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Chapter 7:

  • Demonstration into Maryland.
  • -- outpost-duty and fights on the Potomac. -- renewed fighting, and passage of the Potomac by night. -- camp at Martinsburg and Charlestown. -- Virginia partridges and a Virginia plantation. -- escape of a spy. -- advance and repulse of the enemy. -- visits to neighbours.

General Stuart had received orders from General Lee to march at once, with two of his brigades (Hampton's and Robertson's), two regiments of infantry, and his horseartillery, to the little town of Williamsport, about fifteen miles higher up the Potomac, cross again into Maryland, and by a vigorous demonstration induce the enemy to believe that a large portion of our whole army was manoeuvring against them at that point. Accordingly, we had scarcely fallen asleep when the order was given to mount, and we commenced our rapid march through the chill fog of the morning, cold, hungry, and wet to the skin. But a few hours of hard riding, the genial warmth of the sun breaking through the watery sky, and more than all else, a luxurious breakfast, which was quickly prepared for us at a hospitable house on the roadside, the first regular meal that we had enjoyed for many days, revived and refreshed us. About noon we reached the Potomac opposite Williamsport, forded the river, and drove a [170] squadron of Federal cavalry stationed there out of the place towards Hagerstown, a village some six miles distant. A mile beyond Williamsport we halted, throwing out our pickets and videttes. It was not long before the enemy returned with reinforcements, and a lively skirmish ensued, with even a spirited cannonade; for we made, of course, as a part of our plan, as great a display of our forces and as much noise as possible.

I had here a very striking example of how little effect is often produced by volley-firing. Two companies of one of our infantry regiments which were stationed on the turnpike running to Hagerstown, and had hastily thrown up a small intrenchment across the road, were charged in a very dashing manner by some squadrons of the Federal cavalry. The intrenchment was concealed from view by a slight elevation of ground about forty steps in front of it, so that the Yankees came upon it quite unexpectedly. The infantry officer in command had given orders to his men to reserve their fire till the last moment, and the dense ranks of the horsemen had arrived within close range when suddenly the volley thundered upon them, making them turn and fly precipitately. Having been myself with the infantry, I galloped forward, believing that at least half of the assailants had been brought to the ground, but found to my surprise that not a man or a horse had been struck down, the leaden hail having passed far above their heads. On several subsequent occasions I had a similar experience. The haste and uncertainty of volleyfiring, even with the improved firearms now in use, made it possible in a few cases for our cavalry successfully to attack and ride down unbroken infantry — an attempt which, with accurate dropping fire, I regard as out of the question.

During one of the pauses of the fight, when the enemy had retired some distance, General Stuart requested me to reconnoitre their position and further movements. Having done [171] this closely, I sent my report by an orderly I had taken with me, and was riding slowly along the turnpike on my return, when I passed a modest-looking farmhouse, in the garden of which was a trellis of such superb grapes that I could not resist asking of the proprietor, who stood in his doorway, permission to pluck some of the branches which hung in such tempting profusion. The request was not only granted at once, but the hospitable farmer invited me to alight and join him at dinner, which was just about to be served. As everything now seemed perfectly quiet, and the enemy nowhere at hand, I did not think it imprudent to accept his kind offer, otherwise so entirely consistent with my inclination; so tying my horse to the garden-gate, about twenty steps from the building, I entered the drawing-room, which was already pervaded by the appetising smell of the coming meal. The farmer's wife, seeing some ugly rents in my dilapidated uniform coat, kindly proposed to mend them for me, and, waiving the etiquette of a major remaining in her presence in his shirt-sleeves, had just commenced her task, when I heard the heavy clatter of hoofs on the turnpike, and saw, at the same moment, a whole squadron of Yankees approaching at a full gallop. With one bound I cleared the drawing-room, leaving coat and dinner behind, and ran to my horse, which, participating in his master's alarm, was jumping and plunging so furiously that it was quite an acrobatic feat to mount him. Meanwhile the hostile dragoons had arrived within twenty steps of me, brandishing their sabres and yelling like demons; and it seemed likely enough that the grapes which had seduced me with their sweetness would prove sour enough in the sequel. At this critical moment, a couple of shells from two of our guns, which had been put in position on an acclivity commanding the turnpike, a mile off, whizzed close over my head, and with admirable aim exploded in the very midst of the advancing foe, emptying several saddles. At the [172] same instant was heard the war-cry of a squadron of our Virginia horsemen sent by General Stuart to my relief. Their onset and the terrible effect of our artillery made the Yankees wheel and run much faster than they had come; and thus was saved my life and liberty, coat and dinner. Joining our men in the pursuit, I had the satisfaction of overtaking and capturing several of the recent disturbers of my peace. Passing the farmhouse on my return, the excellent mistress of the establishment, with a pleasant smile upon her honest face, handed me across the garden-gate my repaired garment, saying that she had kept my dinner for me. I accepted her attentions with many thanks, but preferred at this time to enjoy dinner and grapes on horseback.

One of our guns on this occasion had been fired off by a fair young lady of Williamsport, re-enacting the part of the Maid of Saragossa. She had solicited the honour from General Stuart, and the cannon was ever afterwards called by our artillerymen “The girl of Williamsport.” During the afternoon we drove the enemy back for a considerable distance, and our line of pickets was established about four miles from the Potomac, on the roads leading through Maryland into Pennsylvania. Late in the evening I received orders from General Stuart to make a reconnaissance with two squadrons of the Georgia regiment of Hampton's brigade, along the turnpike leading to Hagerstown, and ran against a strong body of the Federal cavalry, whom we at once attacked and chased into the suburbs of the town. Here large reinforcements received us with so galling a fire that we were obliged to give up the pursuit. At night General Stuart was invited with his Staff to a little party in Williamsburg, where we had a capital supper, and where, with music and the dance, in the society of some very charming young ladies, the time went merrily by, till we joined our troops, at a late hour, in their bivouac. [173]

20th September.

Our regiments moved early to the front the following day, as our scouts had reported the enemy, largely reinforced, to be advancing slowly upon our outposts. At General Stuart's request, I accompanied him on one of those little reconnoitring expeditions outside our lines, of which he was so fond, and which were always likely to terminate disastrously, as in this instance was so near being the case. We observed the precaution in the start of keeping as much as possible concealed by the dense undergrowth of the forest, but we had nevertheless been observed by some of the Yankee pickets, and a body of about twenty-five horsemen had been quietly sent to our rear, cutting us off completely from our command. We were riding along at our ease, when my sharp ear detected the little clinking sound which a sabre-scabbard often makes in striking against a tree in a ride through the woods; and, believing that one of our couriers was approaching, I turned leisurely round, and saw the long line of the hostile cavalrymen, each man riding at about twenty steps interval from his neighbour, a short distance behind us. A few quietly uttered words informed General Stuart of the impending danger, when, putting spurs to our horses, we galloped off, feeling confident that a hot pursuit would follow, in the confusion of which we might make good our escape. Accordingly, we had a regular fox-chase. The whole body of the Yankees broke forward in a run, calling out to each other, and firing their revolvers in every direction. But we were too well mounted, and too much accustomed to riding through the tangled thickets of the forest, to be overtaken; so in a short time, when the Federal troopers had been a good deal scattered by their rough and rapid motion, we slipped through them and got over to our lines again before the [174] astonished blue-jackets had recovered from their amazement and chagrin.

General Stuart now placed me in command of the left wing of our forces, proceeding himself, with the other members of his Staff, to the extreme right. My principal care was to guard a broad turnpike road leading from Williamsport into the interior of Maryland, along which an advance of a considerable body of the enemy was expected, and where small parties of their cavalry had already appeared. I had two pieces of artillery very favourably posted, and two companies of infantry, which, to prevent a sudden dash of the Yankee horsemen, I employed in making a barricade across the road, flanked by small intrenchments stretching out about fifty yards on either side. From time to time I had to check the impudent advance of the Federal cavalry by a shot from my two guns, but altogether there was comparative quiet for several hours.

One of the Yankee officers, who, as I was later informed, was the colonel of the regiment that had effected its escape from Harper's Ferry, had attracted my attention the previous day by his gallantry and the excellent dispositions he made of his troops. Here I saw him again, galloping very near us on a handsome grey horse, quickly discovering our weak points, and posting and instructing his men accordingly. After having left him undisturbed for some time, I thought it necessary to put a stop to his proceedings, and, selecting a couple of my infantrymen who had been pointed out to me as the best shots, I made across the open space in front of our lines directly towards him. Having arrived within reasonable distance, I ordered my sharpshooters to fire at the daring colonel, who was moving along at an easy gallop, without paying me the slightest attention. After several bullets had whistled quite close to him, he suddenly halted, and, turning round, advanced a few steps and made me a military salute in [175] the most graceful manner possible. Then calling out to one of his men to hand him a carbine, he raised the weapon, took a deliberate aim at me, and sent his ball so close to my head that I thought it had carried away a lock of my hair. I saluted him now on my part, and, wheeling round quietly, both of us rode back to our respective lines. So are courtesies sometimes exchanged in the midst of hostile conflict.

During the afternoon, Pelham, who for the present had but little occupation with his artillery, and had been reconnoitring the enemy, rode up to me and told me that he had discovered, at five hundred yards' distance, an orchard of very fine peaches, a spot which was well worth visiting, because, while enjoying the fruit, we could obtain there a near view of the movements of the Federal cavalry, which were in considerable strength hard by, and thus combine the utile with the dulce. As all was quiet in my front, I readily consented to accompany him to the orchard upon a reconnaissance which promised to be so fruitful in its results, and we were soon seated amid the branches of a large peach-tree, eating and looking out to our great satisfaction. The Federal cavalry, only a few hundred yards from us, was already four regiments strong, and farther off the rising clouds of dust indicated the approach of yet larger columns, so that it was evident our demonstration into Maryland had not failed of its desired effect, and that we occupied the attention of a considerable portion of McClellan's army.

I now returned to my former position, and sent an orderly with my report to General Stuart, from whom I received orders to transfer my present command to Major Pelham, and join him without delay on the right. Here also the enemy's forces were heavily massed in front of us, and our scouts reported large columns of infantry, with cavalry and artillery, advancing upon all the roads leading towards Williamsport. In my opinion the time for our retreat had now [176] arrived, but Stuart believed he could still hold his ground, and seemed determined not to give up until he had shown fight. As usual, he was exceedingly desirous of closely observing the enemy's movements himself, and forming his own judgment concerning them; and as he and I were riding very close upon their lines, we were several times chased by small bodies of Yankee horse, whom we only escaped by jumping the fences, which crossed the country on every hand, and which were rather too high for Northern horsemanship.

In front of our centre, occupied by Hampton's brigade, no signs of the Yankees were to be observed, which led Stuart to the opinion that it would be practicable for his command to move forward under cover of the darkness of the night, make a circuit round Hagerstown, operate in the enemy's rear, and recross some ten miles higher up the Potomac. General Hampton, whose patrols had made prisoners of men belonging to several different divisions of the Federal army, believing that a very large portion, if not the whole, of McClellan's force was stretched out in a semicircle before him, regarded this operation as impossible, and remonstrated against it. But Stuart resolutely insisted on the execution of his daring design, and sent me back to Hampton with peremptory orders to march at once. This intrepid General instantly gave the command to move forward to what he so justly considered certain destruction, saying to me, “Goodbye, my dear friend; I don't think you will ever see me or a man of my brave brigade again.” Agreeing with him perfectly as to the impossibility of the undertaking, I felt sad and oppressed as, galloping back, I saw the last of the gallant horsemen disappearing in the darkness behind the hills.

General Stuart had sent one of his batteries across the river, which, occupying the high banks opposite Williamsport, was, in case of necessity, to cover our retreat; the rest of the guns he posted on an eminence a mile from the town, around [177] which the remaining part of our command had been concentrated. Night had set in fairly when I returned to him, and the enemy commencing to press upon us with cavalry, infantry, and artillery, a deafening cannonade ensued, filling the air with solid shot and shell, one of which latter missiles burst so near my head that for several minutes I was completely stunned.

Stuart soon discovered the mistake he had committed with regard to Hampton's brigade; and hoping it might not yet be too late to save them, he said to me, “Major, you are the only man who will perhaps be able to find Hampton and reach him in time; ride to him as quickly as your horse can carry you, and order him to return at once and recross the Potomac.” I was very well aware of the danger of this commission. The night was pitch dark, the enemy's troops were spread out over the whole country, the ground was broken and difficult, and but partially known to me; but, more discouraging than all, my horse had been so worn down by the continued fatigues of the last few days, that I could scarcely spur him into a gallop. So long as the true cavalier has a good fresh horse under him, he recks little of danger, and confronts it gaily; but with the giving in of his charger's strength the elan disappears, and the sense of honour and duty alone urges him forward. Silently I pressed the hand of my chief as a last farewell, then, driving the spurs into the flanks of my exhausted steed, I rode off into the night. After half an hour I heard the sound of hoofs in front of me, and had just put myself in readiness for the probable rencontre, when, to my surprise and delight, my challenge for “Halt! Who are you?” was answered, “It is I, Major-Captain Hamilton, of Hampton's Staff. Where can I find General Stuart?” He then informed me that Hampton had tried at several points to break through the enemy's lines, but had been met everywhere by overwhelming numbers, and being [178] well convinced of the utter hopelessness of doing so, had on his own responsibility ordered a retreat. I despatched Captain Hamilton at once to General Stuart, to make report to him, and proceeded myself to join Hampton, whose column I could hear close at hand, trotting along the turnpike. Whoever has been himself in so perilous a situation, and has unexpectedly found hope and relief again, can understand the joyous emotion with which I greeted my chivalrous friend, who was as much pleased to receive as I was to deliver General Stuart's orders.

Without further accident we reached the banks of the Potomac, and as I was well acquainted with the somewhat difficult ford, I piloted the brigade across the broad stream, and having satisfactorily accomplished this, returned to General Stuart, who had in the mean time been pressed hard by the enemy, and was just directing his troops towards the river. Our battery on the Virginia side, joined by the other pieces as they were successively brought over, now opened a spirited fire in the direction where the enemy was supposed to be advancing, which was answered vigorously by the Federal artillery. This passage of the Potomac by night was one of those magnificent spectacles which are seen only in war. The whole landscape was lighted up with a lurid glare from the burning houses of Williamsport, which had been ignited by the enemy's shells. High over the heads of the crossing column and the dark waters of the river, the blazing bombs passed each other in parabolas of flame through the air, and the spectral trees showed their every limb and leaf against the red sky.

About 11 P. M. the crossing had been safely effected, and we all felt thankful to regain the soil of Virginia, after a loss in killed and wounded comparatively trifling when considered with the dangers to which we had been exposed. The pursuit was not continued by the enemy across the river, and [179] we marched quietly about six miles further in the direction of Martinsburg, and bivouacked for the remainder of the night near the large plantation of Mr C., whose abundant supplies of corn and hay gave sufficient food for the fatigued and hungry horses of our whole command.

On the beautiful clear morning of Sunday, the 21st of September, we continued our march to Martinsburg, a small town on the Baltimore and Ohio Railway and the Winchester turnpike, which we reached about noon, and around which our troops bivouacked. Here we received the earliest intelligence of a decided victory, won by Jackson's corps the previous day, over a portion of the enemy's forces. General McClellan, finding the fords of the Potomac but slightly guarded, determined upon a forward movement into Virginia, and had already crossed the river with a considerable body of his troops at Boteler's Mill. General Lee, foreseeing this, had put Jackson in charge of his rear, and old Stonewall, having allowed as many Yankees to come over as he thought convenient, suddenly broke upon them, in his rapid and vigorous way, routing them entirely, killing and wounding large numbers, and taking 2000 prisoners. Such as were not placed hors de combat by his impetuous charge, he drove into the waters of the Potomac, which for hours floated down the corpses of men killed in the middle of the stream by bullet or shell, or whelmed beneath the waves in attempting to escape. Thus the retiring lion had taught a severe lesson to his pursuer, and attempts to follow our army into Virginia were for some time abandoned.

An old friend and comrade of Pelham's, Captain A., living in Martinsburg, invited the Major and myself to dine, and we spent a delightful evening with him and his amiable family, it being a late hour of the night when we joined the rest of our headquarters party in bivouac about a mile from town. During the forenoon of the following day, we received [180] information that our waggons had halted five miles from us in the direction of Williamsport, at the small village of Hainesville, where General Stuart subsequently decided to establish his headquarters. The main body of our army had gone in the mean time in the direction of Winchester, the right wing, under Longstreet, encamping near that town; the left, under Jackson, remaining half-way between Martinsburg and Winchester, near the hamlet called Bunker Hill. The cavalry had to cover the line along the Potomac from Williamsport to Harper's Ferry, Hampton's brigade being stationed near Hainesville, Fitz Lee's near Shepherdstown, and Robertson's under Colonel Munford, near Charlestown, opposite Harper's Ferry; which latter stronghold, after everything valuable had been removed from it, had been given up to the enemy. We rejoiced greatly at coming up with our waggons again after so long a separation from them, and at having our negro servants to wait on us and fresh horses for use. Our tents were soon pitched in the garden of a little tavern; and having performed our ablutions, and indulged in a change of linen, we felt once more clean, comfortable, and happy.

In the evening, Pelham and I, mounting our mules, rode very proudly over to the camp of the 1st North Carolina regiment, where we had been invited by its officers, Colonel Baker and Major Gordon, to join them-rare luxury indeed — in a bowl of punch, and where we had a very pleasant symposium, laughing and talking over the adventures of our recent campaign. The next day passed as quietly as if there had been no enemy within a hundred miles of us, and we became assiduously lazy, lying about on the soft grass, smoking the pipe of placid contentment, if not the calumet of peace. After an early dinner, I determined to make myself useful in providing for the next morning's breakfast-table of our mess; and, with my trusty double-barrel gun, which, with [181] the necessary ammunition, I always carried along in the waggons, I sought the partridges which were said to abound in the large fields around the village.

The American partridge in its habits closely resembles the partridge of Europe, but is much smaller in size, and different in plumage, reminding one more of the European quail. It consorts in large coveys, which, after having been dispersed, collect together again by a musical whistle, piped in a high key. Frequently, during the winter months, when the ground is covered with snow, and sometimes even in summer, they take to the trees; and more than once I have seen whole coveys of them fly out of the tufted top of a pine. The meat is white and has not much of a game flavour, but that of the young birds is very tender and delicious. I found a great many in the high grass, but having no dogs with me, I lost several that I had shot, and brought but four home with me in my bag. In the evening I galloped over to Martinsburg, and paid a second visit to Captain A. and the agreeable ladies of his household, returning after midnight to my soft bed in the tent.

Quite unexpectedly I received orders next morning from General Stuart to proceed with half of the Staff and couriers to Charlestown, nearly twenty miles off, and to establish near there, until further instructions, a second headquarters, to which reports from Robertson's brigade, forming the right wing of our line, should be sent, and from which, in case of urgency, they should be transmitted by me to General Jackson, at Bunker Hill. Our route lay through Martinsburg, where a well-dressed man, mounted on a good-looking horse, was turned over to me by the town authorities as a spy. He had been arrested there, and it was said the evidence was pretty clear that he had been engaged in this disgraceful business for a long time. I placed him between two of my [182] couriers, giving them orders to shoot him down should he make any effort to escape.

In due time we reached Charlestown, a charming village, the county seat of one of the richest and most fertile counties of Virginia-Jefferson-and fixed our headquarters upon the farm of Colonel D., about half a mile from the town, immediately informing the commanding officer of Robertson's brigade, Colonel Munford, of my presence. Colonel D.‘s plantation was one of the most extensive and beautiful I had seen in America. The stately mansion-house stood in the midst of fair lawns, and orchards prodigal of the peach and the apple; a little removed from which were large stables and granaries, and all around an amplitude of rich, cultivated fields, with a background in the distant landscape of dense forests of oak and hickory. The family consisted of the proprietor-whose military title of Colonel had been derived from the militia-his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, all of whom received me with the greatest courtesy and hospitality. The Colonel was good enough to conduct me all over the estate, where many things interested me; among others the large cider-press, then in full operation, pouring out the sweet juice of the apple, of which everybody, white and black, was permitted to drink as much as he pleased. Colonel D. took much pride in showing me his stock of Cashmere goats, the first pair of which he had himself imported many years before, at a cost of several thousand dollars. It is sad to know that all these valuable animals, at a later period of the war, were killed and devoured by the ruthless Yankees.

I was not a little embarrassed at headquarters by my prisoner, and was compelled to ask Colonel D.‘s permission to use one of the rooms of a house in his garden as a jail for the night, to which I had the spy transferred, with orders that he should be bound hand and foot. It was very soon reported to me, however, that he made a very obstinate resistance to [183] this treatment, and it became necessary for me to proceed in person to the lodge to have my orders carried out. While the work of securing him was going on, the spy broke out in a most excited manner against me, saying that he was a gentleman, and that he should not fail hereafter in making me personally responsible, and punishing me for my conduct. I begged him, very politely, to be quiet, assuring him that if I could but follow my own convictions of propriety, I should save him from the inconvenience and discomfort of his bonds by hanging him before the next morning. I regretted afterwards that I had not done so.

Colonel D. being obliged to make use of the temporary prison the following morning, I had the delinquent released from his manacles, and placed him in charge of a trusty young courier, named Chancellor, in whom I had the fullest confidence, and who had always accompanied me on expeditions of peculiar peril. About half an hour later, as I was just making the latest entry in my journal, Chancellor rushed into the room in the wildest excitement of range and mortification, and informed me, with the tears actually streaming from his eyes, that the spy had escaped. Having imprudently permitted him to walk out near a large field of Indian corn, then fully in tassle, he had profited by a momentary inattention on the part of his keeper to jump into the thicket of green stalks, and vanished behind their luxuriant blades before poor Chancellor was able to fire a shot at him. In a few minutes, I myself and most of my men were in the saddle, searching the fields narrowly, but without success; and I was obliged to relinquish the game, and return to headquarters, as the boom of artillery, sounding over from beyond Charlestown, announced that there was other work to be done.

On my way to the scene of action, I met a courier from Colonel Munford, who reported that the enemy had driven back our pickets opposite Harper's Ferry, and was advancing [184] towards Charlestown in considerable strength. I found the brigades drawn up across the broad turnpike leading to the river, on a slight range of hills beyond Charlestown, and our artillery well posted and already hotly engaged with two Federal batteries. A large number of our men were dismounted as sharpshooters, and the firing ran briskly along our whole line. The combat grew for a time fiercer and fiercer, and the Yankees seemed determined upon driving us off; but during the afternoon we assumed the offensive and repulsed them heavily, chasing their flying columns into the protecting fortifications of Harper's Ferry. Our loss in killed and wounded was small; that of the Federals must have been large, for, besides those left upon the field, many of their wounded were carried off in their ambulances, which I had seen moving to and fro all the morning. We took twenty-five prisoners. Late in the evening I returned to the hospitable mansion of Colonel D., where the whole family awaited in great anxiety the result of the conflict, and heartily congratulated me on our success. The spy's horse, a fine mare five years old, which he left behind him, I took in charge, and it was afterwards formally turned over to me by General Stuart.

The next two days, 26th and 27th September, passed in perfect quietude, and I greatly enjoyed the glorious autumn weather, riding over all the country with Colonel D.‘s sonin-law, and visiting the neighbouring plantations, which, almost without exception, were large, fertile, and beautiful. Among others, I visited the mansion of Colonel Lewis Washington, a descendant of George Washington, who had in his possession the sword which Frederick the Great of Prussia had given to his ancestor, with the inscription, “From the oldest living general to the greatest.” We also visited the noble estate of Mr T., who had travelled much in Europe, and who gave us an excellent dinner, where we passed some pleasant hours over the walnuts and the wine. All around the [185] dwelling were magnificent hickory-trees, which were inhabited by innumerable tame grey squirrels that were great pets of Mr T., and amused me exceedingly with their nimble and graceful antics. On the way home we passed a large plantation which, I was told, belonged to a free negro, one of the richest men of the county, who was himself the owner of numerous slaves. My pleasant companion took care also to show me, with a certain pride, what he called an old ruina dismantled church, a short distance from Charlestown, which had seventy or eighty years ago been burned down, and which looked quite picturesque, with ivy trailing from its shattered walls and Gothic windows. Upon me, long accustomed to the century-stained ruins of Europe, the “old” church of Jefferson did not make the desired impression.

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