Copyright
John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

The end of an era online

. (page 27 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 27 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


threatened movement by charging. Cautioning his men
to reserve their fire, he ordered them forward. Those
who saw this assault pronounce it to have been, in many
respects, the most remarkable which they ever witnessed.
At the command " Forward ! " the men sprang to their
feet ; advanced at a run in perfect alignment ; absolutely
refrained from firing until within a few feet of the
enemy ; then, with their guns almost upon the bodies of
their foes, delivered a deadly fire, and, rushing upon
them with bayonets and clubbed muskets, drove them
pell-mell back into the intrenchments which they had
just left.

General Lee, when advised of this brilliant assault,
remarked, "That must have been Mahone s old bri
gade." When news came confirming it, he again said,
" I thought so."

My heart beat high when all the army rang with
the praises of " Mahone s old brigade." Part of them
were " our boys " from Norfolk, many of them little
older than myself; companions, playmates, friends. At
the outbreak of the war, they called them " tender-feet "
and " dandies." Their uniforms were very smart, and
their feet were very tender. From one of their earlier
marches they came back limping, with their feet bleeding
and their shoes upon their bayonets ; the boys named
them in derision the " Bloody Sixth." But their hearts



THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER 365

were true, and soon their feet grew tough enough. They
were the sons of the best of the old Tidewater Virginians
of English descent, and, by the time second Manassas
and Crampton s Gap were fought, the " Bloody Sixth,"
of " Mahone s old brigade," had earned its title by blood
from the heart as well as from the feet. To-day it
crowned its record, for old F Company of Norfolk, now
known as K Company, Sixth Virginia Regiment, a com
pany modeled in happier days after the aristocratic com
pany of the New York Seventh, took sixteen men into
action and lost every man but one, eight killed outright
and seven wounded.

In the position gained by Mahone s old brigade, nothing
intervened between them and the enemy but the pile
of breastworks, they on the outside, the enemy within
the crater and gorge line. The fighting by which they
established themselves was desperate and hand-to-hand.

Superb Haskell once more came to their rescue : he
moved up his little Eprouvette mortars almost to our
lines, and, cutting down his charge of powder to an
ounce and a half, so that his shell scarcely mounted fifty
feet, threw a continuous hail of small shell into the pit,
over the heads of our men. Our fellows seized the
muskets abandoned by the retreating enemy, and threw
them like pitchforks into the huddled troops over the
ramparts. Screams, groans, and explosions throwing up
human limbs made it a scene of awful carnage. Yet the
artillery of the enemy searched every spot, and they still
had a formidable force of fighting men.

The Georgia brigade, charging a little after Weisi-
ger s, was decimated and repulsed. Our own brigade,
which was engaged from first to last and never yielded a
foot of ground, lost heavily, and Mahone s brigade, the
" immortals " of that day, was almost annihilated. About



366



THE END OF AN ERA



one o clock, the Alabama brigade of Mahone s division,
under Saunders, arrived upon the scene, formed and
charged, and the white flag went up from the crater.
Out of it into our lines filed as prisoners eleven hundred
and one Union troops, including two brigade command
ers, and we captured twenty-one standards and several
thousand of small arms. Over a thousand of the en
emy s dead were in and about the breach, and his losses
exceeded five thousand effective troops, while our lines
were reestablished just where they were when the battle
began.

The crater fight was not only one of the bloodiest, but
one of the most brutal of the war. It was the first time
Lee s army had encountered negroes, and their presence
excited in the troops indignant malice such as had char
acterized no former conflict. To the credit of the blacks
be it said that they advanced in better order and pushed
forward farther than the whites, on that day so unfortu
nate for the Union cause ; but when our men, in frenzy,
rushed upon and drove the cold steel into them, they did
not show the stubborn power of endurance for which the
Anglo-Saxon is preeminent, nor do I believe they ever
will on any field. On the other hand, our men, inflamed
to relentless vengeance by their presence, disregarded the
rules of warfare which restrained them in battle with
their own race, and brained and butchered the blacks
until the slaughter was sickening.

At the first report of the battle, my father promptly
repaired to the lines. His interest in and affection for
his brigade was like that of a father for his children ;
although not in actual command, the duties of his tem
porary position were such that he might with propriety
go forth and reassure his own troops by his presence.
Moving out rapidly to the opening of the covered way



THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER 367

leading to our brigade, we left our horses and hurried for
ward to the lines. We came upon the outer works about
midway of the brigade, and found the troops manning
them at intervals of fully ten feet apart, for the brigade
was massed upon the left in the traverses and covered
ways, firing steadily and rapidly upon the crater. A tre
mendous artillery fire from both sides raked the vicinity
of the crater, and the danger to our troops from several
of our light batteries to the north was almost as great
as that from the Union guns. Every shot which missed
the crater came bounding down our lines. Exchanging a
few words with the fearless Goode, who had his troops
well in hand, my father at once proceeded to report the
condition of affairs to General Lee, whom we had seen as
we entered the works, and to order up reinforcements
from the teamsters and cooks at our wagon camp.

One of the first wounded men we saw was my cousin,
" Old Suggs," whose eternal talk about the " Adventures
of Simon Suggs " had named the family at the Virginia
Military Institute. Now he was sergeant-major of our
left regiment, and a glancing ball had struck him on
an eye tooth and knocked it out. I presume he had his
mouth open, possibly talking about Simon Suggs. His
wound proved insignificant, but when we met him, he was
as bloody as a butcher s cleaver.

Hurrying back through the covered way, we overtook
two stretcher-bearers with what seemed to be the dead
body of an officer.

" Who is it ? " exclaimed my father.

" Captain Preston, of the 34th," was the reply.

Eemoving the handkerchief across his face, we saw that
a minie ball had pierced him over the eye. " Poor fel
low," almost sobbed my father, as he bent over him,
" gallant and true to the last." For in the lines we had



368 THE END OF AN ERA

heard how a craven in one of our salients near the Baxter
road had deserted his guns, and Preston had called for
volunteers, manned them, and worked them until he was
thus shot down. He was a handsome fellow as he lay
there, apparently dead : thank Heaven he was not dead,
but lived to hear the army resounding with praise of his
courage. The minie which pierced him was in sight, and
the surgeons extracted it. He recovered, and for years
after peace returned was clerk of a court in Lynch burg,
where one might see him writing and the deep scar over
his eye, his handsomest dimple, throbbing with his
thoughts as he wrote them down.

While we were back in the town, hurrying every avail
able teamster and clerk and cook and man of any kind
to the front, the famous charge of Mahone took place, and
others were reaping the glory of that day. By the time
our work was done, the Alabamians arrived, the surren
der occurred, the firing slacked, and the prisoners came
running into our lines from the ravine. It was a motley
gathering, composed of troops, white and black, from
every command and every branch of service in Burnside s
corps. There they were, from the refined and distin
guished-looking General Bartlett, who bore his misfortune
like the Christian gentleman he was, down to the wildest-
looking darkey, who expected every moment that he
would be massacred.

The prisoners were corralled at Poplar Lawn, in Peters
burg. It was soon discovered that nearly all the negroes
were from eastern Virginia, many of them owned by the
men they were fighting. A notice was posted permitting
owners to reclaim their property, and the negroes were
delighted at the prospect of being treated as slaves, in
stead of being put to death or sent to a Confederate mili
tary prison. Some of the reclamations made were dra-



THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER 369

matic, some pathetic, and some highly amusing. This last
expression seems out of place in connection with this
awful tragedy, but it is true, nevertheless. The negroes
had witnessed such fierce butchery of their companions up
to the time they had raised the white flag, that they were
frantic with fear, and saw no hope of escape. As they
came running into our lines through the dangers of the
firing from their own friends, they landed among our
men, falling on their knees, their eyes rolling in terror,
exclaiming, " Fur God sake, Marster, doan kill me. Spar
me, Marster, and I 11 wuk fur you as long as I lib."
" Marster " never fell from their poor lips so glibly or
so often in all their lives ; and even after they had been
with us long enough to know it was not our purpose to
put them to death, when one of them discovered his
real " Marster," he greeted him as if he beheld an angel
of deliverance. According to the story of every mother s
son of them, he was not a volunteer, but had been forced
into the Union service against his will. Of course we
knew just how much of these tales to believe ; but it is
safe to say that every master who reclaimed a slave from
the Federal prisoners captured at the crater felt reason
ably certain his man would never again volunteer upon
either side in any war.

It seems fitting to close this ghastly narrative with one
ludicrous incident, which shows that no situation is so
bloody or so tragic that it has not some episode to relieve
its horrors. In our brigade was a young fellow who,
while fighting gallantly at the traverse near the crater, re
ceived a bullet in the forearm. His wound was dressed,
and he was given a ten days furlough. He was from
eastern Virginia, and his home was in the Union lines.
He had no friends, no money, and nowhere to go. In
this condition, he was wandering about the streets of



370 THE END OF AN ERA

Petersburg the day after the crater fight, when his eye
fell upon the notice to owners that they might reclaim
their slaves from the prisoners. Thinking that possibly
he might find one of his father s slaves among them, he
wandered down to Poplar Lawn. In vain he sought for
a familiar face, and was turning away, when an attractive,
smiling young darkey caught his eye and said, " Boss, fur
God sake, claim me fur yo nigger."

" What do you mean, you rascal ? I never saw you
before," was the reply.

" I knows it, sah," said the darkey ; " but ef I says I
belongs to you, who gwine to dispute it, if you don t ? "

" If I had you, I d sell you to-morrow," was the quick
reply of the young fellow, whose eye brightened with a
happy thought.

" I doan keer ef you does sell me, sah," said the darkey.
" Dat s a heap better dan goin to a Confederick prison
pen."

" Done ! " said the soldier ; " when I come back here,
you speak to me and call me 4 Mars Ben, and I 11 attend
to the rest."

So out he went, and soon came back ; and, as he went
searching for his slaves, accompanied by an officer in
charge, the darkey greeted him with " How you do, Mars
Ben ? " Then Ben swore at him, and denounced him for
his ingratitude and desire to kill his master and benefac
tor, and they carried it off so well that no one suspected
the ruse, and the darkey was delivered to " Mars Ben "
as his owner, and " Mars Ben " took him to Richmond
and sold him for 85000 in Confederate money. " Mars
Ben " had a great furlough with that 15000. At the end
of ten days, he returned to duty with a new suit of clothes
and fed like a fighting-cock, but without a dollar in his
pocket. The darkey went to some plantation and never









THE BATTLE OF THE CRATER 371

saw a prison pen, and a year afterwards was a free citizen
of the United States, and probably wound up his career in
some scalawag legislature, or even as a member of Con
gress, who knows ? Such things were possible in those
days.

A short while ago, I met Ben. He is gray-headed now.
I asked him where he was going. He said to a protracted
meeting. He told me he had become religious, and said
he wished I would reform.

" Is it an experience meeting, Ben ? " said I.

" Yes," said he.

" Have you ever told them about that darkey you sold
after the crater fight ? " said I.

" Now, look here, old fellow," said he, growing confi
dential, and with a genuine touch of pitiful pleading in
his voice, " I wish you would not give me away about that
thing. I have prayed for forgiveness for that many a
night. But I don t believe the Lord wants me to expose
myself before my neighbors, and I hope you will not." I
agreed to spare him, and so I will ; but, if necessity
should demand it, I can put my hand upon him now,
within eight hours ride from the spot on which I write.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE CONFEDERATE RESERVES

IN September, 1864, the commission as drill-master,
with rank and pay of second lieutenant, arrived, accompa
nied by orders to report for duty October 1 to Colonel
Robert Preston, commanding a newly organized regiment
of reserve forces at Dublin Depot, in southwestern Vir
ginia. The red seal and signature of the Secretary of
War, and the idea of being addressed as lieutenant, made
their distinct impressions, but did not overcome the
desire to remain with the army at the front.

Vain, however, were all pleadings ; and even Mahone,
when appealed to to intercede for my services, seemed
indifferent, and dwelt upon the honor to be gained by
faithful work in preparing raw troops for actual service,
and the duty of deferring to the judgment and wishes of a
parent. It was easy to see that he and " the old general "
had been talking together since that first meeting.

When, September 30, I boarded a west-bound train at
Petersburg to join my command, the new, bright bar
upon my collar and gilt scrolls upon my sleeves gave
little satisfaction. I felt as if I had been treated like a
baby, tucked away in a place of safety, and was consent
ing to turn my back upon the enemy just when every man
was most needed in Lee s army. And was I not a man ?
Of course I was. I was nearly eighteen ! When my
father parted with me, after much good advice and an
affectionate farewell, I know it was with the solacing



THE CONFEDERATE RESERVES 373

reflection that I, at least, was out of harm s way. If such
were his feelings and his purpose, great must have been
his astonishment on opening his first letter from me.

When the train reached Dublin Depot next morning, I
inquired of a soldier standing on the platform for Colonel
Preston s headquarters. " He was camped on yonder
hill," said the person addressed ; " but him and his regi
ment left here last night for Saltville. The Yankees is
comiii over the mountain from Kentucky to the salt
works."

Trains did not move, in those times, upon precise sched
ules. Ours had not yet pulled out of the depot. It was
in a leisurely way taking on wood and water, and receiv
ing or discharging army stores. Without another word,
I resumed my place in the car, resolved to follow and
join the regiment. On and on we went, until we came
to Glade Spring Junction, near Abingdon and the Ten
nessee line. There, to my great delight, I found Colonel
Preston, with his regiment of nondescripts, waiting for
an improvised train of flat cars, which was to bear them
to Saltville, eight or ten miles distant. Swinging off the
car almost before it stopped, I hurried up to the colonel.
I told him who I was. He gave me a merry and charac
teristic greeting.

From the number of Prestons so far mentioned, one
might think this a history of the Preston family. It is,
in truth, a large family, but, so far as I know, none of
those referred to were kin to, or even connected with, each
other. This dear old man, known to everybody in the
army and in his section of the State as " Colonel Bob,"
was one of the most lovable and unique characters it was
ever my good fortune to be thrown with. He was short,
thick-set, and had an immense snow-white beard, extend
ing nearly to his sword-belt. He often buttoned it into



374 THE END OF AN ERA

and beneath his coat or waistcoat. When, as on this
occasion, it was unconfined, his appearance, figure, beard,
merry twinkling eye, and ruddy face instantly suggested
Santa Glaus.

At the outbreak of the war, he commanded a regiment
in the Manassas campaign; brave as a lion, he was utterly
ignorant of military tactics ; and it was told of him that
on one occasion, when his regiment was attacked in flank
while marching in column of companies, he, after vainly
endeavoring to think of the command by which to wheel
by companies into line and charge the enemy, burst into
an explosion of oaths and said, " Twenty-eighth ! swing
around in companies, like gates, and sick em ! " On an
other occasion, reaching a fence and not knowing how
to defile his troops through an opening, he gave the fol
lowing startling order, " Battalion ! Oh, battalion ! bust
up ! climb fence, and line up again on t other side ! "
These were but samples of the many tales concerning
him as a tactician ; notwithstanding these slight defects,
Colonel Bob was honored, respected, and counted one of
the gamest fighters in the army ; and nothing but the
infirmities of age had reconciled his beloved " 28th " to
parting with him.

When the growing necessities of the war forced upon
the authorities at Richmond the formation of these re
serve regiments, composed of old men and little boys,
Colonel Bob was among the first appealed to for aid in
the undertaking, for no man was more beloved or exer
cised a stronger influence in his section.

The day I joined him, he had a veritable Falstaffian
army: his regiment of eight companies presented every
stage of manhood, from immature boyhood to decrepit old
age. One of his companies drawn up in line looked as
irregular as a pile of barrel-hoops. There was no pre-



THE CONFEDERATE RESERVES 375

tense of uniform ; they wore everything, from straw hats
to coon-skin caps. A vision of Colonel Bob s regiment
must have presented itself to the mind of General Grant
when he informed the country that the Confederacy was,
like Micawber, " robbing the cradle and the grave."

One thing uniform they had, every man had a Bel
gian rifle, and a cartridge-box filled with pretty fair am
munition. To my surprise, they handled these weapons
effectively and most courageously the following day.

Nobody realized the ludicrous appearance of his sol
diers, or enjoyed it more thoroughly, than did Colonel
Bob. He would have had a laugh at his own funeral,
if opportunity had occurred. " Look at that ! " said he,
stroking his beard and chuckling a comfortable, inside-
shaking laugh ; " look at that ! Your cadets could n t
beat it." He was pointing to his command, scrambling
pell-mell, helter-skelter, upon the dirty flats which now
had been backed up. Two strapping young fellows were
tugging at an old one, who looked as if he would come
to pieces, pulling him up on the car, while a third was
pushing him from behind.

"Henry!" shouted Colonel Bob, "you must ride Robin
and lead Bob down to the salt-works. Take your time,
Henry ; you 11 get there as soon as we do, I think. I
must stay with my ragamuffins, Henry; do you under
stand?"

Henry was his smiling, handsome, and deferential mu
latto body-servant, who looked after his comfort as if the
colonel were a baby. Bob was his strong, blood-bay,
half-bred charger. The way he uttered the word Henry,
and the tone in which he spoke of Bob, showed how he
loved them, and how dependent he was upon them. Both
Henry and Bob were very proud of their master. Henry
bowed and smiled, assured him all would be as he wished,



376 THE END OF AN ERA

and, before departing, whispered to him that he had placed
some food for him in the locker of the caboose car which
we were to occupy.

" Did you put my bottle of brandy there, Henry ? "
said the colonel.

" Yes, sir," said Henry, grinning and looking around
suspiciously.

"Well, don t do it," said the old man, raising his

voice ; " these soldiers are honest enough

about other things, but the last one of them will

steal whiskey, Henry, and you ought to know that by this
time. Fetch it right here and put it in my haversack ;
even then it won t be safe." The old fellow chuckled
and Henry grinned as he tucked the flask snugly away
in the corner of his bag. He was not a hard drinker, or
at all dissipated, but was at his age somewhat dependent
upon a regular stimulant.

" Boy," said he, turning to me, for by this time he had
begun to be familiar, " boy, I hope you re not a little
drunkard ; it s the meanest, lowest, dirtiest passion in
the world. When a man gets to loving whiskey, he 11
steal it from his best friend." Then, lowering his voice,
he told me it was not the soldiers he feared, but one of
his officers, who never left him a drop whenever he could
lay hands upon his " poor little flask."

By this time our troops were mounted on the train,
and, with a snort and a jerk and a bump and a thousand
thumps, we began the trip to Saltville. After a most
uncomfortable ride, we reached the place. Darkness was
upon us. Like other localities where salt is found, it was
a galled, cheerless spot, without verdure in the vicinity of
the wells and troughs and boilers. The adjacent country
was, however, pretty enough, and we soon found a camp
in a neighboring wood. The hills about Saltville were



THE CONFEDERATE RESERVES 377

almost as regular as hemispheres ; some were prettily
wooded and others were pasture lands to their summits.
A mile below the town flowed the Holston River, which
on our side had high, bluffy banks. The only crossing was
at a ford, which was very defensible. The Union general,
Burbridge, with a force organized in eastern Kentucky,
was advancing to destroy these salt-works, which were
important to the Confederacy. We were not well in
formed concerning the strength of the expedition, the
direction of his advance, or the troops opposing him.
The orders received by Colonel Preston had simply
directed him to report with the regiment at Saltville as
quickly as possible. Now we were to ascertain the situ
ation.

By the time we had located our camp, Henry arrived
with the horses. Our headquarters were established
under a wide-spreading sugar-maple, where he proceeded
to build a roaring fire, and spread our blankets upon
the first incline of a hill. After unbuckling his sword
and standing it against a tree, the colonel, seated upon
a camp-stool, produced a comb, with which he caressed
his long beard, and proceeded to swear, in livid and
picturesque fluency, about everybody and everything he
knew, without any ill temper or malice whatsoever.
Henry busied himself brewing a pot of tea and prepar
ing a really dainty meal. He always had a mysterious
store of good things supplied by " Ole Missis," who
warned him to hide them from " Ole Marster " until
used, because she knew he would surely give them away
to some poor soldier, if they came into his possession.
Whenever provisions ran low, Henry disappeared for a
day or two, and when he returned he came " bearing
sheaves." The colonel s home in Montgomery County
was not so far away that it was out of striking distance



378 THE END OF AN ERA

of the faithful slave, and there he found " Ole Missis,"
one of God s noblest and best creatures, praying for
" Ole Marster " and preparing comforts for him. Mrs.
Preston was known far and wide as the most devout
woman in all the countryside. She often wept at the
unregenerate profanity of her husband, whose only fault
was that inveterate habit.

Once I asked Henry if the colonel swore at home.

" Yes, sir, he do ! " said Henry emphatically. " Ole
Marster will cuss anywhar ; nothin kain t stop him.
But, Lord, lieutenant, he doan mean nothin by it. Out
side of cussin he s des as good and des as ligious as
Ole Missis ; and bofe of em gwine to be saved, as sho



Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 27 of 35)