Copyright
John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

The end of an era online

. (page 32 of 35)
Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 32 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


" They deserve something to eat, and shall have it ; and
meanwhile you shall share my breakfast." Pie disarmed
everything like defiance by his kindness.



434 THE END OF AN ERA

It was but a few moments, however, before my father
launched forth in a fresh denunciation of the conduct of
General Bushrod Johnson in the engagement of the 6th.
I am satisfied that General Lee felt as he did ; but, assum
ing an air of mock severity, he said, " General, are you
aware that you are liable to court-martial and execution
for insubordination and disrespect toward your command
ing officer ? "

My father looked at him with lifted eyebrows and
flashing eyes, and exclaimed : " Shot ! You can t afford to
shoot the men who fight for cursing those who run away.
Shot ! I wish you would shoot me. If you don t, some
Yankee probably will within the next twenty-four hours."

Growing more serious, General Lee inquired what he
thought of the situation.

" Situation ? " said the bold old man. " There is no
situation ! Nothing remains, General Lee, but to put
your poor men on your poor mules and send them home
in time for spring ploughing. This army is hopelessly
whipped, and is fast becoming demoralized. These men
have already endured more than I believed flesh and
blood could stand, and I say to you, sir, emphatically,
that to prolong the struggle is murder, and the blood of
every man who is killed from this time forth is on your
head, General Lee."

This last expression seemed to cause General Lee great
pain. With a gesture of remonstrance, and even of im
patience, he protested : " Oh, general, do not talk so
wildly. My burdens are heavy enough. What would
the country think of me, if I did what you suggest ? "

" Country be d d ! " was the quick reply. " There

is no country. There has been no country, general, for a
year or more. You are the country to these men. They
have fought for you. They have shivered through a long



THE END IN SIGHT 435

winter for you. Without pay or clothes, or care of any
sort, their devotion to you and faith in you have been the
only things which have held this army together. If you
demand the sacrifice, there are still left thousands of us
who will die for you. You know the game is desperate
beyond redemption, and that, if you so announce, no man
or government or people will gainsay your decision. That
is why I repeat that the blood of any man killed hereafter
is upon your head."

General Lee stood for some time at an open window,
looking out at the throng now surging by upon the roads
and in the fields, and made no response. Then, turning
his attention to me, he said cheerfully that he was glad
my father s plight was not so bad as he had thought it
might be, at the time of our conversation the night be
fore. After a pause, he wrote upon a piece of paper a
few words to the effect that he had talked with me, and
that I would make a verbal report. If occasion arose, he
would give further advices. " This," said he, " you will
deliver to the President. I fear to write, lest you be cap
tured, for those people are already several miles above
Farmville. You must keep on the north side to a ford
eight miles above here, and be careful about crossing even
there." He always referred to the enemy as " those peo
ple." Then he bade me adieu, and asked my father to
come in and share his breakfast.

I hugged my father in the presence of General Lee,
and I saw a kindly look in his eyes as he watched us.
Remembering that my father had no horse, I said, " Take
my mare. I can easily get another."

" What ! " said he, laughing, " a dispatch-bearer giving
away his horse ! No, sir. That is too pretty a little ani
mal to make a present to a Yankee. I know they will
bag us all, horse, foot, and dragoons, before long. No.



436 THE END OF AN ERA

I can walk as well as anybody. Have you any chewing
tobacco ? "

I was immensely flattered at this request, and gave him
a plug of excellent tobacco. It was the first time that he
had recognized me as entitled to the possession of all the
" modern improvements " of a soldier.

And so I left them. As I rode along in search of the
ford to which General Lee had directed me, I felt that I
was in the midst of the wreck of that immortal army
which, until now, I had believed to be invincible.



CHAPTER XXVI

THE END

EIGHT miles of brisk riding carried me beyond the flot
sam and jetsam of the Army of Northern Virginia. I was
alone in the meadows on the north of the Appomattox
River. The sun shone brightly, and under the wooded
bluffs upon the opposite bank of the narrow stream the
little valley up which my route led was warm and still.
The dogwood was beginning to bloom ; the grass near the
river banks was showing the first verdure of spring ; the
willows overhanging the stream were purpling and swell
ing with buds. A cock grouse among the laurels was
drumming to his mate, and more than once I heard the
gobble of the wild turkey. Behind me, in the distance,
were sounds of artillery ; from time to time, our guns
opened to hold the enemy in check, or he, pursuing,
availed himself of some eminence to shell our retreating
masses. In due season the designated ford was reached.
The little mare, her neck and flanks warm but not heated
with exercise, waded into the stream up to her knees, and,
plunging her nose into the water, quenched her thirst. A
gray squirrel, startled from a hickory near the ford, ran
out upon a limb, swung himself to another tree, and
scampered away through the sunlight and the shadows to
gain his castle in the hollow oak upon the hillside. In a
neighboring cedar, a redbird (cardinal grosbeak), warmed
by the sunlight, uttered the soft call with which he wooes
his mate in springtime.



438 THE END OF AN ERA

How peaceful, how secluded, how inviting to repose,
seemed this sheltered nook ! It was hard to realize what
a seething caldron of human life and human passion was
boiling so near at hand. I needed rest. It was Friday,
and since I left Clover Station, Wednesday night, I had
slept but three hours. Oh, the heartache of those last
eight miles of travel, with time to reflect in solitude upon
what I had seen ! The hopeless, quiet dignity of Gen
eral Lee, the impassioned desperation of my father, were
present like a nightmare. The shattered idols of boyish
dreams lay strewn about me on the road along which I
had been traveling. I had seen commands scattered and
blasted which, until now, had represented victory or un
broken defiance. I had beheld officers who, until yester
day, had impersonated to my youthful ardor nothing but
gallantry, demoralized, separated from their commands,
and with all stomach gone for further fighting. Ever and
again, my thoughts went back to the brave troops through
whose ranks I had ridden the night previous in search of
General Lee ; and then my pride rose afresh. Yet in my
heart I knew that they were but a handful to resist the
armies of Grant ; that the Army of Northern Virginia was
a thing of the past ; that its surrender was only a question
of a few days at furthest ; and that the war was virtually
ended. Then would come the sickening thought, so elo
quently expressed by my father, that every man thence
forth killed was a noble life literally thrown away. And,
knowing my father as I did, I felt that it was more than
likely he would be one of those to fall ; for his counsel
was not the counsel of a coward. His courage and spirit
of defiance were still unbroken. His proudest testimo
nial is that recorded concerning his conduct on the retreat
by Fitzhugh Lee, who in describing it declared that,
until the order of surrender went forth at Appomattox,



THE END 439

he fought with the fervor of youth, and exposed himself
as unhesitatingly as when he was full of hope at the open
ing of the war.

Alone, torn by these bitter thoughts, patriotic and per
sonal, exhausted by two days and nights of excitement
and fatigue, and contemplating with no pleasant anticipa
tions seventy miles of hard riding before me, I gathered
my reins, touched the flank of my horse, and resumed
my journey. The country south of the Appomattox was
wooded and somewhat broken. The roads led between
" hogback " hills, as they are called. I drew out my
brierwood pipe and consoled myself with a smoke ; for
among my other military accomplishments I had acquired
the habit of smoking.

I was taking it easily, and was riding " woman fashion,"
to rest myself in the saddle. The mare moved quietly
forward at a fox trot. I felt sure I was well ahead of the
flanking column of the enemy. Of a sudden my ear
caught the sound of a human voice. It was distant, a
singsong note, resembling the woodland " halloo " we often
hear. For a moment I thought it might be the voice of
a darkey singing as he drove his team along. But it
ceased, and in its place I heard, in a direction which I
could not determine, sounds like falling rain, with heavy
drops distinctly audible in the downpour. I recognized
the sound.

When we were studying Virgil, our tutor delighted to
take up those lines of the ^Eneid wherein the poet de
scribes the footfall of many horses as the cavalry ap
proaches :

" It clamor, et agrnine facto
Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum."

After reading them he would look around and ask, " Eh ?
don t you hear the very sound of the horses feet in the



440 THE END OF AN ERA

words ? " Well, of course we did not, and Parson Dudley
thought we were trifling young cubs not to see the beauty
of Virgil s verbal horseplay. Still, the words stuck, and
I often repeated them afterward. Now, who would have
imagined that the little Latin I had acquired, partly a
priori and partly a posteriori, would one day serve to aid
in escaping capture ? I listened. I repeated : " Quad-
rupe dantepu tremsoni tuquatit ungula cam-
pum." I said to myself : " That sound is the sound of
cavalry. That voice was the voice of command. Which
way shall I go ? "

" Plague take you, be quiet ! " I said to the mare, slap
ping her impatiently on the neck ; for at that moment she
lifted her head, pointed her ears, and, raising her ribs,
gave a loud whinny. By good luck, almost at the- same
instant the sound of clashing cymbals and the music of a
mounted band came through the forest. The hostile forces
were but a few hundred yards away. As I soon learned,
they were moving on a road leading to the ford, but enter
ing the road that I was traveling just beyond the spot
where I first heard them. The hill on my left ran down
to a point where the advancing column was coming into
the road on which I was. The summit of the hill was
covered by a thick growth of laurel and pine. I sprang
from the saddle, led the mare up the hillside, tied her,
and, reflecting that she might whinny again, left her, ran
along the hill-crest as near to the enemy as I dared go,
lay down behind an old log, covered myself with leaves
and bushes, and was within a hundred yards of the spot
which the enemy passed. I could see them from behind
the end of my log.

"Hurrah! hurrah!" they shouted, as the band played
" Johnny Comes Marching Home." They were elated and
full of enthusiasm, for the Johnnies were on the run, and



THE END 441

the pursuit was now little more than a foot-race. The
band struck up " Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines "
as they swept on to the ford, walking, trotting, ambling,
pacing, their guidons fluttering in the spring breeze.
kt Hurrah ! hurrah ! hurrah ! " How different was the
cheering from the wild yell to which I was accustomed !
I lay there, with my pistol in my hand, watching them,
really interested in contrasting their good equipment and
their ardor with the wretched scenes that I had left be
hind. A wild turkey hen, startled from her nest near the
roadside, came flying directly up the hill, alighted on the
further side of the log behind which I was lying, and,
squatting low, ran within three feet of my nose. Peering
into my face with frightened eyes, she gave a " put ! " of
amazement and sheered off. I convulsively clutched my
pistol to shoot her. No, I did not shoot. I had reasons
for not shooting. But I am sure this was the only wild
turkey that ever came within range of my weapon with
out receiving a salute.

The cavalcade swept by, and did not suspect my pre
sence. When all was still again, hurrying back to the
filly, I mounted, rode down to the forks of the road, took
the one that led westward, and galloped away. I felt
sure, from the rapidity with which I had traveled, that
this must be the advance of the enemy, and I resolved to
take no further risks. I was right, for I saw no more
Union troops. Late that afternoon, in Charlotte County,
I passed the plantation of Roanoke, once the home of
John Randolph. It looked desolate and overgrown.

" Oh, John Randolph, John, John ! " thought I, as I
rode bv, " you have gotten some other Johns, in fact the
whole breed of Johnnies, into a peck of trouble by the
governmental notions which you left to them as a legacy.
By the way, John," changing into a merrier vein, " I wish



442 THE END OF AN ERA

some of those thoroughbreds you once owned were still in
your stables ; my gallant animal is nearly done for by the
murderous pace of the last six hours." Neither the spirit
nor the horses of John Randolph responded, either to
maintain his principles, or to supply me a fresh mount
from the skeleton stables, and I rode on.

I reached the Episcopal rectory at Halifax Court House
after midnight. My brother Henry was the minister.
He was a glorious fellow, who, if he had not been a
preacher, would have made a dashing soldier. I ham
mered upon the door, and he came down. I was now only
twenty miles west of my post at Clover Station. I had
visited him several times while I was quartered there, but
since the evacuation of Richmond he had heard nothing
from any of us, although he had made many inquiries, for
me particularly.

When I told him of my last three adventures, he looked
me over, and, seeing how red my eyes were, said that he
was afraid I was drunk. " Not much," I replied ; " but
if you have anything to eat and to drink, get it out
quickly, for I am nearly famished. You may think I am
drunk, Henry, but come out and look at the mare. Prob
ably you will think she has the delirium tremens." He
was soon dressed, and we went out to minister to the
faithful brute.

She stood with head hung low, her red nostrils distend
ing and contracting, her sides heaving, her knees trem
bling, her flanks roweled and red, the sweat dripping from
her wet body. Poor little Tulip (that was her name), I
had not done it wantonly. I was performing a duty of
life and death.

" You cannot ride her to Danville," said Henry, who
was a good horseman.

" No, of course not. I came after your bay horse."



UNIVERSIT




THE END 443



Henry loved his mare, and under other circumstances
he would not have listened to such a proposition ; but
patriotism overcame him, and he simply answered, with
a sigh, "Very well."

I count it a creditable episode in my life that I took
off my coat, tired as I was, and gave Tulip a good rubbing
down, and fed her and bedded her, bless her game heart !

" You cannot go forward at once," Henry urged, when
we returned to the house. He started a fire in the dining-
room, and placed an abundance of cold victuals and drink
upon the table, and his pretty young wife entered to hear
the war news.

" Well, I thought I might, but blamed if I don t be
lieve I m forced to take a rest," I replied. " Will you
have your mare saddled and me waked at daybreak ? "

It was so arranged, and, after I had eaten like a glut
ton, I lit a pipe and tried to stay awake to answer Hen
ry s eager questions ; but I fell asleep in the chair, and
the next I knew he was leading me by the arm up to a
large bedroom, the like of which I had not seen for many
a day. Tumbling into bed, I knew no more until he
roused me at daybreak, fed me, put me on his mare, and
said a " God bless you ! " I went off sore and reluctant,
but soon limbered up and grew willing, as his horse,
fresh and almost as good as Tulip, strode gallantly on
to Danville.

" Man never is, but always to be blest." I was envy
ing preachers, and thinking what a good time Henry was
having ; and he, poor fellevv, had spent the night striding
up and down the floor, bemoaning the hard fate which
had made him a non-combatant.

It was about eight o clock in the evening of Saturday,
April 8, 1865, when the hoofs of my horse resounded on
the bridge which spans the Roanoke at Danville. I do



444 THE END OF AN ERA

not recall the exact distance traversed that day, but it
was enough for man and beast. I had a good, comfort
able ride. Henry had filled my saddle-pockets with ex
cellent food, and two flasks of coffee made by him, while
I slept, from a precious remnant that he had preserved
for the sick of his congregation. He was a prince of
hospitality and common sense. He had liquor, and was
no blue-nose ; but he said that he would give me none,
for the double reason that I seemed to like it too well,
and that, in case of protracted effort, it was not so relia
ble a stimulant as coffee.

The lights of Danville were a welcome sight. The town
was crowded with people, the result of the recent influx
from Richmond. Riding up Main Street to the princi
pal hotel, I learned that President Davis was domiciled
at the home of Major Sutherlin, and thither I directed
my course. The house stands upon Main Street, near
the crest of a steep hill. As I approached, I saw that it
was brilliantly illuminated. A sentry at the yard gate
challenged me. I announced my name, rank, and mis
sion, and was admitted. At the door, a colored man,
whom I recognized as the body servant of the President,
received me. In a few moments, Burton Harrison ap
peared, giving me a kindly greeting, and saying that the
President and his Cabinet were then holding a session
in the dining-room, and desired me to enter and make
my report. I laughed, drew forth the short note of Gen
eral Lee to the President, and remarked that my dis
patches were for the most part oral.

I felt rather embarrassed by such a distinguished
audience, but Mr. Davis soon put me at ease. In his
book he mentions my coming, but, after the long interval
between 1865 and the time at which it was written, he
had forgotten, if indeed he ever knew, that I had been



THE END 445

sent by him to General Lee. Probably he never learned
what name General Walker inserted in the blank order
sent, when he requested the detail of an officer to commu
nicate with General Lee. At any rate, I was the first
person who had brought him any direct news from Gen
eral Lee since his departure from Richmond.

Those present, as I remember them, were, besides the
President and Burton Harrison, Mr. Benjamin, General
Breckinridge, Secretary Mallory, Secretary Reagan, per
haps General Bragg, and several others whom I did not
know, or do not recall. They sat around a large dining-
table, and I stood at the end opposite Mr. Davis. He
was exceedingly considerate, requested me to make my
report, which I did as briefly as possible, and then asked
me a number of questions. When he had done examin
ing me, several others of the party made inquiries. One
thing I remember vividly. Somebody inquired how
many efficient troops I thought General Lee had left.
I was prepared for this question to the extent of having
tried to conjecture. In doing so, I had assumed that at
the time he started from Petersburg he had nearly one
hundred thousand men. That was the popular impres
sion. With this in my mind as a basic figure, I believed
that his army had dwindled to one third of its number
when it left Petersburg ; and so I ventured the opinion
that he might still have thirty thousand effective men,
although I was cautious enough to add that Mahone s
and Field s divisions were the only two that I had seen
which seemed to be intact and to have preserved their
organization. When I said thirty thousand, I thought I
detected a smile of sad incredulity on several faces ; and
I have often wondered since how much that statement
detracted from the weight attached to my report in other
respects.



446 THE END OF AN ERA

One question I answered as I felt. "Do you think
General Lee will be able to reach a point of safety with
his army? "

" I regret to say, no. From what I saw and heard, I
am satisfied that General Lee must surrender. It may
be that he has done so to-day. In my opinion, Mr. Presi
dent, it is only a question of a few days at furthest, and,
if I may be permitted to add a word, I think the sooner
the better ; for, after seeing what I have seen of the two
armies, I believe the result is inevitable, and postponing
the day means only the useless effusion of noble, gallant
blood."

I am sure none of them had heard such a plain state
ment of this unwelcome truth before. I remember the
expression of face almost a shudder with which
what I said was received. I saw that, however convinced
they might be of the truth of it, it was not a popular
speech to make.

Mr. Davis asked me to remain. He said that he wished
to talk with me further. While I was waiting for him
in the hallway, Major Sutherlin, who had known me
from childhood, beckoned to me and asked, " Are n t you
hungry after your ride ? "

I grinned. I was always hungry then.

" Jim," quoth the major, " see if you can t get some
thing for the lieutenant to eat."

Jim went out, but in a few minutes returned, and, bow^
ing, invited me into a butler s pantry. He apologized for
the place, and explained that the house was so crowded
he had nowhere else to spread the repast. He had pro
vided milk, corn-coffee, butter and rolls, and cold turkey.
I said, " Jim, shut up. You know I am not used to as
good as this." With that I tossed off a glass of milk,
swallowed a cup of coffee, and, opening my haversack,



THE END 447

tumbled the butter and rolls and turkey-legs into it, and
buttoned it up. Jim stood there, highly amused at the
short shrift I made of his feast, and remarked, " You s a
fust-class forager, ain t you, lieutenant ?" "Yes," I re
sponded. " You must keep fire in the box, Jim, if you
want the engine to run. Now I m ready for the Presi
dent."

I slipped back into the hallway, and sat down to wait
until the President should call me. In a little while the
conference broke up, and he came to the door. "Now,
lieutenant, I 11 see you," and he led the way into the
drawing-room ; there we had a long talk, I going more
into details.

At the close of our conversation, he sat for some time
peering into the gloom outside, and finally broke the
silence by saying, " You seem to know the roads. Do
you feel equal to another trip ? "

" Assuredly," I answered. " I now have a relay of
horses, and am more than glad to serve in any way I
can."

" Very well," said he. " Leave your horse in Major
Sutherlin s stable, so that it will be well fed, and report
for orders to-morrow morning at eight o clock."

I took the mare to the stable. It looked so inviting
that I clambered up a ladder to the loft, opened my
haversack, enjoyed Major Sutherlin s food, placed some
hay under me and drew some over me, and had a glori
ous night s rest.

When I reported next morning, the President did not
ask at what hotel I was stopping. I received my return
dispatches, and I set forth to rejoin General Lee. Appre
hending the probability of my capture, Mr. Davis gave
me a brief letter of credentials, and said that I would
explain his wishes.



448 THE END OF AN ERA

Upon the same day that General Lee surrendered at
Appomattox (April 9), I reached Halifax Court House
on the return trip. My brother Richard was there, with
his own horse and the horse that my father had lent the
wounded man. They had been cut oft. at Sailors Creek
and forced southward. The enemy, flanking General Lee,
had advanced by moving at least ten miles beyond Sailors
Creek, thus rendering it impossible for them to rejoin
General Lee except by going through the Union lines.
My brother was greatly perplexed concerning the course
he should pursue, and after we had discussed the matter,
he resolved to leave one of the horses and to go back
with me. Monday morning we resumed the journey;
and that afternoon we met the first of our men, who,
paroled at Appomattox the day before, were mournfully
wending their way homeward.

Upon hearing of the surrender, we turned back toward
Danville to report to President Davis the failure of my mis
sion. On arriving there, we learned that he had left the



Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 32 of 35)