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A prisoner's march from Gettysburg to Staunton.

by John L. Collins, Sth Pennsylvania cavalry.

Confederate Vidette.

On the 4th, when Lee's movement of withdrawal became known, the cavalry was ordered to throw itself between the Confederate army and the Potomac. To do this the different divisions were headed for the gaps and passes through which the trains sent under escort in advance were escaping over the mountains to Williamsport.

The regiment to which I belonged was in Gregg's division, but having become detached with the rest of the brigade during the three days of the battle, it united with two other brigades under General Kilpatrick and made an attack upon a Confederate train near Monterey. The fight took place before midnight the first day of the march, the train was burned, the guard was made prisoners, and then our command pushed on after another train that was reported ahead of the one we destroyed. A few whose horses were killed or disabled were ordered back to the division for a remount, instead of being mounted upon the enemy's horses. I disobeyed the orders, and hoping to get one of the enemy's horses I led my own and followed on foot. I soon lost sight of the brigade, however, but toiled along the dark and rough road, until my horse, which at first could walk with only the weight of the saddle, refused to go any farther. As the day was breaking, I was examining and washing the poor creature's wounded shoulder, when I was surprised by about 150 Confederate cavalry, whose approach I had hailed as that of friends. At a motion from their colonel three men dismounted, the foremost of whom held out his hand to me and cheerfully said: “Good morning, sir! I am [430] sorry to say you are a prisoner.” The other two went toward my arms, which were piled on the saddle on the roadside, and, holding them up, exclaimed, “What splendid arms he has!” Surprise and the novelty of the first man's greeting kept me from realizing my position until I saw them take my carbine, saber, and pistol. Then my heart sank.

Those “splendid arms” had been my companions for two years, and two months previously I had been publicly commended for bringing them with me through the enemy's ranks when my horse was shot inside their lines as we charged upon Jackson's men at Chancellorsville. But such is war, and I bade them a sorrowful adieu, as I looked from them to the faces of my captors, some of which showed sympathy, some indifference, while all seemed manly and soldierly. The commander alone took no notice of me or my arms; he gazed up the road through the gray light of the morning as if bent on some bold manoeuvre, and then said to one of his men in a loud voice: “; Tell General Lee (Fitzhugh) that there is a regiment of Yankee cavalry half a mile up the road, and ask him if I shall charge them.”

The man galloped back, and without waiting for General Lee's orders, the colonel wheeled his men and galloped after him,--such a piece of cheap braggadocio as I had seen displayed by some of our own colonels. I was left in the care of two men to put the saddle on my horse and follow at a walk. My guards were frank, and in answer to my question told me that they belonged to General William E. Jones's brigade, that they had been captured in the fight just mentioned, and had escaped during the night from Kilpatrick who was more intent in overtaking larger bodies than in watching the few hundred he had taken. Between midnight and daybreak the colonel and about 150 men came together in the woods and fell in with General Fitzhugh Lee, who was then slipping out between two divisions of our cavalry.

About noon I was introduced to about thirty of those who had been sent back for horses to the division, and had shared my fate. We were with General Stuart's headquarters, as he was moving in the center of his brigades — they being pushed out in every direction, trying to keep a road clear for their infantry and artillery.

A young Virginian about my own age, but with much more suavity and self-complacency than I could claim, introduced himself to me and told me that he belonged to the “King and Queen” cavalry (1st Virginia, I think), and said that they knew my regiment well, and considered it a “rough one to deal with.” He asked me if I remembered all the skirmishes we had as we advanced from New Kent Court House to the Chickahominy, which I did well, and then when we had become quite well acquainted, asked me if I would have any objections to exchanging saddles with him. I had not the least, as I never expected to sit on mine again, and when we stopped on the roadside to make the exchange I walked back into the ranks without my horse, as I saw no reason why I should bother leading him along for my captors to ride, if he should ever get well. Fresh prisoners were added all the time, mostly cavalry, and we marched along through the mountains the entire day. Stuart and his staff rode in our midst-rather an imprudent thing, I thought, for many of the men observed him closely with reference to a future meeting. I know it was in my mind every time I looked at him, though I had no malice and nothing to complain of in regard to my treatment. Within a year he fell by the carbine of a cavalryman whose regiment was at this time well represented among the prisoners.

The day was a hard one for me, used to fatigue and fasting though I was. The roads were the roughest and narrowest that could be found, and I had eaten nothing since the previous day, having lost my haversack during the night. I was at last compelled to tell one of the guards that I was very hungry, and he apologized for having nothing to give me, but promised to see that I got something before we went much farther. He left the ranks soon and shortly afterward returned with some bread and butter, which he divided with me. Later in the afternoon foragers brought us in rations collected from the farm-houses.

Just before sunset, as we were going through a gap, a rapid exchange of shots was heard ahead of us, and both prisoners and captors became excited. A few moments later we were near enough to look out into the plain beyond; we saw the Confederates in front of us dismounting and deploying as skirmishers, and my heart bounded as I saw my own regiment drawn up for a charge about five hundred yards away! I began to cry like a child; I thought that I would be free again in about ten minutes, with my friends; that I would be armed and mounted as twenty-four hours before. The question, How did I know my regiment? naturally comes, and is as easily answered. I could distinguish the companies by the color of their horses, and knew the order of the squadrons in the line. The black horses of troop C and the light bays of H formed the first squadron, the sorrel horses of E and the dark bays of G formed the next, and so on. The troops changed squadron often to suit the seniority of the captains, and the squadrons changed positions in the regiment for the same reason, but the combination of companies before me now had been that of the regiment for a week at least.

A call was made for sharp-shooters, and those who dismounted and presented themselves were supplied with cartridges and sent into the cornfield in front of us. But my regiment seemed disinclined to charge, and merely threw out skirmishers to meet them. Some of the Confederates enthusiastically cried, “My! won't the sharpshooters make it hot for that cavalry!”

Though the firing became brisk, it wearied me; I wanted the charge, because I was sure that a vigorous attack would send our guards fleeing without us in less than five minutes. One of them, a quiet, pleasant-faced man, as were many of the others, noticed my dejected look, came to me, and, swinging himself from.his saddle to a fence-rail, [431] took a Testament from his pocket, and asked me if I objected to his reading a chapter aloud. I thankfully asked him to do so; as I had not had heart enough to read my own that day. He read a chapter in one of Paul's epistles, and when he had concluded remarked that he would feel fifty per cent. better if the country were at peace and he at home that night. I must add that while he was reading I held Quaker principles myself, for I was pained to think I was an enemy of that fair-minded Christian young man who, like myself, thought he was right in engaging in a career of destruction to life and property. But we were both reminded that it was war and not peace by the call of “More ammunition” for the sharp-shooters, and our guards had to supply it from their boxes, it being apparently scarce.

Now is the time for a charge, I thought. General Stuart had not more than three hundred men, encumbered by as many prisoners, and the regiment in front had five hundred in line. But while their commander hesitated, General Stuart, whose genius and courage had gotten him out of many a difficulty, proved himself equal to the present emergency. While his skirmishers were firing their last cartridges he made us fall in by fours, and marched us two or three times across the opening. We were mistaken in the twilight for Confederate infantry coming up, and then his whole column was moved along the edge of the corn-field, keeping the skirmishers between us and my regiment, which moved parallel with us, until darkness shut them out from my view.

The next morning Stuart's men were gone, and we were guarded toward the Potomac by Pickett's division. I regretted the change, the rank and file of the cavalry were so different from what I had expected to find the Southern soldiers. They were quiet, courteous, and considerate; they all seemed young, of light build with fair or sandy complexions predominant; and, better than all, they had more by far than the average share of intelligence. The infantry that took their place were nearer my conception of the Southern soldier. But I must not blame the poor fellows if they had not the kindness and elasticity of the cavalry. They were out of heart a large part of their division had been left on the field on the 3d of July, and besides the commander of the division there was only one officer above the rank of captain left in it.

We were halted by the roadside often during the day to let Confederate troops hurry past us. In one of these halts General Longstreet was pointed out to me with evident pride by a staff-officer who had turned aside to make some courteous remarks to me. I told the officer as politely as I could that I thought they were badly beaten, and would hardly get across the Potomac. He laughed and said that they were not trying to get across,--that Baltimore was their objective point just then; from there, he explained, it was but a forced march to Washington, and once there they could conquer a peace in thirty days. His hopes amused me; I remembered that when retreating from the Chickahominy and from Chancellorsville I did not know anything of defeat, but thought I was marching to victory by another road.

The next time we were halted I was not so pleasantly entertained. I sat on a high bank watching the various regiments and batteries go by, when a haughty young officer rode up, looking at the prisoners' feet, as if he wanted a pair of boots. Several of the men concealed theirs by drawing them up, but I did not; the soles of mine were coming off, for two days march over rough roads was something the contractor for cavalry boots had not contemplated. The officer pulled up in front of me, however, and said in an overbearing manner, “I want those spurs.” I merely looked at them and nodded. “Hand them to me,” he said sternly. “They were given to me for the United States service, not for rebel service,” I said, stung by his manner. “Oh!” he scornfully remarked, “I suppose you know you are a prisoner?” “Yes, I have been nearly two days without food; that convinces me.” “And when a soldier is taken, his horse, his arms, and equipments are his captor's?” “Yes, mine are all gone.” “And his spurs, too?” “Yes, and his boots sometimes.” “Hand me your spurs, then.” “Take them, if you want them, I won't hand them to you.” He took out his pistol and raised it, but controlling himself lowered it and moved away. Then he turned his horse and demanded them again. The same answer, and the same arguments were repeated; the pistol was pointed at me, but his soldierly qualities triumphed over his temper as before. There seemed no way out of the difficulty; he was determined to have the spurs, but too proud to dismount and unbuckle them, and I was too stubborn to yield. At last one of Pickett's men came up and took them off, and the officer rode away with them.

Before I left the spot I kicked off my boots, for they.seemed made only to carry spurs, and went barefoot the rest of the way to Richmond. The prisoners who on the first day had numbered only about 300, mostly cavalry, were now increased to nearly as many thousands, as the men taken at Gettysburg were added to us. Besides these, fresh cavalry prisoners were brought in every day. From them we heard of the extent of the victory, and the fighting that was still in progress, and we were assured by them that neither we nor our guards could ever reach the Potomac. This helped to restore the self-respect that a soldier partly loses when his arms are taken from him, and which continued captivity almost entirely destroys.

We were marched past a handsome house which had attracted our attention on our way to Gettysburg by the number of United States flags and the gayly dressed ladies waving handkerchiefs to us. They were waving them as boldly to the Confederates now, and the stars and stripes had been transformed into the stars and bars.

Some of the newly captured were badly wounded, but had no attention given them, except such crude service as their fellow-prisoners could do for them. None of our surgeons were captured, and I suppose those of the enemy had plenty to do among their own. One poor fellow of the 5th New York Cavalry had seventeen wounds which he got from the 11th Virginia. He was cut and slashed at every angle, [432] and when we had gotten some bandages and patched him up he looked ludicrously odd.

Before we entered Williamsport a correspondent, whom the Confederates had decided to let go, took the names of those who chose to give them to him, that their friends might learn their fate from the papers. I gave him mine, and though it was printed in a leading Philadelphia paper, I was afterward mortified to learn that only one of all my friends in that city had seen it. A dozen others there with whom I had correspondence supposed I had been killed.

At Williamsport all was crowded and in confusion. The Confederates were throwing up weak defenses in expectation of an attack. Our cavalry had cut their way in and destroyed the only bridge that Lee had left in his rear. Some of the poor fellows that must always get left on such occasions cheered us by telling us how they did it. Three regiments charged in,--one fought to the right, another to the left, while the third, supplied with straw and turpentine, dashed at the bridge, set fire to it, then cut it loose from its moorings and let it float down the river, a burning wreck. “Score another for the cavalry,” we cried.

My hopes rose with the river, which was a seething flood, boiling over its banks; it seemed impossible to get us across the Potomac now. Rigging up a rope ferry, and getting the prisoners across on flat-boats was the work of two or three days, and then they encamped us on a hill a few days more, waiting for their army to follow. I think they feared an advance by Harper's Ferry and Martinsburg. The cavalry and flying artillery came from that direction; Imboden's men told us so, and I never gave up hope until we had passed Winchester. A brigade composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery under General Imboden guarded us from this point to Staunton, a distance of over 1.20 miles, I think. It seemed five hundred miles to me, for I was barefooted and the pike had been recently repaired.

The mode of marching us was now for the first time systematic. We numbered at least four thousand men, and were divided into divisions, marching by columns of fours. The cavalry and artillery marched en masse between the divisions, while the infantry marched in two files, one at each side of the column. Imboden's brigade did not seem to have seen much hard service, at least I thought so because their clothes were new, yet the general had a new suit of gray on, and certainly he had seen plenty of hard service. The men were as kind to us as could be expected; only one unpleasant affair came under my observation all the way. In the heat of a discussion a guard clubbed his musket and struck a wounded man on the head. I have no doubt that the latter had his tongue to blame for it; but he was a prisoner and a wounded man, and the guard was promptly placed under arrest.

I have said nothing so far of the commissary arrangements simply because there was nothing to be said. I do not now remember getting anything to eat until we crossed the Potomac, except from Stuart's cavalry the first day of my captivity. But my memory must fail me, for I could not have lived unless I had gotten something occasionally. After we left Williamsport the arrangements were regular — in their meagerness, too regular. We got about a pint of flour every other day, and with it now and then a piece of rusty flitch. Some of the men tried to make bread of the flour as we camped, but the greater number stirred it up in water, and drank the paste, saying that “it stuck to their ribs longer” that way. We got an extra ration at Martinsburg, that, out of compliment to the ladies, I ought not to forget. As we marched through the town the whole populace turned out to greet us, not as enemies but as friends and sympathizers. They cried out to us, to cheer up — not to be downhearted — that we had won a great victory at Gettysburg, and though we were being marched to prison we were already avenged by the thousands of rebels that were left dead or prisoners in Pennsylvania. They appeared to be well posted by the Northern newspapers, and right in the teeth of the guards they upbraided the Confederates for theft and violence north of the Potomac. It must have been very galling to Imboden's command to be reviled that way by their countrywomen, but they bore it with cast-down heads, and made no reply. We could not have done it, I fear, had we been the guards, and in Pennsylvania. At last some of our men, in reply to questions on the subject, said they did not give us anything to eat. There was a sudden rush for the houses, and in a few seconds the street was lined with women with dishes of cake, bread, and everything they could lay hands on with so short a notice.

The sight of the food threw our column into disorder. Some men tried to break out of the ranks, and this being resisted, the women tried to break in. In the confusion that followed a few women were pushed back to the street-curb and fell down. The falls were, I think, accidental; but the prisoners became furious when they saw them fall, they struck at the guards right and left, and overpowered many of them, bearing them to the ground. It looked for the moment as if there would be a general fight, which must result in the death of many prisoners and the escape of others; but this was prevented by the prompt action of the cavalry and artillery, marching near the scene of the revolt. Then the general, or some one for him, promised the people and the prisoners that the latter would be halted outside the town to receive the contributions. In an open wood by the roadside we were halted, and the guards themselves soon brought us the coveted food. The sly rascals must have tossed the dainties up in the blankets as they brought them along so that every man of us at a single grab could get a sample of all they sent. I got one good handful only, but it was a mixture of ginger-bread, cookies, cake, corn-bread, and every-thing else that the people of Martinsburg ate. It was here that the Barbara Frietchies lived. After the battle of Antietam these women had laid planks on a torn up bridge for us, so that we could cross and drive Stuart's cavalry out of the town.

But notwithstanding this extra food at Martinsburg the low diet and the sharp stones soon told [433] on my strength. My feet were sore, and my stomach was faint beyond endurance, and the climax was reached one day when my sight left me, and I threw myself down on the roadside to die. The rallying cry of “A cavalry charge” had no more effect on me; I knew they could not approach us now, and I gave up in despair as soon as I found I was blind. The guards tried to make me get up, but I listened with indifference to their threats to shoot me. The rear-guard of each division passed me with the same result for their efforts to rouse me, until at last the rear-guard of all came up; the officer in command assured me that it was his duty to kill me rather than leave me behind, and though I believed him I could not move, and merely told him so. At last he told a man to “run me through” with his bayonet, but I suppose there was a saving sign that I did not see, for after a pause I heard him tell the man to stay with me until a wagon came along and I could be taken and given something to eat. I never saw that officer, but I hope God saw his act of forbearance and humanity and rewarded him for it. There have been miserable cowards in either army who bullied and mistreated unfortunate prisoners when they had the power to do so, but the true soldier never did, and I never saw anything but kindness shown to the prisoners that my regiment took, and I never experienced anything but kindness from the men who guarded me from Gettysburg to Staunton.

After a long rest I was placed in a wagon and taken to a house where I got a big slice of bread and butter, and in a short time sight and strength returned, and I was able to march with the column. I ought to add for my own credit that I did not fall out again, though faint and hungry often enough. The towns through which we passed on our way up the Shenandoah Valley were apprised of our coming, and manifested a different spirit, of course, from that exhibited at Martinsburg. Many insulted and upbraided us, but some of our men who excelled in nothing else were mighty in vituperation and abusive eloquence, and these paid back with interest all the taunts we received, often, I am sorry to say, surpassing the bounds of self-respect and decency.

We usually encamped in large meadows, through which streams of good water ran, and were here allowed to wash, eat, and sleep while our guards were posted around the fences. At one of those halts, as we approached Staunton, a farmer with his wife drove up close to the fence, and after taking a critical survey of the crowd he said indignantly: “Forty thousand Yankee prisoners! Why, I would bet the best farm in the valley that there isn't a quarter of them here!”

The heralds everywhere had doubtless added a harmless cipher to our real number.

At length — about the 20th of July, I think — we arrived at Staunton, weary and sore. We had marched about fifteen miles a day since we left Williamsport. As we entered Staunton some showed their love to their enemies by supplying us with tracts, but I am not sure that their kindness was appreciated by the prisoners as generally as was the attention paid to our hungry stomachs by the people of Martinsburg. While waiting there for transportation to Richmond we were amused to note the esteem in which the people held the Confederate money. Those who brought wares into our camp for sale at first refused to sell at all except for Federal money. When the officers threatened to expel from the camp any who did that, they would ask to see the money before naming the price, and if it was Federal, the pie was a quarter, but if Confederate, it would cost a dollar. One young army sharper — not one of our guards and not a Virginian — must have made a small fortune by exchanging money with our men at the rate of about two for one. He told them that at Richmond the respective values were even, but when we were marched through that city we found it to be as ten to one.

Our marches ended here; we were placed in box, or gravel cars, and at a slightly increased rate of speed were taken to Richmond.

Confederates captured at Gettysburg. From a photograph.

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