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Reminiscences of the Powhatan troop of cavalry in 1861.

By Colonel J. F. Lay.
The Powhatan troop of cavalry was organized about one year before the late war between the States--shortly after the celebrated John Brown raid — and chiefly through the liberality and activity of the late Brigadier-General Philip St. George Cocke, who was elected its first Captain, with John F. Lay, first lieutenant, Charles Old and Thomas G. Skipwith, second and third lieutenants. It was thoroughly and handsomely armed and equipped with everything necessary for active service; composed of the best men of the county, chiefly young men, all splendidly mounted.

Early in 1861 Captain Cocke was commissioned by the State of Virginia as a Brigadier-General. Captain Lay was elected to supply his place — Lieutenants Old and Skipwith promoted each a grade, and John William Menoboy elected to fill the vacancy.

In March, 1861, the services of the troop were tendered to Governor Letcher by Captain Lay. The Governor then declined them, but requested the company to be held in readiness.

In April, 1861, while the company was temporarily encamped at Saint Luther's church in Powhatan county for purposes of instruction in camp and guard duty, the sudden order was received from General Lee to report for active service in Richmond the following day. The members were immediately dispersed to their respective homes for hasty preparation. Some of them, residing at great distances, I was informed, were unable to reach their homes at all. On the next day, Saturday, a prompt and full attendance was had at the rendezvous on the River road or turnpike, about nine miles above Richmond. That evening reported in Richmond, and were quartered in the basement of old Trinity Methodist Episcopal church.

The next morning Sunday, the company was mustered into service by Colonel John B. Baldwin and Major Joe Selden, of Chapultepec fame and memory, and was ordered to march on the following day to the front; but dispatches received that night induced General Lee to change the order and to expedite the movement by taking a special train ordered for us on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad--our point of destination being Culpeper courthouse.

Two incidents in the “mustering in” are worthy of notice. A young son of our worthy townsman, Egbert G. Leigh, barely sixteen [419] a boy of high and gallant spirit (subsequently killed in action on the Rapidan), was rejected by reason of his youth. He was heartbroken, and tears welled up into his eyes; but his father being sent for and his consent recorded, joy replaced the gloom of this gallant “boy” soldier.

When we left Powhatan, a fund of $2,000 was given us by the county to aid our preparations for service. We were in need of one ambulance horse; but Charles Carter Lee, a brother of our noble and loved General — not a secessionist per se--but an ardent Southern sympathizer, contributed a very fine thoroughbred animal of the old “Wickham” stock — more stall-fed than corn-fed — to the development of very considerable addominal disproportion. When Major Joe came to him at the end of the line (ridden that day by Sweeney the bugler, a wag in his way) he shook his head. “Using up seed corn in the beginning of the war.” “Bugler! send that mare home; you will need that colt before we are through with this war” ! Sweeney winked knowingly at the Captain, who quickly replied: “I think you are mistaken, Major, that animal is not with foal.” “Just like volunteers, was the reply,” “always know better than old soldiers; can't be taught,” &c. The Captain then “prayed an inspection,” front and rear, which the Major carefully made, and walked off in dignified but dejected silence to the end of the line, satisfied that that mare was a well-developed “stallion,” and so he was. The joke was treated as a company record.

We reached Culpeper at early dawn, in a misty rain, and there commenced our first experience in camping. Some sober and serious faces there were, but horses and provender being landed and cared for, and camp-fires briskly started on the side of the railroad track for preparation for breakfast, fun and hilarity quickly became the “order of the. day.”

Very soon we were comfortably quartered in the neat Baptist church, receiving every manifestation of kindness and cordiality from the citizens; and from thence, a few days thereafter, we moved to the house and farm of Mr. Hill, just outside the village, where we were delightfully quartered and cared for. Everybody was kind and considerate. Among our best friends, whose memory we recall with pleasant feeling (almost a daily visitor to our camp), was the late Mr. Beckham (father of Mrs. Dr. Ross of this city), who owned a magnificent grass farm a few miles distant, and who provided hay and provender of the very sweetest and best for our steeds, besides much else to help out our comfort. While here the [420] “measles” made its appearance, and a time we had of it. The education of these young men, in this especial direction, had been strangely neglected by their parents in early life; and there was “enough to go round.” About forty had it. One of our number, a gallant boy, son of William Micheaux, of Powhatan, never recovered from the effects, causing his early death. Others were long and seriously affected. We had to acknowledge every kindness and attention possible from the ladies and gentlemen of this hospitable section. Many were taken into private families for better nursing. I mention the name only of one good man — now gone to his rest — the venerable and revered Dr. Cole, rector of the Episcopal church, conspicuous in his zeal and kindness.

One incident at this farm we care to recall, simple and homely though it be. The officers' quarters were in the lower room of an office in the yard — the men occupying the main building. Just above us was a small room, occupied by an old and respectable family servant, beyond the demands of work, but well cared for and provided — as Virginia servants in old age always were in “good old times we shall never see again” --he was very deaf and very pious — each night the hum of conversation would soften in our quarters as his nightly prayer, offered in earnest faith and clothed in simple words, was heard by us, unknown by him; and each night did we hear, among his other petitions, a touching one for us: “Good Lord! bless and keep and take care of these young gentlemen as is going to fight the battles of their country.” Good old man; he, too, has passed to his rest long ago. We drop in passing the tribute of a tear to his memory.

Soon we were ordered to move to the front to occupy Manassas, halting at the Fauquier White Sulphur Springs to be joined by the noble and world-renowned “Black horse cavalry,” under their accomplished leader, Captain William H. Payne, with Bob Randolph; than whom a nobler spirit never lived nor died in a holy cause, as first lieutenant. We met them, and a gay night we had of it. A “stag” dance in the large ballroom, with song and story, and a friendship cemented, which has outlasted the war and still blooms as fresh as a flower on a Confederate grave. United as a squadron (we mention here, the rest of the cavalry were then in camp of instruction at or near Ashland and came on later) we gaily marched towards our destination, halting at noon in the lovely village of Warrenton. Just here we would love to linger, and amid the sorrows of the present give to memory a holiday to roam a little into the pleasure fields of the past. [421]

Kind reader, were you ever in Warrenton, famed for its beauty and for its hospitality, in “ante-bellum” times! and are you susceptible to the bewitching glances “des beaux yeux” ? Then you will appreciate what I am going to try to describe to you, though I well know I can but faintly portray the scene. Recall, if you can, the beautiful scenery of this lovely section of our State, especially as it appears in the budding month of May. Remember we had just then united with and were made “good comrades” by the “Black horse” on their “native heath” --for the time their guests — and remember, also, that although at times naturally our thoughts would recur in some sadness to home, and wives, and the “girls we left behind us,” yet we were generally (and then specially so) as gay and happy as a “big sunflower” --a cavalryman's normal condition.

With our comrades' escort and amid shouts of welcome, we marched into the village and drew up in line fronting the “Warren Green hotel.” There such a sight, and such a greeting! We can never forget it. The broad and roomy piazzas; the corridors — every window filled — matrons and lords — wives and sweethearts — a battery of merry, sparkling (some tearful) eyes. Many lads were wounded in this their first engagement — pierced to the heart. Of course their own boys, then about to leave them (when to return, if ever, in the womb of the future), their own loved, gallant boys were the centre of attraction; but there were kind glances, bright smiles from lovely faces, gentle words from quivering lips, for the stranger boys, many of them seemingly too young to be so far away from their mothers, but all looking so happy and so handsome in their then bright and untarnished uniforms, gracefully managing and “showing off” their restless steeds, while shooting “back-glances” into laughing eyes. Well, no matter now, we basked in that sunshine then, and its lingering rays still warm our hearts.

But the bugle sounds — we move on, shouting back our “goodbye,” and breathing in our hearts with the dispassioned lover, “Parting is such sweet sorrow; we could say good night till it be morrow.” “Tempora mutantur et nos cum illis.” We rapidly changed from that bright and careless scene to enter upon a new life of stern duties and responsibilities — the soldier life. That night, amid darkness, rain and mud, we make our gloomy encampment in the then dreary and unknown but now historic village of Manassas. There was no fun, no merriment that night. The only remnant of the “We will be gay and happy still,” so lustily shouted on the [422] march, was the “still” part. The inhabitants received us coldly — some denied us the use of their wells; but this soon changed. They naturally at first dreaded the reputed lawlessness of the “mounted ranger” ; but when they found they had “gentlemen” as soldiers, their kindness was great. Even our best friend afterwards, old Mr. Hooe, “houghed” us at first; but we encamped upon his farm during our whole stay at Manassas, greatly to his grief at first, but soon he came to look upon us as a part of his family, and his evident emotion when we parted was touching.

I think we had few or no troops of any arm of the service there then. We were the first, or among the first, military inhabitants of this celebrated post, but soon Marye's rifles and Corse's regiment were followed by all the troops from Alexandria, and formed the nucleus of the grand Army of the Potomac. We, then and for long after being the only two cavalry companies present, were attached to headquarters and doing the whole picket and courier duty. Brigadier-General Philip St. George Cocke was then in command. Generals Sam Jones and Thomas Jordan, just resigned from the old army, but unassigned to special duty, were honorary and honored members of our command — our guests and friends — then and ever after. Soon South Carolina and other troops came rapidly in. General Cocke was superseded in command by Brigadier-General Bonham (Governor Bonham), of South Carolina. Then rapidly poured in troops of every arm — infantry, artillery and cavalry, and General G. T. Beauregard was assigned to the command of the army, retaining his headquarters at Manassas, and ordering General Bonham forward to Centerville. Here we parted from our friends, the “Black horse,” they going forward with General Bonham, the “Powhatan troop” being retained by General Beauregard, attached to his headquarters as his “body-guard.” But before we parted, and under General Bonham's kind and soldierly administration, we had a happy time — our dress-parades, our drills, occasional alarms, social gatherings and gaities kept us bright. We had everything that was good, and plenty of it — boxes from home — the finest beef, good whisky, brandy and coffee, with white sugar — abundance for horses — good fellowship, bright hopes — no fighting, and not much hardship. Truly those were “the days when we went gypsying,” and “grim-visaged war” had not then assumed “his ruffled front.” This continued during the early part of General Beauregard's administration, with increased activity as the army expanded. We recall the glorious old First Virginia--Pat [423] Moore, commanding, “Yours truly, John DooleyMajor — a great favorite with us, as was gallant Colonel Fred. Skinner, who succeeded him on “old Fox,” genial and belligerent Surgeon D'Orsay Cullen, of the First Virginia, now distinguished in his profession, and Dr. Ran. Barksdale, Surgeon of my squadron, now in charge of the insane hospital, and dear Dr. Maury, Assistant Surgeon, now relieved of Cullen's and Barksdale's affection and gone to his rest — the magnificent band under Leader Smith, then Grey Latham, “bad luck to him,” and Wheat, of the Tigers, we knew and appreciated them — braver, more tender-hearted men never lived. Walton, of the Washington artillery; Cabell, our Quartermaster and consistent and valuable friend; Colonel George W. Lay, of the old army, and a host of other friends, our daily comrades and friends. We recall you all, our comrades, with pleasurable thought, and celebrate your memories; nor will we forget our old friend, the ecstatic, consistent and fast friend of the cavalry — gallant and true General Ewell. Many names and many incidents we would love to recall; but we must pass on, only giving mention to our first real sorrow in our little camp.

It was a sorrow which cast a deep shadow over the sunshine of our camp, and which aroused the sympathy of the army.

It was a bright May morning in 1861--all nature clothed in its loveliest apparel — and just as the first golden rays of the sun appeared and gilded the hilltops around Manassas, a melancholy procession wended its way from camp to the railroad depot, with our good comrades of the “Black horse” and a detachment kindly sent by Colonel P. T. Moore from the First Virginia regiment, marching with reversed arms to the grand dirge by Smith's celebrated band, we escorted to the train, to be returned to his home (left by him but a few days before in health and vigor), the corpse of a young comrade, the younger son of his mother and “she a widow.” As we passed the headquarters, Generals Beauregard and Jordan and other friends of his staff appeared upon the balcony and stood uncovered. It was a sad and impressive scene, for only three days before a mere boy, bright, fresh and handsome, barely sixteen years of age, with a letter from his mother to the captain confiding him to his especial care, and begging especial consideration by reason of his tender years, reported and enlisted — a lad of determined spirit. For three days he remained on duty in camp, and then one bright morning was sent out on seemingly safe picket duty, under charge of Sergeant Hugh N. French, one [424] of the most trusty and reliable men of the command. Before 12 M. of that day the captain was summoned from headquarters to find a fair corpse lying out in almost womanly beauty, shot through by a minie ball, “wounded in the house of his friends,” from a sad but in those days reasonable error. A scouting party from Colonel Strange's regiment had been sent out without notice to the picket lines. French had ridden down to a spring at the foot of the hill, leaving young Fourquerean. This scouting party came suddenly upon him — he endeavored, as he supposed, to escape from the enemy and make his way to his comrades — refused to halt when ordered to do so-and by an unerring and fatal shot from the rifle of--------of the Albemarle company ended his youthful career. The sorrow and regret of this soldier was so evident that none had the heart to utter a word of reproach or blame. The writer has since the war talked over the scene with him and heard his repeated regrets. A member of the company reminds me here of a touching incident. Just as the body of this young soldier was brought in and laid out in the rear porch, there came, borne upon a gentle breeze from the camp of our neighbors, First Virginia infantry, the sweet strains from their band, “Do they miss me at home, do they miss me?” It was a sweet coincidence, as they knew nothing of our sadness. We were not then used to death and carnage, and had not grown callous.

After the departure of the “Black horse,” by general order the “Albemarle troop of cavalry” and later the “Rappahannock cavalry,” commanded by that excellent officer, John Shack Green, reported to Captain Lay to whom the command was assigned. This, however, was temporary; but a permanent squadron, consisting of the “Powhatan troop,” the “Little fork rangers,” of Culpeper county, Captain Utterback commmanding, and a “Fauquier troop,” commanded by Captain Adams, was formed, to be attached and report directly to headquarters, and Captain Lay was assigned to the command. This squadron, as such, passed through the battles of “Bull Run” on the 18th and of Manassas on the 21st--on the field during the whole of each day — and received handsome official notice from Generals Johnston and Beauregard for efficient services rendered. Being on the field within sound of the voice of General Johnston, this squadron was the first ordered in pursuit when the rout commenced, were the first at Sudley church, and on the way to Washington, when ordered back by a courier, reaching camp about five A. M.--over twenty-two hours in the saddle. [425]

We propose to give no account of these battles, only to pick out and present a few company incidents and some chance meetings of the day.

For hours that evening (21st) this little band of young and inexperienced horsemen had stood within range of the guns of the enemy--first at Mitchell's ford, where the main attack was anticipated — and then when the report of the movement on our left by McDowell (brought in and ascertained by Captain Wooldridge of the Goochland troop and Colonel G. W. Lay, of the staff), escorting Generals Johnston and Beauregard at full speed to the scene of action, whose own forces under under Cocke, Evans and others, were so gallantly sustaining themselves against great odds.

This squadron took position at the foot of the hill in rear of the Lewis house, where General Johnston stood in his full view, and almost within the sound of his voice.

Well does the writer remember his clear, clarion voice, when after giving him orders to rally broken troops, rising in his stirrups, he shouted, “Captain Lay, tell them Virginians are standing fast upon these hills.” Under fire, with the wounded passing to the rear, the position seemed a demoralizing one to mere boys, inexperienced in warfare and unaccustomed to its horrors; but steadily they stood — promptly obeyed orders, and rendered efficient and marked service during the day in the pursuit, and for many days after the battle.

We remained in winterquarters, doing picket and courier duty, until the move to the Peninsula was decided upon by General Johnston. But a few days before, and for the first time, the Powhatan troop was ordered to report to the Fourth Virginia cavalry, General Beverly Robertson commanding. But before the move was completed, it was again detached. Captain Lay was sent for, and with confidential instructions, based upon the contemplated retreat, he was ordered to take his single company, and hold both Berry's and Castleman's fords, on the Shenandoah river, in order to protect the rear and flank of General D. H. Hill, then at Leesburg, and to do so “at all hazards, even of capture” ; also, if possible, to communicate the proposed movement to General Stonewall Jackson, then at Winchester, and who, without notice, would have been left entirely exposed. [Note.--This was successfully accomplished on foot by Sergeant William A. Sublett, now of this city, a brave and skilful soldier]. Headquarters were at Aldie, and daily reports to General Johnston, Stuart and D. H. Hill. [426]

How this duty was discharged was evidenced by a complimentary letter from General Hill. We left Middleburg after his whole train — wagon and ordnance — had passed, with nearly two days start, and just as the Federal army made its entry into the lower part of the town.

From thence the troop marched, after destroying the ferries, via Salem, to Warrenton, a second, but a sadder, entry to that lovely town and patriotic people; and thence to report, via Richmond, to the regiment, on the Peninsula. This march was successfully made — halting a few hours in Richmond.

Here the connection of the writer with this fine body of men ceased; he was ordered to report to his old commander, General Beauregard, at Corinth, Mississippi--remaining on staff duty until assigned as Colonel of the Second Confederate cavalry--a regiment numbering on its rolls over one thousand men. Assigned to the command of the cavalry of the right wing of the army (General Polk), the march was made from Mississippi to Kentucky, and throughout that campaign (four months of it with General Forrest); then again with General Beauregard in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, to close of war.

Lieutenant Charles Old was elected Captain, and so remained until his promotion as Major, when Lieutenant Joseph Hobson succeeded him.

The record of the Powhatan troop throughout the war was a brilliant one; but from this date (1862) comes most properly from those officers immediately in command. Their old Captain, who loved and admired them, was in the far West on duty, and never again saw them as an organized body. But to the survivors this imperfect sketch is affectionately addressed, by their

old Captain. Richmond, Va., July 22d, 1880.

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