John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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who saw us were friends, and able to retreat rapidly if
they were enemies.

" Go ahead ! " I said to the engineer.

" What, lieutenant ? Ain t you afraid they are Yan
kees ? If they are, we re goners," said he hesitatingly.

"Go ahead!"! repeated; and in two minutes more
we were at the curve, with the strong glare of many fires
lighting up our engine. What a sight*! Lines of men
were heaving at the rails by the light of fires built for
working. The fires and working parties crossed our route
to westward, showing that the latter were devoting their
attention to the Southside Road. In the excitement of the
moment, I thought they were destroying the track. In
fact, as I afterward learned, they were merely changing
the gauge of the rails. Grant, with that wonderful power
he possessed of doing everything at once, was already
altering the railroad gauge so as to fetch provisions up to
his army. The enemy was not only in Burkeville, but he
had been there all day, and was thus following up his
occupation of the place. Lee must be to the north or to
the west of him, pushed away from Danville Road, and
either upon or trying to reach the Southside Railroad,
which led to Lynchburg. All these things I thought out


a little later, but not just at that moment. A blazing
meteor would not have astonished our foes more than the
sight of our locomotive. They had not heard our ap
proach, amid the noise and confusion of their own work.
They had no picket out in our direction, for this was their
rear. In an instant, a number of troopers rushed for their
horses and came galloping down upon us. They were but
two or three hundred yards away.

" Reverse the engine ! " I said to the engineer. He
seemed paralyzed. I drew my pistol.

" It s no use, lieutenant. They 11 kill us before we get
under away," and he fumbled with his lever.

" Reverse, or you re a dead man ! " I shouted, clapping
the muzzle of my pistol behind his ear. He heaved at the
lever ; the engine began to move, but how slowly ! The
troopers were coming on. We heard them cry, " Surren
der ! " The engine was quickening her beats. They saw
that we were running, and they opened fire on us. We
lay down flat, and let the locomotive go. The fireman on
the tender was in an exposed position, and seemed to be
endeavoring to burrow in the coal. A shot broke a win
dow above us. Presently the firing ceased. Two or three
of the foremost of the cavalrymen had tumbled into a
cattle-guard, in their reckless pursuit. We were safe
now, except that the engine and tender were in momen
tary danger of jumping the rotten track.

When we were well out of harm s way, the engineer,
with whom I had been on very friendly terms till this last
episode, turned to me and asked, with a grieved look,
" Lieutenant, would you have blowed my brains out sure
nuff, if I had n t done what you tole me ? "

" I would that," I replied, not much disposed to talk ;
for I was thinking, and thinking hard, what next to do.

" Well," said he, with a sigh, as with a greasy rag he


gave a fresli rub to a piece of machinery, " all I ve got to
say is, I don t want to travel with you no mo ."

" You 11 not have to travel far," I rejoined. " I 11 get
off at Meherrin, and you can go back."

" What ! " exclaimed he. " You goin to get off there
in the dark by yourself, with no hoss, and right in the
middle of the Yankees ? Durn my skin if I d do it for
Jeff Davis hisself ! "

Upon our arrival at Meherrin, I wrote a few lines to
General Walker, describing the position of the enemy,
and telling him that I hoped to reach General Lee near
High Bridge by traveling across the base of a triangle
formed by the two railroads from Burkeville and my
route, and that I would communicate with him further
when I could.

It was a lonesome feeling that came over me when the
engine went southward, leaving me alone and in the dark
at Meherrin. The chill of daybreak was coming on, when
I stepped out briskly upon a road leading northward. I
knew that every minute counted, and that there was no
hope of securing a horse in that vicinity. I think that I
walked three or four miles. Day broke and the sun rose
before I came to an opening. A kind Providence must
have guided my steps, for at the very first house I reached,
a pretty mare stood at the horse-rack saddled and bridled,
as if waiting for me. The house was in a grove by the
roadside. I found a hospitable reception, and was in
vited to breakfast. My night s work had made me raven
ous. My host was past military age, but he seemed dazed
at the prospect of falling into the hands of the enemy. I
learned from him that Sheridan s cavalry had advanced
nearly to his place the day before. We ate breakfast
almost in silence. At the table I found Sergeant Wil-
kins, of the Black Walnut Troop, from Halifax County.


He had been on " horse furlough." Confederate cavalry
men supplied their own horses, and his horse furlough
meant that his horse had broken down, that he had been
home to replace it, and that he was now returning to duty
with another beast. His mare was beautiful and fresh,
the very animal that I needed. When I told him that I
must take his horse, he laughed, as if I were joking ; then
he positively refused ; but finally, when I showed the
sign manual of Jefferson Davis, he yielded, very reluc
tantly. It was perhaps fortunate for Sergeant Wilkins
that he was obliged to go home again, for his cavalry
command was engaged heavily that day, and every day
thereafter, until the surrender at Appomattox.

On the morning of April 6, mounted upon as fine
a mare as there was in the Confederacy, I sallied forth
in search of General Lee. I started northward for the
Southside Railroad. It was not long before I heard can
non to the northeast. Thinking that the sounds came
from the enemy in the rear of Lee, I endeavored to bear
sufficiently westward to avoid the Union forces. Seeing
no sign of either army, I was going along leisurely, when
a noise behind me attracted my attention. Turning in
my saddle, I saw at a distance of several hundred yards
the head of a cavalry command coming from the east, and
turning out of a cross-road that I had passed into the
road that I was traveling. They saw me, and pretended
to give chase ; but their horses were jaded, and my mare
was fresh and swift. The few shots they fired went wide
of us, and I galloped out of range quickly and safely.
My filly, after her spin, was mettlesome, and as I held
her in hand, I chuckled to think how easy it was to keep
out of harm s way on such a beast.

But this was not to be my easy day. I was rapidly
approaching another road, which came into my road from


the east. I saw another column of Union cavalry filing
into my road, and going in the same direction that I
was going. Here was a pretty pickle ! We were in
the woods. Did they see me ? To be sure they did. Of
course they knew of the parallel column of their own
troops which I had passed, and I think they first mistook
me for a friend. But I could not ride forward : I should
have come upon the rear of their column. I could not
turn back : the cavalry force behind was not a quarter of
a mile away. I stopped, thus disclosing who I was. Sev
eral of them made a dart for me ; several more took shots
with their carbines ; and once more the little mare and I
were dashing off, this time through the woods to the west.

What a bird she was, that little mare ! At a low fence
in the woods she did not make a pause or blunder, but
cleared it without turning a hair. I resolved now to get
out of the way, for it was very evident that I was trying
to reach General Lee by riding across the advance col
umns of Sheridan, who was on Lee s flank. Going at a
merry pace, just when my heart was ceasing to jump and
I was congratulating myself upon a lucky escape, I was
" struck flat aback," as sailors say. From behind a large
oak a keen, racy-looking fellow stepped forth, and, level
ing his cavalry carbine, called " Halt ! " He was not ten
feet away.

Halt I did. It is all over now, thought I, for I did not
doubt that he was a Jesse scout. (That was the name
applied by us to Union scouts who disguised themselves
in our uniform.) He looked too neat and clean for one
of our men. The words " I surrender " were on my lips,
when he asked, " Who are you ? " I had half a mind to
lie about it, but I gave my true name and rank. " What
the devil are you doing here, then ? " he exclaimed, his
whole manner changing. I told him. " If that is so,"


said he, lowering his gun, to my great relief, " I must
help to get you out. The Yankees are all around us.
Come on." He led the way rapidly to where his own
horse was tied behind some cedar bushes, and, mounting,
bade me follow him. He knew the woods well. As we
rode along, I ventured to inquire who he was. " Curtis,"
said he, " one of General Kooney Lee s scouts. I have
been hanging on the flank of this cavalry for several days.
They are evidently pushing for the High Bridge, to cut
the army off from crossing there."

After telling him of my adventure, I added : " You
gave me a great fright. I thought you were a Yankee,
sure, and came near telling you that I was one."

" It is well you did not. I am taking no prisoners on
this trip," he rejoined, tapping the butt of his carbine

" There they go," said he, as we came to an opening
and saw the Union cavalry winding down a red-clay road
to the north of us, traveling parallel with our own route.
" We must hurry, or they 11 reach the Flat Creek ford
ahead of us. Fitz Lee is somewhere near here, and
there 11 be fun when he sees them. There are not many
of them, and they are pressing too far ahead of their
main column."

After a sharp ride through the forest, we came to a
wooded hill overlooking the ford of Flat Creek, a stream
which runs northward, entering the Appomattox near
High Bridge.

" Wait here a moment," said Curtis. " Let me ride
out and see if we are safe." Going on to a point where
he could reconnoitre, he turned back, rose in his stirrups,
waved his hand, and crying, " Come on, quick ! " galloped
down the hill to the ford.

I followed ; but he had not accurately calculated the


distance. The head of the column of Union cavalry was
in sight when he beckoned to me and made his dash.
They saw him and started toward him. As I was con
siderably behind him, they were much nearer to me than
to him. He crossed safely ; but the stream was deep, and
by the time I was in the middle, my little mare doing her
best with the water up to her chest, the Yankees were in
easy range, making it uncomfortable for me. The bullets
were splashing in the water all around me. I threw my
self off the saddle, and, nestling close under the mare s
shoulder, I reached the other side unharmed. Curtis and
a number of .pickets stationed at the ford stood by me
manfully. The road beyond the ford ran into a deep
gully and made a turn. Behind the protection of this
turn, Curtis and the pickets opened fire upon the advan
cing cavalry, and held them in check until I was safely
over. When my horse trotted up with me, wet as a
drowned rat, it was time for us all to move on rapidly.
In the afternoon, I heard Fitz Lee pouring hot shot into
that venturesome body of cavalry, and I was delighted
to learn afterward that he had given them severe pun

Curtis advised me to go to Farmville, where I would
be beyond the chance of encountering more Union cav
alry, and then to work eastward toward General Lee. I
had been upset by the morning s adventures, and I was
somewhat demoralized. About a mile from Farmville, I
found myself to the west of a line of battle of infantry,
formed on a line running north and south, moving toward
the town. Not doubting they were Union troops, I gal
loped off again, and when I entered Farmville I did not
hesitate to inform the commandant that the Yankees
were approaching. The news created quite a panic. Ar
tillery was put in position and preparations were made to


resist, when it was discovered that the troops I had seen
were a reserve regiment of our own, falling back in line
of battle to a position near the town. I kept very quiet
when I heard men all about me swearing that any cow
ardly, panic-stricken fool who would set such a report
afloat ought to be lynched.

I had now very nearly joined our army, which was
coming directly toward me. Early in the afternoon, the
advance of our troops appeared. How they straggled,
and how demoralized they seemed ! Eastward, not far
from the Flat Creek ford, a heavy fire opened, and con
tinued for an hour or more. As I afterward learned,
Fitz Lee had collided with my cavalry friends of the
morning, and, seeing his advantage, had availed himself
of it by attacking them fiercely. To the north, about
four o clock, a tremendous fire of artillery and musketry
began, and continued until dark. I was riding towards
this firing, with my back to Farmville. Very heavy
detonations of artillery were followed time and again by
crashes of musketry. It was the battle of Sailors Creek,
the most important of those last struggles of which Grant
said, " There was as much gallantry displayed by some of
the Confederates in these little engagements as was dis
played at any time during the war, notwithstanding the
sad defeats of the past weeks." My father s command
was doing the best fighting of that day. When Ewell
and Custis Lee had been captured, when Pickett s divi
sion broke and fled, when Bushrod Johnson, his division
commander, left the field ingloriously, my fearless father,
bareheaded and desperate, led his brigade into action at
Sailors Creek, and, though completely surrounded, cut
his way out, and reached Farmville at daylight with the
fragments of his command.

It was long after nightfall when the firing ceased. We


had not then learned the particulars, but it was easy to
see that the contest had gone against us. The enemy
had, in fact, at Sailors Creek, stampeded the remnant of
Pickett s division, broken our lines, captured six general
officers, including Generals Ewell and Custis Lee, and
burned a large part of our wagon trains. As evening
came on, the road was filled with wagons, artillery, and
bodies of men, hurrying without organization and in a
state of panic toward Farmville. I met two general
officers, of high rank and great distinction, who seemed
utterly demoralized, and they declared that all was lost.
That portion of the army which was still unconquered was
falling back with its face to the foe, and bivouacked with
its right and left flanks resting upon the Appomattox
to cover the crossings to the north side, near Farmville.
Upon reaching our lines, I found the divisions of Field
and Malone presenting an unbroken and defiant front.
Passing from camp to camp in search of General Lee, I
encountered General Mahone, who told me where to find
General Lee. He said that the enemy had "knocked hell
out of Pickett." " But," he added savagely, " my fellows
are all right. We are just waiting for em." And so they
were. When the army surrendered, three days later, Ma-
hone s division was in better fighting trim and surrendered
more muskets than any other division of Lee s army.

It was past midnight when I found General Lee. He
was in an open field north of Rice s Station and east of
the High Bridge. A camp-fire of fence-rails was burn
ing low. Colonel Charles Marshall sat in an ambulance,
with a lantern and a lap-desk. He was preparing orders
at the dictation of General Lee, who stood near, with
one hand resting on a wheel and one foot upon the end
of a log, watching intently the dying embers as he spoke
in a low tone to his amanuensis.


Touching my cap as I rode up, I inquired, " General

" Yes," he replied quietly, and I dismounted and ex
plained my mission. He examined my autograph order
from Mr. Davis, and questioned me closely concerning
the route by which I had come. He seemed especially
interested in my report of the position of the enemy at
Burkeville and westward, to the south of his army.
Then, with a long sigh, he said : " I hardly think it is
necessary to prepare written dispatches in reply. They
may be captured. The enemy s cavalry is already flank
ing us to the south and west. You seem capable of bear
ing a verbal response. You may say to Mr. Davis that,
as he knows, my original purpose was to adhere to the
line of the Danville Road. I have been unable to do so,
and am now endeavoring to hold the Southside Road as
I retire in the direction of Lynchburg."

" Have you any objective point, general, any place
where you contemplate making a stand ? " I ventured

" No," said he slowly and sadly, " no ; I shall have to
be governed by each day s developments." Then, with a
touch of resentment, and raising his voice, he added, " A
few more Sailors Creeks and it will all be over ended
^just as I have expected it would end from the first."

I was astonished at the frankness of this avowal to one
so insignificant as I. It made a deep and lasting impres
sion on me. It gave me an insight into the character of
General Lee which all the books ever written about him
could never give. It elevated him in my opinion more
than anything else he ever said or did. It revealed him
as a man who had sacrificed everything to perform a con
scientious duty against his judgment. He had loved the
Union. He had believed secession was unnecessary ; he


Lad looked upon it as hopeless folly. Yet at the call of
his State he had laid his life and fame and fortune at her
feet, and served her faithfully to the last.

After another pause, during which, although he spoke
not a word and gave not a sign, I could discern a great
struggle within him, he turned to me and said: "You
must be very tired, my son. You have had an exciting
day. Go rest yourself, and report to me at Farmville at
sunrise. I may determine to send a written dispatch."
The way in which he called me " my son " made me feel
as if I would die for him.

Hesitating a moment, I inquired, " General, can you
give me any tidings of my father?"

" Your father ? " he asked. " Who is your father ? "

" General Wise."

"Ah! "said he, with another pause. "No, no. At
nightfall, his command was fighting obstinately at Sailors
Creek, surrounded by the enemy. I have heard nothing
from them since. I fear they were captured, or or
worse." To these words, spoken with genuine sympathy,
he added : " Your father s command has borne itself
nobly throughout this retreat. You may well feel proud
of him and of it."

My father was not dead. At the very moment when
we were talking, he and the remnant of his brigade were
tramping across the High Bridge, feeling like victors,
and he, bareheaded and with an old blanket pinned
around him, was chewing tobacco and cursing Bushrod
Johnson for running off and leaving him to fight his own
way out.

I found a little pile of leaves in a pine thicket, and
lay down in the rear of Field s division for a nap. Fear
ing that somebody would steal my horse, I looped the
reins around my wrist, and the mare stood by my side.


We were already good friends. Just before daylight, she
gave a snort and a jerk which nearly dislocated my arm,
and I awoke to find her alarmed at Field s division,
which was withdrawing silently and had come suddenly
upon her. Warned by this incident, I mounted, and
proceeded toward Farmville, to report, as directed, to
General Lee for further orders. North of the stream at
Farmville, in the forks of the road, was the house then
occupied by General Lee. On the hill behind the house,
to the left of the road, was a grove. Seeing troops in
this grove, I rode in, inquiring for General Lee s head
quarters. The troops were lying there more like dead
men than live ones. They did not move, and they had no
sentries out. The sun was shining upon them as they
slept. I did not recognize them. Dismounting, and
shaking an officer, I awoke him with difficulty. He
rolled over, sat up, and began rubbing his eyes, which
were bloodshot and showed great fatigue.

" Hello, John ! " said he. " In the name of all that is
wonderful, where did you come from ? " It was Lieu
tenant Edmund R. Bagwell, of the 46th. The men, a few
hundred in all, were the pitiful remnant of my father s

" Have you seen the old general ? " asked Ned. " He s
over there. Oh, we have had a week of it ! Yes, this is
all that is left of us. John, the old man will give you
thunder when he sees you. When we were coming on
last night in the dark, he said, Thank God, John is out
of this ! Dick ? Why, Dick was captured yesterday
at Sailors Creek. He was riding the general s old mare,
Maggie, and she squatted like a rabbit with him when
the shells began to fly. She always had that trick. He
could not make her go forward or backward. You ought
to have seen Dick belaboring her with his sword. But the


Yanks got him ! " and Ned burst into a laugh as he led
me where my father was. Nearly sixty years old, he lay,
like a common soldier, sleeping on the ground among his

We aroused him, and when he saw me, he exclaimed :
" Well, by great Jehoshaphat, what are you doing here ?
I thought you, at least, were safe." I hugged him, and
almost laughed and cried at the sight of him safe and
sound, for General Lee had made me very uneasy. I told
him why I was there.

" Where is General Lee ? " he asked earnestly, spring
ing to his feet. " I want to see him again. I saw him
this morning about daybreak. I had washed my face in
a mud-puddle, and the red mud was all over it and in
the roots of my hair. I looked like a Comanche Indian ;
and when I was telling him how we cut our way out last
night, he broke into a smile and said, General, go wash
your face ! The incident pleased him immensely, for
at the same time General Lee made him a division com
mander, a promotion he had long deserved for gal
lantry, if not for military knowledge.

" No, Dick is not captured. He got out, I m sure,"
said he, as we walked down the hill together. " He was
separated from me when the enemy broke our line. He
was not riding Maggie. I lent her to Frank Johnson.
He was wounded, and, remembering his kindness to your
brother Jennings the day he was killed, I tried to save
the poor fellow, and told him to ride Maggie to the rear.
Dick was riding his black horse. I know it. When the
Yankees advanced, a flock of wild turkeys flushed before
them and came sailing into our lines. I saw Dick gallop
after a gobbler and shoot him and tie him to his saddle
bow. He was coming back toward us when the line
broke, and, mounted as he was, he has no doubt escaped,
but is cut off from us by the enemy.


" Yes, the Yanks got the bay horse, and my servants
Joshua and Smith, and all my baggage, overcoats, and
plunder. A private soldier pinned this blanket around
me last night, and I found this hat when I was coining
off the field."

He laughed heartily at his own plight. I have never
since seen a catch-pin half so large as that with which his
blanket was gathered at the throat. As we passed down
the road to General Lee s headquarters, the roads and
the fields were filled with stragglers. They moved look
ing behind them, as if they expected to be attacked and
harried by a pursuing foe. Demoralization, panic, aban
donment of all hope, appeared on every hand. Wagons
were rolling along without any order or system. Caissons
and limber-chests, without commanding officers, seemed
to be floating aimlessly upon a tide of disorganization.
Rising to his full height, casting a glance around him
like that of an eagle, and sweeping the horizon with his
long arm and bony forefinger, my father exclaimed, " This
is the end ! " It is impossible to convey an idea of the
agonjr and the bitterness of his words and gestures.

We found General Lee on the rear portico of the house
that I have mentioned. He had washed his face in a tin
basin, and stood drying his beard with a coarse towel
as we approached. " General Lee," exclaimed my father,
" my poor, brave men are lying on yonder hill more dead
than alive. For more than a week they have been fight
ing day and night, without food, and, by God, sir, they
shall not move another step until somebody gives them
something to eat ! "

"Come in, general," said General Lee soothingly.

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 31 of 35)