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[213]

Pouncing on pickets. [from the Richmond Dispatch Feb. 14, 1897.] bold dash of a detachment of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Forty-nine Yankees captured. A well-planned and neatly-executed nocturnal raid Interestingly related by one of the Participants—Perilious return journey.

To the Editor of the Dispatch :
In the latter part of the month of November, 1862, the 9th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Colonel R. L. T. Beale, held position on the extreme right of General Lee's army on the Rappahannock, and were encamped in the vicinity of Lloyd's, in Essex county. The duties of the regiment were to guard the river shore with an extended line of pickets. These pickets were frequently aroused and entertained by the passage up the river of Federal gunboats and transports, communicating with Burnside's army at Fredericksburg. Quite frequently, also, an exchange of rifle shots was made with the Federal pickets on the Northern Neck shore of the river.

Many men of this regiment had their homes and families on that side of the river, and the sight of the Union horsemen riding unchecked over the roads and fields so familiar to them aroused in many breasts an intense desire to cross the river and strike the enemy a blow. Into this feeling none entered more heartily than the Colonel himself. Accordingly, scouts were dispatched to ascertain the enemy's exact position, strength, disposition of sentinels, and also to search for boats sufficient to carry over several hundred troops. An application was at the same time forwarded to headquarters for permission to cross the river with 300 men.

The scouts returned promptly, having ascertained that one cavalry regiment—the Eighth Pennsylvania—was on outpost duty, encamped at Greenlaw's, in King George, and picketing the river as far down as Layton's Ferry. One squadron, quartered at Leedstown, held the extreme left of their line. The scouts carefully noted the houses in which the men of this squadron slept, where their horses were picketed, and how their sentinels were posted at night. Only two [214] boats—a large batteau and a skiff—could be secured, and these were duly provided with oars and concealed in a marshy creek, a mile or two above Leedstown, in readiness for use.

These preliminaries having been arranged, the necessary permit from General Lee was awaited impatiently. It came on the 1st of December, but forbade that more than one hundred men should be allowed on the expedition, or an officer holding rank above that of major. In consequence, the purpose of attacking the entire Federal regiment, was abandoned, and a plan arranged for capturing the squadron at Leedstown.

Entrusted to Major Waller.

The execution of this plan was entrusted to Major Thomas Waller, as cool and intrepid an officer as ever wore stars on his collar. To the call for volunteers, more than a hundred responded from the regiment. As the point of attack was in Westmoreland, from which county, Company C hailed, the men of this company offered to go almost in a body.

On reaching the shore of the little creek in which the boats were concealed, about dark, December 1, 1862, it was found that their capacity was much less than had been supposed. Thirty-six men seemed as many as the larger boat would carry, and only fourteen could be accomodated in the skiff. Major Waller commanded the batteau, and Lieutenant G. W. Beale, the skiff. The night was cold and dark, and it was necessary to maintain the strictest silence. The boats were rowed noislessly out into the river, the officers in charge having a preconcerted plan to rendezvous at a given point on the other shore, in the event of becoming separated in the dark. This proved a wise precaution, for the boats became quickly lost to each other. The skiff being light and easily managed, shot straight across and quickly reached the other shore. The larger boat drifted down with the tide, and grounded on a sand-bar far out in the river. It was necessary for a number of the men to get out into the icy-water, waist deep, and push the craft over the bar by main force. A landing was made by Major Waller's party half a mile lower down the river than had been contemplated. Leaving two men as guards to the batteau, he joined the party under Lieutenant Beale at a straw stack, the place of rendezvous that had been agreed upon.

Here a number of details of scouts were made to proceed as quietly and stealthily as possible for the purpose of capturing the [215] enemy's picket-guards. There were six of these, at as many different points, and it needed much adroitness and boldness of action to secure them all without an alarm being made. The plan was for two men to get in rear of each picket, and two to advance upon them quietly in the dark. If one set failed to bag the game, it was thought the other would. And so it proved. The pickets were captured without breaking the stillness of the night with the faintest alarm.

Having secured the outer guards, it was next necessary to capture the reserve guards, who were fifteen in number, and occupied a vacant store in Leedstown, where they slept on their arms, having their horses saddled and bridled, close at hand. The writer of this account led the party advancing to the capture of this reserve, having at his side ‘Pete’ Stewart, an old Mexican soldier, and a tried and trusty scout. From the shadow of an adjacent house, as we drew near to the store, the form of the sentinel was descried under the porch. The moon was just rising, throwing a gleam on the river, the sound of whose flowing only disturbed the perfect stillness of the night. Our pause was but for a moment, when a dash was made for the steps leading up to the door of the store. The startled sentinel ran for the steps, too, without pausing to fire his carbine. He had nearly reached the uppermost step, when ‘Pete’ Stewart, grasping him by his coat-tail, pulled him back. The Union horsemen in the store were made prisoners by the time they had well cast aside the blankets under which they had been cosily sleeping. Indeed, so rapid and sudden had we fallen on the unsuspecting sleepers that some of them were assisted by us in waking, by having their blankets pulled off them by our own hands.

Prisoners released.

In this store, at the time of our entrance, were two Confederate prisoners, members of the 15th Virginia Cavalry, who had been captured the previous day, and also a citizen (and his goods), caught running the blockade. The joy of these men at their unexpected release was so great that it was neeeful to suppress its demonstration, lest the enemy near by should hear it.

Having placed the prisoners and their horses under guard, Major Walker's next aim was to surround and capture the main body of the enemy, who occupied the residence of Dr. Thomas Taylor (the assistant surgeon of Ninth Virginia Regiment), a quarter of a mile distant. The march towards this building was made as noislessly as [216] possible. When yet distant a hundred yards or more a bright fire was seen in the yard, and a sentinel pacing to and fro on his beat in in front of it. It seemed as we drew nearer that he would not detect our approach in time to give an alarm, when, suddenly, ‘Bang!’ went the report of the gun of one of our men, whose excitement had quite overcome his discretion. Instantly, the Federal sentinel returned the shot and rushed for the main building.

No time was now lost by Major Waller in surrounding the dwelling and smaller houses. The demand to surrender was answered from doors and windows by small volleys, which fired in the dark, did no harm. With the aid of a gun barrel and a few rails, the doors of the main building were forced open, when a general surrender at once followed.

Captain Samuel Wilson, a soldier of fine appearance and splendid physique, commanded the Federal squadron, and it looked for a moment as if he had determined to die, rather than yield. When he at length yielded up his weapon, and was made a prisoner, his face wore an air of resolute defiance, mingled with mortified pride.

When the prisoners had been got together, it was found that forty-nine had been here captured, with their horses, saddles, bridles, arms and accoutrements.

The problem now was, how to get the prisoners and horses across the river, which was nearly a mile in width. A large lighter, capable of carrying one hundred men, or more, was found near the water's edge at Leedstown, and this was quickly launched. The prisoners were put into it, with a suitable guard of men, and the boat was speedily poled over (as the watermen say), to the Essex shore.

The approach of daylight, and the prospect of a gunboat's appearance, made the passage of the captured horses a hazardous undertaking. It was decided to take the horses two miles higher up the river, where the stream was narrower, and the banks higher, where better security was offered against gunboats, and a better opportunity could be found for swimming over the horses. The two boats were rowed up to the latter point, where, after the arrival of the men with the horses, the saddles, blankets, and arms were put in the boats, and the horses were all lashed together by their halter-reins. In this way, strung together in a long line, they were forced after the large boat into the river, and were made to swim across.

A Cold swim.

The water was a full half-mile in width, and had on it a skim of ice [217] near the shore. The prolonged bath must have been very severe to the horses; but they stood it well. All were safely landed, save one, which, being lean, was benumbed by the cold water, and when its feet touched the mud on the Essex side, it would make no further effort, and was left to perish.

By sunrise the expedition had been safely landed, the boats concealed, and the men, having mounted their horses, and leading the captured ones, were on the march to the camp, at Lloyds.

The colonel of the regiment to soothe, in part, his disappointment in not being permitted to cross the river himself, had taken position advantageously on the bank, with a section of artillery under command of Lieutenant Betts, intending to arrest the progress of any gunboat that might chance to appear, and endanger the expedition. From his station he listened through the still hours, anxiously, and not in vain, for the sounds of volleys and yells that would tell of the successful assault of his men.

Only one casualty occurred among the enemy, and that was the painful wounding of a man under the eye.

The boldness and success of the enterprise were recognized and commended in general orders, issued from the headquarters of the army; and the disaster to the Federal regiment is mentioned in the official history of the Pennsylvania regiments, published by that State. Major H. B. McClellan, in ‘The Life and Campaigns of General J, E. B. Stuart,’ briefly refers to the affair in a sentence, in in which the Boston printer gives the name of our major, erroneously, as Weller.

Of the participants in this nocturnal raid, I can now recall but few among the living. Among these is Major R. Bird Lewis, the president of the Confederate Veteran Association of Washington, D. C., who was a sergeant at the time, and the only man on our side who was wounded. Dr. Gordon F. Bowie, of Richmond county, was one of the men who took an icy bath in shoving the batteau over the sand-bar. William R. Rust, of Colonial Beach, was active in forcing open the door of the house, where the chief danger was met. Lawrence Washington, of Oak Grove, rendered valuable service in surprising and capturing the most important of the pickets, and to him the Union captain surrendered his pistol in the last encounter. Jones and Johnson, the scouts who were sent over the river in advance, and who served as guides on the night of the expedition, have long since found their graves, not far from the scene of the exploit.

Brave Colonel Thomas Waller, as he was afterwards known, has [218] gone, now, also, to join the ‘silent majority.’ Like most of his old comrades, he early last year ended his useful and worthy life, and, like them, crossed the dark and lonely river that is never stirred by a returning oar, and across whose silent flood no sound is ever wafted back.


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