Edward Payson Roe.

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The Works of E. P. Roe


















An Autobiography

Two or three years ago the editor of "Lippincott's Magazine" asked me,
with many others, to take part in the very interesting "experience
meeting" begun in the pages of that enterprising periodical. I gave my
consent without much thought of the effort involved, but as time
passed, felt slight inclination to comply with the request. There
seemed little to say of interest to the general public, and I was
distinctly conscious of a certain sense of awkwardness in writing about
myself at all. The question, Why should I? always confronted me.

When this request was again repeated early in the current year, I
resolved at least to keep my promise. This is done with less reluctance
now, for the reason that floating through the press I meet with
paragraphs concerning myself that are incorrect, and often absurdly
untrue. These literary and personal notes, together with many
questioning letters, indicate a certain amount of public interest, and
I have concluded that it may be well to give the facts to those who
care to know them.

It has been made more clear to me that there are many who honestly do
care. One of the most prized rewards of my literary work is the
ever-present consciousness that my writings have drawn around me a
circle of unknown yet stanch friends, who have stood by me
unfalteringly for a number of years. I should indeed be lacking if my
heart did not go out to them in responsive friendliness and goodwill.
If I looked upon them merely as an aggregation of customers, they would
find me out speedily. A popular mood is a very different thing from an
abiding popular interest. If one could address this circle of friends
only, the embarrassment attendant on a certain amount of egotism would
be banished by the assurance of sympathetic regard. Since, from the
nature of circumstances, this is impossible, it seems to me in better
taste to consider the "author called Roe" in an objective, rather than
in a friendly and subjective sense. In other words, I shall try to look
at him from the public point of view, and free myself from some
predisposition in his favor shared by his friends. I suppose I shall
not succeed in giving a colorless statement of fact, but I may avoid
much special pleading in his behalf.

Like so many other people, I came from a very old family, one from
which there is good proof of an unbroken line through the Dark Ages,
and all ages, to the first man. I have never given any time to tracing
ancestry, but have a sort of quiet satisfaction that mine is certainly
American as far as it well can be. My forefathers (not "rude," to my
knowledge) were among the first settlers on the Atlantic seaboard. My
paternal and maternal grandfathers were stanch Whigs during the
Revolution, and had the courage of their convictions. My grandmother
escaped with her children from the village of Kingston almost as the
British entered it, and her home was soon in ashes. Her husband, James
Roe, was away in the army. My mother died some years before I attained
my majority, and I cannot remember when she was not an invalid. Such
literary tendencies as I have are derived from her, but I do not
possess a tithe of her intellectual power. Her story-books in her youth
were the classics; and when she was but twelve years of age she knew
"Paradise Lost" by heart. In my recollections of her, the Bible and all
works tending to elucidate its prophecies were her favorite themes of
study. The retentiveness of her memory was very remarkable. If any one
repeated a verse of the New Testament, she could go on and finish the
chapter. Indeed, she could quote the greater part of the Bible with the
ease and accuracy of one reading from the printed page. The works of
Hugh Miller and the Arctic Explorations of Dr. Kane afforded her much
pleasure. Confined usually to her room, she took unfailing delight in
wandering about the world with the great travellers of that day, her
strong fancy reproducing the scenes they described. A stirring bit of
history moved her deeply. Well do I remember, when a boy, of reading to
her a chapter from Motley's "Dutch Republic," and of witnessing in her
flushed cheeks and sparkling black eyes proof of an excitement all too
great for one in her frail health. She had the unusual gift of relating
in an easy, simple way what she read; and many a book far too abstruse
and dull for my boyish taste became an absorbing story from her lips.
One of her chief characteristics was the love of flowers. I can
scarcely recall her when a flower of some kind, usually a rose, was not
within her reach; and only periods of great feebleness kept her from
their daily care, winter and summer. Many descendants of her floral
pets are now blooming in my garden.

My father, on the other hand, was a sturdy man of action. His love for
the country was so strong that he retired from business in New York as
soon as he had won a modest competence. For forty-odd years he never
wearied in the cultivation of his little valley farm, and the square,
flower-bordered garden, at one side of which ran an unfailing brook. In
this garden and under his tuition I acquired my love of
horticulture - acquired it with many a backache - heartache too, on days
good for fishing or hunting; but, taking the bitter with the sweet, the
sweet predominated. I find now that I think only of the old-fashioned
roses in the borders, and not of my hands bleeding from the thorns. If
I groaned over the culture of many vegetables, it was much compensation
to a boy that the dinner-table groaned also under the succulent dishes
thus provided. I observed that my father's interest in his garden and
farm never flagged, thus proving that in them is to be found a pleasure
which does not pall with age. During the last summer of his life, when
in his eighty-seventh year, he had the delight of a child in driving
over to my home in the early morning, long before I was up, and in
leaving a basket of sweet corn or some other vegetable which he knew
would prove his garden to be ahead of mine.

My father was very simple and positive in his beliefs, always openly
foremost in the reform movements of his day and in his neighborhood,
yet never, to my knowledge, seeking or taking any office. His house
often became a station of the "underground railroad" in slavery times,
and on one night in the depth of winter he took a hotly-pursued
fugitive in his sleigh and drove him five miles on the ice, diagonally
across the Hudson, to Fishkill, thence putting the brave aspirant for
freedom on the way to other friends. He incurred several risks in this
act. It is rarely safe to drive on the river off the beaten tracks at
night, for there are usually air-holes, and the strong tides are
continually making changes in the ice. When told that he might be sent
to jail for his defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, he quietly
answered, "I can go to jail." The thing he could not do was to deny the
man's appeal to him for help. Before the war he was known as an
Abolitionist - after it, as a Conservative, his sympathy with and for
the South being very strong. During the draft riots in 1863 the spirit
of lawlessness was on the point of breaking out in the river towns. I
happened to be home from Virginia, and learned that my father's house
was among those marked for burning on a certain night. During this
night the horde gathered; but one of their leaders had received such
empathetic warning of what would happen the following day should
outrages be perpetrated, that he persuaded his associates to desist. I
sat up that night at my father's door with a double-barrelled gun, more
impressed with a sense of danger than at any other time in my
experience; he, on the contrary, slept as quietly as a child.

He often practiced close economy in order to give his sons a good
education. The one act of my life which I remember with unalloyed pride
and pleasure occurred while I was at boarding-school in Vermont,
preparing for college. I learned through my mother that my father had
denied himself his daily newspaper; and I knew well how much he would
miss it. We burned wood in the large stone seminary building. Every
autumn great ranks of hard maple were piled up, and students who wished
to earn a little money were paid a dollar a cord for sawing it into
three lengths. I applied for nine cords, and went at the unaccustomed
task after study hours. My back aches yet as I recall the experiences
of subsequent weeks, for the wood was heavy, thick, and hard as bone. I
eventually had the pleasure of sending to my father the subscription
price of his paper for a year. If a boy reads these lines, let me
assure him that he will never know a sweeter moment in his life than
when he receives the thanks of his parents for some such effort in
their behalf. No investment can ever pay him better.

In one of my books, "Nature's Serial Story," my father and mother
appear, slightly idealized.

Toward the close of my first year in Williams College a misfortune
occurred which threatened to be very serious. Studying by defective
light injured my eyes. They quickly became so sensitive that I could
scarcely endure lamplight or the heat of a stove, only the cold
out-door air relieving the pain; so I spent much time in wandering
about in the boisterous weather of early spring in Williamstown. At
last I became so discouraged that I went to President Hopkins and told
him that I feared I must give up the purpose of acquiring an education.
Never can I forget how that grand old man met the disheartened boy.
Speaking in the wise, friendly way which subdued the heart and
strengthened the will, he made the half-hour spent with him the
turning-point of my life. In conclusion, he advised me to enter the
Senior class the following fall, thus taking a partial course of study.
How many men are living to-day who owe much of the best in their lives
to that divinely inspired guide and teacher of youth!

I next went to another man great in his sphere of life - Dr. Agnew, the
oculist. He gave my eyes a thorough examination, told me that he could
do nothing for them; that rest and the vigor acquired from out-door
life would restore them. He was as kind and sympathetic in his way as
the college president, and charged but a trifle, to relieve me from the
sense of taking charity. Dr. Agnew's words proved correct; and the
following autumn I entered the class of '61, and spent a happy year.
Some of my classmates were very kind in reading aloud to me, while Dr.
Hopkins's instruction was invaluable. By the time I entered Auburn
Theological Seminary, my eyes were quite restored, and I was able to go
through the first year's course of study without difficulty. In the
summer of 1862 I could no longer resist the call for men in the army.
Learning that the Second New York (Harris's Light) Cavalry was without
a chaplain, I obtained the appointment to that position. General
Kilpatrick was then lieutenant-colonel, and in command of the regiment.
In December, 1862, I witnessed the bloody and disastrous battle of
Fredericksburg, and can never forget the experiences of that useless
tragedy. I was conscious of a sensation which struck me as too profound
to be merely awe. Early in the morning we crossed the Rappahannock on a
pontoon bridge and marched up the hill to an open plain. The roar of
the battle was simply terrific, shading off from the sharp continuous
thunder immediately about us to dull, heavy mutterings far to the right
and left. A few hundred yards before us, where the ground began to
slope up to the fatal heights crowned with Confederate works and
ordnance, were long lines of Union batteries. From their iron mouths
puffs of smoke issued incessantly, followed by tremendous
reverberations. Back of these batteries the ground was covered with men
lying on their arms, that they might present a less obvious target.
Then a little further to the rear, on the level ground above the bluff,
stood our cavalry. Heavy guns on both sides of the river were sending
their great shrieking shells back and forth over our heads, and we
often "ducked" instinctively when the missile was at least forty feet
above us. Even our horses shuddered at the sound.

I resolved to learn if the men were sharing in my emotions - in brief,
what effect the situation had upon them - and rode slowly down our
regimental line. So vivid was the impression of that long array of
awed, pallid faces that at this moment I can recall them distinctly.
There were strange little touches of mingled pathos and humor.
Meadow-larks were hemmed in on every side, too frightened to fly far
beyond the rude alarms. They would flutter up into the sulphurous air
with plaintive cries, then drop again into the open spaces between the
troops. At one time, while we were standing at our horses' heads, a
startled rabbit ran to us for cover. The poor little creature meant a
dinner to the fortunate captor on a day when a dinner was extremely
problematical. We engaged in a sharp scramble, the prize being won by
the regimental surgeon, who kindly shared his game with me.

General Bayard, commanding our brigade, was mortally wounded, and died
like a hero. He was carried to a fine mansion near which he had
received his injury. Many other desperately wounded men were brought to
the spacious rooms of this abode of Southern luxury, and the surgeons
were kept busy all through the day and night. It was here I gained my
first experience in hospital work. This extemporized hospital on the
field was so exposed as to be speedily abandoned. In the morning I
recrossed the Rappahannock with my regiment, which had been ordered
down the river on picket duty. Soon after we went into winter quarters
in a muddy cornfield. In February I resigned, with the purpose of
completing my studies, and spent the remainder of the term at the Union
Theological Seminary of New York. My regiment would not get another
chaplain, so I again returned to it. In November I received a month's
leave of absence, and was married to Miss Anna P. Sands, of New York
City. Our winter quarters in 1864 were at Stevensburg, between the town
of Culpeper and the Rapidan River. During the pleasant days of late
February several of the officers were enjoying the society of their
wives. Mrs. Roe having expressed a willingness to rough it with me for
a week, I sent for her, and one Saturday afternoon went to the nearest
railroad station to meet her. The train came, but not my wife; and,
much disappointed, I found the return ride of five miles a dreary one
in the winter twilight. I stopped at our colonel's tent to say to him
and his wife that Mrs. Roe had not come, then learned for the first
time very startling tidings.

"Chaplain," said the colonel, "we are going to Richmond to-morrow. We
are going to wade right through and past everything in a
neck-or-nothing ride, and who will come out is a question."

His wife was weeping in her private tent, and I saw that for the first
time in my acquaintance with him he was downcast. He was one of the
bravest of men, yet now a foreboding of evil oppressed him. The result
justified it, for he was captured during the raid, and never fully
rallied after the war from the physical depression caused by his
captivity. He told me that on the morrow General Kilpatrick would lead
four thousand picked cavalry men in a raid on Richmond, having as its
special object the release of our prisoners. I rode to the headquarters
of the general, who confirmed the tidings, adding, "You need not go.
Non-combatants are not expected to go."

It was most fortunate that my wife had not come. I had recently been
appointed chaplain of Hampton Hospital, Virginia, by President Lincoln,
and was daily expecting my confirmation by the Senate. I had fully
expected to give my wife a glimpse of army life in the field, and then
to enter on my new duties. To go or not to go was a question with me
that night. The raid certainly offered a sharp contrast with the
anticipated week's outing with my bride. I did not possess by nature
that kind of courage which is indifferent to danger; and life had never
offered more attractions than at that time. I have since enjoyed
Southern hospitality abundantly, and hope to again, but then its
prospect was not alluring. Before morning, however, I reached the
decision that I would go, and during the Sunday forenoon held my last
service in the regiment. I had disposed of my horse, and so had to take
a sorry beast at the last moment, the only one I could obtain.

In the dusk of Sunday evening four thousand men were masked in the
woods on the banks of the Rapidan. Our scouts opened the way by wading
the stream and pouncing upon the unsuspecting picket of twenty
Confederates opposite. Then away we went across a cold, rapid river,
marching all that night through the dim woods and openings in a country
that was emphatically the enemy's. Lee's entire army was on our right,
the main Confederate cavalry force on our left. The strength of our
column and its objective point could not remain long unknown.

In some unimportant ways I acted as aid for Kilpatrick. A few hundred
yards in advance of the main body rode a vanguard of two hundred men,
thrown forward to warn us should we strike any considerable number of
the enemy's cavalry. As is ever the case, the horses of a small force
will walk away from a much larger body, and it was necessary from time
to time to send word to the vanguard, ordering it to "slow up." This
order was occasionally intrusted to me. I was to gallop over the
interval between the two columns, then draw up by the roadside and sit
motionless on my horse till the general with his staff came up. The
slightest irregularity of action would bring a shot from our own men,
while the prospect of an interview with the Johnnies while thus
isolated was always good. I saw one of our officers shot that night. He
had ridden carelessly into the woods, and rode out again just before
the head of the column, without instantly accounting for himself. As it
was of vital importance to keep the movement secret as long as
possible, the poor fellow was silenced in sad error as to his identity.

On we rode, night and day, with the briefest possible halts. At one
point we nearly captured a railroad train, and might easily have
succeeded had not the station and warehouses been in flames. As it was,
the train approached us closely, then backed, the shrieking engine
itself giving the impression of being startled to the last degree.

On a dreary, drizzling, foggy day we passed a milestone on which was
lettered, "Four miles to Richmond." It was still "on to Richmond" with
us what seemed a long way further, and then came a considerable period
of hesitancy, in which the command was drawn up for the final dash. The
enemy shelled a field near us vigorously, but fortunately, or
unfortunately, the fog was so dense that neither party could make
accurate observations or do much execution.

For reasons that have passed into history, the attack was not made. We
withdrew six miles from the city and went into camp.

I had scarcely begun to enjoy much-needed rest before the Confederates
came up in the darkness and shelled us out of such quarters as we had
found. We had to leave our boiling coffee behind us - one of the
greatest hardships I have ever known. Then followed a long night-ride
down the Peninsula, in driving sleet and rain.

The next morning the sun broke out gloriously, warming and drying our
chilled, wet forms. Nearly all that day we maintained a line of battle
confronting the pursuing enemy. One brigade would take a defensive
position, while the other would march about five miles to a commanding
point, where it in turn would form a line. The first brigade would then
give way, pass through the second, and take position well to the rear.
Thus, although retreating, we were always ready to fight. At one point
the enemy pressed us closely, and I saw a magnificent cavalry charge
down a gentle descent in the road. Every sabre seemed tipped with fire
in the brilliant sunshine.

In the afternoon it became evident that there was a body of troops
before us. Who or what they were was at first unknown, and for a time
the impression prevailed that we should have to cut our way through by
a headlong charge. We soon learned, however, that the force was a
brigade of colored infantry, sent up to cover our retreat. It was the
first time we had seen negro troops, but as the long line of glistening
bayonets and light-blue uniforms came into view, prejudices, if any
there were, vanished at once, and a cheer from the begrimed troopers
rang down our line, waking the echoes. It was a pleasant thing to march
past that array of faces, friendly though black, and know we were safe.
They represented the F.F.V.'s of Old Virginia, we then wished to see.
On the last day of the march my horse gave out, compelling me to walk
and lead him.

On the day after our arrival at Yorktown, Kilpatrick gave me despatches
for the authorities at Washington. President Lincoln, learning that I
had just returned from the raid, sent for me, and I had a memorable
interview with him alone in his private room. He expressed profound
solicitude for Colonel Dahlgren and his party. They had been detached
from the main force, and I could give no information concerning them.
We eventually learned of the death of that heroic young officer,
Colonel Dahlgren. Although partially helpless from the loss of a leg,
he led a daring expedition at the cost of his life.

I expressed regret to the President that the object of the raid had not
been accomplished. "Pick the flint, and try it again," said Mr.
Lincoln, heartily. I went out from his presence awed by the courage and
sublime simplicity of the man. While he gave the impression that he was
bearing the nation on his heart, one was made to feel that it was also
large enough for sympathy with all striving with him in the humblest

My wife joined me in Washington, and few days later accompanied me to
the scene of my new labors at Hampton Hospital, near Fortress Monroe.
There were not many patients at that time (March, 1864) in the large
barrack wards; but as soon as the Army of the Potomac broke through the
Wilderness and approached our vicinity, transports in increasing
numbers, laden with desperately wounded men, came to our wharf. During
the early summer the wooden barracks were speedily filled, and many
tent wards were added. Duty became constant and severe, while the
scenes witnessed were often painful in the last degree. More truly than
on the field, the real horrors of war are learned from the long agonies
in the hospital. While in the cavalry service, I gained in vigor daily;
in two months of hospital work I lost thirty pounds. On one day I
buried as many as twenty-nine men. Every evening, till the duty became
like a nightmare, I followed the dead-cart, filled up with coffins,
once, twice, and often thrice, to the cemetery. Eventually an associate
chaplain was appointed, who relieved me of this task.

Fortunately, my tastes led me to employ an antidote to my daily work as
useful to me as to the patients. Surrounding the hospital was much
waste land. This, with the approval of the surgeon in charge, Dr. Ely
McMillan, and the aid of the convalescents, I transformed into a
garden, and for two successive seasons sent to the general kitchen
fresh vegetables by the wagon-load. If reward were needed, the wistful
delight with which a patient from the front would regard a raw onion

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