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Chapter 14:

  • Disposition of our cavalry force.
  • -- Pelham's fight with gunboats. -- great snowball engagement. -- another English visitor. -- Amusements of the camp.

The different brigades of our cavalry were now separated, guarding the numerous fords of the Rappahannock, which rendered necessary a picket-line of more than fifty miles in length. W. H. E Lee's brigade was stationed on the Lower Rappahannock, near Port Royal; Fitz Lee's command, under Rosser, at a point some distance beyond our headquarters, at Spotsylvania Court-house; and Hampton's on the Upper Rappahannock, in Culpepper county. On the morning of the 27th November I galloped over to Rosser's headquarters upon some matters of business, which, having been duly transacted, the Colonel and I proceeded together to the estate of a neighbouring planter, Mr R., a noted fox-hunter, with whose hounds the officers of Fitz Lee's brigade, when duty would admit of it, were accustomed to engage in the exciting diversion of the chase. General Stuart and his Staff had been invited by Mr R. to take part in a fox-hunt, the arrangements for which had been fully made, and we had looked forward to it with no little satisfaction; but our hopes in this direction were frustrated by the important events which pressed upon us. [283]

Returning to our headquarters, I learned that Stuart had gone with Pelham to Port Royal, to drive off some of the enemy's gunboats which had ascended the river thus far with the view of forcing their way through to Fredericksburg; and next morning Dr Eliason and myself followed them, to take part in the engagement which was in all probability to come off. Being little acquainted with the country, however, we missed our way completely; and as it seemed too late to proceed farther, in complete uncertainty as to where we were going, and, moreover, as General Stuart was expected to return that same night, we resolved to retrace our steps to camp, taking Fredericksburg in our route. Here we stopped at the house of a well-known old wine-merchant, Mr A., with whom Dr Eliason was personally acquainted, and in whose cellar, after a good deal of tasting, we purchased for our mess two demijohns of excellent old madeira. We regretted very much, a few days later, that we had not laid in a larger supply of this capital wine, which was worthy of a happier destiny than to fall into the hands of the Yankees. Getting back to camp, we were derided mercilessly by our companions of the Staff for having missed our way to Port Royal; but when next day we produced the madeira, there was an evident change in public opinion as to the ill-success of our expedition, and our little misadventure was set down as a most fortunate accident. Our purchase, indeed, met with a higher degree of appreciation than we had wished for, since, the news of it having been widely circulated, we had numerous visitors at camp; and several officers, whose names need not be given, plied the demijohns so industriously that we thought they would never be able to find their way back to their respective encampments.

On the morning of the 2d December I received by a courier information from Stuart that he had been unexpectedly detained in Port Royal, together with orders that I should [284] join him there at once; so that I started a second time with my portly friend the doctor on our journey. It was a disagreeable ride enough. The cold was intense, the road rough, and the distance long. We had ridden already more than twenty miles, the icicles hanging from our beards and our horses' nostrils, when we met General Stuart returning to Fredericksburg. He laughed heartily at us for our former unsuccessful ride, and ordered us to turn back with him.

The fighting was over at Port Royal, and Pelham with his horse-artillery had met with his usual good fortune, inflicting much damage upon the enemy, and driving off the gunboats, which, from the narrowness of the stream and the height of the cliffs where our guns were posted, had scarcely been able to respond at all to the destructive fire which was pouring down upon them at so near a range. The return to camp was even more distressing than our ride of the morning, as a heavy snow-storm set in, which continued throughout the night; and we reached our headquarters, men and horses wet and chilled, and almost wearied out by a journey of more than forty miles.

The following morning we were enlivened by snowball fights, which commenced as skirmishes near our headquarters, but extended over the neighbouring camps, and assumed the aspect of general engagements. In front of our headquarters, beyond an open field of about half a mile square, Hood's division lay encamped in a piece of wood; in our immediate rear stretched the tents and huts of a part of McLaws's division. Between these two bodies of troops animated little skirmishes had frequently occurred whenever there was snow enough on the ground to furnish the ammunition; but on the morning of the 4th, an extensive expedition having been undertaken by several hundred of McLaws's men against Hood's encampments, and the occupants of these finding themselves considerably disturbed thereby, suddenly [285] the whole of the division advanced in line of battle, with flying colours, the officers leading the men, as if in real action, to avenge the insult. The assailants fell back rapidly before this overwhelming host, but only to secure a strong position, from which, with reinforcements, they might resume the offensive. The alarm of their first repulse having been borne with the swiftness of the wind to their comrades, sharpshooters in large numbers were posted behind the cedar bushes that skirt the Telegraph Road, and hundreds of hands were actively employed in erecting a long and high snow-wall in front of their extended lines. The struggle had now the appearance of a regular battle, with its charges and counterchargers — the wild enthusiasm of the men and the noble emulation of the officers finding expression in loud commands and yet louder cheering, while the air was darkened with the snowballs as the current of the fight moved to and fro over the well-contested field. Nearer and nearer it came towards our headquarters, and it was soon evident to us that the hottest part of the engagement would take place on our neutral territory. Fruitless were the efforts of Stuart and myself to assert and maintain the neutrality of our camp, utterly idle the hoisting of a white flag; the advancing columns pressed forward in complete disregard of our signs and our outspoken remonstrances, clouds of snowballs passed across the face of the sun, and ere long the overwhelming wave of the conflict rolled pitilessly over us. Yielding to the unavoidable necessity which forbade our keeping aloof from the contest, Stuart and I had taken position, in order to obtain a view over the field of battle, on a big box, containing ordnance stores, in front of the General's tent, where we soon became so much interested in the result, and so carried away by the excitement of the moment, that we found ourselves calling out to the men to hold their ground, and urging them again and again to the attack, while many a stray snowball, [286] and many a well-directed one, took effect upon our exposed persons. But all the gallant resistance of McLaws's men was unavailing. Hood's lines pressed resistlessly forward, carrying everything before them, taking the formidable fortifications, and driving McLaws's division out of their encampments. Suddenly, at this juncture, we heard loud shouting on the right, where two of Anderson's brigades had come up as reinforcements. The men of McLaws's division, acquiring new confidence from this support, rallied, and in turn drove, by a united charge, the victorious foe in headlong flight back to their own camps and woods. Thus ended the battle for the day, unhappily with serious results to some of the combatants, for one of Hood's men had his leg broken, one of McLaws's men lost an eye, and there were other chancewounds on both sides. This sham-fight gave ample proof of the excellent spirits of our troops, who, in the wet, wintry weather, many of them without blankets, some without shoes, regardless of their exposure and of the scarcity of provisions, still maintained their good-humour, and were ever ready for any sort of sport or fun that offered itself to them.

On the morning of the 5th, General Stuart and myself, with several other members of the Staff, again set out for Port Royal, where some of the Federal gunboats were renewing their demonstrations. The day was bitterly cold, and the road exceedingly slippery from the frost, so that the ride was anything but pleasant. All along our route we found our troops, chiefly those of Jackson's corps-Old Stonewall having established his headquarters midway between Fredericksburg and Port Royal, at the plantation of James Parke Corbin, Esq., known as “Moss neck” --busily employed in throwing up fortifications, rendering our position as impregnable as it afterwards proved itself to be. They had greatly improved the highway also, erected lines of telegraphic [287] communication to the headquarters of the different corps of the army, and cut military roads through the woods to various points along our lines. It was late in the evening, and darkness had overtaken us, when we reached the charming country-seat of “Gaymont,” within a short distance of our place of destination, where a most cordial hospitality was extended to us, and where, in the snug library, before a glorious wood-fire, we warmed our half-frozen limbs, and remained in delightful conversation with the ladies till a late hour of the night.

The following day it was reported by our scouts and patrols that the gunboats had disappeared. It was Sunday, and we spent it as a day of rest, in the most blissful quietude. On Monday morning we reluctantly took leave of our kind hosts, and started on a reconnaissance up the river with General D. H. Hill, who with his division formed the extreme right of our infantry lines, and occupied a position where a crossing of the stream offered every kind of advantage to the enemy, though, strange to relate, they never availed themselves of it. The Yankees were in plain view on the other side of the river, and were evidently very active in erecting fortifications, marching and countermarching small bodies of troops, and in communicating with other parts of their lines by signal-flags.

Night was far advanced when we returned to our headquarters, where we found, to our great delight, a pleasant addition to our little military family in an English guest, Captain Phillips, of the Grenadier Guards, who was profiting by a short leave of absence from his battalion, stationed at the time in Canada, to witness some of the active operations of the war on our side. The next day there was a review of the South Carolina Brigade of General Jenkins, in an open field within half an hour's walk of our camp, and I had the gratification of taking our new guest to see it. General Jenkins [288] received us with his habitual courtesy, and manifestly felt great pride in showing off his magnificent brigade, which consisted of about 3500 men, veterans who had participated in nearly all the great battles of the war. Captain Phillips was highly pleased with the appearance of the brigade, and the material of which it was composed, saying, that while they would not do for a parade in Hyde Park, with their motley uniforms and their style of marching, the men looked like work. One of the regiments, the Hampton Legion, raised at the breaking-out of the war by the distinguished patriot and soldier whose name it bore, carried a flag displaying many rents of shot and shell, which had been presented to it by Mrs Hampton, who, with her own fair hands, had made it out of a robe worn by her several years previous at a “Drawing-room” of her Majesty Queen Victoria.

We accepted General Jenkins's kind invitation to dine with him at his headquarters, where we passed some most agreeable hours, and were sent back to our camp by the General on his own horses, Captain Phillips riding a superb animal, a bay, which had been presented by the State of South Carolina to her gallant son.

Desirous of amusing our guest, and of making our rough camp-life as agreeable to him as possible, we had secured invitations to a country ball which was to come off the night following at a small plantation, about ten miles distant, and for which we had promised to provide the music. Accordingly, about six o'clock the next evening, the veryfrequently-before-mentioned yellow waggon was again brought out, and four spirited mules of the medical department of our headquarters were harnessed to it. Sweeney reported himself with his banjo and two fiddlers, and very soon the whole company, consisting of Captain Phillips, Major Pelham, Major Terrell, Captain Blackford, Lieutenant Dabney, and myself, with our musicians, were settled on the rough wooden planks which [289] constituted the improvised seats of our carriage, and the carriage itself was in rapid motion. General Stuart's mulatto servant Bob, who was to accompany the instrumental performance with his inimitable rattle of the bones, followed us with a led horse for Captain Phillips, in case the violent jarring of our vehicle should prove too much for one not accustomed to such rude transportation. As an expert driver I had taken the reins in my own hands, the mules being rather difficult to manage from having run off several times with their accustomed teamster. So we rattled along through the cold starlight night, waking the echoes of the woods with song, and creating a sensation in many encampments en route, from which the soldiers ran out and cheered us as we passed. All went well for a little time, when Major Terrell, who somewhat prided himself on his driving, proposed to take the reins — a change of position to which I consented the more readily, because I felt a great desire to unite in the animated conversation and merriment going on behind me. Our rate of progress now became greatly accelerated, and the rapid clatter of the hoofs of our fleet animals on the hard-frozen road, just covered with snow, struck pleasantly on the ear, as all began to partake of the agreeable excitement which great velocity of movement generally produces; when suddenly, with a loud crash and a heavy thump, the waggon, overturning, projected its inmates in various directions fully ten paces out upon the snow. Fortunately for us, the mules, struck dumb with astonishment most probably at this unexpected turn in affairs, remained very quietly in their tracks, while the scattered members of our party gathered themselves up to examine into the extent of the disaster. Nobody having received serious injury, though all were more or less bruised, we were in condition to be diverted at the accident, and heartily to deride Major Terrell, who had managed to upset [290] us by driving directly against a stump several feet in circumference and as many feet in height.

The waggon having marvellously escaped, to all appearance, without a fracture, it was soon set up again, and Major Terrell, not without some cavil, having been reinstated as driver, away we went on our journey not less rapidly than before. But the severe thump against the tremendous stump had been, alas! the coup de grace for the dear old yellowpainted Yankee van, which was to carry us no more. After creaking and groaning very painfully for a mile or two, the back part of it all at once gave way everywhere, landing us rudely once more on the snowy ground. Captain Blackford was the chief sufferer from the casualty, one of the wheels, which had been violently detached from the axletree by the shock, having passed directly over his head, cutting so deep a gash in it that we had to employ all our pocket-handkerchiefs in making bandages to stanch the flow of blood. We were now no longer in a frame of mind to laugh over our misfortunes, for we were yet four miles from our place of destination; around us lay the wide forest of the Wilderness, with no human dwelling within striking distance, and above us was the intense wintry night. A return to camp was not to be thought of, as it would have subjected us to the endless ridicule of our comrades. A council of war was at once held over the ruins of the waggon. Our English guest, who had borne all the discomforts and mishaps of our journey with soldierly nonchalance, was left to decide upon our course, and his decision was that we should go on. Indeed, the unanimous vote of our party, including even poor wounded Captain Blackford, was to grin and bear it, and carry out the original expedition in the best way that we could manage. The two fore-wheels of the waggon, to which the mules still remained hitched, being uninjured, and securely connected by the axletree, Captain Phillips, Dabney, and myself seated [291] ourselves on their narrow base; the four other gentlemen mounted the four mules, the musicians mounted the led horse, and so this extraordinary caravan proceeded on its way. After an hour of torture, during which the headlong speed of our team over the rough plank-road had given to the sufferers on the axletree the sensation of riding on a razor, we reached the scene of the evening's festivity. The mansion was brilliantly lighted up, many fair ones had already assembled, and the whole company awaited, with impatience and anxiety, the arrival of their distinguished guests and the promised music. Sweeney lost no time in his orchestral arrangements. In a very few minutes the banjo vibrated under his master hand, the two fiddles shrieked in unison, and Bob's bones clattered their most hideous din; and in the animated beat of the music, and the lively measures of the dance, we soon forgot the little desagremens of our journey. Our English captain entered into the fun quite as heartily as any of us. If there was no magnificent hall, with the light showering down from a thousand wax candles on the brilliant toilettes of Europe, to fall forth our admiration, there were many pretty faces and sparkling eyes worth looking into; and it was quite delightful to see our foreign friend winding through the mazes of many bounding quadrilles and Virginia reels with an evident enjoyment of the same. After several hours of mirth and dancing, we accepted the kind offer of our host to lend us one of his own waggons for our return to headquarters, where we arrived a short time before daybreak, little thinking how soon we should be aroused by the notes of a very different music from that of Sweeney's orchestra.

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