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Farley “the scout”


In the old “Confederate army of the Potomac,” and then in the “Army of Northern Virginia,” there was a man so notable for daring, skill, and efficiency as a partisan, that all who valued those great qualities honoured him as their chiefest exemplar. He was known among the soldiers as “Farley, the scout,” but that term did not express him fully. He was not only a scout, but a partisan leader; an officer of excellent judgment and magnificent dash; a soldier born, who took to the work with all the skill and readiness of one who engages in that occupation for which, by Providence, he is especially designed.

He served from the beginning of the war to the hard battle of Fleetwood, in Culpeper, fought on the 9th of June, 1863. There he fell, his leg shattered by a fragment of shell, and the brave true soul went to rejoin its Maker.

One of the chiefest spites of fate is that oblivion which submerges the greatest names and events. The design of this brief paper is to put upon record some particulars of the career of a brave soldier-so that, in that “aftertime” which sums up the work and glory of the men of this epoch, his name shall not be lost to memory.

Farley was born at Laurens village, South Carolina, on the 19th of December, 1835. He was descended, in a direct line, from the “Douglas” of Scotland, and his father, who was born [131] on the Roanoke river, in Charlotte county, Virginia, was one of the most accomplished gentlemen of his time. He emigrated to South Carolina at the age of twenty-one, married, and commenced there the practice of law. To the son, the issue of this marriage, he gave the name of William Downs Farley, after his father-in-law, Colonel William F. Downs, a distinguished lawyer, member of the Legislature, and an officer of the war of 1812. The father of this Colonel Downs was Major Jonathan Downs, a patriot of ‘76; his mother, a daughter of Captain Louis Saxon, also distinguished in our first great struggle; thus our young partisan of 1863 had fighting blood in his veins, and, in plunging into the contest, only followed the traditions of his race.

From earliest childhood he betrayed the instincts of the man of genius. Those who recollect him then, declare that his nature seemed composed of two mingled elements — the one gentle and reflective, the other ardent and enthusiastic. Passionately fond of Shakspeare and the elder poets, he loved to wander away into the woods, and, stretched beneath some great oak, pass hour after hour in dreamy musing; but if, at such times, he heard the cry of the hounds and the shouts of his companions, his dreams were dissipated, and throwing aside his volume, he would join in the chase with headlong ardour.

At the age of seventeen, he made, in company with a friend, the tour of the Northern States, and then was sent to the University of Virginia, where his education was completed. The summer vacation gave him an opportunity of making a pedestrian excursion through Virginia; and thus, having enlarged his mind by study and travel through the North and a portion of the South, he returned to South Carolina. Here he occupied himself in rendering assistance to his father, who had become an invalid, and, we believe, commenced the practice of the law. His love of roving, however, did not desert him, and his father's business required repeated journeys into the interior of the State. The scenery of the mountains proved a deep and lasting source of joy to him, and, standing on the summits of the great ranges, he has been seen to remain in such rapt contemplation of the landscape that he could scarcely be aroused and brought back [132] to the real world. These expeditions undoubtedly fostered in the youthful South Carolinian that ardent love of everything connected with his native State which, with his craving for wild adventure, constituted the controlling elements of his being.

“He had now attained,” a friend writes, “the pride and maturity of manhood. There were few handsomer or more prepossessing men.” As a young man said, after the battle of Culpeper, in speaking of the loss of Farley and Hampton, “two of the handsomest men in our State have fallen.” His figure was of medium height, elegantly formed, graceful, well knit, and, from habitual exercise in the gymnasium, possessing a remarkable degree of strength and activity. His hair was dark brown; his eyebrows and lashes were so dark, and so shaded the dark grey eyes beneath as to give them the appearance of blackness. His manner was generally quiet, polished, and elegant; but let him be aroused by some topic which awoke his enthusiasm (secession and the Yankees, for instance), and he suddenly stood transformed before you; and in the flashing eye and changing cheek you beheld the dashing “Hero of the Potomac!”

“His moral character,” says the same authority,

was pure and noble-Sans peur et sans reproche. It is a well known fact among his friends and associates that ardent spirits of any kind had never passed his lips until the first battle of Manassas, when, being sick with measles, he fought until almost fainting, and accepted a draught from the canteen of a friend. This was the first and last drink he ever took.

His father, whose last hours he watched with untiring care and attention, died just before the opening of the war. Captain Farley had, from an early age, taken great interest in the political affairs of the country; he was a warm advocate of State Rights, and now entered into the spirit of secession with eagerness and enthusiasm. He was very instrumental in bringing about a unanimity of opinion on this subject in his own district.

He made frequent visits to Charleston, with the hope of being in the scene of action should an attack be made on the city; and was greatly chagrined that the battle of Sumter was fought during a short absence, and he only reached the city on [133] the day following. He was the first man in his district to fly to the defence of Virginia, whose sacred soil he loved with a devotion only inferior to that which he bore his own State. He joined Gregg's regiment, in which he served three months, and on the disbanding of which he became an independent fighter.

From this time commences that career of personal adventure and romantic exploits which made him so famous. Shouldering his rifle-now riding, then on foot-he proceeded to the far outposts nearest to the enemy, and was indefatigable in penetrating their lines, harassing detached parties, and gaining information for Generals Bonham and Beauregard. Falling back with the army from Fairfax, he fought-though so sick that he could scarcely stand — in the first battle of Manassas, and then entered permanently upon the life of the scout, speedily attracting to himself the unconcealed admiration of the whole army. To note the outlines even of his performances at that time, would require thrice the space we have at our disposal. He seemed omnipresent on every portion of the lines; and if any daring deed was undertaken-any expedition which was to puzzle, harass, or surprise the enemy-Farley was sure to be there. With three men he took and held Upton's Hill, directly in face of the enemy; on numberless occasions he surprised the enemy's pickets; and with three others, waylaid and attacked a column of several hundred cavalry led by Colonel (afterwards General) Bayard, whose horse he killed, slightly wounding the rider. This audacious attack was made some ten or fifteen miles beyond the Southern lines, and nothing but a love of the most desperate adventure could have led to it. Farley ambushed the enemy, concealing his little band of three men in some pines; and although they might easily have remained perdus until the column passed, and so escaped, Farley determined to attack, and did attack-firing first upon Bayard, and nearly stampeding his whole regiment. After a desperate encounter he and his little party were all captured or killed, and Farley was taken to the Old Capitol in Washington, where he remained some time in captivity. General Bayard mentioned this affair afterwards in an interview with General Stuart, and spoke in warm terms of the courage which led Farley to undertake so [134] desperate an adventure. Released from prison, Farley hastened back to his old “stamping ground” around Centreville, reaching that place in the winter of 1861. He speedily received the most flattering proposals from some eminent officers who were going to the South-west; but chancing to meet General Stuart, that officer took violent possession of him, and thenceforth kept him near his person as volunteer aide-de-camp. With this arrangement Farley soon became greatly pleased. He had already seen Stuart at work, and that love of adventure and contempt of danger — the coolness, self-possession, and mastery of the situation, however perilous — which characterized both, proved a lasting bond of union between them.


Thenceforth, Farley was satisfied. His position was one which suited his peculiar views and habits admirably. Untrammelled by special duties-never tied down to the routine of command, or the commonplace round of camp duty-free as the wind to go or come whenever and wheresoever he pleased, all the instincts of his peculiar organization had “ample room and verge enough” for their development; and his splendid native traits had the fullest swing and opportunity of display. It was in vain that General Stuart, estimating at their full value his capacity for command, repeatedly offered him position. He did not want any commission, he said; his place suited him perfectly, and he believed he could do more service to the cause as scout and partisan than as a regular line-officer. He had not entered the army, he often declared to me, for place or position; promotion was not his object; to do as much injury as possible to the enemy was his sole, controlling sentiment, and he was satisfied to be where he was.

His devotion to the cause was indeed profound and almost passionate. He never rested in his exertions, and seemed to feel as if the success of the struggle depended entirely on his own exertions. A friend once said to him: “If, as in ancient Roman days, an immense gulf should miraculously open, and an oracle [135] should declare that the honour and peace of the country could only be maintained by one of her youths throwing himself into it, do you believe you could do it?” He looked serious, and answered earnestly and with emphasis, “I believe I could.

Thus permanently attached as volunteer aide to General Stuart, Farley thereafter took part in all the movements of the cavalry. He was with them in that hot falling back from Centreville, in March, 1862; in the combats of the Peninsula, where, at Williamsburg, he led a regiment of infantry in the assault; in the battles of Cold Harbour and Malvern Hill, at the second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and the scores of minor engagements which marked almost every day upon the outposts. He missed the battle of Chancellorsville, greatly to his regret, having gone home, after an absence of two years, to witness the bombardment of Charleston and see his family.

It was soon after his return in May that the fatal moment came which deprived the service of this eminent partisan. At the desperately contested battle of Fleetwood, in Culpeper county, on the 9th of June, 1863, he was sent by General Stuart to carry a message to Colonel Butler, of the 2d South Carolina cavalry. He had just delivered his message, and was sitting upon his horse by the Colonel, when a shell, which also wounded Butler, struck him upon the right knee and tore his leg in two at the joint. He fell from the saddle and was borne to an ambulance, where surgical assistance was promptly rendered. His wound was, however, mortal, and all saw that he was dying.

At his own request the torn and bleeding member, with the cavalry boot still on, was put in the ambulance, and he was borne from the field. His strength slowly declined, but his consciousness remained. Meeting one whom he knew, he called him by name, and murmured, “I am almost gone.” He lingered but a few hours, and at twilight of that day the writer of these lines looked on him in his shroud — the pale, cold features calm and tranquil in their final sleep.

He was clad in his new uniform coat, and looked every inch a soldier taking his last rest. He had delivered this coat to a lady [136] of Culpeper, and said, “If anything befalls me, wrap me in this and send me to my mother.

Such was the end of the famous partisan. His death left a void which it seemed impossible to fill. His extraordinary career had become fully known, and a writer some months before his death gave utterance to the sentiment of every one when he wrote: “The story — the plain, unvarnished story — of his career since the war began is like a tale of old romance. Such abnegation of self! Office and money both spurned, because they seemed to stand in the way of his duty. What thrilling incidents! What strength and courage! and what wonderful escapes! No wonder, as he rides by, we so often hear it exclaimed, ‘There goes the famous scout, Farley! The army has no braver man, no purer patriot!’ ”

We put on record here the following passage from the letter of a lady in Culpeper to his mother, giving, as it does, an outline of the man, and bearing testimony in its simple words, warm from a woman's heart, to the affection which was felt for him:

my dear madam-I want you to know how we in Virginia admired, appreciated, and loved your son. Had he been her own, Virginia could not have loved him more; certainly she could not owe him more-so long and so bravely had he fought upon her soil. He was particularly well known in this unfortunate part of the State, which has been, sometimes for months, overrun by our foes. Many families will miss his coming, so daring was he, and so much depended on by General Stuart. He scouted a great deal alone in the enemy's lines, and was often the bearer of letters and messages from loved ones long unheard from. Often, when we have been cut off from all communication from our own people, he has been the first to come as the enemy were leaving, often galloping up when they were scarcely out of sight-always inspiring us with fresh hope and courage, his cheerful presence itself seeming to us a prophecy of good.

On Tuesday night, just one week before the battle in which he fell, he came here, about one o'clock at night. We were surprised and alarmed to see him, as a large party of the enemy had passed our very doors only a few hours before. When my [137] aunt opened the door she found him sitting on the steps, his head resting on his hands, as if tired and sleepy. We asked him if he did not know the Yankees were near. “Oh, yes,” he replied; “they have been chasing me, and compelled me to lengthen my ride considerably.” He came in, but said, “I cannot rest with you long, as I must be riding all night.” We gave him some bread, honey and milk, which we knew he loved. He said he had been fasting since morning. “Ah,” said he, “this is just what I want.” He buckled on his pistols again before sitting down, and said laughingly to me, “Lock the doors and listen well, for I'll never surrender.” We stood in the porch when he left, and watched him walk off briskly (he had come on foot, having left his horse in the woods). We hated to see him go out in the dark and rainy night-time; but he went cheerfully, so willing was he to encounter danger, to endure hardships, “to spend and be spent” in his country's service.

To “spend and be spent” in the cause of the South was truly this brave spirit's chief delight. These are not idle words, but the truth, in relation to him. The writer of this page was long and intimately associated with him; and so far from presenting an exaggerated picture of him, the incidents and extracts above given do him only partial justice. I never saw a braver man, nor one more modest. He had a peculiar refinement of feeling and bearing which stamped him a gentleman to the utmost fibre of his being. This delicacy of temperament was most notable; and it would be difficult to describe the remarkable union of the most daring courage and the sweetest simplicity of demeanour in the young partisan. Greater simplicity and modesty were never seen in human bearing; and so endearing were these traits of his character, that ladies and children-those infallible criticswere uniformly charmed with him. One of the latter wrote:

His death has been a great sorrow to us. He was with us frequently the week before the battle, and won our entire hearts by his many noble qualities, and his superiority to all around him. He talked much about his family; he loved them with entire devotion. He read to us some of your poems, and repeated [138] one of his own. I close my eyes, and memory brings back to me the thrilling tones of that dear voice, which, though heard no more on earth, has added to the melody of heaven.

His manner was the perfection of good-breeding, and you saw that the famous partisan, whose exploits were the theme of every tongue, had not been raised, like others of his class, amid rude associates and scenes, but with gently nurtured women, and surrounded by the sweet amenities of home. His voice was a peculiar one-very low and distinct in its tones; and these subdued inflections often produced upon the listener the impression that it was a habit acquired in scouting, when to speak above a murmur is dangerous. The low, clear words were habitually accompanied by a bright smile, and the young man was a favourite with all-so cordial was his bearing, so unassuming his whole demeanour. His personal appearance has already been described, but it may interest some of his friends in the far South to know how he appeared when “at work.” He dressed uniformly in a plain suit of gray, wearing a jacket, and over this a dark blue overcoat, with a belt, holding his pistol, tightly drawn around his waist. In his hat he wore the black cavalry feather; and his boots were of that handsome pattern which is worn by Federal officers, with patent-leather tops and ornamental thread-work. None of his equipments cost him or the Confederate States a single dollar. They were all captured-either from sutlers' wagons or the enemies he had slain with his own hand. I never knew him to purchase any portion of his own or his horse's accoutrements --saddle, bridle, halter, sabre, pistols, belt, carbine, spurs, were all captured from the enemy. His horses were in the same category, and he rarely kept the same riding-horse long. They were with great regularity shot under him; and he mounted the first he found running riderless, or from which his pistol hurled one of the enemy.


I have spoken of his modest, almost shy demeanour. All this disappeared in action. His coolness remained unaffected, but he evidently felt himself in his proper element, and entitled to [139] direct others. At such moments his suggestions were boldly made, and not seldom resulted in the rout of the enemy. The cavalry once in motion, the quiet, modest gentleman was metamorphosed into the fiery partisan. He would lead a charge with the reckless daring of Murat, and cheer on the men, with contagious ardour, amid the most furious storm of balls.

His disregard of personal exposure was supreme, and the idea that he was surrounded by peril never occurred to him. He has repeatedly told the present writer, with that simplicity and sincerity which produce conviction, that in action he was wholly unconscious of the balls and shells flying and bursting around him — that his interest in the general result was so strong as to cause him to lose sight of them. Those who knew him did not venture to doubt the assertion.

He delighted in the wild charge, the clash of meeting squadrons, and the roar of artillery. All these martial sights and sounds ministered to the passionate ardour of that temperament which made him most at home where balls were whistling, and the air oppressive with the odour of battle. But, I think, he even preferred the life of the scout — the long and noiseless hunt for his foe — the exercise of those faculties, by means of which an enemy is surprised and destroyed — the single combat with sabre and pistol, often far off in the silence of the woods, where a dead body half concealed amid the grass is all that remains to tell the tale of some hand-to-hand encounter. The number of such contests through which Farley had passed would seem incredible to those who did not know him, and thus comprehend how the naked truth of his career beggared romance. He rarely spoke of these affairs, and never, unless to certain persons, and under peculiar circumstances. He had a great horror of appearing to boast of his own exploits, and so greatly feared securing the reputation of colouring his adventures that he seldom alluded to them, even. Fortunately for his memory, many persons witnessed his most desperate encounters, and still live to testify to the reckless daring of the young partisan. With these his eventful career will long remain the subject of fireside tales; and in the coming days of peace, when years have silvered the hair of [140] his contemporaries, old men will tell their grand-children of his strange adventures and those noble traits which made his name so famous.

To the world at large, he will always thus appear — as the daring partisan and adventurous scout — as one who risked his life in a hundred hot encounters, and in all those bloody scenes never quailed or shrank before a foe, however powerful or dangerous. But to those who lived with him-heard his low, friendly voice, and saw every day his bright kindly smile-he appears in a different character. To such the loss we have sustained is deeperit seems irreparable. It was the good fortune of the writer of these lines to thus see the brave young man — to be beside him in the field; and, at home, to share his confidence and friendship. Riding through the summer forests, or wandering on across the fields of broom-straw, near Fredericksburg-better still, beside the good log-fire of winter-we talked of a thousand things, and I saw what a wealth of kindness, chivalry, and honour he possessed-how beautifully the elements were mixed in his character. Brave and true-simple and kind-he passed away; and among those eminent natures which the writer encountered in the late struggle, few are remembered with such admiration and affection as this noble son of Carolina.

The best conclusion of this brief and inadequate sketch will be the mention made of the brave partisan in General Stuart's report of the battle of Fleetwood. It is as follows:

Captain W. D. Farley, of South Carolina, a volunteer aide on my staff, was mortally wounded by the same shell which wounded Colonel Butler, and displayed even in death, the same loftiness of bearing and fortitude which characterized him through life. He had served, without emolument, long, faithfully, and always with distinction. No nobler champion has fallen. May his spirit abide with us.

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