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Chapter 1:

  • Voyage, and arrival in the States

On the 29th day of April 1862, I embarked at Queenstown on board the fine new steamer Hero, a vessel which had been built for running the blockade into the ports of the Confederate States of America, and was soon upon the bright waters of the Channel, bound for the theatre of war in the New World. Several most agreeable companions shared with me the accommodations of the steamer, and with smooth seas and pleasant skies we made a delightful voyage of twenty days to Nassau, unattended by any other than the ordinary incidents of the ocean transit. Off the Spanish coast we skirted a heavy gale; but as we proceeded from high to low latitudes the weather became every day more and more charming, until we ran upon an even keel into the blue phosphorescent seas that lave the coral reefs of the Bahamas. Here we met with an interruption which seemed likely for a time to terminate my American adventures, if I may be allowed the Hibernicism, before they had begun. As we were nearing the island of New Providence, within sight of the island of Abaco, a steamer appeared on our quarter bearing towards us under English colours. The captain of the Hero, apprehending no trouble from a vessel which he mistook for the regular English mail-packet, kept on his course, though it [2] would have been an easy matter to escape the pursuit of the stranger had he supposed her intentions were unfriendly. As we came within range, a light puff of smoke from the stranger's side, and the whiz of a shell through the air a little astern of us, made it clear enough that the purpose was to board the Hero; and accordingly our engines were immediately stopped, and there speedily danced alongside a small boat, from which three Federal officers ascended to our decks. The steamer proved to be the U. S. gunboat Mercedita, and her commander, not doubting for a moment that he had made a valuable capture, had sent off a boat's crew to take possession of his prize. Whether the officers who represented him were annoyed at discovering that the Hero was not as yet liable to capture, or whether incivility was habitual to them, it is certain that they behaved towards us with a degree of rudeness such as I have rarely witnessed. After a detention of five hours, however, we were permitted to continue our course; the Federal officers rowed back to the Mercedita, and we had the satisfaction of seeing that vigilant cruiser soon become a mere speck on the evening horizon.

I was the more disturbed by this most unwelcome visitation, because it deprived me of many valuable papers and Mss., letters of introduction, and the like, which, fearing they might be seized and read by our visitors, I burned upon their approach.

A few hours later the island of Abaco appeared plainly in view, and with the rich sunset we ran past the islets of coral, each tufted with tropical vegetation, which mark the entrance of the harbour of Nassau. The cargo of the Hero consisting in great part of powder, we were compelled, in accordance with the regulations of the port, to lie — to five miles off shore; but the vessel having been signalled, a boat was soon sent to us, from which stepped aboard a young English midshipman who could not have been more than fourteen years of age, [3] but who seemed fully conscious of the importance wherewith he was clothed by her Majesty's uniform. This beardless officer, having taken a look at the ship's papers and a glass of grog with becoming dignity, returned to Nassau, leaving us ill content to remain all night in the steamer, from which we saw the sparkling lights of the city and caught the delicious perfume wafted seaward from the island. At six o'clock next morning we found the ship surrounded by barges filled with negroes, who clamoured loudly for the privilege of taking us ashore. We had some difficulty in conducting negotiations from the ship's side amid the horrible din that assailed our ears, but we at last succeeded in securing a boat with six dusky oarsmen, two or three of them Africans by birth, who pulled us to the landing in two and a half hours. The sun poured down upon the sea with almost intolerable fervour, but there was refreshment in looking into the cool blue water, which was so marvellously clear that we could easily distinguish the pebbles strewn upon the bottom at the depth of forty feet.

New Providence is the smallest of the Bahamas, belonging to the West Indian Archipelago, and contains about 13,000 inhabitants, of whom two-thirds are free negroes, under the colonial government of Great Britain. Nassau, its only port, was a gay enough little place at the time of my visit, though, doubtless, with the discontinuance of its trade with the Southern ports, through the Federal blockade, it has subsided into its normal quietude; the busy population that was then seen upon its wharves has most probably disappeared, and the buzz of animated conversation is heard no more on summer evenings along the verandahs of the Royal Victoria Hotel. This large and comfortable establishment occupies the highest point of the island, and looks down upon the town, which stretches away to the right and left, terraced from the sea in regular gradations of ascent. What strikes one most [4] forcibly in the external appearance of Nassau are the violent contrasts it presents to the eye. Nothing is subdued. The white Spanish houses absolutely glister in the overpowering glare of the sun. The roofs are as white as if they were covered with snow, being constructed, like the walls, of the coral formation of the island. The streets and roadways are dazzlingly white, and an impalpable dust rises in white clouds from every passing vehicle. The men are dressed in white from top to toe-white muslin turbans around their straw hats, and their feet encased in white canvass shoes, like those worn by the boating crews of the Thames rowing-clubs. Such are the lights of the picture. The shadows are supplied by the dark foliage of the orange and banana trees, the dense shade of the laurel thickets, and the intense black of the faces of the negroes. Black waiters at the hotel, black shopkeepers in the town, black soldiers on guard, black belles on the promenade — the effect was striking against the whiteness of the buildings and the thoroughfares. The “irrepressible negro” asserts himself immensely at Nassau. He seeks, and not altogether in vain, to unite the greatest possible amount of consequence with the least possible amount of work. But the negro women amused me most of any. In all their native hideousness of form and feature, they bedizen their persons with European costumes, of every fashion, fabric, and colour, and walk the streets with a solemn dignity that even a Spanish hidalgo might envy.

I had not supposed that I should be so much impressed with the variety and beauty of the vegetable and insect life of the tropics; but even the broiling sun did not deter me from making daily little excursions around the island, armed with a white cotton umbrella, and wearing, after the manner of the foreign residents, the broad-brimmed Panama hat with its encircling muslin turban. I must have afforded some amusement to the natives, and others familiar with tropical scenery, [5] as I stalked abroad thus defended, stopping every now and then to examine some strange and beautiful flower, or to admire the innumerable humming-birds and gorgeous butterflies that fluttered above it, or to purchase, at the stalls of the incessantly chattering negresses, luscious fruits which they offered me, and of which I did not even know the name. The heat of the day was tempered, up to the hour of 10 A. M., by a mild sea-breeze, but the air then became perfectly calm and slumberous, and about mid-day the sun was burning with such power that one felt oppressed as by a leaden weight upon the chest. I rose generally at five in the morning and strolled down to the negro cottages, some of which were very pleasant little dwellings, and all were surrounded by small gardens filled with a profusion of fruit and flowers. Here I first saw the pine-apple growing in the open air, the orangetree, heavy with its golden globes and fragrant blossoms, the palmetto, and the cocoa-palm with its ripening nuts, the cactus of every size, from the small creeper, winding along the rocks and walls, to the large tree-like specimen that lifts its head high above the ground, and flings out its scarlet bloom like a banner in the air. Near to the hotel was a magnificent cotton-tree of tremendous size, the trunk being fifteen feet in diameter, and the branches covering nearly an acre of ground, which was justly esteemed the pride of the island. Here, as indeed everywhere else, were hundreds of lizards darting over the rocky surface, of which the most interesting was the chameleon, so strangely and rapidly changing its colours.

Among the guests in the Royal Victoria Hotel at this time were many gentlemen of the Confederate States, who, as soon as my intentions were made known to them, manifested the liveliest interest in my behalf; and a number of captains of steamers destined for Southern parts, with like unanimity, offered me a free passage to the “sunny South.” It was our custom to assemble on the highest verandah of the building [6] to witness the setting of the sun, which seemed to dive into the blue ocean, reddening and gilding with transient splendours the distant reefs of coral. No lingering, pensive twilight, such as belongs to the latitude of England in the long days of summer, marks the approach of night in the Bahamas. For a brief period sky and wave are tinged with crimson, and then “at one stride came the dark.” The decline of the sun was the signal for all the flowers, shrivelled and half-killed by the day's heat, to open their long-closed petals, lading the air with voluptuous perfumes, which were borne to us by every passing breeze. Myriads of fire-flies glittered around us; the temperature was delightful; the stars shone with a brilliancy unknown to me; and I enjoyed the strange, mysterious beauty of those tropical nights more deeply than I can express.

I had linked my fortunes upon the Atlantic with those of the Hero, but it very soon appeared that she would be obliged to unload a portion of her cargo at Nassau, and thus be detained at that port for several weeks. The news from America by every arrival became more and more exciting. It appeared inevitable that heavy battles would very soon be fought before Richmond, and I earnestly desired to take an active part in them. My position, besides, was embarrassing. My letters of introduction and recommendation had been destroyed. I did not know a human being in the foreign country whither I was going, nor did I even speak the English language. I was at a loss, therefore, to conjecture how I should carry out my objects. At this juncture, one of my travelling companions, Mr W., readily apprehending my difficulty, gave me the best proof of his friendship by offering to run the blockade with me in the next steamer to Charleston, and accompany me, without loss of time, to Richmond, where he would present me to the authorities. Accordingly we found ourselves, five days after our arrival at Nassau, early on the morning of the 22d May, on board the steamer [7] Kate, and soon Nassau, with its white houses and white streets, and dark laurel thickets, and harbour crowded with steamers, among which I regarded with peculiar interest the well-known Nashville, was far behind us.

The first two days of our voyage to Charleston passed without incident, but on the morning of the third we ran in sight of the coast of Florida, and the greatest excitement prevailed in our small community, the Federal blockading squadron being, as we knew, not far distant. Our furnaces were fed with the anthracite coal of America, which emits but little smoke to arrest the notice of blockaders; yet we proceeded very cautiously at half-speed, until we arrived within fifty miles by chart of Charleston harbour, when we stopped to await the protecting darkness of the coming night. At that time running the blockade was not thought so easy a matter as it afterwards proved to be, and the anxiety of many of our passengers began to be gravely and, in some cases, ludicrously exhibited. The vigilant captain did not leave the mast-head; and whoever could procure a marine glass swept the line of sea and sky for hours together, looking out in every direction with the greatest solicitude for the dreaded sails of the Federal cruisers. I had myself got my arms ready, and gathered together such of my effects as I supposed I should need most in future campaigning, so that in case we should be chased and obliged to abandon the vessel I might be able to carry them with me in the small boat. But no cruiser appeared, all remained quiet, and about dusk the sky began to be darkened with heavy clouds, which were greeted by us with extreme satisfaction. There was a large quantity of powder on board the Kate, and this powder for some reason had been stored immediately beneath the decks: we had therefore an uncomfortably reasonable prospect of being blown into eternity by the first shell from the Federal fleet that should be only too well directed. The captain had [8] informed us of this circumstance before he consented to receive us as passengers, but we willingly accepted the risk, “trusting to luck” as to the steamer and ourselves. At nightfall our engines were again set in motion; the clouds had overspread the whole firmament; only here and there a star twinkled through the black canopy; and the sombre silence was unbroken save by the sound of the paddles striking against the water, and the whispers of our ship's company, who were all on deck peering most anxiously into the surrounding darkness.

It was about an hour past midnight when, reaching the entrance of the harbour of Charleston, we discovered a red light on our right hand, a green light on our left hand, and seven or eight others of various colours at a little distance all around us. These were the Federal blockaders awaiting their prey, and right between them had we to pass. The excitement now mounted to its highest point. The reflection of the red light upon the water ran out towards us like the coil of a fiery serpent, seeming to touch the wheelhouse, and to sport with the reflection of the green light from the opposite quarter, and we expected every moment to hear the booming of the blockaders' guns; but good fortune favoured us — the dreaded lights were soon glimmering in our wake-and from the frowning fortress of Sumter there thundered forth, as we interpreted it, a friendly salute that gladdened every heart. With no complimentary intentions, however, was this gun fired. We had been mistaken for an enemy, and had a narrow escape of being sent to the bottom by Confederate cannoneers, after having safely passed the perils of the blockade. But the good fortune of the Kate did not forsake her in this critical moment. Our engines were immediately stopped, a boat came off from the fort, explanations and congratulations were interchanged, after which we moved in perfect security up the harbour. Nature demanded rest after so much [9] fatigue, sleeplessness, and excitement, and I was fast asleep when the Kate ran slowly into the dock.

The early morning found me awake and looking with great interest upon the strange land where I knew not what the immediate future had in store for me. Charleston lay before me in the full splendour of the newly-risen sun, and presented — with its harbour full of vessels, its commodious villa-like private dwellings, its luxuriant gardens, its straight streets lined on either side by noble trees, its sparkling sea-front, against which the blue wave broke gently-a magnificent appearance. As I walked into the town I could not fail to remark the absence of that bustle one usually finds in a large city. This was explained by the fact that an attack by the Federal fleet was daily expected, in consequence of which many places of business were closed, and many families had gone into the interior. But if the traffic of the town was suspended, the streets gave evidence everywhere of great military activity. Companies of infantry in every variety of dress and armed with all sorts of weapons were marching about, and cavalrymen in the most picturesque costumes were galloping up and down on fine-looking horses. Accustomed as I was to European discipline and uniform, I must confess that on me the first impression of these Confederate soldiers was not favourable, and far was I from any idea how soon these same men would excite my highest admiration on the battle-field. But I had little opportunity for extended observation at Charleston. The train for Richmond left the station about noon, and I was of its passengers, wondering at the odd-shaped, long lumbering railway carriage or “car,” rolling, rapidly and dangerously, with more than fifty other occupants, towards the scene of military operations in Virginia. I need say nothing of the wretched railway system, or want of system, of America; the single line of rails, the loosely-built road-bed, the frightful trestle-work over deep [10] gorges, the frail wooden bridges thrown across rushing rivers, and the headlong speed at which the train is often urged on its perilous way. With every month of the war the railroads of the Southern States became worse and worse, until a long journey by rail-say from Montgomery to Richmond — was as hazardous as picket duty on the Potomac. But our journey to Richmond was safely and comfortably accomplished. Whizzing through the rice and cotton fields, the oozy swamps and dark pine-woods of the two Carolinas, we came at last to forests of oak and hickory, alternating with peaceful-looking farms and fertile estates in the fair land of the “Old Dominion;” and, crossing the James river upon a bridge of giddy elevation, we entered within the walls of the Confederate capital.

Richmond, the seat of government of Virginia, and, for four years, of the Confederate States, had at that time about 70,000 inhabitants. Unrivalled in America for the picturesque beauty of its situation on the north bank of the James river, it impressed the stranger most agreeably by its general air of comfort, cleanliness, and thrift. Opposite the upper portion of the city the river flows between lofty hills over a rocky bed, which breaks it into innumerable cascades, murmuring in the stillness of the night a perpetual lullaby to the inhabitants. In the immediate centre of the town is a pretty little park, with several fine statues, some trumpery fountains, and a grove of umbrageous lindens, surrounding the Capitol, a large building of brick and stucco, erected in 1785, which looks noble in the distant view, but is mean and paltry upon near approach. The streets are long and straight, intersecting each other, with few exceptions, at right angles, and shaded throughout the larger part of the city's limits by native trees, the maple and tulip-poplar predominating. Pleasant dwellings, with porticoes and trellised verandahs, embowered in gardens, crowned the hills-dwellings that [11] still remain to render more painful by contrast the ruin caused by the great conflagration which, three years later, laid the whole business quarter of the town in ashes. The external aspect of Richmond, at the period of my first acquaintance with it, was indeed very striking. It was the season of roses, and Nature, unconscious of war, had arrayed herself in all her pomp to welcome the ardent and prodigal Southern summer. Nothing could seem more peaceful than Franklin Street at evening, with groups of ladies and officers in the porticoes enjoying the cool hours that succeeded to the fierce heats of the day. Nothing could more plainly denote the condition of war than the appearance of the principal thoroughfares and the highways leading into the country. The din of active preparation struck continuously upon the ear in the roar of the forge, and the clatter of the army-waggon, and the heavy tramp of armed men. Large bodies of troops were marching and countermarching through the streets, orderlies and couriers were galloping about in every direction, and the notes of the fife and drum had hardly died away in the distance before the echoes were waked by the stormier music of a full military band. The vast army of McClellan hovered upon the northern and eastern skirts of the city, and over the line of the Chickahominy, which might be faintly traced from the tops of the highest buildings, his camp-fires could even be seen by night, and his balloons of observation, hanging like oranges in the sky, were clearly discernible in the afternoon. It was plain enough that an attack of the enemy in heavy force was expected at any moment. Under such exciting circumstances it was no less remarkable than gratifying to see how calmly and with what perfect confidence the people awaited the momentous events which were so near at hand.

In the uncertain state of affairs at Richmond, the prices of all articles in the shops augmented daily, but I converted my gold into Confederate money at a broker's at the liberal rate [12] of two for one, and thought it a very clever financial operation. The difficulties I met with, however, in securing a position in the army were far greater than I had expected. The ashes of my letters of introduction were suspended in the restless waters of the Atlantic. The Government, I found, was disinclined to give commissions to foreigners, all the officers of the Confederate army at that time, except the general and staff officers, being elected by the men; and although Mr W., by repeated applications to the different authorities, had done all in his power to further my interests, he had met with no success whatever. At length, on the evening of his departure from the city, he informed me that he had seen the Secretary of War, General Randolph, who had manifested much interest in my situation, and would grant me an interview at one o'clock the next day. At the appointed hour I repaired to the War Department, and was received with great kindness by General Randolph, a most intelligent and amiable gentleman, who, after I had endeavoured to explain to him my plans and wishes in execrable English, gave me a letter to General J. E. B. Stuart, then commanding the cavalry of the army defending Richmond, and, at the same time, an order to procure a horse at the Government stables, with the advice to lose not a moment if I desired to see something of the impending battles. The Government stables were full of good horses, and I had no difficulty in finding an excellent chestnut mare, which afterwards carried me nobly on many a hard ride. At the earliest dawn of morning, on the 30th, an orderly reported to me with the mare in front of my hotel, and I jumped into the saddle, well equipped from head to foot, full of strength and buoyant in spirits, to ride forward to the field.

We trotted out of the city, and across the wooded plain through which runs the Brooke turnpike, passing the extensive fortifications and the long lines of the Confederate army. [13] With the liveliest interest I looked upon these masses of warrior-like men, in their ill-assorted costumes, who had come with alacrity from the Carolinas, from distant Mississippi and yet more distant Texas, from sunny Florida, from fertile Georgia, from Alabama, land of mountain and canebrake, from the regions of Louisiana, to imperil their lives in the defence of their much-loved South, and for the expulsion of the invader from its borders. Brigade after brigade we saw awaiting the summons to the battle which was so soon to come. It was no easy matter to find General Stuart, who, as commanding officer of the outposts, was anywhere along the extended lines, and the sun was near its setting when we reached the camp of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. Here I presented myself for information to the officer in command, Colonel Fitzhugh Lee, who assured me that it would be next to impossible to find General Stuart that night, and kindly offered me the hospitality of his tent. As threatening thunderclouds were driving up the western horizon, and I was much fatigued by my day's ride, I gladly accepted the invitation. The camp was a novelty to me in the art of castrametation. The horses were not picketed in regular lines as in European armies, but were scattered about anywhere in the neighbouring wood, some tethered to swinging limbs, some tied to small trees, others again left to browse at will upon the undergrowth. In a very short time I was perfectly at home in the Colonel's tent, where the officers of his regiment had assembled, and where the lively strains of the banjo alternated with patriotic songs and animated discourse. During the evening a supper was served which, under existing circumstances, was really luxurious, and one of the chief dishes of which consisted of the eggs of the terrapin found in a creek near the camp by Colonel Lee's faithful negro servant, who was at once head-cook, valet, and steward. I am sure that no work of art from the kitchen of the Cafe Riche could have [14] been more gratifying to my hungry appetite than these terrapin's eggs taken out of a Virginia swamp and cooked upon the instant in a cavalry encampment. Soon after supper we retired to rest, but little sleep came to my weary eyelids; for a terrible hurricane, accompanied by thunder and lightning, raged throughout the night, the peals of thunder shaking the earth, and the flashes of lightning almost blinding me with their incessant vivid glare. I was awake and fully dressed the next morning when, with the first glimpse of the sun breaking through the battered clouds, the trumpet sounded to saddle, and Colonel Lee informed me that he had just received marching orders. He added that he should start in fifteen minutes, and my best chance of meeting General Stuart was to ride with the regiment. It was marvellous to see how recently these unmilitary-looking troopers obeyed the orders of their colonel, and with what discipline and rapidity the breaking up of the camp was managed. I suffered the whole regiment, 800 strong, to pass me, that I might observe more narrowly its composition. The scrutiny called forth my admiration. The men were all Virginians, whose easy and graceful seat betrayed the constant habit of horseback exercise, and they were mounted mostly on blooded animals, some of which the most ambitious Guardsman or the most particular “swell” in London would have been glad to show off in Hyde Park. Looking back across three eventful years to that morning's march, I realise how little it was in my thought that my lot should be knit so closely with that of these brave fellows in fatigue and in fight, and that I should have to mourn the loss of, alas! so many who afterwards fell around me in battle. After a ride of three hours, passing directly through Richmond to the opposite side of the city, we reached our destination, and Colonel Lee pointed out to me a man, galloping rapidly along on an active, handsome horse. This was Stuart, the man whose arrival I awaited so anxiously, [15] and who subsequently became one of the truest and best friends I have had in this world.

General Stuart was a stoutly-built man, rather above the middle height, of a most frank and winning expression, the lower part of his fine face covered with a thick brown beard, which flowed over his breast. His eye was quick and piercing, of a light blue in repose, but changing to a darker tinge under high excitement. His whole person seemed instinct with vitality, his movements were alert, his observation keen and rapid, and altogether he was to me the model of a dashing cavalry leader. Before the breaking out of hostilities between the North and South, he had served in the 1st United States Cavalry, of which regiment General Joseph E. Johnston was the Lieut.-Colonel, against the Indians of the Far West, and was severely wounded in an encounter with the Cheyennes on the Solomon's Fork of the Kansas river, in July 1857. In that wild life of the prairie, now chasing the buffalo, now pursuing the treacherous savage, Stuart had passed nearly all his waking hours in the saddle, and thus became one of the most fearless and dexterous horsemen in America, and he had acquired a love of adventure which made activity a necessity of his being. He delighted in the neighing of the charger and the clangour of the bugle, and he had something of Murat's weakness for the vanities of military parade. He betrayed this latter quality in his jaunty uniform, which consisted of a small grey jacket, trousers of the same stuff, and over them high military boots, a yellow silk sash, and a grey slouch hat, surmounted by a sweeping black ostrich plume. Thus attired, sitting gracefully on his fine horse, he did not fail to attract the notice and admiration of all who saw him ride along. This is not the place to expatiate on the military character of General Stuart. His deeds will form the most considerable portion of this narrative, and out of them [16] an estimate of his soldierly qualities will naturally grow up in the reader's mind.

At the moment of our first meeting we could exchange but a few words. The battle was just about to commence, and my presentation to him was necessarily hurried and informal. After reading General Randolph's letter, he said he should be glad to have me at his side during the day's fight, and then presented me to a number of well-mounted young officers, members of his Staff, and to General Longstreet and his suite. At this instant the roar of the artillery gave the signal that the “ball had opened,” and the whole cavalcade, the generals leading, proceeded in rapid gallop to the front.

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