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Mr. W. A. Croffut, communicates to the National Republican of the 26th the following graphic description of scenes at the hospital:
I was on the field of battle at Bull Run on Sunday, and am sufficiently recovered from the complete prostration which followed my march of sixty miles – from Vienna to battle and back to Washington – to be able to give a brief account of what I saw. I was but a civilian; my chief occupation was to help carry off the wounded, and minister, as far as possible, to their comfort.
I assisted to bear several to the hospital at the corner of the woods – near the battle field – perhaps 150 rods from the enemy’s batteries. Such a scene of death and desolation! Men, dying and dead, covered the floor and filled the yard with frightful misery. Civilians and soldiers turned surgeons, and amputated and bound up the wounds of the injured and dying. A shell from the enemy struck harmlessly near the front yard, and cannon balls flew over and around, with their prolonged “whish!” as if the sacred white flag above our heads, honored by all the people besides, was a special target for the hateful and insolent “Confederacy.” I learn that this hospital was burned soon after, with all is suffering inmates by the heartless and diabolical foe.
Soon after, a man was brought along on his way to the other hospital, and I assisted in carrying him thither. It was somewhat farther off, on the road of approach, and was extemporized from a church which we had passed just before reaching the battle-field. It was a scene too frightful and sickening to witness, much more describe. There were in it, scattered thickly on the floor and in the galleries, sixty or seventy, wounded in every possible way – arms and legs shot off, some dead, and scores gasping for water and aid. The pulpit was appropriated for a surgeon’s room, and the communion table of pious anarchy became an amputation table, baptized in willing blood, and consecrated to the holy uses of Liberty and Law! The road and woods, on either side and all around, are strewn with maimed and mutilated heroes, and the balls from the rifled cannon go over us like winged devils. There sits a colonel, with his arm bound up, asking to be put on his horse and led back to his regiment; here lies a captain with a grape shot through his head, and blood and brains oozing out as we touch him tenderly to see if he his dead; and yonder comes in a pale chaplain, cut by a canister, while, sword in hand, he led his brave little parish, in the name of Almighty God, to the fight. And again we enter the hospital with him. Oh, God! What a hideous sight! Step into this gory tabernacle. You may grow pallid and faint, and some even of the strong-hearted do, or you may find yourself cool and self commanding, as I do, against my own anticipations, amid such sights and scenes. I have known men who could walk up to a flashing wall of bayonets unblanched, who would faint at the sight of suffering. Look around you here. The grim chambers, where the deity of a strange despotism was worshipped, is turned into an altar of Freedom, and sanctified anew by the warm life of heroes. Fit choir, that in the galleries – the intermittent yells of the dying and the subdued groans of brave men! Eloquent preacher, in that pulpit so long defiled! Glorious burden on that sacramental tablet, splendid wine there flowing – where Christ has been so often crucified. Precious and acceptable Eucharist! And these are the services to day, in this chapel of paganism, once dedicated, with lying lips, to God. The house what Baal built rises over a holocaust of heroes. And this is the holy Sabbath day – the world’s White Day, so long kept as a blessed symbol of fidelity, purity, humanity, liberty, and peace!
That ghastly picture of carnage will be ever present before my eyes, and those half smothered sobs and groans, will always ring their dreadful chorus in my ears.
And now on, and on past us fly the panic-stricken troops. We are not beaten, but these think we are, which is just as bad for our cause to night. Good generalship and guarded baggage wagons would have saved us, we of the unmilitary corps think, but it is too late now. And so the whole nation is to suffer then, for the dark crimes of years – the South for its terrible guilt of commission, and the North for its moral debauchery which has betrayed it to such fearful complicity. Had we remembered the Divine decree “though hand joined in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished.”
May God purify the religion, and warm the heart, and quicken the conscience, and open the eyes of the nation! May we learn now the lesson which a few brave souls of the North have striven long to teach, and speedily wash our bloody hands and begin to do the righteous thing!
W. A. Croffut.
St. Paul Press, 8/2/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy
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Tags: Civilian Letters, Resources, William Augustus Croffut
Categories : Civilians, Private Correspondence, Resources
Correspondence of the Daily Gazette.
Another Account of the Battle.
Messers. Editors: — The Following is the main body of a letter just received by the family of my uncle, which I copy and send to you. As it deeply interested me I think it may interest your readers, and send it on.
E. J. Goodspeed.
Washington, July 24th, 1861.
My Dear Son: — [Here follows a description of the appearance of our army in their entrenchments and of the general confidence of the troops that victory would be theirs.]
“Centreville is within one mile of the first battle ground. The enemy held the ground and were encamped on the other side of Bull’s Run; ranging over an extent of about five miles. Centerville being a little to the left of the centre of their lines in front, with a glass I could distinctly see their several encampments on the slopes of the hills beyond, and still beyond the long range of the blue mountains of Virginia, ,stretching each way as far as the eye could see. The scene was most beautiful, and the contemplation of the conflict on the morrow most exciting. The certainty that hundreds of the brave boys of the magnificent army encamped around me, were building their last camp fires, and that anxious friends whom they had left and who were doubtless then praying for their safety in the coming fight, would be stricken with sorrow so soon, made it anything but pleasant to contemplate. We camped with the 14th of Brooklyn in the tent of their brave and lamented Col. Wood. I was recognized by several of the boys of the 14th. By two o’clock Sunday morning every regiment was ready for the march, each with two days rations in their haversacks. By three they began to move from about two miles this side of Centreville. My party and myself remained in Centerville and saw every regiment pass through. The sight was imposing and grand in the extreme. The boys were in good spirits, and, with us, were all certain of victory. I shook hands with many of them, and with Edward Appleton of the Vermont 2d, for the last time. His head was shot off before noon. He was from Bennington.
From the hills about Centreville, we had a view of the whole extent of the distant battle field, though the clumps of forest hid the combatants from our view. The smoke however from the cannonading told us of the positions of the contending forces; and the thick and lengthy clouds of dust away in the distance told us of the rapid approach of reinforcements to the enemy, and of the combination of the several divisions of our own forces. About 11 o’clock the cannonading seemed to be most fearful and rapid in the centre some three miles distant. — But all were hid from our view by the smoke. We could stand it no longer. My friend Watkin of the Express (N.Y.) and myself determined on a closer and more satisfactory view. By half past 11 we found ourselves with General Schenck and his staff, whose brigade was held in reserve, just on this side of Bull’s Run, and inside of one mile of the main battle ground, though hid from the enemy by a forest. We occupied a position which with our glasses gave us a full view of the battle, for at least 4 1/2 hours. We saw every charge of the glorious 71st, the 69th, the 14th, the Fire Zouaves, Sherman’s Battery, the Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Rhode Island, Maine and Minnesota regiments. We were in constant receipt of the effect of their fire on our troops, by couriers who were going to Gen. McDowell and Schenck, up to four o’clock, at which time we were shelled out of our position and forced to an inglorious flight (I mean us civilians). Up to that time the victory was unmistakably ours, with a loss that could not have exceeded 300 killed. Our boys captured position after position of their murderous masked batteries until we supposed the victory was ours beyond a doubt. We distinctly saw their baggage train in full retreat, and cheered ourselves hoarse at our glorious victory. At this time a battery of five pieces, which had been pouring a cross fire into our boys on the other side of the Run, was turned upon us and gave us a more practical realization of the terrors of war. Several were killed very near me. I did not ask permission to leave, or stand upon the order of my going, but went at once. a half mile’s travel placed a heavy forest between me and their murderous shells, but not in season to prevent my being captured by the enemy’s cavalry, who had out-flanked Schenck’s brigade and who were just making a dash upon the hospital in front of me. As I emerged from the woods they drove us back and made a terrific sweep after the scattered soldiery and ambulance wagons in front of us. the 8th battalion of artillery opened a fire upon them and they were annihilated – horses riders and all – not more than six made their escape. This opened the way for me and several others to escape, and we improved it in double quick time. I left the woods mounted, though I entered on foot. I will explain when I see you. On reaching Centreville I found the entire baggage train in utter rout. I have no patience to describe the disgraceful scene and I will forbear. – On looking back from Centreville the ground over which I had just passed (Centreville is considerably elevated above the country intervening between it and the battle ground) I saw our victorious army in ignominious retreat – flight, rout, and no one in pursuit. I felt so outraged at this unaccountable panic that I determined not to leave Centreville until the disgraceful rout had passed on. – When they had all gone on, I left with the reserve brigade, composed of one battalion of artillery, the German Rifles, and the Garibaldi Guards, who marched on the Washington in perfect order – the rear guard of the Grand Army of the Potomac – with no one to pursue save a few scattering horsemen, the enemy being so badly cut up that he has not yet scarcely moved this side of Bull’s Run. I cannot explain the cause of this unexampled, shameful retreat. No matter what the newspapers say, do not believe that our loss in killed, wounded and prisoners will reach 1,500. The killed will fall short of 500, and for myself, I do not believe it will reach 300. So much for the first exploit of the army of the Potomac. I await with no little anxiety its further movements.”
He adds that the boys he has met since the conflict are eager for another engagement.
Janesville Daily Gazette, 8/2/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy
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Tags: Civilian Letters, Civilians, Resources, Sherman's Battery
Categories : Civilians, Private Correspondence, Resources
“Outsider,”(who is reported to be Andrew E. Elmore,) writes to the Wisconsin again, under date of July 24th. He says that Lieut. Col. Peck has resigned. The 4th regiment is at Baltimore, and arms have been sent to this State for the 7th and 8th regiments. The following incident is narrated:
“The men who returned this morning to Capt. Randolph’s Camp say that they got lost in the woods and getting starved out, in vain endeavored to get to Washington; they concluded to give themselves up as prisoners, and the first man they met they went up to and told him that they were United States soldiers, had got lost and were there to deliver themselves up as prisoners. He said he did not want them, and there (pointing to some rifles) are guns that do not belong to me, and you can take them if you choose. They each took one, and he pointed out to them how they might avoid the pockets and get to Washington. – They followed his suggestions and got safe to camp. This statement is very curious to say the least; but it is believed to be true.”
Janesville Daily Gazette, 7/30/1861.
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A Woman Flees Battle and Finds Battle
Mrs. J.K. M’Whorter, “Caring for the Soldiers in the Sixties” *
Mrs. McWhorter lived near the intersection of Frying Pan Church Road and the Little River Turnpike, north of Centreville. Later she would find the presence of Confederates about her exciting—“My sister and I had a great time all the summer of 1861….We were patriotic, and the Confederates stationed at this strategic point had to be looked after.”
But in July, as the Union army advanced, her family fled, heading west, taking refuge at the home of R.C. Weir, the owner of Sudley Mill, on the northern edge of the Bull Run Battlefield, a few hundred yards from Sudley Church.
One of the stirring events in which we participated was the flight from home just a few days before the first Manassas battle on July 21, 1861. We learned that the Yankees were advancing from Washington toward Manassas and became almost panic-stricken, for we supposed our homes would be in their path and that everything would be stolen, and, like the Widow Bedotte, “Our houses might conflagerate, and we be left forlorn.” So we decided there was no time to lose in getting inside the Confederate lines, as if the Confederacy could have any permanent lines!
The farm teams were hitched up and wagons packed with provisions and servants, some of the negroes being left at home to take care of things. The carriages and horses of the two families, with as many of our valuables as we could carry, brought up the rear of our procession. We moved off with no objective point that I can remember except getting inside the Confederate lines. Fortunately, we had some means in hand and supposed that would answer until better times dawned upon us.
We took the back roads leading from our neighborhood, hoping to keep clear of the Yankees. We had not gone more than seven or eight miles from home, I suppose, when, as we were going up a hill, the horses to the Cockerille carriage became unruly and commenced backing down hill. The occupants got out in a hurry, but the carriage was broken so that we could not go farther that day than Sudley Springs. Already a number of refugees were there. The house was occupied by a private family, but, as it had formerly been a hotel, it was large enough to accommodate a number of people. Mrs. Weir very kindly agreed to board us until we could get fixed up again and could see what best to do. Little did we suppose when we left home to get away from the Yankees that we would find ourselves encamped on what was to be a part of the famous first Manassas battle field.
We had been at Sudley Springs several days, waiting to see which way the Yankees were coming. Sunday morning, July 21, 1861, dawned on us clear, a typical July day. Most of the crowd had gathered about the long piazzas and front windows. We numbered about twenty ladies, several refugees from Washington among the number. Not long did we have to wait. We soon saw skirmishers scattered broadcast over the fields in front of us. One of these was a wheat field, full of shocks, each of which received special notice from a Yankee, who ran his bayonet through it in order to be sure it did not contain a hiding “Rebel.” Before long, however, Yankees discovered that this was not the way they would find the Rebels. There we sat or stood with feelings would be hard to describe now. Those were the first Yankees we had seen. A few moments more, a dark line of blue, with glittering bayonets, came slowly winding down the front of us. It was McDowell’s Corps, crossing Sudley Ford to flank Beauregard’s left. We were in the Yankee lines! Then some of them called at the house and told us of the “On to Richmond” program, of their great numbers, and how they had “Long Tom” in McDowell’s Corps and anticipated a small job in surrounding the little Confederate Army and capturing and killing the whole. Others told us they had men in a hollow and were mowing them down.
We had all of our silver buried that morning and, strange to say, we got it all again. My sister and I, with a number of the other ladies, a day or two before had helped tear up a bolt of red flannel, and a strip was tied around the arm of each soldier in a Virginia regiment to distinguish them from the enemy. Then we were all day holding up for our cause the best we could in our bearing toward the “Yanks.”
Late in the afternoon, as a fresh supply of stragglers were recounting their glorious deeds, we saw a dingy, dusty-looking body of cavalry dash over a distant hill in pursuit of some dark-looking objects. A lively little widow, who was discussing the battle with some of the Yanks, who were boasting of what they were doing, looked up and said: “What does that mean?” It was hard for them at first to think it was “Rebel” cavalry pursuing some of their panic-stricken, well-equipped men. You may be sure it did not take them long to think and say they had better be going. With that the little widow commenced singing and beating time with her hands to a quick step for them.
The fields spoken of soon presented a different appearance from what they did in the morning. Running Yanks were scattered all over them again, throwing down arms and everything that would hinder their speed. No time to run bayonets through wheat shocks! The “Rebs” were dashing after them and they were running for their lives. Soon we were in a glorious state of excitement. Our men were all about us, some bringing up prisoners and wounded Yanks.
Some of the cavalry paused at the doors long enough for us to hand them a cup of coffee or something to eat in hand. It was our supper time, and every one gladly gave up what was cooked to refresh the poor soldiers who had been fighting all day with nothing to eat. My grandmother and Aunt Martha contributed some provisions they had taken from home, and we had some of our best servants go to the kitchen and help cook. I remember handing coffee to some of our men who were on their horses at the back door; they had only time to swallow it down in a hurry, as they had to go the pursuit, and some looked after the wounded Yanks too.
We did not see a great deal of the fighting, as there was a hill between us and a part of the field where there was some heavy fighting. About dusk, when the crowd had passed on, we all went out on the field to see what we could capture in the way of arms. I picked up one of those valuable rifles; it was still cocked, and as I had not learned to handle fire arms I was afraid of it, and you can imagine how I looked when taking it to the house.
That night some of our badly wounded men were brought to the house, and we had plenty to do caring for them. Some of us sat up all night with them. It was dreadful to see them suffering so! Sudley church, a few hundred yards from us, used as a temporary hospital, was filled with the dead and dying, and they were scattered all about.
A few days later, when things were quiet again, we went back home, went near the Bull Run Bridge and not far from the Henry House. We walked over that part of the battle field, stood on the ground where Bee and Bartow fell, and saw the bullet holes in the old Henry House. The elderly woman who lived in this house was sick in bed during the battle and was wounded. Dead horses were lying thick around the house, and we could see blue coats sticking out of the shallow graves, while bones and skulls lying about made a horrible sight. I saw enough of the horrors of war to last me.
* Confederate Veteran, Vol. 29 (1921), p. 410-411.
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Categories : Civilians, Reminiscences, Resources
An edited version of this story ran in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. I’m running it here with additional photos with permission of the publisher. It is titled as it appears in the magazine.
Repaying a Debt of Compassion
Today a pile of rubble, hard by the cut of the still unfinished Manassas Gap Railroad and across the road from the impressive bulk of the Sudley Church, is all that marks the site of what tradition holds was the home of Amos Benson and his wife Margaret. Precisely when the Bensons occupied the house is not clear, but by most accounts it was to the modest dwelling known appropriately as “Christian Hill” that John L. Rice, erstwhile private of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, made his way on horseback from Washington, DC in October, 1886. He had a debt to pay. How he had incurred that debt and how he went about paying it is the stuff of legend, a story of compassion and reconciliation.
The pre-war history of the Bensons is sketchy. Amos was born in September, 1825, in Maryland; Margaret Newman was born in May of 1821 and grew up in the vicinity of Sudley Springs. The two were married sometime prior to 1850. Census records and maps indicate that at the time of the Battle of First Bull Run the Bensons were living east of Bull Run in Fairfax County. In March of 1862, Amos would leave Margaret to go to war with Company A of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, a unit whose roster was thick with names from the area. He eventually rose to the rank of third corporal.
On Sunday morning, July 21, 1861, members of the congregation to which Amos and Margaret belonged made their way along roads and trails to the Sudley Methodist Church along the Sudley Road south of the fords over Bull and Catharpin Runs. They were no doubt startled to encounter columns of soldiers marching down the main road. The worshippers had run headlong into the advance of Union General Irvin McDowell’s army as it moved to turn the forces of Confederate generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston from their positions along Bull Run.
At the head of that column was Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade of Col. David Hunter’s division, which included Rice’s 2nd NH. Despite initial success in the morning, later in the afternoon McDowell’s forces were driven back from the Confederate position near the Henry house. Prior to the retreat Rice was wounded, shot through the lungs by a musket ball. His fellows carried him towards the rear and Sudley Church where Union surgeons had set up shop, but with the enemy closing in and Rice apparently dead, they laid him in under a fence and made good their escape. Two days later, Rice recovered consciousness, still under the fence where his comrades had left him. His wound had putrefied and become infested with maggots.
Later that evening, as they were making their way back to their home from Sudley Church where they had been assisting with the care of wounded Union soldiers, the Benson’s found Rice in his dire state. Amos went back to the church and returned with a Confederate surgeon. The exhausted doctor dismissed Rice as a hopeless case and returned to his duties, but the Bensons were determined. Margaret brought some food from their home and Amos stripped and washed Rice and cleaned out his wound. He was too seriously injured to move, so for ten days the Benson’s clothed, fed, and cared for Rice under the fence, until he was well enough to move to a freight car in Manassas for treatment and eventual imprisonment in Richmond.
Rice was later exchanged and re-enlisted to serve again in the war, becoming an officer. But even twenty-five years later he had not forgotten the Bensons and the debt he felt he owed. In 1886 while on a trip to the nation’s capital he determined to revisit the site of his near-death experience. He made inquiries in the area and found the Bensons. They took him to the place where they had nursed him and visited the battlefield. Rice learned of Amos’s service in the war and was surprised to realize that he had doubtless faced his benefactor on the battlefield.
Rice of course thanked the Bensons for their kindness and attention in his time of need, and they modestly said they were simply “obeying the dictates of humanity”. Rice persisted in his efforts to find some way to repay the Bensons, and Amos hit upon a solution:
“If you want to do that you can help us poor people here pay for our little church yonder. We owe $200 on it yet, which in this poor country is a heavy burden.”
Rice determined then to not only contribute, but to return to his home in Massachusetts and raise the entire sum of the debt remaining on the rebuilt Sudley Church, which had been destroyed during the war. On November 24, he told story of his wounding, the kindness of the Bensons, and the plight of the congregation in the pages of Springfield’s “The Republican”:
“I do not know what creed is taught in that church, but it cannot be wrong in any essential of Christian faith when it bears such fruit as I have described…There must be still living many Massachusetts soldiers who can bear testimony with me to the timely aid rendered by those people when so many of our wounded were left uncared for on that disastrous field.”
By November 28, Rice had received $235 from seventy-nine people, including twenty-seven veterans. The donations ranged from $0.50 to $20.00. In describing the religious and political backgrounds of the contributors to the Bensons, Rice quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
“Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in welcome of thee”
And in a letter of thanks to Rice, Amos said the value of the act was more than financial. In fact, it had “converted” the previously un-reconstructed Margaret. John Rice’s debt to the Bensons was repaid.
A history of the Sudley Church states that once the war ended Amos and Margaret moved to Warrenton, and in the early 1880′s had come back to the area of the Springs and were living in a house located 1/8 mile south of Sudley Church and owned by Reverend Henry Cushing – probably Christian Hill. Margaret died in 1898, and Amos followed her in 1901. They are buried together very near the southern door of the modern Sudley Church. The shared marker says of Amos: “He was a good man and full of faith”; of Margaret: “She was a child of God, lived a happy life and died in peace.”
As is often the case, there are some parts of the story of what happened after Rice’s wounding that are in doubt. See John Hennessy’s post here.
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Tags: Amos Benson, Articles, Christian Hill, Collateral Damage, John Rice, Writing About The Civil War
Categories : Articles, Civilians, Soldiers, The Battle, The Battlefield, Writing About The Civil War
The author of this letter in the Resources section, Elizabeth Blair Lee (left, 1818-1906) was the daughter of Francis Preston Blair, middle sister of Montgomery and Frank Blair, and wife of Union naval officer Samuel Phillips (Phil) Lee (right, 1812-1897). These portraits were done by noted artist Thomas Sully.
Elizabeth wrote to her husband nearly every day while he was away on duty. Phil would rise to the temporary rank of rear-admiral during the war, and attain that level permanently again after the war.
Elizabeth and Phil lend their name to the combined Blair-Lee house across the street from the White House - it currently houses visiting heads of state. The left half of the house was first a wedding gift from Blair Sr. to his daughter and son-in-law. I wrote a little bit about the Blairs and the house here and here.
You can read a more detailed biography of Elizabeth here.
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Categories : Articles, Civilians, Private Correspondence
To Samuel Phillips Lee, Her Husband
Silver Spring, MD
July 17, 1861
Entries for July 17, 18 & 20 omitted
July 19. We have been on tiptoe of expectation all day Father returned late saying that our advanced brigade had been repulsed and the Bull Run Battery of the Enemy – Genl Scott ordered the army to stop – rest reconnoitre – & he says nothing can happen until this evening – that at ten olk tonight he will have dispatches from Genl McDowell – This he said to the President – who replied – Genl it is your duty to report to me every movement & action – “The General look up to find he had a superior officer & promptly replied – “Yes sir & in that & as in all else I’ll do my duty” This the P. told Father – who repeated it confidentially to Govr Gibbs wha has known Genl Scott intimately for years – & who after a long silence – Well Mr L knows him & knows how to manage him -”
There is a good deal of skirmishing in Missouri Frank – Apo – Betty – the Martins – Evy & Troop – go tomorrow down to Fort Monroe – & return Monday I suppose Frank goes on business Congress adjourned until Monday & the Members are off to the battlefield tomorrow – Mother & I have as usual been quiet at home – from which She won’t go – & I really feel loth to leave her so much alone so I staid home today – I have not taken Blair to the City for a month or more
July 21st Sunday A day long to be remembered in the annals of the world This morning at dailight the morning guns seem very loud to me – & when the[y] continued to rumble I grew too restless – & got up about nine After breakfast I begged Maria to go walk hoping the woods would stop the roar in my ears – but down at the Grotto – I heard it plainer & then spoke of it to Maria told her it was the Battle at Bull Run – 30 miles off She soon distinguished the sounds & on our return to the house – All the house soon became listeners Brother & Mr Dennison came out early & said that Genl Scott had sent word to Mr. Lincoln that the attack would commence with dailight - It was some time ‘ere Mr. Dennison could distinguish in the Vally by Violets spring – the belchings of the Cannon & strange it was not heard in the city – but just as plain – oh so torturingly plain to me – all all this long day – When last news at 5 olk came in our side were victorious 3 batteries taken – the Confederate lines broken – & they retreating to their entrenchment at the junction – but at 8 olk – as I was rocking our boy to sleep I heard that dreadful roar still – & it ceased – or I to hear it from about 15 minutes after eight Oh what a sad long weary day has this sabbath been to me -
Becky went to church & I had to look after Blair as well as the house – & as so often in his precious life – he was such a stay & comfort to me – My duty in looking after an[d] amusing him just kept me wailing & weeping over the terrific scene of carnage of my own kindred & countrymen – within my hearing -
Washington July 22nd I enclose you a note from John – Father when we first heard of the fearful rout of our army said Betty Blair Appo & I must go north at 2 olk I sent for John – as in yr absence I never feel willing to ought of moment without your Brother’s counsel He said go at first & then with me the enclosed when I sent word Father said I might stay to consult John over again So here I am – going to stay Our army was overcome by numbers they have ascertained that one hundred & ten thousand troops in battle – John says this defeat cements Maryland in the Union
[Laas, Virginia Jeans, ed., Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, pp 63-66]
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Categories : Civilians, Private Correspondence, Resources
VIRGINA SCENES IN ‘61
BY CONSTANCE CARY HARRISON.
The only association I have with my old home in Virginia that is not one of unmixed happiness relates to the time immediately succeeding the execution of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Our homestead was in Fairfax County, at some distance from the theater of that tragic episode; and, belonging as we did to a family among the first in the State to manumit slaves,—our grandfather having set free those that came to him by inheritance, and the people who served us being hired from their owners and remaining in our employ through years of kindliest relations,— there seemed to be no especial reason for us to share in the apprehension of an uprising of the blacks. But there was the fear — unspoken, or pooh-poohed at by the men who were mouth-pieces for our community—dark, boding, oppressive, and altogether hateful. I can remember taking it to bed with me at night, and awaking suddenly oftentimes to confront it through a vigil of nervous terror, of which it never occurred to me to speak to any one. The notes of whip-poor-wills in the sweet-gum swamp near the stable, the mutterings of a distant thunder-storm, even the rustle of the night wind in the oaks that shaded my window, filled me with nameless dread. In the daytime it seemed impossible to associate suspicion with those familiar tawny or sable faces that surrounded us. “We had seen them for so many years smiling or saddening with the family joys or sorrows; they were so guileless, so patient, so satisfied. What subtle influence was at work that should transform them into tigers thirsting for our blood? The idea was preposterous. But when evening came again, and with it the hour when the colored people (who in summer and autumn weather kept astir half the night) assembled themselves together for dance or prayer-meeting, the ghost that refused to be laid was again at one’s elbow. Rusty bolts were drawn and rusty fire-arms loaded. A watch was set where never before had eye or ear been lent to such a service. In short, peace had flown from the borders of Virginia.
Although the newspapers were full of secession talk and the matter was eagerly discussed at our tables, I cannot remember that, as late as Christmastime of the year 1860, coming events had cast any definite shadow on our homes. The people in our neighborhood, of one opinion with their dear and honored friend, Colonel Robert E. Lee, of Arlington, were slow to accept the startling suggestion of disruption of the Union. At any rate, we enjoyed the usual holiday gathering of kinsfolk in the usual fashion. The old Vaucluse house, known for many years past as a center of cheerful hospitality in the county, threw wide open its doors to receive all the members who could be gathered there of a large family circle. The woods about were despoiled of holly and spruce, pine and cedar, to deck the walls and wreathe the picture-frames. On Christmas Eve we had a grand rally of youths and boys belonging to the “clan,” as they loved to call it, to roll in a yule log, which was deposited upon a glowing bed of coals in the big “red-parlor” fire-place, and sit about it after-ward, welcoming the Christmas in with goblets of egg-nog and apple-toddy.
“Where shall we be a year hence?” some one asked at a pause in the merry chat; and, in the brief silence that followed, arose a sudden spectral thought of war. All felt its presence; no one cared to speak first of its grim possibilities.
On Christmas Eve of the following year the old house lay in ruins, a sacrifice by Union troops to military necessity; the forest giants that kept watch around her walls had been cut down and made to serve as breastworks for a fort erected on the Vaucluse property as part of the defenses of Washington. Of the young men and boys who took part in that holiday festivity, all were in the active service of the South,— one of them, alas! soon to fall under a rain of shot and shell beside his gun at Fredericksburg; the youngest of the number had left his mother’s knee to fight at Manassas, and found himself, before the year was out, a midshipman aboard the Confederate steamer Nashville, on her cruise in distant seas!
My first vivid impression of war-days was during a ramble in the neighboring woods one Sunday afternoon in spring, when the young people in a happy band set out in search of wild flowers. Pink honeysuckles, blue lupine, beds of fairy flax, anemones, and ferns in abundance sprung under the canopy of young leaves on the forest boughs, and the air was full of the song of birds and the music of running waters. We knew every mossy path far and near in those woods; every tree had been watched and cherished by those who went before us, and dearer than any other spot on earth was our tranquil, sweet Vaucluse. Suddenly the shrill whistle of a locomotive struck the ear, an unwonted sound on Sunday. “Do you know what that means?” said one of the older cousins who accompanied the party. “It is the special train carrying Alexandria volunteers to Manassas, and to-morrow I shall follow with my company.” Silence fell upon our little band. A cloud seemed to come between us and the sun. It was the beginning of the end too soon to come.
The story of one broken circle is the story of another at the outset of such a war. Before the week was over, the scattering of our household, which no one then believed to be more than temporary, had begun. Living as we did upon ground likely to be in the track of armies gathering to confront each other, it was deemed advisable to send the children and young girls into a place more remote from chances of danger. Some weeks later the heads of the household, two widowed sisters whose sons were at Manassas, drove away from their home in their carriage at early morning, having spent the previous night in company with a half-grown lad digging in the cellar hasty graves for the interment of two boxes of old English silver-ware, heirlooms in the family, for which there was no time to provide otherwise. Although the enemy were long encamped immediately above it after the house was burnt the following year, this silver was found there when the war had ended; it was lying loose in the earth, the boxes having rotted away.
The point at which our family reunited within the Confederate lines was Bristoe, the station next beyond Manassas, a cheerless railway inn; a part of the premises was used as a country grocery store; and there quarters were secured for us with a view to being near the army. By this time all our kith and kin of fighting age had joined the volunteers. One cannot picture accommodations more forlorn than these eagerly taken for us and for other families attracted to Bristoe by the same powerful magnet. The summer sun poured its burning rays upon whitewashed walls unshaded by a tree. Our bedrooms were almost uninhabitable by day or night, our fare the plainest. From the windows we beheld only a flat, uncultivated country, crossed by red-clay roads, then ankle-deep in dust. We learned to look for all excitement to the glittering lines of railway track, along which continually thundered trains bound to and from the front. It was impossible to allow such a train to pass without running out upon the platform to salute it, for in this way we greeted many an old friend or relative buttoned up in the smart gray uniform, speeding with high hope to the scene of coming conflict. Such shouts as went up from sturdy throats while we stood waving hands, handkerchiefs, or the rough woolen garments we were at work upon! Then fairly awoke the spirit that made of Southern women the inspiration of Southern men throughout the war. Most of the young fellows we knew and were cheering onward wore the uniform of privates, and for the right to wear it had left homes of ease and luxury. To such we gave our best homage; and from that time forth the youth who was lukewarm in the cause or unambitious of military glory fared uncomfortably in the presence of the average Confederate maiden.
Thanks to our own carriage, we were able during those rallying days of June to drive frequently to visit “the boys” in camp, timing the expeditions to include battalion drill and dress parade, and taking tea afterward in the different tents. Then were the gala days of war, and our proud hosts hastened to produce home dainties dispatched from the far-away plantations— tears and blessings interspersed amid the packing, we were sure; though I have seen a pretty girl persist in declining other fare, to make her meal upon raw biscuit and huckleberry pie compounded by the bright-eyed amateur cook of a well-beloved mess. Feminine heroism could no farther go.
And so the days wore on until the 17th of July, when a rumor from the front sent an electric shock through our circle. The enemy were moving forward! On the morning of the 18th those who had been able to sleep at all awoke early to listen for the first guns of the engagement of Blackburn’s Ford. Deserted as the women at Bristoe were by every male creature old enough to gather news, there was, for us, no way of knowing the progress of events during the long, long day of waiting, of watching, of weeping, of praying, of rushing out upon the railway track to walk as far as we dared in the direction whence came that intolerable booming of artillery. The cloud of dun smoke arising over Manassas became heavier in volume as the day progressed. Still, not a word of tidings, till toward afternoon there came limping up a single, very dirty, soldier with his arm in a sling. What a heaven-send he was, if only as an escape-valve for our pent-up sympathies! We seized him, we washed him, we cried over him, we glorified him until the man was fairly bewildered. Our best endeavors could only develop a pin-scratch of a wound on his right hand; but when our hero had laid in a substantial meal of bread and meat, we plied him with trembling questions, each asking news of some staff or regiment or company. It has since occurred to me that he was a humorist in disguise. His invariable reply, as he looked from one to the other of his satellites, was: “The —-Virginia, marm? Why, of coase. They warn’t no two ways o’ thinkin’ ’bout that ar reg’ment. They just kivered tharselves with glory!”
A little later two wagonloads of slightly wounded claimed our care, and with them came authentic news of the day. Most of us received notes on paper torn from a soldier’s pocket-book and grimed with gunpowder, containing assurance of the safety of our own. At nightfall a train carrying more wounded to the hospitals at Culpeper made a halt at Bristoe; and, preceded by men holding lanterns, we went in among the stretchers with milk, food, and water to the sufferers. One of the first discoveries I made, bending over in that fitful light, was a young officer whom I knew to be a special object of solicitude with one of my comrades in the search; but he was badly hurt, and neither he nor she knew the other was near until the train had moved on. The next day, and the next, were full of burning excitement over the impending general engagement, which people then said would decide the fate of the young Confederacy. Fresh troops came by with every train, and we lived only to turn from one scene to another of welcome and farewell. On Saturday evening arrived a message from General Beauregard, saying that early on Sunday an engine and car would be put at our disposal, to take us to some point more remote from danger. We looked at one another, and, tacitly agreeing the gallant general had sent not an order but a suggestion, declined his kind proposal.
Another unspeakably long day, full of the straining anguish of suspense. Dawning bright and fair, it closed under a sky darkened by cannon-smoke. The roar of guns seemed never to cease. First, a long sullen boom; then a sharper rattling fire, painfully distinct; then stragglers from the field, with varying rumors; at last, the news of victory; and, as before, the wounded, to force our numbed faculties into service. One of our group, the mother of an only son barely fifteen years of age, heard that her boy, after being in action all the early part of the day, had through sheer fatigue fallen asleep upon the ground, where he was found resting peacefully amidst the roar of the guns.
A few days later we rode over the field. The trampled grass had begun to spring again, and wild flowers were blooming around carelessly made graves. From one of these imperfect mounds of clay I saw a hand extended; and when, years afterward, I visited the tomb of Rousseau beneath the Pantheon in Paris, where a sculptured hand bearing a torch protrudes from the sarcophagus, I thought of that mournful spectacle upon the field of Manassas. Fences were everywhere thrown down; the undergrowth of the woods was riddled with shot; here and there we came upon spiked guns, disabled gun-carriages, cannon-balls, blood-stained blankets, and dead horses. We were glad enough to turn away and gallop homeward.
With August heats and lack of water, Bristoe was forsaken for quarters near Culpeper, where my mother went into the soldiers’ barracks, sharing soldiers’ accommodations, to nurse the wounded. In September quite a party of us, upon invitation, visited the different headquarters. We stopped overnight at Manassas, five ladies, sleeping upon a couch made of rolls of cartridge-flannel, in a tent guarded by a faithful sentry. I remember the comical effect of the five bird-cages (of a kind without which no self-respecting young woman of that day would present herself in public) suspended upon a line running across the upper part of our tent, after we had reluctantly removed them in order to adjust ourselves for repose. Our progress during that memorable visit was royal; an ambulance with a picked troop of cavalrymen had been placed at our service, and the convoy was “personally conducted” by a pleasing variety of distinguished officers. It was at this time, after a supper at the headquarters of the “Maryland line” at Fairfax, that the afterward universal war-song, “My Maryland !” was put afloat upon the tide of army favor. We were sitting outside a tent in the warm starlight of an early autumn night, when music was proposed. At once we struck up Randall’s verses to the tune of the old college song, “Lauriger Horatius,”—a young lady of the party, Jennie Gary, of Baltimore, having recently set them to this music before leaving home to share the fortunes of the Confederacy. All joined in the ringing chorus; and, when we finished, a burst of applause came from some soldiers listening in the darkness behind a belt of trees. Next day the melody was hummed far and near through the camps, and in due time it had gained the place of favorite song in the army. Other songs sung that evening, which afterward had a great vogue, were one beginning “By blue Patapsco’s billowy dash,” and “The years glide slowly by, Lorena.”
Another incident of note, during the autumn of ’61, was that to my cousins, Hetty and Jennie Cary, and to me was intrusted the making of the first three battle-flags of the Confederacy. They were jaunty squares of scarlet crossed with dark blue edged with white, the cross bearing stars to indicate the number of the seceded States. We set our best stitches upon them, edged them with golden fringes, and, when they were finished, dispatched one to Johnston, another to Beauregard, and the third to Earl Van Dorn, then commanding infantry at Manassas. The banners we’re received with all possible enthusiasm; were toasted, feted, and cheered abundantly. After two years, when Van Dorn had been killed in Tennessee, mine came back to me, tattered and storm-stained from long and honorable service in the field. But it was only a little while after it had been bestowed that there arrived one day at our lodgings in Culpeper a huge, bashful Mississippi scout,—one of the most daring in the army,—with the frame of a Hercules and the face of a child. He had been bidden to come there by his general, he said, to ask, if I would not give him an order to fetch some cherished object from my dear old home—something that would prove to me “how much they thought of the maker of that flag!” A week later I was the astonished recipient of a lamented bit of finery left “within the lines,”a wrap, brought to us by Dillon himself, with a beaming face. Mounted on a load of fire-wood, he had gone through the Union pickets, and while peddling poultry had presented himself at the house of my uncle, Dr. Fairfax, in Alexandria, whence he earned off his prize in triumph, with a letter in its folds telling us how relatives left behind longed to be sharing the joys and sorrows of those at large in the Confederacy.
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Tags: Battles and Leaders, Civilians, Constance Cary, Memoirs, Resources
Categories : Civilians, Reminiscences, Resources