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Doc. 170. retreat of the wild Cat Brigade.

A correspondent gives the following minute account of this affair:

Crab Orchard, Ky., Sunday, November 17.
My last letter was written from Camp Coburn, near Crab Orchard. The Wildcat Brigade, or sorrowful fragments of it, had but just staggered into camp after its disastrous retreat from London, and its tattered remains were still straggling up the rugged road miles in the rear, animated by hope of finally reaching a haven of rest. As that wretched struggle with the elements, over execrable roads, will be remembered by five thousand abused volunteers as long as they retain their faculty of memory, it deserves description.

You will remember that Wednesday afternoon, November 13th, General Schoepf issued an order requiring all the troops to be ready to march at eight o'clock that evening. Commanders of corps were directed to carry with them all their sick, leaving such baggage and stores as could not be transported. Previously there had been rumors of an advance, and when the order to prepare to move was issued to the troops, it was received with exultation. The Tennesseeans were especially delighted, and prepared with alacrity to return to their fire-sides. It had been currently reported that letters had been received by prominent Tennesseeans, from friends at Louisville and Washington, assuring them that the Cumberland Gap expedition would soon be pushed to an issue. This order, therefore, confirmed the report; and I am told that Hon. Andy Johnson, General Carter, Colonel Byrd, Colonel Spears, and others, were elated at the prospect of an immediate fruition of their hopes. They did not seem to comprehend that the order concerning the sick implied a retrograde movement. But when informed of the fact, they were overwhelmed with sorrow and indignation. Mr. Johnson turned from his informant, and entered his hotel without one word, in utter despair.

The information was withheld from the troops until they were moving, when the fact flashed upon them, and they denounced it with the vehemence of disappointed soldiers. Many of the Tennesseeans displayed a strong mutinous spirit. Some swore they would not recede a foot of the ground which had been conquered; others expressed determination to desert and return to Tennessee at all hazards, and many wept with vexation and despair. Their officers appealed earnestly to their patriotism, announcing to them that General Thomas had ordered them to countermarch in order to meet the rebels, who were reported moving toward Crab Orchard in strong force to cut them off, and that a retrograde movement was necessary to save the expedition. It was also stated by officers of various regiments, that Zollicoffer was reported marching up from Tennessee with a strong column, to form a junction with Buckner, to penetrate the Blue Grass country. Such were the facts and statements prior to the hour of marching. The subsequent facts will appear in the following diary:

London, Ky., Wednesday, November 13.
Long before eight o'clock P. M., most of the troops of the Wildcat Brigade, with three days rations in their haversacks, were prepared to march. The sick who could be removed — and there were many too feeble to walk, yet able to ride — were transferred to those wretched instruments of torture to the ill or the healthful--two-wheeled ambulances — and to common army-wagons, some of which were uncovered, thus exposing suffering men to the raw night air. But many poor bed-ridden fellows who were necessarily left, remained confined to the hospitals, a prey to harrowing apprehensions of captivity. Of course surgeons and guards were detailed to minister to their wants and protect them until they should be removed. But how many men were closely packed in ambulances and wagons, I could not learn. Colonel steedman would not leave any, and had over one hundred stowed away as comfortably as possible. The surgeon of the Twenty-third Indiana, horrified at the order, protested vehemently; but he was informed decisively, the order from Headquarters is that all the sick must be removed, and orders must be obeyed. He still protested that removal would certainly result in the death of some of his patients, and he was told to quarter them with private families at London. But the Thirty-third Indiana brought away one hundred and eighty-nine sick. I did not inquire how many were removed by other regiments, but the number was large. Besides many feeble fellows just discharged from hospital, but yet unfit for duty, shouldered their muskets and donned their heavy knapsacks, preferring the cruelties of a forced march to the hazards of captivity.

The Fourteenth Ohio had the right of the column. Shortly before eight o'clock, it marched solemnly by the camp of the Seventeenth Ohio, its band mournfully playing the Dead March--thus expressing the emotions of the troops. It was followed by Standart's and Kenney's batteries, with the baggage trains of each of the foregoing corps. The Seventeenth Ohio fell in their rear, and its sarcastic lads, keenly appreciating the occasion, burst into a satirical [395] paraphrase of their favorite regimental ditty, one strain of which runs somewhat thus:

Old Zollicoffer can't take us,
Can't take us, can't take us,
On a long summer's day.

It was impromptu at the Wildcat fight, so was the song as they retreated:

Old Zollicoffer can't catch us,
Can't catch us, can't catch us,
‘Cause we're running away.

More forcible than elegant, and more expressive than poetical.

And so each regiment, followed by its baggage train and sad procession of invalids, moved up the road melancholy and mad. Most of the Tennesseeans had fallen in behind the Fourteenth Ohio, and moved on sullen and sorrowful, bitterly expressing their disappointment, and denouncing the frauds with which they had been deluded. Some were imbued with the idea that they were to march up the Somerset Road — about three miles above London — to meet the enemy, and agreed to go that far but not beyond. Upon reaching that point, the head of the column failed to halt. A few Tennesseeans madly broke from the ranks and moved back to camp. Several threw themselves sullenly on the ground, and refused to march. As we moved onward they continued to leave the ranks in pairs and squads. Then squads multiplied into sections, sections into platoons, and platoons almost into whole companies. A private came back from the front, and appealed to an officer to stop the deserters. He said the regiment was disorganized — the men were going back to Tennessee; their officers could do nothing with them. The poor fellows, with despairing exceptions, continued to proclaim their loyalty, but could not stand the disappointment. Occasionally a stout-hearted fellow would proclaim his determination to follow the flag wherever orders carried him; “but it is hard on Tennesseeans, boys,” he would say to the Buckeyes.

In a march of four miles we must have passed two hundred stragglers. Some were lying prone on the ground, sobbing; some stood by the highway swearing defiantly; others leaned against the fence sullenly, undetermined whether to move one way or the other. Here was the adjutant of the regiment addressing a squad, “For God's sake, boys, move on. Look at the Ohioans. Don't let them bent you. You are fighting for the Union. Let's keep Tennesseeans together. Come, boys.” “Well, adjutant,” said one, “it will do for you who ride to talk; but we, who do nothing but march up and down this infernal road, don't appreciate it.” “Get on my horse, and I'll walk,” said the adjutant, and the transfer was made. And so the column trudged onward heavily, and halted for jaded teams to dislodge a wagon from the mire, or pushed ahead, leaving vehicles to be extricated by whosoever would do it. At midnight there was a long line of straggling Tennesseeans from the head of their column clean back to their camp. It was marked by the lurid hue of the atmosphere, illumined by their blazing bivouac fires in the forests, around which they huddled in shivering groups. Hardly a nucleus for the regiment was left in column, though many stout fellows pushed on, determined to follow where orders commanded. But these were pitiful scenes, and heart-touching.

Soon after midnight, the Fourteenth Ohio and the artillery men, after scaling Wildcat Heights, flung themselves headlong on the ground. None were covered that night — or morning — save by blankets and a veneering of cold, white frost. The sick, too, in the open wagons, lay shuddering and shivering, and moaning in the sharp, cutting atmosphere of a november morning. The Seventeenth Ohio halted and bivouacked, at two o'clock, in the camp which Zollicoffer's rebels had occupied the night before their repulse. I have told you where the Tennesseeans were, but I know not where was the remainder of the brigade. The Kentucky Third, (Gerrard's,) I believe, did not move that night. I know not why. The Thirty-eighth Ohio and the Thirty-third Indiana pushed forward to the summit of Wildcat, and halted, not long before day. The teams were also moving all night long.

The necessity to carry the sick obliged us to leave much stores and ammunition. I am told we left twenty-two tuns of ammunition at London. And yet, readers, we were making a forced march to prevent the enemy from cutting us off, or to save Blue Grass.

Strange that soldiers should leave their ammunition and march to meet the enemy. At Pitman's we met thirteen wagons loaded with commissary stores en route from Camp Dick Robinson for London. These were unloaded immediately, and proceeded to London for patients and stores. Some of the regiments had necessarily left their tents and camp equipage, so that even had fatigue permitted them to pitch tents, they could not have enjoyed the luxury.

November 14.--A heavy storm of rain roused the bivouackers from sleep. Their blankets and clothing were saturated with water. The morning was most dismal. Wildcat Heights, crowned with a heavy coronal of mist, frowned in dreary and discouraging altitude before us. The roads were already worked into a tough muck, the pathway on the edges where the troops walked, were slimy and slippery. Beyond was Rockcastle River, swift and reported unfordable. But the word was en avant. The lads partook of their cold rations and hot coffee, and took up the toilsome march. Every step was laborious to the sturdy, agonizing to the feeble. Knapsacks almost too heavy under fairest auspices, were now doubly burthensome, and the pack-horse load was increased by the aggravating weight of water which soaked blankets and heavy army overcoats, and the [396] nasty slime which splashed and plastered each man's breeches as high as his knees in front and rear, and filled his shoes until they over-flowed with slush.

During the first mile we passed one baggage-wagon, capsized in a creek. Its load of commissary stores and baggage was lost. The desolate teamster and jaded horses, bedaubed with mud, gazed at it dismally and hopelessly as we moved forward. Farther up the hill a half-dozen wagons were stuck, and the poor animals could not move them. A few hundred yards further, barrels of bread were tossed out of wagons and left to destruction in the forests. A stranger to the facts, passing now, would have said, Here is a terrified army fleeing from a pursuing enemy.

Going up the mountain, we pass Tennesseeans; some are still pushing on desperately. Yonder is one prone on a bed of wet forest-leaves; his head is bolstered on a rotten stump. Exhaustion is graphically pictured on his livid complexion and in his silent form. He is unconscious while he sleeps the sleep of distress, that the driving rain is beating mercilessly upon him. My comrade startles me--“Is he dead?” Oh, no; he's only an exhausted soldier! He wears no shoulder straps, with a silver star on each. But it is yet early in the day; surely it is not time for soldiers to yield to fatigue. They have marched only one night, and have slept the whole of one or two hours on the damp, frosted soil.

At last the ascent is accomplished by a few. We look back with a sigh of relief, and turn away again with emotions of regret and disgust at the sorrowful and weary file of men, still toiling through the mire, and gazing wistfully to the top. But here is a picture. On the top of a rock on the crest of the hill, there sits a Toledo lad, writing a letter. He protects the precious page from the rain with his hat, and the big drops patter on his bare head. He looks careworn and wayworn; but his eye is bright, his hand steady. From head to foot, he is incased in a thick plastering of clay, and moisture drips from his sleeves. He replies to my comrade, “No, colonel, I've not given out; I'm a little tired though. I'll make it, colonel; I'll never give up.”

Why in the name of humanity does not the commander send back messengers to halt this column? Is there imminent danger ahead? Cannot these failing men be halted a day for rest? At least let messengers be despatched from Headquarters to inspire them to march, march, to resist the foe. Any tiling to renew their spirit. But look at these wagon loads of sick soldiers. See them shivering in saturated blankets, seated in pools of water which drip from their clothing as it pours from the clouds. Hear their unceasing, discordant, and harrowing chorus of coughing. Here are candidates for the grave. But the order is stern--“Bring all your sick.” “Oh,” said one of the surgeons to me, “that was the cruelest order officer ever gave. I protested in vain. I urged that it would kill my patients. But come they must. I shall lose perhaps thirty or forty of my regiment, and it will plant consumption in the lungs of two hundred more.”

And here is another picture. We splash along tediously through the mire, and mounted officers encourage their men by kind words of sympathy. Nearly all relieve feeble soldiers by carrying their knapsacks and muskets. Colonel Steedman, long racked with chills and fever, and scarce able to sit his horse, rides with his scattered columns. Colonel Connell, suffering from illness, bears the burthen of a sick soldier's knapsack. Colonel Coburn dismounts, and pushes through the mud, while a feeble lad rides his charger. The captains, on foot, emulate their superiors, and encourage them by example.

At Rockcastle River, the column is victoriously over Wildcat. The dismal train halts at the ferry, in the mud and rain. The jaded men fall asleep on the sod of a neighboring meadow, waiting the slow process of crossing all that column in one small float. The teamsters stuff their worn-out animals with corn. A few, in desperation, plunge into the ford where the water is swift, and some narrowly escape a watery grave. The Fourteenth Ohio loses two wagons and contents, including twenty-three or thirty thousand rounds of ammunition. The Seventeenth loses a wagon and twenty-six thousand rounds of ammunition at the ferry. The Tennesseeans lose two wagons and contents, with three horses, and the Thirty-eighth Ohio loses one wagon. How much more was lost I do not know.

This was morning, but the column was long after night in crossing. Afterward, throughout the day, the scenes already feebly described increased and assumed more aggravating forms. The road constantly became more wretched. Men flung away their knapsacks and stalked onward in utter desperation, their officers refusing to see insubordination. Some stumbled and fell by the wayside, where they lay and slept the sleep of exhaustion, and the sick in the uncovered wagons, and those accursed ambulances, were racked and jounced over rocks and ruts until their weak bones ached, their sad countenances testifying to their utter wretchedness. And thus, hour after hour, through mud and slime and rain, over rocks and rails, ruts and logs, up the roughest and steepest grades, and down ruggedest descents, our weary, footsore, exhausted soldiers and jaded teams struggled and toiled in pain all that miserable day and far into night; for even at midnight feeble stragglers staggered into Mount Vernon, where the Fourteenth and Seventeenth rested, to find their comrades.

This night the poor lads went to bed supperless, for fatigue was overpowering, and sleep sweeter than meat. Some of them marched fourteen, some sixteen miles that day--thirteen the night and morning before. This day's [397] work was more disastrous than ordinary battles. God knows how many sturdy constitutions it wrecked; how many brave volunteers it will kill.

But I had almost forgot the episode of the day. The few Tennesseeans who had manfully breasted the task with Ohio and Indiana, were mere stragglers. Their officers were scattered as badly as the men. The privates were huddled in shivering groups along the route. It seemed as if they never could be collected. A hundred yards or so below a house where I halted for luncheon, there was a party of perhaps a hundred or more. There were two or three with me, bitterly denouncing the countermarch. At that moment an officer rode down the highway, proclaiming joyfully, “Tennesseeans and Kentuckians are ordered back to London!” The hundred below set up a great shout of joy, as if they had attained the summit of their desires, and those with me started back almost running, bidding a glad good-by. Alas! poor fellows, you were twenty-four miles from London, exhausted, wet, muddy, almost out of provisions, without tents, and no houses or barns to shelter you from the storm. London will be another charnel-house for patriot Tennesseeans. If there was cause for a forced march of the entire brigade from London to Crab Orchard, why order back the Tennesseeans and Kentuckians, before they had approached within fifteen miles of Crab Orchard? If there was no adequate cause for the march, why was not the whole column halted for rest, which it so sorely needed? If there was reason to apprehend that the brigade would be cut off unless it made the forced march, why send the Tennesseeans and Kentuckians bck to be sacrificed? Who will answer?

Mount Vernon, November 15.
Thank God! the sun shines to-day. We learn this morning that the Thirty-eighth Ohio encamped five miles below here last night. During the night a tree was blown down in the camp, and five men, including three Tennesseeans, were seriously injured. Two have died, and two more are reported fatally hurt.

The Thirty-third Indiana are moving forward slowly in the rear somewhere. The Fourteenth and Seventeenth Ohio lads are bowling ahead cheerily by company, because the sun shines and the roads improve; besides, the forced march must end to day. The brigade can go no further until it gathers its scattered fragments.

An order from Headquarters meets us — the only one giving relief. The column goes into camp two miles below Crab Orchard. The lads, inspired, move briskly, and camp is at last in view.

In camp.--The Seventeenth Ohio, excepting a few feeble stragglers, was first in camp. The Fourteenth followed shortly after, but it had its stragglers too. Which regiment had not its large share? But Manny Richards, the energetic teamster of the Seventeenth, pushed in his wagons, and the Fairfield boys pitched their tents merrily. But the prospect for the other regiment was cheerless. Their wagons were far behind. Officers threatened to move where shelter could be found for the men, but orders must be obeyed, and they prepared again to bivouac on the cold, cold ground, in the freezing atmosphere of drear November.

But now there is another order fresh from Headquarters at Crab Orchard. Exhausted as they are, soldiers are forbidden to burn rails. They must cut wood for bivouac fire, or sleep in the frosty atmosphere without fires. Orders must be obeyed. Twenty men are detailed to cut wood, and wagons are sent out. Sunset is approaching. Headquarters, who forty hours ago knew the men were coming, knew they were suffering, had not provided axes. Yet the order was cut wood. Look at the field adjacent to camp, and see whether rails were burnt.

A member of the Fourteenth, coming in late, reports: “I saw a dead man of the Fourteenth, lying on the roadside beyond Mount Vernon.” He died of exhaustion. Another says: “I saw another dead man on the roadside to-day.” He died of exhaustion. A surgeon says: “I saw two men yesterday in the last stage of exhaustion. I gave them whiskey to revive them. I could do nothing else. I was compelled to leave them with their comrades, and attend to the sick of my own regiment.” They probably died of exhaustion.

Crab Orchard, November 17.
The Thirty-eighth Ohio and the Thirty-third Indiana are coming in slowly. The former was more deliberate, but suffered its proportion. The latter are sleeping in the woods without tents. I know not whether the Tennesseans have got back safely to London.

There is not much beauty or, gaiety in a soldier's life, if it is like this. But the toil, and suffering, and sacrifices, and the manly efforts of brave men obeying orders under circumstances such as I have sketched, are very eloquent, Will soldiers respect, love, and cheerfully fight under officers who abuse them as slaves do brutes?

The amount of physical suffering caused by this march cannot be computed. None can tell how many sturdy frames will bend under disease contracted from this ruthless exposure. The mortality list of our regiments will shortly begin to make a record. Many of the sick who were dragged out of their beds in the London hospitals, to be tortured on the rugged roads, saturated with rain, and chilled with cold, must die. Many of the well must fall ill. Ah, well, there are only two hundred and fifty sick in the Thirty-third Indiana; only a couple of hundred or so sick in the Fourteenth Ohio; only a hundred or so sick in the Thirty-eighth Ohio; only several scores sick in the Seventeenth Ohio; only a few hundred altogether. If they die — recruit the regiments.

The loss of property is nothing. The Government is rich. Only thirty horses, belonging to the Seventeenth Ohio, were knocked up and [398] rendered unfit for service, and one died; one wagon was lost and twenty-six thousand pounds of ammunition; about the same report is made by the Fourteenth Ohio; so with each of the regiments. But the moral effect of the countermarch is one of its worst features. The mountaineers of Kentucky regard it a retreat, and the prestige of the victory at Wildcat is turned against us. And so ended the great Cumberland Gap Expedition.

But I beg you to wait, readers, for an echo from the Wildcat Brigade. If I mistake not, there will be a fierce growl ere long from the Tennessee Camp, as vehement as the denunciation from “East Tennessee,” which you read a day or two ago in the Commercial. And I am inclined to believe that if the indignant letters of the Ohio and Indiana boys are permitted to see the light of public print, none will think I have colored the foregoing picture.

W. D. B.

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