Of all human faculties, surely the most curious is the memory.
Capricious, whimsical, illogical, acting ever in accordance with its own wild will, it loses so many “important events” to retain the veriest trifles in its deathless clutch!
Ask a soldier who has fought all day long in some world-losing battle, what he remembers most vividly, and he will tell you that he has well-nigh forgotten the most desperate charges, but recalls with perfect distinctness the joy he experienced in swallowing a mouthful of water from the canteen on the body of a dead enemy.
A trifling incident of the second battle of Manassas
remains in my memory more vividly than the hardest fighting of the whole day, and I never recall the incident in question without thinking, too, of De Quincey
's singular paper, “A vision of sudden death.”
The reader is probably familiar with the article to which I refer — a very curious one, and not the least admirable of those strange leaves, full of thought and fancy, which the “Opium Eater” scattered among the readers of the last generation.
He was riding on the roof of a stage-coach, when the vehicle commenced the descent of a very steep hill.
Soon it began moving with mad velocity, the horses became unmanageable, and it was obvious that if it came in collision with anything, either it or the object which it struck would be dashed in pieces.
All at once, there appeared in front, on the narrow road, a light
carriage, in which were seated a young man and a girl.
They either did not realize their danger, or were powerless to avoid it; and on swept the heavy stage, with its load of passengers, its piled — up baggage, and its maddened horses-rushing straight down on the frail vehicle with which it soon came in collision.
It was at the moment when the light little affair was dashed to pieces, the stage rolling with a wild crash over the boy and girl, that De Quincey
saw in their awestruck faces that singular expression which he has described by the phrase, “A vision of sudden death.”
It requires some courage to intrude upon the literary domain of that great master, the “Opium Eater,” and the comparison will prove dangerous; but a reader here and there may be interested in a vision of sudden death
which I myself once saw in a human eye. On the occasion in question, a young, weak-minded, and timid person was instantaneously confronted, without premonition or suspicion of his danger, with the abrupt prospect of an ignominious death; and I think the great English writer would have considered my incident more stirring than his own.
It was on the morning of August 3 I, 1862, on the Warrenton
road, in a little skirt of pines, near Cub Run bridge, between Manassas
, who previously had “only seen the backs of his enemies,” had been cut to pieces.
The battle-ground which had witnessed the defeat of Scott
on the 21St of July, 1861, had now again been swept by the bloody besom of war; and the Federal
forces were once more in full retreat upon Washington
The infantry of the Southern
army were starved, broken down, utterly exhausted, when they went into that battle, but they carried everything before them; and the enemy had disappeared, thundering with their artillery to cover their retreat.
The rest of the work must be done by the cavalry; and to the work in question the great cavalier Stuart
addressed himself with the energy, dash, and vigour of his character.
The scene, as we went on, was curious.
Pushing across the battle-field-we had slept at “Fairview
,” the Conrad House
on the maps-we saw upon every side the reeking traces of the bloody conflict; and as the column went on across
, following the enemy on their main line of retreat over the road from Stonebridge to Centreville
, the evidences of “demoralization” and defeat crowded still more vividly upon the eye. Guns, haversacks, oil-cloths
, knapsacks, abandoned cannon and broken-down wagons and ambulances,--all the debris
of an army, defeated and hastening to find shelter behind its worksattracted the attention now, as in July, 1861, when the first “On to Richmond
” was so unfortunate.
Prisoners were picked up on all sides as the cavalry pushed on; their horses, if they were mounted, were taken possession of; their sabres, guns, and pistols appropriated with the ease and rapidity of long practice; and the prisoners were sent in long strings under one or two mounted men, as a guard, to the rear.
As we approached Cub Run bridge, over which the rear-guard of the Federal
army had just retired, we found by the roadside a small wooden house used as a temporary hospital.
It was full of dead and wounded; and I remember that the “Hospital steward” who attended the Federal
wounded was an imposing personage.
Portly, bland, “dignified,” elegantly dressed, he was as splendid as a major-general; nay, far more so than any gray major-general
of the present writer's acquaintance.
Our tall and finely-clad friend yielded up his surplus ambulances with graceful ease, asked for further orders; and when soon his own friends from across Cub Run
began to shell the place, philosophically took his stand behind the frail mansion and “awaited further developments” with the air of a man who was resigned to the fortunes of war. Philosophic steward of the portly person!
if you see this page it will bring back to you that lively scene when the present writer conversed with you and found you so composed and “equal to the occasion,” even amid the shell and bullets!
But I am expending too much attention upon my friend the surgeon, who “held the position” there with such philosophic coolness.
The cavalry, headed by General Stuart
, pushed on, and we were now nearly at Cub Run bridge.
The main body of the enemy had reached Centreville
during the preceding night, and we could see their white tents in the distance; but a strong rearguard of cavalry and artillery had been left near the bridge, and
as we now advanced, mounted skirmishers from the Federal
side forded the stream, and very gallantly came to meet us. On our side, sharpshooters were promptly deployed-then came the bang of carbines-then Stuart
's Horse Artillery galloped up, under Pelham
, and a “rear-guard affair” began.
formed his column for a charge, and had just begun to move, when the Federal
skirmishers were seen retiring; a dense smoke arose from Cub Run bridge, and suddenly the enemy's artillery on a knoll beyond opened their grim mouths.
The first shot they fired was admirable.
It fell plump into a squadron of cavalry-between the files as they were ranged side by side in column of twos-and although it burst into a hundred pieces, did not wound man or horse.
The Horse Artillery under Pelham
replied to the fire of the opposing guns; an animated artillery duel commenced, and the ordinary routine began.
There is a French proverb which declares that although you may know when you set out on a journey, you do not know when you will arrive.
Those who journey through the fine land of memory are, of all travellers, the most ignorant upon that score, and are apt to become the most unconscionable vagarists.
Memory refuses to recall one scene or incident without recalling also a hundred others which preceded or followed it. “You people,” said John Randolph
to a gentleman of an extensive clan, with which the eccentric orator was always at war, “you people all take up each other's quarrels.
You are worse than a pile of fishhooks.
If I try to grasp one, I raise the whole bunch.”
To end my preface, and come to my little incident.
I was sitting on my horse near General Stuart
, who had put in the skirmishers, and was now superintending the fire of his artillery, when a cavalry-man rode up and reported that they had just captured a deserter.
“Where is he?”
's brief interrogatory.
“Coming yonder, General.”
“How do you know he is a deserter?”
“One of my company knew him when he joined our army.”
“Where is he from?”
And the man mentioned the name of a county of Western Virginia
“What is his name?”
(I suppress the full name.
Some mother's or sister's heart might be wounded.)
“Bring him up,” said Stuart
coldly, with a lowering glance from the blue eyes under the brown hat and black feather.
As he spoke, two or three mounted men rode up with the prisoner.
I can see him at this moment with the mind's eye, as I saw him then with the material eye. He was a young man, apparently eighteen or nineteen years of age, and wore the blue uniform, tipped with red, of a private in the United States Artillery.
The singular fact was that he appeared completely at his ease.
He seemed to be wholly unconscious of the critical position which he occupied; and as he approached, I observed that he returned the dark glance of Stuart
with the air of a man who says, “What do you find in my appearance to make you fix your eyes upon me so intently!”
In another moment he was in Stuart
's presence, and calmly, quietly, without the faintest exhibition of embarrassment, or any emotion whatever, waited to be addressed.
's words were curtest of the curt.
“Is this the man?”
“Yes, General,” replied one ot the escort.
“You say he is a deserter?”
“Yes, sir; I knew him in — county, when he joined Captain
s' company; and there.
is no sort of doubt about it, General, as he acknowledges that he is the same person.”
“Yes, sir; acknowledges that he is M- , from that county; and that after joining the South
flashed a quick glance at the prisoner, and seemed at a loss to understand what fatuity had induced him to testify against himself-thereby sealing his fate.
His gaze-clear, fiery, menacing — was returned by the youth with apathetic calmness.
Not a muscle of his countenance moved, and I now had an opportunity
to look at him more attentively.
He was even younger than I at first thought him-indeed, a mere boy. His complexion was fair; his hair flaxen and curling; his eyes blue, mild, and as soft in their expression as a girl's. Their expression, as they met the lowering glances of Stuart
, was almost confiding.
I could not suppress a sigh-so painful was the thought that this youth would probably be lying soon with a bullet through his heart.
A kinder-hearted person than General Stuart
never lived; but in all that appertained to his profession and duty as a soldier, he was inexorable.
Desertion, in his estimation, was one of the deadliest crimes of which a human being could be guilty; and his course was plain-his resolution immovable.
“What is your name?”
said the General
coldly, with a lowering brow.
“M— , sir,” was the response, in a mild and pleasing voice, in which it was impossible to discern the least trace of emotion.
“Where are you from?”
“I belonged to the battery that was firing at you, over yonder, sir.”
The voice had not changed.
A calmer tone I never heard.
“Where were you born?”
, as coldly as before.
“Did you belong to the Southern
army at any time?”
The coolness of the speaker was incredible.
could only look at him for a moment in silence, so astonishing was this equanimity at a time when his life and death were in the balance.
Not a tone of the voice, a movement of the muscles, or a tremor of the lip indicated consciousness of his danger.
The eye never quailed, the colour in his cheek never faded.
The prisoner acknowledged that he was a deserter from the Southern
army with the simplicity, candour, and calmness of one who saw in that fact nothing extraordinary, or calculated in any manner to affect his destiny unpleasantly.
's eye flashed; he could not understand such apathy; but in war there is little time to investigate psychological phenomena.
“So you were in our ranks, and you went over to the enemy?”
he said with a sort of growl.
“Yes, sir,” was the calm reply.
“You were a private in that battery yonder?”
turned to an officer, and pointing to a tall pine near, said in brief tones:
Hang him on that tree!
It was then that a change-sudden, awful, horrible-came over the face of the prisoner; at that moment I read in the distended eyeballs the “vision of sudden death.”
The youth became ghastly pale; and the eyes, before so vacant and apathetic, were all at once injected with blood, and full of piteous fright.
I saw in an instant that the boy had not for a single moment realized the terrible danger of his position; and that the words “Hang him on that tree!”
had burst upon him with the sudden and appalling force of a thunderbolt.
I have seen human countenances express every phase of agony; seen the writhing of the mortally wounded as their life-blood welled out, and the horror of the death-struggle fixed on the cold upturned faces of the dead; but never have I witnessed an expression more terrible and agonizing than that which passed over the face of the boy-deserter, as he thus heard his sentence.
He had evidently regarded himself as a mere prisoner of war; and now he was condemned to death!
He had looked forward, doubtless, to mere imprisonment at Richmond
until regularly exchanged, when “hang him on that tree!”
burst upon his ears like the voice of some avenging Nemesis
Terrible, piteous, sickening, was the expression of the boy's face.
He seemed to feel already the rope around his neck; he choked; when he spoke his voice sounded like the death-rattle.
An instant of horror-struck silence; a gasp or two as if the words were trying to force their way against some obstacle in his throat; then the sound came.
His tones were not loud, impassioned, energetic, not even animated.
A sick terror seemed to have frozen him; when he spoke it was in a sort of moan.
“I didn't know,” he muttered in low, husky tones.
meant-when I went over to Maryland
--to fight against the South
They made me; I had nothing to eat — I told them I was a Southerner-and so help me God I never fired a shot.
I was with the wagons.
Oh! General, spare me; I never-”
There the voice died out; and as pale as a corpse, trembling in every limb — a spectacle of helpless terror which no words can describe, the boy awaited his doom.
had listened in silence, his gaze riveted upon the speaker; his hand grasping his heavy beard; motionless amid the shell which were bursting around him. For an instant he seemed to hesitate-life and death were poised in the balances.
Then with a cold look at the trembling deserter, he said to the men:
Take him back to General Lee, and report the circumstances.
With these words he turned and galloped off; the deserter was saved, at least for the moment.
I do not know his ultimate fate; but if he saw General Lee
in person, and told his tale, I think he was spared.
That great and merciful spirit inflicted the death-penalty only when he could not avoid it.
Since that day I have never seen the face of the boy-nor even expect to see it. But I shall never forget that “vision of sudden death” in his distended eyes, as Stuart
's cold voice ordered, “Hang him on that tree.”