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John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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with six Dahlgren guns, and Company B, New York
99th Regiment. The debarkation took place at Ashby s
Landing.

Colonel Jordan, commanding the 31st North Carolina
Regiment, was sent to this point with his command under



THE ROANOKE ISLAND TRAGEDY 183

orders to resist the landing, but he retired without firing
a gun. He had but 450 men, and the overwhelming
number of the enemy, and the vast fleet covering their
landing and ready to open on him as soon as his firing
disclosed his position, perhaps justified Colonel Jordan in
returning. So the enemy, by night-time, in astonishing
force, was landed, and ready for next day s operations.

In his report, General Burnside gives a graphic de
scription of the beautiful sight when one of his light-
draught steamers ran up, towing a hundred surf -boats
loaded down with men, and, " cutting loose " all at once,
the boats were beached side by side with such precision
that four thousand men were landed in twenty minutes ;
and this was but one of his three brigades.

Fancy the feelings of that little band of raw North
Carolina troops under Colonel Jordan when, from the
adjacent woods, they witnessed these landings, and not
only knew they had but one thousand comrades to assist
them, but that, when the fight was lost, as lost it must be,
there was no hope of escape ! Verily, the first colonists
were not more desperately situated. No one can blame
the poor fellows for quietly withdrawing up the dark
and narrow road to the earthworks at the causeway con
necting the two sections of the island, a mile and a half
distant. There they found the Virginians and the 8th
North Carolina Regiment, numbering less than one thou
sand men in all. The earthwork facing south, and com
manding the causeway by which the Union forces must
approach, was so insignificant in size that even the small
number of Confederates available more than filled it, and
a part of Jordan s regiment was placed in reserve in the
fight next day. The engineers who had erected this little
work had reported that the marshes to the right and left
were impassable. The same rainy, gusty night already



184 THE END OF AN ERA

described settled down on our wretched soldiers, while,
less than two miles away, between twelve and fifteen
thousand of the enemy were building camp-fires, cooking
their ample supplies of provisions, and preparing to ad
vance upon the earthwork in the morning.

Anxious to obtain information, Colonel Anderson or
dered Captain O. Jennings Wise, of Company A, 46th
Virginia, with twenty of his Virginians, to reconnoitre
the position of the enemy. In that wretched swamp,
reconnoitring meant simply going down a narrow road
until they struck the enemy. The road ran directly
south, through the main embrasure of the earthwork, over
the sunken causeway. In front of the work, for several
hundred yards, the timber was cleared away. Beyond
the clearing, the road entered the woods, and, turning to
the right, ran down to Ashby s Landing where the enemy
was bivouacked.

The task assigned to the brave fellows was simple
enough. All they had to do was to walk right down
through the silent pines until they came to the enemy s
picket guard ; when that happened, somebody was likely
to be shot, and somebody likely to run away.

It all sounds very simple, does it not, dear reader ? I
am conjecturing, as I pen these lines, whether you ever
had any such experience. If not, and if you really are
anxious for a novel sensation, you can obtain it whenever
you go on one of these little reconnoissances.

Cheerfully, and as uncomplainingly as if the allotted
task was of their own choosing, the little party sallied
forth. Across the opening they trudged in the gray
darkness, and plunged into the silent woods beyond. In
Indian file and in silence they pursued their route.
Tramp, tramp, tramp, on, on, on, every step bearing
them, as all knew, nearer and nearer to the enemy they



THE ROANOKE ISLAND TRAGEDY 185

were seeking. Now and again they paused and listened
for some sound ; then onward they pressed, the tension
constantly becoming greater. No picket fire warned
them.

Of a sudden, " Who goes there ? " came forth huskily
out of the darkness from a picket not twenty yards away.
Quick as a flash, they made a dash for him ; but he fired
and fled, followed by two or three companions, who, like
him, fired backwards as they ran, and our boys gave them
a volley, knocking one of them over. Pursuit was too
dangerous, for the sounds of the firing had aroused the
camp, and loud calls and hurrying voices, not far distant,
made it too plain that discretion was the better part of
valor. So, picking up the cap and gun of the man who
had been shot, the scouts started on a double-quick back
to the redoubt. What was learned was only that the
enemy had gone into camp near the spot where he landed.
Prepared for sleep by this little march and its excitements,
my brother and his men lay down on the wet ground be
hind the breastworks, and slept, some of them, their last
earthly sleep.

A heavy fog hung over Roanoke Island the morning
of February 8, so dense that the fleet opposite the Pork
Point battery was unable to open fire, except in a desul
tory way. It was eight o clock before the mists lifted
sufficiently for the attack, and then the gunboats fired
cautiously, lest their shells should fall among their
friends who were advancing towards our works.

General Foster s brigade, accompanied by the six Dahl-
gren guns, moved, about eight o clock, up the narrow
roadway leading from Hammond s or Ashby s landings
to the redoubt. Their advance was completely concealed
from the Confederates, until a sudden turn to the left in
the road brought them to the clearing in front of our



186 THE END OF AN ERA

earthworks. Then the Dahlgren guns, under Midship
man Porter, went into position and opened fire, supported
by the 25th Massachusetts and 10th Connecticut regi
ments.

The disposition of the Confederate forces was as fol
lows : three field-pieces, a 24-pounder, an 18-pounder,
and a 6-pounder, were mounted on the intrenchments.
For all three, they had nothing but 6-pounder ammuni
tion. The 6-pounder was at the centre of the embrasure,
commanded by young William B. Selden, lieutenant of
engineers. The infantry supporting this artillery behind
the breastworks consisted of two companies of the 8th
North Carolina, two companies of the 31st North Caro
lina, and two companies of the 46th and 59th Virginia
regiments, in all about five hundred men. The Hangers
of the 59th Virginia under Captain Coles were deployed
as skirmishers to the right of the earthwork ; and the
Blues of the 46th Virginia under Captain Wise were
deployed as skirmishers to the left, in order to guard
against any attempted flank movement. Every engineer
and every scouting party who had examined the ground
had pronounced the deep and heavily wooded marshes
to the right and left of the Confederate position to be
impassable.

General Foster, as soon as he engaged the fort with his
artillery and leading regiments, ordered the 23d and 27th
Massachusetts regiments of his brigade to pass into the
swamp on the right, with directions to spare no effort to
penetrate it, and, if possible, turn the Confederate left
flank. Moving rapidly along the edge of the clearing,
these two regiments with great pluck entered the bog and
undergrowth, and, toiling knee-deep in the muddy ooze,
soon hotly engaged the Blues in the effort to turn our
left flank. The fighting in front was stubborn, so stub-



THE ROANOKE ISLAND TRAGEDY 187

born, indeed, that in three hours the 25th Massachusetts
exhausted its ammunition and was relieved by the 10th
Connecticut ; and the artillery, having used all but a few
rounds of its ammunition, was ordered to suspend its fire.
Meanwhile, Reno s brigade, coining up, moved to the left
and penetrated the dense woods in the attempt to turn
our right flank. The assault of Reno s brigade was met
by the Ben McCulloch Rangers, alone. Poor Coles, their
commander, was killed. The onslaught of Reno was irre
sistible, and, as soon as his men could extricate themselves
from the morass and gain the higher ground where the
Rangers were posted, they drove the latter before them
like chaff before the wind.

Then came tremendous cheering from Reno s men, an
nouncing their success in turning the right flank of the
fort. This so inspired the brigade of General Parke,
which had now come up and was deploying to the right
to aid the attack of Foster s flanking column, that the
last regiment of Parke (9th New York), while in the act
of passing the causeway, hearing the sound of Reno s
cheering and seeing a slackening of the fire from the
Confederate earthworks, changed direction and charged
the works in brilliant style. Whoever else may have
been appalled, young Selden still worked his gun, which
bore directly upon the advancing regiment. A discharge
passed over their heads. Deliberately lowering his piece
and reloading, he seized the lanyard in his own hand and
attempted to fire. The primer failed. Coolly securing
and adjusting a new primer, he once more sighted and
screwed down his gun so that it would rake mercilessly
through the ranks now close upon him. He straight
ened himself from sighting, stepped back, and was actu
ally making the motion to jerk the lanyard, when a
bullet from the rifle of a Union soldier not thirty yards



188 THE END OF AN ERA

away pierced his brain, and he fell forward across his
gun.

On the left, the Massachusetts men, inspired by the
shouts from Reno s and Parke s commands, moved up
and drove back the Blues. Captain Wise, scorning the
protection of the trees behind which, by his command,
his men were concealed, passed back and forth along his
attenuated line, counseling the men to keep cool and fire
close. In such a position, under the fire of two regiments
concentrated upon a single company, his conduct was
almost suicidal. It was not long before his sword arm
fell helpless by his side, fractured near the wrist by a
minie-ball. Untying a handkerchief about his neck, he
bandaged the wounded limb, laughingly remarking that
he was fortunate it was no worse ; but he had scarcely
resumed command of his men, when he fell mortally
wounded.

His soldiers were passionately attached to him, and,
although the fire was by this time becoming murderous,
two of the Blues spread a blanket, lifted him gently upon
it, and, bearing him between them, trotted off sullenly
to the rear as the Union troops were climbing over the
Confederate redoubt to their right.

All was over as far as the defense of Roanoke Island
was concerned. Two small reinforcements landed on the
north end of the island that morning, one under Colonel
Green, another under Major Fry, but neither were in
time to participate in the fight.

Our little band had done its best ; two hundred and
fifty-one killed and wounded in the Union ranks (more
than half as many as our whole force engaged) testified
to the honest fighting of our men.

The capture of the redoubt placed the Union forces
directly in rear of the Confederate shore batteries ; and,



THE ROANOKE ISLAND TRAGEDY 189

as no other positions on the island were defensible, Colo
nel Shaw surrendered his entire force.

My poor brother was borne by his men along an unfre
quented path to the eastern side of the island. There
they found a small boat, and, obedient to his earnest
desire, were conveying him to my father s headquarters
at Nag s Head, where he would have died. Unfortu
nately, a party of the 9th New York under Colonel Rush
Hawkins pursued the same path as themselves, and, see
ing the boat, opened fire upon it and ordered it to re
turn. One of these shots gave my brother a third wound.
A letter written thirty-two years afterwards by Colonel
Hawkins, who in these days of restored amity I am proud
to number among my friends, tells the sad, sad story of
the death of that sweetest brother boy ever had.

A few days later, a flag-of -truce boat brought up the
bodies of our dead. When, in the Capitol of Virginia at
Richmond, I gazed for the last time in the cold, calm face ;
when I saw the black pageant which testified to the gen
eral mourning as they bore him to his last resting-place in
beautiful Hollywood, I began to realize as never before
that war is not all brilliant deeds and glory, but a gaunt,
heartless wolf that comes boldly into the most sacred
precincts, and snatches even the sucking babe from the
mother s breast ; that the most cherished treasure is its
favorite object of destruction ; that it ever plants its fangs
in the bravest and tenderest hearts ; and that that which
we prize the most is surest to be seized by its insatiate
rapacity.

But, reader, the death of a dear one in war does not
bring with it the chastened sorrow of a peaceful death. It
inflames and infuriates the passion for blood ; it intensi
fies the thirst for another opportunity to see it flow.

The feeling which possessed me then, I well remember.



190 THE END OF AN ERA

It was, " How long, oh, how long, will it be, before I can
bury these hands in the heart of some of those who
wrought this deed ! "

In less than a month, the Confederate war-dogs tore,
before my very eyes, their bleeding victims in a way that
seemed an answer to my prayer for vengeance.



CHAPTER XIII

THE MERRIMAC AND THE MONITOR

THE building of the iron-clad afterwards famous all
over the world as the Virginia, or the Merrimac, was a
subject of daily conversation in our household from the
time the Gosport Navy Yard was burned and abandoned
by the Union troops in April, 1861.

My father, during his service in Congress, was for some
years upon the Committee on Naval Affairs ; his acquaint
ance with naval officers resulting from that fact, and from
his long residence at Rio de Janeiro, was unusually wide
spread. Commodore James Barron was one of his con
stituents and warm friends. Commodore Barron was the
gallant but unfortunate officer who killed Decatur in a
duel, and was himself severely wounded. Besides other
contributions of value to the navy, he conceived the idea
of an impregnable steam propeller, armed with a pyrami
dal beak, and a terrapin-shaped back at an acute angle to
the line of projectiles fired from its own level. He called
it a marine catapulta, and had complete models, plans,
and descriptions, which he exhibited to the naval commit
tee, in the effort to have a ship constructed on these lines.
He made little impression, however ; for in those days
steam navigation had attained no very great success,
much less the utilization of iron upon ships. He sub
sequently presented the model to my father, who had also
a large number of models of other vessels.

In our rummaging about the place, we boys found these



192 THE END OF AN ERA

models in some old boxes, and took them down to our
millpond, where we anchored them as part of our minia
ture fleet. The Barron model, and one constructed by
Lieutenant Williamson of the navy, were the most con
spicuous, making quite a proud addition to our naval dis
play. This was in 1860.

We also possessed a brass cannon about eighteen inches
long, which had been cast for us by a convict in the Vir
ginia Penitentiary. That cannon was stamped with the
words " Union and Constitution," but its use by its pos
sessors was most lawless. Modeling slugs for it by pour
ing melted lead into holes made by sticking our rammer
in the sand, we were constantly firing these slugs, to the
great peril of everybody in the vicinity.

One of our neighbors, a Captain Johnson, an old sea
man, living about a mile down the creek, had a flock of
geese ; and from one of his voyages in Indian seas he had
brought back six coolie boys, who were probably appren
ticed to him. These coolies were passionately fond of the
water, and were almost constantly in sight, bathing, or
rowing, or sailing a felucca-rigged boat. After trying the
range of our gun upon Captain Johnson s geese, we began
to practice upon the coolies. On a certain evening, Cap
tain Johnson appeared in full marine rig at our landing,
rowed by his six coolies, and, announcing to our father
the sport in which we had been engaged, gave notice that
he had a gun of his own, with which, if we did not
promptly cease our diversion, he would open a return fire.

My father, who was a friend of Captain Johnson, and
indignant at our reckless misconduct, gave us all a bad
half hour in consequence of this visit. We were sum
moned before him, and, after considerable discussion con
cerning the punishment we should receive, were marched
in a body to the landing and made to apologize to the



THE MERRIMAC AND THE MONITOR 193

coolies, who grinned and showed their teeth. After that
we were good friends of the coolies, and our future opera
tions with the gun were confined to the millpond on the
opposite side of the farm. In our new field, it promptly
occurred to us, as it would to most boys, that the best tar
gets for our cannon were the models of the iron-dads
anchored out in the pond. Unfortunately, they had no
iron upon them ; and, such was the precision we had ac
quired in our practice upon Johnson s geese and coolies,
that in a few days the models of Commodore Barren and
Lieutenant Williamson were riddled, and ignominiously
disappeared. They were resting in the mud at the bot
tom of our millpond when the war broke out.

The following spring, after visiting the navy yard and
seeing the partially burned Merrimac, my father became
enthusiastic upon the subject of raising her and building
upon her frame an iron-clad ship on the lines of Com
modore Barren s model. Imbued with this idea, he insti
tuted rigorous inquiries for the model ; but, for reasons
which may well be understood, none of us boys aided him
much in the search. Failing to find his model, he wrote
to General Lee, who was then commander-in-chief of the
Virginia forces, an elaborate description of Commodore
Barren s invention, and made rough drawings, urging the
use of the Merrimac for carrying out the design. He
always believed and declared that this was the first sug
gestion which led to the building of the Virginia.

We all knew that an iron-clad ship was being built, and
from time to time informed ourselves of the progress
made ; and great things were expected from her. So deep
was my father s interest in her, that he several times vis
ited the navy yard to inspect her. lie repeatedly ex
pressed the opinion that she was being built to draw too
much water, and that her beak or ramming prow was im-



194 THE END OF AN ERA

properly constructed in this, that it was horizontal at the
top and sloped upward from the bottom, whereas it should
have been horizontal on the bottom and made to slope
downward to a point. When the ship was launched, he
was indignant because the lower edge or eaves of her
armor-clad covering stood several feet out of the water,
and it was necessary to ballast her heavily to bring
her sheathing below the water line. This increased her
draught to eighteen feet, which was, as he declared, en
tirely unnecessary. He insisted that this condition was
due to the failure of the naval architects (in calculating
the water which she would draw when sheathed with
iron) to deduct from the weight of her sheathing the
weight of masts, spars, rigging, and sails, which were
dispensed with.

Admiral Buchanan, Commodore Forrest, Captain
Brooke, and all the prominent naval men connected with
the Norfolk Navy Yard were personal and warm friends
of my father. He did not hesitate to express his views
concerning these things, but they, as professional men
generally do, made light of the criticisms of a layman.
Nevertheless, I think that many naval authorities are now
disposed to admit that the chief reason why the Virginia
did not triumph completely over the Monitor was her
great draught of water, the loss of her prow, and the
twisting of her stem in ramming the Cumberland.

After the disaster of Roanoke Island, rny father re
turned to his home on sick leave, where for some time
his life was in danger from pneumonia, aggravated by ex
posure on the retreat from Roanoke Island. Our house
was visited almost daily during this period by distin
guished military and naval officers from the city, who
came to express their interest and sympathy.

It was before the day of steam launches, and the ap-



THE MERRIMAC AND THE MONITOR 195

pearance of the distinguished officers and of the naval
boats which came up, manned by a dozen oarsmen, whose
stroke fell as that of one man, was very striking. During
these visits, they diverted my father with full descriptions
of the progress made in arming and equipping the Vir
ginia, and we were advised that the time of her comple
tion, and the attack upon the vessels in Hampton Roads,
was rapidly approaching.

There was dear old Commodore Forrest, tall, dignified,
and with a face as sweet as that of a woman, surmounted
by a great shock of white hair like the mane of some royal
beast ; and Captain Buchanan, far less striking in appear
ance, quiet, kindly, and as unpretentious as a country
farmer, but with an eye which age had not dimmed, and
which even then was filled with the light of battle. They
were both old men. Commodore Forrest was sixty-five,
and Captain Buchanan sixty-two. There was also Captain
Brooke, taciturn and dreamy ; and Lieutenant Catesby
Jones, a quiet man of forty ; and Lieutenant Minor, young,
quick, and fidgety as a wren ; and all the rest of them,
mingling with us simply and unostentatiously, as if un
conscious that the issues of one of the greatest struggles
the world ever witnessed were committed to their keeping,
and that they were to emerge from it with names which
will be remembered as long as the records of naval war
fare are preserved.

Almost daily we boys went to Norfolk for the mail,
or on some domestic mission. We preferred our boat,
and seldom failed, before we left Norfolk harbor, to
stand over toward the Gosport Navy Yard and sail around
and take a look at the Merrimac. Such we called her,
for we had never become accustomed to the new name,
Virginia. My father was now convalescent, and secured
the promise that he would be advised when the ship was



196 THE END OF AN ERA

ready to sail for the attack. On March 7, he received
a note from Commodore Forrest, or one of those who
knew, advising him that the attack would be made upon
the following day. He consented that my brother
liichard and myself should accompany him, and the next
morning the horses, which now had been well fed and
rested for a month at home, were saddled and ready for
us at the door.

When we reached the city, the Merrimac, accompanied
by two little gunboats, the Beaufort and the Raleigh, had
already passed out, and all three were below Fort Nor
folk. The waterway is more circuitous than that by
laud, and we were sure we should reach Se well s Point, the
most favorable position for observing the conflict, before
the slow-moving vessels ; in this we were correct. After
a sharp gallop of eight miles, we rode out upon the sandy
hills facing Hampton Roads at SewelFs Point.

The scene was truly inspiring. Hampton Roads is as
beautiful a sheet of water as any on the face of the globe.
It is formed by the confluence of the James, the Nanse-
moiid, and the Elizabeth rivers. The James enters it
from the west, the Nansemond from the south, and the
Elizabeth from the east. The tides in the Roads run
north and south, and pass to and from the Chesapeake
Bay through a narrow entrance at the north, between Old
Point Comfort and Willoughby s Spit. Midway between
these is the fort then known as Rip-Raps, the proper
name of which was Fort Calhoun, now changed to Fort
Wool. On the eastern side of the Roads the Confeder
ates had fortified two points, Sewell s Point, where we
were, and Lambert s Point, at the mouth of the Eliza
beth. On the southern side, between the mouths of the
Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers, were the Confederate
fortifications on Craney Island. On the western side, at



THE MERRIMAC AND THE MONITOR 197

the entrance to the Roads, is Fortress Monroe. From
there the land runs westwardly to Hampton, thence south
wardly to Newport News, which marks the entrance of
the James River. The Roads are about four miles in
width and seven in length. From where we stood, look
ing north, Fortress Monroe and the Rip-Raps were,
perhaps, four miles away ; looking westward across the
Roads, Newport News was five miles away ; and, looking



Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 14 of 35)