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The cavalry affair at Waynesboro.

Letter from Captain George N. Bliss, of First Rhode Island cavalry.

[We publish with pleasure the following letter of a gallant soldier whom we have the privilege of knowing as one who has not forgotten kindnesses shown him when a wounded prisoner. Dr. John Staige Davis, of the University of Virginia, of whom Captain Bliss speaks so kindly, has, since this letter was written, ‘crossed over the river,’ and left behind him the record of a stainless life.]

I have read with great pleasure ‘Reminiscences of Cavalry Operations, by General T. T. Munford,’ as published in Southern Historical Society papers, but upon page 458, volume XII, I find errors, which, though unintentional, require correction, for the honor of my regiment and in justice to the memory of Colonel Charles Russel Lowell, Second Massachusetts Cavalry, who had thirteen horses shot under him before a soldier's death closed his career, while leading his regiment in a victorious charge at Cedar Creek, October 19th, 1864, only three weeks after the fight at Waynesboro, which occurred September 28th, 1864.

General Munford writes: ‘In this engagement, Captain George N. Bliss commanding a squadron of Rhode Island Cavalry, a Federal officer who fell into my hands, behaved with conspicuous gallantry, strikingly in contrast with the conduct of his command; I take pleasure in making a note of it. Seeing how small a number we had, he urged his Colonel to charge the Fourth Virginia Cavalry as it entered the main street of Waynesboro.’

The natural inference is, that the charge was ordered by the Colonel of the First Rhode Island Cavalry, and that a squadron of that regiment failed to do their duty. As a matter of fact, neither is true. The First Rhode Island Cavalry was, at that time, Headquarter [428] Guard for General Torbert, Sheridan's Chief of Cavalry, and my own squadron was the Provost Guard; my appearance at this time was, therefore, in my capacity as Captain commanding the Provost Guard. By publishing the following extract from my Personal Narrative, as printed in third series, No. 6 of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Historical Society of Rhode Island, you will gratify many soldiers of my old regiment who were always ready to follow wherever I might dare to lead them:

Looking again towards the enemy, I saw Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who had been in command of the picket line, riding toward us with his horse in a walk—the last man to fall back before the advance of the enemy. The Confederate bullets were whistling about him, and frequent puffs of dust in the road showed where they struck right and left of the brave soldier. Putting spurs to my horse, I rode forward to meet him, and the following conversation ensued:

Colonel Lowell, I had but a few of the Provost Guards, and did what I could with them to help you.’

‘Well, Captain, we must check their advance with a sabre charge. Isn't that the best we can do?’

‘I think so, Colonel.’

By this time we had come up to the Third New Jersey Cavalry, known in the army as the ‘Butterflies’ on account of their gay uniforms, and Colonel Lowell said to the officer in command: ‘Major, let your first squadron sling their carbines, draw their sabres and charge.’ The order was given ‘forward,’ but not a man moved; they were completely disheartened by having seen the other troops driven back. The Captain in command of the squadron said, ‘Corporal Jones, are you afraid?’ and the Corporal made no reply. The men wavered, and Colonel Lowell said, ‘Give a cheer, boys, and go at them,’ and at once, suiting the action to the words, spurred his horse at the gallop towards the enemy, followed by myself, both of us waving our sabres. The squadron at once cheered and followed. After going a short distance, Colonel Lowell drew out to one side to be ready to send other troops to the support of the squadron, and I was left to lead the charge. I was mounted on a large and strong sorrel horse, formerly ridden by Captain Charles C. Gray, of one of our Rhode Island batteries, and was soon a hundred yards in advance of the squadron. Upon reaching the partially constructed barricade, I pulled up my horse. Looking back, I saw [429] my men coming on with a splendid squadron front; looking forward I saw the enemy in column of fours, turning to retreat. The ground was down hill towards the enemy, and I had never seen a better opportunity for a sabre charge, and, as the squadron neared me, I shouted, ‘Come on, boys, they are running!’ and, jumping my horse over the low barricade, dashed in among the Rebels, only to find myself making the attack single-handed. I had ridden past a dozen of the enemy before I discovered my desperate situation. They were retreating in a loose column of fours, and, as I rode in among them, there were three files on my left hand and one on my right. I felt that death was certain, and, like a lightning flash, my whole life seemed to pass in review before me, closing with the thought, ‘and this is the end.’

There was but one chance; fifty men behind me were shouting, ‘Kill that Yankee!’ To turn among them and retrace my steps was impossible; my horse was swift, and I thought if I could keep on until I came to a side street, I might dash into that, and, by making a circle, again reach our lines. As I rode, I kept my sabre swinging, striking six blows right and left. Two of the enemy escaped by quickly dodging their heads, but I succeeded in wounding four of them-Captain William A. Moss, Hugh S. Hamilton, colorbearer of the Fourth Virginia cavalry, and two others unknown to me. The first side street reached was on the left. Keeping my head close to my horse's neck, I then broke through the three files on my left, and reached the side street in safety, fully twenty yards from the nearest horseman. For a moment, I thought I was safe, when suddenly a bullet, doubtless intended for me, struck my gallant steed and he staggered under the shock. With rein and spur I urged him on, but it was in vain; he fell with a plunge that left me lying on the ground. Before I could rise two of the enemy reined in their horses by me, and, leaning over in their saddles, struck at me, one with a carbine, the other with a sabre. I could parry but one, and with my sabre stopped the crushing blow from the carbine at the same instant that the sabre gave me a cut across the forehead. I at once rose to my feet and said to the soldier who had wounded me, ‘For God's sake do not kill a prisoner.’ ‘Surrender, then,’ he said; to which I replied, ‘I do surrender.’ He demanded my sword and pistol, which I gave to him, and had scarcely done so when I was struck in the back with such force as to thrust me two steps forward. Upon turning to discover the cause of this assault, I found that a soldier had ridden up on the trot, and stabbed me with his [430] sabre, which would have passed entirely through my body but for the fact that, in his ignorance of the proper use of the weapon, he had failed to make the half-turn of the wrist necessary to give the sabre smooth entrance between the ribs. I also saw at this moment another soldier taking aim at me with a revolver. There was only one chance left me. I called for protection as a free mason, and Captain Henry C. Lee, the Acting Adjutant-General of the enemy's force, at once came to my assistance, ordered a soldier to take me to the rear and see that my wounds were dressed. I suppose the soldiers who were determined to kill me, were friends of the men I had just wounded; but I had no opportunity for information on that point.

That night I was placed in an ambulance with Captain Moss, who told me that he was wounded by me. I found him to be a brother mason who did everything in his power for my comfort. I was taken to a Confederate hospital at Charlottesville, where, under the skilful treatment of J. S. Davis, M. D., then as now, one of the Professors of the University of Virginia; my wounds soon healed and a lifelong friendship was established. I finally reached Libby Prison, and was there selected as a hostage for a Confederate sentenced to be hung for recruiting inside the Union lines in East Tennessee, but after forty-seven days confinement in a cell arrangements were made for the exchange of hostages, and February 5th, 1865, I was sent by flag of truce boat down the James into Union lines.

Since the war, I have several times visited Richmond, where I have had the pleasure of meeting Captains Lee, Moss and many other brave soldiers, once our foes, but evermore to be our friends.

Yours truly,

Geo. N. Bliss, Late Captain Company C, First Rhode Island Cavalry.

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