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10. a ride through the Federal lines at night

John Allan Wyeth, M. D., Ll.D., late C. S. A.
The battle of Chickamauga was fought on the 19th and 20th of September, 1863. The incident I am about to narrate was associated with the movement, a week before this battle, to attack in detail the widely separated corps of the Federal army, which, crossing Lookout Mountain, had descended through three defiles from ten to twenty miles apart.

Our division of cavalry (Martin's) was moved by a rapid, all-night march from near Lee and Gordon's Mills through Lafayette, Georgia, in the direction of Alpine. It was a tiresome ride, and although we did our best, it was slow work for a large body of cavalry stretched along a country road, at night, with here and there a narrow or defective bridge or causeway.

We were the advance brigade, and I recall the fact that in the effort to get as much fun and frolic out of an uncomfortable situation as possible, a number of the best voices in the command had been gathered about the center of our regiment and were waking the echoes in the gloomy forests which hemmed us in, by singing lively war songs.

From my point of view, at that time, the war had become a very serious matter. In the beginning I thought it would be a grand and exciting, yet short-lived, adventure, and with a host of others under military age hastened into the service fearing war might be over before we had a chance for the glory of it. That illusion had been dispelled. Nearly three years had passed, and despite the patient toil and suffering and the heroic self-sacrifice of the battlefield, our army had met with so much disaster, it forced upon me the conclusion that our [205]

The evacuation of Port Royal nearly completed This photograph, taken shortly after the one preceding, witnesses how quickly an army accomplishes its movements. The pontoon-bridge leading out to the boats has been practically cleared; all but a few of the group of cavalrymen have ridden away, and the transports are whistling “all aboard,” as can plainly be seen from the sharp jets of steam. A few of the cavalry remain with the headquarters wagon which stands near the head of the pontoon. Sterner work awaits the troopers after this peaceful maneuver. Grant needs every man to screen his infantry in its attempt to outflank the brilliantly maneuvered army of Lee.

[206] struggle was hopeless, and that if we fought on as we had determined to do, death was the inevitable end. That was my conviction, and I believe it accounts for the fact that I volunteered to go on the errand which I undertook that night.

About two o'clock word was passed down from the head of the column to stop the singing, and for the entire column to move in silence. When we heard the order, we knew we were coming close to the foe. About four o'clock we were again halted, and another message was started at the head of the column and came back down the line in a low tone, for it was the custom on night marches, on account of the darkness and the crowded condition of the roadway, to transmit orders in this fashion. An aide or courier could not get through the crowded highway or ride through the thick underbrush and woods on either side. The message was, in effect, a call for a volunteer to go on a special errand.

My messmate, Lieutenant Jack Weatherley, who was killed soon after at Big Shanty, rode with me to the head of the column where, in the darkness, I made out a number of men, presumably officers and aides, some mounted and some on the ground. The general in command — Wheeler or Martin — asked if I were willing to go inside the foe's lines. I replied I would go provided I could wear my uniform, but not as a spy. He said: “You can go as you are. I want you to find a detachment of cavalry which has been sent around the right of the enemy's lines, and which by this time should be in their rear, about opposite our present position. It is important that they be found and ordered not to attack, but to rejoin this column by the route which they have already traveled. In order to reach them,” he added, “you will proceed upon a road which leads through the enemy's lines, and should bring you in contact with their pickets about one mile from this point.”

The message was entirely verbal. I carried nothing but one army six-shooter. Lieutenant Weatherley, Colonel Hambrick, in command of our regiment at the time, and a guide [207]

Couriers at Beverly house — Warren's headquarters at Spotsylvania The couriers doing duty before this farmhouse, headquarters of General G. K. Warren, are kept riding day and night at breakneck speed. The Fifth Army Corps, of which he was in command, occupied a position northwest of Spotsylvania Court House on the right of the Federal line, where it remained from May 9th to May 13th. On the evening of May 10th Warren made two assaults on the position at his front, at a loss of six thousand men. Again, on the 12th, the dogged Grant persisted in his hammering tactics and ordered heavy assaults at different points. The Federal loss on that day was approximately seven thousand men all told. For another week Grant made partial attacks all along the line, but Lee's veterans withstood every onset. In two weeks Grant lost thirty-six thousand men. The Fifth Corps bore the brunt of much of the heavy work. One can imagine with what rapidity the couriers gathered around Beverly's house wore out their horses in transmitting all-important commands.

[208] accompanied me a few hundred yards down the road. As I started, our colonel said: “This is an important matter, and I hope you will succeed. If you do, I will see that you have a furlough for as long a period as you wish.”

The officers soon left me, and the guide accompanied me half a mile further to where the road forked. He indicated the route I should travel which was to the right, as we were going, and then telling me that the Federal pickets were at a point half a mile beyond, he turned back. By this time, it must have been nearly five o'clock.

To the normal human being in times of peace and quiet, the love of life is so natural and so strong that it is difficult to appreciate, until one has passed into and through it, that strange and unusual mental condition in which the value of existence becomes a minor consideration. I look back upon this occasion as the one supreme moment when I came nearest to the elimination of every selfish consideration from the motive with which I was then actuated. I do not overstate the case in saying that death was preferable to life with failure in the accomplishment of my errand.

I had determined, if halted, to ride over every obstacle at full speed, and not to fire my pistol unless in dire extremity, although I had taken it from the holster and had it cocked and ready for quick use. I was riding a splendid horse, strong, swift, and mettlesome, and so alert that nothing escaped his quick observation.

I have no means of knowing how far I had gone, probably half a mile or more, when suddenly I felt my horse check himself as if he were about to change his gait. This movement told me that he had seen something more than the ordinary inanimate object. At the same instant he lifted his head, and in such a knowing way, that I was convinced the moment had come, and that the Federal outposts were here. Without waiting to be halted, I tightened the reins, and crouching down close to the saddle and the horse's neck, touched him with the spurs, and [209]

A courier at headquarters Located as they were near the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and at times between the hostile lines, the dwellings near Fairfax Court House passed time and again from the hands of one army to the other. The home in this photograph was used at different times by General Beauregard and General McClellan as headquarters. Even now a Union orderly is waiting to dash off on one of the powerful chargers. The assigning of troopers to such duties as these was part of the system which crippled the Federal cavalry till it passed under the control of efficient and aggressive Sheridan. The details of the picture indicate a hurried departure of the former occupants. The house itself is a fine example of the old Colonial Southern architecture — white columns in front of red brick. The white stucco has fallen away in places from the brick of the columns — a melancholy appearance for a home.


Horses that carried the orders of the General-in-chief: waiting on Grant at Bethesda church, June, 1864. Crack horses were a first requisite for Grant's staff, escort, and couriers. This photograph shows several at Bethseda Church, the little Virginia meeting-house where the staff had halted the day before Cold Harbor. The staff consisted of fourteen officers only, and was not larger than that of some division commanders. Brigadier-General John A. Rawlins was the chief. Grant's instructions to his staff showed the value that he placed upon celerity and the overcoming of delays in communicating orders. He urged his officers to discuss his orders with him freely whenever it was possible in the course of an engagement or battle, to learn his views as fully as possible, and in great emergencies, where there was no time to communicate with headquarters, to act on their own initiative along the lines laid down by him without his specific orders. The result was an eager, confident, hard-riding staff that stopped at no danger, whether to horse or man. What was even more important, its members did not hesitate to assume responsibility.

[211] [212]

An escort that made history: men of the fifth “regular” cavalry. These men and boys formed part of the escort of General Grant during the Appomattox campaign. The same companies (B, F, and K of the Fifth United States Cavalry, under Captain Julius W. Mason) were with him at the fall of Petersburg. Perhaps they won this high distinction by their intrepid charge at Gaines' Mill, when they lost fifty-eight of the two hundred and twenty men who participated. With such gallant troopers on guard, the North felt reassured as to the safety of its general-in-chief. The little boy buglers, in the very forefront of the making of American history, stand with calm and professional bearing. Although but fifteen and sixteen years old, they rode with the troopers, and not less bravely. One boy of similar age was severely wounded in one of the numerous fights between Stuart and the Second United States Cavalry near Gettysburg. His captain, whom he was faithfully following, left him for dead upon the field. Many years after the young man sent the captain his photograph to prove that he was whole and sound.

[213] [214] he bounded forward like the wind. His clear vision was not at fault, for as I flew by, I saw two men leap up in front of me from the edge of the roadway and jump into the shadows of the woods and undergrowth at one side. They said something to me, and I replied, but my excitement was so intense, expecting every moment the crack of their rifles, that no part of the picture which flashed through my mind remains clearly registered except the forms of two men and the swift scurry of the horse.

Fortunately they did not fire. It may be that they felt something of the excitement and fright I was experiencing, but more than likely they were drowsy or asleep, and the soft, sandy road enabled me to approach them so closely without being heard (for in the darkness they could not have seen farther than a few feet), that they were taken by surprise, and more-over, they may have thought I was a Federal picket, since I was riding into their lines. In any event, in less time than it takes to tell it, I had scurried away beyond their vision and out of range of their guns. Although I believed a large body of Federals was on either side of the road, I was riding along at such a rapid gait, that in the darkness I saw no sign of troops. I cannot even now estimate how far I went at the speed I was making-probably two or three miles. I know I had slowed up, and was riding again at a canter when daylight came, and with it I noticed in the valley below a cloud of dust not more than half a mile away. This told me of the moving cavalry, and in a few minutes more I had the great good fortune of riding into the column I was sent to intercept.

A few days after the battle of Chickamauga, all of the good mounts in the cavalry were organized to cross the Tennessee River and break up General Rosecrans' communications, and I went with this flying column. We took the great wagon train in the Sequatchie valley on the 2d of October, and on the 4th I was captured and taken to the military prison at Camp Morton, Indiana, where I remained until the latter part of February, 1865.

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