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A ruse of War.

Captain John Scott.
When General Butler landed at City Point and Bermuda Hundreds, in the spring of 1864, with an army of thirty thousand men, and accompanied and guarded by gun-boats and iron-clads, why he did not at once occupy Petersburg, to obtain which afterward cost so much blood to the Federal army, is a question, the answer to which is not very obvious. Petersburg, on the line of the railway leading south from Richmond, the heart of the Southern Confederacy was distant twenty miles from City Point, with which it was connected by a railway, a navigable river, and a broad highway in good condition, and passing through a level country not occupied by the military forces of the enemy. I propose to furnish what I thought then, and think now, to be an answer to this question. It will be a modicum of information, which may prove useful to the historian, when he comes to gather up all the facts for an impartial history of the four years war, which has left scars even on the Constitution. It will, moreover, be doing justice to the memory of Major General George E. Pickett, a distinguished officer of the Southern army, whose reputation is dear to us all of the South.

To render my brief narrative intelligible to the reader not particularly informed of the military facts to which it has reference, it will be necessary first to state the situation in the Department of North Carolina with which Petersburg was embraced, or so much of it as affected that point. General Pickett was still in command at Petersburg, though he had been relieved, when General Butler, with [381] his large army, suddenly occupied City Point. His troops were engaged in an expedition to North Carolina, with the exception of a single regiment of infantry belonging to Clingman's Brigade, not more than five or six hundred strong; nor had the troops of General Beauregard, who had succeeded to the command of the department, yet arrived. The strong defenses of the town were unoccupied. It was only necessary for the Federal commander to send up a detachment of his army to occupy them, and cut the communications of Richmond with the South, the seat of its principal resources. Why so vital a point as Petersburg at that time was, should have been left unguarded, and its defenses sent off in search of objects of secondary importance, I do not know. The biographer of General Pickett, Colonel Walter Harrison, states, in his interesting volume, that General Pickett, as early as the preceding November, had penetrated the enemy's design to make an expedition up James river against Petersburg, and, in a personal interview with the Confederate authorities, had represented this contingency and the unprotected state of that town. He had even carried his representations to General Lee, who had referred him to General Beauregard, with whom, in consequence, he had had an interview at Weldon. “But,” says Colonel Harrison, “the expedition to Plymouth was at this time put on foot; much valuable time was wasted, and the troops which should have been ordered at once to Petersburg were kept in North Carolina doing little or nothing, while Pickett was left in Petersburg with merely a handful of men.” Colonel Harrison continues: “General Beauregard was in no way responsible for this. He had no control over these troops, and I have understood strongly urged their being hastened to Petersburg to support Pickett.” But the danger to Petersburg, from the direction of the lower James, was apparent to others beside General Pickett. A gentleman of Petersburg had, but a short time before the arrival of General Butler, pointed out to me on one of the military maps of the day that Bermuda Hundreds would probably be the point which the enemy would next strike. The eyes, which should have seen everything, appear to have been alone blinded to this vulnerable point.

Not long before the occurrences of these events I had been ordered to report for duty to General Pickett, whom I found in Petersburg. As the town was vacant of soldiers, I employed the leisure in examining its fortifications, and in other ways that pleased me. I was in my quarters early in the day, when I was suddenly summoned to report to General Pickett. I found everything astir, and he informed me of the occupation of City Point by the forces [382] commanded by General Butler. He told me I was the only cavalry officer on the ground, and that he wished me to take a party of cavalry to reconnoitre Butler's position, to remain in the vicinity of his outposts, and, if possible, induce the belief that I commanded but an advance body of troops, and that he might soon expect an attack. But that, in truth, he had no troops with which to defend Petersburg, and that the place would be captured unless General Butler could be amused with this false opinion, until Beauregard could arrive from the South. I inquired where I should find my cavalry command. He told me that he had none, but that he would exert himself to get together a body of mounted citizens, and that with these I must perform that duty. With characteristic energy he set about to improvise such a command as he had described, and in that chivalrous community it was not long before I found myself at the head of a body of thirty mounted citizens, armed with such weapons as each man could obtain. My most serious difficulty was in procuring a horse for my own use. But I succeeded in buying a very fine one, for which I had to pay a price large even in the depreciated currency of the war. One cavalryman who had been at home on a furlough, was the only enlisted soldier who joined me, and the only one who was killed on this tour of duty. As we passed beyond the limits of Petersburg, on the City Point road, we saw encamped on our right the regiment of North Carolina infantry, as if thrown forward to engage General Butler, and what guns we had were mounted on the fortifications on that side. It was evident that our brave commander was not dismayed, and that he was ready to use every available force at his disposal.

Toward the close of the day we came in view of the enemy's outposts, and at once began the work of observation, taking care to make as great display of our force as possible, but when night closed in we retired to the rear. These tactics were repeated the next day, and the next. There was a barn which stood outside the Federal lines, equi-distant between us, which contained a supply of forage. The Federals would occupy it by day, but would be withdrawn at night, when my men would visit it to procure food for their animals. When we first came in sight of the enemy's pickets, General Roger A. Pryor, now a brilliant advocate of the New York bar, who was at that time in Petersburg, and had joined us as a volunteer, was very solicitous that we should engage them. But I would not allow it to be done. I did not explain to him General Pickett's orders, and he retired from what appeared to be so purposely and inglorious a service. A collision with my loose array I knew might spoil the [383] plan, and disclose the sham we were attempting to impose on the enemy. Thus things continued till the third or fourth day, when a reconnoissance in force, preceded by a line of skirmishers, issued from the Federal lines, and advanced on the Petersburg road. I was informed at that time by a gentleman, a resident of the neighborhood, that some colored troops had visited in the vicinity of their camp, and had been told by the negroes of the insignificant nature of my force, and the true condition of affairs, and this reconnoissance had been sent to find out the truth. My men had been broken into several small parties, and scattered along the enemy's front. With one of them I fell back before the skirmishers until we reached the point at which the railway and the highway crossed. There I halted my party and allowed the skirmishers to approach near, the consequence of which was that my horse was fatally wounded in the head. But I was soon mounted on another and resumed the retreat. While we were passing through a body of woods, or rather as we were emerging from it, it was discovered that a detachment of cavalry had been thrown in advance of the skirmishers, and were making a dash at us. A hot chase ensued, but we passed safely into the Southern lines, which had been established at no great distance ahead of us. A round of our musketry emptied several saddles, and compelled a disorderly retreat. My little command never reassembled, but the object had been achieved. When I went to report to General Pickett he received me cordially, and was well pleased with his game of bluff with General Butler. But for this bold conception of Pickett's, Petersburg would have been occupied, Richmond isolated, the catastrophe accelerated, and General Butler would have been the hero of the war. It was his object to cut the railroad, as was proved by his attack at Port Walthall Junction, where he was repulsed by the gallant Haygood, as well as by the unsuccessful attempt of Cantz's Cavalry Division to the south of the town. Had General Butler been informed of the condition of things, a richer prize was within his grasp, and fair Petersburg, like another Helen, would have yielded herself his captive. This was my only contact with Pickett's men during the bloody war. Soon after I was ordered to take command of the troops stationed for the defense of the High Bridge.

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George E. Pickett (13)
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