CHAPTER XV THE FIGHTING AROUND BUZZARD ROOST
AND CAPTURE OF THE REBEL STRONGHOLD.
FOR the next few days there was a puzzling maze of movements, which must have completely mystified the rebel Generals--as was intended--for it certainly passed the comprehension of our own keen-eyed and shrewdly-guessing rank-and-file and lower oflficers.
Regiments, brigades and divisions marched hither-and-yon, wound around and over the hills and mountains, started out at a great rate in the morning, marched some distance, halted apparently halfway, and then perhaps went back. Skirmishing, that sometimes rose to the proportions of a real battle, broke out at unexpected times and places, and as unexpectedly ended. Batteries galloped into position, without much apparent warning or reason, viciously shelled some distant point, and then, as the infantry were girding up themselves for something real to follow all the noise, stopped as abruptly as they had begun, and nothing followed.
This went on so long, and apparently so purposelessly, that even the constant Si and Shorty were shaken a little by it.
"It can't be," said Shorty to Si, one evening after they had gone into bivouac, and the two had drawn away from the boys a little, to talk over things by themselves, "that old Sherman's got one o' his crazy fits again, can it? They say that sometimes he gits crazier 'n a March hare, and nobody kin tell just when the fit'll come on him. I never did see so much criss cross work as we've bin doin' for the last few days. I can't make head nor tail of it, and can't find anybody else that kin."
"I can't make it out no more than you kin," assented Si. "And I've thought o' that crazy idee, too. You know them boys over there in Rousseau's old division was under Sherman once before, when he was in command at Louisville, and they say that he got crazier'n a locoed steer--actually looney, so's they had to relieve him and send him back home to git cured. They'd be really scared about things, but their officers heard old Pap Thomas say that things wuz goin' along all right, and that satisfied 'em. I ain't goin' to worry so long's old Thomas is in command o' the Army o' the Cumberland, and we're in it. He'll take care that things come out straight."
"You bet," heartily agreed Shorty. "The Army o' the Cumberland'll be all right as long as he's on deck, and he kin take care o' the other armies, too, if they git into trouble. I struck some o' the Army o' the Tennessee when I went back with them prisoners today, and got talkin'
with 'em. I asked 'em if Sherman wasn't subject to crazy fits, and they said yes, he had 'em, but when he did he made the rebels a mighty sight crazier'n he was. They went on to say that we'd git used to Sherman after awhile, and he'd show us some kinks in soljerin' that we never dreamed of."
"Sich plaguey conceit," muttered Si.
"I should say so. But I never seen anybody so stuck on theirselves as them Army o' the Tennessee fellers. Just because they took Vicksburg--"
"With all the navy to help 'em," interjected Si.
"Yes, with more gunboats than we have army wagons. They think they know more about soljerin than anybody else in the world, and ackchelly want to give us p'ints as to how to git away with the rebels."
"The idee," said Si scornfully. "Talkin' that way to the best soljers in the world--the Army o' the Cumberland. I hate conceit, above all things. I'm glad I hain't none of it in me. 'Tain't that we say it, but everybody knows it that the Army o' the Cumberland's the best army in the world, and the 200th Injianny--"
"I told 'em that the Army o' the Cumberland was the best army, because it had the 200th Injianny in it, and, would you believe me, they said they'd never even heard o' the 200th Injianny?"
"Sich ignorance," groaned Si. "Can't they read? Don't they git the papers?"
"There'd bin a fight right, there, if it hadn't bin for the officers. I wanted awfully to take a fall out of a big Sergeant who said that Thomas might be a good enough man for Chairman of a convention o' farmers, but when he went to war he wanted to have sich leaders as Sherman, McPherson, and Logan, and Osterhaus. But he'll keep. We agreed to see each other later, when we'll have a private discussion, and if he has any head left on him he'll freely acknowledge that nobody in the Army o'
the Tennessee is fit to be named in the same day with Pap Thomas."
"Better turn him over to me, Shorty," said Si, meditatively. "I think I'm in better shape for an argument just now than you are. You've bin doing a good deal in the last few days, and I'm afraid you're a little run down."
"No; he's my meat. I found him, and I'll take care o' him. But there's just one thing that reconciles me to this business. In spite o' all this sashayin' and monkeying we seem to be continually edgin' up closter to them big cliffs where the rebels are, and something's got to bust purty soon. It's jist like it was at Tullyhomy, but old Rosecrans ain't runnin' things now."
"But Thomas is in the center, as he was then, and we're with him," said Si hopefully. "There's tattoo, Le's crawl in."
The other boys had been affected according to their various temperaments by the intricate and bewildering events of the past few days. The first day or two they were all on the tenter-hooks of expectation and anxiety.
Every bugle-call seemed to be a notice for them to rush into the great battle. Every time they saw a regiment moving, they expected to follow and fall into line with it. They wondered why they were not sent in after every skirmish-line they saw advancing. When a rebel battery opened out in the distance they girded themselves in expectation of an order to charge it. But Si and Shorty kept admonishing them that it would be time enough for them to get excited when the 200th Ind. was called on by name for something; that they were not expected to fight the whole campaign, but only to do a limited part of it, and they had better take things easy, and save themselves for their share when it should come to them.
It was astonishing how soon they recognized this, and settled down to more or less indifference to things that did not directly concern their own regiment. They were just at the age to be imitative, and the example of the veterans around them had a strongly-repressive effect.
So, after the second or third day of the turmoil of the opening campaign, they ceased to bother themselves openly, at least, as to why their regiment did not move when others did, as to why they did not go to the help of others that were fighting, and as to when they were to be summoned to make a desperate assault upon the frowning palisades of rock which were literally alive with rebels and belching cannon.
When the regiment was lying still they occupied and amused themselves, as did the others, according to their several bents. The medical-minded Alf Russell watched the movements and deportment of the Surgeons at every opportunity, and was especially interested in everything that he could catch a glimpse of, from feeling a man's pulse to extracting a bullet. The lathy Gid Mackall, whose appetite did not need the sharpening it got from the free mountain air, put in much of his time cooking, all possible variations of his rations with anything else that he could get hold of, and devouring the product with eagerness. In spite of Si's strict prohibition against card-playing, the sleepy headed Jim Humphreys was rapidly, but secretly, mastering all the tricks and mysteries of camp gambling, and becoming an object of anxiety to the older gamesters whenever he pitted himself against them. Sandy Baker, whose tastes ran to mechanics, "tinkered" constantly with his rifle and equipments, studying the nature and inner workings of every part, and considering possible improvements. Sprightly Harry Joslyn was fascinated with the details of soldiering, and devoted himself to becoming perfect in the manual of arms and the facings. Little Pete Skidmore was keenly alive to all that was going on, and wanted to know everything. When he could trust himself not to get lost from his regiment, he would scurry over to the nearest one, to find out who they were, where they had come from, what they had been doing, and whither they were likely to go. But Monty Scruggs was constantly in the public eye, as he loved to be. His passion for declamation pleased officers and men. He really declaimed very well, and it was a reminder to them of home and the long-ago school days to hear him "spout" the oldtime Friday afternoon favorites.
Therefore he was always called upon whenever there was nothing else to engage the men's attention, and his self-confidence and vanity grew rapidly upon the liberal applause bestowed on him. He was a capital mimic, too, and daring as well, and it was not long before he began to "take off" those around him, which his comrades enjoyed even more than his declamations.
The llth of May, 1864, saw all the clouds of battle which had been whirling for days in such apparently diverse directions, gathering about the deep gorge in Rocky Face Ridge through which the railroad passed.
"Buzzard Roost," as this was named, was the impregnable citadel behind which the rebel army had taken refuge after its rout at Mission Ridge the previous November, and the rebel engineers had since exhausted every effort to make it still more unassailable. The lofty mountain rose precipitously for hundreds of feet on either side the narrow gorge, and the last hundred feet was a sheer wall of perpendicular rock. The creek which ran through the gorge had been dammed, so that its waters formed a broad, deep moat before the mouth of the gorge. The top of the ridge swarmed with men, and to the rear of the gorge guns were massed in emplacements to sweep every foot of the passage.
It seemed madness to even think of forcing such a pass. A thousand men in the shelters of that fastness could beat back myriads, and it was known that Joe Johnston had at least 50,000 behind the Ridge. Yet Sherman was converging great rivers of men from the north, the northwest and west down upon that narrow gap, as if he meant to move the eternal rocks by a freshet of human force.
The rebels thrown out in advance of the gorge, on outlying hills, rocks and cliffs, were swept backward and into the gap by the resistless wave of blue rolling forward, fiery and thundering, gathering force and vehemence as it converged into a shortening semi-circle about the rugged stronghold.
The 200th Ind. moved forward and took its place in the line on a hill commanding a view of the entrance to the gorge, and there waited its orders for the general advance, which seemed imminent any instant.
For miles to the right and left the woods were crackling with musketry, interspersed with the booming of fieldpieces.
The regiment had stacked arms and broken ranks.
For an hour or two the men had studied with intense eagerness the bristling fortifications of the gap and the swarming foemen at the foot of and on the summit of the high walls of rock. They had listened anxiously to the firing to the right and left, and tried to make out what success their comrades on other parts of the long crescent were having. They had watched the faces of the officers to read there how the battle was going.
But one after another found this tiresome after awhile and set himself to his usual camp employments and diversions. Some got out needles and thread, and began repairing their clothes. Some gathered in groups and smoked and talked. Many produced the eternal cards, folded up a blanket for a table, and resumed their endless sevenup and euchre or poker for buttons and grains of corn. Jim Humphreys found his way into one of these games, which was played behind a clump of bushes, and the buttons represented dimes. He was accumulating fractional currency. Gid Mackall embraced the opportunity to cook for himself a savory stew with some onions distributed by the Sanitary Commission. Sandy Baker went over his gun, saw that every screw was properly tight, and dropped the tiniest amount of oil on the trigger and the hammer, to ease their working. Pete Skidmore wandered down to the flank of the next regiment to find out if anything new had occurred. Harry Joslyn got himself into the exact "position of a soldier," with his heels together, his toes pointed at an angle of 45 degrees, and went through the manual of the piece endlessly.
Si and the Orderly-Sergeant communed together about the rations for the company, and the various troubles there was always on the Orderly's mind about the company's management. Shorty got off by himself, produced from his breast his mementoes of Maria, and read over her last letter for the thousandth time, though he knew every word in it. But he seemed to get a new and deeper meaning every time he read it.
Groups of officers would come up to a little rise in front, study the distant ridge with their glasses for awhile, and then ride away.
A couple of natty young Aids followed their superiors' example, rode up, dismounted, and studied the enemy's position with great dignity and earnestness, that it might have full effect upon the brigade behind them.
Monty Scruggs saw his opportunity. He bound some tin cans together to represent field glasses, mounted a stump, and began intently studying Buzzard Roost.
This attracted the attention of the others.
"What do you see, Monty?" they shouted.
"See?" answered he. "Just lots and gobs. I see old Joe Johnston over there, with Pat Cleburne, and Hood and Bragg, and Joe Wheeler. They're all together, and pulling off their coats, and rolling up their sleeves, and shaking their fists at the 200th Ind., and daring it to come on."
[Illustration: CAPTURE OF REBEL STRONGHOLD. 185]
"Tell 'em not to sweat. Just hold their horses. We'll be over presently," shouted the others, with yells of laughter. "What else do you see?"
The young Aids turned around and glanced angrily at Monty and the laughing crowd.
"I see old Jeff Davis there, with his Cabinet of traitors. He's writing a fresh proclamation to his people, with his blind eye, and has got his good one fixed on the 200th Ind., which he's telling Joe Johnston is bound to give him more trouble than all the rest o' the army."
"Good! Good!" yelled the rest. "So we will. Old Jeff's right for once.
What else do you see?"
"Stop that, my man," said one of the Aids savagely. "You're disturbing us."
"Go ahead, and don't mind 'em," shouted the others. "They're only Second Lieutenants any way. Tell us what you see."
"I see way by Richmond, old Unconditional Surrender Grant's got Bob Lee by the throat, and's just wipin' up the State of Virginny with him.