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A young Virginian and his spurs.


There is a young gentleman in Virginia bearing a name so illustrious that, if I were to give it, the most ardent opponents of the “F. F. V.'s” would take a certain historic interest in what I am going to relate. When I say that he is called Lieutenant W— , you cannot possibly guess his name. But to the curious incident with which I propose to amuse those readers who take an interest in the veritable occurrences of the great struggle just terminated.

On the ninth day of June, 1863, there took place at Fleetwood Hill, near Brandy Station, in Culpeper, the greatest and most desperate cavalry conflict of the war. Nearly twenty-five thousand horsemen fought there “all a summer's day” --as when Earl Percy met the Douglas in the glades of Chevy Chase-and the combat was of unexampled fury. General Stuart, commanding all the cavalry of General Lee's army, had held a grand review some days before, in the extensive fields below the Court-House, and a mimic battle had taken place, preceding the real one. The horse artillery, posted on a hill, fired blank cartridges as the cavalry charged the guns; the columns swept by a great pole, from which the white Confederate flag waved proudly in the wind. General Lee, with his grizzled beard and old gray ridingcape, looked on, the centre of all eyes; bands played, the artillery roared, the charging squadrons shook the ground, and from the [219] great crowd assembled to witness the imposing spectacle shone the variegated dresses and bright eyes of beautiful women, rejoicing in the heyday of the grand review.

But that roar of artillery in the mimic battle reached other ears than those for which it was intended. There were some friends of ours upon the opposite shore of the Rappahannock who took even greater interest in the movements of General Lee than the fair daughters of Virginia. The thunder of the artillery was heard by them, and they at once conceived a burning curiosity to know what all this firing meant. So, one bright morning about dawn, they came across the river, about seventeen thousand in number, to see what “Old Uncle Robert” was about. Thereupon followed the hard fight of Fleetwood Hill.

A description of this long and desperate struggle is no portion of the present subject. The Federal forces advanced in front, on the right flank, on the left flank-everywhere. The battle was thus fought, so to speak, “from the centre outwards.” What the eye saw as Stuart rapidly fell back from the river and concentrated his cavalry for the defense of Fleetwood Hill, between him and Brandy, was a great and imposing spectacle of squadrons charging in every portion of the field-men falling, cut out of the saddle with the sabre; artillery roaring, carbines cracking --a perfect hurly-burly of conflict.

Some day, perhaps, the present historian may give a page to this hard battle, and speak of its “moving accidents;” of the manner in which the cannoneers of the horse-artillery met and repulsed a charge upon their guns with clubs and sponge-staffs; how that gallant spirit, P. M. B. Young, of Georgia, met the heavy flanking column attacking from the side of Stevensburg, and swept it back with the sabre; how the brave William H. F. Lee received the charge upon the left and fell in front of his squadrons at the moment when the Federal forces broke; and how Stuart, on fire with the heat of battle, was everywhere the soul and guiding spirit of the desperate struggle.

At four in the evening the assault had been repulsed, and the Federal cavalry were in hasty retreat across the river again. Many prisoners remained in the hands of the Confederates, but [220] they had also lost not a few; for the fight had been so “mixed up,” and so many small detachments of the Southern cavalry had been cut off and surrounded in the melee, that the captures were considerable.


Among those who were thus cut off and captured in this wild struggle made up of dust, smoke, blood, and uproar, was Lieutenant W— . His horse had mired in the swampy ground near the Barbour House, and he was incontinently gobbled up by his friends in the blue coats, and marched to the rear, that is to say, across the Rappahannock. Lieutenant W— was an excellent specimen of those brave youths of the Valley who gathered around Jackson in the early months of the war, and in the hot fights of the great campaign against Banks and Fremont had borne himself with courage and distinction. Wounded and captured at Kernstown — I think it was-he had been exchanged, secured a transfer to the cavalry, and was now again a prisoner.

He was conducted across the Rappahannock with the Confederate prisoners captured during the day, and soon found himself minus horse, pistol, and sabre-all of which had, of course, been taken from him — in front of a bonfire on the north bank of the river. Around this fire a crowd of Federal cavalry-men were now assembled, discussing the events of the day, and many of them entered into conversation with the prisoners, their late adversaries. Lieutenant W— was standing by the fire, no doubt reflecting upon the curious “ups and downs” of that curious trade called war, when all at once something familiar in the voice of a young officer of the Federal force, who was not far from him, attracted his attention. Looking at the officer closely, he recognised in him an old friend of his who had formerly resided in Baltimore; and going up to him, the young Virginian made himself known.

He was greeted with the utmost pleasure, and the youths shook hands, laughing like boys at the odd meeting. If I were a novelist instead of an historian, my dear reader, I would here [221] insert a lengthy dialogue between the friends; but not having been present, I can only give you the bare outline of W—‘s adventure. From talk about old scenes, and things of the past, the conversation glided to the present, and the young Virginian's unlucky situation. Relying upon their former friendship, the latter at once broached the subject of his escape.

“I wish I could help you,” was the reply; “but I see no sort of chance of your getting away, W— .”

“I think I can get off in the dark.”

“Perhaps; but crossing the river is the difficulty. The bridge is picketed.”

The young Virginian, nevertheless, determined to make the attempt. From that moment he kept a close watch on the movements of his captors. Having eaten their supper, they now addressed themselves to the task of counting, assorting, and taking down the names of their prisioners. The latter were drawn up in a line near the fire, and a Federal officer went along the line, entering their names and regiments in his memorandum-book. Lieutenant W-- was near the head of the line, and having given his name and regiment — the Twelfth Virginia Cavalrysaw the officer pass on. I have called him Lieutenant W , but the young man was at that time a private; and at the announcement of his historic name the Federal soldiers began to laugh, one of them saying “The Old Dominion must be hard up when her aristocracy have to go in the ranks and wear a jacket like that!” And he pointed to W—‘s old, discoloured cavalry jacket.

The young man was, however, not thinking of the jokes of his captors; he was watching his opportunity to glide out of the line. It soon came. The Federal soldiers were not looking at him; the recording officer had passed around the fire, the light of which thus shone for an instant in his eyes and dazzled him, and Lieutenant W— saw his opportunity. The space outside of the firelight was as gloomy as Eblis, and in a moment he had stepped from his place, and was lost in the darkness. He glided behind a tent, ran a few steps, and then paused to listen.

Had his movement been observed? Would they go over the [222] count again, to verify the record? Then one man would be found missing; he would be at once pursued, recaptured, and rewarded for his attempt to escape by painful or ignominious punishment. He listened with all his ears; held his breath, and soon found that he was not missed. The officer did not suspect the ruse which had been played upon him; and the prisoners were marched off under guard. Lieutenant W— saw them disappear with profound satisfaction, and then all his energies were bent to the hard task of getting out of the Federal camp and crossing the river. The prospect looked sufficiently dispiriting. He was in the centre of a city of tents, where he could not stir a step without attracting attention; and even if he succeeded in escaping the vigilance of the men and the quarter-guard, the broad and deep current of the Rappahannock lay still in his path — the single bridge heavily picketed. The young man did not lose heart for a single moment, however, and, like a good soldier, determined to “take the chances.”

The first thing was to conceal his identity from the men around the fires. He accordingly took off his gray jacket, and rolling it up, put it under his arm. His pantaloons were blue, and his hat was of an indefinable colour, which might be either Confederate or Federal. In his bosom, between his shirt and naked breast, he concealed his spurs, which he had unbuckled and hidden when he was captured. Having thus prepared himself, Lieutenant W— walked boldly on, and lounged carelessly by the fires. One of the men asked him what regiment he belonged to, as if they observed something unfamiliar in his demeanour; but his ready reply, giving the name of some Federal regiment, entirely disarmed suspicion. So much cavalry had taken part in the fight, and had been so much scattered, that W— was set down for one of the many stragglers; and walking by the fires, and the quarter-guard, who stared at, but did not challenge him, he gained the bank of the Rappahannock.

He had thus succeeded in his second attempt; but obstacle number three threatened to be more serious. The river before him was broad, deep, black, and cold. The bridge near by was guarded; he heard the sentinel pacing to and fro, and a second at [223] the further extremity. What was to be done? Kill the sentinel by suddenly attacking and seizing his weapon? That, under other circumstances, might have been done; but there was the other sentinel, who would at once give the alarm; then recapture, and a “latter end worse than the first.” This plan was thus out of the question. But one hope presented itself. The fugitive could not swim the river; but if by any means he could climb up to the floor of the bridge inside of the sentinel, he might, perhaps, crawl along without being discovered, “flank” the sentinel beyond, and so get back to his friends. Young, lithe, and determined, Lieutenant W— speedily made a reconnoissance of the abutments of the bridge to ascertain the possibility of executing his project. To his great satisfaction he discovered a pipe running from a tank above to the water below — for this was the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge; and the rivets securing the pipe to the masonry afforded him an excellent foothold in climbing. Gliding beneath the sentinel in the darkness, he crept into the shadow, grasped the pipe, and, with hands and knees, climbed foot by foot up the abutment, until he reached the edge of the floor-way. His hands were torn and his knees lacerated, but he had taken another step toward liberty.

What now remained to be done was to crawl along the narrow edge of the parapet, under shadow of a species of low railing, and crossing the bridge, pass around the other sentinel in some manner, and escape. This, however, was the most doubtful, as it was certainly the most dangerous portion of the adventure. The bridge was very lofty, the ledge narrow, slippery, and unprotected for he must move outside of the railing for fear of discovery; a single false step would precipitate him into the river beneath. Even if this danger were avoided, there was the sentinel beyond, and a picket, doubtless, beyond the sentinel. Lieutenant W — was revolving in his mind these various circumstances, and had begun to take a rather discouraging view of things, when his attention was attracted by the sound of steps coming from the direction of the Federal camp. A detachment of dismounted men were evidently approaching the bridge, and in a few moments the voice of the sentinel was heard giving the [224] challenge. “Relief,” was the reply; and then came, “Advance relief!” which was immediately followed by the appearance of the relief-guard. The new sentinel was relieved from his post, and took his place among the guard, one of whom was posted, and the detachment was heard tramping across the bridge to relieve in the same manner the other sentinels. As they came on, tramp! tramp! like the statue of the commander in “Don Giovanni,” the young Virginian idea as bold as it was original. It was difficult to crawl along the narrow ledge without falling into the black gulf below, and it was questionable whether any friendly water-pipe would enable him to “flank” the sentinel at the opposite extremity of the bridge. Why not “fall in” in the darkness with the unsuspecting detachment, pass through the guard beyond, and then take the chances of making his escape? His resolution was at once taken; and as the guard came opposite his place of concealment behind the low woodwork of the railing, he crouched lower, waited until they had passed, and then quietly stepping over a railing, fell in behind. The movement had been undiscovered; he was now advancing with measured step to “assist,” as the French say, at relieving the Old guard on the bridges-himself an honorary member of the relief.

His ruse was crowned with complete success. He passed with the detachment undiscovered to a point beyond the bridge; and then stepping from the ranks — a manoeuvre which the pitch darkness rendered by no means difficult-he concealed himself until the unsuspecting Federals disappeared. He then crawled on his hands and knees, crouching close to the ground by another picket which he saw upon the road, and reaching a point where he believed himself beyond range, rose to his feet and commenced moving. All at once he saw before him another picketfire; and not knowing whether it was that of friends or enemies, he again crouched down and slowly approached the fire, crawling upon his chest along the surface of the ground.

He had succeeded too well up to this time to risk anything; and he accordingly continued to “snake along” toward the fire, in order to discover, before making himself known, whether the [225] ground around it were friends or enemies. In this slow and cautious manner he approached until he was within ten yards of it; where, hidden behind a stump, he attentively reconnoitred. The result was indecisive. He could not possibly succeed in discovering whether the pickets were Federal or Confederate; and in relating his adventure afterwards, Lieutenant W— declared that his heart now throbbed with greater anxiety than at any other time during the whole affair. He continued for some time thus crouching behind the stump, and his doubt was painful and protracted. At last it came to an end; he breathed freely again. One of the men rose from the ground, yawned, and said: “I don't believe there will be a Yankee on this side of the river by the morning.”

Whereupon Lieutenant W — rose up, approached the fire, and with a laugh, made himself known, to the profound astonishment and confusion of the sleepy pickets, who had thus received a practical illustration of the ease with which an enemy might approach and send a bullet through their hearts. They, however, received Lieutenant W— with military hospitality, gave him a portion of their rations, divided their blankets; and overcome with fatigue, he lay down and slept until daylight. Before sunrise he was at General Stuart's headquarters, and was relating his curious adventure, to the huge amusement of the laughing cavalier. He was without horse, arms, or other clothes than those which he wore; but he was free, and he had his spurs, carried throughout against his naked breast.

Such was the adventure of Lieutenant W— , and such the means he used in making his escape. The narrative may appear romantic, but I assure the reader that it is literally true.

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