McClure's Magazine/Volume 19/Number 6/His Father's Flag
HIS FATHER'S FLAG
BY EUGENE MANLOVE RHODES
"Ah, few were the stars (and lost their glory.
And strange the story,
And dim the dream!)
On that young flag that in war's wild weather
They bore together
Against the stream."
LIEUT. RICHARD NELSON sat on the veranda with Mr. and Mrs. Ritter and their daughter. Their long afternoon was nearly done, and the little hill upon the slope of which the house was built threw a cool and grateful shadow over them. Mr. Ritter was an American missionary in the little town of Ping-Yurn on the Hoang-Ho, a short distance from the Gulf of Pe-Chi-Li. During the incipiency of the Boxer insurrection, when the United States soldiers were hurried to China, Lieutenant Nelson with Company A, sixty strong, had been stationed here to guard supplies.
The place had been selected because of its natural strength, and because the vicinity was not regarded as belonging to the disaffected district. The sluggish yellow river, here cut down between high and almost insurmountable banks, ran in a long oxbow curve, at the open end of which the town was situated, while within the curve were two "sugar-loaf" hills with the river on three sides of them and the town on the fourth. On the larger of the two hills, Company A had constructed earthworks and stored the precious powder, ammunition, and food. On the eastern slope of the smaller hill was the red-roofed bungalow occupied by the Ritters.
Lieutenant Nelson had pressed the missionary and his family to take refuge in the little fortress, but they had declined, thinking the danger a thing far off. So the young officer, at their invitation, had taken up his abode with them, with a detail of four men for sentry duty. His captain was on detached service, the first lieutenant in the hospital at Manila, and this was Nelson's first independent command.. Here the last ten days had been passed pleasantly and uneventfully, albeit with many anxious speculations as to the fate of their less fortunate compatriots.
A third of a mile away. Company A gambled and grumbled and cursed their inglorious inactivity fluently and earnestly.
"Lieutenant," said Mrs. Ritter that evening, looking across the valley to the little fort, "your men are nearly all Southerners, are they not?"
"All of them, Mrs. Ritter, and nearly all Virginians at that." He spoke with a deprecatory modesty which left it to be inferred that, to his notion at least, he was bestowing the highest possible praise. "Fine fellows. When the call for volunteers for the Spanish War was issued, they were the first to respond. That is how we came to be Company A. Now don't say 'F. F. V's,' Miss Ritter; I see it trembling on your lips."
"Indeed, I am only surprised," returned that young lady laughing, "that the F. F. V's answered the call so promptly. I am afraid"— hesitating a little—"had I been on the south of Mason and Dixon's line, I should not have forgotten so soon."
The soldier's face grew grave. "We have not forgotten," he said. "We have forgiven—as we hope we are forgiven. It was inevitable—and best—that we should lose. We are loyal to the Stars and Stripes—but we have not forgotten the Stars and Bars. There is more pride than sorrow in our memories. And when the haughty Lees and the fiery Wheeler set us the example, we youngsters who know the Great War only in twilight tales and legends could hardly do less than follow."
He hesitated a moment, his boyish cheek flushing, and then addressed Mr. Ritter.
"Do you know—I have a Confederate flag I carry with me always?" He lowered his voice reverently. "It was my father's!"
Mr. Ritter frowned (he had been a stern soldier of the North), but Alice sprang up in delight.
"O do get it, Lieutenant! I have never seen a Confederate flag in my life! Don't mind papa—he has seen it before, but I haven't."
Nelson laughed and went to his room. He quickly returned with a parcel which he unfolded, and spread a small battle flag before them.
Such a stained and torn and tattered banner! Its colors were dimmed by time and rain—it was rent and scarred by the storm of battle—its edges frayed by the winds of four desperate years!
"The blood of a kinsman made one of these many stains," said Nelson. "A shell made this gash at Fair Oaks—these bullets tore through in the Seven Days. Here, and here, are the marks of Antietam." His voice grew low and tense—he looked at the flag as if he had forgotten the others. "When Pickett's ten thousand charged on the last terrible day at Gettysburg, this flag led the van—and one of my name and blood rode beside it. And when it reeled back in defeat, for the first time—but not the last!—O, not the last!—the fate of the Southern Confederacy was sealed! Where my father and this flag turned back that day marked the high tide of the Rebellion! It flew afterward in many a losing fight—but after that fatal day it was the symbol only of a forlorn hope!"
The deep stern voice of the old missionary broke the silence.
"It floated over brave but mistaken men,
Its battles are over—forever!"
► ► ►
It was just daybreak when the sentries at the redoubt gave the alarm and Company A, in various stages of dishabille, crouched behind their earthworks and poured an accurate and murderous fire into a yellow mass of unorganized, half-armed Chinese. The yellow torrent was beaten back, and the First Sergeant scrambled upon the rampart, saying harsh things, and peered through the half darkness to where a continued rifle fire told of an attack on Ritter's.
A dense mass of infuriated Chinese was swarming out of the town and firing from behind every sheltered place at the little garrison. The attack on the house made by comparatively few men had been repulsed.
The Sergeant sent half of the men to dress at a time. At the moment when the second detachment returned, a howling mob of Chinamen charged fiercely up the slope to Ritter's. But Company A hurled a pitiless, unceasing storm of lead into their crowded ranks, and thekept up a brisk fire from the windows, and after a moment's suspense the shouting, shrieking mass rolled down the hill again.
After this repulse the little party in the missionary's house tried to cross the intervening space between them and the fort, but every available gun in the rapidly swelling horde was turned upon them; one soldier and two of the three native servants were killed, and they were glad to turn back to the house again.
"We must go to them," said the Sergeant. "Corporal, take Lieutenant Nelson's horse and notify Major Boone of our situation. It is twenty-five miles—you ought to bring help by night. You'll have to jump off the bluff and swim the river."
The Corporal sped clattering on his way, and while they waited to see if he crossed the river safely, Company A filled its knapsacks with ammunition and rations. When he led his horse up a winding trail on the farther side, they cheered him and then made a dash down the hill. They were greeted with a storm of fire and death. Seventy-five yards they went, then faltered, stopped, and fled back to the redoubt. In sixty seconds they had lost seven killed and many more wounded—the bugler and two others so badly that they crawled back. The Chinese aim was vile, and their ancient guns nearly worthless, otherwise Company A must have been killed to a man.
"Flesh and blood can't do it!" groaned the Sergeant, and Company A gnashed its teeth in despair.
The firing lulled, and the Sergeant, taking Nelson's glass, looked toward the mob, who seemed to be making preparations for some new move. For a moment he was puzzled— and then, "Good God," he cried, "they'll get The Boy this time sure!" (Lieutenant Nelson was "The Boy.")
The besiegers were forming under shelter of the town and speeding up the other side of the hill on which the Ritter dwelling stood, where the fire from the fort could not harm them.
At this juncture Nelson's little party, seeing their position was untenable, abandoned the house and ran up the fifty yards between it and the summit, seeking,shelter among a number of boulders on the crest.
Lieutenant Nelson was the last to reach the haven of safety, and Company A marveled much to see that he had torn a rail from the balcony and was carrying it with him.
"Now what is that for?" growled Sergeant Jennings. The answer was not long in coming. A moment later, just as the sun looked over the eastern mountains, the flag of the Confederacy, for the first time in thirty-five years, floated out over a field of battle!
A sound, which was less a cheer than a sob, burst from every throat. There was no word of command or counsel, but, as if in answer to a summons to which there could be no denying, Company A sprang over the ramparts and charged gladly down to death.
Down the green slope—swiftly—unfalteringly, not a man but felt death better than any turning back. A thousand memories of the irrevocable past rose thronging up to each and all.
The bullets rained thick among them. Men stumbled—fell—rose—and fell again. The wounded fired where they dropped, till death found them—and somewhere above all the din and thunder rose the strains of "Dixie." It was the wounded bugler left behind them in the redoubt.
"Look away! Look away!
Look away down south to Dixie."
They reached the bottom, and at the Sergeant's command went in skirmish order—one half retreating while the other fired into the ranks of the Chinese, now close behind them; then in their turn passing on up the hill while their comrades kept up the unequal fight; and so came at last to The Boy and the welcome shelter of the rocks. But the dead bodies of twenty of their number marked their course.
They were just in time. Even as they dropped breathless on the summit the main body of Chinese, frantic with rage, came in view on the farther slope of the hill. For five horrible minutes of sickening suspense Company A poured volley after volley into them at point-blank range, till the baffled foe fled panic-stricken before their deadly aim.
The cowardly Orientals had learned to fear this formidable handful of desperate men now. They turned in fiendish glee to the three wounded soldiers in the redoubt, who were lying in plain view on the top of the powder magazine. All eyes were turned to them—and it was seen that one of them was signaling with a wig-wag flag. Five hundred yellow devils ran shouting up the hill, and this is what was signaled:
"Save your shots—we will fire powder."
A cheer blew across the valley—Hark! The bugler again! High and clear as the triumphant demons came closer—a hundred and fifty yards—a hundred—fifty—
"I'se gwine back to Dixie,
I'se gwine back to Dixie!
My heart's turned back to Dixie
I can't stay here no longer——"
Company A stood bareheaded and prayed to the God it had scoffed:
"—I hear dem childern calling
I see dem sad tears falling,
My heart's turned back to Dixie
And I—must go!"
The Boxers swarmed over the wall. An appalling sound as of a thousand thunderbolts—a spurt of flame and fire—a cloud of dust and smoke that hid the startled sky from the trembling earth—and where there had been a green hillside there was now a blackened, desolate heap of torn earth and stones and mangled corpses—while a few mutilated, terrified survivors limped down the hill.
Before the smoke had cleared away, the Boy's soldierly eye had seen the opportunity to strengthen his position before the terror and confusion of the enemy subsided. A few brief orders were given, and the men worked as they had never worked before.
Jennings with ten men ran down to the house and brought back water, food, and tools for entrenchment. They divided in squads working five minutes each. They first made a deep shelter for the women, and then threw up a slender ridge of earth from rock to rock; those not working keeping up a steady fire, replied to in increasing volume by the Chinese. And so the weary day wore on. And all that day the Stars and Bars floated over the Boys in Blue!
If, in its brief and stormy past, that flag had ever stood, in part for any injustice or wrong, on this day of days it stood for naught save Love and Honor. Surely, surely, the Angel of Wrath, though he looked with exultation when that flag went down, defeated, in the dust and smoke of a thousand battles, yet thrilled with pride and tears and joy to see its silken folds flung to the winds again!
Thrice that long, long day a yellow wave swept up the hill to the little rampart; and thrice the dauntless valor of its defenders made the stubborn circle good. And with each wave brave men gave their souls ungrudgingly to God; and the little garrison grew less and less.
The women bound up wounds and gave drink to dying lips; but none complained, none murmured. At each onset The Boy and Ritter fought in the foremost rank; each setting an example of deadly, desperate courage. And ever as the flood rolled backward, writhing in defeat. The Boy looked up to the faded colors that flew defiantly in the sun, as if to invoke the memories of the mighty dead.
They built in corpses, white and yellow, in their meager wall; they stripped the dead of cartridge belts, and the wounded and dying loaded fresh rifles for the thinning number that kept the foe at bay. And the longed-for night came on apace.
The sun was nearly down when Sergeant Jennings got his death wound. He said no word, but with his last strength walked slowly to a low place in the wall and laid his bleeding body in the gap.
It was done so simply and so much as a matter of course that in the pitch to which the men's nerves were strung, it seemed a perfectly natural action, calling for no protest; and when in the next lull the Boy went to him, his gallant soul had gone to its own place.
A dense throng rushed up the hill for a last charge; and the few feeble survivors braced themselves for a final effort. They rolled huge boulders down the hill into the shrieking, seething mass; they loaded every gun and emptied them into the frantic mob—but they came on—on though they fell like wheat—and the foremost were over the rampart.
A fierce short struggle—clubbed musket against sword and knife; thrusting, striking, stabbing, swaying—then—the thunder of horses' feet—the crash of regular volleys—the ringing Anglo-Saxon cheer! Help had come, and the ignoble hosts fled in fear, while the long-range rifles exacted fearful vengeance from them.
And the rescuers, English and American, looked and wondered, while Union Jack and Old Glory were lowered once and again in reverence to a fallen and discredited flag.
They came to the rampart, over a slope slippery with blood, strewn with corpses, trampled into mire by a thousand feet. Two weeping women knelt beside the prostrate form of the old missionary. Five weary, wounded, powder-blackened soldiers stood grimly at attention. A bare-headed man, covered with blood and dust, saluted with a broken sword, and said:
"Sir—I have the honor to report..." The blood gushed to his lips; he turned to where, in the last rays of the sun, the Banner of the Lost Cause waved in triumph over its last battlefield—smiled—and fell. The soldier had carried his report to God!
They buried him as was fitting and proper—his ragged flag around him, his broken sword in his hand. There be many men who sleep so for that flag—many swords that have been broken in its defense—none better, none braver, than these.