From lofty church spires bells began to ring. The air was pervaded with a holy calm, and Prescott, with the same feeling upon him, rode on. He longed to turn aside to see his mother and to call at the Grayson cottage, but “as soon as possible,” the General had said, and he must deliver his message. He knocked at the door of the White House of the Confederacy. “Gone to church,” the servant said when he asked for Mr. Davis.

Prescott took his way to Doctor Hoge’s church, well knowing where the President of the Confederacy habitually sat, and stiff with his night’s riding, walked and led his mount. At the church door he gave the horse to a little negro boy to hold and went quietly inside.

The President and his family were in their pew and the minister was speaking. Prescott paused a few moments at the entrance to the aisle. No one paid any attention to him; soldiers were too common a sight to be noticed. He felt in the inside pocket of his waistcoat and drew forth the sealed envelope. Then he slipped softly down the aisle, leaned over the President’s pew and handed him the note with the whispered words, “A message from General Lee.”

Prescott, receiving no orders, quietly withdrew to a neighbouring vacant pew and watched Mr. Davis as he opened the envelope and read the letter. He saw a sudden gray pallor sweep over his face, a quick twitching of the lips and then a return of the wonted calm.

The President of the Confederacy refolded the note and put it in his pocket. Presently he rose and left the church and Prescott followed him. An hour later Richmond was stricken into a momentary dumbness, soon followed by the chattering of many voices. The city, the capital, was to be given up. General Lee had written that the Southern army could no longer defend it, and advised the immediate departure of the Government, which was now packing up, ready to take flight by the Danville railroad.

Richmond, so long the inviolate, was to be abandoned. No one questioned the wisdom of Lee, but they were struck down by the necessity. Panic ran like fire in dry grass. The Yankees were coming at once, and they would burn and slay! Their cavalry had already been seen on the outskirts of the city. There was no time to lose if they were to escape to the farther South.

The streets were filled with the confused crowd. The rumours grew; they said everything, but of one thing the people were sure. The Government was packing its papers and treasures in all haste, and the train was waiting to take it southward. That they beheld with their own eyes. Great numbers of the inhabitants, too, made ready for flight as best they could, but they yet preserved most of their courage. They said they would come back. General Lee, when he gathered new forces, would return to the rescue of the city and they would come with him. The women and the children often wept, but the men, though with gloomy faces, bade them be of good cheer.

Prescott, still with no orders and knowing that none would come, walked slowly through the crowd, his heart full of grief and pity. This was his world about him that was falling to pieces. He knew why the night had been so full of omens; why the distant cannon had escorted him like funeral guns.

His first thought was now of his mother, and his second was of Lucia Catherwood, knowing well that in such a moment the passions of all the wild and lawless would rise. He hurried to his home, and on his way he met the Secretary, calm, composed, a quiet, cynical smile on his face.

“Well, Mr. Sefton,” said Prescott, “it has come.”

“Yes,” replied the Secretary, “and not sooner than I have expected.”

“You are leaving?” said Prescott.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Sefton, “I go with the Government. I am part of it, you know, but I travel light. I have little baggage. I tell you, too, since you wish to know it, that I asked Miss Catherwood to go with us as my wife–we could be married in an hour–or, if not that, as a refugee under the escort of Miss Grayson.”

“Well?” said Prescott. His heart beat violently.

“She declined both propositions,” replied the Secretary quietly. “She will stay here and await the coming of the conquerors. After all, why shouldn’t she? She is a Northern sympathizer herself, and a great change in her position and ours has occurred suddenly.”

Their eyes met and Prescott saw his fall a little and for the first time. The sudden change in positions was, indeed, great and in many respects.

The Secretary held out his hand.

“Good-by, Captain Prescott,” he said. “We have been rivals, but not altogether enemies. I have always wished you well where your success was not at the cost of mine. Let us part in friendship, as we may not meet again.”

Prescott took the extended hand.

“I am sorry that chance or fate ever made us rivals,” the Secretary went on. “Maybe we shall not be so any longer, and since I retire from the scene I tell you I have known all the while that Miss Catherwood was not a spy. She was there in the President’s office that day, and she might have been one had she yielded to her impulse, but she put the temptation aside. She has told you this and she told you the full truth. The one who really took the papers was discovered and punished by me long ago.”

“Then why—-” began Prescott.

The Secretary made a gesture.

“You ask why I kept this secret?” he said. “It was because it gave me power over both you and her; over her through you. I knew your part in it, too. Then I helped Miss Grayson and her when she came back to Richmond; she could not turn me away. I played upon your foolish jealousy–I fancy I did that cleverly. I brought her back here to draw you away from Helen Harley and she drew me, too. She did not intend it, nor did she wish it; but perhaps she felt her power ever since that meeting in the Wilderness and knew that she was safe from any disclosures of mine. But she loved you from the first, Captain Prescott, and never anybody else. You see, I am frank with myself as I have tried always to be in all respects. I have lost the field and I retire in favour of the winner, yourself!”

The Secretary, bowing, walked away. Prescott watched him a minute or two, but he could see no signs of haste or excitement in the compact, erect figure. Then he hastened to his mother.

He found her in her parlour, prepared as if for the coming of some one. There was fervent feeling in her look, but her manner was calm as she embraced her son. Prescott knew her thoughts, and as he had never yet found fault with them he could not now at such a time.

“I know everything, Robert,” she said. “The Government is about to flee from Richmond.”

“Yes, mother,” he replied, “and I brought the order for it to go. Is it not singular that such a message should have been delivered by your son? Your side wins, mother.”

“I never doubted that it would, not even after that terrible day at Bull Run and the greater defeats that came later. A cause is lost from the beginning when it is against the progress of the human race.”

There was mingled joy and sadness in her manner–joy that the cause which she thought right had won; sadness that her friends, none the less dear because for so many months they had taken another view, should suffer misfortune.

“Mother,” Prescott said presently, “I do not wish to leave you, but I must go to the cottage of Miss Grayson and Miss Catherwood. There are likely to be wild scenes in Richmond before the day is over, and they should not be left alone.”

The look that she bent upon her son then was singularly soft and tender–smiling, too, as if something pleased her.

“They will be here, Robert,” she said. “I expect them any minute.”

“Here! in this house!” he exclaimed, starting.

“Yes, here in this house,” she said triumphantly “It will not be the first time that Lucia Catherwood has been sheltered behind these walls. Do you not remember when they wished to arrest her, and Lieutenant Talbot searched the cottage for her? She was at that very moment here, in this house, hidden in your own room, though she did not know that it was yours. I saved her then. Oh, I have known her longer than you think.”

Stirred by a sudden emotion Prescott stooped down and kissed his mother.

“I have always known that you were a wonderful woman,” he said, “but I gave you credit for less courage and daring than you really have.”

Some one knocked.

“There they are now,” exclaimed Mrs. Prescott, and hurrying forward she opened the door. Lucia Catherwood and Charlotte Grayson entered. At first they did not see Prescott, who stood near the window, but when his tall form met their eyes Miss Grayson uttered a little cry and the colour rose high in Lucia’s face.

“We are surprised to see you, Captain Prescott,” she said.

“But glad, too, I hope,” he replied.

“Yes, glad, too,” she said frankly.

She seemed to have changed. Some of her reserve was gone. This was a great event in her life and she was coming into a new world without losing the old.

“Miss Catherwood,” Prescott said, “I am glad that my mother’s house is to be the shelter of Miss Grayson and yourself at such a time. We have one or two faithful and strong-armed servants who will see that you suffer no harm.”

The two women hesitated and were embarrassed. Prescott saw it.

“You will not be bothered much by me,” he said. “I have no instructions, but it is obvious that I should go forth and help maintain order.” Then he added: “I saw Mr. Sefton departing. He bade me good-by as if he did not expect ever to be in Richmond again.”

Again Lucia Catherwood flushed.

“He said a like farewell to me,” she said.

Prescott’s gaze met hers, and she flushed deeper than ever as her eyes dropped for a moment.

“I hope that he has gone forever,” said Prescott. “He is an able man and I admire him in many ways. But I think him a dangerous man, too.”

“Amen,” said Miss Charlotte Grayson with emphasis. Lucia was silent, but she did not seem to be offended.

He went presently into the street, where, indeed, his duty called him. When a capital, after years of war, is about to fall, the forces of evil are always unchained, and now it was so with Richmond. Out from all the slums came the men and women of the lower world, and down by the navy storehouses the wharf-rats were swarming. They were drunk already, and with foul words on their lips they gathered before the stores, looking for plunder. Then they broke in the barrels of whisky at the wharf and became drunker and madder than ever. The liquor ran about them in great streams. Standing ankle deep in the gutters, they waded in it and splashed it over each other. Hilarious shouts and cries arose and they began to fight among themselves. Everywhere the thieves came from their holes and were already plundering the houses.

Steadily the skies darkened over Richmond and a terrified multitude kept pressing toward the railroad station, seeking to flee into the farther South. Behind them the mad crowd still drank and fought in the gutters and the thieves passed from house to house. Again and again the cry was raised that the Yankees were here, but still they did not come. Many fancied that they heard far away the thunder of the guns, and even Prescott was not sure. He went once to the Harley house and found Helen there, unafraid, quieting the apprehensions of her father, who should have been quieting hers. She, too, would stay. Mrs. Markham, she told him, was already on the train and would follow the Government. Prescott was very glad that she had gone. He felt a mighty relief to know that this woman was passing southward and, he hoped, out of his life.

Twilight came on and then the night, settling down black and heavy over the lost capital. The President and his Cabinet were ready and would soon start; the small garrison was withdrawing; an officer at the head of men with torches went about the city, setting fire to all the property of the Government–armouries, machine shops, storehouses, wharves. The flames shot up at many points and hung like lurid clouds, shedding a ghastly light over Richmond.

The gunboats in the river, abandoned by their crews, were set on fire, and by and by they blew up with tremendous explosions. The reports added to the terror of the fleeing crowd and cries of fright arose from the women and children. The rumours which had flown so fast in the day thickened and grew blacker in the night. “All the city was to be burned! The Yankees were going to massacre everybody!” It was in vain for the soldiers, who knew better, to protest. The Government property, burning so vividly, gave colour to their fears.

It seemed as if all Richmond were on fire. The city lay lurid and ghastly under the light of these giant torches. Wandering winds picked up the ashes and sifted them down like a fine gray snow. Wagons loaded with children and household goods passed out on every road. When the President and his Cabinet were gone, and the whistling of the train was heard for the last time, the soldiers disappeared up the river, but the streets and roads were still crowded with the refugees, and the fires, burning more fiercely than ever, spread now to private houses. Richmond was a vast core of light.

Prescott will never forget that night, the sad story of a fallen city, the passing of the old South, the weepings, the farewells, the people going from their homes out upon the bare country roads in the darkness, the drunken mob that still danced and fought behind them, and the burning city making its own funeral pyre.

Midnight passed, but there was still no sign of the Yankees. Prescott wished that they would come, for he had no fear of them: they would save the city from the destruction that was threatening it and restore order. Richmond was without rulers. The old had gone, but the new had not come.

The wheels of some belated guns rattled dully in the street, passing up the river to join in the retreat. The horsemen supporting it filed by like phantoms, and many of them, weatherbeaten men, shed tears in the darkness. From the river came a dazzling flash followed by a tremendous roar as another boat blew up, and then General Breckinridge, the Secretary of War, and his staff rode over the last bridge, already set on fire, its burning timbers giving them a final salute as they passed. It was now half way between midnight and morning, and blazing Richmond passively awaited its fate.

+

It was April, 1865.
Soldiers were ordered to burn the city before the advancing enemy.
They could not stanch the fire until they surrendered the city.
Issues that existed then have yet to be resolved.

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