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Stuart on the outpost: a scene at “camp Qui Vive”


Sometimes, in dreams as it were, the present writer-like many others, doubtless-goes back in memory across the gulf of years to 1861, recalling its great scenes and personages, and living once more in that epoch full of such varied and passionate emotions. Manassas! Centreville! Fairfax! Vienna!-what memories do those names excite in the hearts of the old soldiers of Beauregard! That country, now so desolate, was then a virgin land, untouched by the foot of war. The hosts who were to trample it still lingered upon the banks of the Potomac; and the wildest fancy could not have prefigured its fate. It was a smiling country, full of joy and beauty — the domain of “ancient peace;” and of special attraction were the little villages, sleeping like Centreville in the hollow of green hills, or perched like Fairfax on the summit of picturesque uplands. These were old Virginia hamlets, full of recollections; here the feet of Mason and Washington had trod, and here had grown up generation after generation ignorant of war. Peace reigned supreme; the whole landscape was the picture of repose; the villages, amid the foliage of their elms or oaks, slept like birds that have nestled down to rest amid the grass and blossoms of the green spring fields.

Look first upon that picture, then on this!-the picture of a region blasted by the hot breath of war. Where now was the joy of the past? where the lovely land once smiling in fresh beauty, [183] and the charm of peaceful years? All the flowers and sunshine had disappeared. The springing grasses, the budding forests, the happy dwellings-all had vanished. Over the smiling fields the hoofs of cavalry had trampled; the woods had been cut down to furnish fuel for the camp fires; the fences had preceded them; the crops and forage had been gleaned for the horses of the troopers. The wheels of artillery and army trains had worn the roads into ruts and quagmires; opposing columns had advanced or retreated over every foot of ground, leaving their traces everywhere; those furrows over which the broomstraw waved in the winter wind, or the spring flowers nodded in the airs of May, were ploughed by cannon-balls.

The war-dogs had bayed here, and torn to pieces house and field and forest. The villages were the forlorn ghosts of themselves, and seemed to look at you out of those vacant eyes, their open windows, with a sort of dumb despair. They were the eloquent monuments of the horrors of war — the veritable “abodes of owls.” Had a raven croaked from the dead trees riven by cannon-balls, or a wolf growled at you from the deserted houses, you would have felt not the least astonishment. As you passed through those villages, once so smiling, the tramp of the cavalry horses, or the rumbling wheels of the artillery, made the echoes resound; and a few heads were thrust from the paneless windows. Then they disappeared; silence settled down again, and the melancholy hamlet gave place to the more melancholy fields. Here all was waste and desolate; no woods, no fences, no human face; only torn-down and dismantled houses, riddled with bullets, or charred by the torch of war. The land seemed doomed, and to rest under a curse. That Federal vedette yonder, as we advance, is the only living object we behold, and even he disappears like a phantom. Can this, you murmur, be the laughing land of yesterday, the abode of peace, and happiness, and joy? Can this be Fairfax, where the fields of wheat once rolled their golden waves in the summer wind, and the smiling houses held out arms of welcome? Look, it has become a veritable Golgotha — the “place of skulls” --a sombre Jehoshaphat full of dead men's bones! [184]

I remember all that, and shall ever remember it; but in contrast with these scenes of ruin and desolation, come back a thousand memories, gay, joyous, and instinct with mirth. The hard trade of war is not all tragedy; let us laugh, friends, when we can; there are smiles as well as tears, comedy as well as tragedy, in the great and exciting drama. You don't weep much when the sword is in the hand. You fight hard; and if you do not fall, you laugh, and even dance, perhaps — if you can get some music-by the camp fire. It is a scene of this description which I wish to describe to-day. This morning it came back to my memory in such vivid colours that I thought, if I could paint it, some of my readers would be interested. It took place in autumn of the gay years 1861, when Johnston and Beauregard were holding the lines of Centreville against McClellan; and when Stuart, that pearl of cavaliers, was in command of the front, which he guarded with his cavalry. In their camps at Centreville, the infantry and artillery of the army quietly enjoyed the bad weather which forbade all military movements; but the cavalry, that “eye and ear” of an army, were still in face of the enemy, and had constant skirmishes below Fairfax, out toward Vienna, and along the front near the little hamlet of Annandale.

How well I remember all those scenes! and I think if I had space I could tell some interesting stories of that obstinate petiteguerre of picket fighting-how the gray and blue coats fought for the ripe fruit in an orchard just between them, all a winter's afternoon; how Farley waylaid, with three men, the whole column of General Bayard, and attacked it; and how a brave boy fell one day in a fight of pickets, and was brought back dead, wrapped in the brilliant oil-cloth which his sister took from her piano and had sent to him to sleep upon.

But these recollections would not interest you as they interest me. They fade, and I come back to my immediate subject-a visit to General “Jeb Stuart” at his headquarters, near Fairfax Court-House, where, in this December of 1861, I saw the gay cavalier and his queer surroundings.

Stuart was already famous from his raids against General Patterson in the Valley. He had harassed that commander so persistently-driving in his pickets, getting in rear of his camps, and [185] [186] cutting off his foraging parties — that Johnston said of him: “He is worse than a yellow-jacket-they no sooner brush him off than he lights back again.” Indefatigable in reconnoissance, sleepless in vigilance, possessed of a physical strength which defied fatigue and enabled him to pass whole days and nights in the saddle, Stuart became the evil genius of the invading column; and long afterwards, when transferred to the West, General Johnston wrote to him: “How can I eat, sleep, or rest in peace, without you upon the outpost!” From the Valley he came to Manassas, charged the Zouaves there, and then was made a Brigadier-General and put in command of the cavalry of the army which held the front toward Alexandria. It is at this time, December, 1861, that I present him to the reader.

Go back with me to that remote period, and you shall have no fancy sketch, or “dignified” picture of a General commanding, but the actual portrait of the famous General “Jeb Stuart” in the midst of his military household.


I found the cavalry headquarters at an old house known as Mellen's, but officially as “Camp Qui Vive,” between Centreville and Fairfax Court-House.

It was a day of December; the sun shone brightly, the frosty airs cut the cheek. The house was bare and bleak; everything about it “looked like work.” Horses were picketed to the fences and trees, couriers went and came with jingling spurs and clanking sabres, and the bugle sounded the gay “stable-call.” Before the door, the red battle-flag, just adopted, ripples in the wind; and not far from it you see the grim muzzle of a Blakely gun, for Stuart is devoted to artillery, and fights it whenever he can. You may regard that gun as a somewhat unusual feature of a cavalry camp upon the outpost, but the sentinel placed over it to guard it is still queerer. It is nothing less than an enormous raccoon-black, wary, with snarling teeth, and eyes full of “fight!” Look at him for a moment as you pass. He is tied by a rope around his neck to the trail by the lunettes, and roosts serenely on the pintal-hook. When he stretches his rope he can run over the rings for the trail handspike and the prolonge, to the cascabel and brass base, for the pendulum hausse. His natural line of sight, however, is between the spokes of the limberwheels, and he has a box to go in when he is tired.

The sentinel is evidently aware of his duty, for he snaps at everybody. You will find, when General Stuart comes out laughing to show him to you, that his owner regards him as the pearl of sentinels, the paragon of “coons.”

It was sunset as I entered, and amid a gay group I saw the young General of cavalry. Fancy a man of low stature and athletic form, with an enormous brown beard; a huge moustache, ready to curl with laughter; a broad and lofty forehead; an eye, blue, brilliant, and penetrating as that of the eagle. This figure was clad in a gray cavalry uniform, top-boots with small bright spurs; and on a chair lay his sabre and pistol, beside the brown felt hat looped up and adorned with a black feather.

In this man who wrote away busily at his desk, or, throwing one leg carelessly over the arm of his chair, turned to utter some jest or break out in some snatch of song, you could discern enormous physical strength — a vigour of constitution which made him a veritable war-machine. This person, it was plain, cared nothing for the exhausting work which breaks down other men; could live in the saddle, and was ever ready for a march, a raid, a charge-anything. Young-he was then but twentyseven-ardent, ambitious, gay, jovial, of immense unbounded animal spirits, with that clear, blue eye whose glance defies all peril, a seat in the saddle, and a hand for the rein and the sabre unsurpassed, Stuart was truly a splendid machine in magnificent order, and plainly asked nothing better than to “clash against his foe” and either fall or conquer. All this was evident in the man before me, with that bronzed cheek, athletic figure, and eye ready to fill full with laughter, or flash at the thought of battle. In Stuart I saw a cavalier whom Rupert would have made his bosom friend, and counted on to charge the pikes of the Ironsides, and “die for King Charles” without a murmur.

Gayest of the gay was Stuart's greeting, and in five minutes he had started up, put on his hat, and was showing me his Blakely [187] gun, then a recent acquisition. His satisfaction at the ferocious snarling of his “coon” was immense; the incorruptible fidelity of that black sentinel plainly charmed him, and he made the place echo with his laughter.

I was truly sorry to hear afterwards that this animal, so trusted and admired — who had at last become like a member of the staff-betrayed a low dissatisfaction at short rations, and gnawing in two the rope which confined him, actually deserted, and was never more seen!

As night fell we reentered the house; a table was brought into the bare room for supper; and then to my astonishment-enter two ladies! I thought the house entirely unoccupied except by the gay cavalier and his “following;” but here was a delegation from the fairer half of humanity. Who were they? How did they come there? How did that little flower of seventeen, with the rosy cheeks and the soft, blue eyes, come to bloom on this hot surface of war, amid the rattle of spurs and sabres?

All these questions were speedily answered by General Stuart. The beautiful girl of seventeen, and her grim, irate companion, an elderly lady, were “prisoners of war!” On the preceding evening they had-after making vain applications for a passattempted to “flank the pickets” of Stuart, and steal through his lines to Alexandria. Now, as General McClellan was sojourning with a large escort near that place, and would doubtless be glad to ascertain a number of things in relation to Beauregard, Stuart had refused the pass. When the fugitives attempted to elude his pickets they were caught, forwarded to headquarters, and there they were.

The young lady was smiling, the elder frowning terribly. The one evidently admired the gallant Stuart, with his bright, blue eye and floating plume, regarding the whole affair as a romantic adventure, to be enjoyed, not regretted; the other as plainly resented the liberty taken with her movements, and was determined to preserve a grim, forbidding, and hostile attitude-that of the martyr overwhelmed, but defiant to the last. I saw all this at a glance, and then I understood as plainly, in a very few moments, that General Stuart had determined to charm away, if [188] possible, the evil spirit of hostility in the hearts of his fair prisoners, and reconcile them to their fate.

He lost no time in this hospitable work. It was delightful, and laughable too, to watch him. Never did gallant cavalier demean himself with more profound and respectful courtesy, with which, however, was mingled that easy off-hand fun which never left Stuart. In the first advance he had been repulsed. The ladies had been up-stairs when I arrived, and the General had sent up his compliments: “Would they come down to supper?” The reply was, “No, I thank you; we are not hungry.” Whereupon that politest of Marylanders, Captain Tiernan Brien, A. A.G., was dispatched-assault number two-and, under the effect of his blandishments, the fair enemy gave way. They appeared, the young lady blushing and smiling; the elder stern and stormy. Stuart received them, as I have said, with charming courtesy and frankness; compelled them to take part in his supper, and then, although, as very soon appeared, he had a great deal of work to do, did not suffer them to depart to their room.

They were not to be allowed to mope there all the winter evening. Music, dance, and song were to while away the hours --so Stuart sent for three members of his military household, and they soon appeared. All were black. The first was an accomplished performer on the guitar; the second gifted with the faculty of producing in his throat the exactest imitation of every bird of the forest; and the third was a mighty master of the backstep, viz. an old Virginia “breakdown.”

Upon their appearance the “performances commenced!”


Behold the scene now, reader, as I looked at it, on that evening of December in 1861. We are in a bleak room, with no furniture but a desk, a chair, and a camp couch. At the desk sits Stuart, writing away with immense rapidity, and stopping now and then to hum a song. On the couch, near the fire, are the ladiesthe younger smiling, the elder frowning. Around stand the staff, [189] and at the door are the laughing faces of couriers, who look on and listen. In front of them stand the sable musicians, and the great performer of the breakdown-ebon-hued, dilapidated in costume, awaiting orders, and approaching the performance with serious and unmistakable satisfaction.

Stuart calls out from his desk, without turning his head, and the process of charming away the evil spirit commences. The guitar is played by the General's body-servant Bob, a young mulatto of dandified appearance — the air, indeed, of a lady killer --and an obvious confidence in his own abilities to delight, if not instruct and improve, his audience. Bob laboriously tunes his instrument; gazes thoughtfully at the ceiling, as he absently “picks upon the string;” and then commences singing the popular air, “Listen to the mocking-bird.” He is accompanied in the chorus by the sable ventriloquist, who imitates all the feathered tribe in his throat; and lo! as you listen, the room seems full of mocking-birds; the air is alive with the gay carol of robins, larks, jay-birds, orioles; the eyes of the ventriloquist roll rapturously like balls of snow against a wall of charcoal, and the guitar keeps up its harmonious accompaniment.

The young lady listens and her eyes dance. Her cheeks grow more rosy, her smiles brighter; even her elderly companion relaxes somewhat from her rigidly hostile expression, and pays attention to the music. The “Mocking-bird” ends, and is succeeded by the plaintive “Alabama! Alabama!” --the guitar still thrumming, the ventriloquist still accompanying the music with his bird-notes. Other songs succeed, and then General Stuart turns round with a laugh and calls for a breakdown. Thereupon the dilapidated African, who has up to this time remained motionless, advances into the arena, dropping his hat first at the door. Bob strikes up a jig upon his guitar, the ventriloquist claps, and the great performer of the breakdown commences his evolutions, first upon the heel-tap, then upon the toe. His antics are grand and indescribable. He leaps, he whirls, he twists and untwists his legs until the crowd at the door grows wild with admiration. The guitar continues to roar and Stuart's laughter mingles with it; the ventriloquist not only claps with ardour, [190] but also imitates his favourite songsters. The dancer's eyes roll gorgeously, his steps grow more rapid, he executes unheard-of figures. Finally a frenzy seems to seize him; the mirth grows fast and furious; the young lady laughs outright and seems about to clap her hands. Even the elder relaxes into an unmistakable smile; and as the dancer disappears with a bound through the door, the guitar stops playing, and Stuart's laughter rings out gay and jovial, the grim lips open and she says:

You rebels do seem to enjoy yourselves!

These were the exact words of the lady, reader, and I think I can recall a few words of General Stuart, too. He had been busily engaged with his official papers all this time, at his deskfor he never permitted pleasure to interfere with business-and the gay scene going on in the apartment did not seem to disturb him in the least degree. Indeed, upon this, as upon many other occasions, I could see that music of any description aroused his mind, and was an assistance to him — the banjo, singing, anything --and by its aid now he had hurried through his work. Thereupon he rose, and approached the ladies, with gay smiles and inquiries, if they were amused:

They had heard his musicians; would the ladies now like to see something which might interest them?

Irresistible appeal to that sentiment which is said to be the weakness of the fair sex-curiosity!

“They would like very much to see what the General spoke of;” and thereupon Stuart pointed to a coat and waistcoat hanging upon a nail on the wall over their heads. The clothes were torn by a bullet and bloody.

The young lady looked, and her smiles all disappeared.

“What is that, General?” said the elder.

“It is the coat and waistcoat of a poor boy of my command, madam,” replied Stuart, “who was shot and killed on picket the other day-young Chichester, from just below Fairfax Court-House. He was a brave fellow, and I am keeping these clothes to send to his mother.”

“Poor boy!” from the young lady; and from the elder a look of unmistakable sympathy. [191]

Stuart then gave an account of the fight; and his voice, as he spoke of the death of the boy, was no longer gay — it was serious, feeling, and had in it something delightfully kind and sweet. Under that gay exterior of the young cavalier there was a warm and earnest heart — as beneath the stern eye of the man was all the tenderness of a woman. It was plain to me on that evening, and plainer afterwards when a thorough acquaintance with the great leader made me fully cognizant of his real character. There was something more charming even than the gaiety of Stuartit was the low, sad tone in which he spoke of some dead friend, the tear in the bright blue eye which dimmed its fire at the thought of some face that was gone.


So, between mirth and pathos-between the rattling guitar and the bloody coat of the dead boy — the ladies were fairly conquered. When Stuart gallantly accompanied them to the door, and bowed as they retired, the elderly lady smiled, and I think the younger gave him a glance full of thanks and admiration.

But stern duty required still that the fair fugitives should be further cabined and confined. Stuart could not release them; he must send them to Centreville, by standing order from General Johnston, and thither they were accordingly dispatched on the next morning after breakfast. The General had at his headquarters-procured where, I know not — an old carriage. To this two horses were harnessed; a son of Erin from the couriers was detailed as a driver, and the general requested me to accompany the ladies and conduct them to General Johnston.

Then he exhibited his gallantry after the military fashion. The ladies had entered the carriage; the pretty blushing face of the young damsel of seventeen was seen at the window, her little white hand hung out of the carriage. Stuart took it and pressed it warmly to his lips — a slight exclamation, a hand withdrawn hastily, and a little laugh, as the young lady's face disappearedand the carriage moved on. I mounted and got ready to follow; but first I turned to Stuart, who was standing with the bright [192] December sunshine on his laughing face, looking after the carriage.

“General,” I said, “will you answer me one or two questions before I leave you?”

“Well, ask them-i'll try.”

“Why did you put yourself out so much, when you were so busy last night, and get up that frolic?”

“Don't you understand?” was his laughing reply. “When those ladies arrived they were mad enough with me to bite my head off, and I determined to put them in good humour before they left me. Well, I have done it; they are my good friends at this moment.”

“You are right; now for my other question. I saw you kiss that pretty little hand of the young lady as it lay in the carriage window; why didn't you kiss that of the elder, too?”

Stuart approached my horse, and leaning his arm upon the mane, said in low tones, as though he was afraid of being overheard:

Would you like me to tell you?

“Yes,” was my reply.

“The old lady's hand had a glove upon it!” was his confidential whisper; and this was followed by a real explosion, in which the gay cavalier seemed to find vent for all the pent — up laughter which had been struggling in him since the preceding evening.

I accompanied the ladies to Centreville, and they did not utter a single unfriendly word upon the way in relation to Stuart. Indeed, the young lady seemed altogether charmed with the whole adventure, and appeared to have warmly welcomed the incident which gave her a sight of that black plume, those brilliant, laughing eyes. If this page should meet her eye, will she pardon me if I say: “Fair flower of seventeen, you may have drawn your hand away that day, and thought the kiss imprinted on it a liberty; but do not regret it now, for those lips belonged to the ‘flower of cavaliers,’ and to-day they are cold in death!”

I have made this little sketch of Stuart at “Camp Qui Vive” for those who like the undress picture of a famous man, rather than the historic bust-cold, still, and lifeless. Have you not [193] seen, reader, there upon the outpost as you followed me, the gay face of Stuart; heard his laughter as he called for the “Mocking bird;” and listened to his sad tones as he pointed to the bloody coat, and told of the brave boys shot on picket? If you cannot see those figures and hear the accents, it is the fault of the writer, and perhaps his merriment is not gay. Always those long-dead scenes came to him with a sort of dreamy sadnessthe mirth is mournful, and the laughter dies away.

No more at “Camp Qui Vive,” or any other camp, will the laugh of Stuart ring out joyous and free. He is gone-but lives still here upon the soil of Virginia, and will live for ever!

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