Charles Carleton Coffin Part 6
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"There she is, the _Weehawken_, the target of probably two hundred and fifty or three hundred guns, at close range, of the heaviest calibre rifled cannon, throwing forged bolts and steel-pointed shot turned and polished to a hair in the lathes of English workshops, advancing still, undergoing her first ordeal, a trial unparalleled in history.
For fifteen minutes she meets the ordeal alone."
Soon the other four monitors follow. Seventy guns a minute are counted, followed by moments of calm, and scattering shots, but only to break out again in a prolonged roar of thunder. In the lulls of the strife, Carleton steadied his gla.s.s, and when the southwest breeze swept away the smoke, he could see "increasing pock-marks and discolorations upon the walls of the fort, as if there had been a sudden breaking out of cutaneous disease."
We now know, from the Confederate officers then in Fort Sumter, that the best artillery made in England, and the strongest powder manufactured in the Confederacy, were used during this two and a half hours of mutual hammering, until then unparalleled in the history of the world. Near sunset, at 5.20 P. M., signals from the flag-s.h.i.+p were read; the order was, "Retire."
The red sun sank behind the sand hills, and the silence was welcomed.
During the heavy cannonade,--like the Union soldiers who, obedient to the hunter's instinct, stopped in the midst of a Wilderness battle to shoot rabbits,--a Confederate gunner had trained his rifled cannon upon the three non-combatant vessels, the _Bibb_, the _Ben Deford_, and the _Nantasket_, which lay in the North Channel at a respectful distance, but quite within easy range of Sullivan's Island. Having fired a half a dozen shot which had fallen unnoticed, the gunner demoralized the little squadron, and sent hundreds of interested spectators running, jumping, and rolling below deck, by sending a shot transversely across the _Nantasket_. It dropped in the sea about a hundred yards from the bow of the _Ben Deford_. Another shot in admirable line fell short. Sh.e.l.ls from c.u.mmings Point had also been tried on the s.h.i.+ps laden with civilians, but had failed to reach them.
However, the correspondents claim to have silenced the batteries,--by getting out of the way; for in a few minutes the cables had been hauled in, paddle-wheels set in motion, and distance increased from the muzzles of the battery.
When the fleet returned, Carleton leaped on board of the slush deck of the monitor _Catskill_, receiving hearty response from Captain George Rodgers, who reported "All right, n.o.body hurt, ready for them again."
I afterwards saw all these monitors covered with indentations like spinning-top moulds or saucers. They were gouged, dented, and bruised by case-shot that had struck and glanced sidewise. Here and there, it looked as though an adamantine serpent had grooved its way over the convex iron surface, as a worm leaves the mark of its crawling in the soft earth under the stone. The _Catskill_ had received thirty shots, the _Keokuk_ a hundred. Inside of the _Nahant_, Carleton found eleven officers and men badly contused by the flying of bolt-heads in the turret; but, except from a temporary jam, her armor was intact. On the _Patapsco_ a ball had ripped up the plating and pierced the work beneath. This was the only shot that had penetrated any of the monitors. The _Weehawken_ had in one place the pittings of three shots which, had they immediately followed each other, might, like the arrows of the Earl of Douglas in Scott's "Lady of the Lake," split each other in twain. Except leaving war's honorable scar, these three bolts hurt not the _Weehawken_. Out of probably three thousand projectiles shot from behind walls, about three hundred and fifty took effect, that is, one shot out of six. Three tons of iron were hurled at Fort Sumter, and probably six tons at the fleet. Fighting inside of iron towers, the Union men had no one killed, and but one mortally wounded. The _Keokuk_, the most vulnerable of all the s.h.i.+ps engaged, sank under the northwest wind in the heavy sea of the next day.
It was long after midnight when Carleton finished the closing lines of his letter, and then stepped out upon the steamer's guard for a little fresh air. Over on Sumter's walls the signal-light was being waved. The black monitors lay at their anchorage. Ocean, air, and moonbeams were calm and peaceful. From the flag-s.h.i.+p, which the despatch steamer visited, the report was, "The engagement is to be renewed to-morrow afternoon." Nevertheless, the next day, Admiral Du Pont, dissenting from the opinions of his engineers and inspectors, as to a renewal of the attack, moreover finding his own officers differing in their opinions as to the ability of the fleet to reduce Fort Sumter, ordered no advance. The enterprise was, for the present, at least, given up. So Carleton, after another letter on white and black humanity in South Carolina, which showed convincingly the results of slavery, sailed from Hilton Head.
Like the war-horse of Hebrew poetry, he smelt the battle afar off, and looked to Virginia. He reached home just in time to hear of the great conflict at Chancellorsville. Rus.h.i.+ng to Was.h.i.+ngton, and gathering up from all sources news of the disaster, he presented to the readers of the _Journal_ a clear and connected story of the battle. During the latter part of May and until the middle of June, the previous weeks having been times of inaction in the military world, Carleton recruited his strength at home. Like a falcon on its perch, he awaited the opportunity to swoop on the quarry.
GETTYSBURG: HIGH TIDE AND EBB.
When Lee and his army, leaving the front of the Union army and becoming invisible, when President and people, general and chief and privates, Cabinet officers and correspondents, were wondering what had become of the rebel hosts, and when the one question in the North was, "Where is General Lee?" Carleton, divining the state of affairs, took the railway to Harrisburg. Once more he was an observer in the field.
His first letter is dated June 16th, and illuminates the darkness like an electric search-light.
General Lee, showing statesmans.h.i.+p as well as military ability, had chosen a good time. The Federal army was losing its two years' and nine months' men. Vicksburg was about to fall. Something must be done to counterbalance this certain loss to the Confederates. Paper money in the South was worth but ten per cent. of its face value.
Recognition from Europe must be won soon, or the high tide of opportunity would ebb, nevermore to return. Like a great wave coming to its flood, the armed host of the Confederacy was moving to break at Gettysburg and recede.
Yet, at that time, who had ever thought of, or who, except the farmers and townsmen and students in the vicinity, had ever seen Gettysburg?
At first Carleton supposed that Harper's Ferry might be the scene of the coming battle. Again he imagined it possible for Lee to move down the Kanawha, and fall upon defenceless Ohio. He wrote from Harrisburg, from Was.h.i.+ngton, from Baltimore, from Was.h.i.+ngton again, from Baltimore once more, from Frederick, where he learned that Hooker had been superseded, and Meade, the Pennsylvanian, put in command. On June 30th, writing from Westminster, Md., he described the rapid marching of the footsore and hungry Confederates, and the equally rapid pedestrianism of the Federals. He revels in the splendors of nature in Southern Pennsylvania, which the Germans once hailed as a holy land of comfort and liberty, and which, by their industry, they had made "fair as the garden of the Lord." As Carleton rode with the second corps from Frederick to Union Town, and thence to Westminster, he penned prose poems in description of the glorious sight, so different from his native and stony New Hamps.h.i.+re.
"The march yesterday was almost like pa.s.sing through paradise. Such broad acres of grain rustling in the breeze; the hills and valleys, bathed in alternate sunlight and shade; the trees so green; the air so scented with clover-blossoms and new-made hay; the cherry-trees ruby with ripened fruit, lining the roadway; the hospitality of the people, made it pleasant marching."
Thus like the great forces of the universe, which make the ocean's breast heave to and fro, and send the tides in ebb and flood, were the great energies which were now to bring two hundred thousand men in arms, on the field of Gettysburg, in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Forty years before, as it is said, a British officer surveying the great plain with the ranges of hills confronting each other from opposite sides, with many highroads converging at this point, declared with admiration that this would be a superb site for a great battle. Now the vision of possibility was to become reality, and Carleton was to be witness of it all. Since mid-June he had been on the rail or in the saddle. He was now to spend sleepless nights and laborious days that were to tax his physical resources to their utmost.
With his engineer's eye, and from the heights overlooking the main field, he took in the whole situation. From various points he saw the awful battles of July 2d and 3d, which he described in two letters, written each time after merciful night came down upon the field of slaughter. He saw the charges and defeats, the counter-charges and the continued carnage, and the final cavalry onset made by the rebels. He was often under fire. An impression that lasted all his life, and to which he often referred, was the result of that great movement of Pickett's division across the field, after the long bombardment of the Federal forces by the Confederate artillery. Retiring before the heavy cannonade, Carleton had remained in the rear, until, hearing the cheers of the Union soldiers, he reached the slope in time to see the gray and brown ma.s.ses in the distance.
As the great wave of human life receded, that for a moment had pierced the centre of the Union forces, only to be hurled back and broken, Carleton rode out down the hill and on the plain into the wheat field.
Then and there, seeing the awful debris, came the conviction that the rebellion had seen its highest tide, and that henceforth it would be only ebb.
When is a battle over, and how can one know it? That night, Friday, and the next day, Sat.u.r.day, Carleton felt satisfied that Lee was in full retreat, though General Meade did not seem to think so.
Carleton's face was now set Bostonwards. Not being able to use the army telegraph, he gave his first thought to reaching the railroad.
The nearest point was at Westminster, twenty-eight miles distant, from which a freight-train was to leave at 4 P. M.
Rain was falling heavily, but with Whitelaw Reid as companion, Carleton rode the twenty-eight miles in two hours and a half. Covered with mud from head to foot, and soused to the skin, the two riders reached Westminster at 3.55 P. M. As the train did not immediately start, Carleton arranged for the care of his beast, and laying his blanket on the engine's boiler, dried it. He then made his bed on the floor of the b.u.mping car, getting some sleep of an uncertain quality before the train rolled into Baltimore.
At the hotel on Sunday morning he was seized by his friend, E. B.
Washburn, Grant's indefatigable supporter and afterwards Minister to France, who asked for news. Carleton told him of victory and the retreat of Lee. "You lie," was the impulsive answer. Washburn's nerves had for days been under a strain. Then, after telling more, Carleton telegraphed a half-column of news to the _Journal_ in Boston. This message, sent thence to Was.h.i.+ngton, was the first news which President Lincoln and the Cabinet had of Gettysburg. After a bath and hoped-for rest, Carleton was not allowed to keep silence. All day, and until the train was entered at night for New York, he was kept busy in telling the good news.
The rest of the story of this famous "beat," as newspaper men call it, is given in Carleton's own words to a Boston reporter, a day or two before the celebration of his golden wedding in February, 1896:
"Monday I travelled by train to Boston, writing some of my story as I rode along, and wiring ahead to the paper what they might expect from me. When I reached the office I found Newspaper Row packed with people, just as you will see it now on election night, and every one more than anxious for details.
"It was too late, however, for anything but the morning edition of Tuesday, but the paper wired all over New England the story it would have, and the edition finally run off was a large one.
"I locked myself in a room and wrote steadily until the paper went to press, seeing no one but the men handling the copy, and, when the last sheet was done, threw myself on a pile of papers, thoroughly exhausted, and got a few hours' sleep. I went to my home in the suburbs, the next day, but my townspeople wouldn't let me rest. They came after me with a band and wagon, and I had to get out and tell the story in public again.
"The next day I left for the front again, riding forward from Westminster, where I had left my horse, and thus covering about 100 miles on horseback, and 800 miles by rail, from the time I left the army until I got back again.
"Coffee was all that kept me up during that time, but my nerves did not recover from it for a long time. In fact, I don't think I could have gone through the war as I did, had I not made it a practice to take as long a rest as possible after a big battle or engagement."
In his letter written after the decisive event of 1863, Carleton pays a strong tribute of praise to the orderly retreat which Lee made from Pennsylvania. He was bitterly disappointed that the defeated army should have been allowed to escape. With the soldiers, he looked forward with dread to another Virginia campaign. Nevertheless, he was all ready for duty. Having found his horse and resumed his saddle, he spent a day revisiting the Antietam battle-field. It was still strewn with the debris of the fight: old boots, shoes, knapsacks, belts, clothes all mouldy in the dampness of the woods. He found flattened bullets among the leaves, fragments of sh.e.l.ls, and, sickening to the sight, here and there a skull protruding from the ground, the bleaching bones of horses and men. The Dunkers' church and the houses were rent, shattered, pierced, and pitted with the marks of war.
Even until July 15th, when he sent despatches from Sharpsburg, he nourished the hope that Lee's army could still be destroyed before reaching Richmond. This was not to be. Like salt on a sore, and rubbed in hard, Carleton's sensibilities were cut to the quick, when, on again coming home, he found the people in Boston and vicinity debating the question whether the battle of Gettysburg had been a victory for the Union army or not. Some were even inclined to consider it a defeat. Carleton's letter of July 24th, written in Boston, fairly fumes with indignation at the blind critics and in defence of the hard work of the ever faithful old Army of the Potomac, "which has had hard fighting,--terrible fighting, and little praise." He lost patience with those staying at home depreciating the army and finding fault with General Meade. He wrote: "Frankly and bluntly, I cannot appreciate such stupidity. Why not as well ask if the sun rose this morning? That battle was the greatest of the war. It was a repulse which became a disastrous defeat to General Lee." He sarcastically invited critics, "instead of staying at home to weaken the army by finding fault, to step into the ranks and help do the 'bagging,' the 'cutting up,' and the 'routing' which they thought ought to have been done."
THE BATTLES IN THE WILDERNESS.
After the exhausting Gettysburg campaign, Carleton was obliged to rest some weeks. So far as his letter-book shows, he did not engage in war correspondence again until the opening of the next year, when he entered upon his fourth hundred of letters, and began a tour of observation through the border States. Traversing those between the Ohio River and the Lakes, besides Missouri and Kansas, he kept the _Journal_ readers well informed of the state of sentiment, and showed the preparations made to pursue the war. At the last of April, we find him in Was.h.i.+ngton preparing his readers for the great events of the Wilderness, in letters which clearly describe the prospective "valley of decision." The grandest sight, that week, in the city, was the marching of Burnside's veteran corps, in which were not only the bronzed white heroes, following their own torn and pierced battle-flags, but also regiments of black patriots, slaves but a few months before, but now no longer sons of the Dark Continent, but of the Land of Hope and Opportunity. From slavery they had been redeemed in the Free Republic. Unpaid sons of toil once, but free men now, they were marching with steady step to certain victory or to certain death, for at that moment came the sickening details of the ma.s.sacre of Fort Pillow. On the balcony of the hotel, standing beside the handsome Burnside, was the tall and pale man who, having given them freedom, now recognized them as soldiers. As they halted by the roadside and read the accounts of ma.s.sacre, their white teeth clenched, and oaths, not altogether profane, were sworn for vengeance.
Out from the broad avenues of the nation's capital, and away from the sight of the marble dome, the great army and its faithful historians moved from sight, to the bloodiest contests of war. No more splendid pageants in the fields, but close, hard, unromantic destruction in the woods and among trenches and craters! One mind now directed all the movements of the many armies of the Union, making all the forces at the control of the nation into one mighty trip-hammer, for the crus.h.i.+ng of Slavery's conspiracy against Liberty.
General Grant recognized in Carleton his old friend whom he first met in Cairo, and whom he had invited to take a nail-keg for a seat.
Having established his reputation for absolute truthfulness, Carleton won not only Grant's personal friends.h.i.+p, but obtained a pa.s.s signed "U. S. Grant," which was good in all the military departments of the country, with transportation on all government trains and steamers. In hours of relaxation, Carleton was probably as familiar with Grant as was any officer on the general's own staff. Carleton profoundly honored and believed in Grant as a trained, regular army officer who could cut loose from European traditions and methods, and fight in the way required in Virginia in 1864 and 1865. Further, Grant wanted the Army of the Potomac to destroy Lee's army without the aid of, or reinforcement from, Western troops.
Carleton comprehended the magnitude of the coming campaign, in which were centred the hopes of eighteen millions of Americans. In his eyes it was the most stupendous campaign of modern times. "It is not the movement of one army merely, but of three great armies, to crush out treason, to preserve the inst.i.tutions of freedom, and consolidate ourselves into a nation." Butler and Smith were to advance from the Chesapeake, the armies of the South and West were in time to march northward in Lee's rear, while from the West and North were to come fresh hosts to consummate the grand combination.
Carleton's foresight had shown him that, in this campaign, an a.s.sistant for himself would be absolutely necessary; for, in one respect, Grant's advance was unique. Instead of, as heretofore, the Union army's having its rear in close contact with the North, and all the lines and methods of communication being open, the soldiers and the correspondents were to advance into the Wilderness, and cut themselves off from the railway, the telegraph, and even the ordinary means of communication by horse, wheel, and boat. Carleton, at short notice to the young man, chose for his a.s.sistant his nephew, Edmund Carleton, now a veteran surgeon and physician in New York, but then in the freshness and fullness of youth, health, and strength. Alert and vigorous, fertile in resource, courageous and persevering, young Carleton became the fleet messenger of the great war correspondent. He a.s.sisted to gather news, and soon learned the art of winning the soldier's heart, and of extracting, from officers and privates, sc.r.a.ps and items of intelligence. Even as the hunter becomes expert in noting and interpreting signs in air and on earth which yield him spoil, so young Carleton, trained by his uncle, quickly learned how to secure news, and to make a "beat." He kept himself well supplied to the extent of his ability with tobacco,--always welcome to the veterans, for which some "would almost sell their souls;" and with newspapers, for which officers would often give what was worth more than gold,--items of information, from which letters could be distilled, and on which prophecies could be based. Very appropriately, Carleton dedicates his fourth book on the war, "Freedom Triumphant," to his fleet messenger.
Carleton's first letter in the last long campaign is dated May 4, 1864, from Brandy Station. There four corps were a.s.sembled: the Second, Hanc.o.c.k's; the Fifth, Warren's; the Sixth, Sedgwick's; the Ninth, Burnside's. With Sheridan's riders, these made a great city of tents. The cavalry was not the cavalry of Scott's day, but was in its potency a new arm of the service. From this time forth, the Confederate authorities, by neglecting this arm of their service, furnished one chief cause of final failure, while those in Was.h.i.+ngton steadily increased in generous recognition of the power of union of man and horse. In equal ability of brute and rider to endure fatigue, the Union cavalryman under Sheridan was a veritable centaur.
While the great army lay waiting and expectant at Brandy Station, it was significant to Carleton when the swift-riding orderlies suddenly left headquarters carrying sealed packages to the corps commanders.
First began the tramping of the cavalry. Next followed the movement of two divisions of the Fifth Corps. All night long was heard the rumble of artillery. Carleton wrote: "Peering from my window upon the shadowy landscape at midnight, I saw the glimmering of thousands of camp-fires, over all the plain. Hillside, valley, nook, and dell, threw up its flickering light. Long trains of white canvas wagons disappeared in the distant gloom.
"At three A. M., the reveille, the roll of innumerable drums, and the blow of bugles sounded, and as morning brightened, dark ma.s.ses of armed men stood in long line. With the first beams of the sun peering over the landscape, they moved from the hills. Disjointed parts were welded together, regiments became brigades, brigades grew into divisions, and divisions became corps. The sunlight flashed from a hundred thousand bayonets and sabres." Thus in a few hours a great city of male inhabitants, numbering over the tenth of a million, disappeared. By night-time, in a rapid march, Grant was in headquarters in a deserted house near the Germania Ford. There Carleton noticed the general's simple style of living. Unostentatious in all his habits, he smoked constantly, often whittling a stick while thinking, and wasting no words. Grant had stolen a march upon Lee, and was as near Richmond as were the Confederates, who must attack him in flank and r.e.t.a.r.d him if possible. Knowing every road and bridle-path in the Wilderness, Lee, having drawn all the resources of the Confederacy east of Georgia into his lines, had gathered an army the largest and the most complete he had yet commanded. He must now cut up Grant's host; or, if unable to do so, even without defeat, must begin a march which meant some American Saint Helena as its end.
The campaign which followed in that densely wooded part of Virginia, a few miles west of the former battle-field of Chancellorsville, had not been paralleled for hards.h.i.+p during the whole war. In the ten days succeeding May 4th, when the army broke camp at Culpeper and Brandy Station, there had been a march of eighteen miles, the crossing of the Rapidan with hard fighting on May 5th, and on the 6th, the great battle in the Wilderness, among the trees from which the foe could hardly be distinguished. On the 7th, there was fighting all along the line, with the night march after Spottsylvania, and on Sunday, the 8th, under the burning sun, a sharp fight by the Fifth Corps. On the 9th, another terrific battle followed, in which three corps were engaged, one of them, the Sixth, losing its n.o.ble commander, Sedgwick, with a score or two of able officers. On the 10th, in the afternoon, a pitched battle was fought all along the line, lasting until midnight, in which all the corps were engaged. On Wednesday, the 11th, skirmis.h.i.+ng and picket firing formed the order of the day along the whole front. On Thursday, the 12th, at daybreak, the Second Corps began its attack, capturing twenty-three guns and several thousand prisoners. Sunday, the 13th, was a time of rain, hard work, hunger, and fatigue. In a word, within twelve days there had been four great pitched battles, with heavy fighting, mainly in the woods, and hard pounding on both sides, with many thousands of dead and wounded.
During the war Carleton had seen no such fighting, suffering, patience, determination. General Grant freely admitted that the fighting had been without a parallel during the war. There was little work done by the artillery. Swords and bayonets were but ornaments or emblems. Only lead had the potency of death in it. Even the cavalry dismounted, sought cover, shooting each other out of position with their carbines. Bullets, which do the killing, were the fixed forces.
In war it is musketry that kills, and it was a question which side could stand murder the longest.
Charles Carleton Coffin Part 6
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Charles Carleton Coffin Part 6 summary
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