John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

The end of an era online

. (page 23 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 23 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

with praise unstinted, wheeled proudly around the Wash
ington monument at Richmond, to, pass in review before
the President of the Confederate States, to hear a speech
of commendation from his lips, and to receive a stand of
colors from the Governor of Virginia.

No wonder that our band, as we marched back to our
quarters, played lustily :

" There s not a trade that s going
Worth showing or knowing,
Like that from glory growing
For the bowld soldier boy.
For to right or left you go,
Sure you know, friend or foe,
He is bound to be a beau,
Your bowld soldier boy."



AFTER a few days in Richmond, the cadets were
ordered back to Lexington. We resumed academic
duties promptly, and were just beginning to settle down
to hard work, when General Hunter advanced up the
valley of the Shenandoah, unopposed save by a small
cavalry force under General McCausland.

McCausland was another Virginia Military Institute
graduate. "Well," said we, when we heard the news,
" we 11 have to whip em again." But this time the story
was to be very different from the last. Following almost
immediately upon the heels of the first announcement
came the alarming statement that Hunter had reached
Staunton, but thirty-six miles to the north of us ; and
the next day we were advised that he had not paused in
Staunton, but pressed on, and that his advance was skir
mishing with McCausland at Midway, but twelve miles
from Lexington.

Resistance to a force like Hunter s being out of the
question, we were ordered to prepare for the evacuation
of Lexington. A detail of sappers was sent forthwith to
the bridge across the North River, with directions to load
it with bales of hay saturated with turpentine, leaving
space just sufficient for the passage of McCausland s
retreating forces. We were kept under arms all night.
Before sunrise, the main body of our troops came stream
ing down the hills across the river ; and, half a mile be-


hind them, their rear guard emerged from the woods along
the hill-tops, skirmishing with, and hotly pressed by, the
enemy. At the river, after crossing the bridge, McCaus-
land deployed a force upon the bluffs above and below
the bridge, to cover the crossing of his rear guard.

The rear guard, called in, rallied at a run to the bridge ;
and the Union skirmishers, emboldened by their quick
movements, dashed after them down the hills. Coming
too near to the force behind the bluffs, they were com
pelled to retreat under a heavy fire upon Hunter s ad
vance guard, which was now coming up. A battery of
Union artillery, under Captain Henry Du Pont, galloped
out upon the hills overlooking Lexington from the north
side of the river, and opened fire upon the Institute. A
section of McCausland s artillery came up, after crossing
the bridge, and took position at the northeast corner of
the parade ground to respond to Du Pont. As soon as
our troops were across the bridge, it was fired, and a fine
column of black smoke rolled heavenward. Our sappers,
their task performed, hurried back at double time to re
join their respective companies. Along the pike in the
valley in front of the Institute, the cavalry, weary and
depressed, was retiring to the town.

The whole panorama, front and rear, was visible from
the Institute grounds, and made a very pretty war scene.

When the Union battery opened, the corps was drawn
up in front of barracks awaiting orders. It was, of course,
invisible to the enemy from his position directly in rear
of barracks. If his guns had been aimed at the centre of
the building, his shells would have exploded in our midst.
But the massive parts were at the corners, where the
towers were grouped, and thither the fire was directed.
The first shell that struck crashed in the hall of the So
ciety of Cadets, sending down showers of brickbats and


plaster when it exploded. Thereupon we were ordered to
pass over the parapet in front of barracks, and thence
were marched westward until clear of the building, so as
to avoid the splinters and debris. It was very well, for
while several of his guns turned their attention to our
section of artillery on the parade ground, Captain Harry
filled the air with fragments as he pounded away at our

In our new position under the parapet, about opposite
the guard-tree, although fully protected, we were nearly
in the line of fire of the shots directed at our battery. A
number of shells struck the parade ground, some explod
ing there, and others ricocheting over our heads.

Soon after this we marched away. As we were leaving,
the artillery was limbering up, and the only force oppos
ing the entrance of the enemy was the thin line of skir
mishers on the river bluffs.

With heavy hearts we passed through the town, bidding
adieu to such of its residents as we had known in happier
days. Our route was southward to Balcony Falls, which
we reached late that evening. At a high point, probably
five miles south of Lexington, we came in full sight of
our old home. The day was bright and clear, and we saw
the towers and turrets of the barracks, mess-hall, and pro
fessors houses in full blaze, sending up great masses of
flame and smoke. The only building on the entire re
servation not destroyed by fire was the residence of Gen
eral Smith. His daughter was very ill, and as the physi
cians declared it would cost her life to remove her, the
house was spared through the intercession of Colonel
Du Pont.

No words could describe our feelings as we rested on
the roadside, and watched the conflagration. The place
was endeared by a thousand memories, but above all other


thoughts, it galled and mortified us that we had been
compelled to abandon it without firing a shot.

Thinking that the enemy might follow us and attempt
to reach Lynchburg through the pass at Balcony Falls,
our commandant determined, if that should prove to be
the purpose of General Hunter, to offer resistance there,
for it was a very defensible position. Accordingly, upon
reaching Balcony Falls, pickets were posted, the corps
was deployed along the mountain side, and we were held
ready for a fight all that night and until late in the fol
lowing day. Then we ascertained that General Hunter
had passed on up the valley to the approaches of Lynch
burg by way of the Peaks of Otter. We impressed a
canal-boat, and resumed our journey to Lynchburg, reach
ing there some hours in advance of the enemy. On our
arrival, Early s division was pouring into the town, having
just arrived by rail from Petersburg. It was hurried
forward to the fortifications in the outskirts.

We remained in the streets of the town several hours,
awaiting orders, and were finally sent to the front in

Our position was in a graveyard. The afternoon we
spent there, sitting upon graves and among tombstones in
a cold, drizzling rain, was anything but cheerful.

The enemy, unaware of the presence of Early s division,
advanced to a brisk attack with infantry and artillery.
Although he was roughly handled, the assault continued
until dark, and he had pressed up very close to a salient
in our front, at a point near the present residence of Mr.
John Langhorne. A renewal of the attack on the follow
ing morning was confidently expected. About ten o clock
that night, orders came for the cadets to move to the front
to relieve the troops in the salient, who had been fighting
since midday.


When the corps was formed in line, Colonel Shipp, in
low tones, explained the nature of the service, and the
importance of silence. We were warned not to speak,
and, as the night was very black, each man was instructed
to place his left hand upon the cartridge-box of the man
in front of him, so as to keep distance and alignment.
Thus formed, we proceeded to the bastion, and entered it
in gloomy silence. The troops occupying it were drawn
up as we entered, and glided out after we were in, like the
shadows of darkness.

The place was horrible. The fort was new, and con
structed of stiff red clay. The rain had wet the soil, and
the feet of the men who had been there had kneaded the
mud into dough. There was no place to lie down. All
that a man could do was to sit plump down in the mud,
upon the low banquette, with his gun across his lap. I
could not resist peeping over the parapet, and there, but
a short distance from us, in a little valley, were the smoul
dering camp-fires of the enemy. Wrapping my blanket
about me, its ends tucked under me, so as to keep out the
moisture from the red clay as much as possible, I fell
asleep, hugging my rifle, never doubting that there would
be work for both of us at daybreak.

I must have slept soundly, for when I awoke it was
broad daylight. The men were beginning to talk aloud,
and several were exposing themselves freely. No enemy
appeared in our front. He was gone. Hunter, discov
ering that he was overmatched, had retired during the
night, and was now in full retreat.

Lexington was now accessible to us once more, and
thither we proceeded in a day or two.

On our return to Lexington, we temporarily quartered
in Washington College. Nothing worth having was left
of the Virginia Military Institute. The scene was one of


such complete desolation, and so depressing, that I avoided
it as much as possible.

We were furloughed until September 1, and ordered to
report at that time at the almshouse in Richmond.

This apparently absurd announcement was another illus
tration of the resourcefulness of General Smith. The city
of Richmond had a very fine almshouse, but at this period
of the war all our people were paupers, and the city could
not maintain the almshouse. Knowing this, General
Smith had opened telegraphic correspondence from Lynch-
burg with the Richmond authorities, and secured the place
free of rent.

For myself, I now saw a chance of entering the service,
and had no idea of going to live in an almshouse. My
objective point was Petersburg, where my father s brigade
was stationed. He was in command of the city, having
been engaged with the enemy almost daily since his arrival
from South Carolina in May. Against overwhelming
odds, Beauregard had held the place until the arrival of
General Lee.

It was about sundown on the 22d of June, 1864, that our
train from Richmond stopped in a deep cut about a mile
from Petersburg. We could not safely approach nearer
to the city. When General " Baldy " Smith, with 22,000
men, attacked my father with 2200 men on the 15th of
June, he captured several redoubts, numbered from 5 to 9,
near the Appomattox River, just below Petersburg. From
these, with his siege-guns, he could shell the town, and
particularly the railroad depot and the Pocahontas Bridge
near by across the Appomattox. As a consequence, the
trains stopped at a point of safety, whence passengers
could take a back route to the town, or go by way of the
railroad without attracting attention. The disagreeable
persons at the captured batteries soon ascertained the rail-


road schedules, and shelled the vicinity of the depot about
train time.

Soldiers had become accustomed to shells, and did not
fear them much ; so our party, consisting of several mem
bers of my father s brigade, followed the short route, not
withstanding quite a lively artillery fire. We crossed the
bridge at Pocahontas without incident. The firing seemed
directed higher up town. Passing on to Bolingbroke
Street, we saw evidences of recent damage in a great hole
made by a shell in the Bolingbroke Hotel, but a few
moments before, and a dead man was lying on the curb
stone near where the shell had exploded. Turning into
Bolingbroke Street, which ran nearly parallel with the line
of fire from Battery 5, two heavy shells went screaming
over our heads, and burst near where Bolingbroke Street
terminates in Sycamore Street. It was a decided relief
when we reached the latter, and struck off at right angles
from the range of those guns. The official headquarters
were in the court house, which, while it was in the line of
fire, was protected by heavy masses of intervening build
ings. Thither we repaired, but found they were closed
for the day.

The appearance of the town was exceedingly depress
ing. The streets were almost deserted, and the destructive
work of the shells was visible on every hand. Here a
chimney was knocked off ; here a handsome residence was
deserted, with great rents in its walls, and the windows
shattered by explosion ; here stood a church tower muti
lated, the churchyard filled with new-made graves. As
we moved onward, one of our party pointed to where
Colonel Page of our brigade was buried. He had been
killed but a week before, and was buried near the front
door of a church, within three feet of the sidewalk. On
the court-house steps a group of dirty soldiers were gath-


erecl about a poor little half -starved white girl, who sat
singing. She had an attractive face, with large, wistful
eyes, and a sweet child-voice. When she sang, her whole
soul was in her song, which seemed to be highly appre
ciated by the soldiers. They joined in the chorus after
each verse. I remember the name of the song, the first
verse, and the chorus, although I never heard them before
or since. It was called " Loula," and ran as follows :

" With a heart forsaken I wander
In silence, in grief, and alone ;
On a form departed I ponder,

For Loula, sweet Loula, is gone.


" Gone where the roses have faded,
Gone where the meadows are bare,
To a land by orange-blossoms shaded,
Where summer ever lingers in the air."

The soldiers seemed deeply touched by the plaintive
melody, and joined with genuine feeling in the mournful
chorus. Its sadness was in accord with their own desper
ate situation. They made her repeat it several times, and,
when it was over, paid her in food, or such little trifles or
trinkets as they possessed, not in money, for they had

About the song, the singer, the soldiers, the scene, and
its surroundings there was something intensely pathetic
and depressing, and I turned away with a heartsick feel
ing, not relieved by the silence and desolation along the
route to my father s quarters at the residence of a Mr.
Dunlop in the western part of the town. I found him in
the act of going to tea with his staff, if a meal at which
there was neither tea nor coffee may be so designated.

Our meeting after two years separation years in
which so much had happened to both of us was inex
pressibly delightful. In my father s greeting was blended


love for his " little Benjamin," pride in recent events,
and solicitude concerning my fate in the dangerous present-

The two years of war since we parted showed their
effects upon him. He had aged decidedly. But his eye
was as bright and his spirit as unconquered as at the

We hugged and kissed each other as if I had been a
boy of ten, and then, turning to his staff and a visitor, he
introduced me as his boy, whose " head was so hard he had
burst a bombshell against it."

The evening being very warm, the tea-table was spread
under the trees in the Dunlop yard. Among those pre
sent were : Colonel Koman, of Beauregard s staff, young
Fred Fleet, adjutant-general, my brother Richard, and
Barksdale Warwick, the two aids-de-camp. The con
versation was jolly, and the meal surprisingly inviting, for
Lieutenant Warwick had returned that day from a short
leave of absence, bringing a number of good things. My
father occupied some outbuildings, where his generous
host, Mr. Dunlop, had supplied him with knives, forks,
plates, and table outfit, giving our tea-table under the
trees quite a luxurious appearance. And there were my
old companions, Joshua and Smith, two of my father s
young slaves, who performed all the offices of grooms,
butlers, and dining-room servants for the staff. Lieuten
ant Warwick s Jim was the cook. As Joshua and Smith
appeared with plates and hot biscuits and a smoking pot
of parched-corn coffee, they broke into broad grins at
sight of me. Putting down their things unceremoniously,
they rushed up, exclaiming, " How you do, Mars John ?
Gord Amighty! how you is grow d ! Dey didn t hurt
you much when dey shot you, did dey ? " When my father
repeated his joke about bursting a bombshell with my


head, they guffawed and said, " Spec it s so, fur he cer
tainly always did have a pow ful hard head." And then
they hurried off about their duties, reserving more confi
dential chats about old times for later occasions when we
should meet at the stables or the kitchen.

Although our beds were on the floor, the quarters were
very comfortable, with some features of decent living, such
as tables, chairs, and a few books. As we sat there, the
picket-firing along the lines from the Appomattox on the
east to the Jerusalem plank road to the south of the city
was unusually brisk, making one think of corn rapidly
popping. These sounds were interspersed with exploding
shells at intervals of less than a minute, often as frequent
as every few seconds. By stepping out beyond the cover
of the trees, we could see the trajectory of the mortar-
shells sent up from both sides. The burning fuses gave
us the line through the darkness. The firing generally
became more active in the evening. Our brigade was
already in the trenches, but my father, being still in com
mand of the city, had not yet joined his own command.

" There has been heavy firing on the right this after
noon, general," said Colonel Koman.

" Yes," replied my father, " Grant is evidently trying
to extend his left as far as the Weldon Railroad. I met
Mahone to-day, who said that he and Wilcox were mov
ing out to intercept him. Whenever Mahone moves out,
somebody is apt to be hurt."

" Mahone is a Virginia Military Institute graduate,"
said I, with undisguised pride.

" There he goes again," said my father, smiling ; " up to
this time we have had West Point, West Point, West
Point. Now we shall have Virginia Military Institute,
Virginia Military Institute, Virginia Military Institute,
I presume. But seriously speaking, colonel, since the


death of Stonewall Jackson, the two men who seem to me
to be the most gallant, enterprising, and 4 coming soldiers
of Lee s army are this little fellow Mahone and young
Gordon, of Georgia." He then proceeded to give a sketch
of Mahone, whom he knew well. Mahone was born in
Southampton County, at Jerusalem, the county seat. It
was only about fifty or sixty miles east of Petersburg.
His father was known to everybody in the county as
Major Mahone, and kept the tavern at Jerusalem. Keep
ing tavern did not imply that he was not as good as any
body else in the community, and in fact he was, although
he may not have been of such patrician extraction as some
of the other people thereabouts. He associated with the
best of them, and they with him, and he was respected as
a man of many sterling good qualities, possessed of strong
individuality. Of Irish extraction, he inherited the most
prominent characteristics of his race; was brave, open-
hearted, free-spoken, a free liver, and not over-prosperous.
His son " Billy," as everybody called him, grew up in
the atmosphere of a country tavern. He did not hesitate
in his youth to hold a horse for one of his father s guests,
and take a tip for the service. He saw a great deal of
liquor drunk at his father s bar, and a great deal of card-
playing in his father s tavern. He was not, in his day,
above taking in a tray of toddies to the people in a private
room playing draw poker, or brag, or lou. He heard a
great deal of hard swearing, and had acquired that ac
complishment himself. His youth was in the days of cock-
fighting ; and betting upon the result was by no means
deemed disreputable. He not only witnessed cocking-
mains between the Virginia birds and those from Weldon
and vicinity in the adjoining counties of North Carolina,
but soon had birds of his own, and scrupled not to fight
them with all comers, or to back them with all the means


he could command. It was the days of horse-racing also,
and young " Billy " owned a crack quarter-nag, which he
would race with anybody for all he had, at any time and
in any place. He generally rode himself, for he was of
very diminutive stature. And he usually won, for he was
a youngster of precocious judgment, boundless enterprise,
great ambition to win at any game he played, and indom
itable grit. He also had the faculty of making friends,
and interesting people in his success. Everybody in
Southampton County knew him, and recognized in him
elements of unusual power.

His father was perhaps too much interested in his busi
ness or his own diversions to concern himself overmuch
about Billy s education, but the subject did not escape a
neighbor, who had brought his influence to bear in favor
of young Mahone. He was a state senator, with the right
to appoint a state cadet to the Virginia Military Institute.
This meant that the cadet so appointed received board
and tuition free. Interested in Billy, he persuaded his
father and himself that he ought not to waste his youth in
dissipation and grow up in ignorance, but should accept
this appointment. Mahone was prompt to do so. He
entered the Institute, and graduated with distinction at
the age of twenty-one in the class of 1847. He consci
entiously performed the obligation which a state cadet
assumes, to teach school for three years after graduation ;
and meanwhile made other powerful friends, who advanced
him in his subsequent career.

At the Virginia Military Institute, he developed a
decided talent for engineering. Having completed his
term as school-teacher, he secured a position as surveyor
of a railroad running from Alexandria, Va., to Orange
Court House. His talents were recognized ; he was
promoted ; and finally, through the influence mainly of


Colonel Francis Mallory, of Norfolk, he was made en
gineer of a line from Norfolk to Petersburg. Here he was
confronted by the problem of securing a roadbed through
the oozy morasses of the Dismal Swamp. He solved the
problem, built the road, and made it straight as an arrow
for sixty miles, regardless of obstructions. His engineer
ing methods to obtain a solid roadbed on marshy ground,
then pronounced as impracticable, have now come to be
accepted by the profession as the best yet invented. He
rose from position to position, until, at the outbreak of
the war, when but thirty-five years old, he was president
of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.

He promptly formed, and was elected colonel of, the
Sixth Virginia Regiment, composed of the elite of Norfolk
and Petersburg, and, when that regiment was brigaded,
was made brigadier. Thenceforth, in every engagement
in which it took part, his command was conspicuous. In
the peninsular and Rappahannock campaigns, at second
Manassas, in front of Petersburg, his course was like the
eagle s, " upward and onward and true to the line," and,
after all his fighting and losses, when Lee s army stacked
arms at Appomattox, Mahone s division had maintained
its organization better, and laid down more arms, than
any in the Army of Northern Virginia. The facts of his
youth and the brilliancy of his career up to date were
that night the subject of conversation until the visitors

We lay awake talking for some time after we retired.
My father recounted his hard fighting from June 15 to
June 19 inclusive, in the effort to hold the city until Gen
eral Lee s arrival, and never seemed to tire of asking
about the behavior of the cadets, seeking ever to conceal
his pride in our achievements by denouncing the crime of
putting such babies into battle. In his own command, the


losses had been terrific. Many a fine fellow whom I
knew well had been killed or maimed in the hard fighting
of the previous week. Then we counted up the casualties
in our own immediate family. Since 1861, he, three sons,
and nine nephews had gone into the Confederate service.
Thus far, two had been killed and six wounded.

" You must go down the first thing in the morning to
the hospital, and see your cousin Douglas. It may be the
last opportunity," said he, his voice softening as he spoke.

" Why, he is not much hurt, is he? " said I, for he had

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 23 of 35)