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Chapter 31:

  • June
  • -- Stuart's famous raid round McClellan's lines before Richmond -- cowardice of the enemy -- incidents at each stage of the march -- gallantry of a young lady -- attack on a railway train -- appropriation of McClellan's stores -- return to camp with booty and prisoners -- sketch of General Stuart -- affair at Drainsville -- General Joe Johnston.

From the preparations in progress it was apparent that operations would soon recommended on a scale far surpassing any thing hitherto attempted. Longstreet and Hill on our right, on the Charles City road, made frequent reconnoissances towards the interior and the river to ascertain the enemy's strength and position on their left wing. McClellan never opposed these movements, and was possibly unconscious of them, for they were chiefly made at night, or in unpropitious weather, when our Generals would frequently sally forth on a march of ten miles, and return almost without the knowledge of the main body of the army.

By these movements Lee had satisfied himself of McClellan's true position on our right, and felt convinced he,possessed but few and unimportant depots on the James River, or the Chickahominy; but had established communication with the York River to his right and rear, as being safer to navigate, some considerable distance nearer to his Headquarters, and affording greater facility of transportation by the York River railroad, which ran through the centre of his lines. The Brook Church, or Hanover Court-House turnpike, (leading from Richmond to Hanover Court-House, the White House on the Pamunkey River, and West-Point on the York River,) was McClellan's right, situated in a fine, open, undulating country, highly cultivated and picturesque. This turnpike was the extreme left of our lines, and chiefly held by cavalry, and a few pieces of artillery, placed in several fine redoubts sweeping all approach. [297] To ascertain the enemy's position, resources, and force through this line of country, seemed to be an absorbing thought with General Lee, and although the army was not up to the standard he desired, and unfit for immediate offensive operations, he felt desirous of ascertaining beyond all doubt what McClellan had done in seizing upon the natural positions of the country, establishing depots, obstructing old or forming new roads, etc.

Unknown to any, Brigadier-General J. E. B. Stuart received orders and prepared a small force to make an incursion upon McClellan's rear, and inform himself as far as practicable upon all the points mentioned. Selecting parts of the First Virginia Cavalry, (Colonel Fitz-Hugh Lee, son of our chief,) Ninth Virginia Cavalry, (Colonel Fitz-Hugh Lee, nephew of our chief,) four pieces of Stuart's Flying Artillery, and four companies of the Jeff Davis Mounted Legion, all proceeded down the Branch turnpike, on Wednesday evening, and bivouacked in the woods. From scouts, out several days before, it was ascertained that the enemy had a strong force of cavalry quartered on the proposed route, and that a fight would be inevitable. Rising with the sun, Stuart, with his fourteen hundred men, dashed along the roads, and as the enemy's pickets were unable to tell what the immense cloud of dust meant which they descried in the distant landscape, our force actually rode through one of their cavalry encampments before the alarm was given. The enemy were for the most part absent at the time, and sustained but little loss save the total destruction of their stores, the capture of their spare horses, and a few prisoners. These latter, being mounted, were placed in charge of the rear-guard, and the excursion proceeded.

The delay at this camp had given the enemy warning, and when Stuart progressed some miles farther, several squadrons of United States dragoons were observed drawn up on a slope ready to receive him. A halt was sounded, two squadrons were sent forward, who dashed upon the enemy at full gallop. The Federals remained long enough to discharge their revolvers, and not attempting to charge down-hill, broke and fled precipitously. Their officers were the last to retire, and seemed disgusted with the poltroons they commanded. A few accoutrements, pistols, and horses, were found here and in a neighboring [298] camp, and Stuart and his men dashed forward on his equestrian excursion, as gaily as ever.

They had proceeded but a few miles when a strong body of the enemy was discovered admirably posted, with skirmishers thrown out in front. Our advance, consisting of one squadron, went ahead, drove in the outposts, and rode in full view of the enemy, five squadrons strong, and attempted to draw them out. The Federal commander, not observing our whole force screened in woods a mile distant, sallied forth to exterminate our advance. The latter, however, returned up the hill, and over it, and when half-way down were joined by another squadron; both advanced again, and met the enemy advancing up on the other side. Latane gave the word, and our horsemen, spurring their steeds into a maddening gallop, charged among the enemy, and were sabring and pistolling right and left before they fully recovered from their astonishment. The conflict was hand to hand, and conspicuous in our foremost ranks were an English. man and a Prussian, (captains of dragoons,) who had volunteer. ed on Stuart's staff. The fight lasted about ten minutes, and ended in the flight of the Federals, who dispersed in all directions, and took no heed of their trumpets sounding the “rally.”

As our men pushed forward down into the level plain they were again attacked by a fresh body of horse; but a third squadron coming to our assistance made the combat more equal, and finally routed them with loss. We captured many prisoners, a lot of fine horses, sabres, trumpets, and pistols, together with their well-provisioned camps found a half-mile further on, with all things as their owners had left them; among other articles, lots of superior saddles and harness were immediately appropriated; other things were burned.

Having refreshed his men, and remounted many, Stuart continued his career; everywhere he was cheered on by the country people, who, informed of events by the frightened Yankees, lined the, roadside, waving their hats and handkerchiefs in high glee. “I told 'em you'd come along one of these fine mornings!” said a fine old gentleman, standing at his door with two daughters, and shaking with laughter. “Take care of my son Harry, General, and drive all the skunks into the river!” “Hurry on, boys, hurry on; the varmint an't more nor a mile [299] ahead — we're all Union (!) down here, you know--one of their camps is just over the hill, and has lots of horses. Darn 'em! Go in, boys, give 'em h-ll!” “old on, colonel,” said a fine young girl with a gun in her hand, “I've got four of the rascals in the house; they thought to hide until you passed, but seeing our boys coming I made them deliver up their weapons, and stood guard till you arrived!” 1 Sure enough the Federals were there, but were soon accommodated with horses, and being placed in charge of the rear-guard, on went the column again; clouds of dust rising on every hand, and artillery jingling along the roads. Negroes on fences, negroes on door-steps and woodpiles, others at the plough or spade-all rushed forward, yelling and clapping hands like madmen. “Pile in on 'em, Massa Jeb; we an't no Yankees down dese diggins-fotch it to 'em, white folks, and make 'em clar out ob ole Virginny; we want none ob 'em among dese chickens.” Such were their acclamations as we passed on in our circuit of the country.

As the whole rear of McClellan's army was by this time fully alarmed by fugitives flying in all directions, it would have been madness in Stuart to have followed the usual roads in its vicinity; accordingly he pushed towards the routes of their depots on the Pamunkey, near the White House, and intercepted large wagon-trains approaching, laden with stores of every description, and destroyed them. The horses and mules were intrusted to the rear-guard, and so proceedings continued: wagon-trains being seized on all the roads leading to depots and headquarters, and burned; their guards and drivers accommodated with spare horses, and sent to our rear. On approaching villages, all United States property was burned; among the prisoners seized, several army surgeons, captains, quartermasters, commissaries, and other officers, were obliged to mount mules and follow us, much to their astonishment and chagrin.

Approaching Tunstall's station on the York River railroad, the command was divided, to scour all the roads, with orders to meet at a designated rendezvous. Several schooners espied at anchor on the Pamunkey were seized and burned, together with their valuable cargoes of clothing and stores, but several [300] others slipped cables and escaped. Some half-dozen wagonyards, with scores of vehicles of all kinds, were fired, and the teamsters added to our list of prisoners. Plans were laid for capturing the afternoon military train then due at Tunstall's: soon the locomotive was heard approaching, and time not sufficing to tear up any portion of the track, troopers lined the sides of the road, and were ordered to take deadly aim at the engineer. Some of our men commenced firing when the engine was fully a hundred yards distant; but the driver turned on extra steam, and rushing past the station, shoved off several logs placed on the rails. Many of the passengers, to escape the hailstorm of shot, jumped off the train and were crippled. Some few ran to the woods, but were picked up by our men, together with many who ran from the station on our first approach. All were taken, but the train escaped, although many on it were killed or wounded; the cars being for the most part uncovered, or freight-trucks. The gallant fellow who drove the engine was also killed by an accurate shot; his bravery and foresight deserved a better fate.

Continuing their raid in all directions, the detached parties destroyed United States property to the amount of several million dollars, always securing whatever arms, horses, or prisoners fell in their way; until, wearied with labor, they made for the appointed rendezvous, which was not far from New Kent Court-House, at a small village where several main roads joined. The first party that arrived found that the place contained several finely furnished sutlers' stores, and depots of goods deposited thus far in the rear of the army, to be convey. ed up to the front as circumstances demanded. They were, in fact, central or wholesale establishments, to furnish regimental sutlers, stocked with every thing that could be required, having tasteful bar-rooms attached, in which were sold champagne, and all sorts of expensive wines and liquors. Our fatigued and dusty men hitched their horses and entered, without ceremony, but were so unprepossessing and unpresentable, that all present rose, including several field-officers who had trotted to the rear “to spend the day” convivially. “Brandy, gentlemen?” inquired the fat proprietor urbanely-“certainly!” and, presenting decanters, our men began to imbibe freely. “Might I [301] inquire to what cavalry you belong, gentlemen?” asked the proprietor, acutely surveying their dusty figures from head to foot. “We?” answered one, laying violent hands on a box of Havannas, and emptying the decanter, “oh! we are Maryland cavalry, just arrived; a new regiment raised in Baltimore, just returned on a scouting party after the rebel Stuart!” “Stuart, eh? You don't mean to say that he is in our lines ; do you? Well, let him come, that's all, and although I'm not in the Army I'll show him a thing or two; just see if I don't!” And as his eye glanced over a fine case of revolvers exposed for sale, he seemed as valiant as Ajax. The rest of the company were dressed too finely to shake hands with our dusty fellows, so smoked and talked apart in dignified reserve. Hearing the approach of a squadron, our troopers went to the door, and the landlord prepared bottles and glasses for his expected visitors. “Are those coming some of your party, gentlemen?” “Yes,” was the reply, “and as 'tis no use of fooling any more, we are Stuart's cavalry.”

All present were struck dumb with astonishment, but were soon disarmed and made prisoners. As there were four or five large establishments of this kind in the neighborhood, the command paid attention to all, providing themselves with shoes, clothes, new weapons, and literally “ate out” the establishments, until not a box of sardines or can of oysters or preserves remained on the premises. Such a feast our men had not enjoyed for many months; all took whatever articles were needed and destroyed the rest. Fruits, preserves, sardines, oysters, bread, fine biscuit, crackers, champagne, brandy, whiskey, and ale, were consumed with great glee, but none of our men forgot their perilous situation: all remained sober.

About twelve P. M. on Friday night, we prepared for the start home, and as it was out of the question to pass by the same route, on the right of McClellan's lines, Stuart determined to make the grand tour, and find his way out by the left. The whole army was aroused, and cavalry patrolled all the roads, but none knew the country so well as Stuart, who pushed forward by unfrequented lanes and paths, and safely arrived on the banks of the Chickahominy. No bridges being near, Stuart swam his horse across, and all followed save the artillery. An old farmer had witnessed the crossing, and [302] showed the way to a broken bridge a little way up the stream. This was quickly repaired with logs and underbrush, and just as the first dawn of morning topped the trees, the whole command was safely on the south bank.

Our troopers proceeded very cautiously, for they were still in the enemy's lines, ,and at the most difficult stage of the journey. The main body followed a by-path through the woods, leading to the Williamsburgh road, but scouts were sent out ahead and on the flanks. “Who goes there?” and a shot was the almost instant challenge. Our scouts rapidly fell back to the main body, as directed, and as the Yankee mounted outposts pursued, they speedily found themselves in the midst or us, and were secured. This occurred on several occasions, but, by good fortune and daring, the whole command reached the Williamsburgh road, and, utterly exhausted, halted on the outskirts of our lines, the enemy being within a mile, and in full force, in pursuit. Excitement had strung both man and beast, since their start on Wednesday night; but now that all were safely through the adventure, and passed through Longstreet's division (the right) on their way to camp, on the Brooke Church turnpike, (the left,) their appearance was most jaded, care-worn, and dusty, having been more than sixty hours in the saddle, almost without drawing rein!

The fruits of this excursion were several hundred head of horses and mules, more than a hundred prisoners, a perfect knowledge of McClellan's position, force, and resources, and the destruction of property to the value of several millions. The enemy were signally defeated on several occasions, in combats with an inferior force. We killed and wounded many, remounted all that required it, furnished the command with fine weapons, saddles, harness, and clothes, humiliated McClellan, and lost but one man — brave Captain Latane, who commanded in the last combat. Singular as it may seem, our chief officers in this excursion had fought against the very companies and squadrons commanded by them when in the United States service; and among the first prisoners captured was the trumpeter of Colonel Lee's old company of dragoons. Many of the prisoners took the affair good-humoredly, mounted on mules as they were, but several doctors were apostrophizing Jupiter and all the gods about the cruelty of placing them on [303] saddleless animals with sharp vertebrae, and swearing roundly against riding sixty miles without rest or food! But grumbling availed them nothing; ride they must, and the chap-fallen, wretched appearance of these sons of Galen was ludicrous in the extreme, and their horsemanship wonderful, under the circumstances.

The appearance of our gallant troopers was certainly very unprepossessing. The men were dusty, dirty, and looked more like negroes than whites. Their horses could scarcely move, for in addition to the long gallop, their riders had overweighted them by loading their saddle-bows with strings of shoes, bundles of blankets, and new weapons of various kinds: not unfrequently the horse and entire outfit were Federal property. Several of the men were scarred or cut, but manfully sat their saddles, and marched along through our lines as gayly as possible, saying “they would not have missed the trip for any thing.” Such an adventure was worthy of remembrance, and those who participated had some right to feel proud. As for McClellan, there can be no doubt that he felt deeply mortified, but he resorted to his old practice of telling half the truth; and in his despatches to Washington, spoke of it as a trivial affair, and scarcely worthy of mention. In retaliation, the Federal cavalry made frequent incursions into counties within the limits of their own lines, though never attempting to cross ours, and spoke of such exploits as something wonderful. Had they crossed our line, and committed half the havoc acknowledged to have been done within their own, their achievements might have been worthy of mention, but they knew too well the character of our men to attempt any such adventure.

General Stuart was formerly a Second Lieutenant in United States dragoons, but, upon the secession of Virginia, offered his sword to his native State, and raised a company of cavalry. He was soon afterwards elected colonel, and acted as brigadier. He was always found on hazardous duty, and won the confidence of all. His forte was cavalry; of infantry he knew little, and, perhaps, cared less; nevertheless, he frequently commanded regiments on foraging excursions during the winter months, at Manassas, and kept the cavalry well supplied from his inroads to the vicinity of Drainsville, and other places near Washington, under the eye and care of Federal commanders, who laid plans to punish him for his audacity. [304] On one occasion he started from Manassas with several regiments of infantry, a small force of cavalry, four pieces of artillery, (Couts's battery,) and over a hundred wagons. The spies of the enemy had informed them of his departure during the night; rockets were seen ascending at various points, and when morning broke, the enemy were discovered in great force near Drainsville. Stuart's wagons rapidly retreated, and the fight was opened by infantry. The combat lasted some time; but, owing to incapacity or want of foresight, Stuart found himself outflanked, and subjected to ambuscades at every point. The wagons were now far to the rear, and our small brigade began to give ground before a superior force. Couts's battery had contended for more than an hour with thirty pieces placed on a rise, with caissons and horses screened by farm-houses. Having lost nearly all his animals in this unequal conflict, Couts fell back, his men drawing off the pieces by hand, many of the cannoniers pulling ropes with one hand and carrying a shell in the other, so as to be able to stop occasionally and fire. Kentuckians, South-Carolinians, Georgians, and Virginians disputed the ground inch by inch, and inflicted much loss by their accurate fire. Yankee officers begged their men to charge upon our retreating regiments, and often appeared in front to show the way; yet the Federals could not be induced to move, but allowed our whole force to retire in good order. One of their flanking parties, however, advancing down the railroad, was assailed with great fury, and suffered loss; so, although Stuart halted some two miles distant, and invited another attack, the enemy would not pursue, but rested where they had fought. Next day reenforcements were sent up, when we advanced again, and endeavored to draw on an engagement; but the Federals remained close within their lines, and allowed us to forage without the shadow of resistance.

Stuart has been much censured for his conduct in this “surprise,” and has seldom figured since in command of infantry. As a cavalry officer he stood second to Ashby only in Virginia, and, from his thorough knowledge of the country, was of incalculable service on all occasions. It was at Williamsburgh I first saw him. Commanding the cavalry rear-guard on that occasion, he was obliged to fall back before superior numbers, [305] and rode up to Johnston's headquarters in the village to report just as the enemy appeared advancing on the redoubts from the Yorktown and Warwick Court-house roads. He appeared much fatigued and overworked, and would have served admirably for a picture of Dick Turpin when chased by officers on the road to York. His horse was a splendid black, with heavy reins and bit, cavalry-saddle, and holsters; foam stood in a lather upon him, and he was mud-splashed from head to hoof. Stuart himself wore no insignia of command: a common black felt hat, turned down in front and up behind; a heavy black overcoat, tightly buttoned; elegant riding-boots covering the thigh; a handsome sabre, carelessly slung by his side, and a heavy pair of Mexican spurs, that jingled and rattled on the pavements, were all I could see of this splendid horseman and dashing leader. Thickset, full-faced, close-cut hair, and ruddy complexion, he looked more like Ainsworth's “gentleman of the road” than a young, daring cavalry chief of thirty summers. He leaned in his saddle and communicated with General Johnston, and as both smiled, I could hear that his party had been chased by “old Emory” of the Fifth U. S. Dragoons, whose light artillery could now be heard blazing away south of the town.

As Johnston stands conversing with General Griffiths of the Mississippi Brigade, we have a full view of that well-known officer. He is uncovered, and his small compact head is finely developed. His hair is grey, and cut close; his deep-set grey eyes are full of meaning; his features calm as those of a Jesuit; his complexion is ruddy; he wears military whiskers, and no moustaches; his uniform is of a grey color with facings of light orange, and stars on the throat. In manner he is decided and unequivocating; short, sharp, and dry in conversation; decision of character is plainly seen in the close-set lips: altogether, he is a spruce, neat, compact little man. Although there are no signs of extraordinary intellect, or marks of a man “truly great,” his quiet smile and twinkling eye betray a person of disciplined tastes and habits, possessed of much craftiness and cunning. I saw little of him around Manassas, but at Yorktown lines he was continually on the move, riding one of the finest chestnut mares the eye ever beheld; a small, active, wiry, [306] fine-blooded, and swift animal, much like the owner. His solicitude was sleepless, and though visiting the principal redoubts and points daily, I have known him to gallop into our battery near midnight, not five minutes after the alarm gun fired, and though the distance ridden was over a mile.

This distinguished man is a whole-souled patriot, brave to a fault, and, did he consider his services would aid our cause more by shouldering a musket than marshalling large forces, he is one who would willingly enter the ranks. I have seen him under many various circumstances, but always observed in him the smart, active, quick-sighted officer, scrupulously attired in unform when on duty, but in plain citizen dress when not. Soon as his wound; received at “Seven pines,” permitted, he retired to his farm for a few weeks, and although I travelled in the same car, he was dressed so unprepossessingly, that I did not notice him until he arrived home, when a large crowd of farmers, children, and old women gathered round him at the station to welcome back their “old neighbor, General Joe Johnston,” in an unceremonious manner which bespoke volumes of mutual good feeling and fellowship. At the opening of the rebellion he was Lieutenant-Colonel First U. S. Dragoons, and acting Quartermaster-General at Washington, but immediately joined the fortunes of his native State, (Virginia,) and has since risen very high in the estimation of the South.

1 The young lady mentioned, whose name I now forget, is a distant relation of the immortal Washington.

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