The Battle of the Wilderness
AND now I beg to refer to our enemies, and in doing so I shall direct the reader’s attention to that upon which mine is fixed, to Lee’s character and to the spirit of his army, rather than to its numbers, position, or organization. True, what I am gazing upon is not so clearly defined as the Army of Northern Virginia in camp; but the everlasting things that appeal to us are never quite distinct; and if by chance they become so, if science penetrate them through and through, or illuminate them on all sides, they lose their power over us, and are silent and speechless. Although Science has had her victories over our primeval instincts, she has no sooner buried one, than behold! a resurrection, and a more ethereal and smiling face appears on the frontier of the Unknown.
I am free to confess, moreover, that strategy, grand tactics, and the record of military movements, however stirring they were in the Civil War, are not the features that engage my deepest interest; but, if I may be allowed so to convey my meaning, it is a figure, cloud-wrapped, called the spirit which animated the armies of North and South. That, that is what I see. And lo! in her uplifted beckoning hand is what seems to be a great scroll, and my pen whispers to me that it is not the record of mere details of battles. I may be deceived, but as sure as we live, the sound reaches us of axes falling as they frame a new story on the old mansion of history; not to house the tale of soldiers engaged, soldiers killed and wounded, or to preserve the records of the charge of this regiment upon that, or the slaughter of this division by that. No, no, not the multitude of dead, or the pictures of their glazing eyes and pleading, bloodless hands shall engage the pen that fills the records of that new story. We do not know what the genius of history will treasure there, yet we know that on its hearth a fire will burn whose flames will be the symbol of the heroic purpose and spirit that beat in the hearts of the pale, handsome youths who strewed our fields. And where the beams from those flames strike the walls, new ideals will appear, and up in the twilight of the arches in the roof will be faintly heard an anthem, an anthem of joy that new levels have been reached by mankind in gentleness and in love of what is pure and merciful. Wars that will not add material for this new story of the old mansion of history ought never to be fought.
Be all this as it may, what was it that so animated Lee’s army that, although only about one-half as strong in numbers as we were, they fought us to a standstill in the Wilderness, and held their lines at Spottsylvania, although we broke them several times ? What sustained their fortitude as they battled on, month after month, through that summer, showing the same courage day after day, till the times and seasons of the Confederacy were fulfilled ?
Well, to answer this, I know no better way than to propose a visit to the Army of Northern Virginia, say on the night of January 18, 1804. But before setting off on our quest, let us recall that, through either exhaustion, mismanagement, or unavoidable necessity, supplies for man and beast were, and had been, so meagre that there was actual suffering. My own memory bears evidence that it was an unusually severe winter. The snow from time to time was four and six inches deep, and again and again it was bitter cold. We do not know what the weather was on that particular night of January 18, but in the light of the following letter to the Quartermaster-General of the Confederacy, does it seem unfair to assume that snow covered the ground, and that the wind was blowing fiercely ? Or does it seem unfair to fancy that Lee heard it howl through the cedars and pines near his headquarters, as he thought of his poorly clad, half-fed pickets shuddering at their lonely posts along the Rapidan, and took his pen and wrote to the Confederate Quartermaster-General ?
“ General: — The want of shoes and blankets in this army continues to cause much suffering and to impair its efficiency. In one regiment I am informed that there are only fifty men with serviceable shoes, and a brigade that recently went on picket was compelled to leave several hundred men in camp who were unable to bear the exposure of duty, being destitute of shoes and blankets.”
The record seems to show that this state of affairs endured, and that repeated pleas were made both for food and for clothing. Whatever may have been the response to them throughout the winter, those who saw the contents of the haversacks taken from the dead or wounded in the Wilderness will recall their surprise. Often they contained only a few pieces of corn-bread and slices of inferior bacon or salt pork. In this want do you find any explanation of Southern fortitude ? No, but it helps us to appreciate it truly.
With this prelude, let us go on with our visit. And as we breast the fierce wind, and tramp on through the snow from camp to camp, halt! what is that we hear from those houses built of logs or slabs ? Men are preaching and praying earnestly; for during those bleak winter nights, so have the chaplains recorded, a great revival was going on. They tell us that in every brigade of the sixty odd thousand men, the veterans of Gaines’s Mill, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg were on their knees asking God to forgive their sins, to bless their far-away homes and beloved Southland. One of the officers of a battery tells us in its history that right after retreat they always met for prayer and song, and that when the order came to march for the Wilderness, while the teams stood ready to move, they held the battery long enough to observe their custom of worship.
In those sacred hours when the soldiers of Northern Virginia were supplicating their Creator through his Son to forgive them all their sins, and imploring his hand to guide them on in the paths of righteousness, I think we find at least profoundly suggestive material for the answer to the question : Whence came the spirit that animated and sustained their fortitude through those eleven months of battle ? The sense of peace with God is as much a reality as the phenomenon of dawn or the Northern Lights. Moreover, hear what Carlyle says about an idea: “ Every society, every polity, has a spiritual principle, the embodiment of an idea. This idea, be it devotion to a man or class of men, to a creed, to an institution, or even, as in more ancient times, to a piece of land, is ever a true loyalty; has in it something of a religious, paramount, quite infinite character; it is properly the soul of the state, its life; mysterious as other forms of life, and, like those, working secretly, and in a depth beyond that of consciousness.”
Do not the losses of the Southern armies tell us that there was an idea, something of a religious, paramount, quite infinite character possessing the South ? If they do not, go stand among the graves in the Confederate cemetery at Spottsylvania, and you certainly will hear from the tufted grass that a principle was embodied in an idea.
There is something more to be added in regard to the Army of Northern Virginia, namely, the strength that came to it through the character of Lee, — a strength so vital that although he and most of his army are in their graves, it still lives, not as a force resisting the Army of the Potomac fighting to maintain our country undivided, but as fountains inspiring history to preserve the memories of the Confederacy. I sincerely believe that, with Lee out of the Rebellion, its star, that hangs detached but glowing softly over these bygone days of the war, would long since have set.
In looking for the source of Lee’s personal influence, we have to go back, I think, to the inherited habit of respect which the people of the South paid to social position. It was not born of a feeling of subservience, however, for the poorest “ cracker " had an unmistakable and un-self-conscious dignify about him. He always walked up to and faced the highest with an air of equality. No, this latent respect was a natural response on the part of men of low estate to good manners, and oft-displayed sympathy. Lee, by his connection through birth and marriage with the most distinguished and best families of Virginia, represented the superior class. Moreover, that he was a Lee of Virginia, and by marriage the head of the Washington family, had, from one end of the South to the other, a weight which the present commercial, mammonworshiping age knows or cares but little about.
Again, nature in one of her moods had made him the balanced sum, in manners and looks, of that tradition of the well-bred and aristocratic gentleman, transmitted and ingrafted at an early age through the cavaliers into Virginia life. But for his military prowess he had something vastly more efficacious than ancestry or filling the mould of well-bred traditions. He had the generative quality of simple, effective greatness; in other words, he had an unspotted, serenely lofty character whose qualities were reactive, reaching every private soldier, and making him unconsciously braver and better as a man. So it is easy to see how the South’s ideal of the soldier, the Christian, and the gentleman unfolded, and was realized in him as the war went on. His army was made up chiefly of men of low estate, but the truth is that it takes the poor to see ideals.
Taking into account, then, these two mysterious yet real forces, religion and exalted character, we have all the elements, I think, for a complete answer to the question we have raised. But now, let the following extracts from Lee’s letters leave their due impression of what kind of a man he was at heart ; for it is by these inner depths of our nature that we stand or fall, whether we were born in the same room of the palatial mansion of Stratford where two signers of the Declaration of Independence were born, or in a log cabin in Kentucky. The first was written to his son Custis on the 11th of January, 1863, just about a year before our fancied visit to his camp: —
CAMP, 11th January, 1863.
I hope we will be able to do something for the servants. I executed a deed of manumission, embracing all the names sent me by your mother, and some that I recollected, but as I had nothing to refer to but my memory I fear many are omitted. It was my desire to manumit all the people of your grandfather, whether present on the several estates or not.
Later, he sent the following: —
“ I have written to him [a Mr. Crockford] to request that Harrison [one of the slaves] be sent to Mr. Eacho. Will you have his free papers given him ? I see that the Va. Central R. R. is offering $40 a month and board. I would recommend he engage with them, or on some other work at once. . . . As regards Leanthe and Jim, I presume they had better remain with Mrs. D. this year, and at the end of it devote their earnings to their own benefit. But what can be done with poor little Jim ? It would be cruel to turn him out on the world. He could not take care of himself. He had better be bound out to some one until he can be got to his grandfather’s. His father is unknown, and his mother dead or in unknown parts.”
In a letter to his son, W. H. F. Lee, who had just been released from captivity, and whose wife Charlotte had died: —
God knows how I loved your dear, dear wife, how sweet her memory is to me. My grief could not be greater if you had been taken from me; and how I mourn her loss! You were both equally dear to me. My heart is too full to speak on this subject, nor can I write. But my grief is for ourselves. She is brighter and happier than ever — safe from all evil and awaiting us in her heavenly abode. May God in His mercy enable us to join her in eternal praise to our Lord and Saviour. Let us humbly bow ourselves before Him, and offer perpetual prayer for pardon and forgiveness. But we cannot indulge in grief, however mournfully pleasing. Our country demands all of our strength, all our energies. . . . If victorious, we have everything to hope for in the future. If defeated, nothing will be left us to live for. This week will in all probability bring us work, and we must strike fast and strong. My whole trust is in God, and I am ready for whatever He may ordain. May He guide, guard and strengthen us is my constant prayer.
Your devoted father,
R. E. LEE.
In the foregoing reference to Lee, and to the spirit of his army, I trust there is some food for reflection, and somewhat that is informing. For I cannot make myself believe that a true history of the war can be written, fair to the South and fair to the North, that does not try at least to make these spiritual forces real. Surely due measure cannot be given to the gallantry of the soldiers of the North, who won victory for their country at last, if we do not realize what they had to overcome in the almost matchless courage of their adversaries.
But let no one be deceived — Lee’s army were not all saints. In his, as in all armies, there were wretches guilty of most brutal conduct, — wretches who habitually rifled the dead and wounded, crouching and sneaking in the darkness, sometimes passing through a hot fire, — as when our lines after assaults were close, — and going from one dead body to another, thrusting their ogreish hands quickly and ruthlessly into pockets, and fumbling unbeating breasts for money and watches, their prowling fingers groping their way hurriedly along the pale, dead ones for rings. Thank God! the great mass of the armies, North and South, respected the dead, and turned with aversion from those ghoulish monsters, the barbarous and shameful outcome of bitter and prolonged war. But there are vermin that breed in the darkness of the foundation of cathedrals and lonely country churches; and yet a holy spirit breathes around their consecrated altars, and in the steeples are bells, and the tops of the spires catch the first gleam of dawn.
So, so it is, and so it was with both armies that went into the Wilderness, — there were vermin in the walls, but there were steeples and holy breathings.
Everything being ready, Grant, on Monday, May 2, directed Meade to put the army in motion at midnight of the following day for the lower fords of the Rapidan. The orders to carry this into effect were written by Humphreys, Meade’s Chief of Staff, and were sent to the corps commanders the same day, who at once, in compliance with them, placed guards in all the occupied houses on or in the vicinity of their line of march, to prevent information being carried to the enemy that the army was moving.
Early in the afternoon of Tuesday, the Third Division of cavalry under Gregg, then at Paoli Mills, moved southeastward through lanes and woods to the road already described connecting Stevensburg and Fredericksburg. He struck it at Madden’s, and followed it eastward till he came to Richardsville, a hamlet about two and a half miles from Ely’s Ford. There he went into bivouac, with orders from Sheridan to keep his command out of sight as much as possible. About ten o’clock a canvas pontoon train that had been brought up from the Rappahannock drew into his sleeping camp, rested till midnight, and then, preceded by an advanced guard, set out for the river. When daylight broke they were at the ford, and Gregg, after laying the bridge, moved on up with his cavalry to Chancellorsville.
Meanwhile Hancock at midnight awakened his great Second Corps, and at 2 A. M. set off with it from Lone Tree Hill, to follow Gregg. His troops moved through woods and fields till they came to Madden’s, so as to leave the road free from Stevensburg to that point for Warren. The Madden’s referred to is an old farmhouse on a gentle knoll, with some corn-cribs, log-stables, and huddled fruit trees where chickens and turkeys roost, all overlooking a flat field to the west that is dotted with blackened stumps of primeval oaks. It is about a third of the stretch from Stevensburg to the river.
Dawn had broken, and the morning star was paling, when the head of the Second Corps reached the bluffy bank of the Rapidan. There it halted for a moment while the wooden pontoon bridge that accompanied it was laid. The river spanned, the corps filed down and began to cross into the Wilderness. Hour after hour this bridge pulsed with the tread of Hancock’s twenty-seven thousand men, veterans of many fields. The swelling bluffs offer more than one point where in fancy the reader might sit alone and overlook the moving scene. I wish for his sake that with one stroke of this pen, as with a magic wand, I might make it really visible. It was one of those sights which the memory cherishes: the river flowing on, glinting, the never-ending column of blue, the bridge rumbling prophetically as the batteries drew on and off it, the spirit of the brave young fellows hovering over them or walking beside them as they moved on to win glory at last for their country. But however all this may be, the dauntless Second Corps, led on by Webb and Birney, Brooke and Carroll, Miles, Barlow, and Gibbon, crossed and marched up to the old battlefield of Chancellorsville. Hancock with his staff reached there by 9.30, his last division about 3 P. M. Some of his troops had marched over twenty-three miles, which, inasmuch as they carried three days’ rations, their muskets, and fifty rounds of ammunition,— under a hot sun and with not a leaf stirring, — was a hard tramp. On Hancock’s arrival, Gregg moved on several miles to the south, to the old furnace road on which just about a year before Stonewall Jackson had marched on his last and historic move to strike the right of Hooker’s army, posted over the identical field where Hancock’s corps went into bivouac. A reference to this will be made when we come to place the army before the reader’s eye as night fell that first day, after all had reached their allotted camps.
And now, leaving Hancock at Chancellorsville, where Sheridan joined him with most of the cavalry save the First Division, which had been left to look out for the rear of the army as it moved away from its winter quarters, let us turn to Wilson, Warren, and Burnside. At dark on Tuesday, Wilson’s pontoon train took the road for Germanna Ford. When it got within quick reaching distance, a halfmile or so, of the river, it halted in the thick woods. It was then ten o’clock, a moonless but beautiful starlit night. At three o’clock the Third Indiana Cavalry, under Chapman, cautiously drew near the ford, waited till dawn appeared among the trees, then hurried down, forded the river, and brushed away the startled Confederate pickets who had their reserve in the old, ragged field on the bluff overlooking the ford.
Meanwhile, the bridge was brought forward, and Wilson was on hand with the rest of his division, which included Pennington’s and Fitzhugh’s batteries of light artillery. At half-past five — the sun rose at 4.49 — the bridge, two hundred and twenty feet long, was finished, and by six o’clock the cavalry had crossed, most of them having forded the river, and the head of Warren’s corps, which had marched from the vicinity of Culpeper at midnight, was drawing near. Then Wilson pushed on up toward the Lacy farm. On Warren’s arrival, another bridge was laid at once, and his corps, Ayres with his Regulars in the lead, began to cross. The troops, once they gained the bluff, threw themselves down and rested by the roadside while they ate their breakfast, and then followed Wilson up the narrow and deeply overshadowed road.
The Sixth Corps, the best liked of all in the army, began its march from around Brandy at four o’clock for Stevensburg. There it fell in behind Warren, and followed him to Germanna Ford. They were rumbling by my tent at Brandy all through the night; the enormous train of over four thousand wagons was on the move headed eastward, in bands of from twenty to two hundred, on lanes and roads, all converging at Richardsville, where they were to go into park. This hamlet of several weather-worn houses is on the road to Ely’s Ford, and about seven or eight miles east of Stevensburg. Grant’s, Meade’s, and corps headquarters, and half of the ammunition and ambulance trains, moved with the troops.
The depots at Brandy began to ship back to Washington early on Tuesday. It was a very busy day for me and for every one else in charge of stores at the depots. Trains were backing in to be loaded with surplus stores; fresh troops, infantry and cavalry, were coming, and had to be supplied at once, whole regiments in some cases, with arms and equipments. Teams stood, waiting, the drivers clamorous for their turn to load with ammunition or delayed supplies ; other teams under the crack of their drivers’ whips, were quickly taking their chance to unload condemned stores, and all were more or less impatient because they could not be served immediately, and then head back for commands who were preparing to move.
There is always a feverishness throughout an army on the eve of a general movement. If, in the midst of the hurlyburly, you had gone out where the condemned stores were received, I believe that you would have seen and heard much to amuse you. These stores were usually sent in charge of a corporal or sergeant, and were tallied by a couple of my men, old regular soldiers. One of them, Corporal Tessing, it would have delighted you to see, he was such a typical, grim old regular. His drooping mustache and imperial were a rusty sandy, streaked with gray, his cheeks furrowed, his bearing and look like a frowning statue. The other, Harris, his senior, was a mild, quiet, open-eyed, soft-voiced man, with modesty and uprightness camped in his face. Well, if the stores came from a regiment of cavalry, the corporal in charge, booted and spurred, — and such an air ! — would pick up a few straps, some of them not longer than a throatlatch, and possibly having attached to one or two of them an old nose-bag, and announce brazenly to Tessing or Harris who would be tallying, “ two bridles, three halters, and four nose-bags.” If an infantryman, be would throw quickly into a pile an old wrinkled cartridge-box, a belt or two, and a bayonet scabbard, and sing out, “ five sets of infantry equipments complete.” If an artilleryman, he might point with dignity to a couple of pieces of carefully folded, dirt-stained, scarlet blankets, and in a voice of commercial deference observe, “ Three horseblankets.”
And so it was with everything their commanding officers were responsible for: they tried to get receipts for what was worn out, what had been lost, and now and then for what they had traded off to a farmer or sutler. If you could have seen Tessing’s face as he turned it on some of those volunteer corporals when they tried to beat him! He rarely said anything to the young rascals as they eyed him keenly, brass in every beam of their roguish eyes; now and then, however, he addressed the very unscrupulous in tones, terms, and looks that could have left but little doubt as to what he thought of them. They never disputed his count, but pocketed their receipts, and off they went as light-hearted as birds. He and the old sergeant lost their lives at the explosion of the depot at City Point: the former was literally blown to atoms; how and where I found the sergeant is told in The Spirit of Old West Point. Heaven bless their memories, and when I reach the other shore no two hands shall I take with warmer grasp than the hands ot these two old soldiers; and, reader, I believe they will be glad to take mine, too.
Count the stores as carefully as they might, there was sure to be a generous allowance, so that by the time we reached City Point I was responsible for a vast amount of stuff that was n’t there. But let me confide that, when the depot exploded, all those absent stores had in some mysterious way gotten to the James; and I am free to say that I loaded them, and everything under the heavens that I was charged with and short of, on that boat or into the depot buildings, and thereby balanced the books to the complete satisfaction of everybody, and I believe with the approval of Honor and Justice.
At last all was done, and a little before midnight the train with my ordnance supplies on board was under way for Alexandria; and as it started I waved a good-by to my faithful Regulars and tired colored laborers. The departing train, its engine, old Samson, laboring heavily, hied away, and I turned in. The sun had just cleared the treetops when Meade with his staff came by, and I mounted my horse, saddled and groomed by my colored boy, Stephens, and joined Meade on his way to the Wilderness. The whole army was now in motion, and I cannot convey the beauty and joy of the morning. The glad May air was full of spring. Dogwoods with their broadly open, gently wrapped blossoms, that have always seemed to me as though they were hearing music somewhere above them in the spring skies, violets and azaleas, heavenly pale little housatonias, and the gorgeous yellow primroses, which gild the pastures and roadsides of this part of old Virginia, were all in bloom, and the dew still on them.
Never, I think, did an army set off on a campaign when the fields and the bending morning sky wore fresher or happier looks. Our horses felt it all, too, and, champing their bits, flecking their breasts at times with spattering foam, bore us on proudly. When we gained the ridge just beyond Stevensburg, which commands a wide landscape, an inspiring sight broke on our eyes. To be sure, we had been riding by troops all the way from Brandy, but now, as far as you could see in every direction, corps, divisions, and brigades, trains, batteries, and squadrons, were moving on in a waving sea of blue; headquarters’ and regimental flags were fluttering, the morning sun kissing them all, and shimmering gayly from gun-barrels, and on the loud-speaking brass guns, so loved by the cannoneers who marched by their sides. Every once in a while a cheer would break, and on would come floating the notes of a band. As I recall the scene from the ridge beyond Stevensburg, that old army, whose blood had moistened and glorified so many fields, in motion with its brigades, divisions, and corps, their flags, some blue, some white, and some with red fields, whipping over them, and beyond in the background Poney and Clarke’s Mountain, and away in the west the Blue Ridge lifting with her remote charm, — taking her last view of the Army of the Potomac, — a solemn spell comes over my heart, and it seems as if, while I look at the magical pageant, I hear above me the notes of slowly-passing bells.
The troops were very light-hearted, almost as joyous as schoolboys; and over and over again as we rode by them, it was observed by members of the staff that they had never seen them so happy and buoyant. The little drummer-boys, those hardened little waifs whose faces were the habitual playground of mischief and impudence, were striding along, caps tilted, and calling for cheers for Grant, or jeering, just as the mood took them; but there was illumination in every soldier’s face. Was it the light from the altar of duty that was shining in their courageous young faces ? No one knows save the Keeper of the key of our higher natures, who some day will open the doors for us all.
Soon after we left Stevensburg, to my surprise, General Hunt, by whose side I was riding, suggested that we take it easy, and let the rest of the staff go ahead, for it never was comfortable riding to keep up with that fox-walk of Meade’s horse; so we fell to the rear, and I really felt proud to have him ask me to ride with him, for he was so much older, and held such a high place at headquarters and in the army generally. We struck across the country, and while watering our horses at a run of considerable flow, — it rises well up among the timber of the old Willis plantation, one with the greatest domain of any along the Rapidan, — Hunt’s eye fell on the violets along the banks, and he insisted that we dismount and pick some of them. The violets here, and those in the Wilderness, are large and beautiful, the two upper petals almost a chestnut brown. And then, as we lounged in the refreshing shade, he manifested so much unaffected love and sentiment for the wild flowers and the quiet of the spot, — the brook was murmuring on to the Rapidan nearby, — that the stern old soldier whom I had known was translated into an attractive and really new acquaintance. I do not remember ever to have seen him smile, yet I never read the story of Pickett’s charge, or recall him at the Wilderness or Spottsylvania, without having that halfhour’s rest on the banks of the run come back to me.
The road we were on, the old Stevensburg plank, and the one from Madden’s which had been taken by two of Warren’s divisions, meet at Germanna Ford. Both take advantage of short narrow ravines in the bluffs to get down out of the loneliness of the pine woods to the water’s cheery edge, for the Rapidan here is flowing right fast. Under the open pines on the bluff we found Warren, Meade, and Grant, with their headquarter colors. They and their staffs, spurred and in top boots, all fine-looking young fellows, were dismounted and standing or lounging around in groups. Grant was a couple of hundred yards back from the ford, and except Babcock, Comstock, and Porter, he and all of his staff were strangers to the officers and the rank and file of the army. His headquarter flag was the national colors; Meade’s, a lilac-colored, swallow-tailed flag having in the field a wreath inclosing an eagle in gold. Warren’s Fifth Corps, a blue swallow-tail, with a Maltese cross in a white field.
Down each of the roads, to the bridges that were forty or fifty feet apart, the troops, well closed up, were pouring. The batteries, ambulances, and ammunition trains followed their respective divisions. Of course, in the three years of campaigning many officers, infantry and artillery, — I honestly believe I knew every captain and lieutenant in the artillery with the army, — had become acquaintances and personal friends of members of the various staffs ; and warm greetings were constantly exchanged. Hello, Tom! Hello, Bob! Good-morning, Sandy, old fellow, and how did you leave your sweetheart ? How are you, John, and you too, Mack, dear old boy! And on with their radiant smiles they went.
If the reader could take his place by my side, on the bare knoll that lifts immediately above the ford, and we could bring back the scene: the Rapidan swinging boldly around a shouldering point of darkened pines to our right, and on the other side of the river the Wilderness reaching back in mysterious silence; below us the blue moving column, the tattered colors fluttering over it in the hands of faithful-eyed, open-browed youths, I believe that the reader would find an elevated pleasure as his eyes fell on the martial scene. And if we could transport ourselves to the banks of the James, and should see the army as I saw it on that June day, heading on after it had fought its way through the Wilderness and Spottsylvania and by Cold Harbor, leaving behind those young faces whose light now gives such charm to the procession all hidden in the grave, I believe that both of us would hear, coming down from some high ridge in our spiritual nature, the notes of a dirge, and our hearts with muffled beats would be keeping step as the column moved over the James.
But, thank God! that scene of June is not before us now. No, we are on the Rapidan, it is a bright May morning, the river is gurgling around the reef of black projecting boulders at our feet, and youth’s confident torches are lit in our eyes, and here comes the small band of Regulars. That solid-looking man, with an untended bushy beard, at their head, is Ayres. The man with that air of decision and vigor, stalking walk, with the drooping mustache and sunken cheeks, who commands the division, is Griffin, one of my old West Point instructors. At Gettysburg, when Longstreet’s men had carried the Peach Orchard and broken Sickles’s line, and were coming on flushed with victory, driving everything before them, those Regulars, then under Sykes and Ayres, were called on and went in. They were only 1985 strong, but they fought their way back, leaving 829 killed or wounded. Out of the 80 officers in one of the small brigades, 40 were among the killed or wounded.
Reader, let me tell you that I never think of the Regulars without a feeling of pride and affection for them all. For the first real soldier I ever saw was a Regular, the one who conducted me — on reporting at West Point, a medium-sized, spare, and rather lonely-looking boy, — to the barracks that were to be my home for four years ; moreover, all of my springtime manhood was spent as an officer among them, and let me assure you that if in the other world there shall be a review of the old Army of the Potomac, I shall certainly fall in with the Regulars.
And here, brigaded with them, comes a regiment, the One Hundred and Fortieth New York, to which, for the sake of a boyhood’s friend who fell at their head, I wish you would uncover. It is Pat O’Rorke’s, a cadet and sojourner at West Point with me, to whom this pen has referred with fervor on another occasion. That regiment followed him up the east slope of Round Top, and there looking out over the field is a monument which tells with pride the sacrifices it made. Ryan, “ Paddy ” Ryan, — so Warren called him when some one of the staff asked him who that young officer was that had just tipped his cap to him smiling as he rode by, — Ryan, a graduate of West Point, tawny-haired and soldierly, is leading it now. O’Rorke, with Charles Hazlett, was killed on Round Top. At the close of the next day, the first of the Wilderness, of the 529 of the One Hundred and Fortieth who went into action up the turnpike, cheering, only 264 reported with the colors. The rest were in the hospital wounded, or lying dead under the stunted, sullen pines — all but a few who were on their way to Southern prisons.
And there, just coming on the upper bridge, is another regiment in the same division, the Twentieth Maine, a worthy companion of the One Hundred and Fortieth and the Regulars. Its record at Round Top, where it was on the left of O’Rorke, under Chamberlain, is thrilling; and it was still under that same scholar, soldier, and gentleman, a son of Bowdoin, at Appomattox, when the overthrown Confederate army came marching along, under Gordon, with heavy hearts, to stack their arms, and say farewell to their dearly loved colors. Chamberlain ordered his line to present arms to their brave foes. Gordon, who was at their head, with becoming chivalry wheeled his horse, and acknowledged duly the unexpected and touching salute. Yes, the guns you see them bearing now were brought to a present, and those old battle-torn colors were dipped. It was a magnanimous and knightly deed, a fit ending for the war ; for Chamberlain lifted the hour and the occasion into the company of those that minstrels have sung. I feel glad and proud that I served with an army which had men in it with hearts to do deeds like this. The total killed and wounded of this regiment in the war was 528.
That large man, fifty-four years old, with silvered hair and nobly carved features, is Wadsworth. His brigade commanders are Cutler and Rice, the latter a Yale man who, when dying a few days after at Spottsylvania, asked to be turned with his face to the enemy. In Wadsworth’s division is the Iron Brigade of the West, made up of Seventh and Nineteenth Indiana, Twenty-Fourth Michigan, First New York, Second, Sixth, and Seventh Wisconsin. They too were at Gettysburg, — in fact, the fate of that day pivoted on their bravery, — and proudly may they tread those bridges to-day. You will notice that one of the Wisconsin regiments is carrying on a perch near the colors a live bald eagle. They call him Old Abe, in honor of the President, and at times he has been known to utter his shriek along with that of battle.
Wadsworth was killed Friday forenoon, and the writer has every reason to believe that he bore the last order his corps commander Warren ever gave him. But before I reached him, his lines were broken, and our men were falling back in great confusion, and he was lying mortally wounded and unconscious within the Confederate lines. Those troops just ahead of the battery that is now coming on to the lower bridge are the rear of the Maryland brigade. Its front is with that headquarter flag you see in the column over the top of the willows and trees on the other side of the river. It is known as the Iron Brigade of Maryland, and is made up of the First, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth.
If ever you visit the field of Spottsylvania, you will find standing along on the Spindle farm, within reach of the evening shadows of an old wood, and amid tufts of broom-grass, a gray rectangular stone, and on one of its faces you will read “ Maryland Brigade,” and on another this legend: ” 8th May 1864. Never mind cannon, never mind bullets, press on and clear this road,” — meaning the road to Spottsylvania, that lies but a mile and a half beyond. On the south face is, “ Nearest approach on this front.”
I saw the troops with my own eyes as they tried gallantly to carry out Warren’s order, wondering at every step they took how much longer they could stand it under the withering cross-fire of artillery and musketry; and the whole scene came back to me vividly as I stood by the stone the other June day. And I’ll confess freely, it came back with a sense of pensiveness such as always attends a revisit to one of the old fields. I got there about the same hour as that of the charge, and the day resembled exactly that of the battle, one brimming with glad sunshine; that kind of a May morning when the new-shorn sheep look so white in the fields, the brooks ripple so brightly, and joy is in the blooming hawthorn.
But there by the stone all was very still, — silence was at its highest pitch. Huge white clouds with bulging mountain-tops, pinnacled cliffs, and gray ravines, were floating lazily in the forenoon sky, and across the doming brow of one of them whose shadow was dragging slowly down the timbered valley of the Po, a buzzard far, far above earth’s common sounds, was soaring half-careened with bladed wing. There were no men or herds in sight, the only moving thing was an unexpected roaming wind. Suddenly the leaves in the nearby woods fluttered a moment,and then the broom-grass around waved silently as the wandering wind breathed away. My left hand was resting on the stone, and a voice came from it saying, as I was about to go to other parts of the field, — to where Sedgwick was killed and our batteries had stood, — “ Stay, stay a while. I stand for the men you saw marching across the Rapidan, who after facing the volleys of the Wilderness were called upon to move on at last under the severe order, ‘ Never mind cannon, never mind bullets, but press on and clear this road.’ Here many of them fell. Stay a while, I love to feel the warmth of a hand of one who, as a boy, served with them. Do not go just yet, for, standing here throughout the long days, in the silence of the dead broom, I am sometimes lonely.”
And so, dear reader, I might call your attention to deeds like theirs which have been done by about every one of the veteran regiments that cross the river this morning, but something tells me that I ought to refrain, and proceed with the narrative.
As soon as the. last of his troops were across — it was well on toward noon — Warren mounted his big, heavy, iron-gray horse and, followed by his staff, the writer among them, started up the Germanna Ford road for the Lacy farm and the opening around the Wilderness Tavern. His adjutant-general was Colonel Fred Locke; his chief surgeon, Dr. Milhau, whose assistant was my friend, General Charles K. Winne of Albany, New York, — and may every day of his declining years be sweet to him. Warren’s chief personal aide, and one of the very best in the army, was Washington Roebling, the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a man whose fame is wide. Warren’s brother Robert, a boy of my own age, was also an aide. I find by referring to my book of dispatches, that I sent my camp blankets to him at Culpeper the night before we moved. Besides those mentioned there were eight or ten other officers connected with the staff ; so that, when we were under way on the narrow road, followed immediately, as all were, by headquarter guards, couriers, and servants, we made quite a cavalcade behind the general.
After all these years there are onlythree distinct memories left of the march. First, its seeming great length, — and yet it was only about four and a half miles. But the eye met nothing to distract it ; to be sure now and then there was an old field, and on the right-hand side, and not far apart, were two little old houses. And the other day, where one house had stood, a long-since retired cherry tree was trying to bloom, and a feeble old rheumatic apple tree had one of its pain-racked, twisted boughs decked in pink and white. But the most of the way it is nothing but wooded, stunted oaks, lean, struggling bushes, pines with moss on them, obviously hopeless of ever seeing better days, the whole scene looking at you with unfathomable eyes. Second, theroad strewn with overcoats which the men had thrown away. The wonder is that they had carried the useless burden so far, for the day was very warm, with not a breath of air ; moreover, they had been marching since midnight, and were getting tired. The other memory is almost too trifling to record, but, as it was the only time I burst into a hearty laugh in all the campaign, I shall be loyal to it, and give it a place alongside of the stern and great events.
We neared Flat Run, which steals down out of the woods about half-way to the Lacy house, and heads right up where the battle began. Its tributary runs are like the veins of a beech-leaf, frequent and almost parallel, coming in from both sides, and bordered all the way with swamp or thicket. When we reached it, and while several of us with rein relaxed were letting our horses drink, my friend General Winne approached on our right hand. The wagons and batteries ahead of us had ploughed through the run, deepening and widening the deceitful stream into a mud-hole. Winne’s horse, rather thirsty, and undoubtedly looking forward with pleasant anticipations of poking his nose into refreshing water, had barely planted his fore feet in it before he turned almost a complete somersault — he had struck a hole — and landed Winne full length in the water. When, to use the language of the New Testament, he came up out of the water, his cap had disappeared, and he certainly was a sight. Well, heartlessly and instantaneously we youngsters broke into howling delight. Thereupon Winne’s lips opened and his language flowed freely, marked with emphatic use of divine and to-hellish terms both for us and his poor brute, which was fully as much surprised as any one at the quick turn of events. The doctor’s address soon reduced our loud laughter to suppressed giggles, which brightened our way for a good many rods, and which still ripple along the beach of those bygone years.
(To be continued.)