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SCENES IN THE WILDERNESS.
We kept the plank-road, — or rather the clay road beside it, which stretched before us dim in the hollows, and red as brick on the hillsides. We passed some old fields, and entered the great Wilderness, - a high and dry country, thickly overgrown with dwarfish timber, chiefly scrub oaks, pines, and cedars. Poles lashed to trees for tent-supports indicated where our regiments had encamped ; and soon we came upon abundant evidences of a great battle. Heavy breastworks thrown up on Brock's cross-road, planks from the plank-road piled up and lashed against trees in the woods, to form a shelter for our pickets, knapsacks, haversacks, pieces of clothing, fragments of harness, tin plates, canteens, some pierced with balls, fragments of shells, with here and there a round-shot, or a shell unexploded, straps, buckles, cartridge-boxes, socks, old shoes, rotting letters, desolate tracts of perforated and broken trees, - all these signs, and others sadder still, remained to tell their silent story of the great fight of the Wilderness.
A cloud passed over the sun : all the scene became sombre, and hushed with a strange brooding stillness, broken only by the noise of twigs crackling under my feet, and distant growls of thunder. A shadow fell upon my heart also, as from the wing of the Death-Angel, as I wandered through the woods, meditating upon what I saw. Where were the feet that wore those empty shoes? Where was he whose proud waist was buckled in that belt? Some soldier's heart was made happy by that poor, soiled, tattered, illegible letter, which rain and mildew have not spared; some mother's, sister's, wife's, or sweetheart's hand, doubtless, penned it; it is the broken end of a thread which unwinds a whole life-history, could we but. follow it rightly. Where is that soldier now? Did he fall in the fight, and does his home know him no more? Has the poor wife or stricken mother waited long for the answer to that letter, which never came, and will never come? Anil this cap, cut in two by a shot, and stiff with a strange incrustation, - a small cap, a mere boy's, it seems, — where now the fair head and wavy hair that wore it? Oh, mother and sisters at home, do you still mourn for your drummer-boy? Has the
story reached you, — how he went into the fight to carry off his wounded.comrades, and so lost his life for their sakes? for so I imagine the tale which will never be told.
And what more appalling spectacle is this? In the cover of thick woods, the unburied remains of two soldiers, – two skeletons side by side, two skulls almost touching each other, like the cheeks of sleepers! I came upon them unawares as I picked my way among the scrub oaks. I knew that scores of such sights could be seen here a few weeks before ; but the United States Government had sent to have its unburied dead collected together in the two national cemeteries of the Wilderness; and I had hoped the work was faithfully done.
- They was No'th-Carolinians; that 's why they did n't bury 'em," said Elijah, after a careful examination of the buttons fallen from the rotted clothing.
The ground where they lay had been fought over repeatedly, and the dead of both sides had fallen there. The buttons may, therefore, have told a true story: North-Carolinians they may have been ; yet I could not believe that the true reason why they had not been decently interred. It must have been that these bodies, and others we found afterwards, were overlooked by the party sent to construct the cemeteries. It was shameful negligence, to say the least.
The cemetery was near by, — a little clearing in the woods by the roadside, thirty yards square, surrounded by a picket fence, and comprising seventy trenches, each containing the remains of I know not how many dead. Each trench was · marked with a headboard inscribed with the invariable words:
“ Unknown United States soldiers, killed Ma,, 1864.”
Elijah, to whom I read the inscription, said, pertinently, that the words United States soldiers indicated plainly that it had not been the intention to bury Rebels there. No doubt: but these might at least have been buried in the woods where they fell.
As a grim sarcasm on this negiect, somebody had flung thres human skulls, picked up in the woods, over the paling into the cemetery, where they lay blanching among the graves.
THE FIRE IN THE WOODS.
Close by the southeast corner of the fence were three or four Rebel graves with old headboards. Elijah called my attention to them, and wished me to read what the headboards said. The main fact indicated was, that those buried there were North-Carolinians. Elijah considered this somehow corroborative of his theory derived from the buttons. The graves were shallow, and the settling of the earth over the bodies had left the feet of one of the poor fellows sticking out.
The shadows which darkened the woods, and the ominous thunder-growls, culminated in a shower. Elijah crawled under his wagon ; I sought the shelter of a tree; the horse champed his fodder, and we ate our luncheon. How quietly upon the leaves, how softly upon the graves of the cemetery, fell the perpendicular rain! The clouds parted, and a burst of sunlight smote the Wilderness; the rain still poured, but every drop was illumined, and I seemed standing in a shower of silver meteors.
The rain over, and luncheon finished, I looked about for some solace to my palate after the dry sandwiches moistened only by the drippings from the tree, - seeking a dessert in the Wilderness. Summer grapes hung their just ripened clusters from the vine-laden saplings, and the chincapin bushes were starred with opening burrs. I followed a woodland path embowered with the glistening boughs, and plucked, and ate, and mused. The ground was level, and singularly free from the accumulations of twigs, branches, and old leaves with which forests usually abound. I noticed, however, many charred sticks and half-burnt roots and logs. Then the terrible recollection overtook me: these were the woods that were on fire during the battle. I called Elijah.
“Yes, all this was a flame of fire while the fight was go'n' on. It was full of dead and wounded men. Cook and Stevens, farmers over hyer, men I know, heard the screams of the poor fellahs burnin' up, and come and dragged many a one out of the fire, and laid 'em in the road.”
The woods were full of Rebel graves, with here and there a heap of half-covered bones, where several of the dead had been hurriedly buried together.
I had seen enough. We returned to the cemetery. Elijah hitched up his horse, and we drove back along the plank-road, cheered by a rainbow which spanned the Wilderness and moved its bright arch onward over Chancellorsville towards Fredericksburg, brightening and fading, and brightening still again, like the hope which gladdened the nation's eye after Grant's victory.
ELIJAH wished to drive me the next day to Spottsylvania Court-House, and, as an inducement for me to employ him, promised to tackle up his mare. He also proposed various devices for softening the seats of his wagon. No ingenuity of plan, however, sufficed to cajole me. There was a liverystable in Fredericksburg, and I had conceived a strong prejudice in its favor.
The next morning, accordingly, there might have been seen wheeling ap to the tavern-door a shining vehicle, — a brannew buggy with the virgin gloss upon it, — drawn by a prancing iron-gray in a splendid new harness. The sarcastic stable-man had witnessed my yesterday's departure and return, and had evidently exhausted the resources of his establishment to furnish forth a dazzling contrast to Elijah's sorry outfit. The driver was a youth who wore his cap rakishly over his left eyebrow. I took a seat by his side on a cushion of the softest, and presently might have been seen riding out of Fredericksburg in that brilliant style, — nay, was seen, by one certainly, who was cut to the heart. We drove by the « stonewall” road under the Heights, and passed a house by the corner of which a thin-visaged “old man ” of fifty was watering a sad little beast at a well. The beast was “that mare”; and the old man was Elijah. I shall never forget the look he gave me. I bade him a cheerful good-morning ; but his voice stuck in his throat; he could not say “good-morning.” Our twinkling wheels almost grazed the hubs of the old wagon standing in the road as we passed.
That I might have nothing to regret, the stable-keeper had given me a driver who was in the Spottsylvania battle.