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Chapter 23:

  • Military transactions in may
  • -- our army continues to fall back upon Richmond -- I am despatched to the City with prisoners -- Hospitality of the Virginian farmers -- news received en route -- evacuation of Norfolk -- destruction of the Merrimac -- the defences of Richmond -- treatment of prisoners -- our army forms line of battle North of the Chickahominy -- position of McClellan -- I receive a staff appointment -- table talk, etc.

As before remarked, I was ordered to conduct a batch of prisoners to Richmond, and to spare them unnecessary pain in running the gauntlet of our army camped along the roads, it was deemed best to proceed by the James River. At night we sought the shelter of the farm-houses on our route, and met with a truly hospitable reception. Every thing that could be possibly provided for our comfort was lavishly displayed, and I was agreeably impressed with the neatness and comfort exhibited in their dwellings. Courtly, high-toned, and refined, the style of these old Virginians impressed me much with what I could remember of the hale and hearty squires of England, whom they very much resembled in manner and means. My prisoners seemed delighted with their treatment, and many professed their willingness to take the oath of allegiance, and remain South, as some of them subsequently did, and, entering our ranks, made excellent soldiers. Throughout our progress across this beautiful section of country, I never heard an offensive word whispered regarding my charge, and although we sometimes remained all night in houses of those whose sons had already died in the war, except a few words of natural complaint, I never heard or saw any thing that would indicate the existence of that revengeful feeling which the Northern papers were continually asserting against us. My own feeling, now the battle was over, was to treat them as I would have wished to be treated, had our positions been reversed, and, although it necessitated an outlay I could ill spare, there was nothing I [209] could purchase for their comfort that I failed to do. Had fortune thrown in my way such men as Seward, Lincoln, Blair, Sumner, or Hale, I should have been tempted to use some of the handcuffs out of the wagon-loads which old Scott had sent to Manassas for very different individuals. In such a case it would have been a good joke; but in the present instance, a cruel one.

When we hailed a steamboat above Berkeley, I learned the following facts. Huger, I was informed, had not made a successful evacuation of Norfolk, and much valuable. property had fallen into the enemy's hands. This arose from an act of treachery on the part of a Government employee. When Huger received orders to evacuate, he immediately made every possible arrangement for that purpose. Immense stores were conveyed away, and most of the troops had left, when the captain of a small steamboat hitherto in our employ (a Northerner by birth) thought to make capital by going over to the enemy a few miles distant at Fortress Monroe. The enemy immediately commenced shelling our works at Sewell's Point, and, receiving no response, determined upon landing troops. Several vessels had already escaped up James River, from Norfolk, and others were sunk; but it became a matter of dispute as to what should be done with the Merrimac, which, a short time before, had become famous by sinking the Cumberland and other vessels under the guns of Fortress Monroe. It was alleged that her draught of water was too great for James River; pilots disputed the possibility of steering her safely over the “bars,” if lightened; but while this indecision reigned in council, the enemy's guns were heard at Sewell's Point; the Merrimac was hastily coaled, and slowly steamed down to frighten the enemy off. It was thought that a night engagement might ensue, but as it was positively stated that she would not answer helm, she ended her brief but glorious career by being blown up shortly after midnight, and within a mile of the enemy!1 The [210] Federals were so quick in their movements that our “burning parties” had scarcely made their escape from the various ship-yards ere Norfolk was again in the hands of the Yankees. Huger conducted his retreat with great order, and was far out of harm's way.

In our progress up the James we hailed and conversed with the Patrick Henry and other war vessels, which were steaming about City Point, (fifteen miles from Richmond,) in anticipation of the enemy's approach, and assisted a gunboat in towing up the iron-clad Virginia No. 2, which required completion. This was the first time I had seen any specimen of our infant navy, and must confess the splendid appearance, quickness, cleanliness, neatness, and obedience of the seamen were in favorable contrast with the sleepy, lackadaisical dandyism of the officers-many of whom were mere lads. That they all had “pluck” and “dash” in superabundance, their quick eye and [211] recent services well betokened; but there was a “something” in their affectation, their manner of walking, and their use of the telescope which impressed me with a strong idea that the greater part were “novices,” and owed their gold bands and white gloves more to political and family influence than “service” or sound qualification. The men were truly magnificent specimens of bone and muscle-mostly foreign-born, from the merchant navy; and, dressed as they all were in the neat blue uniforms captured at Norfolk, reminded me much of what I had seen in the British navy in American waters-bronzed and rosy fellows, active as cats, and fit to fight a frigate at any odds.

While at City Point I was informed that General Magruder was alarmingly unwell at one of the many beautiful residences near this point; but it was whispered confidentially: “Oh! he's not very sick! he's been on a spree because Johnston would not fight at Yorktown It is only the effect of too much Bourbon and chagrin!” This was probably the truth. This accomplished but “nervous” officer very much desired to fight and immortalize his name at Yorktown, behind the lines he had so scientifically planned and perfected in secrecy; but Lee and Johnston could penetrate more deeply into the enemy's plans there than the fighting engineer deemed worthy of consideration; and to engage a superior force, with our flanks unprotected and assailable at any hour by powerful and resistless fleets, would have been an act of madness. As it was, we could not retreat without. a severe fight, and had reason to consider ourselves extremely fortunate in escaping as we did. The true line of defence, as foreseen by the astute Lee a year before, was nearer Richmond; and it had been magnificently mapped and fortified by that officer, without noise or puff, even when the majority of the unthinking were 10th to consider him any thing more than a quiet, inoffensive officer, possessing more of religion than strategy. For my own part, though smiled at by the would-be wiseheads, I heartily rejoiced to hear of Lee's appointment as Commander-in-Chief; nor were my opinions of him hastily formed, or doomed to disappointment, as results will amply prove.

In approaching Richmond, my eye was actively engaged in [212] scanning the landscape and river-banks for batteries to resist the coming enemy, but none were visible, nor indeed were any in progress. A few earthworks below City Point had been successively abandoned, and those which had the hardihood to oppose the Federal gunboats were destroyed by the first broadside. Nearer the city, I observed an immense raft concealed under the banks and trees, which was said to be amply sufficient to blockade the river. It was not closed, but could be within an hour's notice. We had passed several bluffs, which, if properly fortified, could effectually stop the enemy in the narrow windings of the river, but as yet no works were erected, and no cannon mounted. This I considered gross negligence or incapacity in Secretary Mallory, who had charge of naval affairs. Some charged the Administration with imbecility; others shook their heads, as if the final hour were rapidly approaching; while a few, I thought, betrayed more pleasure than pain in the anxiety and the feverish excitement of the majority.

Of President Davis I knew something, but nothing in his character was like the picture angrily drawn of him by the unthinking. He could not attend to every thing; after appointments were made, the most he could do was to suggest on matters pertaining to the duties or requirements of those in the various chairs of office. It would not only be presumption, but gross ignorance, to suppose that he did this, or ordered that. His own duties were more than any dozen men, except himself, could have pretended to perform; still, although laboring night and day, planning, counselling, providing, receiving visitors, writing, speaking, he was blamed for every thing that went amiss. He bore it all, however, without murmuring. The press might abuse him, office-seekers annoy him, petty councillors bore him, mistakes and bickerings of his Cabinet vex him; State, political, social, or religious deputations pester him with demands, petitions, and a thousand other daily annoyances; yet the poor, pale, hard-working President bore it all with philosophic equanimity. Putting on his blue flannel overcoat, he would mount his chestnut mare, smoke a cigar, and take a quiet ride, unattended, through the streets in the afternoon, as calmly and unostentatiously as if he were merely Mr J. Davis, proprietor of a two-hundred-acre farm, with a round [213] dozen of bouncing babies. Heigho! who would envy the poor President? If a negro were worked a twentieth as much, his master would be imprisoned or fined for inhuman treatment!

After delivering my prisoners at Libby's Tobacco Warehouse — the chief of many such establishments in the city-I endeavored to obtain accommodation at the “Spottswood” and other hotels, but found it an impossibility, every house being crowded to excess. I must confess, too, my personal appearance was any thing but prepossessing, and when I pushed my way through a crowd of dandily attired officers and civilians, I was gazed upon as something of a phenomenon; for my part I looked upon them with contempt, for although dressed in all the colors of the different arms of the service, from Generals down to Captains, their unblemished linen and gold braid told me plainly they were for the most part impostors, boring the various departments for commissions, or for some kind of employment, and disporting their figures on the sunny side of Capitol Square. In vain I offered any price for a bed, and even proposed giving five dollars for the privilege of sleeping on the floor of the reception-room. All that I have said of Richmond in a previous chapter — of the fabulous prices obtained for necessaries, the scenes of perpetual gaiety, the uninterrupted waste of money, and the imposition everywhere practised-might be here repeated; but enough. The one redeeming feature of the city may, however, be mentioned. I never saw the least symptoms of intoxication in the streets, owing to the discipline of martial law, and the almost impossibility of obtaining liquors.

The prisoners, as I have said, were confined in tobacco-warehouses fitted up for their use, near the river, which served admirably for temporary prisons. Being very large, four stories high, and of great capacity, they were capable of accommodating several hundreds of men each, and being well guarded, it was almost impossible for a prisoner to effect his escape. The food allotted to those in durance was that usually allowed to soldiers, but in greater quantity and variety than ever fell to our lot in camp. Every convenience was allowed them, and, except room for out-of-door exercise, I saw nothing in the arrangements that merited the denunciations of the Northern press [214] about our barbarous treatment of prisoners in our terrible tobacco-warehouses. Considering all things, they seemed to enjoy themselves very much; they were permitted every facility for purchasing things not allowed by our regulations for diet; ministers and others frequently visited them-particularly Catholic priests-and books, clothing, and money were often bestowed upon them. On the other hand, the men, generally speaking, behaved themselves as became their situation; though occasionally some ill-bred fellow among them would excite to sedition, and the culprit being discovered, he was removed, and punished. Several, I know, were shot for attempting to escape; and on one or two occasions men particularly vulgar to ladies in passing, after having been duly warned, and on a repetition of the offence, were shot at and wounded by the guards. Hundreds were sent south, in various directions, to make room for fresh arrivals, and from the preparations of Government for additional prisons and hospitals, it became very evident that stirring events were expected at no distant day.

Hospitals were numerous, the chief being Chimborazo on the east, and Camp Winder west of the city, each capable of accommodating several thousands. Their situation was the best to be had, and Government had done all in its power to render them comfortable and commodious. They looked like large forts at a distance, with their whitened walls and banners; but on close inspection proved to be long rows of wooden buildings, marked off into divisions, streets, and wards: on inspection I found an abundance of all things provided that the medical department could possibly furnish; though some kinds of medicines were very scarce, particularly quinine, of which very little could be obtained, even at twenty dollars per ounce. The doctors, however, appeared to me to be very indifferent, and lacking of much kindness and capacity; they were seldom in their offices, often promenading with ladies, and were great consumers of whatever wines and liquors Government intended for the sick. This may account for the pressure of business among coffin-contractors and grave-diggers, and for the stream of hearses continually running to and from the cemeteries. I saw but few clergymen in the hospitals, but was deeply impressed with the piety, self-devotion, and unceasing attentions of those good angels called “Sisters of charity,” who [215] were ever in motion, night and day, in ministering to the sick. They had an especial hospital of their own on the Brooke turnpike road, called , “St. Joseph's ;” and it was a perfect paradise of cleanliness and comfort.

From information I could gather round the War Office, it appears that Johnston had remained in line of battle more than a week several miles north of the Chickahominy, in the vain hope that McClellan would attack. The Federals, however, remained at a respectful distance, and seemed as disinclined for combat in open ground, with a river in our rear, as they were when we invited them in March, with the Rapidan in our front. Slowly advancing towards Richmond, McClellan took up the pursuit, and sharp skirmishing occurred as we crossed the Chickahominy at Mechanicsville bridge, five miles from Richmond. It surprised me much to hear that our whole army was so near the city, and it surprised me still more to learn that I was transferred from my regiment to an officer's position on the staff. My future duties would be light, pay increased, forage allowed, with daily opportunities of passing and repassing to town. I felt ashamed to leave my old regiment, with which I had served so long, for I thought it looked unpatriotic to leave the gallant foot to go prancing at the heels of a chief of artillery. My company did not object. I could benefit them considerably in many ways, and, promising to be with them in the hour of battle, I mounted my unruly mare, drew all arrears from the paymaster, and invited several of my old superior officers to a supper in town, in order to finish my career in the infantry with due honor and solemnity.

We were in high spirits during our little supper, and much was said regarding the merits and qualifications of various generals and heads of departments, which would have startled the gentlemen mentioned could they have heard it. But when were soldiers in want of topics for conversation? Captain Smithers and Major Jones, at one end of the table, were professionally discussing the results of the war, and were very declamatory in style; Lieutenant Jenkins was narrating some romantic adventure among the pretty Quakeresses of London County, and had two listeners; Lieutenant-Colonel Dobbs was explaining “formations” and “changes of front” to Captain [216] Johnstone, who, Scotchman-like, was disputing the authority of Dobbs's version of “Hardee;” while Lieutenant Moore entertained half a dozen round the fire with his reminiscences of the Emerald Isle.

Said Major Jones, emptying his glass: “Smithers, I entirely disagree with you. The campaign wasn't worth a cent till Lee took the helm, and I believe that Davis himself endeavored to map out operations before that. See what miserable failures Roanoke and Donelson were. Who was commander — in chief before Lee? Nobody that I know; and the fact of sending men to be cooped up, surrounded, and destroyed on that island, speaks volumes for the stupidity and incapacity of somebody. I don't mean to say that a stouter resistance might not have been made by a better general than Wise. Wise has proved himself a first-rate orator, writer, and politician — is greatly beloved in Virginia — but all these things go to show that it requires something more than popularity to make a general. Fort Donelson, also, was left to be erected by the State of Tennessee, and see what a miserable waste of money it was. Fort Henry was evacuated even by the Federals on account of the flow of water into it; and although Donelson was something better, far more eligible sites could have been selected, and the Government grant of half a million put to a better use. Look at New-Orleans, also! Lovell, a man without reputation, was left in supreme command of that all-important place; the batteries below it were insufficient against iron-clads; the construction of new gunboats was given to Northerners resident there, and although their inactivity and incapacity were known to the authorities, they were allowed to shilly-shally until the enemy came, and passed by the forts unscratched-our ships were burned, Lovell evacuated the city; and it fell. Don't tell me, Smithers; every one knows there has been gross mismanagement in several cases; until Lee came in there was no visible head at work, and those that were at work, the fathers of these blunders, had better keep themselves invisible still.”

“Don't say any thing more, Major,” said Johnstone, with a strong accent; “I have a great respect for ‘Hardee,’ for he is a good kind of Scotchman, from Glasgow, as my friend McGregor informs me, but there is no doubt about it that [217] Beauregard was badly whipped at Manassas by that old Stirling man, McDowell. I knew some of the McDowells in Scotland, and good people they were. Beauregard is a good officer, and all he wants is a little Scotch blood in him to make a first-rate strategist. But we all know that had old Mac followed us up vigorously after passing Sudley Ford, we should never have been here now, I'm thinking, drinking bad whisky, at four o'clock oa the morning. Why, man, our right wing was never engaged at all. Longstreet, Jones, and Ewell hardly fired a shot all day; and there was the left overlapped by the Yankees at three in the afternoon, and when we did drive them back, and got them into a panic, Beauregard hadn't more than two regiments at their heels. Old Evans, at Leesburgh, did the thing handsomely; he killed more than the number of his own men actually engaged; made prisoners of twice as many, and drowned the rest. I hear he came from Fife before entering the Northern army. Yes, dear old Scotland has given a good many men in this war-there's McClellan from Argyle, and Scott from Dumfries, and-”

Johnstone might have gone on claiming Southern celebrities for natives of Scotia, but Moore, becoming indignant, swore roundly that Beauregard was from Limerick, and Lee from Cork, so that those of us who had not gone beyond a dozen glasses, were obliged to take care of those who had, and to conduct them to chambers, where they might dream over the question of Homer and Garibaldi being Irish or Scotch, without fear of using empty bottles for weapons.

Having seen some, who required it, comfortably provided for the night, Dobbs and myself retired to the same room; while smoking, the conversation turned on Jackson, whose movements in the Valley began to excite interest about this time. The Major had seen him at Manassas, and spoke of him dispassionately. He had not achieved much greatness in that conflict, but received a name there which will be as imperishable as history.

“I received letters a few days ago from Ashton,” said my friend, “who is now with Jackson in the Valley; you knew Ashton very well. Amuse yourself while I take a nap, for 'tis nearly dawn, and I must be out in camp early.”

1 It appears from an authentic account of the event that the officers of the Virginia had no orders for her destruction; but after the evacuation of Norfolk they held a council on board, and determined to carry her into James River, if possible, which could be done, the pilot said, on eighteen feet draught. The ship was then drawing twenty-two feet, but all hands were set to work lightening her by throwing overboard coal, ballast, etc. By midnight she was lightened to eighteen feet; but it was then found that her wooden hull, below the plating, was exposed, and that the westerly wind prevailing had so lowered the water in James River, that with eighteen feet draught she could not be taken up far beyond Newport News. Thus daylight would find her under the guns of the iron-clads Galena and Monitor, which could easily capture or destroy her by firing into her below the armor. Another council was held, and it was resolved to destroy the great ship. Her decks and roof were saturated with oil, her crew of three hundred and fifty men were disembarked in small boats, trains of powder were laid from each port-hole to different parts of the vessel, and these were lighted at a given signal. Simultaneously the ship was on fire in many parts, and after burning several hours the flames reached the magazine about four o'clock in the morning, when the Virginia was blown up with an explosion heard thirty-two miles distant.

In a despatch sent to the New York Times, from Fortress Monroe, under date of the fourteenth, we read:

At four o'clock this morning a bright light was observed from Fortress Monroe in the direction of Craney Island. Precisely at half-past 4 o'clock an explosion took place which made the earth and water tremble for miles around. In the midst of the bright flame which shot up in the distance, the timbers and iron of a steamer could be seen flying through the air. No doubt was entertained that the Merrimac had ceased to exist.

From men found on the island we ascertained that the Merrimac lay buried on Saturday at a point nearly a mile from the head of the island. During the night she had been brought back and brought ashore. Her entire officers and crew were landed on the island, and a slow match was then applied to her magazine. She was torn to fragments by the time her crew got out of reach of her. Negroes state that the officers and crew of the Merrimac passed through the adjoining county on the mainland about eight o'clock in the morning, to the number of two hundred. They said they were on their way to Suffolk on the line of the river leading from Craney Island to Norfolk.

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