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[89]

Sheridan's Bummers. [from the times-dispatch, September 4, 1904.]

Some recollections of the war in the great Shenandoah Valley.



Mrs. Gordon on the firing line.

How the Soulless Raiders Devastated Fertile lands and Smashed things generally.


Shenandoah, in the Indian tongue, signifies ‘Daughters of the Stars.’ The untutored saw its sparkling waters come trickling down the side of mountains that reared their lofty heads up towards the stars; and he saw these same stars mirrored in the crystal depths of the stream as it flowed in its channel below, hence was born the poetic name given to this river and its beautiful valley.

How the Southern soldier loved the dear old valley of Virginia! He loved its varied landscape, its fields of red clover and golden wheat, its bending orchards, its cool springs, its crystal streams, its genial, hospitable people, and last, but not least, he loved its rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed girls.

And, when that cruel war was over, many a fair flower was transplanted from Virginia soil to bloom amid the myrtle trees of the Sunny South. If a hungry Southern soldier knocked at a door, it opened wide for his reception, and the last crust would be divided with him.

Especially was this valley dear to our brigade—the Old Stonewall—for here were the homes of our fathers, mothers, sisters and sweethearts. Our boys were never in better spirits when ordered from the piney woods and lowlands of eastern Virginia, back to the Shenandoah. In the retreat of the ten thousand, the Greeks from the hilltops cried out, ‘the sea, the sea!’ So, when we reached the top of the Blue Ridge and saw the goodly land smiling below, shouts of ‘the valley, the valley!’ made the mountain gorges ring, the bands played stirring airs, and every one kept step to the music.

On the 9th of September, 1864, the Stonewall Brigade was encamped [90] near the town of Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley. The people of this town were intensely loyal to the Southern cause. Time and again had both armies marched through her streets, the one cheered, but she scowled on the other from behind closed blinds. At this time Sheridan was pressing Early back from the Potomac. The Federal army was 45,000 strong, and the Confederate about 10,000. Sheridan was advancing with a bolder front, having heard that part of Early's force had gone to re-enforce Lee. He had a large body of cavalry, splendidly equipped. However, he came on very cautiously and slowly, beating the brush, as it were, to uncover ‘masked batteries,’ and find hidden lines of brave Johnnies. After a few days of marching and countermarching, of watching and waiting for the foe, there seemed to be a lull in the storm.

Then the thoughts of our younger soldiers turned from war's alarm to the more peaceful homes in the dear old town; Romeo had his Juliet there. We remember with the greatest pleasure how the parlors were thrown open to us, how we were invited to their tables, how the girls sang ‘Dixie’ and ‘My Maryland’ for us, and those delightful moonlight promenades, all made life so pleasant there!

There was to be a grand party at one of the old aristocratic mansions, and the society element in our camp were all aglee. Such rubbing and scrubbing, sewing and shining, borrowing and lending were only seen on such occasions. Major Bennett, of our regiment—the Fourth Virginia Infantry—and I, were comrades for the evening. The rooms were filled and the dear girls looked so sweet; many of them in calico dresses, yet made in an artistic way. The Major was in a devotional spirit towards a black-eyed widow, who charmed every one with her spicy conversation. I forgot there was war in the land as Miss Bonnie Eloise smiled graciously upon me, when I whispered to her that she was ten times sweeter than the rose she wore in her bonnie brown hair.

The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
Then all hearts beat happily; and when
Music with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And went merry as a marriage bell;
The clock in the hall struck ten.

[91]

A courier dashed up to the gate, and the message came in, ‘Prepare to move in an hour's time!’ The music ceased, the merry voices were low, and the farewells were hastily spoken. As we hastened away from the gate, the Major said: ‘Confound the Yankees. I wish they'd behave themselves and let us have a little fun.’ I replied: ‘Just to think of the nice cream and cake we've missed! I could kill a thousand of them!’ Judging from the muttering along the road to camp the Federals were consigned to lower and warmer regions, especially for breaking up the party.

The camp was all astir, soon the order rang out, ‘Fall in,’ and we filed out of the beautiful grove. Woe unto the Yankee that had fallen into our hands that night, for there was fire in our hearts and we thirsted for his blood. In the morning the enemy was located and after some skirmishing, his advanced posts fell back. He was not quite ready for battle yet. Several days were spent in watching each other's movements. At dawn in the morning of the 17th of September the boom of a cannon and the rattle of musketry in our front told us that the enemy were in earnest. (By way of explanation let me say: Having been severely wounded at Chancellorsville, I was detailed as Commissary of our regiment. So, I generally saw the fighting from a point, where distance lent enchantment to the view.)

Gradually the enemy forced our skirmish line back on the main body. About two miles from it Early decided to make a stand, his centre resting on the Berryville pike. The gallant Gordon was in command of Jackson's old division, and held the right of the pike. I think Generals Rodes and Robert D. Lilley held the left of our line. By 9 A. M. the battle was raging along the whole line. The heavy blue lines were repulsed time and again. Never before, in the history of the war, did our boys fight with such courage and desperation. They knew what was at stake, even the hospitable town and the dear old valley itself. By gradually flanking our right, the enemy began forcing our line back. Rhoades had fallen, and Lilley was left badly wounded on the field. But our men, like lions at bay, came back stubbornly. At length the Federal line halted, deeming it wise to measure well the ground in front before venturing too far. Imboden's cavalry covered our left wing on the valley pike. About 3 P. M. we heard a great shout from that point, and climbing an eminence I saw the charge of Sheridan's troopers. It was a splendid sight. In a front line of half a mile they swept on, their sabres flashing in the sunlight, and their fine [92] horses clearing the stone fences in their way. I heard a captured trooper say that whiskey had been issued to them to make them fearless. Imboden's cavalry did not wait to clash swords with their cousins in blue, but made a gallant charge to the rear. It reminded me of the charge of the Mamelukes of the battle of the Pyramids, when some of those splendid Arabian steeds leaped over the wall of the bayonets into the hollow square of the French army. The troopers were checked only by the forts guarding the approach of the town. Some even dashed by them and rode into the very streets.

Our wounded, who were gotten off the field, were tenderly cared for by the citizens of Winchester. As our battle-stained, smokebegrimed soldiers marched through the town, women wept, and old men bowed their heads in sorrow. That evening as the sun went down, I stood on the hill, north of town, and looking to the east I saw the Federal line some two miles long moving forward as if to encircle in its folds the doomed town. To the west I could see our flags drooping in retreat, and hear the rumbling of trains and artillery on the stony pike. With a sad heart and weary step, muttering to myself: ‘Farewell, dear old Winchester!’ ‘Good-bye, sweet Bonnie Eloise!’ I joined the retreating, but still defiant army.

Mrs. General Gordon was in Winchester at this time. About noon, when the battle was at its height, and they were pressing our centre back, she heard that the General had been killed. Accompanied by a young solder, and on foot, she started down the Berryville pike to find her husband. The road was crowded with wounded and stragglers hastening to the town. A battery of the enemy was throwing shells along the road, bursting and scattering destruction on every side. I saw her myself, in the face of all this, walking right on calmly and courageously facing death for the sake of one she so loved! To me it was the sublimest exhibition of female courage and devotion that I had ever heard or read of. Just then one of the General's staff, dashing along, saw her and told her it was General Rodes who was killed and that General Gordon was safe. Pausing for a moment, her lips moving as if in prayer, she turned, and with the same steady step came back to the town. Around her men were running and dodging, pale and trembling with fear. Noble woman, to have passed so bravely through such an ordeal, and what a lesson she taught those men. [93]

The old Valley suffered much and long during the war. She was the battle ground for the contending armies. Her rich lands helped to feed the Confederates and her splendid barns were warehouses to supply forage.

Sheridan, acting under Grant's order, determined to desolate this fair section, so that in the language of the instructions, ‘a crow could not fly from one end to the other without carrying his rations.’ And right well did he carry out Grant's order. Several hundred of those new barns were burned with all they contained. On three roads the barnburners went, and, by day, the smoke, like a funeral pall, hung overhead, and by night the lurid flames lit up the whole country. And these fiends were mercenary in their hellish work. Dividing into two parties, one would go before and ask the owner what he would give them not to burn his barn. Grasping at a straw, and not thinking of treachery, he would bring forth hidden treasure of gold and silver, and sometimes as high as $300 to save his property. This party, having bled the owner, galloped on and then came party number two. They applied the match, and rode on to share the ill-gotten gains.

When the fires of Chambersburg painted the sky red, then were the barns of the Shenandoah avenged.

Finally, peace again smiled on the stricken Valley. Ruined homes were soon rebuilt, the barns went up as if by magic, the stout fences were repaired, and every trace of war vanished. And the stranger as he now sees it in its fruitfulness and beauty is reminded of the lines of the poet:

A land of fatling herds and fruitful fields,
All joys that peace and plenty yield;
Earth's sweetest flowers here shed perfume,
And here earth's fairest maidens bloom.


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