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John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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Experience had not taught me then how dangerous a
thing it is to permit a hostess, when the music has struck
up and the sets are actually forming, to seize one and
drag him to a " charming " girl. A year in society, nay,
a month, teaches us that " charming " girls of that de
scription have some inherent disqualification ; for the
young and pretty never have to invoke the aid of the
hostess at so late an hour.

There she was, however, and it was too late to recede,
even if I had wished to do so. I did not wish to recede.
Why should I ? She was gracious, refined, and not a
whit more anxious for a partner than I was myself. Oh,
yes, our families were intimate. Yes, I was aware that
she knew my sisters. I did not mention that I knew she
was schoolmate of an elder sister, now married. We
were out for pleasant, not for unpleasant, speeches. Thus
we chatted as we stood waiting in our places in the
quadrille.

I could not help observing her costume. Indeed, she
herself told me that the dress was her grandmother s,
worn when La Fayette came to Richmond in 1824. She
had discovered it in an old trunk. I think I never saw



THE BEGINNING OF THE END 407

anything, either before or afterwards, exactly like it. I
cannot, for lack of technical knowledge, correctly describe
female attire, but from such vague efforts as I make,
those versed in costuming may gain some idea concern
ing it.

First of all, the lady, viewed laterally, was the flattest
lady I ever beheld. Viewed from front or rear, she was
unusually wide. The laced bodice was cut with becoming
modesty about the neck, but that same bodice ran down
ward to a point, until I thought it would never stop. I
think that, in the vernacular of the times of its construc
tion, it was called a stomacher. Viewed from rear, never
another back was so long, unless it was my own in Barks-
dale Warwick s coat. At the hips, the dress rose up in
fluffs. In coloring and texture, it resembled certain flow
ered goods I have since seen used in upholstering parlor
furniture. The head -gear accompanying it was indescrib
able. Maybe it was Pompadour. There were ostrich-
feathers with it. I think she said she wore prunella slip
pers. Possibly it was some other kind. All this I saw
and learned as we were waiting for the music to strike up.
More I saw, and I heartily wish I had not, for it cost me
a newly formed and valued friendship. As we stood there
waiting, two mischievous girls one a blonde, the other a
brunette, the brightest pair of wags and wits in Richmond
were leaning over a large sofa at the further end of
the room. They had preferred not to dance. There
they stood watching, laughing, giggling, observing every
thing that was grotesque, and making comments which
were simply convulsing to all hearers. They were my
choicest intimates. At an unlucky moment, I caught
their wicked eyes. They were carefully dissecting the
appearance of my partner and myself. Knowing what
was coming, with a pleasant reprobatory smile I pleaded



408 THE END OF AN ERA

with my eyes that they should not laugh at us, as if to
say, " I don t mind it for myself, but the lady is a compar
ative stranger, and you must not embarrass her."

I might as well have tried to check the incoming tide.
They had seen us. They were watching us, wild with
merriment. They were pointing at us. They were at
tracting the attention of others to us. I saw it. I knew
intuitively the inimitably funny things they were saying.
Their mirth was infectious, and I was scarce able to give
heed to the polite speeches my companion was making, or
to suppress the rebellious twitchings of my mouth. But
I did not quite realize how absurd our appearance really
was. Thus charged with merriment, I bowed, as the
music sounded for the dance.

A scream behind us nearly threw me off my balance.
My partner, all unconscious of the by-pla} 7 ", was serene
and gracious. On the opposite wall hung an old-fashioned
mirror, slightly convex, ornamented with a spread-eagle
over its top. It shone like burnished steel, but it was so
tilted against the wall that one could only see one s self
when near the middle of the room. " Balance to the
centre." We were doing famously. Holding her tiny
hand, we balanced forth. She was speaking low, and was
saying something very captivating. I had regained con
trol of my risibles. Oh ! why did I look up ? Why did
I catch, in that old mirror, the full reflections of our
selves ? The effect was irresistible. I gave one fatal
snort, that snort which is so deadly to all check of
mirth when we are striving hardest to control ourselves.
I was hopelessly gone. I clapped both hands to my face,
and laughed and laughed until the tears ran down my
cheeks.

Wonder, perplexity, wrath, in turn came over the face
of my partner. She could not understand. I could not



THE BEGINNING OF THE END 409

explain. We finished the figure in silence. At its con
clusion, she asked that I take her to some friends. She
bowed frigidly to me, as if to say, " Go ! " and go I went.
She never again so much as nodded her head to me. I
rushed back to my tormentors to reproach them. They
called me " Wheelbench," and laughed anew. It was the
name of a certain breed of little vagabond dogs noted for
their long bodies and short legs. My rage only added
fuel to the flames of their ridicule. Never did such an
attired pair dance together, I ween. Never were there
such hilarious spectators.

A Cruikshank, a Nast, a Davenport might have sup
plied himself for life with caricatures at that memorable
gathering. For myself, I danced no more that night.

About midnight, a new and distinct coterie of guests
arrived.

They were a party of bon-vivant friends of the host.
By one means or another, this band secured the best to
be had. To this feast of their companion, each and all
had made their contribution. And now they had come to
join him in celebrating the happy event of his daughter s
marriage, and to partake of his good cheer.

There was big John Carvell, the Canadian blockade-
runner, who had sent a few bottles of champagne, a
luxury then almost beyond price ; and Major Robert Ould,
the Confederate Commissioner of Exchange of Prisoners,
who never failed to "secure for himself, on his trip down
the river to meet the Union Commissioners of Exchange,
an ample supply of the best food and drink ; and Major
" Buck " Allen, of Claremont, whose cellars were still
unexhausted ; and young Hatch, of Missouri, Assistant
Commissioner of Exchange ; and Major Legh Page, and
Major Isaac Carrington, of the Subsistence Department.

There was an air of business about these men. They



410 THE END OF AN ERA

had come for good cheer. What of creature comforts
they did not secure was simply not to be had. What this
party enjoyed in their private room, what cigars they
smoked, what games they played with their host, how
long they stayed, is beyond my ken. All that we lesser
lights knew was that they had the reputation of being the
only habitually well-fed and luxurious citizens of Rich
mond.

Supper for the general public was announced in due
time, and, doubt it as you may, it was a sumptuous
repast.

There were no sweets and ices, such as are seen in pip
ing times of peace. But there was ornamentation ! The
pyramids, built of little balls of butter, were really pretty.
They towered like the spun sugar, and nougat, or divided
oranges, we see to-day. And great piles of rosy apples
gave color to the feast. Terrapin, canvas-back ducks,
pates, and the like were missing. Our friends, the enemy,
had even cut us off from oysters. But there were tur
keys and hams and delicious breads, and most beautifully
stuffed eggs, and great piles of smoking sausages, and
dishes of unsurpassed domestic pickles. There were no
oils for salads, no sugar for preserves. Some one had
given the bride a wedding present of coffee, and the rooms
were filled with its delightful aroma. This we drank
sugarless, with great gusto. Great bowls of apple toddy,
hot and cold, filled with roasted pippins, stood on the
tables, and furnished all needful warmth and cheerfulness
for any wedding feast.

So you see, dear readers, that, even to the last, there
were times and places in the Confederacy where we got
together and did like other and more prosperous folk,
" Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow you die."

In the gray of a winter morning, the cold bright stars



THE BEGINNING OF THE END 411

twinkling above us, we men and women sought our homes
afoot. Vehicles and horses were not to be had for love or
money. Gathering their dainty skirts about them, matron
and maid, who in other days had never walked three
blocks away from home, picked their way through the
deserted streets, laughing over the delightful scenes they
had left behind. They laid their heads upon their pillows
that night, happy, not discontented, because of the sacri
fices they had made for a cause we all loved.

" Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow ye die." Let
us not inquire how many of the gallant souls who laughed
and danced and ate and drank that night fulfilled the
whole prophecy in the whirlwind of war which swept from
Richmond to Petersburg, from Petersburg to Appomat-
tox, in the next three months. The story is sad enough
without such details.

" Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow ye die."
Within five years from that joyous night, the blooming
bride was laid to rest in her Confederate wedding-gown.
Within a decade, her parents, host and hostess of that
night, slept side by side in the cemetery at Hollywood ;
and the soldier-groom, spared by the bolts of war, but
undermined in health by the exposure of the camp, lost a
sweet life for a cause which was already lost.

The places which knew them know them no more.
Their names are almost forgotten now, under the rule of
another king that knew not Joseph.

So wags the world away.



CHAPTER XXV

THE END IN SIGHT

AT the time of the evacuation of Richmond, in 1865, I
had been in the Confederate army for about ten months,
had reached the mature age of eighteen, and had attained
the rank of lieutenant. I was for the time at Clover Sta
tion, on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, south of the
fallen capital. A light glimmered in headquarters and at
the telegraph station. Suspecting that news of importance
had been received, and knowing the telegraph operator
well, I repaired to his office. He was sitting at his instru
ment, closely attentive to its busy clicking.

" Any news, Tom ? " inquired I.

Holding up his hand he said, " Yes ! hush ! " and con
tinued to listen. Then, seizing his pad and pencil, he
wrote rapidly. Again the clicking of the instrument
began, and he resumed his attitude of intent listening.
He was catching messages passing over the lines to Dan
ville. During a lull, he informed me that heavy fighting
on the right of the army at Five Forks had been going
on all day, in which the slaughter on both sides had been
very great, and that there were reports of the evacua
tion of Petersburg. Repairing to the quarters of General
Walker, I found that he had substantially the same ad
vices. Vainly and despondently we waited until late at
night for more particulars.

Sunday morning broke clear and calm. It was one of
the first of those heavenly spring days which to me seem



THE END IN SIGHT 413

brighter in Virginia than elsewhere. Sitting in a sunny
spot near the telegraph station, a party of staff officers
waited for telegrams until nearly eleven o clock. Then
a storm of news broke upon us, every word of which was
freighted with deep import to our cause.

Click click click. u Our lines in front of Peters
burg were broken this morning. General Lee is retiring
from the city."

Click click click. " General A. P. Hill was
killed."

Click click click. " Colonel William Pegram of
the artillery also killed."

Click click click. " In the battle of Five Forks,
which continued until long after dark last night, Pickett
was overwhelmed by Sheridan with a greatly superior
force of cavalry and infantry, and the enemy is now
endeavoring to turn our right, which is retiring toward
the Appomattox, to make a stand there."

Click click click. " Petersburg is evacuated. Our
army in full retreat toward Burkeville."

Click click click. " General Lee has notified the
President that he can no longer hold Richmond, and
orders have been issued for the immediate evacuation of
the city. The town is the scene of the utmost turmoil
and confusion."

General Walker issued the necessary commands to
place our own house in order. There was not much to
be done. Such government stores and provisions as were
at our post were promptly put on freight cars, and every
preparation was made for an orderly departure, if neces
sary. We expected that Lee would make a stand at or
near Burkeville, forty miles distant, and that, if he must,
he would retreat along the line of the Richmond and Dan
ville Railroad. From the accounts of the fighting, I felt



414 THE END OF AN ERA

sure that my father s command was in the thick of it ; and
this fear gave an added trouble to the gloomy reflections
of those sad hours.

When we recall the way in which the most startling
events in our lives have happened, we note how differently
they unfolded themselves from our previous thought of
them. Nay, more : we all recall that when great events,
which we had anticipated as possible or probable, have
actually begun to occur, we have failed to recognize them.
So it was now with me. That the war might end dis
astrously to the Confederacy, I had long regarded as a
possibility; that our army was sadly depleted and in
great want, I knew ; but that it was literally worn out
and killed out and starved out, I did not realize. The
idea that within a week it would stack arms at Appomat-
tox, surrender, and be disbanded did not enter into my
mind even then. I still thought that it would retreat,
and, abandoning Richmond, fall back to some new posi
tion, where it would fight many other battles before the
issue was decided.

A few hours later, train after train, all loaded to their
utmost capacity with whatever could be transported from
the doomed capital, came puffing past Clover Station on
the way southward. These trains bore many men who, in
the excitement, were unwilling to admit that all was lost.
They frankly deplored the necessity of giving up the Con
federate capital, but insisted that the army was not beaten
or demoralized, and was retreating in good order. They
argued that Lee, relieved of the burden of defending his
long lines from Richmond to Petersburg, and of the hard
task of maintaining his communications, would draw Grant
away from his base of supplies, and might now, with that
generalship of which we all knew him to be master, be
free to administer a stunning if not a crushing blow to



THE END IN SIGHT 415

Grant in the open, where strategy might overcome force.
These arguments cheered and revived me. I hoped it
might so turn out. I dared not ask myself if I believed
that it would.

Monday morning, April 3, a train passed Clover bear
ing the President, his Cabinet and chief advisers, to Dan
ville. They had left Richmond after the midnight of that
last Sunday when Mr. Davis was notified, while attending
St. Paul s Church, that the immediate evacuation of the
city was unavoidable. Mr. Davis sat at a car window.
The crowd at the station cheered. He smiled and acknow
ledged their compliment, but his expression showed phy
sical and mental exhaustion. Near him sat General Bragg,
whose shaggy eyebrows and piercing eyes made him look
like a much greater man than he ever proved himself to
be. In this car was my brother-in-law, Dr. Garnett, fam
ily physician to Mr. Davis. I entered, and sat with him
a few minutes, to learn what I could about the home folk.
His own family had been left at his Richmond residence,
to the mercy of the conqueror. The presidential train
was followed by many others. One bore the archives and
employees of the Treasury Department, another those of
the Post Office Department, another those of the War
Department. I knew many in all these departments, and
they told me the startling incidents of their sudden flight.

I saw a government on wheels. It was the marvelous
and incongruous debris of the wreck of the Confederate
capital. There were very few women on these trains, but
among the last in the long procession were trains bearing
indiscriminate cargoes of men and things. In one car was
a cage with an African parrot, and a box of tame squir
rels, and a hunchback! Everybody, not excepting the
parrot, was wrought up to a pitch of intense excitement.
The last arrivals brought the sad news that Richmond



416 THE END OF AN ERA

was in flames. Our departing troops had set fire to the
tobacco warehouses. The heat, as it reached the hogs
heads, caused the tobacco leaves to expand and burst their
fastenings, and the wind, catching up the burning tobacco,
spread it in a shower of fire upon the doomed city. It
was after dark on Monday when the last train from Rich
mond passed Clover Station bound southward. We were
now the northern outpost of the Confederacy. Nothing
was between us and the enemy except Lee s army, which
was retreating toward us, if indeed it were coming
in this direction. All day Tuesday, and until midday
Wednesday, we waited, expecting to hear of the arrival
of our army at Burkeville, or some tidings of its where
abouts. But the railroad stretching northward was as
silent as the grave. The cessation of all traffic gave our
place a Sabbath stillness. Until now, there had been the
constant rumble of trains on this main line of supplies to
the army. After the intense excitement of Monday, when
the whole Confederate government came rushing past at
intervals of a few minutes, the unbroken silence reminded
one of death after violent convulsions.

We still maintained telegraphic communication with
Burkeville, but we could get no definite information con
cerning the whereabouts of Lee. Telegrams received
Tuesday informed us he was near Amelia Court House.
Wednesday morning we tried in vain to call up Amelia
Court House. A little later, Burkeville reported the wires
cut at Jetersville, ten miles to the north, between Burke
ville and Amelia Court House. When General Walker
heard this, he quietly remarked, " They are pressing him
off the line of this road, and forcing him to retreat by the
Southside Road to Lynchburg." I knew the topography
of the country well enough to realize that if the army
passed Burkeville Junction, moving westward, our posi-



THE END IN SIGHT 417

tion would be on the left flank and rear of the Union
army, and that we must retire or be captured. Many
messages came from Mr. Davis at Danville, inquiring for
news from General Lee. Shortly after General Walker
reported that the wires were cut at Jetersville, another
message came from Mr. Davis. He asked if General
Walker had a trusted man or officer who, if supplied with
an engine, would venture down the road toward Burke-
ville, endeavor to communicate with General Lee, ascer
tain from him his situation and future plans, and report
to the President. I was present when this telegram
arrived. By good luck, other and older officers were ab
sent. The suspense and inactivity of the past three days
had been unendurable, and I volunteered gladly for the
service. At first, General Walker said that I was too
young ; but after considering the matter, he ordered me
to hold myself in readiness, and notified Mr. Davis that
he had the man he wanted, and requested him to send
the engine. The engine, with tender and a baggage car,
arrived about eight P. M.

General Walker summoned me to headquarters, and
gave me my final instructions. Taking the map, he
showed me that in all probability the enemy had forced
General Lee westward from Burkeville, and that there
was danger of finding the Union troops already there. I
was to proceed very slowly and cautiously. If the enemy
was not in Burkeville, I must use my judgment whether
to switch my train on the Southside Road and run west
ward, or to leave the car and take a horse. If the enemy
had reached Burkeville, as he feared, I was to run back
to a station called Meherrin, return the engine, secure a
horse, and endeavor to reach General Lee. " The reason
that I suspect the presence of the enemy at Burkeville,"
said he, " is that this evening, after a long silence, we have



418 THE END OF AN ERA

received several telegrams purporting to come from Gen
eral Lee, urging the forwarding of stores to that point.
From the language used, I am satisfied that it is a trick
to capture the trains. But I may be mistaken. You
must be careful to ascertain the facts before you get too
close to the place. Do not allow yourself to be captured."

The general was not a demonstrative man. He gave
me an order which Mr. Davis had signed in blank, in
which my name was inserted by General Walker, setting
forth that, as special messenger of the President, I was
authorized to impress all necessary men, horses, and pro
visions to carry out my instructions. He accompanied me
to the train, and remarked that he had determined to try
me, as I seemed so anxious to go ; that it was a delicate
and dangerous mission, and that its success depended
upon my quickness, ability to judge of situations as they
arose, and powers of endurance. He ordered the engineer,
a young, strong fellow, to place himself implicitly under
my command. I threw a pair of blankets into the car,
shook hands cordially with the general, buttoned my
papers in my breast pocket, and told the engineer to
start. I did not see General Walker again for more than
twenty years.

I carried no arms except a navy revolver at my hip,
with some loose cartridges in my haversack. The night
was chilly, still, and overcast. The moon struggled out
now and then from watery clouds. We had no headlight,
nor any light in the car. It seemed to me that our train
was the noisiest I had ever heard. The track was badly
worn and very rough. In many places it had been bol
stered up with beams of wood faced with strap iron, and
we were compelled to move slowly. The stations were
deserted. We had to put on our own wood and water.
I lay down to rest, but nervousness banished sleep. The



THE END IN SIGHT 419

solitude of the car became unbearable. When we stopped
at a water-tank, I swung down from the car and clam
bered up to the engine. Knowing that we might have to
reverse it suddenly, I ordered the engineer to cut loose
the baggage car and leave it behind. This proved to be
a wise precaution.

About two o clock, we reached Meherrin Station, twelve
miles south of Burkeville. It was dark, and the station
was deserted. I succeeded in getting an answer from an
old man in a house near by, after hammering a long time
upon the door. He had heard us, but he was afraid to
reply.

" Have you heard anything from Lee s army? " I asked.

" Naw, nothin at all. I heerd he was at Amelia Cote
House yisterday."

" Have you heard of or seen any Yankees hereabouts ? "

" None here yit. I heerd there was some at Green Bay
yisterday, but they had done gone back."

" Back where ? "

" I dunno. Back to Grant s army, I reckin."

" Where is Grant s army ? "

" Gord knows. It pears to me like it s everywhar."

" Are there any Yankees at Burkeville ? "

" I dunno. I see a man come by here late last evenin ,
and he said he come from Burkeville ; so I reckin there
were n t none thar when he lef , but whether they is come
sence, I can t say."

I determined to push on. When we reached Green
Bay, eight miles from Burkeville, the place was dark and
deserted. There was nobody from whom we could get
information. A whippoorwill in the swamp added to
the oppressive silence all about. Moving onward, we dis
covered, as we cautiously approached a turn in the road
near Burkeville, the reflection of lights against the low-



420 THE END OF AN ERA

hanging clouds. Evidently, somebody was ahead, and
somebody was building fires. Were these reflections from
the camp-fires of Lee s or of Grant s army, or of any army
at all ? On our right, concealing us from the village and
the village from us, was a body of pine woods. Not until
we turned the angle of these woods could we see anything.
I was standing by the engineer. We were both uncertain
what to do. At first, I thought I would get down and
investigate ; but I reflected that I should lose much time
in getting back to the engine, whereas, if I pushed boldly
forward until we were discovered, I should be safe if those



Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 30 of 35)