Though we are sick and worn, the general is determined we shall work while we remain. Early, Saturday the 20th, just before daylight, word came to us to march; whither, we knew not. We stole out quietly, so as not to attract the attention of the enemy; and marched to the general’s head-quarters, some three miles in our rear. It turned out that a train of one hundred and forty wagons was going into the country for forage. We were to be its escort; and, while we stood in line, two pieces of light artillery and a body of cavalry came up, who were to help us.
On any large map, a short distance from Port Hudson, to the north-east, you will see a little village called Jackson. It was near that village that we halted at noon. Here two well-travelled roads crossed each other, near which were situated the two plantations from which the forage was to be taken. The colonel rode out to see the barns, and to post his guards to prevent surprise. We stacked arms near the crossing of the roads, and went into the shade close by to eat our scanty dinner. We found we had come to a pleasant region. The land rolled up into fine swells, which had been cleared of forest in great part, giving place to wide-spreading corn-fields, where the corn was already tall, and with ears large and well filled out. The landscape had a rich, cultivated aspect; looking not unlike a farming region in New York in August.
The colonel soon made his dispositions. Half a mile to the left, half the train of wagons waited their turn to load up; their white tops in plain view across the intervening fields. To the right, about the same distance from us, the remainder of the train stood upon another farm. We had just begun to open our haversacks, when “crack, crack!” we began to hear a heavy volley of rifle-shots. The Philistines were upon us. In an instant came the summons, “Battalion!” and we flew to our pieces. Pickets came galloping in from the outposts. The story is, that two rebel regiments and a body of horse bivouacked the night before at the farm on the right, where the teams are loading. The artillerymen are at their pieces; and all over the field, to the skirts of the distant woods, squads of cavalry are seen on the gallop, — most of them Grierson’s famous men. Presently the wagons come back in the wildest confusion, pell-mell, helter-skelter. The mules are in full gallop, some with, some without drivers; over ditches and fences, crash through groves of young pines, over logs and stumps. Sometimes the body is jarred off the wheels; sometimes one mule has broken loose, leaving three behind, with the broken harness dragging about them. The negro-drivers yell, and brandish their whips. All is perfect uproar and panic.
The enemy appear in considerable numbers, swarming about the house and barns of a plantation. From a little knoll, close by our position, the artillery open a brisk fire of shell upon them, which does them great damage, and throws them into as much disorder as the wagons they have sought to seize. Two of our companies, thrown out as skirmishers, keep up a firing of rifles,—the colonel, meantime, on the knoll, close at hand to the battery, and the main body of the regiment, which is supporting it, is surrounded by cavalry-men and officers, who gallop up and away every instant. His face has as cool and pleasant a look as ever, — the calm and undisturbed spot in the midst of the panic. We stand leaning on our pieces, ready for any thing that may turn up.
Wouvermans, the old Dutch painter, used to take battles for his favorite subjects. I have looked over plates after his pictures; and this scene was precisely one of Wouvermans’ skirmishes, — the same confusion and panic, a similar landscape, a lovely summer’s day, and the encounter in the midst; infantry skirmishing, cavalry charging with drawn sabres, the snap of rifles from the distant woods, the rush of animals and fugitives to get out of danger. It was soon over. Some eight or ten fell on our side among the cavalry; and we have heard that a considerably larger number of the enemy were slain by the cannon. These were extremely well served, and probably saved us from being overpowered by a superior force.
The colonel judged it prudent to return at once. A few of the wagons had had time to load; some were broken, some had gone galloping on toward the Federal camp. The outposts were recalled, and we took up a backward line of march. We had proceeded five or six miles; when suddenly it was “halt” again, and word came back that the column was beset front and rear. Of the infantry, four men were detailed for a guard to each wagon; while the cavalry and cannon hastened forward to the front, from which we began to hear firing. It looked critical. Our term of service was within three weeks of its expiration, and we were all in danger of being taken prisoners. The imperturbable colonel rides along with cavalry and battery officers. “Can we not get a courier in for re-enforcements?” I hear one say. “We shall be enough for them, I guess, if we can only concentrate.” We all feel confidence, make sure of our guns, put on fresh caps, and leave the hammer at half-cock. Then we go forward, and that is the last of it.
In the evening at ten o’clock, after we are in the camp once more in a grove of trees, I hear the colonel give results. It seems the rebs did capture some sixty of our wagons in the last attack. Their drivers were frightened, and had not obeyed orders. Moreover, the cavalry were unmanageable; and mules and wagons fell an easy prey, when a smart body of rebs dashed out of an ambuscade, and swept like a whirlwind through our long, straggling line. They had nothing to match our cannon. If it had not been for them, we might all have been on the way to Richmond.
Tired to death, almost worn out to start with, covered with a paste of perspiration and dust, it was hard to be waked up at midnight, just after we had fallen asleep, and be marched right back again into the trenches and rifle-pits, to press on the siege.