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Major Andrew Reid Venable, Jr. [from Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch.]

By W. Gordon McCABE.

Died, on October 15, 1909, at ‘Millwood,’ near Farmville, Va., Major Andrew Reid Venable, Jr., formerly Adjutant and Inspector-General of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, in his seventy-seventh year.

“This fell sergeant, Death, is strict in his arrest,” as Shakespeare tells us, and thus has been struck from the rolls of survivors of that glorious army the name of one of the noblest gentlemen and most daring soldiers who ever periled life for hearth and home and country.

But it is only from ‘the roll of survivors’ that his name has been stricken, for on the deathless roll itself, his name shall blaze so long as freemen shall revere those stern and warlike virtues that make men strong to meet with unshaken front the very stroke of fate.

Born of an ancient and honorable race, distinguished from Colonial days for inflexible integrity, high courage and keen intellectual gifts—nourished in the most heroic traditions of the Commonwealth—he proved himself in every relation of life—as husband, father, kinsman and comrade—worthy of the noble stock from which he sprung.

His life before the war (‘the war’ to us beyond all other wars it must ever be), was uneventful—just the life of the average young Virginian of good family, ‘straining at the leash’ and eager to get beyond the somnolent life of prosaic surroundings.

It may be told in few words, for his real life lay within the four years of war. He was born at the ‘Vineyard’ (one of the old Venable estates), in Prince Edward county, on December 2, 1832, son of Samuel Woodson and Jane Reid Venable—was graduated from Hampden—Sidney College before he was twenty, in the class of 1852—disdained to settle down as ‘a small planter,’ and so ‘went West’ to seek his fortunes, speedily deciding on St. Louis as his new home. There, owing to his industry, [62] quick intelligence and spirit of enterprise, his business success was almost instant. What is far more to the purpose, it was there that he met socially two people who were to play the chief part in his life—Miss Stevens, a niece of Governor Stevens, of Maryland, a lady destined within a few years to become his wife under the most romantic circumstances—while he was an escaped prisoner in the enemy's country—and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, U. S. A., who, though but twenty-two, had just proved his warlike mettle in the campaign against the fierce Apaches, as a young officer of the famous old ‘Rifles,’ and who, now transferred to the First Cavalry, had been assigned duty at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis.

An intimate friendship sprung up at once between Venable and the brilliant young officer, for they were both enthusiastic Virginians, both far from home and both in the very ‘May-morn of their youth.’

Little did either then dream that, within ten years, one should become a great cavalry leader, ‘dazzling a world with deeds,’ and the other ride by his bridle-rein as his most trusted staff officer. But Stuart soon went his way to fight the Sioux and the Cheyennes, receiving in the campaign against the latter a grievous wound in the desperate action at Soloman's Fork, Kan., while Venable, with characteristic tenacity, stuck to his business enterprises with such effect, that, within a few years, he had accumulated what was then reckoned a handsome competence.

But party spirit was running high through all the land and nowhere, North or South, were sectional animosities so intense and bitter as in St. Louis. ‘The Southern element,’ as it was called, dominated ‘society,’ but the bulk of the population, ‘the plain people’ (in large measure Germans), sided with the ‘Abolitionists’ and ‘Free-Soilers.’

Young Venable, who had been bred up in the ‘strict States' Rights school,’ and who, through temperament, contemned everything savoring of compromise “or ‘expediency,’ threw himself with all the passion of his ardent nature into the struggle that had even then begun between Secessionists and Union men for control of Missouri in the impending conflict. Then burst the storm of war, and Venable, without a moment's hesitation, threw up his prosperous business (though he [63] well knew that it meant the sacrifice of everything he had accumulated), and sped to his mother State, where he at once enlisted as a private soldier in the Third Battery of ‘Richmond Howitzers,’ then under orders to join the ‘Army of the Peninsula.’ He was at this time, as the writer of these lines remembers (for we were in the same gun-detachment), a singularly handsome man, genial, yet dignified, blessed with a keen sense of humor, fond of a good story, but instantly austere at any hint or irreverence touching religious matters, always cheery when hardships had to be endured, and speedily became known to officers and men as one of the most resolute and daring soldiers in the command. The Third Battery of Howitzers” saw, perhaps, more actual fighting than any other artillery company in ‘the Army of the Peninsula,’ and Venable, born trooper though he was, was always proud and glad, during the years after the war, to meet in ‘reunion’ his old artillery comrades, with whom, as simple cannoneer he had received his first ‘baptism of fire.’

He took part with his battery in all the actions and minor affairs of that army in ‘61, and of the Army of Northern Virginia until the summer of 1862, when he was made ‘Captain and Commissary’ of the First Regiment of Virginia Artillery, commanded by the gallant and accomplished Colonel John Thompson Brown (former Captain of the Second Battery of ‘Howitzers’) who at the very beginning of the ‘Campaign of '64’ fell in action at ‘The Wilderness,’ mourned by an army.

This position Venable held until the spring of ‘63.

Commissaries and Quartermasters, with few exceptions, never went into action. Indeed, for them to do so, was contrary to explicit and very proper ‘orders.’ So, too, of Surgeons. But Venable could no more keep out of a fight than Stuart's ‘Chief Surgeon,’ Talcott Eliason, of whom Stuart says in his rollicking fashion (in his official report of the Gettysburg Campaign): ‘Surgeon Eliason, though without a superior in his profession, would, from his conduct on the field, excel as a Colonel of Cavalry.’

The ‘Commissary of the First Virginia Artillery’ had a way of suddenly turning up in the very thick of things to ask his

Colonel some utterly idle and irrelevant question about rations [64] for the men, and the Colonel tried to look severe and the battery commanders winked at each other and at Venable, when the latter said, ‘And now, sir, if I could carry any orders for you, as I see your Adjutant has gone.’

Thus it was that Stuart, who, on Jackson's fall on the evening of May 2nd, at Chancellorsville, had been put in command of Jackson's Corps, met Venable in the very thickest of the battle of the 3rd day. Venable had come up to ask his Colonel whether he didn't think ‘a bean ration would be good for the men.’

He never proposed that momentous question to his ‘Regimental Commander.’

Stuart, who handled Jackson's Corps on that day with superb skill, came suddenly in the woods upon the conscientious ‘Commissary.’ They had never seen each other since the old St. Louis days, but the recognition was instant. Stuart, who had sent off every staff officer with urgent, and almost inspired, orders, grasped his hand, and said, ‘Venable, I've sent off my last man. You must take this order to the left. There is no one else. I assume all responsibility.’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ replied Venable, saluting, and most delighted, and away he sped through the woods reverberating with the fierce, wild cries of the victorious Confederates, driving the enemy from their last stubborn stand. All through that glorious day (the tactical masterpiece of the nineteenth century, as was Leuthen of the eighteenth), Venable carried Stuart's orders, and when night fell, as they lay by the camp fire, told a kindred spirit how he chafed at ‘being in a bomb-proof.’

“I shall ask that for your services to-day,” said Stuart, ‘you be assigned my staff.’

For Stuart to ask (after his own brilliant work), was to have, and so Venable, within a few days, was assigned to the Headquarter Staff of the Cavalry, with the rank of Major, and announced in ‘General Orders’ as ‘Assistant Adjutant and Inspector-General of the Corps.’

From that time until his capture at the battle of Hatcher's Run (or Burgess's Mill), in the autumn of 1864 (Oct. 27th), the story of Venable's career is the story of that splendid body of horse, whose deeds gave Stuart his imperishable renown. [65]

It was ‘an open secret’ at Cavalry Headquarters, that of all the splendid and capable staff officers there—Heros Von Borcke (of the ‘Madgeburg Dragoons’) and Henry McClellan and young ‘The.’ Garnett—Venable was closest to Stuart. Whenever most perlious service was to the fore, Venable was selected for that service, and wherever the Headquarter guidon of Lee's horse blazed in the van of trampling squadrons, there always was Andrew Venable, riding ‘bit to bit,’ by the bridle-rein of the gay and debonnair Rupert of the South.

It is sad, in a way, to his surviving comrades, that the story of his brilliant career will never be told. But it is no worse in this case than in that of ‘Willy’ Pegram, or ‘Jim’ Breathed, or Beckham, or ‘Jimmy Thompson,’ or Victor Girardey, and many, many others, whose names were ‘household words’ as stubborn fighters, in an army of stubborn fighters, who are yet unknown to-day to the people for whose liberties they yielded up their lives.

Still, one may be allowed to cite one or two instances in that career—if only for his children's sake—to evidence how absolute was his Chief's confidence in the readiness of resource and cool daring of this favorite staff officer in desperate and critical events.

In the Gettysburg Campaign, when Stuart had lost touch with Lee's columns (because of his daring raid towards the Susquehanna), and had finally recognized the imperious necessity of communicating with the commanding general, Venable was the officer chosen to make his way through the hostile country, swarming with the enemy, and carry to Lee the first direct message from his Chief of Cavalry.

The perilous ride was successfully accomplished, and Lee's official report tells us that on the evening of July 1st, Venable reported to him the exact whereabouts of his cavalry.

Stuart himself, in his official report of the campaign (dated August 20th, 1863), says: ‘The untiring energy, force of character and devotion to duty of Major Andrew R. Venable, Inspector-General, and of Lieutenant G. M. Ryal, C. S. Army, Provost Marshal, deserves my special gratitude and praise.’ [66]

As we shall see later on, Venable and Ryal were again to have special mention together for signal service, after their brilliant chief had fallen in battle.

In October, 1863, three months after Gettysburg, Lee, ever ready to strike and confident in the aggressive morale of his veterans of confirmed hardiness, began a movement around the right flank of Meade's army (then lying in Culpeper), with a view to forcing his late anatagonist again to battle. This is known to old soldiers as ‘the Bristoe Campaign.’

The duty assigned Stuart was to guard Lee's right and screen the movement from the enemy's powerful and skillfully-handled horse. It was a most difficult and delicate service, and Lee's instructions prove beyond question how entirely his Chief of Cavalry retained his great commander's complete confidence. Stuart, chafing under half-muttered cavillings, and eager to have a chance to sweep away every cloud of adverse criticism, showed up at his best from start to finish. In the saddle day and night, he handled his small cavalry force against the preponderating squadrons of the enemy with a happy blending of prudence and audacity that friend and foe alike (among trained soldiers) applauded with generous accord.

But his wise audacity (which, if unsuccessful, would have been termed ‘foolish rashness’) had at one point what is known as ‘a very close call.’ The story is familiar to the old troopers of his command and is too long to detail here. Suffice it to say, that he discovered a movement of the enemy's infantry that neither he nor Lee had suspected. As usual, he selected Venable to carry the news to the commanding general, instructing him to ‘ride by way of Auburn,’ which Lomax, with his brigade of horse, was supposed to hold. Venable sped upon his mission, and rode confidently into Auburn, only to ride out as fast as he could put spur to horse under a tempest of bullets, for Lomax had just been driven from the place and Kilpatrick's troopers held all the roads. But the trusted staff officer, with more than one ‘touch-and-go’ escape, made a wide detour, knowing every foot of the country even in the darkness, and safely delivered the message to Lee. [67]

In those heroic days, compliments did not fly thick and fast, as in ‘the great Spanish War,’ and to be mentioned in dispatches meant a good deal. Of this daring ride, Stuart says simply, in his official report: ‘Major Andrew R. Venable, Jr., A. A. and Inspector-General, deserves special mention for his conduct in evading the enemy near Auburn and reaching the Commanding General with important dispatches on the night of October 13th.’

To this generation, those few words may not mean much. To Andrew Venable's surviving comrades, they are pregnant with martial meaning.

But the ‘hero of Gettysburg’ had no desire to ‘try conclusions’ with his fierce and wary adversary, and slipped away from the crucial test, counting its avoidance a clever manoeuvre. What a complete answer to latter-day military sciolists, who blame Meade for not pursuing Lee after Gettysburg, blatantly assuming the demoralization of that veteran soldiery that had stormed ‘Cemetery Hill.’

The story of Venable's services during the winter of ‘63-64, when Stuart, despite his being compelled to scatter his command because of lack of forage, was yet continually ‘beating up the enemy's quarters’ (as his Cavalier prototype was wont to express it), must be sought in official dispatches.

Then, in the spring of ‘64, began the greatest of Lee's campaigns—a grim wrestle of eleven months, with the guns ‘going’ night and day—in which the Confederate commander, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, put hors-de-combat more men than he had taken into the campaign, and again, from Cold Harbor to Five Forks, put hors-de-combat as great a number as had been left him for the defense of Petersburg and Richmond.

Grant crossed the Rapidan on May 4th, and on May 5th. Stuart in person conducted Lee's advance (A. P. Hill's Corps) to strike the enemy on the Plank Road. It is no exaggeration, but only severest truth to say that from that moment, the Commander of the Cavalry Corps, night and day in the saddle, with only a few hours' sleep during the twenty-four, never lost aggressive contact with the enemy's infantry and cavalry, until the fatal May 11th, at ‘Yellow Tavern,’ when he fell mortally wounded from a random pistol-shot fired by a retreating Federal trooper. [68]

The story of that desperate fight, so tragic in the cruel disparity of numbers, has been too often told to need repetition here. As they lifted Stuart, stricken with his mortal hurt, into the ambulance, he saw some disorganized troopers retreating to the rear. Raising himself up, the old light of battle shining in his eyes, his voice rang out in imperious tones: ‘Go back! go back! Do your duty as I've done mine. I'd rather die than be whipped.’ And once again the little handful turned and stayed the tide of thundering onset.

Venable tenderly bore his chief from the field to Richmond, and then, like a true soldier, galloped back at once to the front. He had looked his last on the face of the man of whom to his dying day he could never speak save with deep emotion.

But, as the brilliant cavalry leader lay a-dying, he did not forget this loyal friend and comrade, knit to him by so many ties of joyous camaraderie and common danger.

As was natural, Stuart was passionately fond of horses, was always superbly mounted, and rode like a Centaur. Of all his horses, his ‘gallant gray’ was his favorite, and, just before he breathed out his dauntless soul, after directing that his personal effects shouldd be sent to his wife, turning to his faithful Adjutant-General, Henry McClellan, whispered, ‘Take the bay and let Venable have my gray.’

He then added, ‘I am going fast: God's will be done,’ and so the bugles sang ‘Lights Out’ to the wearied trooper, and he fell on heroic sleep.

It may not be impertinent to set down here that the writer of these lines was sittting on his horse at Spotsylvania C. H., close to Lee, when the telegram was handed the latter announcing Stuart's fall at ‘Yellow Tavern.’ Lee's simple words on reading the telegram constitute, to our mind, Stuart's noblest epitaph and should have been graved upon the pedestal of his statue: ‘Gentlemen,’ he said (evidently greatly moved), ‘we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded.’ He paused for a few moments, and then exclaimed impressively: ‘He never brought me a piece of false information.’ Think of it!— from the commander of a veteran army, touching his Chief of Cavtlry—‘the eyes and ears’ of that army! [69]

After Stuart's death, Venable was for a brief time assigned staff-duty with the Major-General W. H. A. Lee, but in August was reassigned to the Headquarters of the Cavalry Corps, with his old duties as Inspector-General, on the staff of General Wade Hampton.

Time would fail to deal in detail with the active part he bore in the constant cavalry engagements of those stirring August and September days.

But one signal service may, at least, be touched upon.

On September 14th (1864), Hampton, having ascertained through his scouts the exact location of the great ‘corral’ for the ‘supply cattle’ of the Army of the Potomac, determined to make a bold raid in Grant's rear, and, if possible, to ‘lift’ (in Hieland phrase) the fat beeves there congregated, of which the Federals always had plenty, while at this time the chief food of the hungry Confederate was but half a ration of ‘hard tack’ and rancid pork. For many months, indeed, Lee's veterans, like the English just before ‘Agincourt,’ had been ‘shrewdly out of beef,’ but Hampton knew that (as the Constable of France allowed of his adversaries on the eve of that historic day) ‘give them great meals of beef, and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.’

To penetrate so far to the enemy's rear seemed to many of the boldest a rash undertaking, but the actual ‘cutting out’ of this immense herd (by official count, two thousand four hundred and eighty-six) was brilliantly accomplished under the very noses of the astounded Federals, and then came the most critical part of the expedition. To ‘round up’ and bring off such a number of cattle demanded the readiest shrewdness, coolest courage and wariest management. The enemy, after their first overwhelming amazement, recovered their wits; telegraph wires were kept hot from City Point to Grant's front, and very speedily Hampton was so hard pressed by both cavalry and infantry that a less resolute fighter would have abandoned his booty and thought only of escape. But Hampton knew Lee's great need of proper food for the men, and at all times was an officer of prompt resource and most stubborn courage. He placed Venable and Ryal in charge of the escort that was to drive the cattle, and turned about [70] himself to hold the swarming enemy in check, until the cattle might be herded across the Nottoway to some point of safety. 'Twas a great feat, accomplished with consummate skill and judgment, and who of us can ever forget the great shout that went up from the gaunt veterans in the trenches, to whom it meant returning health and vigor and renewed strength to fight on for the cause that grew even closer to their hearts.

In his official report, Hampton says (September 27th, 1864): ‘Major Venable, of my staff, was ordered to superintend this movement of the cattle, and, with Major Ryal, Provost Marshal, who had been very efficient in conducting it up to this time, to place them quickly across the Nottoway River at Freeman's Ford. These officers discharged their duty admirably, and the successful manner in which the cattle were brought off is due very much to their zeal and enterprise.’

On October 27th, in the great action at Hatcher's Run, in which Grant received another lesson that we ‘still could sting,’ and sting sharply, Venable, while carrying an important message from gallant ‘Jimmy’ Deering (one of Lee's ‘Boy Brigadiers’) to Hampton, in making his way through the heavily wooded country, rode headlong into the enemy's pickets and was promptly captured. He was at once carried before the officer commanding that part of the picket line, who, very improperly, threatened him with direful bodily harm when Venable flatly refused to answer a single one of his questions. He would not even tell him to whose command he belonged. The officer became more irate, and more insistent that he should tell him at once the position and number of troops engaged and other like information. Venable, who never ‘set his life at a pin's fee’ in any matter involving soldiery honor, and who could be, on occasion, as scornful as he was fearless, blazed out upon the Federal commander with such scathing words as the latter probably never forgot. In his official report of the part borne by his command in this battle, Brigadier-General Thos. V. Eagan, U. S. V. (on whose line he was captured) has but little to say of the incident, but that little ‘speaks volumes’ to those who knew Venable, and who can ‘read between the lines:’ ‘Here my skirmishers captured Major Venable, formerly Inspectoreral [71] of Stuart's Cavalry, and now Adjutant-General (it is thought, [sic]), of Hampton's Division. He would give no information’ That officer little knew the adamant he was ‘up against!’

The romantic story of Venable's adventures after his capture and confinement in the ‘Old Capitol Prison,’ in Washington, his dare-devil escape by leaping through the window of the car that was carrying him to ‘Fort Delaware,’ as the train slowed up in the dusk of evening near Philadelphia—his successful concealment, through the active help of ‘Southern Sympathizers’ in that rabid and envenomed ‘City of Brotherly Love’ (old St. Louis friends of Stuart's were these sympathizers), who not only secreted the young Virginian at great personal risk, but pressed upon him unlimited money for emergencies—his cool assumption of the role of an ‘oil-land promoter’—his frequent trips to the Pennsylvania oil-fields to pick up hints, for better playing the ‘part’—his writing his fiancee, Miss Stevens (who had come on to Baltimore with her aunt, to avoid the persecution in St. Louis of ‘Rebel sympathizers’), begging her to make a few rapid preparations for marriage, following up the letter (characteristically) with a telegram, ‘Come with your aunt at once’ their marriage by the Rev. Dr. W. S. Plummer in his ‘study,’ who had been his father's classmate at college, and who was then living in Philadelphia—his wife's departure within a few days Southward for Baltimore, while he fared Westward to the oil-fields—his making his way gradually, through help of ‘the underground,’ to Hagerstown, Maryland—his dash, one stormy night, on a fleet horse to an unguarded point on the Potomac—the perilous swim across—and so back to freedom, and ‘Old Virginia’—all this, as wild as any chapter in Stevenson or Dumas, must be told at another time and in another place. A comrade heard him recount the story soon after his return, and begged him to write it down then, and he half-promised to do so, but, as so often happens, never did.

Just after the disastrous ‘Retreat,’ which culminated in the ‘Surrender’ at Appomattox C. H., Mrs. Venable got permission from the Federal authorities to come to Virginia, and after many inevitable hardships reached her husband's home in Prince Edward. The whole of that section had been ravaged by the enemy, [72] and desolation reigned supreme. He had now a wife to care for, besides others dependent on him, and, without any idle repining at the malice of fortune, at once went to ‘work with a will.’

Of his life after the war there is small need to speak. It was the same as that of the great majority of his old comrades.

Enough to say, that he illustrated in every task he essayed that pithy dictum of a great English thinker that ‘the reward of one duty is the power to fulfil another.’

His wife now fortunately came into her property, and he himself again accumulated a comfortable competence, which within a few years was lost through misplaced confidence in others. Once more with no repining, he began the battle of life, this time as a simple farmer, and thenceforth devoted himself in chief measure to advancing agricultural interests throughout the Commonwealth, being for years prominently identified with the revived State Fair and active in the management of other kindred organizations.

A simple farmer he indeed continued to the end outwardly, but in his ‘heart of heart’ (as Hamlet hath it), he always remained a soldier.

He was never ‘reconstructed’ and disdained to pretend that he was. He was not ‘glad that the war ended as it did,’ and was not slow to express his virile scorn for those who thus ‘bowed down in the House of Rimmon.’

For the past two or three years, his health had been steadily failing, but the spirit of the man was invincible, and he never for a moment abated his activities, so that when the blow fell at last, his death proved a great shock to family, kinsmen and friends.

On October 15th, after a few days' illness, he passed quietly away at ‘Millwood,’ ‘surrendering his pure soul unto his Captain, Christ.’

He lived in a great time and bore himself through all the ‘stress and storm’ of it in a manner worthy of his historic lineage.

After the war there were long years in which he was tried as by fire, but he ever proved all gold. And he has left to wife [73] and children, to kinsmen and comrades, as a precious legacy, the fragrant memory of his tenderness and purity, his generosity and integrity, his nice sense of honor and chivalric courage, and of all those stern and gentle virtues that we unconsciously associate with the loftiest type of the high-bred gentleman and dauntless soldier.

In contemplating this heroic life, thus rounded, at the last, with the sleep which He giveth His beloved, we, who miss him and hold him in our hearts, rising above our own selfish sorrow, can surely say of him, as Milton says of Sampson:

Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail;
* * * * nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.

W. Gordon McCabe. December 6th, 1909.

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