American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 10

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Cutting down the Artillery Horses—Cedar Creek—An Early Morning Surprise—Sheridan's Wonderful Ride—Turning Defeat into Victory

Scarcely had the Ohio soldiers floundered out of the morass when orders came for them to move by the right flank. This meant going into part of the mud again, and some demurred.

"Come, boys, no time to hang back!" cried one of the officers. "Duty is duty. Forward!" And forward they went again. Soon they were close to the enemy, who were driven from the cover of a short patch of timber. As the Confederates came out, the Union cavalry charged on and surrounded them, taking hundreds of prisoners.

So the fighting went on, until the regiment, with marching and countermarching, shooting and charging, were all but exhausted. At the head of the line General Hayes continued to ride, waving his sword and urging the men to renewed courage. The soldiers dropped to his right and his left, but he remained untouched, and so did William McKinley, who was likewise doing his best to bring victory out of what looked at times like defeat.

Presently the Twenty-third found itself in a more exposed position than usual. The Confederates were bringing up their artillery, and it looked as if the regiment might be cut down to a man. Something must be done, but what?"

Lieutenant McBride, you will move forward with the men carrying Saxony rifles," ordered Hayes. "Cut down the artillery horses—never mind the riders."

The Saxony rifles were trusty pieces of seventy-one calibre, that could carry twelve hundred yards. On dashed the riflemen, led by the lieutenant mentioned. The fire was concentrated on the horses attached to the first battery, which was rushing along the ridge of the hill. Crack! crack! went the rifles, and down went one horse, followed by another and then another. Instantly there was confusion and a general mix-up. Then the fire was concentrated on another set of horses, dragging a second piece, and these, too, went down. The confusion increased, and the entire battery was thrown into disorder. The infantry, in the rear, felt the panic and stood in alarm.

"Now is our time! Forward!" shouted General Hayes, and once again the boys in blue went forward on the double-quick, yelling like demons. The Confederates formed to receive them and gave them a most deadly fire, for they, too, could fight as gamely as the best. And why not, since they, too, were Americans, of the same bone and blood as their Northern brothers?

For a few minutes the result of the onslaught remained in doubt. Shot and shell roared and shrieked on all sides, mingled with the constant rattle of musketry, extending in some places for miles. The ground was torn up in some places to a depth of two or three feet, and the moss of the morass flung in all directions, mingled with the lifeblood of those who had fallen, wearing either the blue or the gray. Surely, surely, war is a horrible thing!

But look! what is this? Horsemen are coming, dozens, hundreds of them, riding from beyond the distant smoke-clad hills. It is the Union cavalry! How they dash across the fields and up the hillsides! The crack of the carbines is heard, the spatting of pistols, and then the click-clacking of swords and bayonets. A cheer goes up, which swells to a mighty roar. The day is won! Won! Some cannot believe it, but as they see the Confederate line crumbling, their hearts give a bound of mad delight, and on they move with increased courage, driving the enemy from cover to cover and surrounding company after company, until, utterly routed, the Confederates withdraw in the direction of North Mountain.

In this battle the soldiers sent forward under Lieutenant McBride brought in one hundred and two prisoners. The balance of the regiment secured two hundred prisoners. The Confederate battery was captured by the regiment as a whole.

When it was all over, it was found that among the wounded was Colonel Duval, who had been shot shortly after bringing up his command. But the movement along the ravine had been successful and the command had done brilliant work throughout the contest. It was not until afterward that it leaked out what a responsibility Captain McKinley had taken. At that time neither General Crook nor General Sheridan said anything, for they saw that the young staff officer had tried to do his best, and just then was no time to "stand on ceremony," so to speak. But long afterward Sheridan took McKinley aside and said to him:—

"That order of yours was all right because it turned out all right. But if it had turned out wrong, why then it would have been very wrong." Deep in his heart he admired the young soldier for his quick decision and daring, for he was quick to decide and quick to do himself.

On the day following occurred the battle of North Mountain. Having reached the crest of a rocky hill, the Confederates threw up some hasty intrenchments and planted their batteries with care during the night. But the Unionists were close on their heels, and flushed with victory, charged madly up the hillside, the whole brigade under Crook acting like one man. The enemy made a short stand, but soon became panic-stricken, thinking the dreaded cavalry was riding to their rear, and fled over the mountain and into the forests beyond. Many dropped their guns and haversacks, and these were afterward picked up by the hundreds.

Following the battle of North Mountain came a much-needed rest, lasting about a month. Occasionally the Twenty-third marched to meet the distant enemy, but only a few small skirmishes resulted. But the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah was almost devastated, so that the Confederates could find little there upon which to support their ragged and half-famished army. They had fought desperately, with all the hot courage for which the South is famous; but the North, with its larger force and its superior resources, was slowly but surely bringing them to a point where they must either give up the struggle or suffer total annihilation.

The mellow days of October were now at hand, and the middle of the month found Sheridan's army located on the north side of Cedar Creek. The commander himself had been to Washington on business and had not yet returned, although he was on the way.

An attack by Early was hardly expected, and many of the soldiers were out cutting forage when the alarm was sounded. On the previous night, in a dense fog, General Early's command had crossed the mountain and forded one of the forks of the creek. Still under cover of darkness, the main body of his army crept upon the left flank of the Unionists and bore down upon them with the stirring yell for which they were famous. Taken completely by surprise, the boys in blue opened fire, but before they could take a firm stand, the left flank was turned and the batteries captured.

It was not yet five o'clock in the morning when this occurred, and as it grew lighter, it was seen that the Confederates now had the best of the situation, for from their point of vantage they could enfilade nearly our entire army—that is, could send shot and shell through the ranks from the side, instead of from the front. It was a crucial moment, and it looked as if the day must be lost. Soon musketry rattled and cannon boomed loudly, and in the midst of this some of the Union forces began to retreat.

It was at this time that General Sheridan made his wonderful ride—that ride which has been so beautifully idealized by T. Buchanan Read in his poem, "Sheridan's Ride," known to schoolboys and schoolgirls all over our broad land.

Sheridan was at Winchester, about fourteen miles from the battle-ground. He had arrived there the night before, tired out with riding, and had been met by a staff officer with tidings that all was well at Cedar Creek. Thinking it would not be necessary to move on to the camp at such an hour, he retired in Winchester and was soon fast asleep.

The booming of a warning gun early in the morning made him leap up as if electrified. What could that mean? He listened and heard more guns—a regular cannonading. "The battle must be on!" he muttered to himself, and in quick haste donned his clothes, pulled on his spurred cavalry boots, and hurried into the open.

"My horse!" he cried, and as his charger was brought out, he gave a leap into the saddle, and was off like a whirlwind, down the road past houses and farms, and then over hedges, ditches, and fields, straight for Cedar Creek. Those who saw him pass gave him a cheer, but he never paid attention and probably did not hear them. On and on, and still on, he swept, until his noble horse was covered with foam and breathing clouds of steam. The steed seemed to know what was wanted of him, for he was a war charger, and his eyes glared wildly, as if in defiance of anything which might rise to bar his progress. The cannonading continued, and now he could hear the rattle of musketry and see the distant soldiers, some moving in one direction and some in another. Then he came out into a road and found himself face to face with a handful of the men who had fought under him so often.

"It's Sheridan!" cried some, and then one added: "General, the day is lost. The rebels surprised us before daylight and are down on us fifty thousand strong."

"The day isn't lost yet," was the answer. "Face about and follow me!" And on he swept, quickly out of their sight around another bend. He was now so close he could make out the soldiers distinctly. Alas! the blue was slowly retreating and the gray was pushing forward with renewed vigor. He paused for a moment, trying to devise some line of action, and as he did so, he saw a mass of Union soldiers rushing pell-mell toward him, and in front a young officer on horseback trying vainly to stop them and form them in military order. The young officer was Captain McKinley.

"What does this mean, McKinley?" he demanded.

"We have been surprised, general. Early crossed the north fork of the creek some time last night, and has captured our batteries over there. The boys are panic-stricken."

"Where is General Crook?"

"I left him on yonder rise," and the young captain pointed in the direction.

"Come with me, boys!" shouted Sheridan, and threw his overcoat to McKinley. "We are going to have a good thing on them now!" And on he went again. For a moment the soldiers were dazed, then as McKinley spoke to them, they turned and followed back to the scene of battle, inspired by the words Sheridan had uttered.

On the great battlefield all was confusion. Staff officers and aides were rushing in all directions. The Confederates were pouring in their hottest fire, and it looked as if nothing could withstand that terrible discharge of iron hail. General Hayes lay on the ground in a retired nook, suffering from a bad tumble from his horse. Crook was not far away, doing his best to make the panic-stricken soldiers hold their own.

And then from out of a whirl of dust on the Winchester Turnpike came Sheridan, his steed trembling in every limb as if ready to drop from exhaustion. A roar went up and down the long line. "Sheridan has come! Sheridan has come! He'll tell us what to do!"

In a second more Sheridan was at Crook's side, and a few words were spoken in an undertone. Staff officers came dashing up and were sent off with important messages. Then of a sudden Sheridan leaped into the saddle again, and rode along the halting and wondering line.

"We are going to have a good thing on them now, boys!" he shouted. "Come, follow me! Turn around! We are going back! We are going to sleep in our quarters to-night! Come on!"

The magic of that voice and that dashing, daring figure was wonderful. Old veterans threw up their caps and yelled themselves hoarse. Those in retreat turned and were the first to press upon the gallant leader's heels. The lines were re-formed, and when the Confederates made their next charge, company after company met it bravely, standing like rocks. Then other troops came up from the left and the right, and the cavalry burst from the woods. "The Yankees have been reënforced—Sheridan had brought on more regiments!" was the false news circulated on the other side, and then the Confederates began to halt in dismay.

This great change on the battlefield occurred about one o'clock, after almost eight hours of continual fighting. Driven back, the Confederates took another stand, but at three o'clock Sheridan attacked with greater vigor than ever, and soon the enemy was flying in several directions, leaving cannon and small arms behind.

During the next two days the Confederates were pursued for fourteen miles in the direction of Mount Jackson and then through various mountain roads. Only a portion of the flying soldiers escaped, the others being either shot down or taken prisoners. About fifty pieces of artillery were taken, and also three hundred supply wagons and ambulances. Early was much chagrined over the outcome of this contest, and did not hesitate to tell his troops so, accusing some of his officers of neglecting their duty in order to obtain plunder when first the Union troops were surprised at daybreak.