July 12. —In Port Hudson at last! There was no false alarm. Vicksburg really fell on the 4th inst. On the 8th, down went Port Hudson; and the particular work for which we came here was at last accomplished, just as our term of service expired. Glory be to God!
I write on the bold Port-Hudson bluff, within a step or two of the precipice, which descends seventy feet to the water’s edge. My back is resting against the earthwork which protected one of the great cannon of the rebels. Before me rolls the great river; the bluff here commanding a splendid reach of it, five or six miles up toward Vicksburg. From the water and the green woods that fringe it comes a cool breeze. Our work is done; our time has expired; and now we only wait for the sick of the regiment to be assembled, for the baggage to be collected, and for the arrival of the transports to take us North.
I am weary and worn with the siege and hard fare; but the experiences of the last few days have been so interesting, that I must make some record of them.
As I have written, before daybreak, the morning of the 8th of July, the major went into the rifle-pits to stop hostilities, as the conference of the commanding generals was about to begin under a flag of truce. About sunrise, I hurried down the military road, and through the obstructed pathways, to the position of the regiment. The ravines were empty. I climbed up past the forsaken booths and caves to the outer picket-posts, and found the men were all out in front. There was no need, this morning, of crouching. The rebel works were only a stone’s-toss off; but the rebels themselves were walking and standing in the plainest sight, and free communication was going forward between the two armies.
A most complete entente cordiale had just been established between Company D and the Alabama and Arkansas men who have been posted opposite to us. It was rather embarrassing, at first, to come face to face with the chaps, who, for a month back, have been shooting at you night and day: but I wanted to study the live “reb,” and determine the category in natural history under which he should come,—whether “gorilla,” as some claim; or “chivalry,” as others; or something between.
I passed out from behind an uprooted tree, the grass near the stump yet pressed down, where the body of Stowell fell as he was shot; then pushed on for a hollow, about half way to the rebel works, having an uncomfortable sense of insecurity as I walked upright; for it had become second nature to us to crawl and stoop. It was only a few steps. Here they were, the real truculent and unmitigated reb, in butternut of every shade, from the dingy green which clothes the unripe nut, to the tawny brown and faded tan which it wears at other stages,—butternut mixed with a dull characterless gray. There was no attempt at uniform, yet something common, in the dress of the whole company, — a faded look, as if the fabric, whatever its original hue, had felt the sun until all life and brightness had wilted in the web and been killed out of the dye. Still the clothing was whole; and, upon closer inspection, looked strong and serviceable, though very coarse.
A group of rebels were gathered in the hollow and over the parapet others came jumping, coming in a straggling line down the slope. I am bound to say, they seemed like pleasant men. All were good-natured, and met our advances cordially. They straightened up as we did. It was good to be able to stretch up once more to the full height: they had not been able to do it for a month. Several were free-masons; and there was mysterious clasping and mighty fraternizing with the brethren on our side. Some had been in Northern colleges, and were gentlemen; and even the “white trash” and “border ruffians,” who made up the mass of them, were a less inhuman set than I should have believed.
The officers, sometimes, wore a uniform of gray; the rank being indicated by badges upon the collar. Sometimes there was nothing to distinguish them from privates. They were brown and dusty; though no more so than we, who, like them, had lived in burrows, on our backs and stomachs, for a month. We really thought, that in condition they went ahead of us. The climate and hard marching had sallowed and dug into our cheeks and shaken us on our pins; whereas they were, though not fat, by no means gaunt and emaciated. Still they hinted at rats, mule meat, and other hard matters, they had been forced of late to come down to.
“Here comes Old Thous’n Yards!” said they, as a broad, tall Arkansian, with a beard heavy as Spanish moss on an oak, and a quick, dark eye, came swinging down from the parapet. They all made way for him with some deference. He was “Old Thous’n Yards” with every one, and turned out to be the great sharpshooter of that part of the works. I inquired about him, and found he was a famous backwoodsman and hunter, who, with a proper rifle, was really sure of a bear or buffalo at the distance of a thousand yards. He came forward rather bashfully. On both sides, the rifles were left behind; and “Old Thousand Yards” seemed to be as much troubled to dispose of his hands as a college freshman at his first party. His left arm would half bend into a hollow as if to receive the rifle-barrel, and the right fingers work as if they wanted to feel the touch of the lock. I borrowed a chew of tobacco, and won the perennial friendship of “Old Thousand Yards” by bestowing it upon him. Then I bought his cedar canteen to preserve as a souvenir of Port Hudson and its sharpshooter. I fear more than one of our poor fellows has felt his skill; but, for all that, he was a good-natured fellow, with a fine frame and noble countenance, — a physique to whose vigor and masculine beauty, prairies and mountain-paths and wild chases had contributed.
For the most part, these men of the Forty-ninth Alabama and Fifteenth Arkansas seemed like honorable fellows, firm to their cause; disposed to be good-natured, but declining to give communications likely to help us; and, although owning to great hardship, apparently ready to fight on. They complimented our sharpshooting. It killed and wounded far more than our shells had done; though our shells had burned stables here, a camp there, houses elsewhere, and dismounted many guns. They told us their rifles were Belgian, Enfield, and Springfield. They had no “target,” or Kentucky rifles, as we had imagined. They evidently respected us, and we did them, — so brown and strong: some of them, indeed, with lack-lustre eyes, soap-locks, and lank frames, according to the conventional type of the Southerner; but plenty of them hearty, bright, and frank.
I came back at last to our covert, took a drink of rebel water out of “Old Thousand Yards'” canteen, and found my hostility to these fellows much mitigated. I could see why commanders generally frown on this sort of communication. It is likely to establish relations altogether too brotherly for the purposes of war. The great principle involved is liable to sink out of sight before the personal friendship.
Meantime, the generals conferred. At noon, a hitch was rumored, and we feared the re-opening of the tedious and terrible siege; but in the afternoon came better news, and at sundown the regiments began to gather from dens and caves, from thickets and ravines, —far and near, — and burnish up a little for a triumphal entry on the morrow.
The morrow came. We left the woods; the filthy little brook whose banks had been covered with the cooking booths of whole divisions of men, and which we had daily drunk almost dry; the graves and the rifle-pits, the half-completed saps, and dreary ovens in which the sun had baked us so long. We left them; henceforth, through long generations probably, to be objects of historical interest, mementoes of the great war. With the old flag, in Wilson’s hands, spreading its soiled and tattered fragments to the breeze, a sick and diminished company, we marched through the gate, over tracks marked out by our shell, through riddled camps, past carcasses of horses, and new-made graves of men; then drew up in line, at last, on the brink of the bluff, with the great, liberated river rolling before us toward the sea.
“We were but warriors for the working-day:
Our gayness and our gilt were all besmirched
With rainy marching in the painful field.
There was no piece of feather in our host,
And time had worn us into slovenry;
But, by the Mass! our hearts were in the trim.”