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[518]

A family rifle-pit: an incident of Wilson's raid

In war the bloody and the grotesque are strangely mingled; comedy succeeds tragedy with startling abruptness; and laughter issues from the lips when the tears upon the cheek are scarcely dry.

I had never heard of a “family rifle-pit” before June, 1864. I am going to give the reader the benefit of the knowledge I acquired on that occasion.

General Grant was then besieging Petersburg, or Richmond rather, if we are to believe the military gentlemen who edited the New York newspapers; and having failed to drive Lee from his earthworks, where the Virginian persisted in remaining despite every effort made to oust him, the Federal commander organized an enormous “raid” against the Southside and the Danville railroads, by which Lee was supplied. The result of this cavalry movement is known. Generals Wilson, Kautz, and others who commanded in the expedition, were successful in their object, so far as the destruction of a large part of the railroads went; but when they attempted to return to their infantry lines, below Petersburg, they “came to grief.” Hampton and the Lees assailed them, forced them to abandon their artillery and ambulances on the old stage road near Reams' Station, and it was only by a resolute effort that the remnants of the Federal cavalry got home again. [519]

It was a few days after the raid that the present writer rode, on duty, through the region which the opposing cavalry had fought over, looking with interest upon the marks of the hard struggle, on the dead horses, half-burnt vehicles, and remains of artillery carriages, with the spokes hacked hastily to pieces, and the guns dismounted. But these results of combat — of retreat and pursuit --are familiar to the reader, doubtless, and not of very great interest to the present writer.

The “Wilson and Kautz raid” would indeed have been forgotten long ago by him, but for the “family rifle-pit” mentioned above, and to this the attention of the worthy reader is now requested.

I heard all about it from a very charming lady who resided in a little house on the roadside, not very far from Reams'; and before me, as the bright eyes flashed and the red lips told the story, was the scene of the events narrated. In front, across the road, was a field of oats; beyond was a belt of woods; the country all around was a dead and dusty level, scorching in the sun. The house had a yard, and in this yard was a well with a “sweep,” as they call it, I believe, in Dinwiddie, which is pronounced by the inhabitants Dunwoody, which “sweep” is a great beam balanced in the crotch of a tree, a bucket being suspended to one end of the beam by a pole, and hanging above the well, into which it is made to descend by working the pole downwards with the hands.

In the small house lived Mr. — , from Gloucester, with his wife and family of small children-all refugees. For a long time it seemed that the amiable household would remain quite undisturbed; they had scarcely seen a single blue-coat. But suddenly, one bright June morning, the road, the fields, the woods, the yard, the porch, and the mansion, swarmed with Federal cavalry, coming from the direction of Prince George.

It was soon ascertained that General Wilson was “riding a raid,” without the fear of Confederates before his eyes; and had thus come to Reams' Station, on the Weldon Railroad, where a force of Rebel cavalry was expected to be encountered. Scouting parties had accordingly been thrown forward, a reconnoissance [520] made, sharpshooters were advanced, the cavalry moved behind in column of squadrons, and the house and family of Mr. were captured, not to mention some old negroes, and very young ones — the latter clad, for the most part, in a single garment, adapted rather to the heat of the weather than to the production of an imposing effect.

The cavalry-men crowded to the well, swarmed through the grounds, and then commenced a scene well known to many a family in the South. The lives of venerable ducks were sacrificed, in spite of their piteous quacking; frightened chickens were chased and knocked over with sticks; calves were shot, and the hen-roost and dairy cleared with a rapidity and skill which indicated thorough practice. In ten minutes the yard was duckless and chickenless; the dairy was crockless, the hen-roost innocent of eggs. The besom of destruction seemed to have passed over the whole, and the hungry bluebirds were cooking and devouring their spoil.

Unfortunately for Mr., they were not satisfied with poultry, butter, and eggs. They wanted hams-and an officer, Mrs. assured me, demanded her keys. When she assured him that her children required this food, the officer's reply was an insult, and the young lady was forced to deliver to him the key of her smoke-house, which was speedily rifled. Mrs.-was looking on with bitter distress; but all at once her pride was aroused — the Southern woman flamed out!

“Take it if you choose,” she said, with sarcasm; “I can easily send word to General Lee at Petersburg, and meat will be supplied me! There are twelve months rations for the whole army in Richmond” (I hope the recording angel blotted out that statement!); “and if you do cut the railroad, General Lee's army will not suffer, but be just as strong and brave as ever!”

“That's foolish — it will ruin him!” said one of the men.

“You will see,” was the reply. “Do you think General Lee could not prevent your coming here if he wished to? He wants you to come, for he expects to catch you all-every man-before you get away!”

This new and striking view of the subject seemed to produce [521] a deep effect upon the listeners. They paused in their depredations, looked doubtfully around them, and one of them, putting his hand before his mouth, said aside to a comrade:

I believe what she says! Mr. Lee can get us all away from here quick enough, and I'm sorry that we ever come!

Thirty minutes after the appearance of the enemy, the house and grounds were stripped. Then they disappeared on their way toward the Danville road.

Two or three days thereafter, it was known that General Wilson's column had cut the road, but were falling back rapidly before Lee and Hampton; that they had abandoned sixteen pieces of artillery, and were now striving, with exhausted men and horses, to cross the Weldon road and get back to their lines.

There was a very brave gentleman, of the Fifth Virginia Cavalry-Captain Thaddeus Fitzhugh--the same who had crossed the Chesapeake in an open boat, with a few men, and captured a detachment of the enemy, and a steamboat which he brought off and destroyed, in the fall of 1863. Captain Fitzhugh was sitting in the porch of Mrs. —‘s house, conversing with the lady, when looking up, he saw a large body of the enemy's cavalry just across the wood. The odds were great, but the Captain did not retreat. He threw himself on horseback, leaped the fence toward the enemy, and firing his pistol at them, shouted:

Come on, boys! Charge! Butler's brigade is coming!

Having made this appeal to an imaginary squadron, the Captain rode across their front; but suddenly came the clatter of hoofs, the rattle of sabres, and some shots. Butler's brigade had arrived, and the Federal cavalry melted away into the woods so rapidly, that an old negro, hiding with his mule in the covert, said they “nuver see mule, nor nothin‘, hi! hi!”

General Butler--that brave soldier and most courteous of gentlemen-drew up his brigade; all was ready for the coming combat; and then it was that the question arose of the “family rifle-pit.”

Nervous, unstrung, trembling at the thought that her children [522] were about to be exposed to the enemy's fire, Mrs.--ran out to the Confederate cavalry in front of her house, and seeing one of the officers, asked him what she should do. His reply was:

Madam, I would advise you to shelter your family at once, as we expect to begin fighting at any moment.

“But I have no place, sir!” exclaimed the lady, in despair.

“There is probably a cellar —”

“No; the house has none!”

“Can't you get behind a hill, madam?”

The lady gazed around; the country was as flat as a table.

“There is not the least knoll, even, sir!”

“Then, madam,” said the practical and matter-of-fact officer, “I can only suggest a rifle-pit; your husband and servants might dig it; and that will certainly protect you.”

Odd as the suggestion may seem, it was immediately adopted, as the most commonplace and reasonable thing in the world.

The lady thanked the officer, hastened back to the houseand now behold the grand family hegira toward the field beyond the house!

First came Mr. and an old servant, carrying spades to dig the rifle-pit; next came the little family, who had hastily taken up whatever they saw first, and especially noticeable was the young heir of the house. Dimly realizing, apparently, that their absence might be eternal, he had secured a small tin cup and two dilapidated old hats, wherewith to comfort himself in exile; last of all, and in rear, that is, between her offspring and the bullets, came the beautiful young mother, full of anxious solicitude; trembling, but proud and defiant.

I should like to possess your portrait, could it have been taken at that moment, madam!-to look again to-day, in the hours of a dull epoch, upon the kind, good face which smiled so sweetly yonder, making sunshine in the pine woods of Dinwiddie.

And the family rifle-pit was dug by rapid hands; the lady and the children looking on with deep interest. Foremost among the spectators was the brave little urchin grasping his battered tin cup and tattered old hats, to the possession of which he seemed to attach a romantic value. Soon a pile of earth arose; a long [523] trench had been dug; and the lady and her children took refuge therein at the moment when the crack of carbines resounded, and bullets began to hiss above the impromptu earthworks. It was not doomed to be tested by round-shot or shell from the enemy's cannon. They had abandoned their artillery from the impossibility of getting through with it; and only their carbineballs whistled above the cowering inmates of the rifle-pit.

Then even these no longer came to make the mother's heart tremble for her children. Butler's men had charged; the enemy had given way; when the charming person who related to me this grotesque incident emerged from her place of refuge, not a single Federal cavalry-man was in sight. Only the dismantled grounds and the family rifle-pit remained to show that the whole was not some nightmare of darkness, which had flown with the coming of sunshine.

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