Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes




The Storming

As soon as he had finished he continued his investigations, and although he expected to be compelled to wait until darkness had settled down before he dare stir into the plain below, he did not believe that it would be necessary for him to retrace his steps, if steps they could be called , down the narrow cleft in the hill. But, do his best, he could find no point about him that did not require at least a drop of forty feet or more, and as it was all rough stone, and the risk too great, he reluctantly decided that as he came up so must he go down. It would not be very much work to carry ladders from the ford, and with his engineering experience he knew a few days' work with pick and spade would make the passage easy.

He climbed up again to the top of the road, where he once more had a good view of the Mexican entrenchments, and once he feared that he had been discovered, for as he searched the stone fort with his glass he perceived what appeared to be a man with a spyglass looking in his direction. The fellow soon after began to beckon as if much excited. For a minute Lee's heart stood still; but nothing happened. And just at dusk he started to enter the cleft in order to work his way down below to the arroyo. He debated for a long time how it would be best to go—feet or head foremost. And he decided at last on the former method of progression. But it was slow work and extremely painful. His uniform by this time was torn at elbows and knees, and the toes of his boots were worn and frayed by much digging into the rocks. It was still light enough to see nearby objects, and he wished, if possible, to get over the worst part of his journey before darkness settled down completely. He had rounded what he considered the worst turn when suddenly he heard a sound that caused his blood to run cold. Looking over his feet he perceived, not a yard away, a large rattlesnake. Lee longed for the stout pole that he had abandoned at the foot of the gorge, and for an instant he was in despair. If he used the little pistol that he had now thrust into the bosom of his coat, the shot might bring about him a score of Mexicans inside of twenty minutes. Yet to crawl over that snake was more or less of an impossibility. He wondered if the reptile had been there the day before, but he concluded that it had not, and that it must have dropped down from one of the fissures in the rock above. Loosening some bits of stone, he threw them, hoping to drive the beast off the ledge, or, as he expressed it in telling the story, to "put him out of action."

To his horror, however, he appeared to further incense the creature, and it crawled slowly up towards him. At the same time, in his efforts to throw a larger stone, he dislodged his own hold and slid down until his feet almost touched the vicious-looking head that was drawn back as if to strike. Insensibly he raised himself on his elbow and kicked out at the same time. As luck would have it he struck the rattler fairly with both heels and shot him out over the edge to fall the two or three hundred feet into the chasm below. All the rest of his journey to the bottom he kept thinking of his marvellous escape and thanking the Lord for his delivery from all the dangers he had that day passed through. When he reached the level it was dark.

Not taking the trouble to go down to the ford, he swam the river, although the current was then swift and the water high, and by ten o'clock he was in the American camp, safe and sound.

But if what he had accomplished may seem remarkable, what he subsequently succeeded in doing was little short of marvellous, for that night, with Beauregard's assistance, he guided one hundred and twenty picked men across the river and safely to the place where he intended to begin his road-building. And the next night almost two hundred more were added. For three days this large body of men worked there and camped there, their presence unknown to the enemy.

On the evening of the 17th the roadway had been completed, and it was not until then that the Americans were discovered, the stone fort opening on some of the working party that unfortunately had disclosed themselves. A strong wind had been blowing from the direction of the Mexican army, and probably this, and the fact that silence was strictly enjoined, prevented prior discovery. But Lee's work was by no means over. It was a wonder he did not break down under the strain of those busy days. All the night he labored with the other engineers superintending the raising of the artillery up to the top of the hill, the same one whose military importance he had recognized when he had first seen it from a distance, and his judgment that it was possible to get big guns to the top was borne out; for on the night of the 17th a long 24-pounder and two 24-pounder howitzers were raised up the steep sides of the mountains. It was a picturesque and wonderful sight. At the ford a bridge had been constructed for the artillery, and over two thousand men had crossed successfully, out of range of the Mexican cannon. All idea of secrecy was now abandoned. As the night was dark, huge fires were lit at the foot of the gorge, and the almost superhuman task of lifting those heavy guns up the nine hundred feet of precipitous mountain-side begun.

A detachment of infantry had already been sent to the top; they had shown themselves openly and kept firing occasionally in the direction of the Mexican fortifications; but to their fire little attention was paid, as the batteries on the surrounding hills were well out of range of musketry, and, owing to the steepness of the hill, it would be impossible for the Americans to advance farther in that direction. Infantry posted there were out of the fighting. The reason that the Mexicans themselves had not occupied this eminence was because it left open no road to retreat, which seemed to be the first desideratum of a Mexican position. So, as we have said, the presence of the infantry did not alarm them in the least, and what was going on on the other side of the hill they could not see. But there, on the rugged slope, five hundred men were working at each gun; long ropes were made fast to the boulders, and with block and tackle they were heaving away, lifting foot by foot the heavy ordnance up the hill. Before daylight the howitzers were in position. In an hour they would announce their presence. The big gun would be ready soon afterwards.

Lee, almost reeling from weariness and lack of sleep, lay down among the rocks, covering himself with his cloak. Lieutenant Hagner, who had, with Lieutenant Laidley, been ably assisting Lee all the afternoon and night, noticed him.

"I never saw a man like that before," remarked Hagner. "To my certain knowledge this is the first time he has lain down for forty-eight hours."

"He is built of steel springs," remarked Laidley. "But now I am going to follow his example. There is an hour or two before us."

He sat down with his back against the stones and went off into a peaceful slumber.

But Lee was too tired to sleep. He had never known that he possessed nerves, yet now every one he had seemed to be quivering. But his mind was never more active. The physical weariness in his limbs and the pain in his tired feet seemed to have left him. He did not reason about all this, nor did he know that he was calling upon the deepest resources of his vital force; owing to his abstemious life and good habits, he had a fund of energy that few other men might find at their disposal. His credit at the bank of health was good it was an account that had never been overdrawn. There was much more "go "left in him than even Lieutenant Hagner had supposed. Whether he slept or not, Lee could never recollect. The sound of a bugle brought him to his feet. The morning mists were all about the hill-tops, but down in the valley the Mexican troops were stirring, and bugle answered bugle. The American gunners on the hill, shrouded in the clouds, were only waiting for the air to clear. At last, like the lifting of a veil, first the valley below at their feet became visible, and then the opposite slopes, crossed by trenches and stone walls, well out of the range of musketry; and then, higher and higher, looming into view one after another came the neighboring crests, crowned with their frowning forts. There was only one, the old Spanish castle, that was higher than this hill.

What the Mexicans must have thought when they heard that first gun fired, the American officers would like to have known. The consternation of those below in the valley was evident. Men in brilliant uniforms could be seen rushing hither and thither, although, as yet, no shot had been turned down at them, the heavy shells being directed across the valley at the forts on the same level. At nine o'clock the long 32-pounder joined in the cannonade. So surprised were the defenders that at first there was no reply, even the castle remaining silent, until at last, with a very bad elevation, the Mexicans managed to bring some guns to bear in the direction of the little battery.

General Twiggs, who with his infantry had rushed the first line of entrenchments the day before and found himself enfiladed, was now saved, for had he not received some support from above him he would not have been able to retain his position. The firing broke out heavily in the valley, and the second advance of Twiggs's brave followers began, directed against the left of the enemy's line.

Lee's fatigue had gone from him. It was as if he had risen from the most refreshing slumber. His brain was all alert, his eye was clear and sparkling. As he stood there behind the guns he knew that his work had been well done; yet now he longed for something more to do. He wished that, instead of being on the staff, he was leading any one of those charging, cheering regiments that he could now see clambering and pushing their way up the terraces and swarming along the road. They were being swept by grape and musket-fire, but they were driving the Mexicans before them like chaff. But Lee knew, and knew it well, that from the front the Spanish-built fort and the stone wall could not be taken. He wondered how it was going with the men on the new road that he had constructed along the old arriero path. Why had they not appeared at the crest? The reserves had crossed the river; the 7th and 3d Infantry and the Rifles that had not yet become engaged were waiting to go in. The 1st and 4th Artillery, with their horses straining at their collars, had rumbled across the bridge and swept in a long line up the stream over the meadow. The hillsides now were shrouded in battle-smoke and the movements below, at first so distinct, were hidden from the sight of the hill where the howitzers and the long 32-pounder were at work. They slackened their firing, in fear of pouring their deadly showers down upon their own troops, for Twiggs and Pillow had covered half the distance to the top. But Pillow unfortunately had been stopped, almost repulsed, and whole companies of his command were almost swept away by the droves of bullets that had caught them partially in the flank.

[Illustration] from Son of Light Horse Harry by James Barnes
AS HE STOOD THERE BEHIND THE GUNS HE KNEW THAT HIS WORK HAD BEEN WELL DONE.


"Where is Captain Lee?" cried a voice.

A young officer, panting from his scramble , up the hill, was shouting with as much breath as there was left on his badly winded body.

"Here I am!" cried Lee, running forward to meet him.

"Orders are for you, sir, to join Colonel Harney at the foot of the hill and guide the forces on the left up to the Jalapa road. You are to dispose of the troops according to your own judgment and discretion."

He handed Lee a slip of paper on which were a few scribbled words from General Scott.

No mountain-climbing peon could have jumped down that hill with swifter and surer leaps than did Captain Lee. In less than five minutes he had joined Harney, and, with the men following on double, they soon reached the galley on the farther side of which Lee's military road climbed the hill. For a quarter of an hour almost they were safe from the Mexican fire. But the volleys that rattled and rang above them, and the spent balls that whistled over their heads or thudded here and there against the rocks, showed them that the fight was going on. It was evident that the first troops to try the flanking movement, upon which the success of the day depended, had been stopped.

Lee caught Harney by the arm when they reached the top. "The castle and the stone fort are over there," he cried, pointing through the white smoke that hid everything from view. "Keep to the left and stay on the level ground and you will reach the angle of the first embankment. Beyond it is a stone wall. On our right lies the Jalapa road, but we can never reach there until the guns at the angle of the fort have been silenced."

"Tell Shields to follow me, and put him in the right direction," answered the brave Harney. He waved his sword and gave the order to advance.

The men of the 2d Infantry, who had been firing at long range at the fort, now jumped to their feet and joined in the concerted movement, and just as the cheer rose a gust of wind parted the battle-smoke, and there, straight ahead, for an instant appeared the Mexican flag fluttering and rippling above the white, deadly mist. No sooner had Harney disappeared than Brigadier-General Shields came up. A few words with Lee, and he was off, his officers shouting, "The bayonet! the bayonet! Don't fire! don't fire! Our own men are ahead!"

Screaming and roaring, they plunged over the broken ground. The Mexicans, although unprepared for the sudden onslaught, perceived, all at once, that their flank was threatened, and rushed men and guns to the angle at which Harney was endeavoring to direct his men. Keeping in his mind Lee's admonition about bearing to the left, Harney had gone too far in that direction, and was well down towards the end of his flanking company before he knew it. Imagining that the whole regiment was behind him, he did not stop when he reached the first earthwork and abatis that had been abandoned, but, stumbling over it and up the farther side, he found himself at the foot of the rough stone wall. It was but ten or twelve feet high, and the mortar had fallen away in the crevices. In his imagination Harney supposed himself to be surrounded by men in blue coats all eager to be the first inside the fort. Thrusting his sword-knot above his elbow, he climbed up the stones. He rose from his knees at last and stood on the very top, crying, "Come on! Come on!" His forage-cap, although held tight on his head by the strap beneath the chin, was torn to shreds, the visor crushed across his brow, while his tunic, that was open, was pierced by four balls. So close were some of the Mexican muskets that they almost set his clothing on fire. But he was unharmed! For an instant it appeared as if he stood there all alone, but, as if he commanded a brigade, he flourished his sword, and, seeing four or five blue-clad figures clamber up to the left and right of him, still shouting, "Come on! Come on!" he jumped down among the hordes below him. After him stumbled and slid not more than twenty infantrymen; but, as if they were a thousand, they dived into the mass of crowded and frightened Mexicans.

It was a fortunate thing that Lee had pressed on with Shields, for the bulk of Harney's men had kept too far to the right, and had run against the wall beyond the angle where the stone work was higher. So close was Shields that he and his men had heard Harney's cry, and, shouting, "We are coming! We are coming!" with Shields and a few officers a few strides ahead, they broke like a great wave and surged through the pit and up against the wall. Twiggs was again advancing, and Colonel Riley, at the head of his regiment, dashing along the new road, swept in on the rear of the castle. The cheer they gave sounded down the ,valley, and the officers on the hill known as El Telegrapho, where that strange mountain battery had been placed, saw through a chasm in the smoke the flags of three regiments toss across the grim stone walls while yet the Mexican flag was flying from above. But brave Shields had fallen, pierced through the lungs.

Scott, from below, had watched the final scene. Tears had filled his eyes. Almost at the same moment he had noticed a young officer, Lieutenant Patten, of the 2d Infantry, holding his shattered arm to his breast, but pushing on.

"Are you badly hurt, sir?" Scott asked.

The boy did not reply, for at that minute the cheer that told of victory came rolling down the hill.

"Look! look! Our men are in the entrenchments, general!" he called, dropping his wounded arm and pointing.

Scott dug his spurs into his great charger, and plunged over the hard-fought ground up the hill.

The Mexicans were now in full retreat towards the town of Jalapa, with the American Dragoons hot after them. The day was won.

An impregnable walled city, Vera Cruz, had fallen by siege, and an unconquerable position, Cerro Gordo, had been taken by a combination of skill and daring in the short space of four weeks. The way lay straight before Scott, towards the enemy's capital.

But what of Lee, who had contributed so much to the success of the day? While the shots were still sounding out on the Jalapa road he had crawled into an empty casemate, and, with the relaxation of the moment falling over him like an opiate, he had gone fast asleep on the cold stone flagging.