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My personal experiences in taking up arms and in the battle of Malvern Hill.

Address by James F. Crocker, before Stonewall camp, Confederate Veterans, Portsmouth, Virginia, February 6th, 1889, and published at its request.

Commander and Comrades:

It is my turn, by appointment, to give to-night some reminisences of the war. It is expected, as I understand it, that these reminisences may be largely personal and that it is not to be considered in bad taste to speak of one's self. In fact our soldier lives were so much the same, our experiences and performances, our aspirations and devotions to our cause were so common to each and all, that to speak of one's self is but to tell the story of the rest.

Let it be understood at once that no true soldier can speak of himself and of his services in the Confederate Army, however humble the sphere of his service, without a tone of self commendation. And if I seem to speak in self praise, remember I but speak of each of you. Comrades! I would esteem it the highest honor to stand an equal by your side. For here before me are men—heroes—in courage and in patriotism equal to those who fell at Thermopylae—who with those to whose sacred memory yon monument is erected, aided in achieving a lustre of arms such as is not recorded in all the annals of the past.

The one thing in my personal history touching the war which I recall with most delight and hold in my supremest pride and satisfaction before all else, is, the ardor with which I took up arms. This ardor was not the mere ebullient force of passionate excitement, but the inspiration of unquestioning conviction that our duty to ourselves, to posterity, to our State, imperiously demanded that we should at all hazards and whatever might be the outcome, take up arms in defence of our rights as a free, [258] independent and liberty-loving people and to repel any invasion of our soil by hostile forces. You recall the glow of this ardor —you felt it—it burned in every true heart of the South. May those who come after us ever bear it in honorable memory, for it was a most sacred feeling, akin to that we feel for our religion and our God in our most devout moments.

It was a bitter alternative that was presented to Virginia, either to submit unresistingly and unconditionally to the determined and persistent encroachments on her equality under the Constitution, or to withdraw herself from the Union of the States which she had been chiefly instrumental in forming and which for that reason, she, more than all the other States, loved pre-eminently. She did all she could to avert this alternative. She sent her most illustrious citizens to Washington to implore for adjustment, for peace and for the perpetuity of the Union. Their petition was most haughtily disregarded. Notwithstanding this, she, through her people in solemn convention assembled, repressing all resentment, still stood majestically calm, though deeply moved, with her hand on the bond of the Union, refusing to untie it. And thus she stood until she was summoned to take up arms against her kindred people of the South and to receive on her soil an advancing hostile force. Put to this alternative, she resumed her delegated rights and sovereignty. In that solemn act, I was passionately with her with my whole soul and mind. And standing here to-night after the lapse of upward of a quarter of a century, summing up all she suffered and lost in war—in the waste of property, in the desolation of homes and in the blood of her sons, and also fully realizing all the blessings of the restored Union, I still declare from the deepest depths of my convictions, that she was right. Yes, I rejoice that my whole being responded in approval and applause of that act of my State. I rejoice in recalling with what willingness I was ready to give my life in its support, and it is the summation of the pride of my life that I served humbly in her cause.

Well do I remember that memorable day, the 19th of April, 1861. Animated by the feeling I have described, fully realizing the immediate imminence of strife, and determined to be ready [259] for it how soon soever it might come, at my own expense I armed myself with musket and accoutrements, took my stand at the Ocean House corner, and there with eagerness awaited the first beat of the first drum that sounded in Virginia the first call to arms.

You remember the profound interest and emotion of that hour. It stifled all light feelings, and gave to each brow a thoughtful aspect, and to each eye a depth of light which comes only when the heart is weighted with great moving concern. Men pressed in silence each others hands, and spoke in tones subdued by the solemnity and intensity of their inexpressible feelings. All knew that when that long roll once sounded, it would thrill the land, and that it would not cease to be heard, day or night, until silenced in victory or defeat. The long roll beat; and the vulcan sounds of destruction in the navy yard, and the flames of burning buildings and blazing ships told that an unproclaimed war had commenced.

Comrades, is it all a dream? Sometimes to me and doubtless sometimes to you, absorbed and environed as we are by the present, the war seems a mystical and mysterious thing, and we feel that its reality is in some way slipping from us. If in us who were its active participants there be such tendency, what must it be in those who are taking our places. It is on account of this tendency to lose the reality and meaning of the great war that I have dwelt on this part of my theme. And I cannot allow this occasion to pass without availing myself of it—the occasion of the organization of ‘Sons of Veterans,’ who are now before me—to say to them: Believe and know that your State and your fathers in taking up arms, were right. Fail never to know and learn to know that the posterity of no race or people have inherited from their fathers such a legacy of true patriotism, such sublime devotion to duty, such imperishable wealth of arms as you have received from yours, and let the precious memory of this ennoble you, enrich your spirit, and make you the worthy inheritors of their fame and glory.

The personal reminisence of the war which I next most value and cherish is the feeling with which we made that memorable [260] charge at Malvern Hill. It was our first battle, for the occurrences in which we shared at Seven Pines, did not amount to an engagement. It can never be indifferent to note the feelings with which a soldier enters his first battle. Of all things battle is the most terrible. And to us all life is the dearest thing, and the love of life is by nature made the first law of our being. We instinctively shrink from imperilling our lives, and yet with what glad shout we have seen soldiers rush into the fiercest battles. What a glorious thing is manhood! How God-like is the devotion of man to duty—to a cause—in cheerfully giving up life to its service. What a noble and master passion is patriotism. How it exalts and glorifies man. To have once felt it propitiates one's self-esteem and makes us ever a hero to ourselves. Shall I say it? Yes, for it can be equally said of each of you who were there. I have ever seemed to myself to have been a hero at Malvern Hill—if to be a hero is to feel the loftiest enthusiasm of patriotism—to disdain danger—to stand in the raging storm of shot and shell with a glad sense of duty and privilege to be there, and to be unreservedly willing to meet death for the good of one's country. All this you felt with me on that memorable charge.

It was in this spirit of devotion, the good, the brave and the loved Vermillion gave there to his country his life. This hero's name bids us pause. How tenderly we all remember him as the warm, generous, frank hearted friend. Brave and chivalrous in spirit, ardent and devoted to duty, graceful in deportment, manly in character, true and proud in self-respect, he commanded the admiration and love of all who knew him. In peace and in war—at home and in camp, he was the same true manly man. He was ardently patriotic and was passionately devoted to his State and to its cause. He fell while gallantly leading his company on this charge. He fell in the flush of young manhood when life to him was full of high hopes and full of all the sweet endearments of home. He cheerfully gave his life to his country, and his blood was a willing libation to its cause. As among the departed braves Heaven tenderly keeps his happy spirit, so may his memory be ever lovingly cherished among the [261] living. In this same spirit of devotion there fell Prentis, Dozier, Lewer, Parker, Bennett, Fiske, White and others dear in the memory of us all.

Let us recall the part which our own regiment, the Ninth Virginia, took in this memorable charge. Armistead's Brigade, to which our regiment belonged, were the first troops to reach the immediate vicinity of Malvern Hill, arriving there at 10 A. M. Tuesday, July I, 1862. On arriving our regiment was detached from the Brigade to guard a strategic point and did not rejoin it until after the battle. From 10 A. M. to 5 P. M. we lay exposed to the shells of the enemy. At this hour we were sent for and conducted to a deep wooded ravine which ran along the very edge of the open field on which the enemy had made a stand, and where they had planted many batteries and massed a great body of infantry. When we took our position in the ravine we found that Gen. Magruder was there in command with a considerable force, all lying down in successive lines on the steep sloping side of the ravine. Nearest its brow was Cobb's Legion; next to them and almost in touching distance was Wright's brigade; next below them was our own gallant regiment forming a line by itself; below us was Mahone's brigade and other forces-near us were Gens. Magruder, Cobb, Wright and Armistead. The day was fast declining. The deep shade of the majestic trees with which the valley was filled and the smoke of the enemy's guns brought on twilight dimness before the close of the day. As we lay in close rank, we marked the flash of exploding shells that kissed the brow of the ravine and lit it up with a wierd light, while the incessant firing of the massed batteries filled the air with constant roar and deafening crash. At one time, as the sun approached the horizon, the air seemed to change; it gained a new elasticity—a clearer ring, so that from the sound of the enemy's artillery you would have thought that they were approaching nearer to us. Gen. Magruder must have also thought so, for he gave direction that some men should ascend the brow of the hill and see if the enemy were advancing. The enemy had not and were not advancing, but from an elevation in the open field they poured from their batteries a living fire and a constant flow of shells. [262]

The scene was solemn and grandly inspiring. We felt that the very genius of battle was astir, and the martial spirit was thoroughly aroused. All waited with impatience for the order to charge—that order which whenever given either fires the heart or pales the face of the soldier. At last Magruder gives the order. It is first repeated by Gen. Cobb, and his brave Legion with a shout that for the moment drowned the roar of the artillery, arose and rushed forward. Then Wright repeats the order to his brigade, and as quick as thought his men spring forward. Then came from Gen. Armistead: ‘Ninth Virginia, charge!’ The men arose with a shout — a joyous shout that rose above the din of battle and with a passionate enthusiasm we rushed forward. Danger seemed to be banished from every bosom. Victory and glory absorbed every other feeling. We rushed on and forward to within a short distance of the crown of the hill on which the enemy was massed. On us was concentrated the shell and cannister of many cannon and the fire of compact masses of infantry. It was murderous and a useless waste of life to go further. Our regiment was halted and it took position in line with other troops which had preceeded us in the charge along and under the slope of the field, and here held its ground until the morning disclosed that the enemy had left. This gallant charge immortalized the Ninth Virginia and gave it a fame which it was its pride ever after to maintain in all the great battles in which it was engaged.

On this charge there came to me a new experience—a common experience on the battlefield—that of being wounded. When our regiment had taken its position just described by moving to the right, I found myself on its extreme left standing up on an open field in the face of the enemy a short distance off with a storm of shot and shell literally filling the air. I remember as I stood there I looked upon the enemy with great admiration. They were enveloped in the smoke of their guns and had a shadowy appearance, yet I could easily discern their cross belts, and I watched them go through the regular process of loading and firing. They seemed to be firing with as much steadiness and regularity as if on dress parade. It was a grand [263] sight, and I was impressed with their courage and discipline. I had not then learned the wisdom and duty of a soldier to seek all allowable protection from danger. I had a foolish pride to be and to appear fearless—as if it were a shame to seem to do anything to avoid danger. I remember that immediately on my right a soldier had sheltered himself behind a low stump. While silently approving his conduct in this respect yet apprehending he might only shelter himself, I said to him, ‘Do not fail to fire on the enemy.’ I had scarcely uttered these words when I heard and felt that sounding thud of the minie ball which became so familiar to our soldiers. My left arm fell to my side and the blood streamed from my throat. I staggered and would have fallen had not two members of the Old Dominion Guard stepped quickly up and caught me and bore me off the field. I was shot through the throat, through the shoulder and through the arm. And I to-day wear six scars from wounds then received, scars more prized by me than all the ribbons and jeweled decorations of kingly grant. When Moses P. Young and Jas. H. Robinson came to my relief I delivered to them what was my first and what I then regarded my last and dying request, for I then thought the wound through my throat must soon prove mortal. It was in these words, which I have ever since borne freshly and sacredly in my memory: ‘Tell my friends at home that I did my duty.’ These words expressed all that was in me at that moment-friends, they express all that is in my life. Well do I remember that supreme moment, how I was without fear, and was perfectly willing to die—to die the death of the patriot,—and how then came upon me the tender thought of home and of home friends, and all my earthly aspirations concentrated into the one wish that my memory might be kindly linked to the recognition that I gave my life honorably and bravely in duty to myself, to my country, and to my God.

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