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Roslyn and the White house: before and after.

Quantum mutatus ab illo!” That is an exclamation which rises to the lips of many persons on many occasions in time of war.

In 1860, there stood on the left bank of the Chickahominy, in the county of New Kent, an honest old mansion, with which the writer of this page was intimately acquainted. Houses take the character of those who build them, and this one was Virginian, and un-“citified.” In place of flues to warm the apartments, there were big fires of logs. In place of gas to light the nights, candles, or the old-fashioned “astral” lamps. On the white walls there were no highly coloured landscape paintings, but a number of family portraits. There was about the old mansion a cheerful and attractive air of home and welcome, and in the great fireplaces had crackled the yule clogs of many merry Christmases. The stables were large enough to accommodate the horses of half a hundred guests. The old garden contained a mint patch which had supplied that plant for the morning juleps of many generations. Here a number of worthy old planters had evidently lived their lives, and passed away, never dreaming that the torch of war would flame in their borders.

The drawing-room was the most cheerful of apartments; and the walls were nearly covered with portraits. From the bright or faded canvas looked down beautiful dames, with waists just beneath their arms, great piles of curls, and long lace veils; and [450] fronting these were gentlemen with queer blue coats, brass buttons, snowy ruffles, hair brushed back, and English side-whiskers. The child in the oval frame above the mantel-piece-with the golden curls, and the little hand on the head of her pet dogcould look at her father and mother, grandfather, grandmother, and great-grandmother, almost without turning her head. Four generations looked down from the walls of the old mansion; about it was an indefinable but pervading air of home.

Of the happy faces which lit up this honest old mansion when I saw it first, I need not speak. Let me give a few words, however, to a young man who was often there-one of my friends. He was then in the bloom of youth, and enjoyed the spring-days of his life. Under the tall old trees, in the bright parlour full of sunshine, or beneath the shadow of the pine-wood near, he mused, and dreamed, and passed the idle hours of his “early prime.” He was there at Roslyn in the sweetest season of the year; in spring, when the grass was green, and the peach-blossom red, and the bloom of the apple-tree as white as the driven snow; in summer, “when the days were long” and all the sky a magical domain of piled — up clouds upon a sea of blue; and in the autumn, when the airs were dreamy and memorial — the woods a spectacle from faery-land, with their purple, gold, and orange, fading slow. Amid these old familiar scenes, the youth I write of wandered and enjoyed himself. War had not come with its harsh experiences and hard realities-its sobs and sighs, its anxieties and hatreds-its desolated homes, and vacant chairs, and broken hearts. Peace and youth made every object bright; and wandering beneath the pines, dreaming his dreams, the young man passed many sunny hours, and passed them, I think, rationally. His reveries brought him no money, but they were innocent. He had “never a penny to spare,” but was rich in fancy; few sublunary funds, but a heavy balance to his credit in the Bank of Cloudland; no house to call his own, but a number of fine chateaux, where he entered as a welcome guest, nay, as their lord! Those brave chateaux stood in a country unsurpassed, and those who have lived there say no air is purer, no sky more bright. War does not come there, nor the hum of trade; grief [451] and care fly away; sorrow is unknown; the doors of these old chateaux are closed against all that carries that most terrible of maladies, the Heartache.

They were Chateaux en Espagne, you will say, good reader; and truly they were built in that fine land. Do you know a better? I do not.

Many years have passed since the youth I speak of wandered amid these happy scenes; but I know that the dead years rise like phantoms often before his eyes, and hover vague and fitful above the waves of that oblivion which cannot submerge them. While memory lives they will be traced upon her tablets, deeper and more durable than records cut on “monumental alabaster.” The rose, the violet, and the hyacinth have passed, but their magical odour is still floating in the air — not a tint of the sky, a murmur of the pines, or a song of the birds heard long ago, but lives for ever in his memory!

But I wander from my subject, which is Roslyn “before and after.” The reader has had a glimpse of the old house as it appeared in the past; where is it, and what is it now?

That question will be answered by a description of my last visit to the well-known locality. It was a day or two after the battle of Cold Harbour, and I was going with a few companions toward the White House, whither the cavalry had preceded us. I thought I knew the road; I was sure of being upon it; but I did not recognise a single locality. War had reversed the whole physiognomy of the country. The traces of huge camps were visible on the once smiling fields; the pretty winding road, once so smooth, was all furrowed into ruts and mud-holes; the trees were hewn down; the wayside houses dismantled; the hot breath of war had passed over the smiling land and blasted it, effacing all its beauty. With that beauty, every landmark had also disappeared. I travelled over the worn-out road, my horse stumbling and plunging. Never had I before visited, I could have made oath, this portion of Virginia!

All at once we came — I and the “merry comrades” who accompanied me — in sight of a great waste, desolate-looking field, of a clump of towering trees, and a mansion which the retreating [452] enemy had just burned to the ground. There were no fences around this field; the roads were obliterated, deep ruts marking where army wagons had chosen the more level ground of the meadow, or had “doubled” in retiring; no landmarks were distinguishable. I recognised nothing-and yet something familiar in the appearance of the landscape struck me, and all at once the thought flashed on me, “I know this place! I know those peachtrees by the garden-fence! the lawn, the stables, the great elms! --this is Roslyn!”

It was truly Roslyn, or rather the ghost of it. What a spectacle. The fair fields were trodden to a quagmire; the fences had been swept away; of the good old mansion, once the abode of joy and laughter, of home comfort and hospitality, there remained only a pile of smoking bricks, and two lugubrious, melancholy chimneys which towered aloft like phantoms!

I heard afterwards the house's history. First, it had been taken as the headquarters of one of the Federal generals; then it was used as a hospital. Why it was burned I know not; whether to destroy, in accordance with McClellan's order, all medical and other stores which could not be removed, or from wanton barbarity, it is impossible to say. I only know that it was entirely destroyed, and that when I arrived, the old spot was the picture of desolation. Some hospital tents still stood in the yard with their comfortable beds; and many articles of value were scattered about-among others, an exquisitely mounted pistol, all silver and gilding, which a boy had picked up and wished me to purchase. I did not look at him, and scarcely saw the idle loungers of the vicinity who strolled about with apathetic faces. It was the past and present of Roslyn that occupied my mindthe recollection of the bright scenes of other years, set suddenly and brutally against this dark picture of ruin. There were the tall old trees, under which I used to wander; there was the wicker seat where I passed so many tranquil hours of reverie in the long, still afternoons, when the sun sank slowly to the western woods; there was the sandy road; the dim old pinewood; the flower-garden-every object which surrounded me in the glad hours of youth-but Roslyn itself, the sunny old mansion, where the weeks and months had passed so joyously, [453] where was Roslyn? That smouldering heap of debris, and those towering, ghost-like chimneys, replied. From the shattered elms, and the trodden flowers, the genius of the place seemed to look out, sombre and hopeless. From the pine-trees reaching out yearning arms toward the ruin, seemed to come a murmur, “Roslyn! Roslyn!”

In war you have little time for musing. Duty calls, and the blast of the bugle jars upon the reveries of the dreamer, summoning him again to action. I had no time to dream over the faded glories, the dead splendour of Roslyn; those “merry comrades” whereof I spoke called to me, as did the friends of the melancholy hero visitor to Locksley Hall, and I was soon en route again for the White House.

This was McClellan's great depot of stores on the Pamunkey, which he had abandoned when deciding upon the James river line of retreat-“change of base,” if you prefer the phrase, reader --and to the White House General Stuart had hurried to prevent if possible the destruction of the stores. He was too late. The officer in charge of the great depot had applied the torch to all, and retreated; and when the cavalry arrived, nothing was visible but a black-hulled gunboat which slunk away down the stream, chased by the shots of the Horse Artillery under Pelham. Behind them they left fire and destruction; a scene in which a species of barbaric and disgusting splendour seemed to culminate.

Strange moment for my first visit to the White House! to a spot which I had seen often in fancy, but never before with the mortal eye. For this place was one of those historic localities where the forms and voices of the “mighty men of old” appeared still to linger. Here young Colonel Washington, after that bloody march of Braddock, had paused on his journey to Williamsburg to accept the hospitalities of John Parke Custis. Here he had spent hour after hour conversing with the fair young widow who was to become Mrs. Washington, while his astonished body-servant held the bridle for him to mount; here he had been married; here were spent many happy days of a great life — a century at least before the spot saluted my gaze!

In this old locality some of the noblest and fairest forms that [454] eye ever beheld had lived their lives in the dead years. Here gay voices had echoed, bright eyes had shone; here a sort of masquerade of ruffles and silk stockings, furbelows and flounces, and lace and embroidery, and powder and diamonds, was played still in the eyes of fancy! The White House had been to the present writer an honest old Virginia mansion of colonial days, full of warm hearts, and kindness and hospitality, where bright eyes outshone “the gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls;” where the winding river flowed amid blooming fields, beneath lofty trees, and the suns of earlier years shone down on Washington and his bride.

Again, as at the White House-quantum mutatus ab illo!

Let me outline the objects that met my view as I galloped up the avenue, between the great trees which had seen pass beneath them the chariots of other generations. The house, like Roslyn, was a ruin still smouldering. No traces of it were left but overthrown walls, bricks calcined and shattered, and charred timbers still sending up lurid smoke. The grounds were the picture of desolation; the flower-beds, once carefully tended by fair hands, had been trampled beneath the feet of Federal soldiery; the trees were twisted or champed by the cavalry horses; and the fences had been long since torn up and burned. The mansion was gone; it had passed like a dream away. The earth upon which the feet of Washington had trodden so often was a waste; the house which stood upon the site of that former one in which he was married, had been swept away by the hot breath of war.

On each side of the avenue were the beds of an extensive field hospital. The enemy had carried off the large “hospital tents;” but the long rows of excellent beds, carefully protected from the damp of the earth by plank floors, had not been removed. Here were the general headquarters of disease; the camp of the sick, the dying, and the dead. The arrangements were admirable. The alleys between the tents were wide; the beds of the best quality, with ornamental coverlids, brought probably by friends; and everywhere lay about, in admired disorder, books, pamphlets, magazines, journals, with which the sick had doubtless [455] wiled away the tedious hours. Many Bibles and Testaments were lying on the ground; and Harper's “Monthly” and “Weekly” were seen in great numbers, their open pages exhibiting terriffic engravings of the destruction of rebels, and the triumph of their “faction.” Here were newspapers fixing exactly the date of General McClellan's entrance into Richmond; with leading editorials so horrible in their threatenings, that the writers must have composed them in the most comfortable sanctums, far away from the brutal and disturbing clash of arms. For the rest, there was a chaos of vials, medicines, boxes, half-burnt lemons; and hundreds of empty bottles, bearing the labels, “Chateau Margot,” “Lafitte,” “Clicquot,” “Bordeaux,” and many othersthe very sight of which spolia of M. S. nearly drove the hungry and thirsty Confederates to madness!

It was a sombre and frightful spot. Infection and contagion seemed to dwell there — for who could tell what diseases had afflicted the occupants of these beds? No article was touched by the troops; fine coloured blankets, variegated shirts, ornamental caps, and handkerchiefs, and shawls, remained undisturbed. One object, however, tempted me; and, dismounting, I picked it up. It was a little black lace veil, lying upon one of the beds, and evidently had belonged to a woman. I looked at it, musing, and asking myself whether it had belonged to wife, sister, or daughter-and I pitied her. This girl or woman, I thought, had probably no hatred in her heart towards us; if she had been consulted, there would have been no war; her child, or her husband, or her brother, would have stayed at home with her, leaving his “Southern brethren” in peace. Women are best after all; and, doubtless, they of the North would even yet end this “cruel war” if they could; would shatter the sword, break the musket to pieces, and sink the rifled cannon a thousand fathoms deep in the waters of the Atlantic! If the women of the North could have their way, I think they would call to those who remain alive to return to them,--would heal their broken hearts, and joyfully bid the “erring sisters” go in peace-furling the battle-flag for ever. This daughter, or sister, or wife, may have been one of these angels; perhaps she did not see that she had [456] dropped her lace veil-she was crying, poor thing!

A curious subject for reverie — a lace veil picked up in an enemy's camp; but such are the vagaries of the human mind. It seemed strange to me there,--that delicate woman's veil, in the Plague City, on the hot arena of war.

Passing the hospital and the ruined mansion, I hastened to the locality of the camp; and here the whole wild scene burst on the eye. I cannot describe it. Stench, glare, insufferable heat, and dense, foul, lurid smoke — there was the “general impression.” A city had been laid out here, and this was now in flames. Jews, pedlers, hucksters, and army followers of every description, had thronged here; had worked like beavers, hammering up long rows of “shanties” and sutlers' shops; had covered the plain with a cloud of tents; and every steamer from New York had brought something to spread upon the improvised counters of the rising city. Moses and Levi and Abraham had rushed in with their highly superior stock of goods, going off at an enormous sacrifice; Jonathan and Slick had supplied the best quality of wooden hams and nutmegs; Dauerflinger and Sauerkraut had brought the best malt liquors and lager, with brandy and whiskey and gin under the rose. In a few weeks a metropolis of sutlerdom had thus sprung up like a mushroom; and a whole host of pedlers and hucksters had scratched and burrowed, and made themselves nests like Norway rats;--the very place smelled of them.

The rats had thus gone far in building their capital of Ratdom; but those cruel terriors, the Confederates, had discovered them, given chase, and scattered them to the four winds, to return no more! Their own friends struck them the heaviest blow. The officer commanding at the White House had promptly obeyed the orders sent him, and the nascent city was set fire to without mercy. When the Confederates arrived, the long rows of sutlers' stores, the sheds on the wharf, the great piles of army-stores, the surplus guns, pistols, sabres, and the engine on the railroad, were wrapt in roaring flames. From this great pile of fire rose a black and suffocating smoke, drifting far away across the smiling landscape of June. Destruction, [457] like some Spirit of Evil, sat enthroned on the spot, and his red bloodshot eye seemed to glare through the lurid cloud.

The heat was frightful, but I rode on into the midst of the disgusting or comic scenes-advancing over the ashes of the main bulk of the stores which had been burned before our arrival. In this great chaos were the remnants of all imaginable things which a great army needs for its comfort or luxury in the field. Barrels of pork and flour; huge masses of fresh beef; boxes of hard bread and cakes; hogsheads of sugar and molasses; bags of coffee and beans, and all conceivable “army stores” --had been piled up here in a great mass nearly a quarter of a mile long, and set on fire in many places. The remains of the stores were still burning, and emitted a most disgusting odour; next came the row of sutlers' shops, among which the advance guard of the cavalry had scattered themselves in search of edibles. These were found in profusion, from barrels of excellent hams, and crackers and cakes, to the luxuries so costly in the Confederate capital, of candy and comfits, lemons and oranges, bottles of Jamaica ginger, and preserved fruits. There was no little interest in a walk through that debris of sutlerdom. You knocked in the head of a barrel, entirely ignorant whether hard bread or candy, pork or preserved strawberries, would greet your curious eyes. The box which you dashed to pieces with an axe might contain fine shoes and elastic socks, or excellent combs and hair-brushes, or snowy shirt bosoms and delicate paper collars, penknives, pickles, portmonnales, or perfumes. All these things were found, of the last New York fashion, abandoned by the sutler rats, no doubt with inexpressible anguish. The men helped themselves freely to everything which they took a fancy to, and revelled for that day in a plenty which repaid them for all their hardships.

One amusing example of the wholesale destruction was furnished by the barrels of fresh eggs set on fire. But they were only half burned. The salt in which they had been packed resisted the fire; and the result was that the eggs were only roasted. They could not have been prepared more excellently for the visitors; and every taste was gratified. Some were charred and roasted hard, others less than the first, others again were [458] only heated through. You could take your choice without difficulty; nothing more was necessary than to take them from their beds of salt; and a pinch of that salt, which was excellent, made them palatable. Crackers were at hand; jars of preserved fruits of all descriptions. There were strawberries and figs and dates for dessert; and whole boxes of tobacco, if you wished to smoke after your meal. The greatest luxury of all was iced lemonade. The day was terribly hot, and the men, like their horses, were panting with the combined heat of the weather and the great conflagration. Under such circumstances, the reader may understand that it was far from unpleasant to discover a cool spring beneath the bank; to take water and ice and lemons and Jamaica ginger, and make a drink for the gods!

Of this pandemonium of strange sights and sounds and smells --of comic or tragic, amusing or disgusting.details — I shall mention but one other subject; one, however, which excited in me, I remember, at the time a very curious interest. This was a tent filled with coffins, and a dead body ready embalmed for transportation to the North. In front of the tent stood an oblong pine box, and in this box was a coffin, so richly ornamented that it attracted the attention of all who approached. It was apparently of rosewood, with massive silver handles, curiously carved or moulded, and the interior was lined with rich white satin, with a fringed pillow, covered with the same material to sustain the head of the corpse. Above the tents occupied by this mortuary artist, was a long strip of canvas stretched between two upright poles, and this bore the inscription in large black letters:

Embalming the dead!
New American process.
by order of the Secretary of war

This strange locality, as I and my comrades approached it, “gave us pause.” All these paraphernalia of this grave struck us with profound astonishment, and the force of novelty. Our poor Confederate dead we buried in pine boxes, or in none; often a long trench received them, wrapped only in their old tattered uniforms or threadbare blankets; and lo! here was quite another [459] mode of preparing men for their last rest; quite a superiour conveyance for them, in which they might make their journey to the other world! That rich and glossy rosewood; that softfringed pillow; those silver handles, and the opening in the lid, where through fine plate-glass the face of the corpse might be seen!--strange flattery of the dead — the dead who was no longer to crumble to dust, and go the way of humanity, but was to be embalmed by the new American process, in accordance with the “order” of the Secretary of War! In the streets of a city that spectacle would, no doubt, have appeared quite commonplace and unsuggestive; but here, amid the insufferable heat, the strangling smoke, and the horrible stench, that dead body, the coffin, and the embalmers' whole surroundings, had in them I know not what of the repulsive and disgusting. Here the hideous scene had reached its climax-Death reigned by the side of Destruction.

Such was the scene at the White House on that June day of 1862; in this black cloud went down the star of the enemy's greatest soldier, McClellan. A great triumph for the Confederates followed that furious clash of arms on the Chickahominy; but alas! when the smoke rolled away, the whole extent of the waste and desolation which had come upon the land was revealed; where peace, and joy, and plenty had once been, all was now ruin. The enemy were lighted on their way, as they retreated through the marshes of Charles City, by the burning houses to which they had applied the torch.

Of two of these houses I have spoken, because they chanced to attract my attention; and I have tried to convey the emotions which the spectacle excited. It was useless and barbarous to burn these private dwelling-houses; the wanton indulgence of spite and hatred on the part of a defeated enemy, who destroys in order to destroy. But let that pass.

Since that time I have never revisited Roslyn or the White House.

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