A Rebel's Recollections (Part 5)

A confederate soldier from a plantation-owning family offers the Southern point of view on the Civil War
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[Go to "A Rebel's Recollections" June 1874, July 1874, August 1874, September 1874, October 1874, November 1874, December 1874]

THE CHEVALIER OF THE LOST CAUSE.

THE queer people who devote their energies to the collection of autographs have a habit, as everybody whose name has been three times in print must have discovered, of soliciting from their victim "an autograph with a sentiment," and the unfortunate one is expected, in such cases, to say something worthy of himself, something especially which shall be eminently characteristic, revealing, in a single sentence, the whole man, or woman, as the case may be. How large a proportion of the efforts to do this are measurably successful, nobody but a collector of the sort referred to can say; but it seems probable that the most characteristic autograph "sentiments" are those which are written of the writer's own motion and not of malice aforethought. I remember seeing a curious collection of these once, many of which were certainly not unworthy the men who wrote them. One read, "I. O. U. fifty pounds lost at play, - CHARLES JAMES FOX; and another was a memorandum of sundry wagers laid, signed by the Right Honorable Richard Brinsley Sheridan. These, I thought, bore the impress of their authors' character, and it is at the least doubtful whether either of the distinguished gentlemen would have done half so well in answer to a modest request for a sentiment and a signature.

In the great dining-hall of the Briars, an old-time mansion in the Shenandoah Valley, the residence of Mr. John Esten Cooke, there hangs a portrait of a broad-shouldered cavalier, and beneath is written, in the hand of the cavalier himself,

Yours to count on, J. E. B. STUART"

an autograph sentiment which seems to me a very perfect one in its way. There was no point in Stuart's character more strongly marked than the one here hinted at. He was "yours to count on" always: your friend if possible, your enemy if you would have it so, but your friend or your enemy "to count on," in any case. A franker, more transparent nature, it is impossible to conceive. What he was he professed to be. That which he thought, he said, and his habit of thinking as much good as he could of those about him served to make his frankness of speech a great friend-winner.

I saw him for the first time when he was a colonel, in command of the little squadron of horsemen known as the first regiment of Virginia cavalry. The company to which I belonged was assigned to this regiment immediately after the evacuation of Harper's Ferry by the Confederates. General Johnston's army was at Winchester, and the Federal force under General Patterson lay around Martinsburg. Stuart, with his three or four hundred men, was encamped at Bunker Hill, about midway between the two, and thirteen miles from support of any kind. He had chosen this position as a convenient one from which to observe the movements of the enemy, and the tireless activity which marked his subsequent career so strongly had already begun. As he afterwards explained, it was his purpose to train and school his men, quite as much as anything else, that prompted the greater part of his madcap expeditions at this time, and if there be virtue in practice as a means of perfection, he was certainly an excellent school-master.

My company arrived at the camp about noon, after a march of three or four days, having traveled twenty miles that morning. Stuart, whom we encountered as we entered the camp, assigned us our position. and ordered our tents pitched. Our captain, who was even worse disciplined than we were, seeing a much more comfortable camping-place than the muddy one assigned to us, and being a comfort-loving gentleman, proceeded to lay out a model camp at a distance of fifty yards from the spot indicated. It was not long before the colonel particularly wished to consult with that captain, and after the consultation the volunteer officer was firmly convinced that all West Point graduates were martinets, with no knowledge whatever of the courtesies due from one gentleman to another.

We were weary after our long journey, and disposed to welcome the prospect of rest which our arrival in the camp held out. But resting, as we soon learned, had small place in our colonel's tactics. We had been in camp perhaps an hour, when an order came directing that the company be divided into three parts, each under command of a lieutenant, and that these report immediately for duty. Reporting, we were directed to scout through the country around Martinsburg, going as near the town as possible, and to give battle to any cavalry force we might meet. Here was a pretty lookout, certainly! Our officers knew not one inch of the country, and might fall into all sorts of traps and ambuscades; and what if we should meet a cavalry force greatly superior to our own? This West Point colonel was rapidly forfeiting our good opinion. Our lieutenants were brave fellows, however, and they led us boldly if ignorantly, almost up to the very gates of the town occupied by the enemy. We saw some cavalry but met none, their orders not being so peremptorily belligerent, perhaps, as ours were; wherefore they gave us no chance to fight them. The next morning our unreasonable colonel again ordered us to mount, in spite of the fact that there were companies in the camp which had done nothing at all the day before. This time he led us himself, taking pains to get us as nearly as possible surrounded by infantry, and then laughingly telling us that our chance for getting out of the difficulty, except by cutting our way through, was an exceedingly small one. I think we began about this time to suspect that we were learning something, and that this reckless colonel was trying to teach us. But that he was a hare-brained fellow, lacking the caution belonging to a commander, we were unanimously agreed. He led us out of the place at a rapid gait, before the one gap in the enemy's lines could be closed, and then jauntily led us into one or two other traps, before taking us back to camp.

But it was not until General Patterson began his feint against Winchester that our colonel had full opportunity to give us his field lectures. When the advance began, and our pickets were driven in, the most natural thing to do, in our view of the situation, was to fall back upon our infantry supports at Winchester, and I remember hearing various expressions of doubt as to the colonel's sanity when, instead of falling back, he marched his handful of men right up to the advancing lines, and ordered us to dismount. The Federal skirmish line was coming toward us at a double-quick, and we were set going toward it at a like rate of speed, leaving our horses hundreds of yards to the rear. We could see that the skirmishers alone outnumbered us three or four times, and it really seemed that our colonel meant to sacrifice his command deliberately. He waited until the infantry was within about two hundred yards of us, we being in the edge of a little grove, and they on the other side of an open field. Then Stuart cried out, "Backwards - march! steady, men, - keep your faces to the enemy!" and we marched in that way through the timber, delivering our shot-gun fire slowly as we fell back toward our horses. Then mounting, with the skirmishers almost upon us, we retreated, not hurriedly, but at a slow trot, which the colonel would on no account permit us to change into a gallop. Taking us out into the main road he halted us in column, with our backs to the enemy.

"Attention!" he cried. "Now I want to talk to you, men. You are brave fellows, and patriotic ones too, but you are ignorant of this kind of work, and I am teaching you. I want you to observe that a good man on a good horse can never be caught. Another thing: cavalry can trot away from anything, and a gallop is a gait unbecoming a soldier, unless he is going toward the enemy. Remember that. We gallop toward the enemy, and trot away, always. Steady now! don't break ranks!"

And as the words left his lips a shell from a battery half a mile to the rear hissed over our heads.

"There," he resumed. "I've been waiting for that, and watching those fellows. I knew they'd shoot too high, and I wanted you to learn how shells sound."

We spent the next day or two literally within the Federal lines. We were shelled, skirmished with, charged, and surrounded scores of times, until we learned to hold in high regard our colonel's masterly skill in getting into and out of perilous positions. He seemed to blunder into them in sheer recklessness, but in getting out he showed us the quality of his genius; and before we reached Manassas, we had learned, among other things, to entertain a feeling closely akin to worship for our brilliant and daring leader. We had begun to understand, too, how much force he meant to give to his favorite dictum that the cavalry is the eye of the army.

His restless activity was one, at least, of the qualities which enabled him to win the reputation he achieved so rapidly. He could never be still. He was rarely ever in camp at all, and he never showed a sign of fatigue. He led almost everything. Even after he became a general officer, with well-nigh an army of horsemen under his command, I frequently followed him as my leader in a little party of half a dozen troopers, who might as well have gone with a sergeant on the duty assigned them; and once I was his only follower on a scouting expedition, of which he, a brigadier-general at the time, was the commander. I had been detailed to do some clerical work at his head-quarters, and, having finished the task assigned me, was waiting in the piazza of the house he occupied, for somebody to give me further orders, when Stuart came out.

"Is that your horse?" he asked, going up to the animal and examining him minutely.

I replied that he was, and upon being questioned further informed him that I did not wish to sell my steed. Turning to me suddenly, he said, -

"Let's slip off on a scout, then; I'll ride your horse and you can ride mine. I want to try your beast's paces;" and mounting, we galloped away. Where or how far he intended to go I did not know. He was enamored of my horse, and rode, I suppose, for the pleasure of riding an animal which pleased him. We passed outside our picket line, and then, keeping in the woods, rode within that of the Union army. Wandering about in a purposeless way, we got a near view of some of the Federal camps, and finally finding ourselves objects of attention on the part of some well-mounted cavalry in blue uniforms, we rode rapidly down a road toward our own lines, our pursuers riding quite as rapidly immediately behind us.

"General," I cried presently, "there is a Federal picket post on the road just ahead of us. Had we not better oblique into the woods?"

"Oh no. They won't expect us from this direction, and we can ride over them before they make up their minds who we are."

Three minutes later we rode at full speed through the corporal's guard on picket, and were a hundred yards or more away before they could level a gun at us. Then half a dozen bullets whistled about our ears, but the cavalier paid no attention to them.

"Did you ever time this horse for a half-mile?" was all he had to say.

Expeditions of this singular sort were by no means uncommon occurrences with him. I am told by a friend who served on his staff, that he would frequently take one of his aids and ride away otherwise unattended into the enemy's lines; and oddly enough this was one of his ways of making friends with any officer to whom his rough, boyish ways had given offense. He would take the officer with him, and when they were alone would throw his arms around his companion, and say, -

"My dear fellow, you mustn't be angry with me, - you know I love you."

His boyishness was always apparent, and the affectionate nature of the man was hardly less so, even in public. He was especially fond of children, and I remember seeing him in the crowded waiting-room of the railroad station at Gordonsville with a babe on each arm; a great, bearded warrior, with his plumed hat, and with golden spurs clanking at his heels, engaged in a mad frolic with all the little people in the room, charging them right and left with the pair of babies which he had captured from their unknown mothers.

It was on the day of my ride with him that I heard him express his views of the war and his singular aspiration for himself. It was almost immediately after General McClellan assumed command of the army of the Potomac, and while we were rather eagerly expecting him to attack our strongly fortified position at Centreville. Stuart was talking with some members of his staff, with whom he had been wrestling a minute before. He said something about what they could do by way of amusement when they should go into winter-quarters.

"That is to say," he continued, "if George B. McClellan ever allows us to go into winter-quarters at all."

"Why, general? Do you think he will advance before spring?" asked one of the officers.

"Not against Centreville," replied the general. "He has too much sense for that, and I think he knows the shortest road to Richmond, too. If I am not greatly mistaken, we shall hear of him presently on his way up the James River."

In this prediction, as the reader knows, he was right. The conversation then passed to the question of results.

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