previous next

Chapter 6: from Manassas to Leesburg.

During the first few days of wild hurrah, uncertainty, and drift which followed our victory at Manassas, the guns of our battery were marched and counter-marched on scouting expeditions, first with one brigade and then with another. Our most noteworthy experience was with Longstreet's, then known as the “Fourth brigade,” in connection with which we were reviewed by Prince Napoleon at Centreville. The Prince did not strike me as an impressive man, but I recall the ease and confidence with which Longstreet handled both his artillery and infantry commands in the various maneuvers, and the riding of one of the young officers of his staff, who sat his beautiful thoroughbred superbly, dashing at full speed from point to point, leaping ditches and obstructions without being once jarred in his seat, though using a flat English saddle and that without stirrups. I remember, too, that it was so hot on the sun-scorched plain that the metal-covered tops of the ammunition chests actually burned us cannoneers, as we mounted and dismounted at command, in the battery drill.

The generals in the ranks, of whom there was, even at this early stage, an abundant supply, being still of the opinion that we ought to be and soon would be ordered to occupy Washington, regarded these several movements as in execution of or preparation for that grand objective — an objective which our commanding generals, for reasons doubtless satisfactory to themselves, seem to have soon given up-if indeed they ever seriously contemplated it. Within a short time all idea of a general offensive seeming to have been [60] abandoned, even by the staff contingent in the ranks, we were, on the 11th of August, 1861, ordered to Leesburg, under Brigadier-General N. G. Evans, of South Carolina, whose force consisted of the Thirteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Mississippi Regiments, the Eighth Virginia Infantry, our battery, and two companies of cavalry.

Leesburg, the county seat of Loudoun, was at this time, perhaps, the most desirable post in our lines, on account of the character both of the country and its people — the former beautiful and rich, full of everything needed by man and beast, and the latter whole-hearted and hospitable, ready to share with us all they had. If ever soldiers had a more ideal time than we enjoyed at Leesburg, then I cannot conceive when or where it was. During the war, in hunger and thirst, in want and weariness and blood, our thoughts would often turn fondly back to our bucolic Loudoun paradise. “When this cruel war was over” more than one of our boys went back there to get “the girl he left behind him” from 1861 to 1865, but would never leave again; and to-day many a grizzled, wrinkled, burdened man feels his heart grow young again and breaks into sunny smiles when a comrade of the long ago slaps him on the back and reminds him of the good times we had at Leesburg. It was here we buried the crow, with honors literary and military; nor was this by any means the only camp entertainment with which we returned the many civilities extended to us by our fair friends in the good little burg.

Of course, where there were so many brave knights all could not always succeed with the fair ladies. One of the defeated took this startling and original revenge upon his successful rival. “The captain with his whiskers” had repeatedly run him off from a new-found Dulcinea, and this same result happening once more, our hero returned to camp weary and disgusted and threw himself down to sleep. Owing to some abnormal condition of mind or body, he was at the time much given to talking in his sleep and, dreaming himself on guard and inquiry made as to the commanding officer of the force, he electrified his half-slumbering companions by shouting out: [61]

“Halt! You want to know who commands this battery, do you? Well, sir, General Susceptibility commands this battery, with a numerous staff of volunteer aides!”

Poor fellow; but he was soon promoted to a captaincy and commanded a battery of his own, and doubtless avenged his grievous wrongs by perpetrating the like on his own boys upon occasion. Very recently he received his last promotion, having fought a good fight for many years as a faithful Christian minister.

We saw no really hard service at Leesburg, though the activity of the force gradually increased. Our horses being in fine condition with the abundant forage, and the great, open fields affording a fine arena for it, we devoted ourselves assiduously to battery drill. There was also considerable scouting up and down the river and some little firing across. One of our own men was wounded in one of these affairs and one or two cavalrymen killed.

About the middle of October, however, General Evans withdrew his force and made a feint of retreat, which drew the enemy across to our side of the river. Their plan of attack seems to have been well conceived and came very near being successfully executed. They landed in two columns, one at Edwards' Ferry and another at Ball's Bluff, considerably nearer to the town, the latter point, especially, being concealed by thick woods. Our little army returned in the very nick of time, but were misled as to the disposition and designs of the enemy, regarding the Edwards' Ferry force as the main and dangerous body, and were either entirely ignorant of the crossing at Ball's Bluff, or at least did not regard that as of any magnitude or moment. Indeed, as I recollect, the presence of these latter troops was discovered as it were by accident, just as they emerged from the forest, and were practically between us and Leesburg. But General Evans acted with vigor after the true condition of things was developed, rapidly concentrating his force to meet the advance from Ball's Bluff; first checking and then staggering it, and finally driving the entire body back in bloody repulse upon and into the river, where many were drowned. [62]

To us it seemed a mistake not then to have attacked the Edwards' Ferry force, but there may have been good reason for not doing so. The gallant Eighth Virginia, under its staunch Colonel, afterwards General, Eppa Hunton-since the war both a Congressman and a Senator of the United States from Virginia-took a prominent and honorable part in the fight, which was hotly contested and one of the most remarkable of the minor battles of the war in the disproportion of the enemy's loss to the number engaged on our side. No part of the honor, however, belongs to our battery, as the fighting took place in heavy woods, where it was impracticable to carry our guns.

To me the battle of Leesburg, or Ball's Bluff, as the Federals called it, presented several points of rather special interest. First, the gallant and almost marvelous escape of a young Federal officer, named Crowninshield, who had been the strongest man on the Harvard boat crew about the time I held the like prominent position among the boating men of Yale. In the account of the battle, given by one of the Northern papers, I noticed, with great interest and pleasure, that Crowninshield, rather than surrender, swam the river and made good his escape, after his right arm had been shattered by a Minie ball. It was really a plucky and splendid feat.

Then, too, I very much enjoyed a newspaper report of a speech of Roscoe Conkling, delivered in the House of Representatives at Washington, upon this battle, in the course of which, extolling the valor of the Federal troops, he quoted from Tennyson's “Charge of the light brigade” the lines:

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volleyed and thundered.

This was at once amusing and aggravating, as we had felt peculiarly chagrined at not being able to fire even. so much as one shot while the battle roared in the thicket in front of us. The enemy, on the contrary, did have and use at least one gun, a brass three-inch rifle, which was captured and turned over to our battery. [63]

A third incident was of a more personal nature. I had broken my knee-cap by a heavy fall during our feigned retreat, and the limb had become as rigid as a bar of steel. My gun detachment was very anxious I should take part in the fight, and, of course, I was eager for it, as I had seen no service, and it had been agreed I should act as gunner and sight the piece. We changed position several times during the action, in the vain hope of finding a point from which we might fire upon the enemy without imperilling our own men, and I was carried from one to another of these positions, or as near as might be, in an ambulance, driven by a half-witted youth named Grover, employed for that purpose.

As I was getting out of the vehicle, for the third or fourth time, and preparing to hobble painfully up the hill to take my place at the gun, I said to him: “Grover, why don't you go up yonder with me to fight? You are better able to do it than I am.”

“Yes,” said he, “but there's a differ.”

“Well, what is it?” I asked; “what is the differ?”

“Why,” said he, “you see, you ‘listed ter git killed and I ‘listed ter drive a avalanche.”

It is of course familiar to students of the financial history of the Confederacy, yet it may not be devoid of interest to the general public, to note that, in the South during the war, banks, municipalities, companies, and, even in some cases, individuals issued fractional notes or shin plasters which passed as currency supplementary to the Treasury notes issued by the Confederate Government. I am confident every surviving member of our battery, who was with us at Leesburg, will recall the little “dog money” notes issued by the town, ornamented by a picture of a majestic Newfoundland dog lying down before a massive iron safe supposed to be full of currency. No one, so far as I know, ever questioned the validity of Leesburg's fiat money; certainly we Howitzers experienced no difficulty whatever in getting rid of all we could get our hands upon.

About the middle of November, pursuant to a policy of brigading together, so far as possible, troops from the same State, the Eighth Virginia Regiment was ordered back to [64] Manassas, and the Twenty-first Mississippi, commanded by Col. B. G. Humphreys, was sent to fill its place — the entire Mississippi brigade, consisting of the Thirteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Twenty-first Regiments, being then, or shortly after, put under the command of General Griffith, of that State, who was killed at Savage Station in June, 1862, when Barksdale, theretofore colonel of the Thirteenth, was made brigadier-general and took command of the brigade, which bore his name up to Gettysburg, where he met his gallant death. Thereupon Colonel Humphreys, of the Twentyfirst, was promoted to the rank of brigadier, and in turn commanded and christened this fine body of soldiers. It may be well to mention that Colonel Featherstone, of the Seventeenth, was made brigadier in the spring of 1862, so that three out of the four original colonels of this brigade became generals, the fourth, Colonel Burt, of the Eighteenth, having been killed at Ball's Bluff. I may also add that General Humphreys was elected Governor of Mississippi shortly after the close of the war.

For more than a year after the battle of Leesburg, we were closely associated with these sturdy fellows and became strongly attached to them; indeed, up to the very end, the two commands never crossed each other's path without hearty cheers and handshakes.

This Mississippi brigade was, in many respects, the finest body of men I ever saw. They were almost giants in size and power. In the color company of the Seventeenth Regiment, when we first met them, there were thirty-five men more than six feet one inch high, and in the Twenty-first there was one man six feet seven inches in height, and superbly formed, except that his shoulders were a trifle too square and too broad in proportion. They were healthy and hardy, even ruddy, which was surprising, coming as they did from a region generally regarded as full of malarial poison. They were bear hunters from the swamps and cane brakes and, naturally enough, almost without exception fine shots.

As a body, they were very young men and brimful of irrepressible enthusiasm, equally for play and for fight. The laugh, the song, the shout, the yell of the rebel charge burst [65] indifferently from their lips; but in any and every case the volume of sound was tremendous. It was a common saying that the “sick men” left in Barksdale's camp, when the brigade was away on duty, made more noise than any other full brigade in the army. The only comment I have to make upon this statement is that I cannot recall ever having seen ont of them sick or “ailing” in any way, except when suffering from hunger or from wounds. At times they seemed about as rough as the bears they had hunted, yet they were withal simple-minded and tender-hearted boys, and at Fredericksburg hundreds of them became Christians.

I knew almost every man in the brigade and often attended their religious meetings. Many a time, after I became adjutant of our battalion of artillery, Col. H. C. Cabell's, as I galloped past their lines awaiting the order to charge, my heart has been cheered and strengthened by a chorus of manly voices calling after me, “God bless you, Brother Stiles, and cover your head in the day of battle!” How could I help loving these simple, brave, great-hearted fellows.

Early in December, 1861, General Evans was relieved of the command at Leesburg and sent, I think, to South Carolina, his native State, to take charge of some troops there, and Gen. D. H. Hill, of North Carolina, was put in his place. He was a brother-in-law of Stonewall Jackson and, like him, a thorough Christian and thorough Calvinist. That he was likewise a thorough soldier may be inferred, as the logicians would say, “a-priori and a-posteriori,” from the two facts, that he was a graduate of West Point, and that he attained the rank of lieutenant-general in the Confederate service. He was, moreover, a man of intellect and culture, with a decided taste for scholarship and letters, having been, both before and since the war, connected with educational institutions of high grade and a writer of books, both scientific and religious.

Like Jackson he was, too, a born fighter — as aggressive, pugnacious and tenacious as a bull-dog, or as any soldier in the service, and he had a sort of monomania on the subject of personal courage. [66]

It is certainly worthy of note that this fighting zeal is so frequently combined with a high degree of spiritual religion.

Almost countless stories are told of the grim courage and grit of General Hill. In the first Maryland campaign he held the pass at Boonsboro for many hours with a mere handful of troops against McClellan's overwhelming numbers, thus giving time for Jackson to complete his capture of Harper's Ferry and join Lee at Sharpsburg. It is said that toward the close of the Boonsboro fight, riding down his short line, his men reported that they were out of ammunition, and that the stern old North Carolina Puritan replied: “Well, what of it? Here are plenty of rocks!”

His habit was, when his skirmishers were firing wildly, to ride out among them, and if he noticed a man lying down or behind protection and firing carelessly, he would make him get right up and come and stand out in the open, by his horse, and load his musket and hand it to him. Then he would crane his neck until he saw a Federal skirmisher, when he would point him out to his man, but would fire at him himself, not only taking long, portentous aim before pulling trigger, but making equally long examination afterwards to determine whether he had hit him; and he would continue and distribute these blood-curdling object-lessons until his men settled down to a style of firing that suited him.

Very amusing accounts passed around the army about “old D. H.” every now and then “treating” the non-combatant officers of his staff — the quartermasters, commissaries, and doctors — to what .he called “a little airing in a fight,” when he thought they stood in need of it, or heard that they had been “airing,” a little freely, their own martial experience and prowess.

Occasionally, in his official reports, he gave the tartest and most amusing expressions to his strenuous views and standards of soldierly courage and devotion. I recall one in which, in commenting upon the flight of a body of cavalry before overwhelming numbers, he remarks incidentally, that it takes a good man to stand and fight against heavy odds, [67] when he has only two legs under him; but that if you put six legs under him to run away with, it requires the best kind of a man to stand and fight.

In another report, in describing a stampede and the crush and jam of fugitives in the highway, he says, “Not a dog; no, not even a sneaking exempt, could have made his way through.”

As early in the drama as the Leesburg campaign he had begun to indulge and exhibit these rather peculiar notions and habits. Soon after taking command, desiring to know the number, calibre, and character of the Federal guns across the river, he gathered a large escort and rode up and down the river bank in a manner calculated to attract the fire of artillery, and when the enemy accepted his invitation and the shell came singing over and buried itself in the earth hard by, he called for a pick and shovel, dismounted and dug it up with his own hands, apparently unconscious that other shells were shrieking and bursting about him and his improvised and somewhat nervous staff. Of course this impressed us no little; exactly how, it would be difficult to say. One thing, however, was clear — that this apparent unconsciousness of personal peril was in no degree “put on,” that our general was undoubtedly “to the manner born.”

Our company had special reason for desiring to make a good impression upon General Hill. At the battle of Bethel, or “Big Bethel,” where he commanded a regiment and won the spurs and stars of a general, he had with him the other two companies of our “Howitzer battalion,” which unfortunately never materialized in the field. We did not wish him to draw unfavorable comparisons and gave him no reason for doing so, though we had no opportunity, while under him, of distinguishing ourselves.

He was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and in some way was led to notice and to conceive a decided liking for me. Not long after he assumed command he ordered Captain Shields to send, I think, a sergeant and some fifteen or twenty men, of whom I was one, to take charge of Fort Johnston, a considerable, closed earth-work, on a commanding eminence about a mile out of town, which mounted two [68] or three siege pieces of rather clumsy construction, fired by friction primer like field pieces. In addition to this, we generally had one and, much of the time, two, of our field pieces also with us at the fort. About the same time, the general ordered about the same number of Mississippiansthat is to say, enough for two gun detachments — to report at the fort and to be under my special charge. I have an indistinct recollection that I selected these men. The idea was that we light artillerymen should adapt our drill to the heavy guns and then teach the Mississippians the manual and use of both field and siege pieces, so that all of us could work effectually all the pieces in the fort.

The Mississippians were glad to come. They liked the noise and smoke and uproar of the guns. There never were two such field artillery detachments as they made after a brief period of drill. They would shove the pieces up almost any hillside, however steep, and would even hold them against the recoil when inclined to roll too far back. We passed a good deal of time running up and down the river with the field pieces, the captain sometimes with us and sometimes not, appearing first on one commanding hilltop and then on another, and firing across at the railroad trains and canal boats on the other side. On two or three occasions we stirred up a hornet's nest in the shape of Federal batteries which happened to be drilling in the neighborhood, and once were compelled to withdraw with more speed than dignity; but my irrepressible Mississippi artillerymen made fun of it all, actually playing leap frog down the steep Loudoun hillside, under a galling fire, from perhaps eight or ten guns. I was quite an athlete at the time, having been considered the strongest man at Yale while there, and had reason to deem myself an expert in matters involving physical achievement and endurance. I have no hesitation in saying that I never witnessed an exhibition of bounding, buoyant power and unshakeable bodily soundness and stamina that compared with this performance of the Mississippians. The men were all, or most of them, over six feet in height and averaged, I should say, over 200 pounds in weight, and yet they ran down the steep slope, keeping abreast of galloping [69] horses, and leaping over each other's shoulders, the head of course inclined, but the column of the body almost upright; and as the leaper would strike far below, with a jar calculated to jolt a man's vital organs out of gear forever, he would instantly assume position again, with a shout, while two hundred pounds of yelling, human trap-ball would in turn execute the perilous flying leap over his head.

The situation at Fort Johnston, from the view-point of rank, command, and subordination, was mixed and delicate enough already, though I had no real difficulty, with my own company officers, in keeping up my little imperium in imperio. But just about the time matters had settled into working order with the existing elements, a militia regiment from a neighboring county was orderd into the fort for the purpose of improving and strengthening, as well as more fully manning it. This regiment, as I remember, was afterwards broken up and the men entered as individual recruits in veteran regiments, as was the almost unvarying mode of recruiting in the Confederate service; but at this time-late winter of 1861-2, or early spring of 1862--this regiment seems to have retained its original organization under its original officers. I have spoken of it as a militia regiment, as we all did at the time, but I do not know what its real status was. The regimental officers were of course jealous of us-private artillery soldiers seeming to be set over even infantry officers, and the general being in the habit of communicating with us directly in matters concerning the fort and everything in it. To add to the uneasiness and discontent, the idea got abroad that this small force was thus isolated with the view of sacrificing it in case the enemy should cross over, to enable the other troops to withdraw in safety.

At one of the evening dress parades of the regiment, at which of course the colonel was in charge, I attempted, with his permission, to show the absurdity of this rumor, and at the same time to pour oil generally on the troubled waters; but a little before midnight one of my Mississippians, “Buck Denman,” a man marked even among those heroes for courage and power, who was corporal of the guard that night, came and woke me up with the startling intelligence that the [70] “melish” were formed and about to leave the fort. I rose instantly and ordered Denman to call out his entire squad and have them rendezvous at once at the outlet of the fort with loaded muskets.

He yelled like a Comanche as he sprang to execute the order, and by the time I reached the centre of the parade, passing by the head of the regiment on the way, the bear hunters were at their posts “loaded for b'ar” or “melish,” as the case might be, and shouting for the battle. The “colonel commanding” hesitated what command to give, and I at once assumed his place and did not hesitate. The men were in column and ready to march out, but they frontfaced readily at my command, and I briefly laid the situation before them, emphasizing-but never mind what I emphasized, the moon gave light enough to shed a gleam on the musket barrels of the Mississippians formed right across the only outlet, and these added the emphasis; but I did appeal also to the better judgment and better feeling of the men and closed with an invitation to their colonel to call on General Hill with me in the morning.

While I was speaking I noticed immediately in front of me, standing on a sort of irregular front line of officers, a remarkable and grotesque figure. He was a tall, gaunt man, dressed in an old Continental uniform or something very like it. I recall the cocked hat, blue, buff-faced coat, of that cut, fa‘--top boots, and a drawn sword in his hand of about the length and model of a scythe blade. It was not a very bright night, but his whole attitude showed absorbed and sympathetic attention. I had hardly ceased when he stepped briskly toward me, saluted, wheeled and faced the regiment and his, the leading company, and uttered, in quite a soldierly tone, just these words: “Snickersville Blues, fall out! Mr. Stiles is right, and I am going to stand by him!” The example was contagious, and in a few moments the strained situation was entirely relieved.

In the morning General Hill decided that I was right, commended the course I had pursued, and said he would send for a commission for me (which I presume he forgot); but suggested that it might interest and conciliate the regiment [71] if we would pick out two or three detachments and drill them in the manual of the heavy pieces. We did so with admirable result, of course offering to the gallant captain of the “Snickersville Blues” the place of gunner of the first detachment. The old fellow, whose name I think was Moore, took the greatest interest and delight in the drill and showed some proficiency at it; so that in a few days he asked me to allow him to drill his detachment before General Hill, who rode out almost every evening to see how we were getting on. I never saw anything quite so irresistibly funny as Moore's dress and bearing as he formed his detachment, marched them to the gun and put them in position about it. He got on fairly well until a primer failed and he could not recall the appropriate command-“Don't advance, the primer has failed!”

As No. 2 first hesitated and then started to advance, Moore, gasping with excitement and stretching out his right arm deprecatingly toward the cannoneer, blurted out, “Don't go up, the thing's busted!” Of course there was an explosion, though not of the primer, but as Moore seemed so genuinely mortified, it was soon hushed. General Hill seemed to appreciate the situation, and assured the gunner that his improvised command answered every purpose and was far preferable, in such an emergency, to not saying anything because unable to recall exactly what to say.

Soon after this, in the early spring of 1862, the General directed us to have a large number of flannel powder bags made up, a few for the heavy guns, but most of them of a size suited to our field pieces, and gave such additional orders as satisfied me that the army was about to abandon its present lines and take position somewhere in the low country near Richmond. The young ladies of Leesburg had offered repeatedly to do anything they could for us, and so we held, for several successive nights, a regular sewing bee over these powder bags, which, as fast as made, were taken up to Fort Johnston and filled in the magazine there. We had a lively, lovely time, making the bags, but I felt all the while as if I were guilty of the vilest deception; for of course these sweet girls were led to believe these powder [72] bags were to be used in their defense, while I well knew we would abandon them to their fate about as soon as the bags were finished, filled, and packed for transport. At last the time for our departure actually came, and a sad leave-taking it was, for some of these dear people had treated us as no strangers were ever treated before; and besides, we all felt not only the pain of parting but also something akin to the disgrace of desertion.

With D. H. Hill, worship of Stonewall Jackson held a place next after and close alongside his religion. He had the greatest admiration for Jackson's genius and the greatest confidence in his future. He honored me with frequent and sometimes very extended interviews; and as there was nothing else he so much delighted to talk about or I to hear, I absorbed much that prepared me for his brother-in-law's marvelous career. Even at that early day, Hill predicted that if the war should last six years and Jackson live so long, he would be in supreme command.

It is fair to add that the pure white star of Robert Lee had not yet fairly appeared above the Southern horizon.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1862 AD (4)
1861 AD (2)
1865 AD (1)
June, 1862 AD (1)
December, 1861 AD (1)
August 11th, 1861 AD (1)
November (1)
October (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: