Read CHAPTER XXXII - WE REPULSE THE ENEMY of Love Under Fire, free online book, by Randall Parrish, on ReadCentral.com.

I naturally anticipated an immediate attack, and began preparations. Glass was broken from the small windows through which the men were to fire, and the sergeants and myself made inspection of men and arms, and gave orders for vigorous defence. Yet we were already so well intrenched that this required but a few moments, and, confident I could shift my force quickly so as to meet any attack, I returned to the front rooms to observe the enemy. To my surprise there was no evidence of any movement in our direction, although there had been a noticeable shifting of troops. Chambers had swung his infantry forward through gaps in the line of battle, and was now confronting the Federal advance, not only holding his ground, but it seemed to me, slightly pushing his opponent. I ran up stairs so as to obtain a wider view of the field. They were fighting fiercely to our front and left, the line of fire slightly overlapping the pike, although, from the led horses in the rear, the troops engaged on this extremity were mostly dismounted cavalry. Marching columns were still approaching from the south, swinging off from the pike as they neared the house, and disappearing into a grove of trees to the east. The land in that direction was rough, and I could only guess at the formation by the sound of firing, and the dense clouds of smoke. It was out there the artillery was massed, although in all of Chambers’ command I saw but two batteries. The heaviest fighting was to the east, not so far away but what we were within shell range, and yet out of direct view, while to the north the Confederates could be seen struggling to gain possession of a low hill. Their first rush had dislodged the Federals from the log church, but had been halted just below in the hollow. Beyond to the westward stretched the black shadow of the ravine, silent and deserted, largely concealed by a fringe of trees.

That which interested me more particularly, however, was the scene nearer at hand the stragglers, the wounded, the skulkers, the disorganized bodies of men, the wearied commands which had been fighting since daylight, now doggedly falling back, relieved by new arrivals, yet unwilling to go. They were not beaten, and their officers had fairly to drive them from the field, and when they halted the men faced to the front. It was all a scene of wild confusion, the roar of guns incessant, the air full of powder smoke, shells bursting here and there, and constantly the shouts of men. Ammunition wagons blocked the pike, soldiers thronging about them to stuff cartridges into emptied belts; a battery of artillery dashed past, recklessly scattering the surging mass to left and right, as its horses, lashed into frenzy, plunged forward toward the fighting line; horsemen galloped back and forth, commanding, imploring, swearing, as they endeavored to reform the mob into a reserve column; riderless horses dashed about, resisting capture; and a runaway team of mules, dragging behind the detached wheels of an army wagon, mowed a lane straight across the open field. Men lay everywhere sleeping, so exhausted the dead and living looked alike; there were ghastly bandages, dust-caked faces, bloody uniforms, features blackened by powder, and limping figures helped along by comrades. Empty ammunition wagons loaded again with wounded, went creaking slowly to the rear, the sharp cries of suffering echoing above the infernal din. Just outside the gate, under the tree shadows, was established a field hospital, a dozen surgeons working feverishly amid the medley of sounds. I had heretofore seen war from the front, in the excitement of battle, face to face with the enemy, but this sickened me. I felt my limbs tremble, the perspiration bead my face. I now knew what war was, stripped of its glamour, hideous in its reality of suffering and cruelty. For a moment I felt remorse, fear, a cowardly desire to escape, to get away yonder, beyond the reek of powder, the cries of pain. The awful vista gripped me as if by spectral fingers. But for the movement just then of that cavalry regiment, recalling me to duty, I half believe I should have run, not from fright but to escape the horror.

They were moving forward past the front of the house, the men still on foot, gripping the leather at their horses’ bits, the restive animals plunging so wildly as to make it seem more the advance of a mob than a disciplined body. A shell exploded in the road to their left, tearing a hole in the white pike, and showering them with stones. I could see bleeding faces where the flying gravel cut. Another shrieked above, and came to earth just in front of the house, shattering the front steps into fragments, and leaving one of the wooden pillars hanging, unsupported. Yet with no halt or hesitancy, the gray mass moved slowly across the lawn, and then deliberately formed in line beneath the trees of the orchard. Their horses were led to the rear, and the men fell into rank at the sharp command of officers. Facing as they did I was left in doubt as to their purpose. Just inside the gate a battalion of infantry stood at parade rest, some of Johnston’s men, I judged from their appearance, who had held together. Beyond them a little group of horsemen had reined up on a knoll, and seemed to be studying the surrounding country through field glasses. I could see the glitter of them in the sun.

Straight across the grass from the line of dismounted cavalry an officer rode, galloping through the dust of the pike, and trotting up the incline until he reached this distant group. I watched curiously as he pointed toward the house, and the others turned and looked. I could dimly distinguish features, and realized the meaning of some of their gestures. Then the cavalry-man turned his horse, and came trotting back. But now he rode directly up the gravelled driveway to the front of the house, a white rag flapping from the point of his uplifted sword. Thirty feet away he pulled up his horse, his eyes searching the house, and I stepped out on the porch roof. The broken pillar made me afraid to venture to the edge, but we were plainly in view of each other.

“Are you the Yank in command?” he asked brusquely, staring up at me.

“Yes.”

He removed the rag from his sword, and thrust the weapon into its scabbard.

“What force have you?”

I smiled, amused at his display of nerve.

“You will have to come in to discover that, my friend.”

His naturally florid face reddened with anger.

“I’m not here to joke,” he retorted. “General Chambers wishes me to offer you a last opportunity to surrender without bloodshed.”

“And if I refuse?”

“We shall attack at once, sir,” haughtily. “A glance about will show you the helplessness of your position.”

I waited long enough to glance again over the scene. I was convinced they possessed no artillery which could be spared from the front for this small affair, and believed we were capable of making a strong defence against musketry. With the exception of that battalion of infantry near the gate, and the cavalry regiment in the orchard, every organized body of troops was being hurried forward to strengthen their line of battle. Even General Chambers and his staff had disappeared over the hill, and every sound that reached us evidenced a warm engagement. The stream of wounded soldiers flowing back across the pike was thickening, and Federal shells were already doing damage at this distance.

“I thank you for your information,” I said civilly, “but we shall endeavor to hold the house.”

“You mean to fight!”

“Yes if you wish this place you will have to come and take it.”

He drew back his horse, yet with head turned, hopeful I might say more. But I stepped back through the window, and as I disappeared he clapped in his spurs, and rode out into the orchard. A moment later the dismounted troopers spread out into a thin line, covering the front and left of the house, unslung their carbines and began to load. Something about the way they went at it convinced me they expected no very serious resistance. A word to my men on that floor brought them to the point threatened by this first attack, and I gave them swift, concise orders no firing until they heard a signal shot from the front hall; then keep it up while there was a man standing in range; carbines first, after that revolvers, and keep down out of sight from below. I looked into their faces, confident of obedience, and then ran down stairs.

Here the two sergeants veterans both had anticipated everything, and massed their men at the windows facing front and left. They lay flat, protected in every possible way, and each man had an extra gun beside him, and a pile of cartridges. Mahoney was in the parlor, and Miles in the hall, watchful of each movement without. I gave them the instructions about withholding their fire, and, grasping a carbine myself, pushed forward to where I could see outside. The troopers were already moving, advancing slowly in open order, but came to a halt just within carbine range. At sharp command their guns came up, and they poured a volley into the house. Beyond a shattering of glass no damage was done, but under the cover of the smoke, the gray line leaped forward. I waited until they reached the gravel, and then pulled trigger. Almost to the instant the whole front and side of the house blazed into their very faces, not once only, but twice, three times, the men grabbing gun after gun. It was not in flesh and blood to stand it; the line crumbled up as though seared by fire, men fell prone, others staggered back blinded, and, almost before we realized, there remained nothing out there but a fleeing crowd, leaving behind their dead and wounded. Only three men had placed foot on the porch, and they lay there motionless; one had grasped the sill of a window, and had fallen back with a crushed skull. It was all over with so quickly that through the smoke we looked at each other dazed, and then stared out at the flying figures. I groped my way from room to room, ordering a reloading of the guns, and asking if there were any injured. The walls were scarred by bullets much of the piled up furniture splintered, but only two men had been hit, and their, wounds were slight.

“They’ll try it again, lads,” I said. “Get ready.” There was no doubt of that, for they were old soldiers out yonder, and would never rest under the stigma of defeat. But they were bound to be more cautious a second time, and would give us a harder tussle.

The fleeing men were rallied just beyond the negro cabins, cursed by their officers and driven back into line; then moved slowly forward again to their former position in the orchard. The sudden terror which had smitten them when the silent house burst into death flames, had somewhat worn off, and a desire for revenge succeeded. I could see the officers passing back and forth talking and gesticulating. A dozen troopers under a flag of truce came forward to pick up the wounded, and without even challenging we permitted them to do their work. The house remained quiet, sombre, silent, nothing showing but the dark barrels of our carbines. The infantry battalion at the gate moved against the left of the cavalry, and couriers were despatched to hurry up more. Out by the negro quarters a dozen officers held council, pointing at the house, and by gestures designating a plan of attack. I think they sent for artillery, but none came, and when one of the couriers returned and reported, bringing only another infantry battalion, it was decided to delay the attempt no longer. They formed this time in double line, sufficiently extended so as to cover the front and two sides of the house, with a squad concealed back of the stable, prepared to rush the kitchen and take us in the rear. It was not a bad plan had we misjudged it, but the ground was so open nothing could be concealed. A wagon came up with ammunition, and the men filled their belts. They moved forward to within long firing distance, the cavalry covering the north side, one battalion of infantry the south, and the other prepared to assail the front. These latter began firing at once, their muskets easily covering the distance, although our lighter weapons were useless.

Yet, beyond keeping us down close to the floor and out of view, this preliminary firing was but a waste of ammunition, the heavy balls merely breaking what glass remained, and chugging harmlessly into the walls. We were ready and waiting, extra loaded guns beside each man, our nerves throbbing with the excitement of battle, every trooper posted at some point of vantage for defence. For a few moments the formation of our assailants was almost completely concealed behind the black musketry smoke. All else was forgotten except our own part in the tragedy, even the thunder of artillery deadened by the continuous roll of small arms. Under the powder cloud the charging line sprang forward, determined to close in upon us with one fierce dash, almost encircling the house. The reserves elevated their guns, firing at the upper windows, while those chosen for the assault leaped forward, yelling as they came. I scarcely had time to cry a warning, and to hear the echoing shouts of Miles and Mahoney, before the gray line was on the gravel. It was then we struck them, every window and door bursting into flame simultaneously, the deadly lead poured into their very faces. We worked like fiends, the smoke suffocating, firing as rapidly as we could lay hands to weapons, seeing nothing but the dim outline of gray-clad men, surging madly toward us, or hurled back by the flame of our guns. It was hell, pandemonium, a memory blurred and indistinct; men, stricken to death, whirled and fell, others ran screaming; they stumbled over prostrate bodies, and cursed wildly in an effort to advance. Now it was the sharp spit of revolvers, cracking in deadly chorus. All I knew occurred directly before me. A dozen or fifteen leaped to the porch floor, swinging a huge log against the barricaded door. I heard the crash of it as it fell inward, the cry of men underneath. There was a rush of feet behind; the flame of revolvers seemed to sear my face, and the log lay on the porch floor, dead men clinging to it, and not a living gray-jacket showing under the smoke.