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John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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under the arm with which I was trying to protect my face.
" Maybe you ve got enough now ? "

" Not much ! " said I, trying to tear loose from his grip
on my hair ; but down I went again, for he overmatched
me. Whack, thump, bang ! he began afresh. I m glad
I don t have to tell how that fight ended. Thank heaven,
it did n t end. Just as matters seemed growing desper
ate, the officer of the day, with jangling sword, came
bounding up the stairway three steps at a time, and,
rushing to where we were clinched, he caught us in the
collars and snatched us apart. Holding us at arm s length,
and looking at us covered with blood, he commanded the
peace, and ordered us to our rooms.

My adversary walked sulkily away. He was no beauty.
He had a bulging eye like a crab, and some of his teeth
were very loose. But I ? My ! oh, my ! but I was a
physical wreck. My jacket, where I held his head so
long, was fairly soaked with gore. Two or three buttons
were torn off, and my collar was under one ear. The
toe of his shoe had raked off about an inch of skin from
the ridge of my nose. A knot as large as a pigeon s egg
was on my forehead, and the last I saw of him he was
picking my hair off his fingers.

" Carried almost too many guns for you, did n t he ? "



282 THE END OF AN ERA

said Shafer, the officer of the day, as we descended to
gether.

With a sickly grin, I answered, " I don t know. I
was doing my best. But I m mighty glad you came,
Shafer."

Then the kind fellow, who evidently sympathized with
my side of the story, went with me to the room and
helped me wash up and preen my badly ruffled plumage.
About this time, we heard the tramp of the corps return
ing ; and Louis, who had heard some rumors at the arch
way, rushed up to know what it was all about.

" Here, take the pass-books. Hurry, and you 11 get in
line in time. I broke up the waiting line," said I.

" Are you able to go ? " asked he.

" Of course I am. I 11 go to the hospital with the sick-
list and get my nose patched by the time you finish at the
store. Hurry ! " So off he darted, and I fell in at sick-
call. Thirty minutes later, we were scampering across the
hills with our guns, I slightly disfigured by a long
patch of adhesive plaster on my nose, and wearing my
cap well back, to avoid contact with that pigeon egg on
my forehead.

And a great day we had of it. As if to compensate us
for our tribulations, we struck a flight of pigeons and
found numbers of squirrels. In fact, we killed so many
that we found it necessary to sling our game upon a pole,
which we bore between us on our shoulders. When we
appeared in barracks, in ample time for dress-parade, we
were the envy of the corps. We sent a nice bunch of
game to the superintendent s wife. Considering the great
number of delinquencies for which we were to make an
swer Monday morning to the commandant, we seriously
debated whether it would be counted as " boot-licking,"
if we sent some of our game to the officers mess. " Boot-



A HUNT AND ALMOST A LICKING 283

licking," or seeking favor with officers, was looked upon
as a heinous crime in our code of deportment. However,
as old Chinook belonged to the officers mess, we con
cluded to let them have a few. Then we secured permit
for private breakfast in the mess-hall Sunday morning,
and to visit old Judge at the kitchens to deliver our
game and make preliminary arrangements.

With invitations sent to a few to our choice symposium
next morning, the day s work was complete. We made
no effort that night, rest assured, to keep lights up after
taps.

We came out of our troubles better than we expected.
Shipp possessed excellent good sense in dealing with
cadets. He rather sympathized with our venial struggles
to provide ourselves with ammunition, and did not punish
us severely, but warned us against fetching fire into bar
racks. Shafer, the cadet officer, who might have made it
go hard with my foeman and myself, saw him, told him
he was wrong, made him come and apologize to me, and
after that he and I were good friends. And last, but
not least, little Rat Logan, whose pretty sister I had vis
ited in their home at " Dungenness " upon the James,
memory of whose charms had probably made me take his
part, came grinning around to our quarters to tell us he
had a box from home. He said it was poor pay for the
punishment I had got in his behalf. I suggested that he
invite my antagonist also ; but he swore he should not
have as much as a wishbone from his turkey. We made
short shrift of Logan s box. With bayonets we ripped
it open. Its stores of turkey, ham, biscuits, pickles, pre
serves, and what not were soon spread before us.

The best simile descriptive of cadets around a box
from home is that of feeding a kennel of hounds. With
undisguised impatience they watch the display of food.



284 THE END OF AN ERA

With frank gluttony they fall upon it. With pop-eyed
satiety they turn away only when all is consumed. And
then they lie about in semi-comatose condition, refusing
to attend meals until nature relieves itself of overloading.
Another piece of good luck was in store for me. I had
kept the pledge about demerits, and stood well at the Jan
uary intermediate examinations. One evening at dress
parade, I had the unspeakable joy of hearing myself an
nounced as a corporal, " vice Vaughan, resigned." Those
chevrons were very stimulating. I even remembered that
Napoleon had once been a corporal.



CHAPTER XIX

THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY OF MY LIFE

IN the spring of 1864, 1 was still a cadet at the Virginia
Military Institute. " Unrest " is the word to describe
the feeling pervading the school.

Rosser s brigade had wintered in Rockbridge, but a few
miles from the Institute. Lexington and the Institute
were constantly visited by Rosser, his staff, and the offi
cers of his brigade. They brought us in touch with the
war, and the world beyond, more than anything else we
had seen. They jangled their spurs through the arch
way, laughed loudly in the officers quarters, and rode off
as if they carried the world in a sling. In March, they
broke camp, and came ambling, trotting, galloping, pran
cing past the Institute, their mounted band playing,
their little guidons fluttering, bound once more to active
duty in the lower valley. Before their departure, General
Rosser presented a captured flag to the corps of cadets.
His escort on the occasion was decked with leaves of
mountain laurel, the evergreen badge which the brigade
had adopted. We felt ashamed of having flags captured
for us by others. When the Laurel Brigade took its de
parture, many a cadet followed it longingly with eyes and
heart.

Then, too, we heard that Grant had been transferred to
command in the East ; and we all knew that there would
be great fighting at the front. Many cadets resigned.
Good boys became bad boys for the express purpose of



286 THE END OF AN ERA

getting " shipped," parents and guardians having refused
to permit them to resign.

The stage-coaches for the railroad stations at Goshen
and Staunton stopped at the sallyport on nearly every
trip to take on cadets departing for the front.

Many a night, sauntering back and forth on the sentry-
beat in front of barracks, catching the sounds of loud talk
and laughter from the officers quarters, or pondering upon
the last joyous squad of cadets who had scrambled to the
top of the departing stage, my heart longed for the camp,
and I wondered if my time would ever come. I was now
over seventeen, and it did seem to me that I was old
enough.

The proverb saith, " All things come to him who waits."

It was the 10th of May.

Nature bedecked herself that springtime in her loveliest
garb. Battalion drill had begun early, and the corps had
never been more proficient at this season of the year.

The parade ground was firm and green. The trees
were clothed in the full livery of fresh foliage. The sun
shone on us through pellucid air, and the light breath of
May kissed and fluttered our white colors, which were
adorned with the face of Washington.

After going through the manoauvres of battalion drill,
the corps was drawn up, near sundown, for dress parade.
It was the time of year when townsfolk drove down, and
ranged themselves upon the avenue to witness our brave
display ; and groups of girls in filmy garments set off with
bits of color came tripping across the sod ; and children
and nurses sat about the benches at the guard-tree.

The battalion was put through the manual. The first
sergeants reported. The adjutant read his orders. The
fifes and drums played down the line in slow time, and
came back with a jolly, rattling air. The officers ad-



THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY OF MY LIFE 287

vanced to music and saluted. The sun sunk beyond the
House Mountain. The evening gun boomed forth. The
garrison flag fell lazily from its peak on the barracks
tower. The four companies went springing homeward at
double time to the gayest tune the fifes knew how to play.
Never in all its history looked Lexington more beautiful.
Never did sense of secluded peacefulness rest more
soothingly upon her population. In our leisure time after
supper, the cadets strolled back and forth from barracks
to the limits gate, and watched the full-orbed moon lift
herself over the mountains. Perfume was in the air,
silence in the shadows. Well might we quote :

How beautiful this night !

The balmiest sigh that vernal zephyrs breathe in evening s ear
Were discord to the speaking quietude
That wraps this moveless scene. Heaven s ebon vault,
Bestudded with stars unutterably bright,
Through which the moon s unclouded
Splendor rolls, seems like a canopy which
Love hath spread, to shelter its
Sleeping world."

And so, tranquil, composed by the delightful scenes
around us, three hundred of us closed our eyes and passed
into the happy dreams of youth in springtime.

Hark ! the drums are beating. Their throbbing bounds
through every corner of the barracks, saying to the
sleepers, " Be up and doing." It is the long roll.

Long roll had been beaten several times of late, some
times to catch absentees, and once for a fire in the town.
Grumblingly the cadets hurried down to their places in
the ranks, expecting to be soon dismissed and to return
to their beds. A group of officers, intently scanning by
the light of a lantern a paper held by the adjutant, stood
near the statue of George Washington, opposite the arch.
The companies were marched together. The adjutant



288 THE END OF AN ERA

commanded attention, and proceeded to read the orders in
his hands.

They announced that the enemy in heavy force was ad
vancing up the Shenandoah valley; that General Lee
could not spare any forces to meet him ; that General
Breckinridge had been ordered to assemble troops from
southwestern Virginia and elsewhere at Staunton ; and
that the cadets should join him there at the earliest prac
ticable moment. The corps was ordered to march, with
four companies of infantry and a section of artillery, by
the Staunton pike, at break of day.

First sergeants were ordered to detail eight artillerists
from each of the four companies, to report for duty im
mediately, and man a section of artillery.

As these orders were announced, not a sound was heard
from the boys who stood there, with beating hearts, in the
military posture of parade rest.

" Parade s dismissed," piped the adjutant. The ser
geants side-stepped us to our respective company parades.

Methinks that even after thirty-three years I once more
hear the gamecock voices of the sergeants detailing their
artillery and ammunition squads, and ordering us to ap
pear with canteens, haversacks, and blankets at four A. M.
Still silence reigned. Then, as company after company
broke ranks, the air was rent with wild cheering at the
thought that our hour was come at last.

Elsewhere in the Confederacy, death, disaster, disap
pointment may have by this time chilled the ardor of
our people, but here, in this little band of fledgelings,
the hope of battle flamed as brightly as on the morning
of Manassas.

We breakfasted by candle-light, and filled our haver
sacks from the mess-hall tables. In the gray of morning,
we wound down the hill to the river, tramped heavily



t

THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY OF MY LIFE 289

across the bridge, ascended the pike beyond, cheered the
fading turrets of the school ; and sunrise found us going
at a four-mile gait to Staunton, our gallant little battery
rumbling behind.

We were every way fitted for this kind of work by our
hard drilling, and marched into Staunton in the afternoon
of the second day, showing little ill effects of travel.

Staunton, small as it is, seemed large and cosmopolitan
after our long confinement. As we marched past a female
school, every window of which was filled with pretty girls,
the fifes were laboring away at " The Girl I Left Behind
Me." There was no need for the girls to cry, " Fie !
fie ! " at such a suggestion. Not one of us were thinking
of the girls we left behind us. The girls we saw before
us were altogether to our liking.

We found a pleasant camping ground on the outskirts
of the town, and thither the whole population flocked for
inspection of the corps, and to witness dress parade, for
our fame was widespread. The attention bestowed upon
the cadets was enough to turn the heads of much humbler
persons than ourselves. We were asked to visit nearly
every house in town.

Having an invitation to dine at the home of a friend,
Louis and I waded in a creek to wash the mud off our
shoes and trousers. With pocket-comb and glass we com
pleted our toilet in a fence-corner. Then we walked about
until our garments were dry, and proceeded to meet our
engagement. Everything goes in war time.

At night, the town was hilarious. Several dances were
arranged, and, as dancing was a cadet accomplishment, we
were in our element.

The adoration bestowed upon us by young girls dis
gusted the regular officers. Before our coming, they had
had things all their own way. Now, they found that fierce



290 THE END OF AN ERA

mustaches and heavy cavalry boots must give place to the
downy cheeks and merry, twinkling feet we brought from
Lexington. A big blonde captain, who was wearing a
stunning bunch of gilt aiguillettes, looked as if he would
snap my head off when I trotted up and whisked his
partner away from him. They could not and would not
understand why girls preferred these little, untitled whip-
persnappers to officers of distinction. Veterans forgot
that youth loves youth.

Doubtless some feeling of this sort prompted the band
of a regiment of grimy veterans to strike up " Rock-a-bye,
Baby," when the cadets marched by them. Quick as sol
diers love of fun, the men took up the air, accompanying
it by rocking their guns in their arms as if putting them
to sleep. It produced a perfect roar of amusement with
everybody but ourselves. We were furious.

All this on the eve of a battle ? Yes, of course. Why
not ? To be sure, everybody knew there was going to be a
fight. That was what we came for. But nobody among
us knew or cared just when or where it was coming off.
Life is too full of trouble for petty officers or privates, or
young girls, to bother themselves hunting up such dis
agreeable details in advance. That was the business of
generals. They were to have all the glory ; and so we
were willing they should have all the solicitude, anxiety,
and preoccupation.

At dress parade, May 12, orders were read for the move
ment of the army down the valley the following morning.
W r e always moved on time. Now, who would have be
lieved that a number of girls were up to see us off, or that
two or three were crying ? Yet it was so. And quick
work of the naked boy with the cross-bow I call that.

As we passed some slaughter-pens on the outskirts, an
old Irish butcher, in his shirt sleeves, hung over his gate,



THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY OF MY LIFE 291

pipe in mouth. With a twinkle in his eye he watched
the corps go by, at last exclaiming, " Begorra, an it s no
purtier dhrove av pigs hev passed this gate since this
hog-killing began."

We made a good da}^ s march, and camped that night
near Harrisonburg. During the day, we met several
couriers bearing dispatches ; they reported the enemy
advancing in heavy force, and had left him near Stras-
burg and Woodstock.

Pressing on through Harrisonburg, which we reached
early in the morning, we camped the second night at
Lacy s Springs, in Shenandoah ; rain had set in, but the
boys stood up well to their work, and but few lame-ducks
had succumbed.

Evidences of the approach of the enemy multiplied
on the second day. We passed a great many vehicles
coming up the valley with people and farm products and
household effects, and a number of herds of cattle and
other livestock, all escaping from the Union troops ;
now and then a weary or wounded cavalryman came by.
Their reports were that Sigel s steady advance was only
delayed by a thin line of cavalry skirmishers, who had
been ordered to retard him as best they could until
Breckinridge could march his army down to meet him.

Towards evening, we came to a stone church and spring,
where a cavalry detail with a squad of Union prisoners
were resting ; the prisoners were a gross, surly-looking
lot of Germans, who could not speak English. They
evidently could not make us out ; they watched us with
manifest curiosity, and talked in unintelligible, guttural
sounds among themselves.

When we reached camp, the rain had stopped and the
clouds had lifted, but everything was wet and gummy.
To add to my disgust, I was detailed as corporal of the



292 THE END OF AN ERA

guard, which meant loss of sleep at night, and a lone
some time next day with the wagons in rear of the corps.

Looking down the valley, as evening closed in, we could
see a line of bivouac fires, and were uncertain whether
they were lit by our own pickets or by the enemy. At
any rate, we were getting sufficiently near to the gentle
men for whom we were seeking to feel reasonably cer
tain we should meet them.

Night closed in upon us ; for a little while the wood
land resounded with the axe-stroke, or the cheery halloos
of the men from camp-fire to camp-fire ; for a while the
fire-lights danced, the air laden with the odor of cooking
food ; for a while the boys stood around the camp-fires
for warmth and to dry their wet clothing ; but soon all
had wrapped their blankets around them and laid down
in silence, unbroken save by the champing of the colo
nel s horse upon his provender, or the fall of a passing
shower.

I was on duty as corporal of the guard ; a sentry stood
post near the pike ; the remainder of the guard and the
musicians were stretched before the watch-fire asleep. It
was my part to remain awake, and a very lonesome, cheer
less task it was, sitting there in the darkness, under the
dancing shadows of the wide-spreading trees, watching the
fagots flame up and die out, speculating upon the events
of the morrow.

An hour past midnight, the sound of hoofs upon the
pike caught my ear, and in a few moments the challenge
of the sentry summoned me. The newcomer was an
aid-de-camp, bearing orders for Colonel Shipp from the
commanding general. When I aroused the commandant,
he struggled up, rubbed his eyes, muttered something
about moving at once, and ordered me to arouse the
camp without having the drums beaten. Orders to fall



THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY OF MY LIFE 293

in were promptly given, rolls were rattled off, the battal
ion was formed, and we debouched upon the pike, head
ing in the darkness and mud for Newmarket.

Before the command to march was given, a thing
occurred which made a deep impression upon us all, a
thing which even now may be a solace to those whose
boys died so gloriously that day. In the gloom of the
night, Captain Frank Preston, neither afraid nor ashamed
to pray, sent up an appeal to God for his protection of
our little band : it was a humble, earnest petition, that sunk
into the heart of every hearer. Few were the dry eyes,
little the frivolity, when he had ceased to speak of home,
of father, of mother, of country, of victory and defeat,
of life, of death, of eternity. Captain Preston had been
an officer in Stonewall Jackson s command ; had lost an
arm at Winchester ; was on the retired list ; and was sub-
professor of Latin, and tactical officer of B Company :
he was a typical Valley Presbyterian. Those who, a few
hours later, saw him commanding his company in the
thickest of the fight, his already empty sleeve attesting
that he was no stranger to the perilous edge of battle,
realized fully the beauty of the lines which tell that " the
bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring."

Day broke gray and gloomy upon us toiling onward in
the mud. The sober course of our reflections was relieved
by the light-heartedness of the veteran^ We overtook
Wharton s Brigade, with smiling " Old Gabe," a Vir
ginia Military Institute boy, at their head. They were
squatting by the roadside, cooking breakfast, as we came
up. With many good-natured gibes they restored our
confidence ; they seemed as merry, nonchalant, and indif
ferent to the coming fight as if it were their daily occupa
tion. A tall, round-shouldered fellow, whose legs seemed
almost split up to his shoulder-blades, came among us



294 THE END OF AN ERA

with a pair of shears and a pack of playing cards, offer
ing to take our names and cut off love -locks to be sent
home after we were dead; another inquired if we wanted
rosewood coffins, satin-lined, with name and age on the
plate. In a word, they made us ashamed of the depress
ing solemnity of our last six miles of marching, and
renewed within our breasts the true dare-devil spirit of
soldiery.

Resuming the march, the mile-posts numbered four,
three, two, one mile to Newmarket ; then the mounted
skirmishers hurried past us to their position at the front.
We heard loud cheering at the rear, which was caught
up by the troops along the line of march. We learned
its import as General John C. Breckinridge and staff
approached, and we joined heartily in the cheering as
that soldierly man, mounted magnificently, galloped past,
uncovered, bowing, and riding like a Cid. It is impos
sible to exaggerate the gallant appearance of General
Breckinridge. In stature he was considerably over six
feet high. He sat his blood-bay thoroughbred as if he had
been born on horseback ; his head was of noble mould,
and a piercing eye and a long, dark, drooping mustache
completed a faultless military presence.

Deployed along the crest of an elevation in our front,
we could see our line of mounted pickets and the smoul
dering fires of their last night s bivouac. We halted at
a point where passing a slight turn in the road would
bring us in full view of the position of the enemy.
Echols s and Wharton s brigades hurried past us ; this
time there was not much bantering between us. " For
ward ! " was the word once more, and, turning the point
in the road, Newmarket was in full view, and the whole
position was displayed.

At this point, a bold range of hills on the left parallel



THE MOST GLORIOUS DAY OF MY LIFE 295

with the mountains divided the Shenandoah valley into
two smaller valleys ; in the easternmost of these lies
Newmarket. The valley pike on which we had advanced
passes through the town parallel with the Massanunteii
Mountains on our right, and Smith s Creek, coursing
along its base. The hills on our left, as they near the
town, slope down to it from south and west, and swell
beyond it to the west and north. Through this depres
sion from the town to the Shenandoah River in the
western valley runs a transverse road with heavy stone
walls. Between the pike by which we were advancing
and the creek at the base of the mountains lies a beauti
ful strip of meadowland, extending to and beyond the
village of Newmarket ; on these meadows, in the outskirts
of the village, were orchards, where the enemy s skir
mishers were posted, his left wing being concealed in the
village. The right wing of the enemy was posted behind
the heavy stone fence in the road running westward from
the town, parallel with our line of battle. Behind the
infantry, on the slope of the rising ground, the Union
artillery was posted : the ground rose behind this posi
tion until a short distance beyond the town ; to the left
of the pike it spread out in an elevated plateau. The
hillsides from this plateau to the pike were broken by
several gullies, heavily wooded by scrub cedar.

It was Sunday morning at eleven o clock. In a pictur



Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 21 of 35)