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Hampton's duel on the battle-field at Gettysburg with a Federal soldier. [from the Atlanta, Ga., Constitution, June 1, 1894.]

In the breaking dawn of July 2, 1863, 4,000 cavalrymen sat in silence upon their horses on the extreme left of the Confederate battle line at Gettysburg. The field in their front was curtained with a heavy mist, as if kindly nature had sought to veil the appalling traces of the tragedy there enacted. It had been sown with shot and bladed thick with steel on the previous afternoon, and the harvest of death was ungathered, lying in winnows along the ghastly furrows that had been cut by the red ploughshare of war. The infantry line stretched far away to the right, and their gray uniforms, blending with the hazy atmosphere, gave them a very shadowy appearance. Many of the regiments were indeed but shadows of what they had [123] been at noon on the preceding day. Some were in line without even one commissioned officer, and others with but the normal strength of a single company. For example, as attested by the official record, the Twenty-sixth North Carolina entered the battle with 800 rank and file, and, although none were captured, but eighty answered to their names at the close of the day. Colonel Henry K. Burgwyn, Jr., who commanded it, and all the remaining field officers were killed. Capt. H. C. Albright, who took command of it after the battle, was its only commissioned officer left unwounded. Company H, of the same regiment, went in with eighty-four men and three officers, and came out with but one man standing upon his feet, all the others having been killed or wounded. I knew the sole unstricken survivor well. He was Private John Secrest, a robust young farmer of Mecklenburg county, North Carolina, and I regret to state that, instead of being grateful to Providence for having plucked him as a brand from the burning, he grumbled loudly over the loss of one of his shoes, torn from his foot by a grapeshot that struck the heel while he was falling back in good order.

Zzzcavalry Commander.

The fifty squadrons of horses that were awaiting orders in a dreamy half sleep were commanded by Brigadier-General Wade Hampton. He was the beau-ideal of a cavalry commander; of tall, heroic form, a superb horseman, brave and enterprising without being rash, and with daring always tempered by sound judgment. He was unquestionably the strongest man in the Confederate service, and the only one in either army who, enlisting as a private soldier, rose to the rank of lieutenant-general. But, although a judicious commander, he was possessed of a knightly spirit of adventure, and as adventures come to the adventurous, his brilliant military career was marked by many thrilling personal experiences.

But a brave heart is no buckler against a steel blade, as General Hampton realized that morning. Hearing a bullet hiss just over his head, he turned his face toward the belt of open woods on his left in time to see the flash of a gun at a point about three hundred yards away, and then he heard another leaden messenger cut the air near him. He at once rode at a brisk trot in the direction of the timber to find out the early bird of the sharpshooters who thus broke upon the quiet of the morning with his shrill note of battle. When he had ridden about one hundred and seventy-five yards at a [124] right oblique he came to a high stake-and-rider rail-fence. Looking to the front he saw, standing on a large stump, some four of five feet in height, a soldier, whose blue coat bound with orange-colored braid, and pantaloons with stripes of the same color on the outer seams, indicated that he was a United States Cavalryman. He seemed to be what the Scots term a ‘braw lad,’ and, although not engaged in a political campaign, had ‘taken the stump,’ doubtless that he might get a better view of the Confederate troops on the elevated plateau south of the woods.

The contour of the ground hid General Hampton from his command when he halted at the fence. As he drew his pistol the quick-eyed skirmisher saw him, and they both fired at the same instant. The ball from the soldiers' rifled carbine splintered a rail near the horses head, and that from Wade Hampton's 44 calibre revolver made the bark fly from the stump. The duel was clearly irregular, as there were no seconds, and the principals were about one hundred and twenty-five yards apart, instead of fifteen or twenty paces, as prescribed by the code of honor, and they were unequally armed, although each was within fair range of the other's weapon. Hampton held his pistol muzzle up at a ready, and courteously waited on his antagonist, who threw back the lever of his carbine, and flinging out the empty shell put in a fresh cartridge.

Zzza close call.

Again the reports of the carbine and pistol blended, and a bullet passed through Hampton's gray cavalry cape, grazing his right breast.

The soldier then inserted a third cartridge, but could not close the breech of his rifle, the trouble evidently being that the gun was foul, and hence the butt of the metallic case did not go in flush with the socket. He raised his right hand with the palm to the front, as if to say to his adversary: ‘Wait a bit, I'll soon be with you,’ and then drew his wiping rod, and, after driving out the stuck cartridge, took a piece of rag from his pocket, and, wetting it with his tongue, attached it to the slit in the rod, and deliberately cleaned out his carbine. The delay sorely taxed the patience of Hampton, as it would that of any gentleman who was kept waiting to be shot at. But he was as incapable of taking an unfair advantage of his enemy then as he was at Brandy-Station, where, during the fiercest cavalry engagement of the war, he dashed up to a Federal colonel to cut him down, [125] but seeing that his sword arm was disabled, saluted him instead, and passed on to seek another foe.

The high-roosting cock of the woods soon relieved him by again opening fire, but at Hampton's return shot the carbine fell from his grasp, and he jumped down, and, after picking it up with his left hand, retired to the rear.

At that moment General Hampton received a blow on the back of his head that would have unhorsed a less stalwart rider. He turned upon his assailant, who instantly wheeled his horse, and fled at full speed. Hampton followed quickly in pursuit, his thoroughbred mare springing forward at the touch of the spur. The fleeing Federal officer, for such his uniform stamped him, was also well mounted, but Hampton overtook him, and levelling a pistol within three feet of his head, pulled trigger. But the cap snapped. Several times he pulled, but with the same result. The Union officer bounded on, as if conscious of his peril.

Hampton was about to draw his sword, when his intended quarry turned short off to the left through a gap in the fence, which Hampton himself had not seen until borne past it. He had the satisfaction of hurling the pistol at his flying foe, accompanying it with some words which did not entirely become his character as a vestryman of the Protestant Episcopal Church, but that was all.

Zzza deep gash.

General Hampton found that the Union officer's sword had given him a deep gash about four inches in length, and that but for the thick felt hat and heavy suit of hair he wore would have been cut to the brain. A few inches of courtplaster enabled him to keep on duty until he received a severe gunshot wound in the leg on the last of the battle. Ten years later Colonel Frank Hampton, a young brother of the General's, while on a visit to Mobile became acquainted with a gentleman from Detroit who had been an officer in the Union army. A few days after their introduction the Detroit man said: ‘Colonel, I sought your acquaintance in order that through you I might make the amende honorable to your brother, General Wade Hampton. The sabre cut that he received on the head at Gettysburg was inflicted by me, and the matter has troubled me greatly ever since. It was my only act during the war that I regret. I was a young fellow then of twenty-two and a lieutenant in the Sixth Michigan Cavalry. Seeing a solitary Confederate firing into our [126] lines, I determined to capture him. There was nothing about him to indicate his rank, but I presumed that he was an officer. The bend in the fence prevented him from noticing my approach. Indeed, he was looking to the front as I came on his rear, and the ground being soft near the fence line, he did not hear my horse's step. I would have run him through with my sword, but I was incapable of stabbing any man in the back. I saw when I got near him that he was of formidable stature, and as his pistol was in his hand, I was sure that if I ordered him to surrender he would instantly turn and fire upon me. He was mounted on a horse of light chestnut color, which I thought was the finest animal I had ever seen. It was a sore temptation to a cavalry officer, and I at once changed my plan and decided to unhorse the rider and capture his splendid mount. As I struck the blow he turned upon me. It was a half mile race for life. I heard his pistol snap three times at my back, and also his parting curse, as I went through the gap in the fence.’

Colonel Hampton delivered the explanation tendered by Major S. (for he rose to that rank), and later General Hampton acknowledged it by letter, assuring Major S. that it had given him great gratification, and since he had received it he could only regard the failure of his pistol to fire with a deep sense of gratitude to Him in whose hands are the balance of life and death.

In reply to an inquiry to Hampton, Major S. wrote that the name of the rollicking rifleman was Frank Pearson; that he was but nineteen years old at the time of the duel; that the pistol ball had wounded him a few inches above the wrist, and that he was mustered out of service at the close of the war as lieutenant, and was a successful farmer living near Kalamazoo, Mich. Subsequently General Hampton received a letter from Mr. Pearson himself, in which he assured the General that he was glad he had missed him, and the General responded that he was very sorry that he had wounded Private Pearson.

[127] [From the Bristol Courier, of September 14, 1893.]

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