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Hunter's Raid, 1864. from the Richmond Dispatch, July 8, 1900.

A charge through Harrisonburg-a ride to the rear.

In search of gallant McNellGen. Wm. E. Jones and the telegraph Operators—Gen. John C. Breckinridge at Meechum's River Depot.

(One evening, not long ago, several comrades of the Confederate war were sitting quietly together in Harrisonburg, Va., relating in turn little incidents of war experiences. It was argued that these minor experiences, while felt by every one to be of little value, and almost always told for the pleasure one seems to have in living the days over again, and in bringing up images of persons and things endeared to memory by association, yet that they do form parts of a great tragedy of history; and that if the personal recollections of every veteran, Confederate and Federal, could be secured, and properly edited, and chronologically arranged, a vast series of volumes could be produced, possessing universal interest. The following recollections afford some glimpses of things in the Virginia Valley at the particular time, and were related by one of our number, who was the last two years of the war out-post military telegrapher in the Valley. We set them down as spun out to us in this reminiscent way—in his own words, just as told )—X. Y. Z.

The day before General Hunter advanced on Harrisonburg, and when he was lying quietly at New Market, where he had apparently come to a stop, taking my office watchman, Atchison, with me, I left Harrisonburg and went as far down as Yate's blacksmith-shop, four miles south of New Market, and tapped the wire, fastening my keyboard and magnet in the iron vise. Picking our way wearily by private lanes and through fields, we succeeded in reaching Professor Joseph Salyard's residence and other points east of New Market, procured information of value concerning the enemy's forces and plans, and late New

York newspapers brought out from New Market that morning. [96] Returning to the improvised office at the shop, after penetrating still nearer the town on the westside of the Valley 'pike, report was wired via Staunton to Richmond. Hunter was preparing to move to the upper Valley, and all seemed in perfect readiness.

This was the most formidable movement yet made to sweep the Valley—formidable and serious in appearance, because the Confederate commander could not at the moment spare a force adequate to meet it, because of the press of things in Eastern Virginia. Up to this date no Federal force had yet been able to penetrate the Valley as far as Staunton, on the Virginia Central railroad, the principal feeder of the Confederate capital. Banks, Fremont, Seigel, and others had in turn been driven back. The news matter wired that evening from that blacksmith vise to the Richmond papers proved several days ahead of the eastern blockade runner's route, causing comment in Richmond. But that reporter could not continue these favors. He had other work to do.

Our outpost picket all that day was near Lacey Spring, a point nine miles south of New Market, and midway between, New Market and Harrisonburg. General Imboden lay nearer Harrisonburg with a small cavalry force. Nine miles, therefore, stretched out between the enemy's lines and ours, and it was to get some news from Hunter through this deserted space that I received orders that morning from Richmond to push as far down the Valley with a field magnet as I could and find out all I could.

What deserts these spaces between the lines of armies are! In that nine miles not one traveller was met; not a human being anywhere visible. The inhabitants do not show themselves often. You must call to bring them from the houses. No cattle in the fields along this great highway. No laborers in the fields—work waits. The dwellings have a lonesome, abandoned air about them, The very look of things suggests a moral apathy, paralysis, slow dying.

I have been behind the enemy's lines. The sensations, the sights, the sounds are depressing enough. But between the lines there is scarcely sound or sight. Awful silence! A silence, too, that presages a storm coming or tells of one that is past. War's [97] desolations seem already done—the whole world is sick—and one thinks only of a desert—a land to be uninhabited evermore!

We returned to Harrisonburg at night. Next day (Friday) Hunter entered Harrisonburg, halting overnight, and proceeding without opposition up the Valley on Saturday by the Port Republic road.

Charge through Harrisonburg.

All day Friday the air was full of flying reports. All felt the enemy was at the doors. But men knew nothing. A single cavalryman in the afternoon reported Hunter at Lacey Spring. At this time a small squad of volunteer scouts—Captain G., Lieutenant M., B. F. R., I. N. B., T. J. A., and the telegrapher rode down the pike to observe their approach. On reaching the Liggett place, a half mile below town, the head of the enemy's column rose black over Gambill's hill, a little further on. They continued to pour over the hill in solid columns as we returned towards Harrisonburg, and came on quietly, their horses at a walk. Staunton was quickly warned; the Harrisonburg office closed, and our little squad on horseback waited their coming at the court-house and corner of east Market street, not wishing to leave till the last moment.

In a few minutes a squad of cavalry appeared on the little eminence, where the United States court-house now stands, halted a moment, began firing upon us, and drove upon us at break-neck speed.

One of our party was dismounted at the moment girthing his saddle when this little episode began. These men were dressed in gray, and not thinking of Jesse Scouts, we were saying to one another these were some of our own men just come in on some side road, when we observed them elevate their pistols and fire. And as we put spurs to our horses, our visitors, having already lessened — the distance between us, pressed at our very heels, firing wildly and shouting, and receiving fire in return. As all went down the street like a roaring tide, we saw the brick-dust fly out of the Masonic building from random balls; the town was full of bluecoats in the time it takes to tell it, and as we neared a thin line of troops Imboden had drawn up at the edge of town, our unmannerly pursuers drew reins and retired. [98]

This line, composed of barely more than a battalion, with some Rockingham reserves, rested its left on the Valley pike, where Captain Patterson's house now stands, and extended eastward to the crest of the hill.

A regiment of dismounted men is soon thrown out in front of this line; a staff of officers, with glasses, is seen observing us from the old Methodist church hill; some firing ensues; our cavalry becomes hotly engaged with theirs on the hill at our right, driving the enemy back along the crest, and being in turn driven back. But the whole encounter is but a skirmish, one or two being wounded, a single piece of artillery a half mile to our rear sending only a shot or two into the enemy as we fall back. Our men retired sullenly towards Mount Crawford and Hunter's whole force went into camp at Harrisonburg.

A ride to Hunter's rear.

It was now night. What was worse, none knew what to think of the fate of the Valley. We felt we were about to be driven out of it. Loving dearly our old hills, and wishing to be among the very last to leave them, four comrades crossed over to Dayton, and finding the road open, rode on northward, passing Dale Enterprise. On approaching New Erection church, about midnight, we observed the blaze of a smith's forge a half mile away, and upon investigating, found two of McNeill's men having their horses shod.

McNeill's Company of Rangers lay that night asleep and snug in a small strip of timber, which then stood in the fields a little east of New Erection church. Before sunrise next morning (Saturday) Hunter was stirring. Lloyd C., a young Marylander, the picket on the hilltop east of us, rode rapidly into the little hidden bivouac and shook the old war horse, Captain John H. McNeill, wrapped in his buffalo, fast asleep in the leaves in a fence corner.

In an instant he mounted and led his men to the crest of the wooded ridge, near and a little south of the Eversole place. From this point, the hill being cleared to its crest on its east side, the enemy was plainly seen with his glass.

McNeill was puzzled. Moving towards Staunton out of the [99] southern edge of Harrisonburg they went in a steady flow. ‘There they go,’ said he. Every ear was catching his words. He would not permit a single man to show his head above the crest, though at so great distance from the enemy. After gazing at the scene, with sundry ejaculations, he exclaims, ‘Where do they go to? They do not appear on stretches of the Valley pike visible further south, yet they keep agoina out of the edge of the town.’

It was suggested by one standing near that he throw his glass on the Port Republic road and see if they were there.

No sooner done that ‘Ah! there go the rascals—horse, foot, and dragoon,’ he cried. Taking the glass myself I could plainly discern the whole movement; here a body of infantry, then see the artillery horses tugging up the hill beyond the Butler house, now and then a horseman, no doubt an officer, spurring up the hill at one side of the moving column, in a full trot towards their front.

A courier was now dispatched in haste to Imboden via Bridgewater with a message McNeill dictated to me warning him he was being flanked in this way by the entire force of Hunter. What its effect was upon that officer we shall see a little further on in my story.

Hurrah for John McNeill, a prompt and gallant fighter, always hanging on the flanks and rear of an advancing enemy.

Down from that hill, first northward to the Green mount road at Tom Harrison's-pushing right into Harrisonburg on one side as Hunter's rear guard pressed out on the other—stragglers scattering here and there as they recognized the dreaded gray coats, ‘Men must not break ranks to take these stragglers now, keep well in hand,’ was his stern command. Out up the Valley pike he swept, eagle-eyed, fierce, daring everything. Harrison-burgers stared with wide-eyed wonder, what few were at their doors, and plucked up hope again to see that Hunter was ‘surrounded.’

What would be next?

I see yet, turning about as he saw us sweep up and pass him, swinging his hat and shouting to the boys, Colonel Algernon S. Gray, that man of noble spirit and most kind heart, who opposed the war of separation, but who loved the boys to the last. [100]

About five miles south of town cavalry on Hunter's right engaged McNeill. After some manoeuvering we were about to be involved in some crooked, high-fenced lands by a second force emerging from the woods a little further south. The men became much mixed up, but were speedily brought to order and led out by that cool, brave man in language more forcible than graceful.

Entering Mt. Crawford, McNeill met Imboden on horseback, coming to meet him at the edge of town.

“General,” cried McNeill, ‘you are flanked; you are almost surrounded by Hunter's whole army.’

“Where is Hunter?” Imboden asked.

“On the Port Republic road, and yonder,” pointing east or southeast, rejoined McNeill. ‘Did you not receive my message?’ ‘I did, but I could not believe it,’ was the reply.

The parley was ended. ‘About face, march!’ The Valley 'pike here was strewn with wagons and cavalry, many of them facing towards Harrisonburg. Almost instantly—it seems to me now it was so literally—instantly everybody, everything was turned about and moving quick, and sometimes double-quick, and for a time with much confusion, southward towards Staunton.

General William E. Jones to the rescue.

Jones, a good fighter, but sometimes severe in his manner, had been ordered to hasten up and oppose Hunter and protect the railroad at Staunton. Unadvised yet of Hunter's route and marching down the Valley pike northward, he met Imboden and McNeill not far from Mt. Sidney at nightfall, and bivouacked there. This was Saturday night, and it rained all night, and Hunter was on ground new to Jones. Jones felt himself without sufficient force; and, more, he was in an ugly humor, as the sequel will show.

About dark or later a courier galloped up to the little chicken-coop of an office in which three telegraph operators lay, two of them trying to sleep: ‘General Jones's orders are one of you go at once and open an office at Meechum's River Depot, in Albemarle county.’ [101]

Mounting my horse, I galloped over to see the General, and found him seated at the foot of a giant white oak tree, apparently intent on some map of the country, and alone. Approaching in company with Captain Alexander Baker, quartermaster of the post at Harrisonburg, ‘General Jones, I come for specific orders,’ I said. ‘We have three men here, which is to go?’ * * * ‘I don't care which,’ he jerked out, ‘but one of you go instantly, or I'll put you all in irons.’

I believed my contention reasonable, and so expressed myself, adding, however, that if he would order me then and there to go I would go without delay, although I briefly referred to my services the last three days; also that my eyes had scarcely had sleep at the Harrisonburg office since Hunter's advance first began in the lower Valley, while the other two men were now several weeks off duty.

Nothing prevailed. Once more he repeated, and with very suggestive movement and emphasis, without varying in the least the form of his order: ‘If one of you don't go immediately I'll put you all in irons.’

Captain Baker was alarmed for me, and taking me by the arm, told me I had said enough; that the General was cross that night. I had about concluded I had said enough, too. I went away from there, as Bill Nye once said in a situation that was threatening.

Taking a watchman along with me, I was in Staunton before morning, and applied to my good friend, William A. Burke, depot agent, for a hand-car. Not one to be found. Try at Fishersville. None there. And as we pressed on on horseback, followed by my one-horse wagon with office supplies, the sun shone forth brightly after the all-night rain; the streets in Staunton were filled with church-goers looking very pretty; then a little later, as we approached Waynesboroa, the continuous boom of cannon away to our left was heard! On over Rock Fish Gap, and then the Valley was lost to view!

The peaceful homes I saw in that corner of the world, West Albemarle, which, as I mused, I said had never felt war; the little darkies in their white cotton shirts dancing on the back porch to a sort of crooning rhyme, and tune of their own heard [102] never before nor since, has never left my mind. But no doubt the husband or the brother went out from that home, too; and 1 wondered what a story of long suspense and aching hearts, and perhaps of anguish at the last, I might hear if I had time to rest a moment on the cool veranda with the fair women who looked out upon me as we passed, saluting kindly.

Reaching Meechum's River Depot long after nightfall, we crept into a box-car on the siding and slept. Next morning I caught the wire and called Staunton. Reply: ‘Staunton is no more—its depot burned—Jones routed and killed—Vaughn in command—I am at Rock Fish Gap. Signed, Operator.’

At this critical juncture General Braxton Bragg was in high command in Richmond. All telegrams came from him and went to him referring to movements in the Valley. Hourly inquires after Hunter were received from Richmond.

General Breckinridge at Meechum's.

A little later, Generel John C. Breckinridge arrived at Meechum's with a long train filled everywhere and on top with troops.

Boarding the train as it came to a stop, report was made to General Breckinridge that Hunter was now south of Lexington, pressing on. He at once gave order to reverse engine and return to Charlottesville, so as to hasten to Lynchburg to intercept Hunter.

While in the coach a small cloud passed overhead, and for a few minutes it hailed hard, driving many of the soldiers under the cars. I knew General Breckinridge, having been most kindly treated by him during his short Valley campaign in reward for what he chose to term the prompt and efficient service of my office before and during the battle of New Market; and I took advantage of the hail-storm, which kept me in his coach, to ask that I be given order to return to the Valley and open the Valley line again. He thought it better to wait. I ventured to suggest that that section was now in the rear, the raid having swept on. ‘It is in the rear now,’ returned the General, ‘but it may very soon be in the front again.’

Perhaps a week later came an order from the War Department: [103] ‘Repair Valley line at once.’ I broke my wire next moment.

I can never forget the kindness of Jacob Y. Good, depot agent at Meechum's, a Rockingham man, and of Uncle Jimmie Woods, as we called him, who made us stop and dine with him on our way towards Brown's Gap, returning to Harrisonburg. Lieutenant Vance Bell, of near Winchester, a splendid fellow, who had lost an arm in the service, returned that day with me. Mr. Wood's dinner, attended by two negro boy waiters, white-aproned and nimble-footed, was a marvel of variety for those days, and made Bell and me wonder where he kept his good things. A favorite dessert of the old gentleman was light-roll, butter, apple-butter, and milk! Kind old man—true southerner—he is dead now, I know; but of such was the kingdom of ‘Old Virginny’ in the happy days ‘before the war.’

Further on towards Brown's Gap we pass Mountain Plain church—Baptist—brick, and in passing find the Rev. John E. Massey in the act of tying his horse to a swinging limb. He had just arrived. He had eaten many a bowl of mush and milk at my mother's table, but, of course, he did not recognize the youngster until I pronounced my name. He had an appointment at 3 o'clock to preach there, though not a hearer was then visible. It was mighty lonesome-like in the country districts ‘them days.’ And I remember Bell observed to him he didn't think there were enough people about to scare up a congregation.

At any rate, we rode on, and never found out how many hearers he had on that June day in 1864.

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