I find, however, it is hard to realize in an audience like this that many of you have been born since the war, and that to many of the older ones the war is but a faint recollection, but there are, perhaps, in my audience to-night, some of the parents and wives of those exciting days, who never can forget the anxiety with which they daily opened the morning paper, dreading to see some loved one's name in that fatal list of dead, wounded, or missing, or forget the weary hours that passed after the first news of a battle before the welcome letter came telling of husband's or son's safety.
The story of the war has been so often and so ably told, that I have not thought best to offer for your entertainment this evening any extended account of battles lost, or victories won, but to give you a little of my own personal experience as a prisoner, and my subsequent escape to our lines; and I trust you will not be inclined to ask, when I am through, as one of our members who had not attended any of our reunions for a long time did, after listening to another member who is noted for his strong imagination:
"Does ... really believe all those wonderful stories he told me?"
"Oh, yes," I replied, "he has told them so many times now, that he has begun to believe them himself."
I would say, as an introduction, that I enlisted in the 122d New York Volunteers, a regiment which was raised entirely in our county, in the summer of 1862.
It is with a feeling of pride that we reflect that we enlisted at a time which was the darkest period of the war. The fond allusions entertained in 1861 that the war would be ended in ninety days, had long since been abandoned. Up to this time success had been on the side of the rebels.
McClellan, with his splendid army, had just returned baffled and defeated, from his Peninsular campaign. Lee at the head of his triumphant column having overwhelmed Pope at the second battle of Bull Run, was just entering on the invasion of Maryland. Doubt and gloom reigned throughout the North. The President called for 300,000 additional troops and 1,000 of our Onondaga county boys, ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-three (with a few exceptions like our color bearer, Sergeant Amasa Chase, who was rejected the first day on account of his gray hair, dyed it that night, and came back the next day and was accepted) responded to the call.
We were mustered into service August 28, 1862, and on the 31st of August left for Washington, and upon our arrival there were sent immediately to the front, and became a part of Shaler's Brigade of the Sixth Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac, and participated in all memorable campaigns and battles of that gallant army from Antietam to the Appomattox, besides serving under Sheridan in the brilliant campaign of the Shenandoah, when he won his stars as Major-General of the regular army.
A full regiment is composed of thirty-seven officers and 1,000 enlisted men. There were also several enlisted men, known as the non-commissioned staff, to which our friend Major Poole and I belonged--he being quartermaster-sergeant, who assists the quartermaster in the discharge of his duties, and I as sergeant-major, sustained a like relation to the adjutant.
The severest fighting our regiment had previous to the Wilderness, was at Gettysburg.
The armies were confronting one another along the line of the Rappahannock river when Lee decided upon the invasion of Pennsylvania. As he moved north the Army of the Potomac moved also on an inner parallel line, keeping between Lee's army and Washington.
Leaving the Rappahannock river about the middle of June, 1863, we had constant severe marching until the lst of July found us at Manchester, Md., about thirty-six miles from Gettysburg, where we enjoyed a much needed day's rest after our continuous march from Fredericksburg. But the battle had begun, and the Sixth Corps were sadly needed there.
We left Manchester at dusk on the evening of July lst, and all through the dreary night pushed on towards Gettysburg. As morning dawned the sound of the second day's battle greeted our ears, faint at first, but growing more and more distinct as we hurried forward to the assistance of our comrades of the Army of the Potomac. Halting only for the occasional five minute's rest, and twice to make coffee, we struggled on through that hot July day, nerved to renewed efforts as the sound of the battle grew louder and louder. We reached the banks of Rock creek, just in the rear of the battle field, at 2 o'clock that afternoon, and redeemed the promise our noble Sedgwick had made when he received the order the night before: "Tell General Meade," he said to the staff officer who brought him the order, "Tell General Meade I will be at Gettysburg, with my corps, at 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon."
Part of our corps were engaged that night dashing on to the field at a double quick, after their long and arduous march, and assisted in relieving the third corps.
Our brigade went into bivouac a little in rear of the front line of battle, sleeping on our arms. We were roused again before daylight and moved over to Culp's hill, our extreme right, and for a short time were in reserve; but Lee was making a desperate attempt to turn our right, and a regiment in front of us having got out of ammunition, we were ordered forward to take their places. We charged across the knoll and reoccupied the breastworks which, with other regiments on our right and left, we held against their repeated charges until they abandoned the attack in despair. While behind the breastworks and in the midst of the fight, a regiment moved up and took the place of one on our immediate left, and it proved to be the 149th New York regiment, organized in this country the next month after ours, and which belonged to the 12th corps, and this was the only time during the war that we met as regiments.
During that morning's fighting we had ten men killed and thirty-four wounded, which was a large proportion to the number actually engaged, as our numbers had been considerably decreased by our long and arduous march. For an hour or two there was a lull in the battle, and then was opened that terrific artillery fire which was intended to sweep the crest of cemetery ridge of our batteries and troops, preparatory of Pickett's famous charge. But that has been so ably described by another, that I will quote his words, merely stating that our brigade was moved during the artillery fire as a support to the centre, but we were not actually engaged at that point.
In the shadows cast by the tiny farm house which General
Meade had made his headquarters, lay wearied staff
officers and tired correspondents. There was not wanting to
the peacefulness of the scene the singing of a bird which had a nest
in a peach tree in the yard. In the midst of its warbling
a shell screamed over the house, instantly followed by another and in a
moment the air was full of the most complete artillery
prelude to an infantry battle that was ever exhibited.
Every size and form of shell known to British and American gunnery,
shrieked, whirled, moaned and whistled, and wrathfully fluttered
over the ground, as many as six in a second, constantly two in a second,
bursting and screaming over and around the headquarters, made a very hell
of fire that amazed the oldest officers. A shell
tore up the little step of the headquarter's
cottage, another soon carried off one of its two pillars; soon a spherical case burst opposite the open door, another ripped through the low garret.
Not an orderly, not an ambulance, not a straggler
was to be seen on the plain swept by the tempest of
orchestral death thirty minutes after it commenced.
Were not one hundred and eighty pieces of artillery trying to cut
from the field every battery we had in position to resist the proposed
infantry attack and to wipe away the slight defense
behind which our infantry were waiting? Forty minutes,
fifty minutes counted the watches that ran, oh, so languidly.
Shells through the two lower rooms--a shell into the chimney, which did
not explode. The air grew thicker and fuller and more
deafening with the howling and whirring of their infernal missiles, and
the time measured on the
sluggish watch was one hour and twenty minutes. A shell exploding in the cemetery killed and wounded twenty-seven men in one regiment. Yet the troops lying under the fence, stimulated and encouraged by General Howard, who walked coolly along the line, kept their places and awaited the attack. It was 2:30 o'clock. "We will let them think they have silenced us," said General Howard.
The artillerists threw themselves on the ground beside their pieces.
Suddenly there is a shout, 'There they come!' "
Every man is on the alert. The cannoneers spring to their feet. The long rebel lines emerge from the woods and move rapidly over the field.
Howard's batteries burst into flame, throwing shells with the utmost rapidity. There are gaps in the rebel ranks, but onward still they come. They reach the Emmitsburg road. All of Howard's guns are at work now. Pickett turns to the right, driven in part by the fire of the 5th and 6th corps batteries. Suddenly he faces east, crosses the meadow, comes in reach of the muskets of the Vermonters. The three regiments rise from their shallow trench; there is a ripple, a roll, a deafening roar. Yet the momentum of the rebel column carries it on. It is becoming thinner and weaker, but they still advance.
The second corps line is like a thin blue ribbon. Will it withstand the shock?
"Give them cannister! Pour it into them!" shouts Major Howard, running from battery to battery.
The rebel line has drifted past the Vermont boys--onward still. "Break their thin lines; smash their support," says Howard, and Osborne and Wainwright send the fire of fifty guns into the column; each piece fired three times a minute. The cemetery is lost to view, covered with sulphurous clouds flaming and smoking like Sinai on the great day of the Lord. The front line of rebels is melting away, the second is advancing to take its place, but beyond the first and second is the third, which reels, breaks and flies to the woods from whence it came, unable to withstand the storm.
Hancock is wounded, Gibbon is in command of the second corps.
"Hold your fire, boys; they are not near enough yet," shouts Gibbon
as Pickett comes on. The first volley staggers, but does not stop
them. They move upon the run--up to the breastwork of
rails--bearing Hancock's line to the top of the ridge,
so powerful is their momentum. Men fire into each others'
faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet thrusts, sabre
strokes, pistol shots--cool, deliberate movements on the part of some--hot,
passionate, desperate efforts with others--hand to hand contests--recklessness
of life--tenacity of purpose--fiery determination.
There are ghastly heaps of dead men--seconds are centuries--minutes
ages, but the thin line does not break. The rebels have swept
Vermont regiments. "Take them in the flank," says General Stannard.
They swing out of the trench--turn a right angle--move forward a few steps, and pour a deadly volley in the backs of Kemper's troops. Other regiments catch the enthusiasm of the movement, and close upon the foe.
The rebel column has lost its power--the lines waver--the soldiers of the front rank look around for their supports. They are gone, fleeing over the field--broken, shattered, thrown into confusion by the remorseless fire from the cemetery and the cannon on the ridge. The lines have disappeared like a straw in the candle's flame. The ground is thick with dead, and the wounded are like the withered leaves of autumn. Thousands of rebels throw down their arms and give themselves up as prisoners.
How inspiring the moment. How thrilling the hour. It is the high-water mark of the rebellion--a turning point of history and human destiny. Treason had wielded its mightiest blow. From that time the rebellion began to wane.
Another correspondent writing that night, said: "The invasion of the North was over--the power of the Southern confederacy broken. Then at that portentous hour I could discern the future no longer an overcast sky, but the clear unclouded starlight--a country redeemed, saved, and baptized anew to the coming ages."
The field of Gettysburg has been laid out, and the position of the different regiments and batteries marked by monuments of great beauty, and one can obtain a wonderful idea of the extent of a battlefield; how a battle is fought, by reading a history of the battle, and then visiting that memorable field.
In the winter of 1863 apprehensions were felt that some attempt might be made in Canada by rebel sympathizers to rescue the rebel officers who were confined on Johnson's island in Sandusky harbor; so our brigade was sent there to do guard duty. One had a good opportunity to see how comfortably the rebel prisoners were quartered, and how well warmed, fed and clothed and it must have been with bitter feelings that some of our members who saw more of prison life than I did, contrasted their treatment by the rebels with what we saw at Sandusky that winter.
We returned to the army in April, 1864, to find them preparing for Grant's Richmond campaign. My friend Poole had become a lieutenant, and I had also been promoted and was lieutenant and adjutant of the regiment. But our long line of 1,000 men with which we left home less than two years before, had dwindled away; we probably had less than 400 men for duty when we started on that bloody campaign. Crossing the Rappahannock, which we had crossed before at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Mine Run, only to return defeated, we plunged into the wilderness. This was a thickly wooded country, with a few main roads traversing it and cut up by numerous wood roads. As we crossed the river going south we swung around somewhat to the west, facing Lee's army.
Our corps occupied the extreme right of our army, and the line of battle stretched across the country probably for six or eight miles---General Grant pushing out the left of his army endeavoring to get around Lee's right, and thus between him and Richmond.
As we advanced through the thick woods on the morning of the 6th of May, we had quite a sharp skirmish, but finally gained a little crest, where we established our line, throwing up a breastwork of logs. The rebels were in line a short distance in our front, also behind breastworks. Our pickets, who were posted in our front, reported during the day that the rebels appeared to be moving troops to our right, and word was sent to General Shaler, who commanded our brigade, but he was assured that there was a cavalry force on our flank that connected with the ninth corps, which was in the rear in reserve, but he felt very anxious, and has since told me that he sent word repeatedly to Corps' headquarters that we were "out in the air," and our flank much exposed; and to correct it in a measure, he put a strong picket-line on our flank.
With the light of later information I have thought that General Grant, endeavoring to get around their right with his left, did not much care how far they went to his right, as that was where he wanted them. But just before dusk, as I and several of my messmates were eating our supper, a sharp firing began on the picket-line which had been established on our flank. The picket-line fell back, followed by a charging, yelling line of rebels.
A flank attack is always demoralizing, and the men fell back from the breastworks in front, forming a line at right-angles to their former position, to meet the new attack. At the same time the rebel line in our old front commenced to advance, firing, and all was confusion. We were driven back to one of the narrow roads I spoke of, where I found General Shaler, our brigade commander, and General Sedgwick, and Wright, our corps and division commanders, busily engaged in rallying a line of men.
A line was soon formed, consisting of officers and men of various regiments--the separate regimental organizations having been largely broken up on the confusion. We advanced some 200 or 300 yards into the woods again towards our old right flank, which had now become our front, driving back the rebel line; but they soon brought up fresh troops, and the balls began to come from three directions--our old right flank, which had now become our front; our old front and our old left flank, now became our rear--the latter probably from some of our own troops, who did not know we were there. At this moment I met for an instant, as we passed engaged in our respective duties, my messmate, Lieut. Frank Wooster. We instinctively grasped each others' hand, and it proved to be our last farewell, for in a few moments I was a prisoner, and the very day I reached our lines poor Wooster was killed at Cold Harbor. With a premonition of coming events he wrote to my mother after my capture: "If your son is alive and a prisoner, as I firmly believe he is, I feel I have cause to congratulate you rather than condole with you, as we have since been, and for the next few weeks are likely to be subject to so much hardship, or danger, that a slight wound or being taken prisoner is regarded a fortunate incident, which may well excite envy." You must remember he was trying to relieve a mother's apprehensions, for the regiment had no braver soldier than he.
But to return--the line under fire from so many directions rapidly broke up, and finding none of my own regiment in my vicinity I started through the woods, when I met Capt. James M. Gere of the 122d, who now lives near Geddes. We concluded our best move would be to go to our old rear, and thus work around in hopes of finding more of our regiment.
It was rapidly growing dark, and we had gone but a short distance when we were surrounded by about twenty rebels and ordered to "throw down our arms," which consisted of our swords. They did not search us or treat us unkindly, and one of them informed me they had just captured a brigadier-general, and from their description I knew it must be our commander, General Shaler, and I asked them to take us where he was. I found there also General Seymour, the commander of another brigade in our corps, and a number of officers and soldiers of our brigade, and eight or ten members of our regiment--all companions in misfortune, but much more fortunate than many a poor fellow who was left wounded on the field. Three of our members still living here were wounded and taken prisoners that night--Capt. Charles W. Ostrander and Alex. H. Hubbs, both of whom are known to many of you, and who each had a foot amputated by rebel surgeons.
It is told of Hubbs that he kept up bravely, and after his foot was amputated, and having no crutch, he used to hitch along on the ground and visit all the wounded of our regiment every day, and endeavor to cheer them up. Part of the wounded were rescued and brought to Washington by a detachment of cavalry sent out for that purpose, but Captain Ostrander was taken to Libby prison, and afterwards discharged.
We were taken back a short distance and a line of guards placed about us, and kept until a.m. In the morning word was sent that a wounded officer would like to see some of us to take a message for him, and I went and found Colonel Miller of Oswego quite seriously wounded, and he begged me to avail myself of the first opportunity to convey news to his wife, and my telegram, when I reached our lines, conveyed the joyful intelligence to one who had already put on the widow's garb, so certain had been the news of his death. Col. Miller lived to return home.
General Shaler had him taken to the road where the line I spoke of was rallied. Our line having gone forward, he saw some soldiers further down the road, and supposing them to be our men, he rode rapidly down to order them up into line, when his reins were seized, a musket pointed at his head, and he was ordered to "get off that horse," and found himself a prisoner. General Wright told me last year that he and General Sedgwick came near being taken in the same way, but escaped, though they were fired at.
The next day we were marched about twenty miles, to Orange Court House. There must have been 200 or 300 of us, and it was with some gratification that our column was headed by two generals on foot as we had been accustomed to see them at the head of our column mounted.
The rebel guards marched by our sides, but left it to our generals when we should halt, so that we had an easy march. Upon reaching Orange Court House the officers were confined in the court-house building, and the men were camped in the yard.
The next morning we were marched down to the town pump in squads to perform our morning ablutions. That day we were taken by rail to Gordonville; that night the officers were placed in a barn, and the enclosed men outside. That evening a plan was started to overpower the guards, as some one had learned there was a small force in the town, and to seize arms and endeavor to work or fight our way North: but it was soon abandoned. While there we had rations issued to us consisting of several barrels of raw cornmeal. As we had no means of cooking it in the barn, those who had no friends among the soldiers outside did not fare well. But I remember that Captain Gere and I were indebted to Oscar Austin (who is now under sheriff of our county) for a good hoe-cake which he had baked. The next day we were put on the cars again and taken to Lynchburg, Va.
Here the officers and men were separated--the men were taken to a camp in the outskirts of the town, and eventually to Andersonville, and you can never realize the horrors of that place until you hear a survivor tell some of his experience. As my friend Oscar Austin says: "You may know what it is to be hungry for a day or two, but you cannot imagine until you have tried it, what it is to be hungry for three or four months at a time." While the rebel authorities were, perhaps, at times unable to supply sufficient quantities of food for their own soldiers, yet a great deal of the suffering at Andersonville was, I understand, from lack of room and water, and for all of which might have been supplied. At one time 15,000 men were compelled to live on about eight acres of ground.
At Lynchburg the officers were quartered in the second story of a block on the principal street. There was one stairway leading from the street to a square hallway in the center of the building; from this hallway a door led to some rooms in the rear, where most of us were quartered. The room I was in was a small one, and when we were disposed for the night we just covered the floor--no mattresses being furnished. Leading from this same hall to the front of the building were two rooms--one occupied by the rebel provost-marshal, who had charge of the prisoners, and the other by General Shaler, General Seymour and some of the officers of higher rank who had given their promise not to attempt to escape. We were allowed, one or two at a time, to cross the hall to the generals' room--there being a guard stationed at the head of the stairs leading to the street, which was near the door to our room. The rebel guard off duty had their quarters in the third story, and were constantly coming up and down the stairs. We saw that with rebel uniforms we might easily slip out as one of the rebel guards. Upon my arrival at the prison I found there an old friend, Col. Mortimer B. Birdseye, of the 2d New York Cavalry, whom I had known at home, and to him I was indebted for the thought of attempting an escape, and to his skill and coolness for succeeding in it, and in finally reaching our lines.
As soon as he saw me he said, "now we will get out of this,
and the first thing you must do is to get a rebel jacket.
I have already got mine." The day after Birdseye's capture,
while at Gordonsville, Va., he had traded with the rebel guard
his cavalry jacket for a gray round-about coat, with the Virginia
State buttons on it. This Birdseye was enabled
to smuggle into prison by keeping the black lining folded outside.
But the problem was how to get mine. I had about $100
with me, as we had just been paid off, and I had not
been searched. This supply of greenbacks came in
play, as Birdseye hadn't a cent--the rebels had taken
$47 from him the day of his capture. This being only a temporary
place of confinement, and not subject to regular prison rules, I found
that I could exchange my greenbacks with the rebel guards for confederate money, at the rate of $10 to $1, so I converted some of my good greenbacks into the worthless script of the confederacy. We had in the back yard to which we were allowed access, a sort of kitchen where our daily rations were served, provided only with a negro cook. Feeling sure of his fidelity I went to the cook; I told him I would give him $10 of confederate money if he would bring me a rebel jacket the next night, which he did, bringing a coat which was apparently equal in value to the confederate money I gave him, but which was worth its weight in gold to me.
We were now about ready to start, but waited a day or two to learn, if possible, more about the town. Lynchburg is situated on the south side of the James river, being connected with the northern shore by a long, covered bridge, which we could see from our window. We learned from cautious inquiries that there were no guards upon the bridge. Meanwhile we had been treated well, our daily rations consisting of a loaf of rye bread about four to six inches cube, and a small piece of fat boiled bacon. I must confess I did not get hungry enough to eat the bacon. We were allowed to buy vegetables, and one day our room all contributed their rations, and we bought some additions, and had a "stew," which was quite palatable.
But we were getting impatient, and on the 14th of May, (Saturday night), we decided to start. I was anxious to get a more disrespectable hat than the officer's hat I had, and noticing one of our officers, Major Lyman, whom some rebels had compelled to exchange hats with him, I went to him and told him I was going to attempt an escape that night, and asked him to exchange hats with me. He kindly consented, remarking that "I never would get safely through all that distance, but if I did he wished I would telegraph his wife," and I was able to send her the first news of his safety. He afterwards either escaped or was exchanged, and is now collector or the port of Oswego. We occasionally meet and compare our Lynchburg experience.
Birdseye had succeeded in getting a war map of Virginia, and at dusk that evening, getting permission to go to the generals' room for a moment, we slipped off our coats, put on our rebel jackets and cloth hats, and coming on through from up stairs, boldly walked past the rebel guard (whom Captain Gere, by previous arrangement, was busily engaging in conversation) rapidly down the stairs into the street. We had gone but a few steps when we met the sergeant of the rebel guard, whom we saw daily in the prison, but realizing that his face was more familiar to us than ours would be to him, we walked coolly past him. We walked to the bridge and found we had been correctly informed, that there was no guard, and soon we were on the north side of the river, but a long distance from our lines. Our idea had been, in starting, that we might get through some passes of the Blue Ridge mountains, and final loyal forces, who at the time we were captured were up the Shenandoah valley, but we found, as we got farther up, they had been driven and we finally had to go to Harpers Ferry (about 200 miles) before we struck our sentinels--but I am anticipating. After fairly getting over the river and away from the bridge, we secreted ourselves until late at night, when we pushed on north by the main road until daylight Sunday morning. We then secreted ourselves in a swamp until about dark, when we returned to the negro quarters on William Rucker's plantation, in search of food. Twenty dollars in confederate script secured a good meal of fried bacon and hoe-cake.
Leaving the Rucker plantation, which is twelve miles north of Lynchburg,
we walked all night on the road, and you can judge of our disgust
Monday morning to learn that we were still only twelve
miles from Lynchburg. The night was dark and cloudy,
so we could not see the stars, and we had made a detour way to the
east instead of pushing on north.
After this first night's experience in traveling, we
decided to lay off and save our strength whenever the north star was
hidden, or we were certain as to our course. Having determined
to take the traveled road and pass ourselves off for rebel soldiers, and
claim to be going back to the army, the first thing necessary to
do was to decide to what regiment we would belong, so we consented
to enlist in the Second North Carolina Cavalry, though I doubt
if our names will be found on the muster-roll of that regiment.
We went to detached houses as much as possible, and had no special adventures for the first day or two. One day we took supper at a doctor's, who refused to take any money from us, as he never took money from soldiers, and to whom his pretty daughters expressed a wish, while we were at supper with them, that all the Yankees were dead--a wish in which we were heartily obliged to join, in spite of our secret amusement at the thought of what would have been their feelings if they had known they were breaking bread with two Yankee officers.
We had been out only a few days when Birdseye's shoes began to
give out, and with the long tramp before us we were in despair;
but that night, just at dark, we met in the road a negro with a string
of shoes hanging down his back, and found he was a plantation cobbler.
We told him we were Yankee officers escaped from prison, and it was
with some trepidation that we did so, for he was the first we had
confided in, but neither he nor the
many colored people we afterwards told, ever betrayed us, but
on the contrary helped us to the extent of their ability,
and one young colored fellow begged us to take him with us, but we did
not wish to add to the dangers of our situation by having a runaway slave
with us, who would be sure to be followed. We told this
trouble, and he took us to his cabin, and as he was short of leather I sacrificed the tops of a pair of riding boots I had on, converting them into laced shoes, and using the tops for the repairs of Birdseye's.
After we had been out for five or six days, we struck the railroad running from Staunton to Charlottesville, near a place called Meachum's Station. At this point was a detached house occupied by the overseer of the plantation, where we went to inquire for breakfast. They kindly gave us some, and inquiring if there were any soldiers about, the woman informed us that there was a squad of eight or ten encamped upon the plantation pasturing horses. When the rebel cavalry horses got run down they would send eight or ten men with 100 horses, to some plantation to recruit. Before we had finished breakfast we saw one of them coming across the fields towards the house, and when we had finished breakfast we found him on the piazza. He questioned us pretty closely --asked us to what brigade our regiment belonged, and when we told him Rosser's, replied he guessed not--he belonged to Rosser's brigade, and there was no Second North Carolina in it. We gave an evasive reply, and Birdseye asked him if he had not been in any of the recent fighting. He said he had been in the provost guard, and had charge of the prisoners in the first day's cavalry fight.
I noticed Birdseye seemed anxious to cut short our conversation with the "Johnny," and get away from the house, which we soon did, remarking that we must hurry to Meachum's Station and get the train. As soon as we were out of sight of the house we made for the woods, and secreted ourselves all day. Having got fairly away from the house and rebel soldiers Birdseye told me that this man was one of the sixteen rebels that had marched him from "Todd's Tavern" to Orange Court House the day of his capture, and that he first recognized the man from a badge of three laurel leaves he wore on his hat, the same being the badge of Rosser's Laurel Brigade. After this close shave we decided to travel as little as possible day times on the road, but push on north at night. As morning came we would select some house at which to apply for food--approach it from the north and leave it going south, as we always claimed to be going back to the army. One morning Birdseye was entrusted by a girl where we breakfasted, with a letter to her lover in the army, which we were to mail when we reached Washington Court House. Birdseye afterwards sent it through the lines, and I trust it finally reached its destination.
For three nights in succession we had rain, and it was so dark we had great difficulty in finding the road, and I remember that, wet, tired and hungry, we crawled into a barn over night and buried ourselves in the hay, and it seemed to me I was just getting warm and comfortable when daylight came, and we had to get out of our snug quarters and hide ourselves in the woods. I will not weary you with our daily experience, but only mention one or two of the more exciting incidents.
As we came further north we got into the country where Mosby's guerrillas, who were citizens peacefully at work when any of our troops were about, and rebel soldiers as soon as they left. They fought no pitched battles, but picked up stragglers, attacked wagon trains that were not properly guarded, and were a pretty bad lot generally, and I fear if we had fallen into their hands it would have gone hard with us. You will judge, therefore, that it rather took away our appetite one night when we stopped at a gate which was some little distance from the house, to ask a little girl we saw if she thought we could get some supper, to be informed "she guessed so; there were three or four of Mosby's men up there now waiting for supper."
Another great danger was being arrested as rebel deserters, and in that event we decided to tell who we were, and for that purpose I kept in my pocket a pass I had to visit some other post of the army, which gave my name right, and rank.
As we got farther on our stockings gave out and our feet became quite sore. I had a heavy knit undershirt under my flannel shirt, and had on cotton stockings. Birdseye happened to have a needle in his pocket, so we unraveled my stockings for thread, and converted my undershirt into stockings, which we sewed on every night before starting on our tramp. We got our provisions, which consisted almost entirely of hoe-cakes baked in the ashes, whenever we could find the negroes--always going to their quarters first. They always gave it if they had it. I remember with gratitude one negro woman who was cook in the master's house, who gave us the loaf of bread she had brought home for her child's supper. We gave her a greenback, making her promise not to show it to anyone until we had a chance to get out of the vicinity. We tried hard to induce her to steal one of the chickens from the hen-house and cook it for us, but she said: "Lor', Misses counts those chickens every morning, and there would be an awful fuss."
Occasionally we had to go to the houses of the white people, and
one morning, just as we were leaving after
getting our breakfast, what was our dismay in turning a bend in
the road, to meet three rebel cavalrymen.
Fortunately, according to the plan we had adopted to travel south,
we were able, consistently, to tell them we had been up North a ways,
and were now on our way back to the army. They asked
us for news, so Birdseye told them that we had heard there was a squad
of Yankee cavalry up in Loudun county (the county above). After
some further questions they left us, much to our delight, but our fears
returned when, after going a short distance they turned their horses and,
retracing their steps soon overtook us. We asked them what they were
for, and one of them said his horse had lost a shoe, and he wanted to go back to a blacksmith shop, and besides if there were Yankee cavalry up there they did not want to travel that road. We walked slowly, and were glad to see them soon disappear around a corner, when we disappeared into the woods as quickly as possible.
Soon after this, and when we were within a day or two's
march of our destination, we had probably our narrowest
escape. At night, just as we were starting out for our usual
nightly tramp, we found a house some distance from the road,
and I waited at the gate while Birdseye went up prospecting.
After waiting sometime and hearing nothing from him, I concluded that he
had found a supper, and expected I would join him. I was sauntering
leisurely up the lane when Birdseye came down on a run exclaiming:
"come on." It is unnecessary, perhaps, to add that "I came."
We ran down the road some distance, and hopping over the fence secreted
ourselves in a wheatfield before I had an opportunity to ask an
explanation. It seems when Birdseye got to the house
he found two men there--an old man and a young one. Birdseye
told them he had a squad of six men (he thought he would
outnumber them anyway) down at the gate, and he wished to
get some hoe-cakes baked for them. The old man suggested that he should go and get his squad and bring them up to supper, but he made an excuse that they were tired and anxious to get on, and he would like a few hoe-cakes cooked and get started as soon as possible. While the hoe-cakes were baking, and Birdseye said he never saw hoe-cakes bake so slowly, the men asked him a great many questions, and he finally turned to the young man and said: "Why are you not in the army?" and he replied, "I am in the army; I belong to Mosby's company." While the reluctant hoe-cakes were still baking the young man went out, and Birdseye feared he would find me at the gate and discover that his squad of six men had melted into one, who might tell a very different story, and then they would make short work of us. But if the "Johnny's" suspicions were aroused he probably went off to get help before attempting to capture the six--thus we escaped.
We were taken for Yankees but once on the whole trip, and that was by a woman near Snickerville, the morning before we reached Harper's Ferry. Retracing our steps from the north a short distance, we had stopped at a house for food just after daylight. A white woman came to the door, and after Birdseye had inquired the road to Upperville and Snicker's Gap, we asked for something to eat. While the woman was preparing breakfast Birdseye asked if there were any of our soldiers about. The woman replied "yes; the Fifteenth New York Cavalry came down from Harper's Ferry every few days on a patrol." Birdseye said, "those are Yanks; I mean our soldiers," when the woman replied, "ain't you a Yank; you talk like one?" All Birdseye could say was that he had scouted so much in the Yankee's lines and practiced their way of talking, until it became natural for him to talk like them. Birdseye at once began to fire at the woman Virginia phrases, such as, "I recon," "right smart," "dog-gone," "you all," "we 'uns," "whar do you live at," "over yon," etc., and the woman soon allowed he was a Southerner, sure.
But we were nearing the end of our journey, and on the night of the 31st of May--our eighteenth night out--we started on our home stretch, as from the map and Birdseye's knowledge of Loudun county, we should strike our pickets before morning. We summoned up all the energy we had left, and after marching very rapidly for about fourteen miles, in the early dawn we were greeted with the welcome "halt," and we knew we were safe at last.
Not having had much experience in coming upon a picket front at night, and perhaps with the thought in my mind that they were our own men, instead of dropping down in the road where I stood, for I was very tired, I moved forward a few feet to a large stone after I was halted, and we afterwards learned from the sentinel that hearing some one moving he came very near firing at Birdseye, whom he could see, as there had been trouble with guerrillas creeping up and shooting at the sentry, which would have been a sad ending to our journey.
We encountered our picket lines on the road leading from Loudun Heights down to Harper's Ferry, about one mile from the suspension bridge that crosses the Shenandoah river into Harper's Ferry. Having been seventeen days and eighteen nights on the tramp, and having walked the entire distance from Lynchburg, Va.; passing through the counties of Amherst, Nelson, Albemarle, Greene, Madison, Culpepper, Rappahannock, Fauquier, and Loudun.
The men on picket were of a German regiment, and we experienced some difficulty in making them understand and believe we were a couple of federal officers escaped from a rebel prison, as they were inclined to think we were either guerrillas or deserters from the rebel army. After parleying awhile with the sergeant of the outpost, we were sent back to the main reserve, and there had to wait until the picket was relieved--about 9 o'clock. They gave us a cup of coffee and some hard-tack. While waiting at the reserve we endeavored to learn something of the movements of our army since our capture. Their knowledge was meagre, but I managed to understand, with deep sorrow, of the death at Spottsylvania a few days after my capture, of General John Sedgwick, the beloved commander of the Sixth Army Corps.
To guard against a rebel dash into town it was the custom nights to remove a part of the plank on the bridge over the Shenandoah, and carry it to the Harper's Ferry side. When these plank had been relayed, and about 9 o'clock, the picket-relief made its appearance, and we were taken into Harper's Ferry, to the headquarters of the officer in command. As he was not yet up we persuaded the guard to take us to the telegraph office, where I sent a dispatch announcing my safety, and which was the first news my mother had heard from me since I was reported as missing--on the 6th of May. From there we went to breakfast, which we invited the guard to take with us, and I can assure you that after a diet of hoe-cakes for three weeks, we did full justice to the repast.
Upon reporting to General Max Webber, commanding the post, we easily convinced him we were what we represented ourselves to be, and equipping ourselves in the army blue once more, we were sent to Washington, where we received a leave of absence for twenty days. At the expiration of my leave I rejoined my regiment in front of Petersburg, to find it sadly depleted in numbers; to miss my friend Wooster's cordial greeting, and to find that the same day Wooster was killed Poole had lost his arm.
After a short stay we were sent up to Washington to defend it against Early's raid, having a sharp fight just outside of the fortifications of Washington. Thence into the Shenandoah valley and through the three famous battles under Sheridan, returning to Petersburg in time to take part in the closing campaign which ended with the surrender of Lee's army.
On the 28th of August, the anniversary of our muster into service, the survivors of the regiment met for their annual reunion, and we find that as our numbers decrease our fraternal bonds are strengthened, and that the friendships cemented during those years of hardship and danger shared together, are ties that never can be broken, and I may not close these recollections more appropriately than by quoting the lines of Col. Charles G. Halpine, on the occasion of the reunion of his regiment:
Ten years ago to day
We raised our hands to Heaven,
And on the roll of enlister
Our names were thirty-seven.
There were just a thousand bayonets,
And the swords were thirty-seven
As we took the path of service then
With our right hands raised to Heaven.
Oh, 'twas a glorious day
In memory still adored,
That day of sun-bright nuptials,
Of the musket with the sword.
Shrill rang the fife,
The bugles blew,
And 'neath a cloudless heaven
Twinkled a thousand bayonets,
And the swords were thirty-seven.
Of the thousand stalwart bayonets
Two hundred marched to-day
Hundreds lie in Virginia swamps,
And hundreds in Maryland clay;
And other hundreds less happy far
Drag their shattered limbs around,
And envy the deep, long blessed sleep
Of the battle-field's holy ground.
For the sword, one night a week ago
The remnant just eleven,
Gathered around a banqueting board
With seats for thirty-seven.
And two limped in on crutches,
And two had each but a hand
To pour the wine and raise the cup
As we toasted our flag and land.
And the air seemed filled with whispers
As we gazed at the vacant seats,
And with choking throats we pushed aside
The rich, but untasted meats.
Then in silence we brimmed our glasses
As we rose up just eleven,
And bowed as we drank to the loved and dead
Who had made us thirty-seven.
The above speech appeared in the Fayetteville, NY "Weekly Recorder"
on 6/30/1892, 7/7/1892, 7/14/1892 and 7/21/1892.
9 December 1998