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Chapter 8:

  • March to Leesburgh
  • -- fertility and beauty of London -- we are subjected to many Alarms, much labor, and incessant duty -- cavalry fights -- perfidy of Northern sympathizers -- infantry encounters -- marauding parties of the enemy cross into Virginia -- their capture and punishment -- artillery duels -- heavy picket firing -- movements of the enemy, who mass heavy forces, and endeavor to shell Leesburgh from their superior position.

Within a short time it was definitely settled that we should move up the country to Leesburgh — a stone's throw from the Potomac and Maryland. What our ultimate destination might be, none knew or cared. Any thing to get away from Manassas and Centreville, any place where we could have a change of scene, and find butter, eggs, and poultry procurable for money, all such articles having been consumed where we then were, or so few remaining that fabulous prices were asked for them. A couple of chickens could not be had for less than five dollars, (1) milk was one dollar per gallon; butter, fifty cents par pound; whiskey hardly attainable at ten dollars (2) per gallon, and other. things in proportion. When it was known, therefore, that we had orders for Leesburgh, London County — the most fertile and richest county in Virginia-we were envied by every corps in the army, and were generally looked upon as the advance guard of some important movement.

Taking up the line of march we passed northwards through the most picturesque and delightful farming country the eye perhaps ever beheld. All was decidedly English in aspect, and the people remarkably so. The lands were highly cultivated; the cattle fat and of superior stock; the farm-houses, out-houses, and negro quarters were all substantially and neatly built; they were also scrupulously clean, and marked by an air of comfort and contentment superior to any thing I had seen farther south. Mountains and valleys, hills and dales, fine springs and majestic woods [72] came into view at every turn of the road, while overloaded barns and corn-cribs, neat school-houses, and rustic churches by the wayside, cosy villages, and strong, masculine, rosy-cheeked inhabitants, contrasted favorably with the tumble-down appearance, sallow, fever-and-aguish aspect of the immensely wealthy, but careless and fast-living Cotton States. The habits, dress, look, language, and all things reminded me much of England; but nothing more so-than the buxom, rosy-faced, and white-aproned mothers and daughters who lined the wayside, and brought out of their store to entertain the weary soldiery as they toiled up the hills of this beautiful region.

Our reception by the inhabitants was enthusiastic and cheering. It had been rumored that Loudon County was a den of traitors to the patriotic cause, but such cordial behavior was a more than sufficient contradiction of the calumny. This county, situated in the north-eastern corner of the State, was mountainous and rolling in its physical character. The Potomac ran on two sides, north and east, separating it from Maryland, while in the north-west we could see the mountains which separated us from the Shenandoah Valley. Harper's Ferry lay under the northern extremity of the Loudon Heights, the Potomac washed its foot, while on the opposite bank towered perpendicularly the heights of Maryland, commanding the Ferry, by its only lines of approach from Loudon County or the Shenandoah Valley. The distance by the river (unnavigable here) from Leesburgh to the Ferry was about forty miles; the land route was about thirty-five miles, with two or three very small towns in the valleys-among them Lovettsville, on the south bank, and but four miles from the Ferry. A body of the enemy were reported to be in possession of this last-mentioned place, and General Evans grinned good-humoredly in reply to inquiries, and promised to “shake them out of it one of these fine mornings!” The whole aspect of the country from Leesburgh to the river, north and east, and far in Maryland, was unbroken rolling land, but to the north stood a cluster of three isolated hills, the tallest and most conspicuous of which was called the “Sugar Loaf.”

The Federals occupied the last-mentioned eminence on our approach, and from it they obtained a full view of all that [73] transpired on our side of the river, with the advantage of being but fifteen miles distant from their forces at Harper's.Ferry, and the same from Poolesville, where General Stone commanded a large force. Their pickets lined the whole river from the Ferry to Washington, so that it was impossible for troops to approach the Potomac without being discovered, when the fact was instantly telegraphed from post to post to McClellan, who was now chief in command. To deceive the enemy, however, Evans had divided his force into small parties, with an over-allowance of tents; and as white canvas-covered wagons were continually seen moving about over the hills, and as our various camps were wide-spread and plentifully supplied with fuel, it was thought by their journals that Johnston was in chief command of our troops, and had not less than from thirty to forty thousand men.

The truth is, that Johnston and Beauregard were manoeuvring around Fairfax Court-House with the main army, while Centreville and Manassas were being impregnably fortified; the total force with which we made so great a show numbering only some three thousand infantry, with four light field-pieces, and a squadron of cavalry. Evans, however, moved us about continually; now we marched opposite the Sugar Loaf, our tents still standing in the old camp-ground near Leesburgh; next day would find us in some other direction; so that at last the enemy were completely deceived as to our number or position, and were ever on the qui vive. So complete was the illusion, that our scouts daily informed us of counter-movements by the enemy, who, with whole brigades and divisions, were continually marching from place to place to prevent our supposed attempts at crossing! The Federal commander Stone was an old schoolfellow with Evans at West-Point, and smart messages, it is said, were frequently passed between the rival commanders across the river. Picket-firing was constantly maintained between the guards on opposite-banks of the stream, with more animosity, however, than decided effect.

The enemy was still on our side of the Potomac at Lovettsville, and it was determined first to entice them into the interior, and then surround them, if possible. Scouts came in daily, correctly informing us of the position, number, and [74] depredations of the enemy, but we were sorry to learn that the inhabitants of the surrounding country patronized them. The people of Lovettsville and Waterford were chiefly Pennsylvania Quakers, who had of late years settled there, and although their creed forbade warfare, they fought amazingly well with the tongue in favor of Unionism, and had on several occasions betrayed our men to the enemy. General Evans had warned them against harboring the foe, but they replied by concocting a plan to destroy all our cavalry in the neighborhood. An old broad-brimmed proprietor of an. antiquated hotel invited the captain of cavalry to halt and refresh his men. The soldier willingly did so, but while engaged at dinner, the premises were surrounded by several hostile squadrons. Our men mounted and fought their way out as best they could, but lost half their number in killed and missing.

Exasperated at the perfidy of these fanatics, Evans summoned his brigade, and leaving camps standing, to deceive the telegraph at the Sugar Loaf, sallied forth towards Lovettsville long before day. When the sun rose over Maryland, we had just halted on a lofty hill and lay in the woods. The scenery on either hand was enrapturing. East of us lay the wide expanse of Maryland and Loudon, bathed in gold; the Potomac, winding to the sea, was covered with a dense white vapor that sparkled like molten silver; clouds capped the Sugar Loaf; while to the west rose dark lines of mist-covered hills and mountains, with snow-white villages dotting the undulating landscape. The column pushed rapidly forward; but ere midday large black clouds gathered on the mountains, and a tremendous rain poured into the valley. At “secure arms,” our boys trudged along manfully through mud and water, and as we approached our destination, horsemen were seen hovering in the advance, and rapidly disappearing. With our cavalry to the front, we moved forward at a quick pace, and, halting within a mile of the town, unexpectedly came upon a large body of horse, who were instantly charged by our troopers. A desperate encounter ensued; the enemy gave way, a running fight took place; friend and foe simultaneously charging through the town in the greatest confusion. The enemy were at last driven into the river in sight of their whole force drawn up on the opposite bank. Next morning, finding — the place [75] deserted, and the enemy being dislodged, we took our departure, without damaging the village, although both officers and men were sufficiently incensed to have burned the miserable place to the ground.

Excursions of this nature were now of weekly occurrence, but we were not made acquainted with the reasons for them. Only we knew that Evans seemed to delight in keeping his men moving, and his only answer to the remonstrances of sundry fat old officers, who did not much relish marching and countermarching, retreating and advancing, was to swear roundly, and threaten to kick them out of his office. It cannot be denied that our position was a critical one, and required great caution. The enemy at length became aware that we did not meditate crossing, and massed their troops at different points to dislodge us, if possible, from the fertile region of which we had possessed ourselves. Banks at Harper's Ferry, Geary at the Sugar Loaf and Point of Rocks, Stone at Poolesville and Edwards's Ferry, were encompassing us north and east; McCall was at Drainsville, sixteen miles farther east on the south bank, and could cut off our retreat across Goose Creek to the south by a bold and dashing movement; Centreville and Manassas were thirty miles distant, and from the state of the country it was impossible to bring up supplies or receive reenforcements; yet Evans was told “to hold the place at all hazards ;” and such instructions to a “fighting” general were likely to be fulfilled to the letter.

The possession of Leesburgh was, in truth, of paramount importance to us. It was populous and wealthy, and, withal, situated in a county more fruitful in supplies than any other in the State. The people of Leesburgh had been somewhat disaffected to our cause, but that had all passed, and now none were more enthusiastic for independence. The rail and other roads from Washington to Winchester ran through the town, and should it. fall, a large area of fruitful country, with the accumulated crops, both in Loudon and the Shenandoah Valley, would fall into Northern hands — a consummation devoutly wished by the Federals, as Maryland was incapable of supplying their wants. They had, moreover, to pay for what they got from their “friends ;” whereas by being quartered-among the rebels, [76] that inconvenience would be spared them, and a vast expense saved.

Our service under these circumstances was exceedingly irksome. With a river front of over forty miles to guard against a superior force and a multitude of spies, the utmost vigilance and self-denial were indispensable. Our videttes, who were young and inexperienced, occasioned much annoyance and unnecessary marching, and such was our habitual life of excitement that we could not call a single hour our own. Night and day reports would come in of some imaginary “advance” or “crossing,” and whether it were night or day, fair or foul, we marched to the threatened point, to find our suspicions groundless. At last, Evans vowed in his wrath to hang the first man that brought in false alarms, and the officer commanding likewise, for permitting it. After this informal order, we were much relieved, and enjoyed our leisure hours as best we could in town or country. For once, however, the cavalry were correct in their reports, as I will proceed to show.

Some of Geary's men at Point of Rocks were in the habit of crossing the river in large boats, and despoiling the country; besides committing all manner of outrages upon unoffending women and children, whose fathers or brothers were in the Southern army, and not unfrequently burned down their houses. A company of foot was sent up to watch for these marauders, and lay perdu in the woods for more than a week without success. At last two large scows were seen approaching, containing more than a hundred individuals, some few being renegades, but most of them New-England soldiers, and all well armed. Two other scows, similarly freighted, were descried crossing at a point higher up the river.

Both landing-places were in full view of our men, who waited until the greater number of the Federal soldiers had departed on their shameful errand, when the guards at the boats were surrounded, and of course they had no alternative but to surrender at discretion. The prisoners were secured in the woods, and we awaited the return of the marauders. After a few hours, one of the parties approached in a body, well laden, and observing military order against a surprise. Unconsciously, they advanced within our ambuscade, when our captain stepped forward, and demanded a surrender. He was answered with a [77] volley, but before they could reload, every man of them was weltering in his blood, dead or wounded.

The second boat's party, who were approaching by the same track, heard the firing, and rushed towards the landing-place; our heroes fell back some few paces, and awaited their approach. Having to pass the spot where their companions lay, they halted and gazed with horror on the destruction before them. But at the same moment our commander called upon them to surrender, and they did so. The dead and wounded were then placed in a scow, and two men, paroled, conveyed them across.

On counting over our spoil it was found that we had captured in this little affair one hundred and fifty fine English rifles, sixty revolvers, six swords, and over one hundred prisoners, besides having killed or wounded seventy-five others. We procured wagons for the plunder of the Yankees, as well as for the arms and accoutrements, and marched our prisoners to town-the civilian renegades in front. Not a man in our party was scratched in this encounter, but it tended to embitter the feeling between the respective pickets on the river-bank, and the firing became incessant. Indeed, the Yankees brought down whole regiments to oppose our guards, and maintained an incessant fusilade from sunrise till dark. Not only so, but field-pieces were brought to bear upon every tent or hut within range; and several poor farmers and laborers were unhoused. When our artillery answered, they invariably retired, and at last mounted some heavy pieces on a rising ground behind Edwards's Ferry, and incessantly shelled, in the vain hope of destroying Leesburgh, which they had not manhood enough to attempt to take. But their firing was mere waste of ammunition. Their numerous shell, from some unknown cause, though thrown from rifled cannon of the very best quality, always fell short a mile. The distance was not more than two miles and a half.

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Nathan Evans (9)
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Joe Johnston (2)
Geary (2)
George B. McClellan (1)
James McCall (1)
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G. T. Beauregard (1)
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