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A fight, a dead man, and a coffin: an incident of 1864.

The incident about to be narrated occurred in November, 1864, when Early with his 8,000 or 9,000 men had been compelled to retire up the Valley before Sheridan, with his 30,000 or 40, 0000; and when, in the excess of their satisfaction at this triumph of the Federal arms, the Federal authorities conceived the design of ferreting out and crushing in the same manner the band of the celebrated bandit Mosby — which result once achieved by the commander of the “Middle Department,” the whole of Northern Virginia would be reduced under the sway of the Stars and Stripes.

To ferret out Colonel Mosby was a difficult task, however; and to crush him had, up to this time, proved an undertaking beyond the ability of the best partisans of the Federal army. Not that they had not made numerous and determined attempts to accomplish this cherished object. In fact, no pains had been spared. Mosby had proved himself so dangerous a foe to wagon trains, lines of communication, and foraging parties, that the generals whose trains were destroyed, whose communications were interrupted, and whose detached parties were captured, had on many occasions sworn huge oaths to arrest his “depredations;” and more than once the most skilful partisan officers, in command of considerable bodies of picked men, had been sent into the wilds of the Blue Ridge, or to “Mosby's - [525] Confederacy” that is to say, the county of Fauquier--to waylay and destroy or capture this wily foe who had so long eluded them.

All had failed. Mosby refused to be captured or destroyed. If a large force came against him, he retreated to his mountain fastnesses — not a trace of his existence could be found. If the force was small, he attacked and nearly always cut to pieces or captured it. With his headquarters near Piedmont Station, on the Manassas railroad, east of the Ridge, he knew by his scouts of any movement; then couriers were seen going at full gallop to summon the men, scattered among the mountain spurs, or waiting at remote houses in the woods, to the previously specified rendezvous-at Markham's, Upperville, Paris, Oak Grove, or elsewhere; then Mosby set out; and he nearly always came back with spoils — that is to say, arms, horses, and prisoners.

In November, 1864, this state of things had become intolerable. Early had been forced to retire — that wolf with the sharp claws; but Mosby, the veritable wildcat, still lingered in the country as dangerous as ever. Immense indignation was experienced by the enemy at this persistent defiance; and an additional circumstance at this time came to add fuel to the flame of the Federal displeasure. Hitherto, the Confederate partisan had operated generally east of the Blue Ridge, between the mountains and Manassas, guarding that whole country. With the transfer of active hostilities, however, to the Valley, in the summer and fall of 1864, he had turned his attention more especially to that region. There were to be found the trains of Hunter and Sheridan, the wandering parties of “Jesse scouts,” clad in gray, whom he delighted to encounter: in the Valley not [north? ] east of the Ridge was his most favourable field of operations-and, above all, it was there that his services were chiefly needed to protect the inhabitants from the depredations of these detached parties which spread such terror amid the population.

To the Valley Mosby accordingly directed his attention, and this region thenceforth became his main field of operations. Scarce a day passed without an attack upon some wandering party, upon some string of wagons, or upon the railroad by which the Federal army was supplied. These stirring adventures [526] are the subject of a volume which will soon appear from the accomplished Major Scott, of Fauquier. The object of this chapter is to record the particulars of one of the fights referred to, in which a small band of Confederates under Captain Mountjoy, that accomplished partisan of Mosby's command, suffered a reverse.

Were it within the scope of the present article to draw an outline of the person and character of this brave gentleman-Captain Mountjoy-many readers, we are sure, would derive pleasure from the perusal of our sketch. Never was a braver heart than his-never a more refined and admirable breeding. Gallantlooking, cool, courteous, with his calm sad face overshadowed by the drooping hat with its golden cord; wearing sword and pistol like a trained cavalryman; not cast down by reverses, not elated by success — a splendid type of the great Mississippi race from which he sprung, and a gentleman “every inch of him.” Mountjoy's was a face, a figure, and a bearing which attracted the eyes of all who admire in men the evidences of culture, resolution, and honour. But this is not the place to record the virtures of that brave true heart, gone now with many others to a land where war never comes. We proceed to record the incident which we have referred to.

It occurred, as we have said, in November, 1864, and the scene was a mansion perched upon a hill, with a background of woods, between the little village of Millwood and the Shenandoah. This house was well known to Mosby, well known to many hundreds of Confederate soldiers, who-God be thanked! --never left its door without food, without receiving all that it was in the power of the family to give them, and that without money and without price.

A day or two before the incident about to be related, Mountjoy had gone with a considerable party of men, towards Charlestown; had made an attack; secured numerous horses and prisoners; and on this afternoon was returning towards Millwoodonly by the river road — to cross the Shenandoah at Berry's ferry, [527] and secure his captures. Mountjoy had but one fault as an officer --rashness. On this occasion he was rash. As he returned from his scout, and arrived opposite the different fords, he permitted, first one, then another, then whole squads of his men to cross to their homes east of the Ridge, so that on reaching a point nearly opposite Millwood, he had with him only fifteen men guarding the numerous horses and prisoners.

Then came the hostile fate-close on his heels. The attack made by him upon the enemy down the river had greatly enraged them. They had hastily mustered a considerable force to pursue him and recapture the prisoners, and as he reached Morgan's Lane, near the Tilthammer Mill, this party, about one hundred in number, made a sudden and unexpected attack upon him.

The force was too great to meet front to front, and the ground so unfavourable for receiving their assault, that Mountjoy gave the order for his men to save themselves, and they abandoned the prisoners and horses, put spurs to their animals, and retreated at full gallop past the mill, across a little stream, and up the long hill upon which was situated the mansion above referred to. Behind them the one hundred Federal cavalrymen came on at full gallop, calling upon them to halt, and firing volleys into them as they retreated.

We beg now to introduce upon the scene the female dramatis personce of the incident-two young ladies who had hastened out to the fence as soon as the firing began, and now witnessed the whole. As they reached the fence, the fifteen men of Captain Mountjoy appeared, mounting the steep road like lightning, closely pursued by the Federal cavalry, whose dense masses completely filled the narrow road. The scene at the moment was sufficient to try the nerves of the young ladies. The clash of hoofs, the crack of carbines, the loud cries of “halt! halt!! halt!!!” --this tramping, shouting, banging, to say nothing of the quick hiss of bullets filling the air, rendered the “place and time” more stirring than agreeable to one consulting the dictates of a prudent regard to his or her safety.

Nevertheless, the young ladies did not stir. They had half mounted the board fence, and in this elevated position were [528] exposed to a close and dangerous fire; more than one bullet burying itself in the wood close to their persons. But they did not move-and this for a reason more creditable than mere curiosity to witness the engagement, which may, however, have counted for something. This attracted them, but they were engaged in “doing good” too! It was of the last importance that the men should know where they could cross the river.

“Where is the nearest ford?” they shouted.

“In the woods there!” was the reply of one of the young ladies, pointing with her hand, and not moving.

“How can we reach it?”

“Through that gate.”

And waving her hand, the speaker directed the rest, amid a storm of bullets burrying themselves in the fence close beside her.

The men went at full gallop towards the ford. Last of all came Mountjoy-but Mountjoy, furious, foaming almost at the mouth, on fire with indignation, and uttering oaths so frightful that they terrified the young ladies much more than the balls, or the Federal calvary darting up the hill.

Let us here, in parenthesis, as it were, offer a proof of that high-breeding we have claimed for Captain Mountjoy. A young lady expressed afterwards her regret that so brave a gentleman should have uttered an oath, and this came to his ears. He at once called to see her and said gravely, in his calm, sad voice. “I am sorry that I swore. I will try not to do so again, but I was very angry that day, as the men might have whipped the enemy in spite of their numbers, if I could only have gotten them to make a stand, and this was before you.

But that was when his blood was cool. At the moment when he brought up the rear of the men, Mountjoy was raging. Nevertheless he stopped in the very face of the enemy, besought the young ladies to leave the fence where they were exposing themselves to imminent danger, and then, still furious, he disappeared, most of all enraged, as he afterwards explained, that this stampede of his men and himself should have taken place in the presence of the young ladies.

The partisan had scarcely disappeared in the woods, when the [529] enemy rushed up, and demanded which way the Confederates had taken.

“I will not tell you!” was the reply of the youngest girl.

The trooper drew a pistol, and cocking it, levelled it at her head.

“Which way?” he thundered.

The young lady shrunk from the muzzle, and said:

How do I know?

“Move on!” resounded from the lips of the officer in command, and the column rushed by, nearly trampling upon the ladies, who ran to the house.

Here a new incident greeted them, and one sufficiently tragic. Before the door, sitting his horse, was a trooper, clad in blue --and at sight of him the ladies shrunk back. A second glance showed them that he was bleeding to death from a mortal wound. The bullet had entered his side, traversed the body, issued from the opposite side, inflicting a wound which rendered death almost certain.

“Take me from my horse!” murmured the wounded man, stretching out his arms and tottering.

The young girls ran to him.

“Who are you-one of the Yankees?” they exclaimed.

“Oh, no!” was the faint reply. “I am one of Mountjoy's men. Tell him, when you see him, that I said, ‘Captain, this is the first time I have gone out with you, and the last!’ ”

As they assisted him from the saddle, he murmured:

My name is William Armistead Braxton. I have a wife and three little children living in Hanover-you must let them know

Then the poor fellow fainted; and the young ladies were compelled to carry him in their arms into the house, where he was laid upon a couch, writhing in great agony.

They had then time to look at him, and saw before them a young man of gallant countenance, elegant figure — in every outline of his person betraying the gentleman born and bred. They afterwards discovered that he had just joined Mosby, and that, as he had stated, this was his first scout. Poor fellow! it was also his last. [530]

The scene which followed has more than once been described to the present writer, and it made a dolorous impression on his heart. The wounded man lay upon the couch, struggling against death, writhing with his great agony, and bleeding so profusely that the couch was saturated with his blood. Even in that moment, however, the instincts of gentle breeding betrayed themselves in the murmured words:

My spurs will-tear the cover-lay me — on the floor.

This, of course, was not complied with, and the young ladies busied themselves attempting to bind up his wound.

While one was thus engaged, another hastened to unbuckle his belt, in order to secure his pistol. This was necessary, as the Federal cavalry was already trampling in front of the house, and shouting to the inmates.

Unable to undo the belt, the young lady quickly drew the pistol from its holster, secreted it in a closet, and turning round, saw that in this moment the dying man had rolled from the couch upon the floor, where he was exclaiming: “Lord Jesus, have pity upon me!”

She hastened back to him, and at the same instant the house was literally crowded suddenly with Federal soldiers, who burst open the doors, tore the ornaments from the mantelpiece, broke everything which they could lay their hands upon, and exhibited violent rage at the escape of the Confederates.

Those men were in gray. We neglected to state that fact. Mountjoy's men were in blue. Thus the opponents had swapped uniforms — the blue being gray, and the gray blue. This fact caused the capture of the wounded man's pistol. The young lady who had secreted it was kneeling by him, holding his hand --or rather he had caught her own, as wounded men will, and tightly held it-when a tall and very brutal-looking trooper, bending over the prostrate figure, saw the empty holster.

“Where is his pistol?” he thundered in a ferocious tone.

“What pistol?” said the young lady, firmly, and returning the brutal gaze without flinching.

“His pistol!-you have hidden it! Where is it?-give it up.”

And he pushed the wounded man with his foot, nearly turning him over. [531] A Fight, a Dead Man, and a Coffin 531

“You'll not get it from me!” exclaimed the young lady, looking boldly at him, every drop of her woman's blood aroused inflamed, and defiant at this cruel act.

“Give me the pistol!--or”

And he drew his own, pointing it at her.

“I've not got it!”

Here the voice of a diminutive negro girl, who had seen the weapon secreted, and who took the Federal trooper in his gray coat for a Confederate, was heard exclaiming-

“La! Miss — , 'tis in the closet, where you put it!”

And in an instant the man had rushed thither and secured it.

The house was now filled with men, rushing from top to bottom of it, and breaking to pieces every object upon which they could lay their hands. In the house at the time was Captain -- , a wounded officer of artillery, and Lieutenant-- , a staff officer, who had been surprised, and was now secreted in a closet. Captain--‘s room was visited, but he was not molested; Lieutenant — was so skilfully concealed in his closet, against which a bed was thrust, that he was not discovered.

Smashed crockery, shattered parlour ornaments, followed spoons, knives, forks, shawls, blankets, books, daguerreotypesthese and many other movables speedily appeared in dwindling perspective; then they vanished.

Thus theft, insult, and outrage had their veritable carnivalbut the young ladies did not heed it. They were absorbed by the painful spectacle of the wounded gentleman, who, stretched upon the floor of the dining-room below, seemed about to draw his last breath. He still held the hand of the young lady who had removed his pistol; to this he clung with an unrelaxing clutch; and the sight of her tearful face, as she knelt beside him, seemed to afford him the only satisfaction of which he was capable.

“Pray for me!” he murmured, clinging to her hand groaning; “pray for me, but pray to yourself!”

“Oh, yes!” was the reply, and the wounded man sank back, moaning, amid the crowd of jeering troopers trampling around his “fallen head!”

To these an honourable exception speedily revealed himself. [532] This was a young Federal officer, who came to the side of the wounded man, gazed first at him, then at the young lady, and then knelt down beside them.

The glazing eyes of the wounded man looked out from his haggard face.

“Who are you?” he muttered.

“I am Lieutenant Cole,” was the reply, in a sad and pitying voice; “I am sorry to see you so dangerously wounded.”

“Yes — I am-dying.”

“If you have any affairs to arrange, my poor friend, you had better do so,” said Lieutenant Cole; “and I will try and attend to them for you.”

“No — the ladies here-will-”

There he paused with a hoarse groan.

“You are about to die,” said the Lieutenant; “there is no hope. I am a Christian, and I will pray for you.”

As he spoke he closed his eyes, and remaining on his knees, silent and motionless, was evidently offering up a prayer for the dying man, who continued to writhe and toss, in his great agony.

There are men whom we regret, but are proud to have for our enemies; this man was one of them.

When he rose his expression was grave; he threw a last glance at the sufferer, and then disappeared. His fate was sad, and seemed an injustice to so brave a gentleman. On the very next day he was captured by a party of Confederates, and while being conducted across the Blue Ridge thought that he discovered an opportunity to escape. Drawing his pistol, which by some negligence had been left upon his person, he fired upon his guard. The bullet missed its aim-and the guard firing in turn, blew out Lieutenant Cole's brains.1 [533]

At nightfall the Federal troops had torn the house to pieces, taken all which they could not destroy, and had vanished. Mountjoy had succeeded in getting off with his men. At six o'clock on the next morning poor Braxton breathed his last, still holding the hand of the young lady, which seemed to be all by which he had clung to life.

Then a strange and unexpected difficulty arose. It is safe to say that the young ladies of New York or Philadelphia, at that moment buried in slumbers in their happy homes, surrounded by every comfort — it is safe to say that they would have found it difficult then — will find it difficult now — to conceive even the great dilemma which their young rebel “sisters” were called upon to face. The death of a friend would have been sad to the young New Yorker or Philadelphian, but at least they would have seen his body deposited in a rosewood coffin; the head would have rested on its satin cushion; lace handkerchiefs raised to streaming eyes, in the long procession of brilliant equipages, would have been soothing to his friends, as indicating the general grief.

Here, in that good or bad year 1864, on the border, things were different. There were no equipages — no lace handkerchiefs --no satin, and rosewood, and silver — not even a coffin. In the midst of their grief for the loss of that brave soldier of one of the old Virginia families, their connexions, the young Confederate girls were met by this sudden obstacle-by this gross, material question, this brutal difficulty — where shall a coffin for the dead be procured? There lay the dead body pale, cold, terrible-how bury it as Christians bury their dead?

They did not cry or complain, but courageously set to work. Beside themselves, there were in the house two young cousins now, who had hastened to the place, Phil — and George — , at that time mere boys. These went to the mill, past which Mountjoy had retreated, and painfully raising upon their shoulders some broad and heavy planks lying there, bore them up the hill to the house. Then, accompanied by the youngest of the girls, they went to an old saw-mill near the river, gathered together a number of rails from old timber there, returned, and began their lugubrious work. [534]

The details of their employment were as sombre as the employment itself. The dead body was first to be measured; and this was courageously undertaken by the youngest girl, who, placing one end of a cord upon the dead man's forehead, measured to his feet. The length was thus determined, and the boys set to work, assisted by the girl, sawing, hammering, and nailing together the rude box which was to contain all that remained of the poor youth.

The work absorbed them throughout the short November day, and only at nightfall was it finished. Then the fear seized upon them that they had made the coffin too long; that the corpse would not lie securely in it, and move when carried. A singular means of testing the length of the coffin was suddenly hit upon. The eldest of the young ladies, who had been watching the corpse during the work, now approached, and without shrinking, lay at full length in the coffin, which was then found to be amply large. Then the body was deposited in it — the p16us toil had been accomplished.

Was not that painfully in contrast with the decent city “arrangements,” which take from the mourner all the gross details --permitting his grief to hover serenely in the region of sentiment? This rude pine coffin differed from the rosewood; the funeral cortege which ere long appeared, differed, too, from the long line of shining carriages.

It consisted of three hundred horsemen, silent, muffled, and armed to the teeth, for the enemy were close by in heavy force. They appeared, without notice, about three hours past midnight, and at the head of them, we believe, was Mountjoy.

The body, still in its rude coffin, was lifted into a vehicle; some hasty words were exchanged with the young ladies, for a large force of the enemy was near Millwood within sight, a mile or two across the fields; then the shadowy procession of horsemen moved; their measured hoof-strokes resounded, gradually dying away; the corpse was borne through the river, ascended the mountain-and at sunrise the dead man was sleeping in the soil of Fauquier.

1 A singular coincidence comes to the writer's memory here. The mother of the young ladies whose adventures are here related, had on this day gone to attend the funeral of young Carlisle Whiting at the “Old Chapel” some miles distant. Young Whiting had been killed by a Federal prisoner, whom he was conducting south, near Front Royal. The prisoner's pistol had been overlooked; he drew it suddenly, and fired upon his guard, the bullet inflicting a mortal wound.

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