John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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more. First and second class men are above fighting.
They frown it down and punish it. Only yearlings like
myself and plebes like you fight, you know."

"Yes," said I; but I did not know any such thing
until he told it to me. Thus we went on, he teaching
and I absorbing like a sponge, all the while having a
suspicion that I might see the " fighting-ground " again
some day. Just then we caught the sound of a drum :
" Rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap,
rap, rap, rap, rap, rap, rap."

Springing to his feet, he exclaimed : " Gracious ! there
is dress parade ; we must run for it." So off we sped,
running by the rear of the professors houses and scram
bling over the stile, reaching the barracks as the boys
were streaming down the stairways, pulling on their
gloves and arranging their accoutrements. Louis barely
saved his distance, and came tearing through the arch
just as the command, " Fall in ! " was sung out by the
four first sergeants. I went with a squad of plebes, who


without arms were marched out after the companies and
formed on the left of the battalion.

It was a brave sight when the drums and fifes struck
up (we had no band in those days) ; the colors marched
forth and gave the alignment ; the companies followed and
formed on the colors, and the officer in charge put the
battalion through its drill. Then we marched back and
were dismissed. Evening parade, supper, study hours,
tattoo, taps, came in their regular order ; and as I went
to sleep, soon after taps inspection, it was with the
thought that this had been one of the most eventful and
delightful days I ever spent.

Reveille ! What part of cadet routine is so well remem
bered as that ? Awakened at crack of dawn from dream
less sleep by the long-drawn notes of fife and drum, our
first semi-conscious impulse was to slumber on, soothed by
the drowsy tune. Not long such thoughts, however ; for,
with a quick ruffle of the drums, the tune was changed.
A gay and lilting quickstep took its place, crashing up
and down and through the dormitories. Quick, respon
sive lights were twinkling in a hundred rooms, where but
a few moments before all was silence. Three hundred
youngsters were hurrying for the ranks. As if to mock
their haste, the tune changed again, and the music went
floating off once more into dreamland, while the cadets
grew more impetuous in their preparations. Then the
last tune came. This was no sluggard s lullaby. It was
a ringing summons to the front, in which the drums
seemed to be trying to drown the air the fifes were piping
gayly. The latest plebe in barracks knew the words :

" Wake-up-rats-and-come-to Reveille
If-you-want to get-your-corp-orality,
Wake up rats ! Come to Reveille
If you want to get YOUR corporalite-e-e-e-e ! "


Then, with three long rolls and two final thumps, the
music ceased.

Towards the close of this matin concert, stoops, stairs,
and archway swarmed with hundreds of cadets, half-
awake, huprying to their places in the forming ranks. As
the last laggard whisked through the sallyport, strug
gling to avoid being late, the chill morning air resounded
with the commands of the first sergeants : " Fall in A
Cornpane-e-e-e ! Fall in B and C and D Compane-e-e-e ! "
Then, after a moment s pause, sergeant after sergeant
gave the command, " Front ! " and away they went, rat
tling off the rolls with surprising noise and speed. Then
came another pause, in which, as the boys stood shiver
ing in the nipping daybreak, the first sergeants spotted
absentees by repeating their names with marvelous and
unerring accuracy.

Ranks broken, the cadets, with heads drawn in and
hands stuck in their waistbands, went back to quarters in
sullen silence, or with deep anathemas upon reveille.

Yet how beautiful it was ! On the eastern face of forest,
peak, and barrack-tower the blush of morning shone,
while all else was in shadow. Against the glowing east,
the undulating sky-line of the distant Blue Ridge was cut
clear and strong, with purple shadows filling in the space
between us and them, save where the valley mists were
tipped with morning light. Correggio could not paint nor
Claud attain the limpid high-lights, the clear-obscure, the
deep visible-invisible, of those exquisite autumn day
breaks in the mountains.

Old boys, wherever you may be, have you forgotten

About them, even then, there was a sentiment, a sen
timent which deepens as the years roll by. We were
looking upon the shining morning face not only of na-


ture, but of life also. Yes, in memory the shining morn
ing faces of those schoolboys still live, framed in a setting
of mountain peaks and barrack towers, gilded by the first
faint rays of sunrise.

Thirty minutes after reveille found the plebes assem
bled in squads of three or four, and marched away by
old cadets for awkward-squad exercises upon the parade
ground. Drill until the drum for breakfast dispensed
with all need of appetizing tonics.

After breakfast, academic exercises not having been
resumed as yet, the squad drills were continued, and far
and wide on the parade the groups of plebes were to be
seen, and the voice of the drill-master was heard.

So far, all had gone well with me. Beyond some little
chaffing, no old cadet had troubled me, and the squad-
marcher had complimented me on attention and prompt

We were resting. A squad of plebes, moved at double
time, were brought down to where we were standing and
halted near us, by a stocky, aggressive-looking old cadet.
Having ordered a rest, Sprague (that was his name) came
over to speak to our drill-master. " I m giving those
Hats thunder ! " said he, pointing to the panting plebes.
And so he was. Instead of practicing his squad in set
ting-up exercises, he was prancing them all over the
parade ground. " What sort of Kats have you got ? "
said he, looking us over in an insolent way. " Oh, a
fair enough lot," said our squad-marcher, an easy-going
but efficient man. Sprague looked at us keenly, and
asked our names. Some look of mine, I presume, or the
fact that I was nearest to him, made him continue his
probing of me, and I was not very civil.

" Why, Mr. Rat, you are impudent," said he. Then,
glancing around to see that the sub-professor in charge


was not looking, he commanded me to " hold up." That
meant that I was to hold up my hand and let him twist
my arm. By this time I was piping hot, but had sense
enough to keep silent.

" Hold up, sir ! " said he peremptorily.

" Shut up, sir I " replied I ; and there, all the wise
counsel which Louis and Colonua had given me, and all
the good resolves I had made, were vanished into thin air
with those three words.

" Mr. Rat," said he, drawing close to me, and shaking
his finger in my face as he hissed the words, " I will at
tend to you as soon as we get back to barracks. I 11 take
some of that rebellious spirit out of you. See if I don t."
I was about to answer him with defiance, when our squad
was called to attention and drill was resumed. It is not
difficult to appreciate that the remainder of that drill was
far from being a period of happiness. All the time, I
was calculating how to receive the attack. Finally, I
counted that if I could succeed in reaching our room,
I might take a musket, and defend myself with a bayo
net. Sprague looked like a game one, and I knew that
he would have plenty of backers. When the recall beat,
our squad was near barracks. We went in on double
time, and when the squad was dismissed, I made a bold
dash for the archway. I thought I was safe, for I had
nearly reached the sallyport ; but when almost in, I saw
Sprague dismiss his squad and start after me, calling,
" Catch that Rat ! "

Through the arch we sped, and it seemed as if I would
reach our room upon the second stoop, for I was nearly
at the stairway. But ! but ! but ! Just at that moment
a tremendous fellow shot like a goshawk from the door I
was about to pass, ana, slipping his right arm about my
waist, nearly lifted me from the ground and held me tight


as a vise, until Sprague and a dozen others came up. In
furiated beyond all control, I struck out like a clever fellow,
but they bore me straight along, up the steps and into
the first room on the second stoop, and in a jiffy had me
bound and on a table. In another instant I should have
felt the brass ferrule of a bayonet-scabbard administered
without pity. The room was filled with cadets, all bent
on disciplining a rebellious Rat.

At the very crisis, the crowd near the doorway swayed
back and forth. Some one exclaimed, " Get out of the
way, or I 11 plunge this bayonet into you ! " and Louis
bounded in, with gleaming eyes, his jaws set like a bull-
pup s. Rushing up to Sprague he said, " No, sir ! You 11
not buck that Rat ! "

" Yes, I will," said Sprague.

" Not unless you can whip me ! " was the game reply of
Louis, as he began to slip off his jacket. " I bucked him
yesterday, and I asked Boggess all about what happened
on the parade ground, and he says you provoked and
teased the Rat until you forced him to be impudent. You
shan t touch him." With that he sprang towards me to
unloose the fastenings. The crowd grew agitated. Sprague
made a motion to fight, and in another instant we should
have had a pretty mess, when

" Rap, rap, rap ! Rap, rap, rap ! " came sharp and
loud upon the door. Everybody knew what it meant !
Somebody, quick as lightning, undid the straps, jerked me
off the table, and stood me on my feet ; and Captain
Semmes, the officer in charge, walked into the room
serenely. With a dignified and inquiring look at the
cadets now crowded back against the walls, he said,
" Gentlemen, what s all this disturbance ? "

Louis was slipping on his cadet jacket, and, sidling up
to me, said, " Don t say a word. Whatever you do, don t


" What does this all mean, gentlemen ? " repeated the
captain, in louder and more peremptory tones.

Sprague at last spoke up : " Oh, nothing ; I just had
a little misunderstanding with that gentleman there,"
pointing to me.

I was so elated by the unexpected turn things had
taken that my good-nature had returned, and when Cap
tain Semmes turned to me and asked what it all meant, I
said, " Oh, we were just trying to see who was strongest."

" Go to your rooms, gentlemen, all of you, at once ! "
said Captain Semmes, waiting to see that his orders were
carried out; and then he departed, without seeking too
many explanations, for in his day he had been a terror to

" Well, Mr. Rat ! " said Louis, when we reached our
rooms, and found fat Colonna sitting there, still wearing
his sword and sash, laughing at our discomfiture, " you
have put your foot in it, sure enough. You have not only
made yourself a target, but I expect that round-shouldered,
long-armed, bull-yearling of a Sprague will beat me to
death about this business."

Then Colonna, who was above the dignity of such
scrapes, but had witnessed my race and capture, nearly
had fits describing how big Wood had seized me, and how
they had turned me upside down going up the steps, and
how I nearly kicked Billy Mason s eye out, and a lot of
other things that did and did not happen ; for Colonna
was a great tease.

Dinner drum was sounded, and I went down, reflecting
that the first twenty-four hours of my military life were

A day or two afterwards, academic studies were re
sumed. With mathematics, Latin, French, and drawing
added to military duties, there was little time for play.


A half day s holiday on Saturday, during which we
were permitted to leave the Institute limits, gave us but
scant opportunity for diversion. Even the letters of in
troduction I had brought, to the families of some of the
professors, remained undelivered for lack of time.

The winter of 1862-63 was cold enough. While the
army of General Lee was encamped about Fredericks-
burg, after a gallant defense of the place, we, "the
seed-corn of the Confederacy," as Mr. Davis called us,
were very comfortably cared for in barracks, which were
heated and lighted as well as if no war had been in

There was no lack of news from the front. An older
brother of Louis had been captured at Roanoke Island,
and, while awaiting exchange, was acting as tactical
officer of A Company, and sub-professor of mathematics.
He was a sober-minded, earnest fellow, always watchful
over us, and he occasionally sent for us to come to his
quarters, that he might advise, or warn, or rebuke us in
an affectionate and considerate way. We were devoted
to him, and prized his good opinion more than that of
anybody else. He bore my father s name, and counted
me as much in his charge as his own brother. By our
access to his quarters opportunity was given us from time
to time to hear a great deal of news from the front, for
never a great battle came off but numbers of Virginia
Military Institute boys were in it, and they seemed to
have a talent for getting killed or wounded. Those from
far Southern States, instead of going to Alabama or
Mississippi or Louisiana during their short leaves, would
come to the Virginia Military Institute, room with some
sub-professor of their own class, and assist in teaching,
until sufficiently restored to return to duty.

Captain Henry A. Wise was a universal favorite with


the graduates, and his quarters were seldom without some
occupant of the class described above. Everybody con
nected with the Institute had a nickname : General
Smith was "Old Spex," Colonel Preston was "Old
Bald," Stonewall Jackson was "Old Jack," General Col
ston " Old Polly," Colonel Williamson " Old Tom," Colo
nel Gilliam "Old Gill," and down to the youngest
" sub " all were nicknamed, and seldom referred to save
by their sobriquets. For some reason, Captain Wise was
called " Chinook." Nobody knew exactly why. Among
the cadets, every man of prominence had a nickname :
there was " Dad " Wyatt, so called for age, and " Dad "
Nelson for extreme youth, and " Duck " Colonna for his
short legs, and " Bull " Temple for his strength, and
" Jane " Creighton for his gentleness, and so on, ad in-
finitum. Louis and I escaped naming until a third cadet
of our name arrived. He was an odd fish, a cousin of
both of us, who, while not very studious in things taught
there, had studied " The Adventures of Simon Suggs "
until he knew them by heart, and quoted them on all
occasions. He soon became known as " Suggs," and the
cognomen spread until all three of us were called " Suggs
J.," " Suggs L.," and " Suggs W.," as if we never had
any other names. One day the corporal of the guard
reported me for noise on the stoop, and inadvertently
entered me on the delinquent list as " Suggs J." The
adjutant knew whom he meant, but reported him for

After the battle of Fredericksburg, we heard all about
it in the rooms of " Old Chinook," from men who had
participated in its glories. I forget who they were, but
it was probably " Sheep " Floweree of Mississippi, or
" Bute " Henderson, or " Tige " Hardin, or " Marsh " Mc
Donald, all of whom, at one time or another, turned up


there. To the outside world, they were colonels and
majors, etc.: at the Virginia Military Institute, they
were " Sheep " and " Bute " and " Tige." Many a day,
out of study hours, from their lips we would drink in
the story of the repulse of Meagher s Irish Brigade at
Marye s Heights, or how Hayes made his stand at Ham
ilton Crossing, or Fender at the railroad, or how Stuart s
Horse Artillery raked Franklin s Corps on the Rappa-
liannock flats. Very few boys have had such practical
lessons in the art of war.

Poor " Chinook," who longed for his exchange, and
chafed at the delays which made him miss these battles,
looked dreadfully depressed, and as for ourselves, Louis
and I felt it was an outrage that we were penned up
and kept away from these wondrous sights and scenes.

In February, we had a cold, hard freeze ; all drills
were suspended ; the North River was hard-frozen. At
evening parade on Friday, an order was published an
nouncing that a supply of ice for the following summer
was most desirable ; that, owing to the number of labor
ers who had volunteered, the superintendent was unable
to secure the necessary force to save the ice-crop ; and
that every cadet who would volunteer for Saturday to
work at rilling the ice-houses of the Institute should have
three afternoons leave, from dinner to dress-parade, the
following week, for skating. At the call for volun
teers the corps stepped to the front as one man. Of
course they did ; what better fun than that did anybody
want ?

The next morning, cadets were ordered to put on old
clothes. The companies were divided into working
squads, and marched to the river. We had all the saws,
and axes, and ice-hooks, and slides, and horses we needed.
The strongest men went out and cut the ice ; the smaller


chaps were worked in teams, with ropes to secure it and
drag it to the wagons. Some of the country boys were
detailed as teamsters. Squads were stationed at the ice
houses to receive and dump the loads. Fires were built
along the river banks. Those drowsy country horses
were never pushed so hard, or heard the whips crack so
loudly, as they did that day. We went to work in relays.
" Old Spex " had rations and hot coffee served upon the
river bank. And when the cold sun was sinking in a
red western sky, the corps, its work completely done,
filled with joyous anticipations for the coming week, was
trotting homeward across the bridge at a double-quick,
the happiest, jolliest set of youngsters in the Southern

Then came the skating time. News of our holiday
spread over the town, and all the pretty girls in Lexing
ton, and many of the citizens, were there to see the

There was no lack of skates ; the arsenal, long since
disappeared, stood in the barracks quadrangle in those
days. It was the general depository of all the things left
by the cadets who marched to the war in 1861. I fear
little regard was paid to their vested rights. Nearly
every old trunk in that arsenal had by this time been
rifled. Many a cadet jacket and trousers, left there by
some old cadet with the purpose of returning for it some
day, had been " appropriated " long ago, worn out, and
traded off for apples.. In cadet morals, this is not steal
ing. The conditions existing there at any time amount
almost to communism ; at the period referred to, the
seizure of everything required was justified under the
plea of military necessity. Fortunately, the arsenal was
burned by General Hunter in 1864, so that the absent
cadets who had been robbed of their skates doubtless


thought their goods were destroyed by fate of war, and
never knew that they had been used by their own com
rades ; else had there been, I fear, after the war, grave
charges against all of us.

Among the debris piled helter-skelter in the arsenal,
after the sundry pickings-over to which its contents had
been subjected, somebody found an old drum-major s
shako, relic of the pomp and panoply of peace times.
The first appearance of this shako in public was on the
head of a long-legged cadet, who wore it in a game of
shinny at our ice carnival. It was not long before a
bandy-stick knocked his shako in the air. That was
suggestion enough. Soon another cadet took a crack at
it, and its wearer, dodging and racing, went streaming
away with fifty fellows following.

Out of this grew a famous game called " tapping the
shako." Whoever was fast enough to catch the wearer,
and tap his shako, became entitled to place it on his
head, and wear it until a fleeter-footed skater won it from
him. It was but a little while, of course, before it fell
into the hands of the best skater and most adroit dodger
in the corps ; and then the concentrated energies of a
hundred men to overhaul its owner furnished marvelous
excitement and noble sport. In one of these contests, the
race was prolonged almost, if not quite, to Loch Laird,
five miles down the river. The sport elicited wonderful
displays of endurance, agility, and pluck.

On our last day, we gave an unexpected exhibition.
The weather had moderated, but apparently not enough
to make the ice dangerous. In fact, however, the freeze
had been so sudden that the ice was filled with air-holes.
Our great game had now been regulated, for in its earlier
stages we found that certain cadets, like certain hounds,
instead of running true to the line, would wait for the


quarry to double and then take a .short cross-cut upon him.
So we staked the centre of the river, and forced every
man to follow the course if he claimed a touch. This
afternoon, a great crowd of spectators was assembled ; we
had had a glorious breakaway, and the old black shako, on
the head of some fleet-footed fellow, went whirling down
the river with the pack in full cry, the crowds on the
banks delighted. For a little while the chase disappeared,
and then came back on the near side of the stream,
but out towards the centre. The boys were well bunched ;
not less than six or eight were dose upon the leader.
The race grew intensely exciting ; some men on horse
back were galloping along the bank. The women were
waving their handkerchiefs and clapping their hands
with delight.

The closest follower made a fine burst of speed, had
raised his stick to tap the shako, when crash went the ice,
and both men disappeared, the old black shako alone
remaining in sight floating on the water. A wail and
screams went up from the shore. One after another of
those in hot pursuit plumped into the hole before they
could check their headway, and in another moment six
or eight of the best fellows in the corps were floundering
in the deep water, the ice at the edges breaking under
them at each attempt they made to scramble out. Then
came an instance of the power of discipline.

A number of us smaller boys had not followed the
chase ; as soon as we saw the accident, we hurried towards
the scene. No doubt further misfortune would have be
fallen us, but for the cool-headed behavior of Sam
Shriver, a second-class man. Darting up like a general,
his towering figure caught all eyes as he said, " Atten
tion ! " All was silence.

"Where are the safety ropes?" he demanded. We


had had them all the time until now ; now, when we
needed them most, they were gone, of course. He never
paused a second.

Looking to the hole he cried, " Hold fast, boys. Don t
exhaust yourselves. I 11 have you out in a moment."

They were making a fearful splutter in the hole,
some calling for help, some swearing, some grunting, and
one, as we afterwards heard, praying. What frightened
Louis and myself most was that we saw dear old Colonna
and Dad Nelson in there.

Turning to us, Shriver said, " Form a line quick ! "

It was formed, consisting of about fifty men.

" Let the far end of the line get well ashore," said he,
and it was there in a jiffy. u Small men in front," and
small men came to the front. That put Louis and myself
well to the front.

" Lock wrists," cried Sam, and each of us seized the
wrist of the man in front of and behind us, and he ours ;
we stretched out.

" Advance to hole," said he. " Ten front files lie
down. Rear files shove away," said he, as soon as we
were down.

" Louis, we re in for it," said I.

" Yes, I know," he replied. " We 11 probably break
in, but if we connect with them, the rear men will pull us
all out together." So they shoved us over the ice on our
stomachs until the front man reached the nearest fellow
in the hole, and the man behind him fastened to him,
and so on until all were firmly clutched together. When
all those in the hole were fast to each other firmly, Sam
gave command, " Haul away slowly ! "

As the rear men began to move backward, out came
the first man from the hole, and the next and the next,
and then their weight broke the ice and we all went down


together, but were still moving shoreward, while Shriver
called to us not to let our hold break. Thus dragged,
we soon reached the sound ice, and man after man came
up and out of the water until all were saved, by the
promptness of gallant Sam Shriver, who became the lion

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 19 of 35)