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The barn-burners. [from the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, July, 1900.]

A Chapter of Sheridan's raid up the Valley.

Much fire but little fighting.

Scouting in rear of the Enemy—Close calls and hair-breadth escapes Interestingly related by a participant.

In September, 1864, Sheridan advanced up the Valley of Virginia as far as Harrisonburg. Here he lay perhaps two weeks or more, falling back on the morning of the sixth of October, burning everything before him—every barn, mill, or other structure containing food for man or beast, driving before him on all roads from mountain to mountain all the live stock that could be found, thus executing that famous order which was intended to make this section a waste, which a crow could not fly over without carrying his rations with him.

Behind the lines before the burning.

While Sheridan occupied Harrisonburg, his wagon-trains and their escorts were constantly harrassed along the Valley pike by a small, impromptu troop led by the gallant Captain John Q. Winfield, of Broadway. This handful of men was composed of members of several cavalry commands, who happened to be on furlough or cut off by Sheridan's advance. Some of these were McNeill's men, a number of them were Linvill's Creek boys—the Pennybackers, Bowmans, Shoups, Sites, Showalter's, Houck's, of Harrisonburg; the Ackers, one of them being the stalwart Jake Acker, kindhearted and gentle and true, but when aroused, brave beyond prudence.

Rendezvousing always by appointment somewhere toward the Valley pike, they broke ranks every evening, and retired for the night about the mouth of Brock's Gap, out of the way of scouting parties of the enemy.

One day we hung on the flank of a wagon-train all the way from Mount Jackson up to Tenth Legion, but the train guard was strong and kept too well closed for assault. We usually had twenty-odd men. At another time we made a dash on a train and guard of apparently [99] two hundred men down the lane from the hill just west of Sparta—now Mauzy. The wagons, going northward, had just gone over the little eminence in the road at the place and were barely out of view as we struck the pike, most of the guard with them. We had miscalculated a little. Four men only were in Sparta. One was cut off by our movement and was now in our rear, the other three made haste to escape—were chased hotly to the brow of the little eminence, losing their hats in the close run, and as we drove yelling into full view of the train, seeing and hearing this confusion, the entire guard fell from their horses right and left and took to wagons and fences with their carbines to meet this sudden onset. Instanter we turn tail and back at full gallop to Lacy Spring, two miles distant. We were a mile away before, glancing backward, we could see any movement to find out where the Rebs had gone to. They then began to come back over the little eminence to Sparta. This prisoner rode with us to Brock's Gap. He evidently believed us bushwhackers. On the way he tremblingly asked if we were going to take his life. I told him we did not make war that way. He talked about his wife and children. We started him on foot through the mountains with the chance to escape. However, McNeill caught him over in Hardy and he was brought back after Sheridan's retreat and so got to Richmond after all. His horse was traded off to Dr. C. for ten gallons of apple brandy. A high, long, lean Rosinante of a horse he was—and a most unfortunate transaction it was, for while the brandy lasted the men refused to rendezvous for service.

Day of the burning of the Valley.

Several days after these incidents—to-wit, on the morning of the 6th of October, the ever memorable day of the burning—our little troop rendezvoused at the wire suspension bridge on the Linvill's Creek road, just south of Broadway. For some unknown reason only about half the band appeared. We decided to ride up the Creek road. We could get no news from Harrisonburg. When we reached the Banner place, now owned by G. W. S., we noticed smoke on southward about Harrisonburg. Turning off to the right we rode to the highest point we could find in the crest of the hill range. The smoke increased. Tongues of flame some declared they saw. A long, white canvas-covered wagon-train was now seen moving along down northward on the Ridge road far across yonder eastward—it had passed Linvill and was moving towards Broadway. [100]

What could this mean? Too many wagons for a foraging party. What was Sheridan doing? A retreating force never left the Valley pike—the great highway and a magnificent road-so no one thought of a retreat. We could not grasp it; it was too bad to think. Falling back along all roads and burning as he comes did not suggest itself to one of our little party, till at last, as we sat on our horses there on that lone peak, motionless and horror struck for our country, we saw the awful work come on towards us.

Slowly and relentlessly it ate its way. All the way here before us, from Edom northward to Broadway, and from ridge to mountain, lay as fair a land as ever met the eye of man. Awful tragedy! Barn after barn, at first in the distance as by some invisible hand, takes fire. Then horsemen become visible, threading the fields as the tide rolled nearer, far and wide. On the destroyer comes—spot after spot, belching vast clouds of smoke and flame like Tophet, out there in the valley beneath us. Some count barns ablaze. I could not count. Some point out the fire-fiends darting now here, now there; now riding furiously fast cross-fields to a neighboring barn about to escape by neglect. See! He disappears behind it! There! He dashes off again! Oh! we all know what we are expecting next. We are almost breathless. It is but a moment; a little curling smoke, rising upward as if coming from some harmless chimney top when fire is kindled for a meal—a moment more dense clouds, and now all the roofs ablaze!

Our eyes are riveted on the infernal scene! Our hearts—how they pound and hurt us. Oh! is there no help? * * * Time wears on. Now the whole vale is red with fire mile on mile, and enveloped in smoke high over-head, twisting, writhing, dissolving. See! Yonder goes right at Broadway, John J. Bowman's mill, and Sam Cline's great stone barn! A sense of our powerlessness oppresses us. Stupidity lays hold on the mind, succeeding consternation.

Is the world being set on fire?

Look, men! A barn is being fired near us, at our very feet. Furies! ‘Quick! Let us fall on these burners and throw them in the burning barn,’ bursts from several throats at once. March! A start is actually made. Plunging down the hill we go. But confused cries and sounds reach our ears from another quarter. The tramp of cavalry. ‘We are hemmed in, men!’ It dawns on us we shall be swept along in front of this awful storm. How shall we slip between, the enemy filling every road and visiting every farmstead and seeking stock over all the fields.


Rosser to the front.

Swerving from our purpose, sweeping down from our wooded hilltop, straight over a road crossing our ridge, gobbling up a poor devil, who, unfortunately for him, happened to be crossing here; voices of men behind him; voices of men before him; on we fled up the companion peak, hustling our prisoner with us. This was near Trissel's church. Here a citizen, Tom Lambkin, recognized the prisoner as the man who just before had tried to burn his barn, but the women dissuaded him from it. We expect every moment to be discovered, as we are driven from pillow to post. We endeavored now to get to the mountain road. We are met by a volley and driven back. There is no way out—the enemy are on all roads. A long time we lay crouching in Limekiln Hollow, a narrow, deep ravine, often almost discovered by straggling horsemen driving cattle through the cedars on the steep hillside above us. At last, venturing southward, we rode, almost before we knew it, into Rosser's cavalry in full pursuit.

“Huzza for the Laurel Brigade!” we cried. ‘Huzza! Huzza!’

What did we do with our prisoner? We turned him over to Rosser's provost-marshal. A stolen horse he rode, leading his own, was afterwards restored to its owner, A. Showalter. Taking his carbine from him I handed it to Lieutenant Bradshaw, of McNeil's Rangers, who was with us that day without other weapon than his sword. The prisoner was killed next morning while trying to escape, I learned. He told me he was from Vermont, and had a wife and two children there.

Rosser's men were tired and the horses jaded from long marching. Lieutenant E. R. Neff and myself, separating from our little band (which never rendezvoused again), pushed our fresh horses on, passing the troops, passing our own Twelfth Cavalry, then halted in Horn's meadows, their horses biting the grass—passing everything in full trot to reach Coote's store, where firing was heard, and where we had friends for whom we felt concerned that day.

It was almost sunset. There lay then in the middle of the wide mountain road a mammoth stone, perhaps ten feet high and long and wide, a little south of Coote's store. The road divided, and a track ran on each side of this rough boulder, as the road descends here rapidly to the river a half mile distant. Trotting by this place we were called to halt by a small group of horsemen, and not noticing [102] them in our haste and their official stamp and bearing, we were called again in tones less mild, to ‘Halt.’

Asked who we were, my comrade N. answered, ‘I am one of Rosser's men.’

“Do you know me,” then inquired a tall, square-shouldered officer, sitting as if to rest a little on the very top of this great stone and lowering for a moment the glass with which he was scanning the river road intently for the retreating foe.

“I do not,” N. said. ‘Quite strange, sir, you are one of Rosser's men and do not know General Rosser,’ was the quick and sharp rejoinder.

It was explained that my comrade had left his company before General Rosser took command, and had been on detailed duty at Harrisonburg, and for myself, he remembered me.

Pointing out our destination just in front, N. added we had taken a barn-burner prisoner that day. It was an ill-considered speech, for our men were in no fine humor at Sheridan's wholesale wanton destruction of private property that day. On hearing this General Rosser became enraged and retorted, fiercely rising, ‘Sir, if you take a barn-burner prisoner, I'll take you.’

Further explanation, however, turned aside his anger. We were surrounded and well-nigh prisoners ourselves when we crossed this man.

Then finding we knew all this country, he desired us to make a scout that night to the enemy's rear, and report to him at that same stone at sunrise next morning. Custer had turned down the river at Cootes' store, leaving the mountain road. Would he continue down the Valley on one of the middle roads next day, or was he making for the Valley pike, to join the main force at New Market?

Incidents of a night scout in Custer's rear.

All was quiet now ahead. Skirmishers had disappeared for the night. Riding on briskly toward our objective point now in view on the bank of the Shenandoah (it had been our home during the last two weeks), the servants were just emerging from the cellar along with the turkeys as we approached. Supper was just served, they told us, when the Yankee flood burst on them an hour before—officers entered and sat down to eat. But in the middle of the feast there was a cry outside, ‘The Rebs! The Rebs are coming.’ Up and [103] away, mounting in haste—and the Confederates next moment coming up, sat down and finished the meal.

With a lunch in our hands, proceeding wearily down the riverside a mile, when we reached the little hilltop at Brunk's garden, we observed two horsemen straight ahead of us across the hollow on the elevation in the field beyond, motionless, observing us. It proved to be their outpost.

“They look like our men,” N. said. ‘Hold my rein, and we shall soon see.’ Dismounting, he took deliberate rest and aim at them against the garden fence. The men did not move for this. The distance was probably 175 yards. Then after some delay, he pulled trigger. The cap had only exploded with the usual sharp report. Still the men looked like statues.

“There is something more in this than we see,” I said; ‘get on your horse.’ He appeared to feel so, too, and just as he sprung into his saddle, out into the road fifty yards away down in front of us, in the hollow from behind outbuildings or trees, sprang a dozen men, bringing up their pieces as they sprang, and fired point-blank at us.

A swish of balls tore past us as we put spurs to our horses. And looking over our shoulders as we disappeared from them behind the hill, we saw them ‘put their scrapers to it,’ to reach the top of the hill and give us another volley.

We lost no time. We hurried to put as much distance between us as we could before the second salute, which did come, and in a very brief space of time, we thought.

Well, we must cross the river at a higher ford. And so, crossing at Alger's about dark, we threaded our way past Squire Will's and on down northward, pursuing private ways.

On our way in the darkness at one place there shone out a bright light through an open hall door, the door being cut across the middle, the lower half of it closed. Hitching and tip-toeing up, half expecting a Yankee visitor inside, camp sounds being quite distinct to our right, we found only an elderly man, his wife, and grown daughter.

But the Yankees had been there. The good wife was still lamenting her losses. She sat there telling how they went through her bureau drawers, removing her pipe now and then and spitting viciously back upon her carpet, forgetting in her delirium, we suppose, the large blazing hearth just in front of her. I do not think she had a barn to lose; but this bureau was her grief. Every heart knows its own bitterness. For the time it eclipsed the awful calamity [104] abroad and left no room for thought of country. She insisted on our going in to see. We had not time. The poor old man was both sympathetic and indignant as he heard her recital. He could not say much—he had run out in the bushes at the approach of the soldiers. But he ventured at one very exasperating point in her tale of woe to quietly put in, looking significantly towards us: ‘If I had been here——.’ He was not permitted to say what he would have done. ‘Yes,’ broke in the old lady, ‘if you had been here your * * * * .’ We leave this unfinished. But her very original and even startling speech stampeded us, and her daughter also.

Our safest way now lay around the base of a great wooded hill. Opening a pair of bars we entered these pathless woods and picked our way along, groping in the darkness. It was an hour when we emerged at last, breathing free again as we came out on a little field with another house lighted up. It was a long hour of most painstaking progress, and tangle-bushes and brush and stumbling with led horses. Hitching once more, we removed our jingling spurs, and approached stealthily for directions to the road, when lo! we enter the very same house we had left an hour before! We noticed the divided door again as we approached, but so completely were we turned round it did not dawn on us until we actually saw their faces—they were still up. It was too bad—the night was going —we must have encircled that hill.

At another place we were detained by your narrator going to sleep on his post. We were approaching an important cross-road, where we would very likely run against a picket, just west of Custer's camp. It was in the woods. Holding my comrade's horse as I sat on my own, he went forward to investigate. I fell asleep after the day's experiences, being but a youth. He returning and feeling about in the thick darkness, ‘for an age,’ he said, he could not find me nor the horses. Finally, in some interval of my slumbers, I did hear his whispered calls, and we set forward once more.

Further on, leaving our horses in the woods, we walked across fields to the homestead of a well-known citizen north of Timberville.

Do you see that pile of straw six feet high piled against the big barn doors? That is a tell-tale. Then here is a Yankee horse in the stall below. That means a guard in the house to protect private property. A few minutes later we are told by a fair inmate of that house, whom we contrived to awake without awakening that guard, [105] and who delivered in whispers to us all her guard had disclosed of the things we sought to know.

We were now close on Custer's men. One field lay between us; coarse voices, camp songs, laughter, blazing camp-fires, and now and then the ringing sounds of the axe cutting rails.

Custer had already taken the middle road. General Torbert and staff were still further down the road in a small house, asleep, without a single sentinel, all the staff horses picketed in the yard. Here was a temptation. But we did not have time now to carry their fine horses with us. The night was far spent. Already some streaks of light began to lace the eastern sky.

Our fair young friend, too, had begged us not to touch the guardsman's horse lest he should then burn her father's barn. Poor child! we said, ‘know that your barn is as good as burned right now—the preparation was all made by your noble guard before he went upstairs to pleasant sleep last night.’ Our words were verified next morning.

Thus ended a fearful day in the Valley of Virginia—a day neither of us and none of our little band can ever forget in all its scenes and incidents and sounds to the latest day of life. The plaintive lowing of kine, the bleating of sheep driven from their hillside, the rude shouts of foreign voices, and the tramp of cavalry, the blazing buildings everywhere, the blackened sites of once spacious barns, the smoke that all that day obscured the sun, and flying cinders of shingle and of straw; the countenances of women and little children, holding them by the hand, looking on!

And then that night. From one fine point of observation on that ride, for miles glowing spots of still burning buildings visible—tongues of flame still licking about heavy beams and sills—flames sometimes of many colors from burning grain and forage. These, with the numerous camp-fires lying nearer, bright-spotting the black face of night, it seemed to us the firmament had descended—the stars had fallen. It looked just that way. Think of it, we said: Looking downward to see the stars! The sight was unique, wonderful, awe-inspiring. Until this day no such desolation had been witnessed since the war began. What were we coming to? What would all this end in?

We found General Rosser before sunrise at a mill near the appointed place. This done, your friend was ordered to return posthaste to Harrisonburg and fix up his office and the wires again. [106] That long black office table, the telegrapher's key still attached to it, is still in existence in Rockingham. It is alive with reminiscences of the Valley campaigns; of the Laurel Brigade and its brave dashing commander; of Fitzhugh Lee, and the lamented Ashby, and of Breckinridge, and a host of other splendid men; of Jubal A. Early, the imperturbable, who often desired of his young friend a little spirits and complained sometimas it had a ‘taste of rotten apples,’ in his high-pitched, drawling voice.

Custer's rear guard opened fire on our men that morning across the roof of the residence of Dr. M. from the lofty bluff beyond the river. The enemy soon drew off, however, as Rosser advanced in pursuit—and Major M., of Rosser's staff, dismounting a moment, begged the little maid whose home was here to play for us all before we parted on the first piano ever brought to Rockingnam and sing this song, then sung so much because it was in everybody's heart:

When this cruel war is over,
Praying them to meet again.

N. M. Burkholder. June 27, 1900.

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