Never Call Retreat



Carlisle, Pennsylvania

August 22, 1863 5:15 A.M.

Capt. Phil Duvall of the Third Virginia Cavalry, Fitz Lee's Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia, raced up the steps of the Carlisle Barracks, taking them two at a time. Reaching the top floor, he scrambled up a ladder to the small cupola that domed the building.

One of his men was already there, Sergeant Lucas, half squatting, eye to the telescope. As Duvall reached the top step of the ladder, Lucas stepped back from the telescope and looked down at him. "It ain't good, sir."

Lucas offered him a hand, pulling his captain up. Phil looked around. Morning mist carpeted the valley around them. At any other time he would have just stood there for a long moment to soak in the view. It was a stunningly beautiful morning. The heat of the previous days had broken during the night as a line of thunderstorms marched down from the northwest. The air was fresh, the valley bathed in the indigo glow and deep shadows of approaching dawn. The sounds of an early summer morning floated about him, birds singing, someone nearby chopping wood, but mingled in was another sound.

He squatted down, putting his eye to the telescope, squinting, adjusting the focus. He saw nothing but mist, then, after several seconds, a flash of light. It was hard to distinguish, but long seconds later a distant pop echoed, then another.

He stood back up, taking out his field glasses, focusing them on the same spot. With their broader sweep he could now see them, antlike, deployed in open line, mounted, crossing a pasture at a trot, their uniforms almost black in the early morning light… Yankee cavalry, a skirmish line… behind them, a half mile back, what looked to be a mounted regiment in column on the Cumberland Valley Pike.

He lowered his glasses and looked down at the parade ground in front of the barracks. His troopers were already falling in, saddling mounts, scrambling about.

"Lucas, get down there and tell the boys they got ten minutes to pack up."

"We gonna fight 'em?"

Phil looked at him.

"Are you insane? That's at least a regiment out there. Now tell 'em they got ten minutes to pack it up."

Lucas slid down the ladder, his boots echoing as he ran down the stairs.

Phil looked back to the east. He didn't need field glasses now. He could see them. The Yankee skirmishers were across the pasture, disappearing into a narrow stretch of woods bordering a winding stream. A few more pops, and from the west side of the creek, half a dozen troopers emerged… his boys. They were riding at full gallop, jumping a fence, coming out on the main pike.

Only six of them? There should be twenty or more. These were the boys at the forward picket just outside of Marysville. So the first rumor was true: They had been caught by surprise.

The Yankee skirmishers did not come out of the wood line in pursuit, reining in after emerging from the woods. There were a few flashes. One of his men slumped over in the saddle but managed to stay mounted. The mounted Yankee regiment on the road started to come forward, beginning to shake out from column into line, obviously preparing to rush the town.

He lowered his glasses and looked around one last time. It had been a lovely month here, duty easy, the locals not exactly friendly, but not hostile either. The land was rich, the food good, his mounts fattening on the rich grass, the bushels of oats, his men fattening as well.

Positioned here as an outpost they had missed the battles of the previous four weeks around Washington and Baltimore… and he was glad of it.

As a West Pointer, class of 1861, he knew he should be of higher rank by now, but that did not bother him. He had seen enough of slaughter. Though others sought "recognition in dispatches" in order to gain promotions, that was a vainglorious game he felt to be childish. Staying alive and making sure his men stayed alive held a higher priority. Besides, Jeb Stuart trusted his judgment as a scout. That was recognition enough. Ever since Grant came east and started moving tens of thousands of troops into Harrisburg, it was his job to watch them from the other side of the river and report in with accurate assessments, and he had been doing that.

He had sent a report just yesterday that he suspected a move was about to begin on their part, and now it had indeed begun. What was surprising was the speed of it all. Carlisle was a dozen miles west of Harrisburg. Apparently, the Yankees had thrown a bridge across the river during the night and were now pushing forward with their cavalry to create a screen behind which their infantry would advance.

He ran his hand along the smooth polished brass tube of the telescope. There had been quiet evenings when he had used it to study the moon, the crescent of Venus, and now, on August mornings, before dawn, the belt of Orion.

Bring it along? It weighed a good thirty pounds.

Reluctantly he upended it, letting it tumble back down the stairwell, crashing on the floor below.

He took one last look, then slid down the ladder, boots echoing as he tromped down the stairs. Some men were running back into the building, darting into rooms, re-emerging carrying some souvenir or keepsake picked up over the last month… a banjo, a wall clock, a quilt. At the sight of this, he regretted the destruction of the telescope. After the war it would have been nice to have it back home in the valley and take it up Massanutten to watch the stars at night or gaze out across a Shenandoah peaceful once more.

He heard heavy steps coming up the stairs. It was Lieutenant Syms, the man he had assigned to their forward station at Marysville. Syms was gray-faced, wincing with each step, his right calf bleeding, boot punctured by a ball.

"Damn it, Syms. Where the hell have you been?" Phil shouted.

"Sir, I'm sorry, sir. Didn't you get our report by wire?" "Only part of it."

Phil stuck his head into the telegraphy station they had established on the second floor of the barracks.

Sergeant Billings was sitting by the key, looking at him calmly, awaiting orders.

"Read what Syms wired."

Billings picked up a scrap of paper.

'This came through at two-ten this morning. 'Pontoon bridge across river. Cavalry…'"

Billings looked back up.

'That was it, sir."

Syms shook his head.

"Damn all. I'm sorry, sir. They slipped some troopers across. Cut the line behind us before we could get more out."

"In other words, they caught you by surprise."

Syms was always straightforward, and after only a second's hesitation he reluctantly nodded his head in agreement.

"Something like that, sir."

"So what the hell is going on?" 'They jumped us at our headquarters. Ten of us got out. I sent a few boys down to the river, and in the confusion they were able to see that one bridge was already across and infantry on it. A civilian, reliable, he's been in our pay, told one of my boys that it was Ord's Corps leading the crossing."

"Do you believe that?"

"Yes, sir. I caught a glimpse of the bridge as we pulled out."

"How did you see it in the dark?"

"It was lined with torches, sir. I could see infantry on it. A long column clear back across the river into Harrisburg."

How did the Yankees get a bridge across the Susquehanna so quickly? They must have built sections of it upstream and floated them down once it got dark. He suspected that Syms and his boys were truly asleep, from too much drink, if they let that get past them.

Duvall sighed and looked at Sergeant Billings.



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