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Heros Von Borcke
Lately chief of staff toGeneral J. E. B. Stuart.
MEMOIRS OF THECONFEDERATE WARFOR INDEPENDENCE
Copyright © Heros Von Borcke
Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence
Arcadia Press 2017
To my old comrades of the late army of northern Virginia,by one of its soldiers,
The kind interest with which the public received the Memoirs as they appeared in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ induced me to think of republishing them. When they were on the point of republication, the news reached me that my King had called his people to arms against Austria and her allies. I offered at once my sword to my native country, and had the proud satisfaction of fighting, in the army of Prince Frederick Charles, in the great battle of Konigsgraetz, and of taking part in the victorious advance through Bohemia, Moravia, and the Duchy of Austria. A new great war has turned the interest of the public to new matters, — many months have passed away since the termination of the great American struggle, — and many may have forgotten that the splendid Army of Virginia was ever in existence; but I do not hesitate to publish my account of battles lost and won, trusting that there are many still left who will read with some interest the simple narrative of a soldier who is proud to have shared the sufferings and the glory of the unfortunate people of the late Confederacy.
HEROS VON BORCKE,
OF THE 3d PRUSSIAN DRAGOONS.
PRUSSIA, October 25, 1866.
On the 29th day of April 1862, I embarked at Queenstown on board the fine new steamer Hero, a vessel which had been built for running the blockade into the ports of the Confederate States of America, and was soon upon the bright waters of the Channel, bound for the theatre of war in the New World. Several most agreeable companions shared with me the accommodations of the steamer, and with smooth seas and pleasant skies we made a delightful voyage of twenty days to Nassau, unattended by any other than the ordinary incidents of the ocean transit. Off the Spanish coast we skirted a heavy gale; but as we proceeded from high to low latitudes the weather became every day more and more charming, until we ran upon an even keel into the blue phosphorescent seas that lave the coral reefs of the Bahamas. Here we met with an interruption which seemed likely for a time to terminate my American adventures, if I may be allowed the Hibernicism, before they had begun. As we were nearing the island of New Providence, within sight of the island of Abaco, a steamer appeared on our quarter bearing towards us under English colours. The captain of the Hero, apprehending no trouble from a vessel which he mistook for the regular English mail-packet, kept on his course, though it would have been an easy matter to escape the pursuit of the stranger had he supposed her intentions were unfriendly. As we came within range, a light puff of smoke from the stranger’s side, and the whiz of a shell through the air a little astern of us, made it clear enough that the purpose was to board the Hero; and accordingly our engines were immediately stopped, and there speedily danced alongside a small boat, from which three Federal officers ascended to our decks. The steamer proved to be the U.S. gunboat Mercedita, and her commander, not doubting for a moment that he had made a valuable capture, had sent off a boat’s crew to take possession of his prize. Whether the officers who represented him were annoyed at discovering that the Hero was not as yet liable to capture, or whether incivility was habitual to them, it is certain that they behaved towards us with a degree of rudeness such as I have rarely witnessed. After a detention of five hours, however, we were permitted to continue our course; the Federal officers rowed back to the Mercedita, and we had the satisfaction of seeing that vigilant cruiser soon become a mere speck on the evening horizon.
I was the more disturbed by this most unwelcome visitation, because it deprived me of many valuable papers and MSS., letters of introduction, and the like, which, fearing they might be seized and read by our visitors, I burned upon their approach.
A few hours later the island of Abaco appeared plainly in view, and with the rich sunset we ran past the islets of coral, each tufted with tropical vegetation, which mark the entrance of the harbour of Nassau. The cargo of the Hero consisting in great part of powder, we were compelled, in accordance with the regulations of the port, to lie-to five miles off shore; but the vessel having been signalled, a boat was soon sent to us, from which stepped aboard a young English midshipman who could not have been more than fourteen years of age, but who seemed fully conscious of the importance wherewith he was clothed by her Majesty’s uniform. This beardless officer, having taken a look at the ship’s papers and a glass of grog with becoming dignity, returned to Nassau, leaving us ill content to remain all night in the steamer, from which we saw the sparkling lights of the city and caught the delicious perfume wafted seaward from the island. At six o’clock next morning we found the ship surrounded by barges filled with negroes, who clamoured loudly for the privilege of taking us ashore. We had some difficulty in conducting negotiations from the ship’s side amid the horrible din that assailed our ears, but we at last succeeded in securing a boat with six dusky oarsmen, two or three of them Africans by birth, who pulled us to the landing in two and a half hours. The sun poured down upon the sea with almost intolerable fervour, but there was refreshment in looking into the cool blue water, which was so marvellously clear that we could easily distinguish the pebbles strewn upon the bottom at the depth of forty feet.
New Providence is the smallest of the Bahamas, belonging to the West Indian Archipelago, and contains about 13,000 inhabitants, of whom two-thirds are free negroes, under the colonial government of Great Britain. Nassau, its only port, was a gay enough little place at the time of my visit, though, doubtless, with the discontinuance of its trade with the Southern ports, through the Federal blockade, it has subsided into its normal quietude; the busy population that was then seen upon its wharves has most probably disappeared, and the buzz of animated conversation is heard no more on summer evenings along the verandahs of the Royal Victoria Hotel. This large and comfortable establishment occupies the highest point of the island, and looks down upon the town, which stretches away to the right and left, terraced from the sea in regular gradations of ascent. What strikes one most forcibly in the external appearance of Nassau are the violent contrasts it presents to the eye. Nothing is subdued. The white Spanish houses absolutely glister in the overpowering glare of the sun. The roofs are as white as if they were covered with snow, being constructed, like the walls, of the coral formation of the island. The streets and roadways are dazzlingly white, and an impalpable dust rises in white clouds from every passing vehicle. The men are dressed in white from top to toe — white muslin turbans around their straw hats, and their feet encased in white canvass shoes, like those worn by the boating crews of the Thames rowing-clubs. Such are the lights of the picture. The shadows are supplied by the dark foliage of the orange and banana trees, the dense shade of the laurel thickets, and the intense black of the faces of the negroes. Black waiters at the hotel, black shopkeepers in the town, black soldiers on guard, black belles on the promenade — the effect was striking against the whiteness of the buildings and the thoroughfares. The “irrepressible negro” asserts himself immensely at Nassau. He seeks, and not altogether in vain, to unite the greatest possible amount of consequence with the least possible amount of work. But the negro women amused me most of any. In all their native hideousness of form and feature, they bedizen their persons with European costumes, of every fashion, fabric, and colour, and walk the streets with a solemn dignity that even a Spanish hidalgo might envy.
I had not supposed that I should he so much impressed with the variety and beauty of the vegetable and insect life of the tropics; but even the broiling sun did not deter me from making daily little excursions around the island, armed with a white cotton umbrella, and wearing, after the manner of the foreign residents, the broad-brimmed Panama hat with its encircling muslin turban. I must have afforded some amusement to the natives, and others familiar with tropical scenery, as I stalked abroad thus defended, stopping every now and then to examine some strange and beautiful flower, or to admire the innumerable humming-birds and gorgeous butterflies that fluttered above it, or to purchase, at the stalls of the incessantly chattering negresses, luscious fruits which they offered me, and of which I did not even know the name. The heat of the day was tempered, up to the hour of 10 A.M., by a mild sea-breeze, but the air then became perfectly calm and slumberous, and about mid-day the sun was burning with such power that one felt oppressed as by a leaden weight upon the chest. I rose generally at five in the morning and strolled down to the negro cottages, some of which were very pleasant little dwellings, and all were surrounded by small gardens filled with a profusion of fruit and flowers. Here I first saw the pine-apple growing in the open air, the orange-tree, heavy with its golden globes and fragrant blossoms, the palmetto, and the cocoa-palm with its ripening nuts, the cactus of every size, from the small creeper, winding along the rocks and walls, to the large tree-like specimen that lifts its head high above the ground, and flings out its scarlet bloom like a banner in the air. Near to the hotel was a magnificent cotton-tree of tremendous size, the trunk being fifteen feet in diameter, and the branches covering nearly an acre of ground, which was justly esteemed the pride of the island. Here, as indeed everywhere else, were hundreds of lizards darting over the rocky surface, of which the most interesting was the chameleon, so strangely and rapidly changing its colours.
Among the guests in the Royal Victoria Hotel at this time were many gentlemen of the Confederate States, who, as soon as my intentions were made known to them, manifested the liveliest interest in my behalf; and a number of captains of steamers destined for Southern ports, with like unanimity, offered me a free passage to the “sunny South.” It was our custom to assemble on the highest verandah of the building to witness the setting of the sun, which seemed to dive into the blue ocean, reddening and gilding with transient splendours the distant reefs of coral. N lingering, pensive twilight, such as belongs to the latitude of England in the long days of summer, marks the approach of night in the Bahamas. For a brief period sky and wave are tinged with crimson, and then “at one stride came the dark.” The decline of the sun was the signal for all the flowers, shrivelled and half-killed by the day’s heat, to open their long-closed petals, lading the air with voluptuous perfumes, which were borne to us by every passing breeze. Myriads of fire-flies glittered around us; the temperature was delightful; the stars shone with a brilliancy unknown to me; and I enjoyed the strange, mysterious beauty of those tropical nights more deeply than I can express.
I had linked my fortunes upon the Atlantic with those of the Hero, but it very soon appeared that she would be obliged to unload a portion of her cargo at Nassau, and thus be detained at that port for several weeks. The news from America by every arrival became more and more exciting. It appeared inevitable that heavy battles would very soon be fought before Richmond, and I earnestly desired to take an active part in them. My position, besides, was embarrassing. My letters of introduction and recommendation had been destroyed. I did not know a human being in the foreign country whither I was going, nor did I even speak the English language. I was at a loss, therefore, to conjecture how I should carry out my objects. At this juncture, one of my travelling companions, Mr W., readily apprehending my difficulty, gave me the best proof of his friendship by offering to run the blockade with me in the next steamer to Charleston, and accompany me, without loss of time, to Richmond, where he would present me to the authorities. Accordingly we found ourselves, five days after our arrival at Nassau, early on the morning of the 22d May, on board the steamer Kate, and soon Nassau, with its white houses and white streets, and dark laurel thickets, and harbour crowded with steamers, among which I regarded with peculiar interest the well-known Nashville, was far behind, us.
The first two days of our voyage to Charleston passed without incident, but on the morning of the third we ran in sight of the coast of Florida, and the greatest excitement prevailed in our small community, the Federal blockading squadron being, as we knew, not far distant. Our furnaces were fed with the anthracite coal of America, which emits but little smoke to arrest the notice of blockaders; yet we proceeded very cautiously at half-speed, until we arrived within fifty miles by chart of Charleston harbour, when we stopped to await the protecting darkness of the coming night. At that time running the blockade was not thought so easy a matter as it afterwards proved to be, and the anxiety of many of our passengers began to be gravely and, in some cases, ludicrously exhibited. The vigilant captain did not leave the mast-head; and whoever could procure a marine glass swept the line of sea and sky for hours together, looking out in every direction with the greatest solicitude for the dreaded sails of the Federal cruisers. I had myself got my arms ready, and gathered together such of my effects as I supposed I should need most in future campaigning, so that in case we should be chased and obliged to abandon the vessel I might be able to carry them with me in the small boat. But no cruiser appeared, all remained quiet, and about dusk the sky began to be darkened with heavy clouds, which were greeted by us with extreme satisfaction. There was a large quantity of powder on board the Kate, and this powder for some reason had been stored immediately beneath the decks: we had therefore an uncomfortably reasonable prospect of being blown into eternity by the first shell from the Federal fleet that should be only too well directed. The captain had informed us of this circumstance before he consented to receive us as passengers, but we willingly accepted the risk, “trusting to luck” as to the steamer and ourselves. At nightfall our engines were again set in motion; the clouds had overspread the whole firmament; only here and there a star twinkled through the black canopy; and the sombre silence was unbroken save by the sound of the paddles striking against the water, and the whispers of our ship’s company, who were all on deck peering out most anxiously into the surrounding darkness.
It was about an hour past midnight when, reaching the entrance of the harbour of Charleston, we discovered a red light on our right hand, a green light on our left hand, and seven or eight others of various colours at a little distance all around us. These were the Federal blockaders awaiting their prey, and right between them had we to pass. The excitement now mounted to its highest point. The reflection of the red light upon the water ran out towards us like the coil of a fiery serpent, seeming to touch the wheelhouse, and to sport with the reflection of the green light from the opposite quarter, and we expected every moment to hear the booming of the blockaders’ guns; but good fortune favoured us — the dreaded lights were soon glimmering in our wake — and from the frowning fortress of Sumter there thundered forth, as we interpreted it, a friendly salute that gladdened every heart. With no complimentary intentions, however, was this gun fired. We had been mistaken for an enemy, and had a narrow escape of being sent to the bottom by Confederate cannoneers, after having safely passed the perils of the blockade. But the good fortune of the Kate did not forsake her in this critical moment. Our engines were immediately stopped, a boat came off from the fort, explanations and congratulations were interchanged, after which we moved in perfect security up the harbour. Nature demanded rest after so much fatigue, sleeplessness, and excitement, and I was fast asleep when the Kate ran slowly into the dock.
The early morning found me awake and looking with great interest upon the strange land where I knew not what the immediate future had in store for me. Charleston lay before me in the full splendour of the newly-risen sun, and presented — with its harbour full of vessels, its commodious villa-like private dwellings, its luxuriant gardens, its straight streets lined on either side by noble trees, its sparkling sea-front, against which the blue wave broke gently — a magnificent appearance. As I walked into the town I could not fail to remark the absence of that bustle one usually finds in a large city. This was explained by the fact that an attack by the Federal fleet was daily expected, in consequence of which many places of business were closed, and many families had gone into the interior. But if the traffic of the town was suspended, the streets gave evidence everywhere of great military activity. Companies of infantry in every variety of dress and armed with all sorts of weapons were marching about, and cavalrymen in the most picturesque costumes were galloping up and down on fine-looking horses. Accustomed as I was to European discipline and uniform, I must confess that on me the first impression of these Confederate soldiers was not favourable, and far was I from any idea how soon these same men would excite my highest admiration on the battle-field. But I had little opportunity for extended observation at Charleston. The train for Richmond left the station about noon, and I was of its passengers, wondering at the odd-shaped, long lumbering railway carriage or “car,” rolling, rapidly and dangerously, with more than fifty other occupants, towards the scene of military operations in Virginia. I need say nothing of the wretched railway system, or want of system, of America; the single line of rails, the loosely-built road-bed, the frightful trestle-work over deep gorges, the frail wooden bridges thrown across rushing rivers, and the headlong speed at which the train is often urged on its perilous way. With every month of the war the railroads of the Southern States became worse and worse, until a long journey by rail — say from Montgomery to Richmond — was as hazardous as picket duty on the Potomac. But our journey to Richmond was safely and comfortably accomplished. Whizzing through the rice and cotton fields, the oozy swamps and dark pine-woods of the two Carolinas, we came at last to forests of oak and hickory, alternating with peaceful-looking farms and fertile estates in the fair land of the “Old Dominion;” and, crossing the James river upon a bridge of giddy elevation, we entered within the walls of the Confederate capital.
Richmond, the seat of government of Virginia, and, for four years, of the Confederate States, had at that time about 70,000 inhabitants. Unrivalled in America for the picturesque beauty of its situation on the north bank of the James river, it impressed the stranger most agreeably by its general air of comfort, cleanliness, and thrift. Opposite the upper portion of the city the river flows between lofty hills over a rocky bed, which breaks it into innumerable cascades, murmuring in the stillness of the night a perpetual lullaby to the inhabitants. In the immediate centre of the town is a pretty little park, with several fine statues, some trumpery fountains, and a grove of umbrageous lindens, surrounding the Capitol, a large building of brick and stucco, erected in 1785, which looks noble in the distant view, but is mean and paltry upon near approach. The streets are long and straight, intersecting each other, with few exceptions, at right angles, and shaded throughout the larger part of the city’s limits by native trees, the maple and tulip-poplar predominating. Pleasant dwellings, with porticoes and trellised verandahs, embowered in gardens, crowned the hills — dwellings that still remain to render more painful by contrast the ruin caused by the great conflagration which, three years later, laid the whole business quarter of the town in ashes. The external aspect of Richmond, at the period of my first acquaintance with it, was indeed very striking. It was the season of roses, and Nature, unconscious of war, had arrayed herself in all her pomp to welcome the ardent and prodigal Southern summer. Nothing could seem more peaceful than Franklin Street at evening, with groups of ladies and officers in the porticoes enjoying the cool hours that succeeded to the fierce heats of the day. Nothing could more plainly denote the condition of war than the appearance of the principal thoroughfares and the highways leading into the country. The din of active preparation struck continuously upon the ear in the roar of the forge, and the clatter of the army-waggon, and the heavy tramp of armed men. Large bodies of troops were marching and countermarching through the streets, orderlies and couriers were galloping about in every direction, and the notes of the fife and drum had hardly died away in the distance before the echoes were waked by the stormier music of a full military band. The vast army of M’Clellan hovered upon the northern and eastern skirts of the city, and over the line of the Chickahominy, which might be faintly traced from the tops of the highest buildings, his camp-fires could even be seen by night, and his balloons of observation, hanging like oranges in the sky, were clearly discernible in the afternoon. It was plain enough that an attack of the enemy in heavy force was expected at any moment. Under such exciting circumstances it was no less remarkable than gratifying to see how calmly and with what perfect confidence the people awaited the momentous events which were so near at hand.
In the uncertain state of affairs at Richmond, the prices of all articles in the shops augmented daily, but I converted my gold into Confederate money at a broker’s at the liberal rate of two for one, and thought it a very clever financial operation. The difficulties I met with, however, in securing a position in the army were far greater than I had expected. The ashes of my letters of introduction were suspended in the restless waters of the Atlantic. The Government, I found, was disinclined to give commissions to foreigners, all the officers of the Confederate army at that time, except the general and staff officers, being elected by the men; and although Mr W., by repeated applications to the different authorities, had done all in his power to further my interests, he had met with no success whatever. At length, on the evening of his departure from the city, he informed me that he had seen the Secretary of War, General Randolph, who had manifested much interest in my situation, and would grant me an interview at one o’clock the next day. At the appointed hour I repaired to the War Department, and was received with great kindness by General Randolph, a most intelligent and amiable gentleman, who, after I had endeavoured to explain to him my plans and wishes in execrable English, gave me a letter to General J. E. B. Stuart, then commanding the cavalry of the army defending Richmond, and, at the same time, an order to procure a horse at the Government stables, with the advice to lose not a moment if I desired to see something of the impending battles. The Government stables were full of good horses, and I had no difficulty in finding an excellent chestnut mare, which afterwards carried me nobly on many a hard ride. At the earliest dawn of morning, on the 30th, an orderly reported to me with the mare in front of my hotel, and I jumped into the saddle, well equipped from head to foot, full of strength and buoyant in spirits, to ride forward to the field.
We trotted out of the city, and across the wooded plain through which runs the Brooke turnpike, passing the extensive fortifications and the long lines of the Confederate army. With the liveliest interest I looked upon these masses of warrior-like men, in their ill-assorted costumes, who had come with alacrity from the Carolinas, from distant Mississippi and yet more distant Texas, from sunny Florida, from fertile Georgia, from Alabama, land of mountain and cane-brake, from the regions of Louisiana, to imperil their I lives in the defence of their much-loved South, and for the expulsion of the invader from its borders. Brigade after brigade we saw awaiting the summons to the battle which was so soon to come. It was no easy matter to find General Stuart, who, as commanding officer of the outposts, was anywhere along the extended lines, and the sun was near its setting when we reached the camp of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. Here I presented myself for information to the officer in command, Colonel Fitzhugh Lee, who assured me that it would be next to impossible to find General Stuart that night, and kindly offered me the hospitality of his tent. As threatening thunder-clouds were driving up the western horizon, and I was much fatigued by my day’s ride, I gladly accepted the invitation. The camp was a novelty to me in the art of castrametation. The horses were not picketed in regular lines as in European armies, but were scattered about anywhere in the neighbouring wood, some tethered to swinging limbs, some tied to small trees, others again left to browse at will upon the undergrowth. In a very short time I was perfectly at home in the Colonel’s tent, where the officers of his regiment had assembled, and where the lively strains of the banjo alternated with patriotic songs and animated discourse. During the evening a supper was served which, under existing circumstances, was really luxurious, and one of the chief dishes of which consisted of the eggs of the terrapin found in a creek near the camp by Colonel Lee’s faithful negro servant, who was at once head-cook, valet, and steward. I am sure that no work of art from the kitchen of the Cafe Riche could have been more gratifying to my hungry appetite than these terrapin’s eggs taken out of a Virginia swamp and cooked upon the instant in a cavalry encampment. Soon after supper we retired to rest, but little sleep came to my weary eyelids; for a terrible hurricane, accompanied by thunder and lightning, raged throughout the night, the peals of thunder shaking the earth, and the flashes of lightning almost blinding one with their incessant vivid glare. I was awake and fully dressed the next morning when, with the first glimpse of the sun breaking through the battered clouds, the trumpet sounded to saddle, and Colonel Lee informed me he had just received marching orders. He added that he should start in fifteen minutes, and my best chance of meeting General Stuart was to ride with the regiment. It was marvellous to see how readily these unmilitary-looking troopers obeyed the orders of their colonel, and with what discipline and rapidity the breaking up of the camp was managed. I suffered the whole regiment, 800 strong, to pass me, that I might observe more narrowly its composition. The scrutiny called forth my admiration. The men were all Virginians, whose easy and graceful seat betrayed the constant habit of horseback exercise, and they were mounted mostly on blooded animals, some of which the most ambitious Guardsman or the most particular “swell” in London would have been glad to show off in Hyde Park. Looking back across three eventful years to that morning’s march, I realise how little it was in my thought that my lot should be knit so closely with that of these brave fellows in fatigue and in fight, and that I should have to mourn the loss of, alas so many who afterwards fell around me in battle. After a ride of three hours, passing directly through Richmond to the opposite side of the city, we reached our destination, and Colonel Lee pointed out to me a man, galloping rapidly along on an active, handsome horse. This was Stuart, the man whose arrival I awaited so anxiously, and who subsequently became one of the truest and best friends I have had in this world.
General Stuart was a stoutly-built man, rather above the middle height, of a most frank and winning expression, the lower part of his fine face covered with a thick brown beard, which flowed over his breast. His eye was quick and piercing, of a light blue in repose, but changing to a darker tinge under high excitement. His whole person seemed instinct with vitality, his movements were alert, his observation keen and rapid, and altogether he was to me the model of a dashing cavalry leader. Before the breaking out of hostilities between the North and South, he had served in the 1st United States Cavalry, of which regiment General Joseph E. Johnston was the Lieut-Colonel, against the Indians of the Far West, and was severely wounded in an encounter with the Cheyennes on the Solomon’s Fork of the Kansas river, in July 1857. In that wild life of the prairie, now chasing the buffalo, now pursuing the treacherous savage, Stuart had passed nearly all his waking hours in the saddle, and thus became one of the most fearless and dexterous horsemen in America, and he had acquired a love of adventure which made activity a necessity of his being. He delighted in the neighing of the charger and the clangour of the bugle, and he had something of Murat’s weakness for the vanities of military parade. He betrayed this latter quality in his jaunty uniform, which consisted of a small-grey jacket, trousers of the same stuff, and over them high military boots, a yellow silk sash, and a grey slouch hat, surmounted by a sweeping black ostrich plume. Thus attired, sitting gracefully on his fine horse, he did not fail to attract the notice and admiration of all who saw him ride along. This is not the place to expatiate on the military character of General Stuart. His deeds will form the most considerable portion of this narrative, and out of them an estimate of his soldierly qualities will naturally grow up in the reader’s mind.
At the moment of our first meeting we could exchange but a few words. The battle was just about to commence, and my presentation to him was necessarily hurried and informal. After reading General Randolph’s letter, he said he should be glad to have me at his side during the day’s fight, and then presented me to a number of well-mounted young officers, members of his Staff, and to General Longstreet and his suite. At this instant the roar of the artillery gave the signal that the “ball had opened,” and the whole cavalcade, the generals leading, proceeded in rapid gallop to the front.
31st May 1862. — This sanguinary fight owes its strange name to seven solitary pine-trees, standing just at the place where death raged most terribly, and where the battle was decided in favour of our arms. About 30,000 men were engaged on our side, whilst the enemy brought about 45,000 into the field. The ground was very unfavourable for operations on either side — a broad wooded flat, intersected with morasses and open spaces; and the roads were bad and marshy beyond description, owing to the late violent rains.
I do not propose giving a general description of the engagement, but shall confine myself to my personal experiences and impressions, for having no military position as yet, and only taking part in it as a deeply interested spectator, I had no insight into the plan of the commanding general.
As General Stuart’s cavalry could be of little service in the fight, he had been ordered to place it in reserve at the centre, and on the right and left flanks; but he himself was as usual in the thickest of the fray, giving assistance, counsel, and encouragement to the rest, and letting nothing escape his observation.
General Longstreet commanded the right wing, and had taken up position on a hill commanding an extended view.
The battle was beginning: along the whole line rang the sharp irregular fire of the skirmishers, only now and then broken by the thunder of one of the numerous batteries; soon, however, the cannonade became general, and the rattle of small arms preceding the boom of the heavy guns sounded like the sharp explosive crackle one hears before the deeper rumbling of the thunder.
It was at this moment that General Stuart sent me with the first order to Colonel Lee. To reach him I had to ride more to the front, and to cross a morass, where some horses belonging to the ambulances were standing. Just as I rode past I heard a loud whiz in the air, and saw one of the horses struck down, and at the same moment was almost deafened by an explosion, which covered me with mud and water. This was the first shell that had burst so close to me, and a strange feeling came over me at the thought of having been so near death. It was not fear, but a vivid realisation of the pitiless power of destruction which is let loose in war. I discharged my commission without farther adventure, and returned to the Generals.
The battle had meanwhile been turning in our favour; our troops were slowly pressing back the whole Federal line; only in the centre of our right wing a North Carolina brigade had begun to give way a little before the superior strength of the enemy. Instantly General Stuart was at the spot, encouraging the troops to hold the position until our reinforcements could arrive. I followed him into the hail of bullets, of whizzing grape and bursting bombs, one of which rolled between my horse’s legs.
Our men had now expended almost all their ammunition, and were falling back, when General Stuart, here with threats, there with eloquent entreaties, rallied them, and brought them forward again into the battle to check the enemy as they pressed hard upon us.
A Virginia brigade soon came up as reinforcement. With banners flying, and loud war-cries, they threw themselves unhesitatingly on the foe, driving them before them, and taking their earthworks, which bristled with cannon.
The setting sun lighted up with crimson over a broad and bloody battle-field, strewn with the dead and wounded of the enemy, and as many brave Confederate soldiers. Numerous prisoners were being brought up from all sides, whom every man and officer not absolutely required to fill the thinning ranks was employed to convey away. Thus I was commissioned by the General to conduct eight soldiers, and a Lieutenant-Colonel who had been wounded in the neck, to join the other prisoners already on their way, by hundreds, to Richmond. These men had been captured by General Stuart and myself in the melee that succeeded the impetuous onset of the Virginians. Terrible was it to see on every side the wounded returning from the battle: here a man with his head bleeding, there another with shattered arm or leg, reddening the path with his blood; then the more severely wounded in the ambulances, groaning and wailing in a manner that made my heart shrink. I was then little accustomed to scenes like this.
In this battle, though it could not be called a general one, and though its consequences were of no great importance, the victory, though costly, was complete. Thousands of our brave soldiers were killed or wounded, and amongst them several generals, one being Johnston the General-in-chief who, just at the close of the fight, was wounded in the shoulder by a ball.
General Stuart remained on the battle-field till late at night, and we galloped off together after the last cannon-shots had died away. The ride to headquarters was a dreadful one: hundreds of conveyances, some taking the wounded to Richmond, some coming out from the city with provisions for the troops, were crossing each other in the almost impassable turnpike, and the groans and cries of the wounded were mingled with the curses and shouts of drivers, whose vehicles obstructed the way with broken wheels or exhausted horses.
Many of the inhabitants of Richmond had sent their carriages, and the hotels their omnibuses, to bring off the wounded: the greater number of these slightly-built equipages lay broken in the road, and would never again be available for any purpose whatever.
General Stuart’s headquarters were at a farmhouse named Montebello, which was situated on a hill near Richmond, and from which we had a splendid view of the town, the river, and the environs. To this house we galloped for a short night’s rest. Here General Stuart thanked me with only too much warmth for the small services I Had rendered during the battle, and said that lie would have much pleasure in placing me on his Staff’ as a volunteer aide-de-camp.
Sunday, 1st June. — We returned very early the next morning to the battle-field, where there seemed to be a renewal of the fight; faint musketry fire was audible, and the thunder of cannon roared through the morning air.
Not without risk did we reach the field, so rotten was the way and so full of holes, often from four to five feet in depth, and filled with water, so that one could not ride a hundred yards without one’s horse slipping and falling. Hundreds of waggons were stuck fast in the road, many of them upset, with the horses lying drowned in front of them, and several still filled with wounded men groaning piteously.
After a considerable time we reached the scene of the previous day’s victory. Never shall I forget the impression made upon me by this first sight of death and devastation to which I afterwards became so well accustomed.
The most horrible spectacle was that presented near the bastions and earthworks which the day before had been stormed by our men. Friend and foe were lying here indiscriminately side by side, mown down in multitudes by musketry and by the guns which we had afterwards taken. The enemy’s artillery had here lost all their horses, which lay by dozens, piled one upon another, and all around the ground was strewn with weapons, haversacks, cartridge-boxes, ammunition, &c. These articles, abandoned by the enemy, were used by us most profitably for the better equipment of our own troops.
A South Carolina brigade had taken up its position in the intrenchments near us, and the men lay behind the breastwork full of confidence and good-humour, quite unmindful of the heaps of slain, and breakfasting on the enemy’s provisions, which had been left behind in great quantities.
General Stuart had scarcely ridden with us into the intrenchments, when a cannon-ball hissed over our heads and tore up the earth about fifty yards behind us. Other shots followed in rapid succession, and each time the balls came nearer and nearer to our little group. General Stuart, paying no attention to the cannonade, remained until he had completed his observations of this portion of the field, and then desired me to ride with him to our extreme right. We had to cross an open field, and as soon as we had reached it the firing began anew. Nearer and nearer to us fell the shells, exploding with a deafening report and covering us with earth. We were evidently a mark for the fire of a whole battery, and even General Stuart, who till now had tranquilly pursued his way, turned round in surprise when the fragments of an exploded grenade flew hissing between us, and said, “Lieutenant, they are firing at us here; let us ride a little faster!”
We had still about three hundred paces to go before a friendly grove would hide us from the enemy, but this short distance seemed to me like so many miles, and was one of the hottest rides I ever had in my life. The Federals divined our intention only too well, and overwhelmed us with the fire of a whole battery, so that it is almost a miracle that the General and I escaped uninjured.
As we afterwards learned, the Yankees had stationed a scout at the top of a lofty pine-tree, who, when he saw the General, gave the artillery the first direction: he paid for it with his life, for one of our sharpshooters detected him, and by a well-directed bullet brought him down.
The battle was not renewed; the firing grew fainter and fainter, until towards one o’clock it ceased almost entirely. About this time we returned to the spot where General Longstreet had taken his position the day before, and where several of our generals were assembled, to whom I was presented by General Stuart. President Davis soon came up, congratulating the Generals, and expressing his great satisfaction at the issue of the day.
I had now the opportunity of closely observing General Longstreet for the first time. He was a stout man, of middle height, and most agreeable countenance; his long brown beard gave something leonine to his appearance; an engaging simplicity was his prevailing characteristic, manifested not less in his manners than in his dress. It consisted, like that of most of the leading generals of the Confederate army, of a small black felt hat, a tunic-like grey coat, much faded, on the collar and sleeves of which the devices indicating his rank were scarcely distinguishable, a pair of grey trousers, and military boots with Mexican spurs; a small sword was his only weapon. His steady courage — displayed rather by perfect composure under fire, and serene indifference to the extremest peril, than, like that of Stuart, in fiery charges and daring enterprise — his constant energy in the campaign and obstinacy in the fight, and his strict obedience to orders, made him one of the most useful, as he was always among the most conspicuous, officers in the Confederate service. By these he gained the full confidence of the army and its commanding general, Robert E. Lee, who used to call him his war-horse. Longstreet’s soldiers were perfectly devoted to him, and I have frequently heard friendly contentions between officers and men of his corps, and those of Stonewall Jackson’s, as to which of the two was the most meritorious and valuable officer.
President Jefferson Davis is a tall thin man, with sharply-defined features, an air of easy command, and frank, unaffected, gentlemanlike manners. I had the honour of being presented to him, and was struck with the simple friendly tone in which he conversed with me. He examined with great interest an excellent Damascus blade, an old and tried friend of mine, and said he was very glad to know that he had so good a sword and so strong an arm to wield it in his army.
The next day did not pass without excitement. A renewed attack from the enemy was expected, and our troops were kept for the greater part of the day under arms. From time to time a single report of cannon was heard, generally fired from our side at the air-balloon which the Yankees had sent up for reconnoitring. General Stuart, who commanded our outposts, was constantly in motion, and we were seldom out of the saddle. Our rendezvous and momentary halting-place was near a small farmhouse standing peacefully among hickory and oak trees. Turned into an hospital, the ghastly features and mutilated limbs of the wounded men stretched upon their beds of pain within the building, formed a dreadful contrast to the cheerful exterior.
On the 5th everything was quiet again. On the 6th General Stuart changed his headquarters, and we removed with bag and baggage to a farmhouse about four miles distant, inhabited only by an old man named Waddle. This place, standing at some distance from the highroad, was surrounded by copses and thickets, and afforded us a capital opportunity of recovering from our fatigues. We had to provide our own food, which, in consequence of the prevailing scarcity, was scanty and bad; a little bacon and maize-bread composed our breakfast, dinner, and supper, and we thought it an extraordinary luxury when we could gather wild strawberries enough in the wood to make a dish to add to our repast.
General Stuart, though he sometimes employed me to carry reports to the different generals, usually took me with him on his short reconnoitring rides, in order to make me acquainted with, the surrounding country, the position of the army, and the commanders of the divisions and brigades.
Towards dusk on the 8th we set out on one of these expeditions, escorted by half-a-dozen of our couriers, and I soon perceived that our ride was to be extended to a greater distance than usual. It was late in the evening when we reached the last of our outposts, and I was not a little surprised when the General here dismissed his escort, and desired me alone to accompany him farther. Silently we rode through the lonely wood, whilst the darkness grew deeper and deeper around us, and the stillness of the forest was only broken by the strange tones of the tree-frog and the melancholy cry of the whip-poor-will.
We soon found ourselves within the enemy’s lines; at any moment we might stumble upon one of their patrols; and General Stuart smiled significantly when he saw me examining the loads of my revolver, and observed that we would not employ firearms except in the last resort, and that in case of an encounter we must make use of our sabres. This ride was strangely exciting to me; now that I have become so accustomed to such expeditions, I could go through it with the most perfect composure, but then I was feverishly agitated, and every rustling bough, every bird flying past, increased the strain.
After a ride of about five miles we reached a small house, and on General Stuart’s knocking at the door in a peculiar manner it was opened to us. The house was inhabited by an Irishman and his family; and here General Stuart had appointed a rendezvous with one of the spies, in order to obtain an authentic report of the enemy’s position. This man had not arrived, so we fastened our horses to the fence and went into the house. Hour after hour went by, but still no one came, and it was past midnight when General Stuart became convinced that some unlooked-for hindrance must be detaining him. No persuasion nor promises of money, not even my offer to accompany him, could induce the old Irishman or his son, a lad of seventeen, to walk over to the spy’s abode, which was about two miles distant, and near one of the enemy’s camps. So the General and I were obliged ourselves to undertake this dangerous expedition, and with the first glimmer of daylight we mounted our horses and cautiously set off. The peculiar repugnance of the Yankees to patrolling at night and the heavy rain favouring our enterprise we arrived without misadventure at the man’s dwelling just as the reveille was sounding in the camp only 400 paces distant. The spy being very ill in bed. General Stuart had to dismount and go to his bedside; and when the General, extremely well satisfied with the information he had obtained, swung himself into the saddle, and we galloped back, it was with a great sense of relief we approached our lines, where we were greeted with delight by our men, who had begun to entertain considerable anxiety on our account.
Such rides and expeditions were habitual with this bold General, and we often escaped as by a miracle from the dangers which surrounded us. It was only by this exposure of himself that he could insure the extraordinary success which invariably crowned his expeditions and military operations.
The object of this excursion soon appeared. Our cavalry force received orders to provide themselves with rations for three days, and on the 12th we commenced that ride round the army of General M’Clellan which attracted so much attention even in Europe.
June 12, 1862. — It was two o’clock in the morning, and we were all fast asleep, when General Stuart’s clear voice awoke us with the words, “Gentlemen, in ten minutes every man must be in his saddle!”
In half the time all the members of the Staff were dressed, and the horses had been fed; and the ten minutes were scarcely up when we galloped off to overtake the main body, which we reached by about five o’clock. Our command was composed of parts of the different regiments of the brigade, and consisted of about 2500 cavalry, with two pieces of horse-artillery. None of us knew where we were going; General Stuart only communicated the object of the expedition to the colonels commanding; nevertheless every one followed our honoured leader with perfect confidence. We marched the whole day long without halting, and towards evening bivouacked near the little town of Taylorsville in Hanover County, where we were already within the enemy’s lines. At daybreak we again mounted our horses, and our vanguard was soon reported to have met with a party of the enemy’s dragoons, who on their approach had hurried off in hasty flight. Without waiting to pursue them, we continued our march, greeted everywhere with enthusiasm by the inhabitants, especially by the ladies, who for a long time had seen none other than Federal troops. I was in company with Stuart the whole time, constantly near the vanguard, and could note that every operation was initiated and superintended by the General himself. A few miles from Hanover Court-house we surprised a picket of the enemy’s cavalry, every man of which fell into our hands from the suddenness of our attack. Whilst we were occupied with sending the prisoners to the rear, our advance-guard came back at a run, hotly pursued by a large body of the enemy’s dragoons. Our leading squadron spurred immediately forward to meet the attack, and, having obtained General Stuart’s permission, I joined them as with loud war-cries they hurled themselves against the blue masses of the enemy. The Yankees were not able to withstand the impetuous onset of the Virginia horsemen, and, after a melee of a very few minutes, there commenced a most exciting chase, which was continued for nearly three miles. Friend and foe were soon enveloped in blinding clouds of dust, through which pistol and carbine shots were seen darting to and fro like flashes of lightning. The larger number of the enemy escaped, thanks to their fresher animals, but we took many of them prisoners, and their dead and wounded men and horses encumbered the road as we pushed along. Half an hour later our advance-guard again came in collision with the enemy, who had rallied, and, with strong reinforcements, were awaiting us. Two squadrons of the 9th Virginia Cavalry were immediately sent forward to the attack, and I received orders from General Stuart to hasten with our main column to the scene of action. I rode at once to bring on the main column; but though I used the utmost speed to get back in time to take part in the charge, when I arrived at the scene of the sharp conflict the work had already been done. The enemy’s lines were broken and in full flight, leaving many of their dead and wounded, and a large number of prisoners, among whom were several officers, in our hands. We had to lament the loss of the gallant Captain Latane, who, while boldly leading his men, fell pierced by five bullets. In a few seconds the 1st Virginia Cavalry had arrived, and we instantly dashed forward in pursuit.
The enemy made one more attempt to rally, but their lines were broken by our furious attack; they fled in confusion, and we chased them in wild pursuit across an open field, through their camp, and far into the woods. When we had returned to their camp the work of destruction began. Every one tried to rescue for himself as much as possible of the articles of luxury with which the Yankees had overloaded themselves, but few succeeded in the end; for, in accordance with the well-laid plan of our leader, flames flashed up, now in one place, now in another, and in a few minutes the whole camp was enveloped in one blaze, hundreds of tents burning together presenting a wonderfully beautiful spectacle. Many horses and mules, and two captured standards, were all that we carried off with us. After half an hour’s halt our destroying cavalry again set forth; our track of blood and fire pointing out to the enemy the path which we had taken.
We now found ourselves in the heart of the enemy’s position, and their encampments lay around us on all sides. At one point of our journey, the house occupied by the Federal Commander-in-Chief, General M’Clellan, as his headquarters, surrounded by the white tents of a very large camp, was plainly visible at the distance of about two and a half miles. Our situation would have been one of extraordinary peril, had not the boldness and rapidity of our movements disabled and paralysed our adversaries.
On either side of the road we constantly seized upon unsuspecting Federal soldiers, who had no idea of the close proximity of the dreaded Stuart until collared by his horsemen. A considerable number of waggons laden with provisions and goods fell into our hands, among them one containing the personal stores of General M’Clellan, with his cigars, wines, and other dainties. But we could not be burdened with booty, so the entire train was committed to the flames, the champagne popped bootlessly, and the cabanas wasted their fragrance on the air. Three transport-ships which lay in the river Pamunkey near at hand, laden with wheat, corn, and provisions from all quarters, were seized by ns, together with the guard and the agents stationed there, and ere long the flames mounting towards heaven proclaimed how complete was our work of destruction. A brigade of the enemy’s cavalry here sought to intercept our way and to detain us till the troops, which were marching upon us from all sides, could arrive; but it was broken by our first attack, and crossed our path no more.
Thus towards evening we reached the railroad which was so useful to the enemy in giving them communication with the north; and just as the demolition of the road-bed was about to begin, the train was seen coming up. Without delay General Stuart posted a portion of his men on either side of the embankment, with orders to fire if the train refused to stop at the station. The train moved slowly nearer and nearer, puffing off the steam, and we could soon perceive that it was laden with soldiers, most of them being in open carriages. As the command to stop was disregarded, but on the contrary the movement of the train was accelerated, firing began along our whole line. The engine-driver was shot down by Captain Farley, to whom I had lent my blunderbuss; but before the deadly bullet reached him he had put the train in somewhat quicker motion, so that we could not make ourselves masters of it.
A battle of the strangest description now arose. Some of the soldiers in the train returned our fire, others sprang out to save themselves by flight, or lay down flat at the bottom of the carriages. The train, though its motion had been quickened, was not going at so rapid a pace that we could not keep up with it by galloping hard. Meantime, having had my hat almost knocked off my head by one of the enemy’s bullets, I became so wildly excited that, without heeding our own fire, I spurred my horse over the embankment, and very soon had discharged all the five charges of my revolver at the foe. We heard later that few of the occupants of the train had escaped unhurt; the greater part were either killed or severely wounded. I reproached myself afterwards with having so given the reins to my passion; but after all I only acted in obedience to orders and the requirements of war. After having done as much injury as we could to the railroad, we proceeded on our march, whilst the last beams of the sun lighted up the scene of destruction.
It had been a hard ride and a hard day’s work, and my parched tongue was cleaving to the roof of my mouth, when one of our men galloped up to me, and held out a bottle of champagne, saying, “Captain, you did pretty hot work to-day. I got this bottle of champagne for you out of M’Clellan’s waggon. It will do you good.” Never in my life have I enjoyed a bottle of wine so much. Late in the evening a baggage-train and two sutler’s waggons fell into our hands, and we took possession of a large quantity of luxuries, such as pickles, oysters, preserved fruits, oranges, lemons, and cigars.