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Last days of the Army in Southwest Virginia. From the times-dispatch, November 5th, 1905.

By Milton W. Humphreys.

Professor Milton W. Humphreys, of the University of Virginia (a brave soldier before he became a learned professor), has aply described the last days of the Confederate forces in Southwest Virginia, under General Echols, in the article enclosed.

The picture he draws of the artillerists who raised corn and potatoes, which were sent to Richmond for Lee's starving soldiers, makes realistic indeed the extreme hardships of the times, and the heroic toils by which they were alleviated. Professor Humphreys has contributed some most valuable material to our history, which would otherwise have been lost, and some papers which throw vivid lights over great events. It will be pleasing to his comrades of other days to hear that he will probably write more fully than has ever been done the story of McLaughlin's battalion of artillery which is one of surpassing heroism. His conscientious love of truth, his experiences as a soldier and his accomplished pen give peculiar value and interest to his writings.

Very respectfully,

Last days of the Confederate Army in Southwest Virginia.

This article would, perhaps, more appropriately be entitled ‘the last days of the Thirteenth Battalion, Virginia Light Artillery.’ Incidently, however, it will contribute something to the history of the rest of the forces in that region. The greater part of the narrative is copied verbatim from a diary kept at the time. The passages taken from this diary are under quotation marks. Several years after the close of the war, but when the author's memory was still fresh, the diary was copied and additional remarks appended. These remarks are placed under square brackets [thus]. The rest of the narrative appears without any marks of distinction.


M'Laughlins (Thirteenth Virginia) Battalion of Light artillery.

Some introductory statements are necessary. The Thirteenth Virginia Light Artillery consisted of Bryan's, Chapman's and Lowry's Batteries. For a time the Otey Battery belonged to it, and for a short while Jackson's Battery; but during the last days the three batteries named constituted the battalion. In the ‘Official Records’ and elsewhere it is invariably called ‘King's Artillery;’ but this is a misnomer. It was McLaughlin's Battalion of King's Division, the other battalion of the division consisting of reserves and never appearing on the returns forwarded from the army in the field. The battalion commander was Major William McLaughlin, afterwards Judge McLaughlin; the division commander, Lieutenant-Colonel J. Floyd King.

This battalion was attached to Breckinridge's command [Wharton's and Gordon's Divisions], under General Early during the Valley campaign of 1864. At the close of the campaign it went into winter quarters near Fisherville, in Augusta county, but soon afterwards was ordered to deposit its guns in Lynchburg and go with the horses to the Narrows of New River, in Giles county, to winter.

The reason for this was that Bryan's battery [by what authority does not matter] kept a detail of several men at that place, cultivating rice bottom lands and raising some four or five thousand bushels of corn and seven or eight hundred bushels of potatoes each summer. This detail, [known in the battery as the ‘Life Insurance Company,’] was ordered in when the effort was made during the campaign of 1864 to strengthen the army by every possible means.

A strong protest was made against this order, and the writer of this article [who, though only a sergeant, twenty years old, happened to be in command of the battery], wrote to the Secretary of War on the subject. The protest was sustained and the detail remained at the Narrows, naturally supposed that they and the horses were to subsist upon the crops raised by Bryan's details; but when they had gone into winter quarters there an order came for the drivers to take the horses home with them and keep them, the compensation being the privilege of wintering at home. Special provision was made for sergeants' and wagon horses. The [346] cannoneers were ordered to shuck and shell the corn and ship it to Richmond. The writer remembers nothing further about the potatoes; but the battalion, like other commands, lived or rather starved, on rations furnished by the government. [The Narrows are some twenty-five or thirty miles from Dublin to the northwest.] Here begins the narrative proper of the last days as explained above.

On the 3d of April I was on guard duty, and Major McLaughlin instructed me to have reveille at 4:30 in the morning. But news was received that New River bridge was threatened by the enemy. There was most evidently some bad news connected with this, but we could not surmise what it could be. [Some one had seen McLaughlin shedding tears.] At any rate we marched at 11:30 P. M. in the direction of Dublin Depot. I took immediate charge of the rear guard. After passing Pearisburg about two miles, the command nearly all came to a halt without orders, and slept all night. I slept with them and next morning, April 4th, we moved on and found McLaughlin with some men at an old camping ground. By this time the news was circulated that Petersburg had fallen. At first it was not believed, but soon we were convinced that the report was correct. We continued the march until we arrived at ‘Camp Instruction,’ one mile west of Dublin. Here we encamped. Some clothing was drawn and we were preparing to issue it, when orders and news were received which again caused Major McLaughlin to weep. He ordered that the clothes be merely distributed among the men, and a general ‘grab’ ensued. The command marched immediately to the depot. We had orders not to shout or make any noise of any kind. When we arrived at the depot, thirty rifles [really Enfield rifles] were distributed among the battalion [volunteers to take small arms having been called for.] I was among those who volunteered to take these small arms [all there were on hand.] We then drew some ammunition and returned to Camp Instruction. On the next day, April 5th, we marched in the direction of the Narrows, Sergeant Davidson, who had no gun, being in charge of the armed part of the battalion. When we had gone about five miles we were ordered back to Dublin in great haste ‘to hold the place’ until Echols' army could relieve us.

I was then placed in command of the armed men. Query; Why was not an officer placed in command, it being the armed portion [347] of the force and about the fourth part of it? Several officers were present [besides McLaughlin]. I left my diary in charge of G. W. Thomas and marched with my command to Dublin, and took up quarter's in the post commissary's office. Echols, who was advancing down the railroad, with a considerable army, had not yet arrived.

Echols's army was said to number 6,000 or 7,000 men. Two or three generals were with him, including General Duke.

There were important stores at Dublin, We were informed that we would be relied by 8 or 9 o'clock [in the morning]. We remained all night and [Thursday, April 6th] Lieutenant William Branham, and aide-de-camp to General Echols, called me about daybreak and desired me to move out to Cloyd's Farm [five miles west], with such men as wculd volunteer to go and guard Pepper's Ferry road until 9 A. M., when, he said, Echols would arrive. We started, but had gone only a very short distance when Lieutenant Branham turned us and sent us down the railroad to within one and a half miles of New River Bridge, which the enemy was cutting down. Here I formed a sort of skirmish line, covering two roads in addition to the railroad, and sent out pickets. Here we remained some hours, when Lieutenant Branham ordered us back to Dublin, saying that there was danger of the enemy moving on another road [the main macadamized road]. On our way back to Dublin we met the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry, the van of Echols's army. From Dublin we went on to Camp Instruction, to which place the whole battalion had returned.


By this time it was currently reported that Richmond had been evacuated. A gloom rested upon every countenance. We remained in camp all the next day [April 7th]. The news of the fall of Richmond was confirmed. The 8th was spent in camp. It was thought the State of Virginia would be at once evacuated.

General Echols had a man shot at Dublin who had been sentenced long before. Some thought he did wrong to execute the sentence, in view of the evident approach of the collapse of the Confederacy; but it should be remembered that the man was guilty of cold-blooded murder, followed by desertion to the enemy.

On Sunday, April 9th, the whole army marched down to New river. The enemy was gone. The army crossed over on the railroad bridge. A single plank spanned the section cut out by the [348] enemy. [The bridge had been burned May 10, 1864, and was rebuilt of such green wood and so little frame work that it would not burn.] The mounted men and all mounted officers must have crossed, of course, elsewhere. On this the diary is silent.

The neighbors said that General Stoneman had stopped the destruction of the bridge, telling his men that they [the Federals] would want it themselves. No one seemed to know where the Federals were. Our battalion crossed over, passed the army and camped on the macadamized road, six miles from New River. The weather was very bad, rain falling continually. Next day (10th) we remained in camp all day.

On the 11th we marched before day in the direction of Salem. We had not marched very far until it was rumored that very bad news had been rceived; that a courier had ridden from Lynchburg to Echols' army on the previous night, at the rate of fifteen miles per hour, and that Lieutenant Houston, having come that night from Salem, had asked Major McLaughlin if he had heard “the news,” and that Major McLaughlin had interrupted him and prevented him from making known to bystanders what the news was. About daylight it began to be rumored that we were entirely cut off, and finally at Christiansburg the startling news spread instantly through the army that General Lee had surrendered. Our wildest conjectures had never suggested this explanation of the mystery. Those who knew said that, as far as we were concerned, “two days would tell the tale.” Some one remarking that we had only three days rations. Lieutenant Houston said we would want no more. At last it was rumored that we were marching down to surrender. It certainly was a mysterious march. We were the only (?) organganized troops in the State of Virginia. The enemy was on every road, and still we were penetrating deeper into the country. Why was it, if not to surrender? But why should we seek to surrender? I expressed the opinion that Echols himself did not know exactly why he was making the march.

“When we arrived at a beautiful bottom about two miles south of Big Spring Depot, the army was halted in the road and a council of war held.” [When the column halted and huddled like sheep Sergeant A. J. Patton stood up in his stirrups and, looking forward, turned pale and said: ‘This is the end, right here!’ And such was virtually the case. Then and there was formed the resoution practically to disband next day.]

We then bivouacked and [349] cooked one day's rations—the last that was in the trains, there being two days rations already cooked. The quartermaster distributed the clothing among the men without taking any receipts. This clearly indicated that the end was at hand. Such gloom and despondency as existed among the men on this night I never before witnessed. A great many intended to leave, but the officers persuaded them to remain one day more, when they could leave honorably. Late in the night I retired—for the last time in Bryan's Battery. We had been under Lieutenant Fowlkes for some time, but Captain Bryan, who had been absent, reported on the evening of this day.

The last day at Christiansburg April 12, 1865—the long furlough from General Echols.

We marched early the next morning (Wednesday, April 12th) back towards Christiansburg. Several of my most intimate friends, seized by a strange panic, wanted to drop behind and go home; but I persuaded them that it would be much better to remnin all day and then go home honorably. They all decided to remain to the end.

We marched to Christiansburg and camped in the woods a very short distance before reaching the town. Our battalion was camped in the last corner of the woods land on the left going towards Christiansburg. The march had seemed like a funeral procession and now we were in the graveyard.

About noon the army was assembled in the woods on the hillside across the road from us, and the hour long to be remembered was at hand. General Echols made a speech, the general tenor of which rather encouraged the men to go home. He then called for volunteers out of the infantry, to be mounted and attempt to escape with him. Sixty men stepped torward. Finally he announced that all the rest, except the cavalry, would receive a furlough for two months. There was a shout, not of joy, but rather of applause for the general, and of relief from the peculiar suspense we had been under. Each command started at once for its camp, while the bands played Dixie.

All that remained was to write and sign the furloughs. I wrote most of those for our battery and signed Captain Bryan's n tine to them. Even my own was entirely in my own handwriting. I also [350] wrote some for the members of other batteries, including one for Oliver, of Lowry's battery. The last thing I wrote dated ‘Headquarters, Bryan's Battery, McLaughlin's Artillery Battalion,’ was a furlough for Sergeant G. W. Branham. From our records I prepared as complete a list as I could of all the men that ever had belonged to Bryan's Battery. Sergeant Branham got me to make him a copy of it.

‘When the furloughs were ready the artillery was cut down and the wagons made ready to be burned on the next day.’

[It is to be hoped that this absurd proceeding was stopped before the wagons were actually burned. No conceivable good could be accomplished by it, and our people needed the wagons greatly. ]

McLaughlin's battalion scattered on every road and was no more.

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