John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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the house and the young girls brought food and dainties
for their haversacks, and wearing apparel for use in
camp : the packing of these stores took place in the hall
way, and then followed the farewells. It was " Good-by,
Lucy," " Good-by, Mary," " Good-by, Jennie," and Fitz
Lee must have been kin to a great many of those
pretty girls. His young staff officer kissed his mother
and sister farewell ; Fitz Lee, true to his cavalry instincts,
began kissing also ; this doubtless inspired his young
captain to extend like courtesies to visitors as well as
the family, and wherever he led, Fitz followed. By the
time their plunder had been placed upon their steeds, and
they, with jangling spurs, had scrambled to their saddles,
Fitz Lee and staff had taken " cavalry toll " from every
pretty girl in sight. Finally, with many fond adieus and
waving plumes, they rode away down Cary Street, their
mounted banjoist playing the air, and they singing in
chorus, " If you want to have a good time, jine the

They passed over the bridge across the James, their
route to Petersburg illuminated by the harvest moon, and
a day or two afterwards were making it very uncomfort
able for General Wilson at Eeams s Station. In later
days, General Fitz and I were political opponents, but
that fact never obliterated my affectionate remembrance
of his merry, gallant cavalry leadership, or of the debt
I owe him for the noble tribute he has placed upon
record to my father s unflinching courage upon the re
treat, and until the last gun was fired at Appomattox.

Less conspicuous than Hampton and the Lees was the
cavalry brigadier-general, Deering. " Jim " Deering, as
everybody called him, was a very young man ; if I mis
take not, he was a second-class man at West Point when


the war broke out ; yet, when killed upon the retreat from
Petersburg, he had risen to the command of a brigade.
He was a man of remarkable health and strength and
courage, with a multitude of friends. Pursuing the
horse simile, under which the three others have been
grouped, he may be likened to a promising colt of fault
less breeding, with a brilliant record in his first year s
performance. Deering was too young when killed to be
classed among the great leaders, but was a youngster of
unusual military instinct.

Returning to the infantry, there was Pickett, whose
name is linked forever with that of Gettysburg. Pickett
was a striking figure : he was a tawny man, of medium
height and of stout build ; his long yellow hair was
thick, hanging about his ears and shoulders, suggestive
of a lion s mane. He was blue-eyed, with white eye
lashes, florid complexion, and reddish mustache and im
perial emphasizing his blonde appearance ; he was of the
Saxon type. Pickett was a gentleman by birth. He had
a great number of relatives and friends in Richmond and
in the James River section ; they were justly proud of
his military career. He was a high and a free liver, and
often declared that, to fight like a gentleman, a man must
eat and drink like a gentleman. General Lee was a
very prudent and abstemious man himself, but never
censorious touching the mode of life of his inferiors
when they discharged the duties assigned to them. In
this respect he was different from Stonewall Jackson,
who rather expected those under his command to conform
to his simple mode of life. Pickett was a trained soldier
and loved fighting. Fitz Lee tells a characteristic anec
dote of him : As he rode into the fight at Gettysburg, in
passing General Lee he cried out, pointing to the front,
" Come on, Fitz, and go with us ; we shall have lots of


fun there presently." It was an odd sort of fun he had
that day ; but I have no doubt it was the life in which he
was happiest.

I have already described Mahone, and now come to
John B. Gordon, of Georgia, a division commander under
General Lee, who had attained marked distinction in
spite of the fact that he was not a West Pointer. Gor
don is still alive, and not appreciably changed from what
he was in 64 ; he was then a tall, spare-built young
fellow, of very military bearing, his handsome face
adorned by a deep gash received in one of the battles of
the valley. The military genius of General Gordon was
never tested in any independent command, but his fear
lessness and eagerness to assail the enemy, whenever and
wherever he was ordered to do so, made him one of the
most conspicuous and popular commanders under General
Lee. Wherever he appeared, the soldiers flocked about
him and cheered him ; wherever he commanded, they felt
confident of hot work ; and wherever he led (he never
followed), the soldiers were willing to go, because they
had sublime faith in his fidelity and courage. We often
saw General Gordon, who was a warm admirer of my
father ; and to this day I delight to honor him as one of
the truest and bravest of Lee s lieutenants.

It has always seemed to me that sufficient recognition
is not given to the great service rendered by the artillery.
This is probably due to the fact that it is under the
command and direction of some general officer, who re
ceives credit for success. Then, too, the numbers of the
artillery are not sufficient to attract attention, as in the
case of cavalry or infantry, when, in large bodies, they
are conspicuously courageous. General Lee s chief of
artillery, General Long, is seldom heard of in the accounts
of the fighting about Petersburg, and although artillery


played a prominent part in every engagement, the com
manders are seldom spoken of, while infantry and .cav
alry officers are noticed conspicuously. No general ever
commanded a finer body of young artillery officers than
General Lee. Alexander, Pegram, Haskell, Carter, Brax-
ton, Parker, Sturtevant, Breathitt, and a number of others
I might name, were counted as the very flower of the
army. Yet they are gradually disappearing from view in
the prominence given to the officers in higher command.

Colonel William J. Pegram was the most picturesque
figure among these many distinguished artillerists. With
out early military training, save in our little boy-soldier
company in Richmond, he entered the service as a pri
vate, and by his pronounced courage and military talents
became a colonel at the age of twenty-one, and was killed
at the age of twenty-three years, when his promotion to
brigadier-general had been ordered. Pegram was a boyish-
looking fellow, very near-sighted, and, with his gold spec
tacles and clean-shaven face, looked more like a student of
divinity than a soldier. He was reticent, modest, but of
boundless ambition. He had indulged in none of the dis
sipations of youth, and was extremely pious. He loved
fighting, feared nothing, and was an exacting disciplina
rian. General Lee, while undemonstrative in most things,
regarded " Willie " Pegram, as everybody called him,
with undisguised affection and pride.

John Haskell, of South Carolina, was another of his ar
tillery paladins, who was never so happy as when standing
amid the smoke of his own batteries. To him primarily
was due in a great measure the saving of Lee s army at
the crater fight. But I must pass from the description of
these lesser lights to one who, like Saul, towered, from
his shoulders and upward, tallest among all the people.

It is impossible to speak of General Lee without seem-


ing to deal in hyperbole. He had assumed command of
the Virginia army under peculiar circumstances. It had
been organized at Manassas in 61 under Beauregard and
Joseph E. Johnston. In the winter of 61 and 62, it had
been transferred to the peninsula between the York and
the James, still under the command of General Johnston.
Under him it retreated towards Kichmond, and he re
mained in command until wounded in the battle of Seven
Pines. General Johnston had inspired the army with
great confidence in his ability, and undoubtedly possessed
the quality of securing the deep and abiding faith and
affection of his troops. During the period above de
scribed, General Lee had not gained ground in public
esteem. In 61, he had been assigned to the command
and direction of those impossible campaigns in West Vir
ginia from which he had emerged with a loss of prestige.
They failed, as any campaign must have done in such
a country. Whether or not due allowance was made for
conditions, in judging of Lee s ability, need not be dis
cussed. Suffice it to say, that after the termination of
the West Virginia campaign, General Lee was sent to
Charleston, where he was engaged in strengthening the
fortifications until May, 1862, and that in June accident
called him to the command of the army about Richmond.

It is no disparagement of General Lee to say that there
were many who, at the time, regarded the wounding of
General Johnston as a profound misfortune. But it was
not long before Lee established himself in the affection
and confidence of that army, and took a place never occu
pied by any one else. Before the last gun fired at Mal-
vern Hill, at the close of the seven days fighting, the
army had become known as Lee s army. It never had
another name, and as such it will go down to history.

I have seen many pictures of General Lee, but never


one that conveyed a correct impression of his appearance.
Above the ordinary size, his proportions were perfect.
His form had fullness, without any appearance of super
fluous flesh, and was as erect as that of a cadet, without
the slightest apparent constraint. His features are too
well known to need description, but no representation of
General Lee which I have ever seen properly conveys the
light and softness of his eye, the tenderness and intellectu
ality of his mouth, or the indescribable refinement of his
face. One picture gives him a meatiness about the nose ;
another, hard or coarse lines about the mouth ; another,
heaviness about the chin. None of them give the effect
of his hair and beard. I have seen all the great men of
our times, except Mr. Lincoln, and have no hesitation in
saying that Robert E. Lee was incomparably the greatest-
looking man I ever saw. I say the greatest-looking. By
this I do not mean to provoke discussion whether he
was, in fact, the greatest man of his age. One thing is,
however, certain. Every man in that army believed that
Robert E. Lee was the greatest man alive, and their faith
in him alone kept that army together during the last six
months of its existence.

There was nothing of the pomp or panoply of war about
the headquarters, or the military government, or the bear
ing, of General Lee. The place selected as his headquar
ters was unpretentious. The officers of his staff had none
of the insolence of martinets. Oddly enough, the three
most prominent members of his staff Colonel Venable,
Colonel Marshall, and Colonel Walter Taylor were
not even West Pointers. Persons having business with
his headquarters were treated like human beings, and
courtesy, considerateness, and even deference were shown
to the humblest. He had no gilded retinue, but a devoted
band of simple scouts and couriers, who, in their quietness


and simplicity, modeled themselves after him. General
Lee as often rode out to consult with his subordinates as
he sent for them to come to him. The sight of him upon
the roadside, or in the trenches, was as common as that
of any subordinate in the army. When he approached or
disappeared, it was with no blare of trumpets or clank
of equipments. Mounted upon his historic war-horse
" Traveler," he ambled quietly about, keeping his eye
upon everything pertaining to the care and defense of
his army. " Traveler" was no pedigreed, wide-nostriled,
gazelle-eyed thoroughbred. He was a close-coupled,
round-barreled, healthy, comfortable, gentleman s saddle-
horse. Gray, with black points, he was sound in eye,
wind, and limb, without strain, sprain, spavin, or secretion
of any sort ; ready to go, and able to stay ; and yet with
out a single fancy trick, or the pretentious bearing of
the typical charger. He was a horse bought by General
Lee during his West Virginia campaign.

When General Lee rode up to our headquarters, or
elsewhere, he came as unostentatiously as if he had been
the head of a plantation, riding over his fields to inquire
and give directions about ploughing or seeding. He ap
peared to have no mighty secrets concealed from his sub
ordinates. He assumed no airs of superior authority. He
repelled no kindly inquiries, and was capable of jocular
remarks. He did not hold himself aloof in solitary gran
deur. His bearing was that of a friend having a common
interest in a common venture with the person addressed,
and as if he assumed that his subordinate was as deeply
concerned as himself in its success. Whatever greatness
was accorded to him was not of his own seeking. He was
less of an actor than any man I ever saw. But the im
pression which that man made by his presence, and by his
leadership, upon all who came in contact with him, can be


described by no other term than that of grandeur. When
I have stood at evening, and watched the great clouds
banked in the west, and tinged by evening sunlight ;
when, on the Western plains, I have looked at the peaks
of the Rocky Mountains outlined against the sky ; when,
in mid-ocean, I have seen the limitless waters encircling
us, unbounded save by the infinite horizon, the gran
deur, the vastness of these have invariably suggested
thoughts of General Robert E. Lee. Certain it is that the
Confederacy contained no other man like him. When its
brief career was ended, in him was centred, as in no other
man, the trust, the love, almost the worship, of those who
remained steadfast to the end. When he said that the
career of the Confederacy was ended ; that the hope of
an independent government must be abandoned ; that all
had been done which mortals could accomplish against the
power of overwhelming numbers and resources ; and that
the duty of the future was to abandon the dream of a con
federacy, and to render a new and cheerful allegiance to
a reunited government, his utterances were accepted as
true as Holy Writ. No other human being upon earth,
no other earthly power, could have produced such acquies
cence, or could have compelled such prompt acceptance
of that final and irreversible judgment.

Of General Lee s military greatness, absolute or rela
tive, I shall not speak ; of his moral greatness I need not.
The former, in view of the conditions with which he was
hampered, must leave a great deal to speculation and con
jecture ; the latter is acknowledged by all the world. The
man who could so stamp his impress upon his nation, ren
dering all others insignificant beside him, and yet die
without an enemy ; the soldier who could make love for
his person a substitute for pay and clothing and food, and
could, by the constraint of that love, hold together a naked,


starving band, and transform it into a fighting army ;
the heart which, after the failure of its great endeavor,
could break in silence, and die without the utterance of
one word of bitterness, such a man, such a soldier, such
a heart, must have been great indeed, great beyond the
power of eulogy.

Not in five hundred years does the opportunity come
to any boy, I care not who he may be, to witness scenes
like these, or live in daily contact with men whose names
will endure as long as man loves military glory.



MUCH of the month of July we passed in the trenches.
Father was in command of Petersburg, and Colonel J.
Thomas Goode commanded the brigade, but we visited it
almost daily. It was assigned to Bushrod Johnson s divi
sion, and our position was next to the South Carolinians
under Elliott. Our left was about a hundred yards south
of a bastion known as Elliott s salient.

Life in the trenches was indescribably monotonous and
uncomfortable. In time of sunshine, the reflected heat
from the new red-clay embankments was intense, and un
relieved by shade or breeze ; and in wet weather one was
ankle-deep in tough, clinging mud. The incessant shell
ing and picket-firing made extreme caution necessary in
moving about ; and each day, almost each hour, added to
the list of casualties. The opposing lines were not over
two hundred yards apart, and the distance between the
rifle-pits was about one hundred yards. Both sides had
attained accurate marksmanship, which they practiced
with merciless activity in picking off men. One may
fancy the state of mind of soldiers thus confined, who
knew that even the act of going to a spring for water
involved risk of life or limb.

The men resorted to many expedients to secure some
degree of comfort and protection. They learned to bur
row like conies. Into the sides of the trenches and trav
erses they went with bayonet and tin cups to secure shade


or protection from rain. Soon, such was their proficiency
that, at sultry midday or during a rainfall, one might look
up or down the trenches without seeing anybody but the
sentinel. At sound of the drum, the heads of the soldiers
would pop up and out of the earth, as if they had been
prairie-dogs or gophers. Still, many lives were lost by
the indifference to danger which is begotten by living
constantly in its presence.

To appreciate fully the truth that men are but children
of a larger growth, one must have commanded soldiers.
Without constant guidance and government and punish
ment, they become careless about clothes, food, ammuni
tion, cleanliness, and even personal safety. They will at
once eat or throw away the rations furnished for several
days, never considering the morrow. They will cast aside
or give away their clothing because to-day is warm, never
calculating that to-morrow they may be suffering for the
lack of it. They will open their cartridge-boxes and dump
their cartridges on the roadside to lighten their load,
although a few hours later their lives may depend upon
having a full supply. When they draw their pay, their
first object is to find some way to get rid of it as quickly
as possible. An officer, to be really efficient, must add
to the qualities of courage and firmness those of nurse,
monitor, and purveyor for grown-up children, in whom the
bumps of improvidence and destructiveness are abnormally

Thus, in spite of warnings and threat of punishment
for failure to approach and depart from the lines by the
protected covered ways, it was impossible to make the
men observe these reasonable precautions. For a long
time they had been shot at, night and day. A man, be
cause he had not been hit, would soon come to regard
himself as invulnerable. The fact that his comrades had


been killed or wounded appeared to make little impres
sion upon him. Past immunity made him so confident
that he would walk coolly over the same exposed ground
where somebody else had been shot the day before. The
" spat," " whiz, * " zip " of hostile bullets would not even
make him quicken his pace. Mayhap he would take his
short pipe out of his mouth and yell defiantly, " Ah-h
Yank yer kain t shoot," and go on his way tempt
ing fate, until a bullet struck him and he was dead, or
maimed for life. At times I questioned whether these
soldiers were not really seeking relief by death or wounds
from the torture of such intolerable life. It was enough
to make men mad and reckless.

Occasionally we had suspension of firing. At such times
even ladies visited the trenches. I recall particularly one
party of pretty girls who came over from Richmond, rode
out on horseback to a point in rear of our position, and,
dismounting, advanced boldly across the exposed ground,
and stood for some time on our parapets watching the
Union lines. The, intrenchments of the enemy were lined
with soldiers sunning themselves, or engaged in a favorite
occupation familiar to all old soldiers, but not to be de
scribed in polite literature. " Hello, Johnnie ! it s ladies
day, ain t it ? " called out a fellow from a rifle-pit, when
he saw the riding-habits outlined against the sky.

We often talked to each other. Sometimes our con
versation was civil and kindly enough. Sometimes it
was facetious. At others it was of the grossest and most
unmentionable character. On an occasion like this,
the presence of ladies was greeted as a high compliment
by our men, and accepted by the enemy as gratifying
evidence of our confidence in their good faith. By
both sides the fair visitors were treated with the utmost


A truce like that described would be terminated by
some one calling out from the rifle-pits that orders had
come to reopen fire at a designated time, sufficiently remote
to allow everybody to seek cover. When the hour arrived,
at it again they would go, as fiercely as ever. The follow
ing incident will convey some idea of the precision of
marksmanship attained by constant practice. It was told
me repeatedly by Isaac Newman, one of the most fearless
and truthful men I ever knew. He was the survivor of
the episode. Newman and a comrade, whose name was
Blake, I think, were detailed as sharpshooters in one of
the rifle-pits in our front. Sharpshooters were posted and
relieved at night, and but once in twenty-four hours. The
attempt to reach or return from a rifle-pit in the daytime
would have been followed by certain death. The pit was
a hole in the ground large enough to contain two men.
A curtain of earth was thrown up in front, with a narrow
embrasure through which to fire. On the inside was a
small banquette in front, upon which the men could sit
or kneel when firing. Newman and Blake were reckless
and resourceful chaps. They hit upon the device of tak
ing a small looking-glass into the pit with them. This
they hung opposite the embrasure.

By this arrangement they could sit on the banquette,
with their backs to the enemy, and see in the looking-
glass all that was going on in front, without exposing their
heads. They were inveterate card-players. Neither had
any money, but for stakes they used square bits of tobacco
cut the size of a " chaw." This was high stakes for Con
federate soldiers. With a greasy, well-thumbed pack of
playing-cards, they indulged in the excitement of seven-up
for several hours. The stakes were placed, and the cards
thrown down upon the part of the banquette which
lay between them under the embrasure. As the game


proceeded, both congratulated themselves that they had
discovered a device and diversion which made life in a
rifle-pit comparatively safe and endurable. Instead of
craning and peeping on the lookout, all that was neces
sary was to cast a glance now and then at the looking-
glass. Occasionally, one or the other would stick his cap
on the end of a gun, and put it up above the breastwork,
and some watchful sharpshooter would bang away at it.
After a while, Newman, who had lost all his tobacco, see
ing his last chew was to be won by Blake, snatched the
stakes, and stuck a chew into his mouth. This was fol
lowed by some friendly scuffling and horse-play, in the
course of which Blake s head was incautiously exposed
for an instant at the embrasure. It was for but a mo
ment, but that moment was fatal. Zip ! spat ! came a
bullet, quick as a flash. It crashed through poor Blake s
temples and broke the looking-glass. Newman was left
in the pit with the dead body of Blake until midnight.
When relieved, he returned to the lines bearing the re
mains of his friend upon his shoulders.

In telling this story, Newman always followed it by
adding that he believed the man who killed Blake had a
personal grudge against him, because the next morning he
made a pot of coffee, the last he had, and set it on the
parapet to cool ; and just as he reached up for it, a shot,
fired from the same rifle-pit whence Blake had been killed,
struck the coffee-pot, and emptied its scalding contents
down his jacket sleeve.

When our troops first manned the lines, the things most
dreaded were the great mortar-shells. They were partic
ularly terrible at night. Their parabolas through the air
were watched with intense apprehension, and their explo
sion seemed to threaten annihilation. Within a week,
they had ceased to occasion any other feeling among the


men than a desire to secure their fragments. They had

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 25 of 35)