John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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as you born, fur Ole Missis prays enough to wipe out Ole
Marster s swearin , an neither doan do no harm in de
world, and I know Gord ain t gwine to separate no such
pa r of people ez dey is, in Heaven."

We sat in the cheery light of our camp-fire and re
freshed ourselves with an excellent cup of tea. The
autumn air was nipping, and the newly risen moon strug
gled through the mists which rose from the valley around
the salt-wells.

" How are the horses feeling, Henry ? " inquired the

" Fuss rate, sir. We tuk it easy comin down, and
they is fresh as kittens."

" Can you ride, young un ? " said the colonel, turning
to me, as he dropped a coal from his hand into his long
pipe and puffed away contentedly. Assured that I could,
he directed Henry to saddle Bob and Robin, and said, " I
want to ride out somewhere and find out something. I
don t know what we came here for, or who is coming, or
who is going to do the fighting."

We rode out together to the depot. Ascertaining there


that General Jackson, of Tennessee, called " Mudwall,"
was the commanding officer, we repaired to his headquar
ters. From him we soon ascertained what troops were on
hand, and the location of the enemy. During the day,
General Jackson s forces north of the Holston had been
skirmishing with Burbridge s advance, and retiring before
him. To-night, Burbridge was camped a short distance
across the river, and our picket lines were only about
three miles from town. Our main body of cavalry was
camped near the ford, and there it was proposed to give
the enemy battle on the morrow.

Old " Mudwall " was a common-looking man, with a
drawl in his voice, and appeared to be taking things very
easy. Still, he showed courage and intelligence in his dis
positions. He told us he was expecting to be reinforced
by Robertson s cavalry, which was coming up from east
Tennessee. He hoped they would arrive before morning,
but intended to fight whether they reached him in time
or not.

" Kernel," said he, " my men tell me the Yanks have
got a lot of nigger soldiers along. Do you think your
reserves will fight niggers?"

" Fight em? " said the old colonel, bristling up ; " by

, sir, they II eat em up ! No ! not eat em up !

That s too much ! By , sir, we 11 cut em up ! "

General Jackson explained the plan of battle to Colonel
Preston ; showed him how his line of battle would be
formed upon the river, above and below the ford ; ex
plained what troops he proposed to place in front ; and
then pointed out to us a little valley on the left of, and at
right angles to, the road to the ford. In that valley we
were to take our position in reserve as soon as the enemy
appeared and firing began. It was but a short distance
from our camp. As we rode homeward, the colonel vis-


ited the ground we were to occupy. It was now bright
moonlight. After going a short distance down the de
pression he said, " This place is as snug and safe as a
dovecote. We can sleep here to-morrow until we are
ordered in."

He was jolly at the prospect of a fight. I told him
what a good joke on my father I considered it that, send
ing me down here to get me out of harm s way, I had
come straight to a battle. He and my father were old
and devoted friends. When he heard that, instead of
joining in my laughter, he grew silent, and at last, with

an effort at badinage, he said, " I don t care a whether

you get shot or not, but, 6oy, I would not be compelled to
tell the general about it, if you are hurt, for all the wealth
of the Indies." The idea seemed to prey upon him. In
the few short hours we had been together, he had evidently
begun to look upon me as his pet. He had few congenial
companions among his rough command, and he preferred
always the society of young people. When we reached
camp, he stood warming himself by the fire, musing, as he
held out his hands to the glare.

" Fetch my woolen nightcap, Henry," said he, at last ;
and, as he fitted it over his white locks, he gave a sigh,
saying, " what the devil did they send you here for any
how? There s nothing for you to do." Changing his
mood as he turned towards his pallet, his face broke into
a broad grin, and he exclaimed, " Oh, I know ! They
sent you to keep my back warm. I told Kemper I had
the rheumatics, and he sent you to snuggle up to me o
nights. Come on to bed."

So, doing as I was bid, I crawled up close to Colonel
Bob, and, for many and many a night thereafter, that was
the way we always fell asleep together. God bless him !
I know he is in heaven. A heart more tender, a soul


more generous, a courage more dauntless, no man ever
possessed ; and in battle, in bivouac, or under his own
roof-tree, he was the sweetest old man that ever granted
to a young one the privilege of his instruction and confi
dence, barring one fault, that he " swore like our army
in Flanders."

Up betimes in the morning, we found the road to the
ford filled with cavalrymen. Some had fallen back before
the advance of the enemy ; some had arrived from Abing-
don during the night. All were dismounting to fight on
foot. Horse details were leading the beasts back to posi
tions of safety.

We moved our command out promptly, and defiled to
our assigned position on the left. The hill in our front,
on which our advance line was posted, concealed us com
pletely from the enemy. Behind us, another hill of unus
ual height, cleared on its summit, gave a battery planted
there the range of the ford and of the ground beyond.
Our front lines had not completed their formations on
the river bluffs when we heard first a volley, and after
wards a dropping fire of musketry. Our pickets beyond
the river were engaged, and falling back before the ad
vancing enemy. Climbing the hill behind us, the view
was excellent.

Soon our videttes were all safely across the ford and
within our lines, and the next move in the game was to be
made by the enemy. Out he came in due time, in battle
array, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, showing him
self along the edge of the woods which crowned the slopes
of pasture land beyond the ford.

" Bang ! " went the guns of the battery on the hill be
hind us, and a flock of little six-pound shells flew singing
over our heads towards some cavalry debouching from the
woods a mile away. The artillery of the enemy promptly


took position and delivered a return fire, but was unable
to secure an elevation sufficient to reach our battery.

Out of sight, fully protected, our regiment lay there
between those dueling batteries. It was very noisy, for
the shells of the enemy exploded in the woods on the hill
side in our rear. Curious to know how our raw recruits
would behave under fire, I returned to where they were,
and was much gratified at the spirit of the men, especially
the youngsters. It was with difficulty that the colonel
kept them from scrambling up to the top of the hill in our
front to watch the fight. The men were conducting them
selves like veterans. Many of the boys were sighting
their guns, and showing how they would " shoot a nigger,"
if they had a chance.

"Where are your field officers, colonel?" said I, ob
serving that he was the only one upon the ground. " The
lieutenant-colonel is on furlough, and the major cut his
foot with an axe last week, and is in the hospital at
Dublin," said he, apparently unconscious that their ab
sence made any difference, or should be supplied. " Say,
young un, you 11 have to give orders to the left side.
I 11 attend to the right." By the left side he meant the
left flank of the regiment. He proposed that he should
act as colonel and lieutenant-colonel, and was uncon
sciously promoting me to be major.

" But, colonel," I protested, " will not your senior cap
tains take offense that you do not assign them to the posi
tions to which their rank entitles them ? "

" Shut up ! " said he fiercely ; " I m running this regi
ment. They don t know, and don t care a

about that ! I know what I want. If you put such
notions in their heads, there 11 be no end of trouble here.
You go and do what I tell you ! Do you hear ? " So off
I went, and perched myself opposite the left battalion. I


did not know a man in the regiment, or half a dozen offi
cers. It would not have surprised me to hear them tell
me to go to the devil when I undertook to give them com
mands. It seems, however, that they considered me as a
member of the colonel s staff, and nobody raised any ques
tion of precedence.

The battle of Saltville was a very pretty affair. The
enemy advanced with great spirit to the attack, but our
troops on our first line had little difficulty in repulsing
him. Only once were we brought under fire. Near mid
day, some colored troops of the enemy found a rather open
place on the left of our line, near where the streamlet,
coursing through the depression we occupied, entered the
river, at a point where it was shallow and rocky. They
pushed up dangerously near to this possible crossing,
and their bullets began to search our valley. The officer
commanding the line in our front ran down to where we
were asking for reinforcements. Colonel Bob, without a
moment s hesitation, moved our left battalion down the
valley and up the hill.

There the men laid down on the bluffs, and were hotly
engaged for fifteen minutes, driving the enemy back with
a loss of but one or two of our men. Then we were
ordered to withdraw and resume our place in reserve, and
took no further part in the action.

The Confederate losses were quite heavy, especially
upon the hill in our immediate front. There Colonel
Trimble, in command, was killed in sight of, and but a
hundred yards in front of, our men. His death was re
markable. He was standing still, directing the firing of
his troops. Of a sudden he sprang high in the air, with
arms and legs extended at full length. He leaped at least
five feet, and fell to the ground collapsed and stone-dead.
We afterwards learned that he was shot through the heart,


and were told that this spasmodic action is not at all
unusual in such instances.

Our forces captured about two hundred prisoners,
mostly wounded. By three o clock, Burbridge was in full
retreat, pursued by our cavalry. All danger being past,
we were directed the next day to repair to Wytheville
and go into camp. While our reserve regiment had not
been seriously engaged, another regiment of reserves,
commanded by Colonel Tom Preston, was in the front
line, acquired a great reputation for its gallantry in the
action, and sustained severe losses.

"Not much of a fight for us," said Colonel Bob con
temptuously, that night. He seemed graveled at the better
luck of his cousin Tom. His impatience to have a hand
in the sport had given me some very unpleasant moments.
All during the day he would beckon to me to leave my
post as major, and, converting me into a courier for a
while, he would send me to the general with requests for
leave to " move up." The general was on the other side
of the road leading to the ford. The bullets were singing
up that road like bumble-bees, and every time I crossed it,
my heart was in my mouth. My sudden transitions from
major to courier and back again were most amusing.

" Well, the Yankees did n t kill papa s little bouncing
boy after all," said he contentedly, as we hugged up to
gether under the blankets that night. " I m glad of it,
for you re warm as a toast, and my back is better
already." I knew how much stronger his feeling was
than he expressed it.

At Wytheville, the regiment was ordered to drill, and
an additional drill-master arrived. We two toiled away
at our hopeless task of making men sixty years old stand
straight and keep step with sixteen-year-old boys. One
day I suggested to Colonel Bob that, if he would let me


make up a company of boys by selections from several
companies, I would give him a really efficient company.
He liked the idea, and before long we had a real slashing
company of soldiers, worthy of any regiment.

About November 1, we were ordered to move to Chris-
tiansburg, and inarch thence into Floyd County, deserter-
hunting. The mountainous regions of southwest Vir
ginia, western North Carolina, and east Tennessee were
the places of rendezvous for runaway Confederate sol
diers. So numerous and so bold had they become in
Floyd County, Virginia, that they not only defied arrest,
but often formed bands, seized Confederate supplies, and
threatened the property and even the lives of Confederate
soldiers and sympathizers. Our command was ordered
there to break up some of .these organizations, and to
capture the ringleaders. It was a thankless task, but one
requiring some ability, and not unattended with danger.

Marching out from Christiansburg to a point in the
mountains of Floyd, we went into camp in the very heart
of what was known as Sisson s Kingdom. That was the
name of a large family residing there. Many of them
had volunteered, and then deserted ; and now they and
their friends held sway, defied the law, invited other
runaways to join them, and resisted all control of Con
federate authority.

When this state of affairs, extending over a wide stretch
of country, became known to me in the autumn of 1864,
it caused my first misgivings concerning our ultimate
success ; it was so widespread, and so strangely in con
trast with the loyalty of the mountaineers in the Revolu
tion, when Washington proclaimed that to them he looked
as his last reliance in extremity.

Colonel Preston, notwithstanding his genial nature, was
a man of resources and firmness. If he hated one mean


thing worse than another, it was a sneak. He counted
these deserters among the most contemptible of the human
race ; and, while he was incapable of brutality towards
any living creature, he knew when to be severe, and be
lieved it was his duty to deal with them summarily, and
break them up.

His first advices upon our arrival were to the effect
that our presence had caused the deserters to abscond.
He did not believe a word of this, but pretended that he
did. With great cunning, he acted as if he proposed
making no efforts to secure them. At the same time,
through a well-planned system of spies, he was ascertain
ing accurately their whereabouts and habits. More than
once, he sent me many miles away to receive reports from
his spies, so as to avoid having them seen about our own

In due time, he was ready to act. The deserters, who
had in fact left their homes when we appeared, began to
make their presence felt. Lured by our apparent indiffer
ence, they became incautious. The old fellow knew the
location of the house of every deserter, and which were
ringleaders, and which of them were at home. He had
also located several deserter camps in the mountains.
Now came the part of his plan most difficult of execution.
Awaiting the time when the moon rose late, he divided
several companies of our regiment into small parties under
command of intelligent officers. The men were not told
of the nature of the expedition. Only the officers intrusted
with the work were thoroughly instructed in the locations
to be sought, and the duties to be performed.

Upon the night selected, we started forth. Those hav
ing the greatest distances to travel left earliest. The
man whom I was assigned to capture was a notorious
fellow, living about six miles away in a sequestered gorge


of the mountains, quite remote from any road. I had a
party of ten men. A guide conducted us, and the way in
which he threaded his course in the darkness through a


trackless forest was truly marvelous. Towards midnight
he whispered that we were Hearing the deserter s cabin.

Leaving the men behind us, we approached and walked
around the premises to get the correct location. Return
ing, I brought the men up and instructed them in their
duties. They were deployed in a circle around the pre
mises, and advanced by signals given from man to man.
It was a business calculated to make a man s blood run
very chilly. A dog barked ! He came bounding out.
One of the men plunged a bayonet into his breast, between
his forelegs, so true that he never yelped or whined.

" Who s there ? " called a sharp, nasal, female voice
from within. No one answered. The words were re
peated. I was to do the talking.

"Is that Mrs. ?" I asked, as soon as I could

control my voice.

" Yes. Who are you ? what do you want ? " came
back quickly and excitedly. I dropped to the ground,
placed my ear to it, and was sure I heard shuffling about
within the house, and a sound like that of a closing door.

When she had repeated her questions, I said quietly,
" We have come to arrest your husband. He need not
attempt to resist or escape. The house is surrounded."

Betraying her excitement by her strident answer, she
exclaimed : " William ean t here, thank God, and ean t
bin here for more n a month. I hope by this he has
reached the Yankee lines. Thar s whar he started fur,
and whar I told him to go ef he did n t want to be

" You must permit us to search the house, madam, *
said I, as kindly as I could.


" Cert nly. You kin search the house," said she ; but
she delayed some time before unbolting the door.

While waiting for admission, I took four men and
posted them opposite the ends and sides of the house, tell
ing them to watch beneath it, and not to move or utter a
word. One of them sat down on what seemed to be a
goods box, about twenty feet from the gable end of the
cabin. Then I detailed two other men to build a fire in
the yard. With the four other men, I entered the cabin.
It was a pathetic sight, and my heart chided me for the
part I bore in it. The woman s teeth were chattering with
excitement and fright. Three children sat up in a trundle-
bed. The poor woman had tried to beat up a feather-bed,
and had drawn the covering over it on one side, so as to
give it the appearance of having had but one occupant ;
but when I threw the sheets back, there were the prints
of two bodies, and it was warm on both sides. The babies
began to cry. One pleaded, " Where s my papa? " The
mother hushed its mouth with her hand.

There was no doubt about his being there. The only
question was, where was he ? Vain was the search in the
closets, under the bed, in the half room under the roof,
and up the chimney. At last we examined the floor, and
found a broad, loose plank. But the ground underneath
the plank was unbroken, and our men could, by the light
of the newly-lit fire, see under the whole structure. In
one corner beneath the house we noticed a pile of loose
dirt, but it made no impression at the time. We had
almost abandoned the search, when, of a sudden, a tre
mendous hubbub in the yard sent all of us running there.
It was on the dark side of the house. We heard a stifled
cry of " Help ! Here he is ! Help ! " and, as we came up,
we saw two men, half buried in the earth, grappled and
struggling for the possession of a gun.


The deserter, escaping, had run into the arms of my
sentinel. Sitting there on the goods box, watching in
tently, the sentinel heard a sound below him. He was an
intelligent, strapping youngster of about eighteen. Re
membering my caution to be quiet, he stepped aside and
listened. A moment later the box tilted towards him, and
he squatted behind it so that it concealed him. He saw
the man s head and shoulders emerge from a hole in the
ground. The deserter passed up his gun, and was scram
bling out of the hole, when the sentinel sprang upon him,
and the struggle in which we found them engaged began.
The deserter was the stronger of the two, and had nearly
dragged the young fellow back into the hole with him
when we came up. The other men promptly lent a help
ing hand, and we soon had our prisoner secured.

He had dug a tunnel under his house, so that when
danger threatened he could drop through the floor, crawl
to the opening of his secret passageway, and, passing
through it, come out beyond the cordon of sentinels and
escape. No one would have suspected that the box in the
yard, with its dirty flooring of planks and grass, was the
outlet of his subterranean gallery. On several previous
occasions, he had eluded arrest in this way. Catching
him now was simply accidental good luck. The fellow
yielded without many words. He was a superb specimen
of manhood, and not bad-looking. When we started
away, he said, " Good-by, Sal. See you ag in soon, I
reckin," and then he looked at me and laughed, kissed the
children, and said, " Wall, I guess I in ready." The
woman had become defiant and abusive, and refused
some money which I offered her.

The reticence and secretiveness of these people was
surprising. They were fearless, and hated inveterately.
They declined favors of any kind. Before we had gone


a quarter of a mile, we heard a cow s horn winded from
the cabin. It was the signal of the woman to her friends.
It was almost day when we reached the camp. Several
other parties had returned before us. By eight o clock,
all our raiders were back. A few had made failures.
One party had a sharp fusilade with the deserters, and
had a man wounded. Most of us were successful, and
our expeditions brought an aggregate of between fifteen
and twenty deserters into camp. They were placed in
charge of a strong guard, and sent back to Christians-
burg. Having secured the most notorious of their lead
ers, we flattered ourselves that we had broken the back of
their rebellion ; but in this we deluded ourselves.

Within a week, the surgeon of the regiment rode out
with me to a farm where we heard we could procure
good butter. As we were returning through a narrow
pass, talking unconcernedly, and with no thought of
danger, we saw two puffs of smoke away up among the
rhododendrons on the mountain-side, and almost at the
same moment that we heard the reports my horse gave
a snort and plunge, and the doctor exclaimed, " I am
shot ! " I saw him seize his bridle with his right arm.
We put spurs to our horses, and galloped out of that
pass in a lively way.

" Hurt much, doctor? " said I.

" No ; but my bridle arm is disabled," he replied.

Just as we cleared the pass, my horse, which had been
behaving singularly, stumbled and fell, and I found he was
shot through the body, back of the saddle-skirts. A trail
of blood marked our course along the road. By good luck
the beast belonged to the Confederate States. The doc
tor and I lost no time riding home together on his horse.
His arm, although broken, soon healed ; but we hunted
for no more butter on that trip to Floyd.


Winter was coming on. We were ordered to return to
Dublin Depot, and to build cabins or shelters for winter
quarters. Soon snow fell, and we entered on a period of
dreary inactivity. As Christmas approached, I obtained
a short furlough, glad enough to return from the moun
tains to friends and relatives near Richmond. Two or
three days after my departure, the regiment was again
suddenly ordered to Saltville, which Burbridge captured
December 20, with part of our command ; but I did not
hear of it until a week after the occurrence.



HINTS from home indicated that by this time visitors
to the Confederate capital were most welcome when they
brought their rations.

I had been living in a land of milk and honey. In the
rich pasture lands of the southwest, people were still
blessed with comparative plenty. Their herds of cattle
were unexhausted, and supplied them with abundance of
dairy products. Before starting on furlough, I gathered
together quite a supply of butter, eggs, maple sugar,
honey, and other household comforts. We had no express
service, and, to guard against the plunder of my treasures,
I rode with them in a baggage-car. Butter cost only
$8 a pound and eggs were but $3 a dozen, in southwest
Virginia, whereas the prices in Eichmond were $25 a
pound and $6 a dozen.

On arriving in Richmond, I was hailed as a shrewd
trader and rare purveyor. The city, in its chill winter
garb, showed signs of desperate depletion. The problem
of sustenance had become serious, even with the rich.

The clothing of the most prosperous was simple, do
mestic, even rough. The poorer classes were scantily clad
in every kind of makeshift garment, ofttimes in rags.

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 28 of 35)