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Chapter 13:

  • Camp-life at headquarters near Culpepper Court-house.
  • -- ten days in Richmond. -- return to headquarters. -- a disagreeable journey. -- Burnside's change of base. -- headquarters near Fredericksburg. -- description of the town. -- danger of our English visitor. -- opossum-hunting.

All was quiet next day at headquarters, and we had the pleasure of seeing there Mrs Stuart, who had arrived at Culpepper Court-house the previous evening. She had come to spend some days with her husband, to share with him her sacred grief in the calamity that had befallen them both. It was a melancholy pleasure to see how well that admirable lady bore up under the weight of her affliction, in tender regard for her husband. Her manner was composed, but her eyes betrayed their frequent overflow of tears; and the warm pressure of the hand she silently gave me upon our meeting, indicated that words could not describe the agony she had endured. Mrs Stuart had brought with her to camp her son Jemmy, a stout little “three-year-old,” who, in his vivacity, in his passion for horses, and in his whole appearance, strongly resembled his father. Whenever his mother or his negro “mammy” left him unguarded for a moment, Jemmy was immediately among the horses; and the greatest gratification [271] I could give him was to take him for a rapid gallop before me in the saddle. During the morning General Lee came over to our camp on a short visit, and I was touched by the gentle, sympathising way in which he talked with Mrs Stuart. Our friend Lawley having announced by telegram his coming in this day's train from Richmond, I drove over to the station at Culpepper Court-house to meet so welcome a guest, who had promised to give us the pleasure of his company for several days. To do him proper honour, I substituted on this occasion for the rough-going, yellow-painted waggon in which Pelham and I were accustomed to make most of our journeys, a top-buggy which Stuart had brought from Pennsylvania.

On the 12th the General started on a reconnaissance “to stir up the Yankees a little,” as he expressed himself, in which he was accompanied by Lawley, who desired to get an idea of our mode of cavalry fighting. My orders were to remain at headquarters in the performance of some important duties there. I disliked this exceedingly, but I was soon compensated by the unexpected arrival of Vizetelly and Brien, who, after a very amusing ride through the valley and across the Blue Ridge, had at last found us again, and came into the encampment with the outburst of “Dixie,” sung to new words, the composition of the versatile Vizetelly himself. Most heartily were these guests welcomed by the whole camp. The negroes especially were greatly pleased to greet “Major Telly” (a name and title they had adopted for the artist) once more at headquarters. During the evening General Stuart returned from his “stirring-up” expedition, which had been so successful that he brought back with him about thirty prisoners, among whom were several officers.

Dinner was soon after served, and though poor in viands it was rich in good fellowship, in mirth and anecdote and song. On this excursion, of which we had animated accounts from Stuart and Lawley, Captain Farley had executed another of [272] those daring feats for which he was so famous, and the recital of it called forth the highest compliments of our whole dinner-party. Riding forward alone, as was his custom, through the woods in the direction of the enemy, he discovered a regiment of Federal infantry marching along the road, and observed the colonel and adjutant making a little detour to a neighbouring plantation-house, doubtless in the hope of obtaining eatables for themselves or forage for their horses. As soon as they had dismounted and entered the dwelling, Farley rode up, and, confronting the astonished officers with his revolver, said, “Gentlemen, you are my prisoners; make the least outcry to your men for assistance and I will blow your brains out.” The brave colonel and adjutant, finding it was the best they could do, surrendered at discretion; and Farley brought them quietly into our lines, with their excellent and well-equipped horses, away from their regiment, which was marching along at a distance of only a few hundred yards. The astonishment of the regiment at this sudden and inexplicable disappearance of its commander may be imagined.

Fitzhugh and I having been invited to supper with Captain Dearing, a friend of ours commanding a battery of Pickett's division in Longstreet's corps, who was encamped about two miles off, started on foot, late in the evening, for this entertainment, and after losing ourselves in the darkness, and getting our boots full of water in a swamp, at last reached the camp of the gay artilleryman, where we found large company and little supper. The “spread,” indeed, consisted only of a small piece of pork and a canteen of bad apple-brandy; but wit and good-humour make amends for the lack of dishes, and our songs re-echoed through the adjoining forests. Dearing soon proposed that we should send a courier for Bob Sweeney and his banjo, which was carried nem. con.; and before half an hour had elapsed, the joyous minstrel occupied [273] the post of honour upon the large mess-chest at our great camp-fire, and the music of the banjo, the songs of the bivouac, and the dances of the negroes, amused us till a late hour, when we returned on Dearing's horses to our headquarters.1

On Sunday the 14th, General Stuart said to me that, as all was quiet along the lines, he wished me to go to Richmond for a few days on some matters of business. As I had never once asked for leave of absence since the commencement of my eventful campaigning, the General, at my request, very readily extended the term of my sojourn at the capital to ten days. Brien and Vizetelly having determined to accompany me, the gay trio soon rolled along in one of the most uncomfortable of railway carriages to our place of destination, where we arrived the same evening, and took lodgings at the well-known Spotswood Hotel. My personal appearance, after so long a period of rough service in the field, was somewhat out of repair for the streets of the metropolis. I looked, indeed, more like a bandit than a Staff officer. There were several large holes for ventilation in my hat, my coat was full of rents, and my riding-boots were soleless, so that, having worn for some time past my last pair of socks, my naked feet now touched the pavement as I walked. Not desiring to exhibit myself in this plight to the good people of Richmond, I was obliged to spend the greater part of the following day in my room, until my tailor could make me presentable again. The effect of dress upon the outward man has very often been dwelt upon by worldly philosophers. [274] When, in my new externals, I met Vizetelly in the afternoon, he barely recognised me, and assured me, with many polite bows, that he had not supposed it possible that I could have changed so much for the better.

I found Richmond very little altered; especially had its generous hospitality known no abatement. I was received in many houses with a cordial welcome. Of course, I did not fail to pay my respects to GeneralRandolph and Mrs Randolph, who listened with the most flattering interest to the account of my adventures, and manifested their astonishment at my rapid progress in the English language. Very pleasant hours I spent at the charming residences of Mr P. and Mr W. H. M. With dinner-parties and business engagements, the time passed swiftly by, and I could scarcely believe that I had spent so long an interval of social enjoyment when the day of my departure arrived.

I had packed my portmanteau and taken leave of my kind friends of both sexes in Richmond, and the negro waiter at the Spotswood Hotel had just left my room, promising, with a grin upon his swarthy face, that I should certainly be called in time for the early train the following morning, when a telegram was brought me from General Stuart, ordering me to proceed by rail, not to Culpepper Court-house, as I had intended, but to the vicinity of Fredericksburg, to which place he was upon the eve of transferring his headquarters. General McClellan had already, on the 7th of November, been superseded as Federal Commander-in-Chief by General Burnside, who, ambitious of a glory that in his wild dreams his exalted position seemed to promise him, and vehemently urged by the Government at Washington to rouse himself from his inactivity, and undertake something conclusive with his largely [275] reinforced and splendidly equipped army, had decided to try the shortest and most direct route to the long-coveted Confederate capital. Accordingly the new commander had moved the greater part of his force by rapid marches down the Rappahannock towards Fredericksburg, hoping to cross the river and occupy the town before Lee should be able to divine his intentions. But Mr Burnside had not counted on the vigilance of Stuart's cavalry, the untiring activity of our scouts, and the promptness of decision that belonged to our noble leader; and when he arrived opposite Fredericksburg, demanding, in grand words, the surrender of the place, he found Longstreet, to his great surprise, seriously objecting to this,--Longstreet who, by a movement parallel to his own, had reached the spot with his corps several hours too early for him. Whereupon the Federal General was fain, after many useless threats to shell the town, to postpone yet a little while his rapid “On to Richmond,” thus giving General Lee time to move his whole force towards Fredericksburg, where, at the end of November, the two hostile armies were confronting each other.

This change of base gave me one day's longer leave of absence, as I could reach the vicinity of Fredericksburg by rail in twenty-four hours less time than Stuart by marching across the country. There being nothing to detain me in Richmond, I took advantage of my additional holiday to visit my dear friends, Dr P----and his family, at Dundee, near Hanover Court-house, where I passed Sunday the 22d most delightfully, continuing my journey next day to Hanover Junction, which point I reached unfortunately too late for the passenger-train to Fredericksburg. Being thus compelled to take a freight train, and to ride in an open flat, I felt the sharp, eager wintry air intensely. The train moved at a very slow pace, stopping at every little wayside station, so that it was late at night when we arrived at Hamilton's Crossing, the last [276] stopping-place before reaching Fredericksburg. Here we were obliged to bring the train to rest a quarter of a mile from the station, as it was within range of the enemy's guns, and the Yankees shelled it furiously whenever they heard the sound of an engine. I was thus landed in utter darkness in the depths of the forest, and found myself soon sitting on my portmanteau, with every reasonable prospect that I should remain in this position until morning. Fortunately there were a number of Confederate surgeons, who, having been released from the different hospitals within the enemy's lines, were en route to report again to their respective commands, and had left the train under the same unhappy circumstances with myself; and as a common misfortune always quickly unites those who are casually thrown together, it was not long before we were assisting each other in removing our luggage to a fire which at some distance glimmered through the woods. Here, to our great satisfaction, we found the camp of a quartermaster of the army, who was able to give us all the information we desired, and very promptly rendered us every assistance. As the bulk of our army was three or four miles, and Stuart's headquarters at least five miles distant, and we had no means of transportation, we determined to rest here for the night, and readily availed ourselves of a large tent-fly which the quartermaster was kind enough to offer us, beneath which we were soon sufficiently comfortable-each member of the party contributing, from the stores brought with him, to a supper that might have been called luxurious. The next morning we contrived to get hold of an ambulance, and made an early start on our roundabout journey to the different positions of our troops. My point of destination being the most distant, I had to wait until the last of my pleasant companions had reached his special command before I could turn the horses' heads directly to Stuart's [277] headquarters, which I gained not until a late hour of the forenoon.

Our camp was situated in a small piece of pinewoods about five miles from Fredericksburg, on the Telegraph Road leading from that place to Richmond. The white tents gleamed pleasantly amid the dense umbrage of the evergreen pines; straight into the frosty air rose the columns of blue smoke from many chimneys, and the whole encampment wore so snug and comfortable an appearance, that it was far from affording me the least suggestion of the cold and hunger I should yet have to endure on this very spot. I had scarcely climbed out of the ambulance, the news of my arrival having been rapidly circulated through the camp, when comrades and couriers, Stuart foremost of them all, hastened to welcome me. My chief was so much delighted at my return that he threw his arms around my neck in a transport of affection, and the general manner of my reception greatly heightened the happiness I felt in being once more with my dear companions-in-arms. My tent had been already pitched; in the large chimney of it a generous fire was in full blaze, and I had no sooner entered my new abode than I felt entirely at home in it. But I had scarcely time to deposit my luggage and hang up my arms, when Stuart's ringing voice summoned me to his ample tent, which boasted, besides many little internal comforts, the phenomenal adjunct of two chimneys, and of which my chief seemed to be as proud as an Indian nabob of his sumptuous palace. Here all the members of the Staff soon gathered around me, and many more questions were asked of me in a few minutes than I could answer in an hour. The greater part of these questions referred to the pretty and accomplished young ladies I had seen in Richmond, the very mention of whose names caused the hearts of several of my younger comrades to beat quicker than the excitement of the field of battle. Dinner followed without loss of time; then [278] came Sweeney with his banjo, and dancing with the music; and again I enjoyed the harmless, careless gaiety of our camp-life to the top of my bent. Late in the evening we had the pleasure of greeting our friends, Messrs Lawley and Vizetelly, for whom a tent was pitched at once, and whom, by dint of blankets and a roaring wood-fire, we endeavoured to make as comfortable as possible in the severe season of frost that was upon us. Nevertheless I had a hearty laugh the next morning, when, looking for our guests, I found my friend Lawley running up and down before his tent, shivering with cold, and trying, by the addition of a few sticks which he had collected one by one, to bring a large pile of wood into blaze. The wood long resisted his efforts to fan it into lively combustion, but a cup of hot coffee and a hearty breakfast in Stuart's double-chimneyed tent soon brought him into a sufficiently genial state to accept my invitation to drive Vizetelly and himself down to Fredricksburg, to take a good look at the town and at our Yankee friends on the opposite side of the river. So the celebrated yellow waggon, with two of my chargers hitched to it, was soon in readiness, and after an hour's drive, amid the plaintive outcries of my victims as we rattled along over the rough frozen road, we reached the elevated ridge in front of the town, from which we had an excellent view of the town itself, the valley wherein it is situated, and the white tents and swarming numbers of the enemy on the heights across the Rappahannock.

Fredericksburg, one of the oldest places in Virginia, was before the war a pretty town of about 5000 inhabitants, which enjoyed a considerable local trade, and was distinguished for the hospitality and refinement that belonged to its society. It was now comparatively deserted. The larger part of its citizens had been driven off by the continued threats of bombardment which had hung like a Damocles's sword above their heads for several weeks, and the few who had [279] been compelled to remain behind plainly exhibited in their features that the apprehension of doom was pressing like an iron weight upon their hearts. The knowledge on their part that more than a hundred hostile cannon, planted on the dominating “Shepherd's Heights” of Stafford, over the river, bore directly on their unfortunate town, might well have given disquietude to this community of non-combatants. A lively contrast was presented, however, in the demeanour of Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade, stationed at Fredericksburg, the men of which were wandering carelessly about, talking and laughing, as if there were no Yankees within the radius of a thousand miles from them, or making themselves at home in several of the largest houses which had been quite converted into barracks. As the river was not more than 200 yards wide, we could distinctly see each one of the numerous Yankee sentinels who were pacing to and fro in their lightblue overcoats on the opposite bank, and who frequently engaged in amicable conversation with their adversaries across the stream, as it had been agreed that the firing by pickets at each other should be stopped for the time as a useless waste of ammunition. The Federals and Confederates were still nearer together at the site of the railway bridge which had been burnt at an earlier period of the war, leaving on either side the dismantled abutments and the timbers, extending to one or two piers, which were occupied by pickets; and I could not help feeling some solicitude for the safety of Vizetelly, who had quietly seated himself and was making a sketch of the ruins of the viaduct and of the Stafford shore, a picture which afterwards appeared in the “London Illustrated news.” We were very soon at no loss to discover that the Yankees were under the impression that one of our engineers was drawing a plan of their position and fortifications, for we could see them talking together in suspicious groups; and after a little time several officers came [280] up, who viewed our unconscious artist narrowly through their field-glasses; and had he not opportunely retired, at my instance, to a less exposed situation, a bullet from one of their sharpshooters would doubtless have demonstrated the impropriety or insecurity of his labours.

On our return we made a little detour to the headquarters of General Jenkins of South Carolina, commanding a brigade of troops from the Palmetto State in Longstreet's corps, who received us very courteously, and insisted on our dining with him — an invitation which, after some hesitation, we accepted. Poor Jenkins met with a sad fate, after having served through the greater part of the war with the greatest gallantry and distinction, and having reached the exalted rank of major-general, he was killed through misadventure by his own men upon the same unhappy occasion when Longstreet was so severely wounded.

It was late at night when we got back to our own headquarters, and I was not able to persuade our weary guests to join in a grand opossum-hunt, which the negroes had arranged to carry on in the adjoining woods. Opossum-hunting is a favourite sport with the negroes, and they rarely fail to make sure of their game. The meat of this ugly animal, which grows very fat in the latter part of the autumn, is quite similar to pork. The hunters go out always at night, when the opossum comes forth from his hole in quest of food; and the dogs, which have been carefully trained for the purpose, follow up the scent until they have made out in which tree the frightened fugitive has taken refuge, and commence at once a most dismal howling at the foot. The tree is then cut down, and the opossum, which invariably simulates death, falls an easy prey into the clutches of his enemies. (This ruse of the animal in appearing to be dead gives rise to the well-known American phrase of “playing ‘possum,” when any one affects unconsciousness.) The stranger, unaccustomed to the manner [281] of hunting the opossum, might suppose, from the horrible din that assails his ears — the blowing of horns, the yell of human voices, and the furious barking of the dogs — that the wild jager of Germany, or some equally ferocious beast of the European forest, had come over on a visit to the backwoods of America. Very frequently in the opossum-hunt the dogs start a racoon, which more closely resembles the fox, and makes always a gallant fight, at times punishing his assailants severely.

1 Captain Dearing, who was a very gallant and distinguished officer of artillery, was transferred at a later period of the war to the cavalry. He became the colonel of a North Carolina cavalry regiment, and soon afterwards a general of brigade, in which position he gained a high reputation for daring enterprise and celerity of movement. A Federal bullet ended at once his brilliant military career and his life, in one of the fights near Petersburg, a short time before the termination of the struggle.

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