With Lee in Virginia: A Story Of The American Civil War, by G. A. Henty, Chapter 9

With Lee in Virginia: A Story Of The American Civil War.

Chapter IX.
A Prisoner.

The party round the fire were just about to disperse when the captain of Vincent’s troop approached. He took the horn of spirits and water that Vincent held up to him and tossed it off.

“That is a stirrup-cup, Wingfield.”

“What! are we for duty, captain?” Vincent asked as he rose to his feet.

“Yes; our troop and Harper’s are to muster. Get the men together quietly. I think it is a serious business; each of the regiments furnish other troops, and I believe Stuart himself takes the command.”

“That sounds like work, indeed,” Vincent said. “I will get the troop together, sir.”

“There are to be no trumpet calls, Wingfield; we are to get off as quietly as possible.”

Most of the men were already fast asleep, but as soon as they learned that there was a prospect of active work all were full of life and animation. The girths of the saddles were tightened, swords buckled on, and revolvers carefully examined before being placed in the holsters. Many of the men carried repeating rifles, and the magazines were filled before these were slung across the riders’ shoulders.

In a few minutes the three troops were mounted and in readiness for a start, and almost directly afterward Colonel Jones himself rode up and took the command. A thrill of satisfaction ran through the men as he did so, for it was certain that he would not himself be going in command of the detachment unless the occasion was an important one. For a few minutes no move was made.

“I suppose the others are going to join us here,” Vincent said to the officer next him.

“I suppose so,” he replied. “We lie in the middle of the cavalry brigade with two regiments each side of us, so it is likely enough this is the gathering place. Yes, I can hear the tramping of horses.”

“And I felt a spot of rain,” Vincent said. “It has been lightning for some time. I fear we are in for a wet ride.”

The contingent from the other regiments soon arrived, and just as the last came up General Stuart himself appeared and took his place at the head of the party, now some 500 strong. Short as the time had been since Vincent felt the first drop, the rain was now coming down in torrents. One by one the bright flames of the fires died down, and the darkness became so intense that Vincent could scarcely see the officer on his right hand.

“I hope the man who rode up with the general, and is no doubt to be our guide, knows the country well. It is no joke finding our way through a forest on such a night as this.”

“I believe Stuart’s got eyes like a cat,” the officer said. “Sometimes on a dark night he has come galloping up to a post where I was in command, when one could scarcely see one’s hand before one. It never seems to make any difference to him; day or night he rides about at a gallop.”

“He trusts his horse,” Vincent said. “That’s the only way in the dark. They can see a lot better than we can, and if men would but let them go their own way instead of trying to guide them they would seldom run against anything. The only thing is to lie well down on the horse’s neck, otherwise one might get swept out of the saddle by a bough. It’s a question of nerve, I think not many of us would do as Stuart does, and trust himself entirely to his horse’s instinct.”

The word was now passed down the line that perfect silence was to be observed, and that they were to move forward in column, the ranks closing up as much as possible so as not to lose touch of each other. With heads bent down, and blankets wrapped round them as cloaks, the cavalry rode off through the pouring rain. The thunder was clashing overhead, and the flashes of the lightning enabled them to keep their places in close column. They went at a rapid trot, and even those who were ready to charge a body of the enemy, however numerous, without a moment’s hesitation, experienced a feeling of nervousness as they rode on in the darkness through the thick forest on their unknown errand. That they were going northward they knew, and knew also, after a short time, that they must be entering the lines of the enemy. They saw no signs of watch-fires, for these would long since have been quenched by the downpour. After half an hour’s brisk riding all knew by the sharp sound of the beat of the horses’ hoofs that they had left the soft track through the forest and were now upon a regular road.

“Thank goodness for that!” Vincent said in a low tone to his next neighbor. “I don’t mind a brush with the enemy, but I own I don’t like the idea that at any moment my brains may be knocked out by the branch of a tree.”

“I quite agree with you,” the other replied; “and I fancy every man felt the same.”

There was no doubt as to this. Hitherto no sound had been heard save the jingling of accouterments and the dull heavy sound of the horses’ tread; but now there could be heard mingled with these the buzz of voices, and occasionally a low laugh. They were so accustomed to wet that the soaking scarce inconvenienced them. They were out of the forest now, and felt sure of their guide; and as to the enemy, they only longed to discover them.

For another hour the rapid advance continued, and all felt sure that they must now have penetrated through the enemy’s lines and be well in his rear. At last they heard a challenge of sentry. Then Stuart’s voice shouted, “Charge!” and at full gallop they rode into the village at Catlet’s Station on the Orange and Alexandria railroad, where General Pope had his headquarters. Another minute and they were in the midst of the enemy’s camp, where the wildest confusion reigned. The Federal officers rushed from their teats and made off in the darkness; but the soldiers, who were lying on the line of railroad, leaped to their feet and opened a heavy fire upon their invisible foes. Against this the cavalry, broken up in the camp, with its tents, its animals, and its piles of baggage, could do little, for it was impossible to form them up in the broken and unknown ground.

The quarters of Pope were soon discovered; he himself had escaped, leaving his coat and hat behind. Many of his officers were captured, and in his quarters were found a box of official papers which were invaluable, as among them were copies of his letters asking for reinforcements, lists giving the strength and position of his troops, and other particulars of the greatest value to the Confederates. No time was lost, as the firing would set the whole Federal army on the alert, and they might find their retreat cut off. Therefore placing their prisoners in the center, and taking the box of papers with them, the cavalry were called off from the camp, and without delay started on their return ride.

They did not take the road by which they had come, but made a long detour, and just as daylight was breaking re-entered the Confederate lines without having encountered a foe from the time of their leaving Catlet’s Station. Short as their stay in the camp had been, few of the men had returned empty handed. The Northern army was supplied with an abundance of excellent food of all descriptions, forming the strongest possible contrast to the insufficient rations upon which the Confederate troops existed, and the troopers had helped themselves to whatever they could lay hands upon in the darkness and confusion.

Some rode in with a ham slung on each side of their saddle, others had secured a bottle or two of wine or spirits. Some had been fortunate enough to lay hands on some tins of coffee or a canister of tea, luxuries which for months had been unknown to them save when they were captured from the enemy. The only article captured of no possible utility was General Pope’s coat, which was sent to Richmond, where it was hung up for public inspection; a wag sticking up a paper beside it, “This is the coat in which General Pope was going to ride in triumph into Richmond. The coat is here, but the general has not yet arrived.”

The Confederates had lost but two or three men from the fire of the Federal infantry, and they were in high spirits at the success of their raid. No sooner had General Lee informed himself of the contents of the papers and the position of the enemy’s forces than he determined to strike a heavy blow at him; and General Jackson, who had been sharply engaged with the enemy near Warrenton, was ordered to make a long detour, to cross the Blue Ridge mountains through Thoroughfare Gap, to fall upon Pope’s rear and cut his communications with Washington, and if possible to destroy the vast depot of stores collected at Manassas.

The cavalry, under Stuart, were to accompany him. The march would be a tremendous one, the danger of thus venturing into the heart of the enemy’s country immense, but the results of such an expedition would, if successful, be great; for Lee himself was to advance with his army on Pope’s flank, and there was therefore a possibility of the utter defeat of that general before he could be joined by the army marching to reinforce him from Fredericksburg.

It was on Monday the 25th of August that Jackson started on his march, ascending the banks of the Rappahannock, and crossed the river at a ford, dragging his artillery with difficulty up the narrow and rocky road beyond. There was not a moment to be lost, for if the news reached the enemy the gorge known as Thoroughfare Gap would be occupied, and the whole object of the movement be defeated. Onward the force pushed, pressing on through fields and lanes without a single halt, until at night, hungry and weary but full of spirit, they marched into the little town of Salem, twenty miles from their starting-place. They had neither wagons nor provisions with them, and had nothing to eat but some ears of corn and green apples plucked on the road.

It was midnight when they reached Salem, and the inhabitants turned out in blank amazement at the sight of Confederate troops in that region, and welcomed the weary soldiers with the warmest manifestations. At daylight they were again upon the march, with Stuart’s cavalry, as before, out upon each flank. Thoroughfare Gap was reached, and found undefended, and after thirty miles’ marching the exhausted troops reached the neighborhood of Manassas. The men were faint from want of food, and many of them limped along barefooted; but they were full of enthusiasm.

Just at sunset, Stuart, riding on ahead, captured Bristoe, a station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad four miles from Manassas. As they reached it a train came along at full speed. It was fired at, but did not stop, and got safely through to Manassas. Two trains that followed were captured; but by this time the alarm had spread, and no more trains arrived. Jackson had gained his point. He had placed himself on the line of communication of the enemy, but his position was a dangerous one indeed. Lee, who was following him, was still far away. An army was marching from Fredericksburg against him, another would be despatched from Washington as soon as the news of his presence was known, and Pope might turn and crush him before Lee could arrive to his assistance.

Worn out as the troops were, it was necessary at once to gain possession of Manassas, and the 21st North Carolina and 21st Georgia volunteered for the service, and, joined by Stuart with a portion of his cavalry, marched against it. After a brief contest the place was taken, the enemy stationed there being all taken prisoners. The amount of arms and stores captured was prodigious: Eight pieces of artillery, 250 horses, 3 locomotives, and tens of thousands of barrels of beef, pork, and flour, with an enormous quantity of public stores and the contents of innumerable sutlers’ shops.

The sight of this vast abundance to starving men was tantalizing in the extreme. It was impossible to carry any of it away and all that could be done was to have at least one good meal. The troops therefore were marched in and each helped himself to as much as he could consume, and the ragged and barefooted men feasted upon tinned salmon and lobsters, champagne and dainties of every description forwarded for the use of officers. Then they set to work to pile the enormous mass of stores together and to set it on fire. While they were engaged at this a brigade of New Jersey troops which had come out from Washington to save Manassas was attacked and utterly routed. Ewell’s division had remained at Bristoe, while those of Hill and Jackson moved to Manassas, and in the course of the afternoon Ewell saw the whole of Pope’s army marching against him.

He held them in check for some hours, and thus gave the troops at Manassas time to destroy completely the vast accumulation of stores, and when Stuart’s cavalry, covering the retreat, fell back at nightfall through Manassas, nothing but blackened cinders remained where the Federal depots had been situated. The blow to the Northerners was as heavy as it was unexpected. Pope had no longer either provisions for his men or forage for his cattle, and there was nothing left for him but to force his way past Jackson and retire upon Washington.

Jackson had now the option of falling back and allowing the enemy to pass, or of withstanding the whole Federal army with his own little force until Lee came up to the rescue. He chose the latter course, and took up a strong position. The sound of firing at Thoroughfare Gap was audible, and he knew that Longstreet’s division of Lee’s army was hotly engaged with a force which, now that it was too late, bad been sent to hold the gorge. It was nearly sunset before Pope brought up his men to the attack. Jackson did not stand on the defensive, but rushed down and attacked the enemy—whose object had been to pass the position and press on—with such vigor that at nine o’clock they fell back.

An hour later a horseman rode up with the news that Longstreet had passed the Gap and was pressing on at full speed, and in the morning his forces were seen approaching, the line they were taking bringing them up at an angle to Jackson’s position. Thus their formation as they arrived was that of an open V, and it was through the angle of this V that Pope had to force his way. Before Longstreet could arrive, however, the enemy hurled themselves upon Jackson, and for hours the Confederates held their own against the vast Federal army, Longstreet’s force being too far away to lend them a hand. Ammunition failed, and the soldiers fought with piles of stones, but night fell without any impression being made upon these veterans. General Lee now came up with General Hood’s division, and hurled this against the Federals and drove them back. In the evening Longstreet’s force took up the position General Lee had assigned to it, and in the morning all the Confederate army had arrived, and the battle recommenced.

The struggle was long and terrible; but by nightfall every attack had been repulsed, and the Confederates, advancing on all sides, drove the Northerners, a broken and confused crowd, before them, the darkness alone saving them from utter destruction. Had there been but one hour more of daylight the defeat would have been as complete as was that in the battle of Bull Run, which had been fought on precisely the same ground. However, under cover of the darkness the Federals retreated to Centreville, whence they were driven on the following day.

In the tremendous fighting in which Jackson’s command had for three long days been engaged, the cavalry bore a comparatively small part. The Federal artillery was too powerful to permit the employment of large bodies of cavalry and although from time to time charges were made when an opportunity seemed to offer itself, the battle was fought out by the infantry and artillery. When the end came Jackson’s command was for a time hors de combat. During the long two days’ march they had at least gathered corn and apples to sustain life; but during these three days’ fighting they had had no food whatever, and many were so weak that they could no longer march.

They had done all that was possible for men to do; had for two days withstood the attack of an enemy of five times their numbers, and had on the final day borne their full share in the great struggle, but now the greater part could do no more, thousands of men were unable to drag themselves a step further, and Lee’s army was reduced in strength for the time by nearly 20,000 men. All these afterward rejoined it; some as soon as they recovered limped away to take their places in the ranks again, others made their way to the depot at Warrenton, where Lee had ordered that all unable to accompany his force should rendezvous until he returned and they were able to rejoin their regiments.

Jackson marched away and laid siege to Harper’s Ferry, an important depot garrisoned by 11,000 men, who were forced to surrender just as McClellan with a fresh army, 100,000 strong, which was pressing forward to its succor, arrived within a day’s march. As soon as Jackson had taken the place be hurried away with his troops to join Lee, who was facing the enemy at the Antietam river. Here upon the following day another terrible battle was fought; the Confederates, though but 39,000 strong, repulsing every attack by the Federals, and driving them with terrible slaughter back across the river.

Their own loss, however, had been very heavy, and Lee, knowing that he could expect no assistance, while the enemy were constantly receiving reinforcements, waited for a day to collect his wounded, bury his dead, and send his stores and artillery to the rear, and then retired unpursued across the Rappahannock. Thus the hard-fought campaign came to an end.

Vincent Wingfield was not with the army that retired across the Rappahannock. A portion of the cavalry had followed the broken Federals to the very edge of the stream, and just as they reined in their horses a round shot from one of the Federal batteries carried away his cap, and he fell as if dead from his horse. During the night some of the Northerners crossed the stream to collect and bring back their own wounded who had fallen near it, and coming across Vincent, and finding that he still breathed, and was apparently without a wound, they carried him back with them across the river as a prisoner.

Vincent had indeed escaped without a wound, having been only stunned by the passage of the shot that had carried away his cap, and missed him but by the fraction of an inch. He had begun to recover consciousness just as his captors came up, and the action of carrying him completely restored him. That he had fallen into the hands of the Northerners he was well aware; but he was unable to imagine how this had happened. He remembered that the Confederates had been, up to the moment when he fell, completely successful, and he could only imagine that in a subsequent attack the Federals had turned the tables upon them.

How he himself had fallen, or what had happened to him, he had no idea. Beyond a strange feeling of numbness in the head he was conscious of no injury, and he could only imagine that his horse had been shot under him, and that he must have fallen upon his head. The thought that his favorite horse was killed afflicted him almost as much as his own capture. As soon as his captors perceived that their prisoner’s consciousness had returned they at once reported that an officer of Stuart’s cavalry had been taken, and at daybreak next morning General McClellan on rising was acquainted with the fact, and Vincent was conducted to his tent.

“You are unwounded, sir?” the general said in some surprise.

“I am, general,” Vincent replied. “I do not know how it happened, but I believe that my horse must have been shot under me, and that I must have been thrown and stunned; however, I remember nothing from the moment when I heard the word halt, just as we reached the side of the stream, to that when I found myself being carried here.”

“You belong to the cavalry?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Was Lee’s force all engaged yesterday?”

“I do not know,” Vincent said. “I only came up with Jackson’s division from Harper’s Ferry the evening before.”

“I need not have questioned you,” McClellan said. “I know that Lee’s whole army, 100,000 strong, opposed me yesterday.”

Vincent was silent. He was glad to see that the Federal general, as usual, enormously overrated the strength of the force opposed to him.

“I hear that the whole of the garrison of Harper’s Ferry were released on parole not to serve again during the war. If you are ready to give me your promise to the same effect I will allow you to return to your friends; if not, you must remain a prisoner until you are regularly exchanged.”

“I must do so, then, general,” Vincent said quietly. “I could not return home and remain inactive while every man in the South is fighting for the defense of his country, so I will take my chance of being exchanged.”

“I am sorry you choose that alternative,” McClellan said. “I hate to see brave men imprisoned if only for a day; and braver men than those across yonder stream are not to be found. My officers and men are astonished. They seem so thin and worn as to be scarce able to lift a musket, their clothes are fit only for a scarecrow, they are indeed pitiful objects to look at; but the way in which they fight is wonderful. I could not have believed had I not seen it, that men could have charged as they did again and again across ground swept by a tremendous artillery and musketry fire; it was wonderful! I can tell you, young sir, that even though you beat us we are proud of you as our countrymen; and I believe that if your General Jackson were to ride through our camp he would be cheered as lustily and heartily by our men as he is by his own.”

Some fifty or sixty other prisoners had been taken; they had been captured in the hand-to-hand struggle that had taken place on some parts of the field, having got separated from their corps and mixed up with the enemy, and carried off the field with them as they retired. These for the most part accepted the offered parole; but some fifteen, like Vincent, preferred a Northern prison to promising to abstain from fighting in defense of their country, and in the middle of the day they were placed together in a tent under a guard at the rear of the camp.

The next morning came the news that Lee had fallen back. There was exultation among the Federals, not unmingled with a strong sense of relief; for the heavy losses inflicted in the previous fighting had taken all the ardor of attack out of McClellan’s army, and they were glad indeed that they were not to be called upon to make another attempt to drive the Confederates from their position. Vincent was no less pleased at the news. He knew how thin were the ranks of the Confederate fighting men, and how greatly they were worn and exhausted by fatigue and want of food, and that, although they had the day before repulsed the attacks of the masses of well-fed Northerners, such tremendous exertions could not often be repeated, and a defeat, with the river in their rear, approachable only by one rough and narrow road, would have meant a total destruction of the army.

The next morning Vincent and his companions were put into the train and sent to Alexandria. They had no reason to complain of their treatment upon the way. They were well fed, and after their starvation diet for the last six weeks their rations seemed to them actually luxurious. The Federal troops in Alexandria, who were for the most part young recruits who had just arrived from the north and west, looked with astonishment upon these thin and ragged men, several of whom were barefooted. Was it possible that such scarecrows as these could in every battle have driven back the well-fed and cared-for Northern soldiers!

“Are they all like this?” one burly young soldier from a western state asked their guard.

That’s them, sir,” the sergeant in charge of the party replied. “Not much to look at, are they? But, by gosh, you should see them fight! You wouldn’t think of their looks then.”

“If that’s soldiering,” the young farmer said solemnly, “the sooner I am back home again the better. But it don’t seem to me altogether strange as they should fight so hard, because I should say they must look upon it as a comfort to be killed rather than to live like that.”

A shout of laughter from the prisoners showed the young rustic that the objects of his pity did not consider life to be altogether intolerable even under such circumstances, and he moved away meditating on the discomforts of war, and upon the remarks that would be made were he to return home in so sorrowful a plight as that of these Confederate prisoners.

“I bargained to fight,” be said, “and though I don’t expect I shall like it, I sha’n’t draw back when the time comes; but as to being starved till you are nigh a skeleton, and going about barefooted and in such rags as a tramp wouldn’t look at, it ain’t reasonable.” And yet, had he known it, among those fifteen prisoners more than half were possessors of wide estates, and had been brought up from their childhood in the midst of luxuries such as the young farmer never dreamed of.

Among many of the soldiers sympathy took a more active form, and men pressed forward and gave packets of tobacco, cigars, and other little presents to them, while two or three pressed rolls of dollar notes into their hands, with words of rough kindness.

“There ain’t no ill feeling in us, Rebs. You have done your work like men and no doubt you thinks your cause is right, just as we does; but it’s all over now, and maybe our turn will come next to see the inside of one of your prisons down south. So we are just soldiers together, and can feel for each other.”

Discipline in small matters was never strictly enforced in the American armies, and the sergeant in charge offered no opposition to the soldiers mingling with the prisoners as they walked along.

Two days later they were sent by railway to the great prison at Elmira, a town in the southwest of the State of New York. When they reached the jail the prisoners were separated, Vincent, who was the only officer, being assigned quarters with some twenty others of the same rank. The prisoners crowded round him as he entered, eager to hear the last news from the front, for they heard from their guards only news of constant victories won by the Northerners; for every defeat was transformed by the Northern papers into a brilliant victory, and it was only when the shattered remains of the various armies returned to Alexandria to be re-formed that the truth gradually leaked out. Thus Antietam had been claimed as a great Northern victory, for although McClellan’s troops had in the battle been hurled back shattered and broken across the river, two days afterward Lee had retired.

One of the prisoners, who was also dressed in cavalry uniform, hung back from the rest, and going to the window looked out while Vincent was chatting with the others. Presently he turned round, and Vincent recognized with surprise his old opponent Jackson. After a moment’s hesitation he walked across the room to him.

“Jackson,” he said, “we have not been friends lately, but I don’t see why we should keep up our quarrel any longer; we got on all right at school together; and now we are prisoners together here it would be foolish to continue our quarrel. Perhaps we were both somewhat to blame in that affair. I am quite willing to allow I was, for one, but I think we might well put it all aside now.”

Jackson hesitated, and then took the hand Vincent held out to him.

“That’s right, young fellows,” one of the other officers said. “Now that every Southern gentleman is fighting and giving his life, if need be, for his country, no one has a right to have private quarrels of his own. Life is short enough as it is, certainly too short to indulge in private animosities. A few weeks ago we were fighting side by side, and facing death together; to-day we are prisoners; a week hence we may be exchanged, and soon take our places in the ranks again. It’s the duty of all Southerners to stand shoulder to shoulder, and there ought to be no such thing as ill-feeling among ourselves.”

Vincent was not previously aware that Jackson had obtained a commission. He now learned that he had been chosen by his comrades to fill a vacancy caused by the death of an officer in a skirmish just before Pope fell back from the Rappahannock, and that he had been made prisoner a few days afterward in a charge against a greatly superior body of Federal cavalry.

The great majority of the officers on both sides were at the commencement of the war chosen by their comrades, the elections at first taking place once a year. This, however, was found to act very badly. In some cases the best men in the regiment were chosen; but too often men who had the command of money, and could afford to stand treat and get in supplies of food and spirits, were elected. The evils of the system were found so great, indeed, that it was gradually abandoned; but in cases of vacancies occurring in the field, and there being a necessity for at once filling them up, the colonels of the regiments had power to make appointments, and if the choice of the men was considered to be satisfactory their nominee would be generally chosen.

In the case of Jackson, the colonel had hesitated in confirming the choice of the men. He did not for a moment suspect him to be wanting in courage; but he regarded him as one who shirked his work, and who won the votes of the men rather by a fluent tongue and by the violence of his expressions of hatred against the North than by any soldierly qualities.

Some of the officers had been months in prison, and they were highly indignant at the delays that had occurred in effecting their exchange. The South, indeed, would have been only too glad to get rid of some of their numerous prisoners, who were simply an expense and trouble to them, and to get their own men back into their ranks. They could ill spare the soldiers required to guard so large a number of prisoners, and a supply of food was in itself a serious matter.

Thus it was that at Harper’s Ferry and upon a good many other occasions they released vast numbers of prisoners on their simple paroles not to serve again. The North, however, were in no hurry to make exchange; and moreover, their hands were so full with their enormous preparations that they put aside all matters which had not the claim of urgency.

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