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Hampton at Fayetteville.

By E. L. Welles.
Early in the war the Confederate cavalry was much ‘chaffed’ by the infantry. One distinguished General was said to have jocosely offered a reward ‘for any dead man found with spurs on.’ Soon, however, the point of such jokes was effectually destroyed by ‘JebStuart's exploits, and afterwards Hampton's masterly handling of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, demonstrated to friend and foe that this arm of the service was safe for neither, and by him Sheridan was taught whatever he knew of mounted infantry manoeuvres. Yet the remorseless forgetfulness of history bids fair to overlook the cavalry while the memory of ‘Lee's incomparable infantry’ will deservedly be blazoned on her pages as long as hearts exist capable of being thrilled by the record of world-renowned battlefields. As a compensation in part for this, the nature of the cavalry service permitted of more individuality, and thus the personal dash and prowess of a leader were more frequently instrumental in accomplishing very important results. This was the case in the incident I am about to relate. [145]

A few days after the surprise of Kilpatrick's camp in March, 1865 (an account of which was contributed to the March, 1884, number of the Southern Historical Society papers), our army was retreating through Fayetteville, N. C., Wilmington having fallen and fresh stores and reinforcements from that point being thus rendered available to Sherman. Butler's cavalry division formed our rear guard, and was on the south side of the Cape Fear River, on which Fayetteville is situated, and not far from the town, thus covering the bridge by which only the stream could be crossed. Early in the morning General Butler had ridden into the town ahead of his command with only his escort, to which I was attached. I obtained permission for an absence of a few minutes, intending to make use of it in getting, if possible, a meal at the hotel. I was just about sitting down to table (a great deal of table comparatively, and very little breakfast) when there was a noise of hurried hoofs outside; some one evidently thought he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. My horse I had left tied in the street, with all my very meagre personal estate attached to the saddle, and as I thought he might be proving too great a temptation to some members of another cavalry command who were more noted for courage than for strictly investigating the title of property that chanced to come in their way, I hurried out to ascertain the cause of the commotion. The horse was where I had left him, but my satisfaction at this was decidedly dampened when, on asking a fellow who was scurrying past, ‘What's the row?’ I caught his hasty reply as he sped away, that it was the enemy ‘jist thar, 'round the corner.’

This proved to be too true. There they were, a company of cavalry drawn up in column of fours, in a street at right angles to the one on which the hotel was located, and some sixty yards from the corner. The bridge was about a quarter of a mile distant, and between it and such of our troops as had not yet crossed the river this detachment was thus interposed, and that it had supports at hand was not to be doubted. The situation was thus a very serious one; it looked as if our division, as well as portions of other commands, must be cut off by an overwhelming force from the rest of the army, and that the bridge, which was to have been burnt when all our troops had crossed, would remain intact to be of use to the enemy for prompt pursuit.

But just at this critical moment when a panic might have been precipitated, General Hampton appeared upon the scene, and took in the situation at a glance. Seven more mounted Confederates happened [146] to have been attracted to the spot (three of whom were from Company K, Fourth South Carolina Cavalry, locally known as the ‘Charleston Light Dragoons,’) and to these he shouted ‘Charge!’ he himself leading. The enemy numbered seventy-five;1 for eight men to attack such a number would seem rather awkward even to soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia, but then there was no time for counting noses, and, moreover, their leader was Hampton. We have often read of a warrior's eyes figuratively flashing fire, but it is literally true that on this occasion his eyes emitted sparks of light and his grand personnel claimed the devotion instinctively rendered to the born leader of men. No wonder that, from Manassas to Appomattox, he possessed the faculty of infusing into his followers the inspiration of the God of Battles.

So the eight Confederates flung themselves upon the foe, playing a lively instrumental accompaniment with their pistols to the vocal music of a splendid battle-yell.

The Federals were armed with breech loading carbines, which they fired, but without effect, except for mortally wounding one horse whose indomitable pluck nerved him nevertheless to carry his rider gallantly to the end of the fight. By the time their carbines had been discharged once, their assailants were nearly upon them, and they were bashful about making a nearer acquaintance with strangers; without attempting to reload carbines, or to draw pistols or sabres the company broke in wild terror and all fled for their lives. They became jammed frantically together, their one idea ‘Devil take the hindmost’ (which he was very busy trying to do). The street in which the attack was made ended about a hundred yards further on where a road from the country lead into it, and as the fugitives were rounding this corner the sabres of their pursuers, usually more ornamental than useful in these days of ‘villainous saltpetre,’ were got to work, revolvers having by this time been emptied; after that the scene resembled a covey of partridges scattered by a hawk. Those of them who succeeded in getting away, continued furiously down the road, and never thought themselves safe until they reached their friends, who, it seems, were in force less than a mile distant.

This detachment had probably been thrown forward to ascertain the position of our troops and had blundered into the town somehow through our pickets, where, more bent upon ‘spoils’ than ‘strategems,’ [147] they had commenced, after their manner, robbing the women and children. They must have come from down the river, as they showed they knew so well their way back. Their captain, instead of attending properly to his military duties, was not at the head of his company when it was charged, but was busy plundering and was gathered in after his men were routed. Their losses by our count were eleven, but no doubt some more, who were wounded, escaped, and therefore were not counted.

Thus was a serious danger to the army removed by the timely appearance of one man, by the personal prowess and the moral influence of one man.

A life, too, was saved that morning by General Hampton. It is true it was a very unimportant life, of no value whatever at that time to any one but the possessor, and not of much to him, but still it was a human life, and, being such, the deed has no doubt been duly entered by the recording angel. It happened in this way: A soldier was returning alone from the pursuit of the fugitives when he encountered a Federal straggler coming from the town, not far from the corner above alluded to. He charged the fellow with his sabre, all the chambers of his revolver being empty, when the man in order to escape left his horse and sprang over a fence into an adjoining field. The Confederate got his horse across the fence, cut the Federal down, and then ordered him to march in front of him as a prisoner, which, in broken German English, he readily promised to do. As they neared the fence again, however, going back to the road, he turned upon and was about to kill his captor with a small revolver, which had been secreted on his person. Just then, General Hampton who had come up, and was watching from the road what was going on, covered the enterprising prisoner with his revolver (which was unloaded), and, like the historic coon, he did not wait to be shot, but handed over his pistol to his intended victim. But, like many a better man, this Hessian was too ‘smart’ for his own good, for hardly had he surrendered to the cavalryman his revolver when he sprang nimbly to regain his carbine, which was lying on the ground near where he had been cut down, but before he could reach it two bullets from his own pistol went through his body. Poor wretch! he got ‘across the river,’ but not the one he had intended when he awoke that morning. Another soldier, who searched the unsavory corpse a few minutes afterwards, found on it, among other stolen things, several watches (his especial weakness apparently); thus he was identified as one of Sherman's men. [148]

All of our troops and wagon trains were brought safely across the river without any loss and without material annoyance from the enemy; though, before the bridge was burned, some of his skirmishers came up along the river bank and made it a trifle too hot for comfort to those crossing last. Thus the Federal reconnoisance proved a fiasco, but if the detachment had fought properly, and had been ably seconded by supports, the affair might have had a very different result. It is strange that Kilpatrick should have been so remiss, when energetic bold pressure might have been troublesome. Indeed, to say the least, he did not ‘hanker after’ a fight during the remainder of this campaign. Perhaps he remembered too well that dark cloudy morning, a few days before, when, awakened by the reveille of clattering hoofs, he sprang on a bare-back horse in shirt and drawers (quite undress parade), and thus very informally left behind a certain ‘frail,’ if not ‘fair,’ damsel, deserted his men, and flew for safety to the infantry.

1 This was the number according to the statement of the captain who was captured.

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