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Chapter 21:

  • Fight near the Furnace.
  • -- narrow escape of Jackson and Stuart. -- Jackson's flank march. -- first battle of the Wilderness, 2d May 1863.

After doing a large amount of sleep in a very short time, we started again, considerably refreshed, for Spotsylvania Court-house, to join our cavalry there, and take up our position on Jackson's left. Towards eight o'clock, our entire army commenced a forward movement on the enemy, who had only a few isolated detachments posted in our immediate front. With these a few lively skirmishes occurred, as we encountered them in succession, and drove them gradually before us upon the main body of their troops. For many miles round the country was covered with dense forest, with only occasional patches of open space, so that we made but slow progress, and in many places our cavalry and artillery had to surmount considerable difficulties in their advance. At about four o'clock we reached a place called “The Furnace,” from some productive iron-works formerly established there; and having received an intimation from our advanced-guard that a strong body of the enemy's infantry were occupying a position about half a mile further on, immediately across our road, drawn up in line of battle to oppose our advance, Stuart at once ordered the 1st regiment of cavalry to charge. So [381] heavy a fire met our brave fellows, however, and they were so impeded by the nature of the ground, utterly unfit for cavalry operations, that they returned about as quickly as they had started, and we had to remain stationary, awaiting reinforcements from Jackson's infantry. A Georgia brigade soon came up, and, after a short but severe contest, we succeeded in driving the enemy back some distance, till they came under the protection of numerous batteries of their artillery, posted on a ridge of hills, and whose fire thundered down with such fearful effect as to check all further progress. Just at this moment Jackson galloped up, and begged Stuart to ride forward with him in order to reconnoitre the enemy's lines, and find out a point from which the enemy's artillery might be enfiladed.

A small bridle-path branching forth from the main road to the right conducted to a height about half a mile distant; and as this seemed a favourable point for their object, both Generals, accompanied by their Staffs, made for it, followed by six pieces of our horse-artillery. On reaching the spot, so dense was the undergrowth, it was found impossible to find enough clear space to bring more than one gun at a time into position; the others closed up immediately behind, and the whole body of us completely blocked up the narrow road. Scarcely had the smoke of our first shot cleared away when a couple of masked batteries suddenly opened upon us at short range, and enveloped us in a complete storm of shell and canister, which, concentrated on so narrow a space, did fearful execution among our party, men and horses falling right and left, the animals kicking and plunging wildly, and everybody eager to disentangle himself from the confusion and get out of harm's way. Jackson, as soon as he had found out his mistake, ordered the guns to retire; but the confined space so protracted the operation of turning, that the enemy's [382] cannon had full time to continue its havoc to a most fearful extent, covering the road with dead and wounded.

That Jackson and Stuart with their officers escaped was nothing short of miraculous, the only exception being Major Channing Price of our Staff, who was struck a few paces from me by a piece of shell. Poor fellow! imagining that, as no bone was broken, the wound was not dangerous, he remained at his post till he fainted in his saddle from the loss of blood, and had to be carried to a plantation about a mile in our rear. The firing now gradually slackened, and soon ceased altogether as darkness came on. As there was nothing more to be done for the present on our side, and the enemy showed no intention of continuing the fight, Jackson gave orders for the troops to fall back a short distance and go into bivouac. The position of our encampment being quite close to the house whither our wounded comrade had been conveyed, General Stuart accompanied us thither to look after his comforts and nurse him during the night. Sad was the intelligence that awaited us; poor Price was dying. The fragment of shell had severed a principal artery, and, the bleeding not having been stopped in time, he was rapidly and hopelessly sinking. It was a cruel spectacle to see the gallant young fellow stretched on his deathbed surrounded by his sorrowing friends, just able to recognise them and answer the pressure of their hands as a last farewell. His own brother, who had joined us but a few months before, leant over him to the last, watching in silent agony the pitiless progress of death. About midnight our dear friend breathed his last, and General Stuart advised us to seek some rest against the work of the ensuing day, but no sleep could I find. My heart full of grief, and my thoughts busy with memories of the departed and of his family at Richmond, who had become dear friends of mine, I wandered about all through that mild night of May, until the sounding bugle and the rolling drums roused [383] me from my reveries, to summon me to new scenes of death and destruction.

All was bustle and activity as I galloped along the lines, on the morning of the 2d, to obtain, according to Stuart's orders, the latest instructions for our cavalry from General Lee, who was located at a distance of some miles to our right. Anderson's and McLaws's sharpshooters were advancing, and already exchanging shots with the enemy's skirmishers-the line of battle of these two divisions having been partially extended over the space previously occupied by Jackson's corps, that they might cover its movements. This splendid corps, meanwhile, was marching in close columns in a direction which set us all wondering what could be the intentions of old Stonewall; but as we beheld him riding along, heading the troops himself, we should as soon have thought of questioning the sagacity of our admired chief, as of hesitating to follow him blindly wherever he should lead. The orders to the cavalry were to report to Jackson, and to form his advanced-guard; and in that capacity we marched silently along through the forest, taking a small by-road, which brought us several times so near the enemy's lines that the stroke of axes, mingled with the hum of voices from their camps, was distinctly audible.

Thus commenced the famous flank march which, more than any other operation of the war, proved the brilliant strategical talents of General Lee, and the consummate ability of his lieutenant. About two o'clock a body of Federal cavalry came in sight, making, however, but slight show of resistance, and falling back slowly before us. By about four o'clock we had completed our movement without encountering any material obstacle, and reached a patch of wood in rear of the enemy's right wing, formed by the 11th corps, Howard's, which was encamped in a large open field not more than half a mile distant. Halting here, the cavalry threw [384] forward a body of skirmishers to occupy the enemy's attention, while the divisions of Jackson's corps, A. P. Hill's, Colston's, and Rodes's, numbering in all about 28,000 men, moved into line of battle as fast as they arrived. Ordered to reconnoitre the position of the Federals, I rode cautiously forward through the forest, and reached a point whence I obtained a capital view of the greater part of their troops, whose attitude betokened how totally remote was any suspicion that a numerous host was so near at hand.

It was evident that the whole movement we had thus so successfully executed was regarded as merely an unimportant cavalry raid, for only a few squadrons were drawn up in line to oppose us, and a battery of four guns was placed in a position to command the plank-road from Germana, over which we had been marching for the last two hours. The main body of the troops were listlessly reposing, while some regiments were looking on, drawn up on dress parade; artillery horses were quietly grazing at some distance from their guns, and the whole scene presented a picture of the most perfect heedlessness and nonchalance, compatible only with utter unconsciousness of impending danger. While complacently gazing on this extraordinary spectacle, somewhat touched myself apparently with the spell of listless incaution in which our antagonists were locked, I was startled by the sound of closely approaching footsteps, and turning in their direction beheld a patrol of six or eight of the enemy's infantry just breaking through the bushes, and gazing at me with most unmistakable astonishment. I had no time to lose here, that was quite certain; so, quickly tugging my horse's head round in the direction of my line of retreat, and digging my spurs into his sides, I dashed off from before the bewildered Yankees, and was out of sight ere they had time to take steady aim, the bullets that came whizzing after me flying far wide of the mark. [385]

On my return to the spot where I had left Stuart, I found him, with Jackson and the officers of their respective Staffs, stretched out along the grass beneath a gigantic oak, and tranquilly discussing their plans for the impending battle, which both seemed confidently to regard as likely to end in a great and important victory for our arms. Towards five o'clock Jackson's adjutant, Major Pendleton, galloped up to us and reported that the line of battle was formed, and all was in readiness for immediate attack. Accordingly the order was at once given for the whole corps to advance. All hastened forthwith to their appointed posts-General Stuart and his Staff joining the cavalry, which was to operate on the left of our infantry. Scarcely had we got up to our men when the Confederate yell, which always preceded a charge, burst forth along our lines, and Jackson's veterans, who had been with difficulty held back till that moment, bounded forward towards the astounded and perfectly paralysed enemy, while the thunder of our horse-artillery, on whom devolved the honour of opening the ball, reached us from the other extremity of the line. The more hotly we sought to hasten to the front, the more obstinately did we get entangled in the undergrowth, while our infantry moved on so rapidly that the Federals were already completely routed by the time we had got thoroughly quit of the forest.

It was a strange spectacle that now greeted us. The whole of the 11th corps had broken at the first shock of the attack; entire regiments had thrown down their arms, which were lying in regular lines on the ground, as if for inspection; suppers just prepared had been abandoned; tents, baggage, waggons, cannons, half-slaughtered oxen, covered the foreground in chaotic confusion, while in the background a host of many thousand Yankees were discerned scampering for their lives as fast as their limbs could carry them, closely followed by our men, who were taking prisoners by the [386] hundreds, and scarcely firing a shot. The broken nature of the ground was against all cavalry operations, and though we pushed forward with all our will, it was with difficulty we could keep up with Jackson's “Foot-cavalry,” as this famous infantry was often called. Meanwhile a large part of the Federal army, roused by the firing and the alarming reports from the rear, hastened to the field of action, and exerted themselves in vain to arrest the disgraceful rout of their comrades of the 11th corps. Numerous batteries having now joined the conflict, a terrific cannonade roared along the lines, and the fury of the battle was soon at its full height. Towards dark a sudden pause ensued in the conflict, occasioned by Jackson giving orders for his lines to re-form for the continuation of the combat, the rapid and prolonged pursuit of the enemy having thrown them into considerable disorder. Old Stonewall being thoroughly impressed with the conviction that in a few hours the enemy's whole forces would be defeated, and that their principal line of retreat would be in the direction of Ely's Ford, Stuart was ordered to proceed at once towards that point with a portion of his cavalry, in order to barricade the road, and as much as possible impede the retrograde movement of the enemy.

In this operation we were to be joined by a North Carolina infantry regiment, which was already on its way towards the river. Leaving the greater part of the brigade behind us under Fitz Lee's command, we took only the 1st Virginia Cavalry with us, and, trotting rapidly along a small by-path, overtook the infantry about two miles from the ford. Riding with Stuart a little ahead of our men, I suddenly discovered, on reaching the summit of a slight rise in the road, a large encampment in the valley to our left, not more than a quarter of a mile from where we stood, and further still, on the opposite side of the river, more camp-fires were visible, indicating the presence of a large body of troops. Calling a halt, [387] the General and I rode cautiously forward to reconnoitre the enemy a little more closely, and we managed to approach near enough to hear distinctly the voices and distinguish the figures of the men sitting round their fires, or strolling through the camp. The unexpected presence of so large a body of the enemy immediately in our path entirely disconcerted our previous arrangements. Nevertheless Stuart determined on giving them a slight surprise and disturbing their comfort by a few volleys from our infantry. Just as the regiment, mustering about a thousand, had formed into line according to orders, and was prepared to advance on the enemy, two officers of General A. P. Hill's Staff rode up in great haste and excitement, and communicated something in a low tone to General Stuart, by which he seemed greatly startled and affected. “Take command of that regiment, and act on your own responsibility,” were his whispered injunctions to me, as he immediately rode off, followed by the other officers and the cavalry at their topmost speed.

The thunder of the cannon, which for the last hour had increased in loudness, announced that Jackson had recommended the battle, but as to the course or actual position of affairs I had not an iota of information; and my anxiety being moreover increased by the suddenness of Stuart's departure on some unknown emergency, I felt rather awkwardly situated. Here was I in the darkness of the night, in an unknown and thickly-wooded country, some six miles from our main army, and opposite to a far superior force, whom I was expected to attack with troops whom I had never before commanded, and to whom I was scarcely known. I felt, however, that there was no alternative but blind obedience, so I advanced with the regiment to within about fifty yards of the enemy's encampment, and gave the command to fire. A hail of bullets rattled through the forest, and as volley after volley was fired, the confusion and dismay occasioned in the [388] camp was indescribable. Soldiers and officers could be plainly seen by the light of the fires rushing helplessly about, horses were galloping wildly in all directions, and the sound of bugles and drums mingled with the cries of the wounded and flying, who sought in the distant woods a shelter against the murderous fire of their unseen enemy. The troops whom we thus dispersed and put to flight consisted, as I was afterwards informed, of the greater part of Averil's cavalry division; and a great number of the men of this command were so panic-stricken, that they did not consider themselves safe until they had reached the opposite shore of the Rapidan, when they straggled off for miles all through Culpepper County.

Our firing had been kept up for about half an hour, and had by this time stirred up alarm in the camps on the other side of the river, the troops of which were marching on us from various directions. Accordingly, I gave orders to my North Carolinians to retire, leaving the task of bringing his command back to the colonel, while, anxious to rejoin Stuart as soon as possible, I galloped on ahead through the dark forest, whose solemn silence was only broken by the melancholy cry of hosts of whip-poor-wills. The firing had now ceased altogether, and all fighting seemed to have been entirely given up, which greatly increased my misgivings. After a tedious ride for nearly an hour over the field of battle still covered with hundreds of wounded, groaning in their agony, I at last discovered Stuart seated under a solitary plum-tree, busily writing despatches by the dim light of a lantern. From General Stuart I now received the first information of the heavy calamity which had befallen us by the wounding of Jackson. After having instructed his men to fire at everything approaching from the direction of the enemy, in his eagerness to reconnoitre the position of the Federals, and entirely forgetting his own orders, he had been riding with his [389] staff-officers outside our pickets, when on their return, being mistaken for the enemy, the little party were received by a South Carolina regiment with a volley which killed or wounded nearly every man of them, and laid low our beloved Stonewall himself. The Federals advancing at the same time, a severe skirmish ensued, in the course of which one of the bearers of the litter on which the General was being carried was killed, and Jackson fell heavily to the ground, receiving soon afterwards a second wound. For a few minutes, in fact, the General was in the hands of the enemy; but his men, becoming aware of his perilous position, rushed forward, and speedily driving back the advancing foe, carried their wounded commander to the rear.

A. P. Hill, the next in rank, having, soon after this, been likewise disabled, Stuart had been sent for to take the command of Jackson's corps; but meantime the golden opportunity had slipped by, the enemy had been strongly reinforced, and the renewal of the battle was necessarily postponed until the following morning. Stuart's position was one of undoubted difficulty, his knowledge of the position of the troops being, from the suddenness with which he was called to assume the chief command, naturally imperfect, and most of Jackson's Staff were disabled, or were in attendance on their wounded chief. Of his own Staff, only myself and one or two others happened to be present, but we pledged ourselves to exert all our energies, and strain every nerve in aid of our General, and in the discharge of our duty. General Stuart informed me that the attack was to be renewed at the earliest dawn of day; and as that hour was now rapidly approaching, I discarded all idea of sleep, and sat up the rest of the night with poor Lieutenant Hullingham of our Staff, who had been wounded in the shoulder late in the evening, and was suffering intense pain.

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