American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 9

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Out of a Dangerous Situation—Made a Captain—Up and down the Shenandoah Valley—An Order from General Crook and how McKinley carried it out

"He is lost!"

Such was the cry from a score of throats as the young staff officer was hidden for a moment from view, amid the smoke of the exploded shell. Even General Hayes turned away his head and muttered faintly, "I knew he would never go through it."

But McKinley was not dead, or even seriously harmed, and while yet the smoke lay thick around him he was seen to stagger to his feet. Up came the bobtailed horse with him, limping slightly from a wound in the shoulder, and into the saddle once again leaped the daring rider. On and on, with more bullets whistling about them and another shell exploding high over their heads. There was still a ditch to cross, a rail fence, and a small open field, before he could gain the shelter of an orchard where the West Virginia regiment continued to blaze away desperately.

It was a ride as wonderful as it was daring. With all those shots aimed at him he was not even touched, outside of a scratch on the hand, received from a rail splinter when a shell struck the fence his steed was leaping. Straight into the orchard dashed horse and rider, and panting for breath McKinley halted before the colonel and saluted.

"Colonel, you are ordered to retreat," he said.

"Retreat?" repeated the higher officer.

"Yes, sir. General Hayes just sent me over. You should have had the word before. You are fighting without support."

There was no time to say more. The Confederates were hemming in the stricken regiment on all sides, and the bullets were flying thickly everywhere. Without delay the retreat was sounded. Many of the under-officers and the men were completely bewildered and knew not what to do.

"This way!" shouted McKinley to a body who were fleeing directly toward the enemy, and he faced them about and then started the retreat in the proper direction. The Unionists skirted the orchard, followed by the Confederates, and led by the young lieutenant and several of their officers, ran pell-mell to join the brigade from which they had become separated.

As the young lieutenant appeared at the front of that disorganized body of soldiery, a storm of applause went up, and General Hayes was deeply affected. As McKinley rode up to him, he caught the young soldier by the hand.

"McKinley, I never expected to see you in life again," he said. "You did your duty well."

And then came a shout from the men of the lieutenant's old company:—

"Hurrah for Lieutenant McKinley and his bob tailed horse! Hurrah!" And the cheer was taken up on all sides until, blushing painfully, the young staff officer retired from view.

The losses to the Twenty-third Ohio had been great, and there was a vacancy among the captains. But it was filled inside of twenty-four hours by the appointment of "William McKinley, to be captain of Company G, for gallantry at the battle of Kernstown."

The soldier boys greeted their new captain warmly. They thought he fully deserved the promotion, and did not hesitate to say so. In fact, in the whole regiment there was no more popular young man than William McKinley. Said one of the veterans:—

"Nobody begrudged him his promotion, and plenty of us thought he ought to be a major or a colonel. Perhaps he was looking for something higher, but if he was, he never said so. But as soon as he took hold of the company, I can tell you there was a sprucing-up all round, for he believed in toeing the mark, and making everybody do likewise."

After the battle of Kernstown followed a series of marches and countermarches up and down the Shenandoah Valley, near Winchester and beyond. The regiment was engaged at Halltown, and captured a number of prisoners who had been "lying low," and who were very much surprised when taken into custody. In September Berryville was reached, and here the Twenty-third was placed on picket duty. Toward dark the Confederates came up and opened a scattering fire, which gradually developed into a regular battle, lasting until after ten o'clock that night. This is one of the few contests fought after dark, and it is said that the flashes of gun and cannon fire, and the bursting of shells, made a more picturesque than deadly display. Few soldiers were hurt, and in the end the Confederates withdrew to the camp they had previously occupied.

As night closed in on the armies. Captain McKinley was directed to go out and take orders to the colonel of a regiment that had missed its proper station. The way was dark and uncertain, and presently the young staff officer found himself off the road and in the midst of a dense growth of underbrush.

"I scarcely knew what to do," he said, in speaking of this afterward. "I walked on a short distance, when a voice out of the darkness called, 'Who goes dar?' That was a Southern voice, and without reply I stepped back and took another course. Then came another voice, 'Who comes there? ' and I knew I was once more on the right side. I soon reached the regiment I was seeking, and then there was no more trouble." Thus he disposed of an incident which was both exciting and full of peril, for had the Confederate sentinel known he was a Yankee, he would have been shot on the spot.

Following the contest in the dark came two more weeks of marching in the valley, leading up to the battle of Opequan, where McKinley again distinguished himself, although in a manner almost as unique as when he furnished the men on the firing line with hot coffee and meat.

The battle of Opequan was fought under the direct generalship of dashing Phil Sheridan and was one which added greatly to the laurels of that already famous officer. He had followed General Early up and down the Shenandoah Valley until he was at last satisfied that he had the Confederate just where he wanted him. The battle lasted till evening, and the enemy was driven from Opequan creek to Winchester with the loss of hundreds killed and wounded and several thousands taken prisoners.

At this battle General Crook's command was in reserve, with Hayes's brigade at the extreme right of the infantry. In order to reach the position assigned to them, the Twenty-third Ohio had to cross a swampy cedar brake where some of the soldier boys sank into mud up to their ankles.

Soon began the distant roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry, and in less than an hour the battle waxed hot and furious on all sides.

"Forward!" came the cry, and forward went the Ohio boys, through the cedar brake and across several open fields, where they received a scattering fire from some of the enemy hidden in a distant wood. But they pushed on bravely, and at last reached the brow of a slight hill, from which the Confederate infantry could be seen off on the left.

No sooner did the Twenty-third Ohio come into view than the Confederate light artillery opened upon them, making sad gaps in the ranks of all the leading companies. But undaunted by this, the Unionists pressed on until they gained a patch of undergrowth, where a slight halt was made.

Beyond the undergrowth was another stretch of swamp land, and here several of the soldiers got so stuck that their companions had to come to their assistance and haul them out. The swamp was worse on its further side, and the whole regiment stopped in the middle, not knowing if it would be safe to go on.

"Forward, men, and you'll soon be over!" shouted General Hayes, and led the way, his horse scattering the mud in all directions, and the Confederates sending a shower of bullets around him. He kept on and was the first soldier across, and soon the line followed him, cheering and yelling madly.

While these movements were going on. Captain McKinley, who was still acting on the staff, was ordered by General Crook to go to Colonel Duval with an order to move his command quickly to the right of the Sixth Corps.

Riding with all possible speed, the young captain reached the hillside which Colonel Duval occupied, and presently found the commander, sitting somewhat in perplexity, on horseback.

"Colonel Duval, General Crook orders that you move your command to the right of the Sixth Corps as soon as possible," said the young staff officer, after saluting.

Colonel Duval nodded, to show that he understood what was said.

"By what route?" he asked, after a pause.

"He did not say exactly, but I heard him speak of moving up the ravine," answered McKinley.

At this Colonel Duval shook his head decidedly. Going up the ravine might prove a dangerous move, and might cause the loss of many men.

"I shall not move until I receive more definite orders," he said.

At this Captain McKinley's face fell, for he was an earnest soldier, and he knew that General Crook wanted the movement made without further question. He cast his eyes down into the ravine and across to the fields and woods which the enemy occupied. Then he braced up and saluted again.

"Colonel Duval, I order you, by command of General Crook, to move your command to the right of the Sixth Corps at once, and take a route along the ravine," he said boldly.

"The command shall be obeyed," replied Duval, and something like a smile crossed his face. In a minute more the soldiers were on the way.

As Captain McKinley rode back to General Crook's side, he was no doubt much worried over the result of his order. He had taken a grave responsibility on his shoulders; for if the movement resulted disastrously, he would surely be brought to account. What the result was we shall soon see.