A few moments later the birds fled to the closest cover, startled by the innumerable bugles sounding the note of preparation. Soon the different corps, divisions, and brigades were upon their prescribed lines of march. No movement could be made without revealing the close proximity of the enemy. Rifle-reports from skirmish lines and reconnoitring parties speedily followed. A Confederate force was developed on the turnpike leading southwest from the old Wilderness Tavern; and the fighting began. At about eight o’clock Grant and Meade came up and made their headquarters beneath some pine-trees near the tavern. General Grant could scarcely believe at first that Lee had left his strong intrenchments to give battle in a region little better than a jungle; but he soon had ample and awful proof of the fact. Practically unseen by each other, the two armies grappled like giants in the dark. So thick were the trees and undergrowth that a soldier on a battle line could rarely see a thousand men on either side of him, yet nearly two hundred thousand men matched their deadly strength that day. Hundreds fell, died, and were hidden forever from human eyes.
Thinking to sweep away the rear-guard of Lee’s retreating army, Grant ordered a strong advance on the pike in the afternoon. At first it was eminently successful, and if it had been followed up vigorously and steadily, as it undoubtedly would have been if the commander had known what was afterward revealed, it might have resulted in severe disaster to the Confederates. The enemy was pressed back rapidly; and the advancing Union forces were filled with enthusiasm. Before this early success culminated, genuine sorrow saddened every one in Captain Nichol’s company. With his face toward the enemy, impetuously leading his men, he suddenly dropped his sword and fell senseless. Sam and Jim Wetherby heard a shell shrieking toward them, and saw it explode directly over their beloved leader. They rushed to his side; blood was pouring over his face, and it also seemed to them that a fragment of the shell had fatally wounded him in the forehead.
“Poor Cap, poor, brave Cap!” ejaculated Sam. “He didn’t give us those letters for nothing.”
“A bad job, an awfully bad job for us all! curse the eyes that aimed that shell!” growled practical Jim. “Here, take hold. We’ll put him in that little dry ditch we just passed, and bury him after the fight, if still on our pins. We can’t leave him here to be tramped on.”
This they did, then hastily rejoined their company, which had swept on with the battle line. Alas! that battle line and others also were driven back with terrible slaughter before the day closed. Captain Nichol was left in the ditch where he had been placed, and poor Sam Wetherby lay on his back, staring with eyes that saw not at a shattered bird’s nest in the bushes above his head. The letter in his pocket mouldered with him.
Jim’s begrimed and impassive face disguised an aching heart as he boiled his coffee alone that night. Then, although wearied almost to exhaustion, he gave himself no rest until he had found what promised to be the safest means of forwarding the letter in his pocket.