Chapter 23: the retreat from Chaffin's Bluff to Sailor's Creek
- On the works, Sunday evening, April 2d, 1865, listening to the Receding fire at Petersburg -- evening service with the men interrupted by the order to Evacuate the lines -- explosions of the magazines. Of the land batteries and iron -- Clads -- a soldier's wife sends her husband word to desert, but Recalls the message -- marching, halting, marching, day after day, night after night -- lack of food, lack of rest, lack of sleep -- many drop by the Wayside, others lose self-control and fire into each other -- in the Bloody fight of the 6th at Sailor's Creek, the battalion Redeems itself, goes down with flying colors, and is complimented on the field by General Ewell, after he and all who are left of us are prisoners of war.
Not many weeks later, on Sunday, the 2d of April, I stood almost all day on our works overhanging the river, listening to the fire about Petersburg, and noting its peculiar character and progression. I made up my mind what it meant, and had time and space out there alone with God and upon His day to commit myself and mine to Him, and to anticipate and prepare for the immediate future. Late in the afternoon I walked back to my quarters, and soon after, George Cary Eggleston, who was then in a command that held a part of the line near us, dropped in. He tells me now that I asked him then what effect he thought it would have upon our cause if our lines should be broken and we compelled to give up Petersburg and Richmond; and that he declined to answer the question because, as he said, the supposed facts were out of the plane of the practical, and would not and could not happen. Now, years afterwards, recalling the peculiar expression and manner with which I propounded this interrogatory, he asks whether I had then received any official information, and I answer in the negative-no, none  whatever. Up to the time Eggleston left my camp for his I knew nothing beyond what my tell-tale ears and prescient soul had told me. Indeed, we went into our meeting that night without any other information; but I had directed the acting-adjutant to remain in his office and to bring at once to me, in the church, any orders that might come to hand. Our service was one of unusual power and interest. I read with the men the “Soldier Psalm,” the ninety-first, and exhorted them, in any special pressure that might come upon us in the near future — the “terror by night” or the “destruction ... at noon-day” --to abide with entire confidence in that “Stronghold,” to appropriate that “Strength.” As I uttered these words, I noticed a well-grown, finelooking country lad named Blount, who was leaning forward, and gazing at me with eager interest, while tears of sympathy and appreciation were brimming his eyes. The door opened and the adjutant appeared. I told him to stand a moment where he was, and as quietly as possible told the men what I was satisfied was the purport of the paper he held in his hand, and why I was so satisfied. And then we prayed for the realization of what David had expressed in that Psalm — for faith, for strength, for protection. After the prayer I called for the paper and read it over, first silently and then aloud, gave brief directions to the men and dismissed them-first calling upon such officers and noncommissioned officers of the battalion as had special duties to perform in connection with the magazines, etc., to remain a few moments. The men were ordered to rendezvous at a given hour, and to fall in by companies on the parade, and the company officers were ordered to see that they brought with them only what was absolutely necessary, and a brief approximate list — was given of the proper campaign outfit. But the poor fellows had been many months in garrison, and it was maddening work, within a short and fixed time, to select from their motley accumulations what was really necessary in the changed conditions ahead of us. The orders were, in general, that the men of the fleet and of the James River defenses should leave the river about  midnight of the 2d of April, exploding magazines and ironclads, and join the Army of Northern Virginia in its retreat. Orders such as these were enough to try the mettle even of the best troops, in the highest condition, but for my poor little battalion they were overwhelming, well nigh stupefying. The marvel is that they held together at all and left the Bluff, as they did, in pretty fair condition. A few months earlier I question whether they would have been equal to it. I said they left in pretty fair condition, and so they did, except that they had more baggage piled upon their backs than any one brigade, perhaps I might say division, in General Lee's army was bearing at the same moment. I could hardly blame them, and there was no time to correct the folly; besides, I knew it would correct and adjust itself, as it had done pretty well by morning. The explosions began just as we got across the river. When the magazines at Chaffin's and Drury's Bluffs went off, the solid earth shuddered convulsively; but as the ironclads-one after another-exploded, it seemed as if the very dome of heaven would be shattered down upon us. Earth and air and the black sky glared in the lurid light. Columns and towers and pinnacles of flame shot upward to an amazing height, from which, on all sides, the ignited shells flew on arcs of fire and burst as if bombarding heaven. I distinctly remember feeling that after this I could never more be startled-no, not by the catastrophes of the last great day. I walked in rear of the battalion to prevent straggling, and as the successive flashes illumined the darkness the blanched faces and staring eyes turned backward upon me spoke volumes of nervous demoralization. I felt that a hare might shatter the column. We halted at daylight at a country cross-road in Chesterfield to allow other bodies of troops to pass, the bulk of my men lying down and falling asleep in a grove; but seeing others about a well in the yard of a farm house over the way, I deemed it best to go there to see that nothing was unnecessarily disturbed. I sat in the porch, where were also sitting an old couple, evidently the joint head of the establishment, and a young  woman dressed in black, apparently their daughter, and, as I soon learned, a soldier's widow. My coat was badly torn, and the young woman kindly offering to mend it, I thanked her and, taking it off, handed it to her. While we were chatting, and groups of men sitting on the steps and lying about the yard, the door of the house opened and another young woman appeared. She was almost beautiful, was plainly but neatly dressed, and had her hat on. She had evidently been weeping and her face was deadly pale. Turning to the old woman, as she came out, she said, cutting her words off short, “Mother, tell him if he passes here he is no husband of mine,” and turned again to leave the porch. I rose, and placing myself directly in front of her, extended my arm to prevent her escape. She drew back with surprise and indignation. The men were alert on the instant, and battle was joined. “What do you mean, sir?” she cried. “I mean, madam,” I replied, “that you are sending your husband word to desert, and that I cannot permit you to do this in the presence of my men.” “Indeed! and who asked your permission, sir? And pray, sir, is he your husband or mine?” “He is your husband, madam, but these are my soldiers. They and I belong to the same army with your husband, and I cannot suffer you, or anyone, unchallenged, to send such a demoralizing message in their hearing.” “Army! do you call this mob of retreating cowards an army? Soldiers! if you are soldiers, why don't you stand and fight the savage wolves that are coming upon us defenseless women and children?” “We don't stand and fight, madam, because we are soldiers, and have to obey orders, but if the enemy should appear on that hill this moment I think you would find that these men are soldiers, and willing to die in defense of women and children.” “Quite a fine speech, sir, but rather cheap to utter, since you very well know the Yankees are not here, and won't be, till you've had time to get your precious carcasses out of the way. Besides, sir, this thing is over, and has been for some  time. The Government has now actually run off, bag and baggage,--the Lord knows where,--and there is no longer any Government or any country for my husband to owe allegiance to. He does owe allegiance to me and to his starving children, and if he doesn't observe this allegiance now, when I need him, he needn't attempt it hereafter when he wants me.” The woman was quick as a flash and cold as steel. She was getting the better of me. She saw it, I felt it, and, worst of all, the men saw and felt it, too, and had gathered thick and pressed up close all round the porch. There must have been a hundred or more of them, all eagerly listening, and evidently leaning strongly to the woman's side. This would never do. I tried every avenue of approach to that woman's heart. It was congealed by suffering, or else it was encased in adamant. She had parried every thrust, repelled every advance, and was now standing defiant, with her arms folded across her breast, rather courting further attack. I was desperate, and with the nonchalance of pure desperation-no stroke of genius — I asked the soldier-question:
What command does your husband belong to?She started a little, and there was a trace of color in her face as she replied, with a slight tone of pride in her voice:
He belongs to the Stonewall Brigade, sir.I felt, rather than thought it-but, had I really found her heart? We would see. “When did he join it?” A little deeper flush, a little stronger emphasis of pride. “He joined it in the spring of 1861, sir.” 1 Yes, I was sure of it now. Her eyes had gazed straight into mine; her head inclined and her eyelids drooped a little now, and there was something in her face that was not pain  and was not fight. So I let myself out a little, and turning to the men, said:
Men, if her husband joined the Stonewall Brigade in 1861, and has been in the army ever since, I reckon he's a good soldier.I turned to look at her. It was all over. Her wifehood had conquered. She had not been addressed this time, yet she answered instantly, with head raised high, face flushing, eyes flashing- “General Lee hasn't a better in his army!” As she uttered these words she put her hand in her bosom, and drawing out a folded paper, extended it toward me, saying:
If you doubt it, look at that.Before her hand reached mine she drew it back, seeming to have changed her mind, but I caught her wrist, and without much resistance, possessed myself of the paper. It had been much thumbed and was much worn. It was hardly legible, but I made it out. Again I turned to the men. “Take off your hats, boys, I want you to hear this with uncovered heads” --and then I read an endorsement on application for furlough, in which General Lee himself had signed a recommendation of this woman's husband for a furlough of special length on account of extraordinary gallantry in battle. During the reading of this paper the woman was transfigured, glorified. No Madonna of old master was ever more sweetly radiant with all that appeals to what is best and holiest in man. Her bosom rose and fell with deep, quiet sighs; her eyes rained gentle, happy tears. The men felt it all-all. They were all gazing upon her, but the dross was clean, purified out of them. There was not, upon any one of their faces an expression that would have brought a blush to the cheek of the purest womanhood on earth. I turned once more to the soldier's wife. “This little paper is your most precious treasure, isn't it?” “It is.”  “And the love of him whose manly courage and devotion won this tribute is the best blessing God ever gave you, isn't it?” “It is.” “And'yet, for the brief ecstasy of one kiss, you would disgrace this hero-husband of yours, stain all his noble reputation, and turn this priceless paper to bitterness; for the rearguard would hunt him from his own cottage, in half an hour, a deserter and a coward.” Not a sound could be heard save her hurried breathing. The rest of us held even our breath. Suddenly, with a gasp of recovered consciousness, she snatched the paper from my hand, put it back hurriedly in her bosom, and turning once more to her mother, said:
Mother, tell him not to come.I stepped aside at once. She left the porch, glided down the path to the gate, crossed the road, surmounted the fence with easy grace, climbed the hill, and as she disappeared in the weedy pathway I caught up my hat and said:
Now, men, give her three cheers.Such cheers! Oh, God! shall I ever again hear a cheer which bears a man's whole soul in it? For the first time I felt reasonably sure of my battalion. It would follow me anywhere. No Confederate soldier who was on and of that fearful retreat can fail to recall it as one of the most trying experiences of his life. Trying enough, in the mere fact that the Army of Northern Virginia was flying before its foes, but further trying, incomparably trying, in lack of food and rest and sleep, and because of the audacious pressure of the enemy's cavalry. The combined and continued strain of all this upon soft garrison troops, unenured to labor and hardship and privation and peril, can hardly be conceived and cannot be described. Its two most serious effects were drowsiness and nervousness. We crossed and left James River at midnight on Sunday, were captured at Sailor's Creek about sundown on the Thursday following, and I think rations were issued to us that night by our captors. I do not say there was only one, but I recall only one issue of  rations between those limits, and we were marching all day and, as I remember, a large part of every night. The somewhat disorganized condition of the troops and the crowded condition of the roads necessitated frequent halts, and whenever these occurred-especially after nightfall — the men would drop in the road, or on the side of it, and sleep until they were roused, and it was manifestly impossible to rouse them all. My two horses were in almost constant use to transport officers and men who had given out, especially our doctor, whose horse was for some reason unavailable. Besides, I preferred to be on foot, for the very purpose of moving around among the men and rousing them when we resumed the march. With this view I was a good part of the time at the rear of the battalion; but notwithstanding my efforts in this respect, individually and through a detail of men selected and organized for the purpose of waking the sleepers, we lost, I am satisfied, every time we resumed the march after a halt at night-men who were not found or who could not be roused. The nervousness resulting from this constant strain of starvation, fatigue, and lack of sleep was a dangerous thing, at one time producing very lamentable results, which threatened to be even more serious than they were. One evening an officer, I think of one of our supply departments, passed and repassed us several times, riding a powerful, black stallion, all of whose furnishings-girths, reins, etc., --were very heavy, indicating the unmanageable character of the horse. When he rode ahead the last time, about dark, it seems that he imprudently hitched his horse by tying his very stout tie rein to a heavy fence rail which was part of the road fence. Something frightened the animal and he reared back, pulling the rail out of the fence and dragging it after him full gallop down the road crowded with troops, mowing them down like the scythe of a war chariot. Someone, thinking there was a charge of cavalry, fired his musket and, on the instant, three or four battalions, mine among them, began firing into each other. I was never more alarmed. Muskets were discharged in my very face, and I fully expected to be shot down; but  after the most trying and perilous experience, the commanding officers succeeded in getting control of their men and getting them again into formation. But while we were talking to them, suddenly the panic seized them again, and they rushed in such a wild rout against the heavy road fence that they swept it away, and many of them took to the woods, firing back as they ran. A second time the excitement was quieted and a third time it broke out. By this time, however, I had fully explained to my men that we had just put out fresh flankers on both sides of the road, that we could not have an attack of cavalry without warning from them, and that the safe and soldierly thing to do was to lie down until everything should become calm. I. was much pleased that this third time my command did not fire a shot, while the battalions in our front and rear were firing heavily. A field officer and a good many other officers and men were killed and wounded in these alarms, just how-many I do not believe was ever ascertained. When we next halted for any length of time, during daylight, I formed my men and talked to them fully and quietly about these alarms, explaining the folly of their firing, and impressing upon them simply to lie down, keep quiet, and attempt to catch and obey promptly any special orders I might give. I complimented them upon their having resisted the panicky infection the last time it broke out, and felt that, upon the whole, my men had gained rather than lost by the experience. On Thursday afternoon we had descended into a moist, green little valley, crossed a small stream called Sailor's Creek, and, ascending a gentle, grassy slope beyond it, had halted, and the men were lying down and resting in the edge of a pine wood that crowned the elevation. A desultory fire was going on ahead and bullets began to drop in. I was walking about among the men, seeing that everything was in order and talking cheerfully with them, when I heard a ball strike something hard and saw a little commotion around the battalion colors. Going there, I found that the flag-staff had been splintered, and called out to the men that we were beginning to make a record.  Next moment I heard an outcry-“There, Brookin is killed!” --and saw one of the men writhing on the ground. I went tc him. He seemed to be partially paralyzed below the waist, but said he was shot through the neck. I saw no blood anywhere. He had on his roll of blankets and, sure enough, a ball had gone through them and also through his jacket and flannel shirt; but there it was, sticking in the back of his neck, having barely broken the skin. I took it out and said: “0, you are not a dead man by a good deal. Here,” --handing the ball to him,--“take that home and give it to your sweetheart. It'll fix you all right.” Brookin caught at the ball and held it tightly clasped in his hand, smiling faintly, and the men about him laughed. Just then I heard a shell whizzing over us, coming from across the creek, and we were hurried into line facing in that direction, that is, to the rear. I inferred, of course, that we were surrounded, but could not tell how strong the force was upon which we were turning our backs. I remember, in all the discomfort and wretchedness of the retreat, we had been no little amused by the Naval Battalion, under that old hero, Admiral Tucker. The soldiers called them the “Aye, Ayes,” because they responded “aye, aye” to every order, sometimes repeating the order itself, and adding, “Aye, aye, it is, sir!” As this battalion, which followed immediately after ours, was getting into position, and seamen's and landsmen's jargon and movements were getting a good deal mixed in the orders and evolutions,--all being harmonized, however, and licked into shape by the “aye, aye,” --a young officer of the division staff rode up, saluted Admiral Tucker, and said: “Admiral, I may possibly be of assistance to you in getting your command into line.” The Admiral replied: “Young man, I understand how to talk to my people ;” and thereupon followed “a grand moral combination” of “right flank” and “left flank,” “starboard” and “larboard,” “aye, aye” and “aye, aye” --until the battalion gradually settled down into place. By this time a large Federal force had deployed into line on the other slope beyond the creek, which we had left not long since; two or three lines of battle, and a heavy  park of artillery, which rapidly came into battery and opened an accurate and deadly fire, we having no guns with which to reply and thus disturb their aim. My men were lying down and were ordered not to expose themselves. I was walking backward and forward just back of the line, talking to them whenever that was practicable, and keeping my eye upon everything, feeling that such action and exposure on my part were imperatively demanded by the history and condition of the command and my rather peculiar relations to it. A good many had been wounded and several killed, when a twenty-pounder Parrott shell struck immediately in my front, on the line, nearly severing a man in twain, and hurling him bodily over my head, his arms hanging down and his hands almost slapping me in the face as they passed. In that one awful moment I distinctly recognized young Blount, who had gazed into my face so intently Sunday night; and but for that peculiar paralysis which in battle sometimes passes upon a man's entire being-excepting only his fighting powers — the recognition might have been too much for me. In a few moments the artillery fire ceased and I had time to glance about me and note results a little more carefully. I had seldom seen a fire more accurate, nor one that had been more deadly, in a single regiment, in so brief a time. The expression of the men's faces indicated clearly enough its effect upon them. They did not appear to be hopelessly demoralized, but they did look blanched and haggard and awe-struck. The Federal infantry had crossed the creek and were now coming up the slope in two lines of battle. I stepped in front of my line and passed from end to end, impressing upon my men that no one must fire his musket until I so ordered; that when I said “ready” they must all rise, kneeling on the right knee; that when I said “aim” they must all aim about the knees of the advancing line; that when I said “fire” they must all fire together, and that it was all-important they should follow these directions exactly, and obey, implicitly and instantly, any other instructions or orders I might give.  The enemy was coming on and everything was still as the grave. My battalion was formed upon and around a swell of the hill, which threw it further to the front than any other command in the division, so that I was compelled to shape my own course, as I had received no special orders. The Federal officers, knowing, as I suppose, that we were surrounded, and appreciating the fearful havoc their artillery fire had wrought, evidently expected us to surrender and had their white handkerchiefs in their hands, waving them toward us, as if suggesting this course; and yet, so far as I remember, they did not call upon us to surrender. I do not recall any parallel to this action. I dislike to break the flow and force of the narrative by repeated modifying references to recollection and memory; but it is not safe for a man, so many years after the event, to be positive with regard to details unless there was special reason why they should have been impressed upon him a. the time. I will say, then, that my memory records no musket shot on either side up to this time, our skirmishers having retired upon the main line without firing. The enemy showed no disposition to break into the charge, but continued to advance in the same deliberate and even hesitating manner, and I allowed them to approach very close — I should be afraid to say just how close-before retiring behind my men. I had continued to-walk along their front for the very purpose of preventing them from opening fire; but now I stepped through the line, and, stationing myself about the middle of it, called out my orders deliberately — the enemy, I am satisfied, hearing every word. “Ready!” To my great delight the men rose, all together, like a piece of mechanism, kneeling on their right knees and their faces set with an expression that meant-everything. “Aim!” The musket barrels fell to an almost perfect horizontal line leveled about the knees of the advancing front line. “Fire!” I have never seen such an effect, physical and moral, produced by the utterance of one word. The enemy seemed to have been totally unprepared for it, and, as the sequel showed, my own men scarcely less so. The earth appeared to have swallowed up the first line of the Federal force in our  front. There was a rattling supplement to the volley and the second line wavered and broke. The revulsion was too sudden. On the instant every man in my battalion sprang to his feet and, without orders, rushed, bareheaded and with unloaded muskets, down the slope after the retreating Federals. I tried to stop them, but in vain, although I actually got ahead of a good many of them. They simply bore me on with the flood. The standard-bearer was dashing by me, colors in hand, when I managed to catch his roll of blankets and jerk him violently back, demanding what he meant, advancing the battalion colors without orders. As I was speaking, the artillery opened fire again and he was hurled to the earth, as I supposed, dead. I stooped to pick up the flag, when his brother, a lieutenant, a fine officer and a splendid-looking fellow, stepped over the body, saying: “Those colors belong to me, Major!” at the same time taking hold of the staff. He was shot through the brain and fell backward. One of the color guard sprang forward, saying: “Give them to me, Major!” But by the time his hand reached the staff he was down. There were at least five men dead and wounded lying close about me, and I did not see why I should continue to make a target of myself. I therefore jammed the color staff down through a thick bush, which supported it in an upright position, and turned my attention to my battalion, which was scattered over the face of the hill firing irregularly at the Federals, who seemed to be reforming to renew the attack. I managed to get my men into some sort of formation and their guns loaded, and then charged the Federal line, driving it back across the creek, and forming my command behind a little ridge, which protected it somewhat. I ran back up the hill and had a brief conversation with General Custis Lee,--commanding the division, our brigade commander having been killed,--explaining to him that I had not ordered the advance and that we would be cut off if we remained long where we were, but that I was satisfied I could bring the battalion back through a ravine, which would protect them largely from the fire of the enemy's artillery, and reform them on the old line, on the right of the  naval battalion, which had remained in position. He expressed his doubts as to this, but I told him I believed my battalion would follow me anywhere, and with his permission I would try it. I ran down the hill again and explained to my men that when I got to the left of the line and shouted to them they were to get up and follow me, on a run and without special formation, through a ravine that led back to the top of the hill. Just because these simple-hearted fellows knew only enough to trust me, and because the enemy was not so far recovered as to take advantage of our exposure while executing the movement to the rear and reforming, we were back in the original lines in a few moments-that is, all who were left of us. It was of no avail. By the time we had well settled into our old position we were attacked simultaneously, front and rear, by overwhelming numbers, and quicker than I can tell it the battle degenerated into a butchery and a confused melee of brutal personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each others' throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts. I saw one of my officers and a Federal officer fighting with swords over the battalion colors, which we had brought back with us, each having his left hand upon the staff. I could not get to them, but my man was a very athletic, powerful seaman, and soon I saw the Federal officer fall. I had cautioned my men against wearing “Yankee overcoats,” especially in battle, but had not been able to enforce the order perfectly-and almost at my side I saw a young fellow of one of my companies jam the muzzle of his musket against the back of the head of his most intimate friend, clad in a Yankee overcoat, and blow his brains out. I was wedged in between fighting men, only my right arm free. I tried to strike the musket barrel up, but alas, my sword had been broken in the clash and I could not reach it. I well remember the yell of demoniac triumph with which that simple country lad of yesterday clubbed his musket and whirled savagely upon another victim. I don't think I ever suffered more than during the few moments after I saw that nothing could possibly affect  or change the result of the battle. I could not let myself degenerate into a mere fighting brute or devil, because the lives of these poor fellows were, in some sense, in my hand, though there was nothing I could do just then to shield or save them. Suddenly, by one of those inexplicable shiftings which take place on a battle-field, the fighting around me almost entirely ceased, and whereas the moment before the whole environment seemed to be crowded with the enemy, there were now few or none of them on the spot, and as the slaughter and the firing seemed to be pretty well over, I concluded I would try to make my escape. By the way, I had always considered it likely I should be killed, but had never anticipated or contemplated capture. I think it was at this juncture I encountered General Custis Lee, but it may have been after I was picked up. At all events, selecting the direction which seemed to be most free from Federal soldiers and to offer the best chance of escape, I started first at a walk and then broke into a run; but in a short distance ran into a fresh Federal force, and it seemed the most natural and easy thing in the world to be simply arrested and taken in. My recollection is that General Lee asked to be carried before the Federal general commanding on that part of the line, who, at his request, gave orders putting a stop to the firing, there being no organized Confederate force on the field. Thus ended my active life as a Confederate soldier, my four years service under Marse Robert, and I was not sorry to end it thus, in red-hot battle, and to be spared the pain, I will not say humiliation, of Appomattox. I must, however, mention an incident to which I have already briefly referred, to which it would perhaps have been more delicate not to refer at all; but the reader of this chapter can scarcely have failed to perceive that one of the most deeply stirring episodes in my soldier life was the struggle I made to lift my battalion out of the demoralization in which I found it; to make my men trust and love me, and to rouse and develop in them the true conception of soldierly duty and devotion, courage and endurance. Looking back upon the teeming recollections of this first and last retreat and this final battle of the Army of Northern  Virginia, amid all the overpowering sadness and depression of defeat, I already felt the sustaining consciousness of a real and a worthy success; but it is impossible to express how this consciousness was deepened and heightened when General Ewell sent for me on the field, after we were all captured, and in the presence of half a dozen generals said that he had summoned me to say, in the hearing of these officers, that the conduct of my battalion had been reported to him, and that he desired to congratulate me and them upon the record they had made.