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A morning call on General Kilpatrick.

By E. L. Wells.
Probably there are very few great military reputations which rest upon a smaller foundation than that of General Sherman. In the popular imagination he figures as the mighty conqueror, whose campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas virtually ended the war between the States. His ‘March to the Sea’ has been lauded and rhymed about until it has come to be deemed an achievement worthy to live for all time in ‘song and story.’ In point of fact it was nothing of the kind, but was, in a military point of view, a very commonplace affair. When the army which had barred his further progress before Atlanta had vanished on its ill-starred errand into Tennessee, there was no hostile force of any consequence before him, and this it required [124] but the most ordinary intelligence on his part to perceive. Surely he must have possessed an intensely Falstaffian imagination to have conjured up many ‘men in buckram’ in the deserted fields, the silent swamps and lonely pine woods through which his march would lie. And there is good ground for believing that even the idea of cutting loose from his base and making a huge raid through the country, which his admirers claim to have been a very ‘bold’ conception, was not originated by him at all. Hereafter, when the effervescence of ‘patriotic’ gush has evaporated, this campaign will, I think, be considered chiefly remarkable for the systematic and cruel destruction of the homes and the means of subsistence of noncombatants.

The principal agent to whom this devastation was entrusted, General Kilpatrick, commanded Sherman's cavalry. A brief interview with him is the raison d'etre of the present article.

Butler's cavalry division had been detached from the Army of Northern Virginia in the latter part of December, 1864, and had been sent to South Carolina to operate against Sherman, a duty which it performed until the end of the war. Although a division in name, and consisting of two brigades, it numbered only some eight hundred men, and could, therefore, of course, oppose no effectual resistance to Sherman's overwhelming force, but its task was to confine to the smallest possible limits the area of his devastation. To hover by turns around his front, his flanks and his rear; to pounce upon his foraging parties, who were burning and harrying; to dash between his marching columns and cut off marauders; to save the lives and property, as far as practicable, of women and children; such were the chief occupations of our General during this campaign, and with indefatigable energy did he attend to them. The service was full of personal adventure and excitement for his followers; there were frequent little brushes with raiding parties, and now and then a lively time in eluding larger bodies, and this would be enlivened by almost hourly chases of ‘bummers,’ whose pockets were seldom found unsupplied with stolen jewelry and one or two baptismal cups, and the recapturing of farm animals laden with household spoils.

Occasionally an opportunity would occur of striking more important blows, and of these our leader was vigilant to avail himself.

Early one morning in March, 1865, I was sent to carry a dispatch to a distant command, and did not succeed in rejoining our division until about the middle of the night, having had rather a rough time of it all day dodging the enemy. I at last found it on the edge of [125] some wooded ground, just off a road near a point known at that time, I think, as Longstreet Church, some few miles distant from Fayetteville, N. C. The day had been very wet, and the night was rainy and black as ink. As my horse and I had eaten nothing since the evening of the previous day, I was naturally first interested in the ration question. Ah! bonnie little bay, who had to go supperless, and was so soon to brave a mortal wound unflinchingly until the fight was won, and then to sink to rest with a look so plaintive it was humanlike! I could only obtain for myself, through the kindness of a comrade, a small piece of musty corn-bread. Having finished this not very exhilirating feast, and washed it down with a draught of water, that would have been more acceptable if it had been less pure, I was about attempting to kindle a fire when I was told in a whisper that doing so was prohibited by orders. I drew out my pipe to comfort myself with a puff, but this too was forbidden, to my disgust. I then observed that such of the men as I could make out in the darkness were close to their horses, and that the animals were saddled and bitted, ready to be mounted.

I soon discovered the explanation of all this. At dusk in the evening, in a drizzling rain, General Butler had been reconnoitering at some little distance in advance of his command, accompanied by only his staff and a few couriers. Riding at the head of this little band he was met by a body of horsemen coming from the opposite direction.

To his ‘Halt!’ and ‘What command are you from?’ it was replied:

‘Picket from the—the Iowa.’1 ‘All right,’ said the General. ‘Pass on, picket.’

In the meantime a hint had been given to his escort, which they were not slow to comprehend. They separated on each side of the road, as if to allow the Federal picket to pass; but as the latter was doing so, the officer in command and the men in front were again halted, this time with the unwelcome addition, ‘Surrender; you are prisoners.’

As point was given to this sudden information by the mute but eloquent muzzles of cocked revolvers covering them, the picket quietly accepted the situation without making themselves disagreeable. They were then marched forward until the advance-guard of our division was met, when they were duly turned over as prisoners. Of course these fellows were entirely unaware that they had been [126] captured by a mere handful of men. They were literally ‘in the dark’ about it, and believed themselves to have encountered the head of a column very much stronger than their own.

Scouts were sent out, and soon brought back the news that there was no picket now between the Federal camp, only a few hundred yards distant, and ourselves, the captured detachment having evidently been on its way to picket this approach to General Kilpatrick's cavalry camp.

The glad tidings were quickly dispatched to General Hampton, who was in command of all our cavalry, and in the meantime our division was halted in the road in profound silence. A few dismounted men were sent forward singly to secrete themselves along the roadside near the entrance of the Federal camp, to be ready to noiselessly take chage of any one from there who might intend visiting their picket that night.

The consequence of all this was that we were to make a call next morning, as soon as there was light enough, upon General Kilpatrick, dispensing with the formality of personal introductions, not even sending in our cards before our ‘surprise party’ should be with him to an early breakfast. This, it was hoped, would induce him, ‘on hospitable thoughts intent,’ to give up his camp and as many of his men as he could spare to his enterprising guests; in short, his entire corps was to be wiped out before assistance could reach him from the infantry.

The night passed wearily enough as we sat huddled together in the mud among our sleepy horses, but at length the first faint light preceding the dawn was visible; then the command moved silently out of the wood and formed noiselessly on the road. The rain had by this time ceased, but the atmosphere was so obscured by mist that one could hardly realize the night was ended, and found the range of vision very limited. After some minutes a portion of the division, which was to lead in the attack, moved down the road on a slow walk in the direction of the Federal camp, and halted just outside of it. Here a few words were addressed to the men by the General in his quiet, clear, incisive voice, he looking, every inch of him, the beau ideal of a cavalier. Then he galloped to the head of the column and his order—‘Follow me, men. Charge!’ rang out for friend and foe to hear.

In a moment the cavalrymen were dashing with a magnificent Confederate yell through Kilpatrick's camp. All there were buried in the profound slumber of supposed security. The sleepy camp [127] guards and a few cooks busied about camp-fires attempted no resistance, and the troopers, thus rudely awakened, rubbed their eyes and peered out from under their canvas flies in droll bewilderment at the row. It was very good fun at first, but the unwieldy number of prisoners was awkward; we could not ‘surround’ them, as the Irishman said he did his dozen or more captives. Presently they began to rally in knots, and then the hand — to hand skirmishing became pretty brisk, as compliments were being exchanged at close quarters. It was especially lively near a little house which loomed up through the mist and around which were tied many horses. On one of these barebacked animals jumped a brawny Federal, and with his revolver did as gallant fighting as one could wish to see. He and one of our men ‘tackled,’ and by common consent were left to fight it out alone for what seemed minutes, but which were doubtless only seconds. At length he fell under his horse's feet, having died pluckily, as a true soldier should, to save his chief; for that black horse he rode was Killpatrick's own, and within the little house were his headquarters.

Just then there bolted from the door a sorry-looking figure in his shirt and drawers. The fugitive made no fight, but cutting loose and springing astride a horse ‘tarried not on the order of his going,’ but sped for safety through the fog and powder-smoke as fast as a militiaman. No one stopped him, thinking it not worth while in presence of such abundance of better-seeming game. Only one man recognized in the humble runaway the quondam bumptious Major-General and future politician, and he gave chase. His pistol being empty he meant to ride him down, and would have done so, but unhappily his horse fell on the wet, slippery ground, and he had the mortification of seeing General Kilpatrick disappear.

A striking contrast to him was our General. Showing no weapon, but carrying a little riding-whip, with which he pointed here and there, directing the operations, he seemed the brain of the physical mass around him. It required no great stretch of imagination to fancy him the leader of a mighty orchestra, and his men the music makers. It used to be said his skin glanced bullets, and that it required a twelve-pounder to carry away that one leg in Virginia, and I often thought there must be something in it. What manner of man he was will best be understood from an answer he gave on one occasion when a courier galloped up in hot haste with a message from one of his Colonels, saying he was being ‘flanked’ by the enemy. ‘Tell him to flank them back,’ was the General's laconic reply.

And now in wild alarm there emerged from the house, whose [128] weather-boards were fast being perforated by chance bullets, a strange apparition, one quite out of place in such wild scenes—a forlorn, forsaken damsel—one who was ‘neither maid, wife, nor widow,’ and who was ‘attached’ to headquarters. She looked for a moment disconsolately at her carriage, which was close at hand, as if with the vague idea in her dazed head that it was high time for her to be leaving, and then stood still in mute despair as it broke upon her that it could not move without horses. Seeing that she was in imminent danger from stray shots that were flying about, a cavalryman dismounted and conducted the poor thing, in all courtesy, to a drainage-ditch, within which she crouched in safety, as if it had been a rifle-pit. It was noticed, however, that, in spite of the risk thus incurred, she persisted in lifting her head from time to time and peered above the ditch to see what was going on, thus showing, as some one said, that female curiosity is stronger even than love of life.

The remainder of our division had come on to support the attacking detachment, and as they entered the camp a very sad and touching incident occurred. Some prisoners (they were chiefly worn-out stragglers from the infantry), whom Kilpatrick had with him, recognizing the splendid ring of the Confederate battle cry, burst from their guard, and frantic with joy, rushed forth to meet their deliverers. One poor fellow, the foremost of them all, ragged, half-starved, and lately wretched but now nearly crazed with delight, attempted to embrace a horse's neck, but mistaken in the obscurity for an assailant, met his death at the rider's hand. Perceiving too late his error, the slayer sprang to the ground and bent remorsefully over the corpse, only to recognize in the ghastly features of the dead a near neighbor and life-long friend.

There was another occurrence which had a ludicrous, as well as tragic side. A driver of a headquarter wagon was snoozing so soundly under the white topped cover, curled up snugly in the nice, warm straw within, that he did not awake until some little time after we had been in the camp. He must have been very much fatigued, from doing nothing, or perhaps had taken an over-heavy night-cap to guard against the dampness. At length, becoming aroused by all the din around him, he pushed aside the curtains and looked sleepily out, blear-eyed and frowsy from his morning nap, at a loss to make out the meaning of such a hurly-burly, and with no idea of hurting any one.

Unluckily for him, his harmless intentions were not understood until too late, as there was no time then for long-winded inquiries and [129] explanations. One of our men happened to be riding by so near that the fellow almost touched him with his sleepy head as he popped it out between the curtains, and, startled by it into instinctive selfdefence, promptly put an end to him, so that the poor wretch never got really well awake at all. It was much to be regretted, but the moral is, it is a bad thing to sleep too late in the mornings.

It was not long before the entire camp was in our possession, those who had not fled to the cover of the infantry or sought refuge in a swamp hard by having been slain or captured. The herd and its official leader had been from the outset completely demoralized, and the heroism of individuals could not redeem the situation. It only remained to hold what had been gained, but that was the difficulty. If it had not been for overwhelming masses of infantry near at hand Kilpatrick's corps, as an organized body, would have never again existed.

Most of our men were dismounted and thrown forward as infantry to hold the ground until the captured horses, artillery and wagons could be removed or destroyed. The programme had been for a portion of Wheeler's command to attack the camp on our right as soon as the firing indicated to them that the ball was opened, but owing to the swampy nature of the ground after the rain, and other reasons not necessary to mention, they unfortunately did not come up in time to answer the purpose intended. At length portions of the scattered Federal cavalry began to take heart and rally under the wing of their infantry, and it became necessary for our command to withdraw before the pressure of the latter. We carried away many hundred prisoners (nearly as many as the entire attacking force), and numbers of horses, among them three of Kilpatrick's private mounts, the gallant black already alluded to, a piebald, and a bay. When we had retired it was practicable for that General to return to his headquarters, which he had left in the rather abrupt manner that I have attempted to describe.

Thus terminated an affair which, as far as I know, has not been recorded, or even dignified by a name; yet it was not without brilliancy in conception and romantic dash in execution, and its results failed of being decisive simply from the vast disproportion of numbers. If it had occurred in the first American war for independence its achievements would have been chronicled with flourishes of the historic pen, and it might have supplied a theme for many a fervid centennial speaker.

Some weeks afterwards, when Johnston's army had been disbanded, [130] I passed over the ground of this fight, as I was making my way southward by night. I reached the house which had been Kilpatrick's headquarters at a late hour, and a more dismal, unearthly scene than I beheld it would be difficult to imagine. The dwelling was entirely deserted. Perhaps its owner, driven forth from her home with her little ones to make room for the Woman of the Ditch, had perished from hunger and exposure. At all events it was unoccupied by any living thing; the windows were without sashes, the front door broken from its hinges, and all fences and out-buildings had disappeared. Near the dilapidated piazza, to the railing of which several horses had been tied on the morning when the corps was stampeded, were some carcasses, and at a few paces distant, where many horses had been fastened to a fence, there were numerous skeletons of the poor brutes. From these the hides had been stripped and the bones picked bare, doubtless by vagrant curs and predatory vermin from the neighboring swamp. The human remains had been interred, but rain and wind, assisted probably by animals, had in many instances partially removed from them the earth, so that the fleshless faces peered up at one, and bony hands stretched forth as if to beckon. The effect was heightened by the faint moonlight. It was an uncanny place, and the least superstitious would have been likely to have experienced some strange feelings there. The skeleton hands seemed then, as I said, to beckon. Since that time I have thought they intended a different meaning; that they sought to implore the living not to forget the dead, but to keep alive forever the glory of each hero who bit the dust,

facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.

1 I think, but am not sure, the picket was from that State.

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Judson Kilpatrick (10)
W. T. Sherman (4)
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Edward L. Wells (1)
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