About three o'clock, Colonel Napier, who was commanding upon the extreme left, advanced, and, sweeping down the line, drove back a body of the enemy immediately confronting his own little battalion, and struck the flank of another moving to attack the right of the position. But coming suddenly upon a miscegenated line of white and colored troops, which rose suddenly from ambush and fired into the faces of his men, his line fell back. The combatants fought here, for a while, with clubbed guns, and the negroes, who seemed furious with fear, used theirs as they would mauls. One unusually big and black darkey seemed to be much surprised, when first stumbled upon, and exclaiming "Dar dey is!" almost let his eyes pop out of their sockets. Soon after this, the most serious charge of the day was made upon the right and center. The enemy came in two lines, each twelve or fifteen hundred strong. The front line swung first one end foremost, then the other, as it came on at the double-quick, and my line, facing to the right and left, massed alternately at the threatened points. This time the Federals came up so close to us that I believed the position lost. Their repulse was chiefly due to the exertions of Captain Lea and Colonel Wycher, so far as the efforts of officers contributed to a victory which nothing but the unflinching courage of the men could have secured.
The first line, after driving us nearly a hundred yards, and completely turning our right, finally recoiled, and the second ran as early. But they left many dead behind. Our loss was surprisingly small in this fight—the enemy fired heavy volleys, but too high.
Receiving a reinforcement of sixty men, just before sundown, I sent it to get in the enemy's rear, and attack his horse-holders, expecting great results from the movement. But the officer in command was timid and would do nothing.
The enemy made no further attack, and seemed hopeless of fencing us away.
Late that night, our ammunition having almost entirely given out, we quitted our position and fell back, through Marion. Marching then southwardly, through the gorges of the mountain, we reached Rye Valley, fifteen miles distant, by morning. The enemy did not move during the night, nor indeed until ten or eleven, A.M., next day, and certain information had reached him of our retreat.
It can safely be asserted that we were not worsted in this fight, although for lack of ammunition we quitted the field. Every attack made by the enemy upon our position was repulsed, notwithstanding our greatly inferior numbers. Our loss was slight; his was heavy. General Breckinridge declared that no troops could have fought better or more successfully than those which held the right.
From Rye Valley we moved to the main road again, striking it at Mount Airy, thirteen miles from Marion. Here General Breckinridge learned that the enemy had marched directly by to Saltville. He entertained grave fears that the place would be taken, having no confidence in the ability of the small garrison to hold it. His fears were realized. He instructed me to collect details, from all the brigades, of men who were least exhausted, and the most serviceable horses, and follow the enemy as closely as I could, relieving Saltville, if the garrison held out until I arrived. I accordingly marched with three hundred men, arriving at Seven-mile Ford at nightfall on the 19th. I halted until one o'clock at night, and then pressed on, over terrible roads, and reached the vicinity of Saltville at daylight. The night was bitterly cold, and the men were so chilled that they were scarcely able to sit on their horses.
Passing through Lyon's gap we discovered indication, scarcely to be mistaken, that Saltville had indeed fallen. Still it was necessary to make sure, and I moved in the direction of the southern defenses. Shortly afterward, the sight of the enemy and a skirmish which showed a strong force in line, convinced me that I could not enter the place. Scouts, sent to reconnoiter, returned declaring that the enemy held all the entrances. I lost one man killed. Falling back three miles I went into camp to await the time when the enemy should commence his retreat. This he did on the 22nd, and marched toward Kentucky. We immediately followed. At Hyter's Gap the forces of the enemy divided. Those under Gillem moving in the direction of Tennessee, those under Burbridge going straight toward Kentucky. We followed the latter. There is no word in the English language which adequately expresses how cold it was. Our horses, already tired down and half starved, could scarcely hobble. Those of the enemy were in worse condition, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for ten miles a man could have walked on dead ones. They lay dead and stark frozen in every conceivable and revolting attitude, as death had overtaken them in their agony. Saddles, guns, accouterments of all kinds strewed the road like the debris of a rout. We picked up many stragglers. Some pieces of artillery were abandoned but burned.
When we reached Wheeler's ford, fifty-two miles from Saltville, I had left, of my three hundred, only fifty men. Here we had our last skirmish with the enemy, and gave up the pursuit. More than one hundred prisoners were taken, many of them unable to walk. The Federals lost hundreds of men, whose limbs, rotted by the cold, had to be amputated. Such suffering, to be conceived, must be witnessed. The raid had accomplished great things, but at terrible cost. Soon after this, my brigade went into winter quarters. Forage was scarcely to be had at all in the department, and I sent my horses, with a strong detail to guard and attend to them, to North Carolina. The men could scarcely be reconciled to this parting with their best friends, and feared, too, it preluded infantry service. In the winter huts built at Abingdon, they were sufficiently comfortable, but were half famished. The country was almost bare of supplies. Still they bore up, cheerful and resolute.
In March we were ordered to Lynchburg to assist in defending that place against Sheridan. He passed by, however, and struck at larger game. About this time the men who had lain so long, suffered so much, and endured so heroically in prison, began to arrive. The men who had braved every hardship, in field and camp, were now reinforced by those who were fresh from the harsh insults and galling sense of captivity. Six months earlier this addition to our numbers would have told—now it was too late.
Our gallant boys would not halt or rest until they rejoined their old comrades. Then they crowded around with many a story of their prison life, and vow of revenge—never to be accomplished. All asked for arms, and to be placed at once in the ranks. Very few, however, had been already exchanged, and all the others were placed, much against their will, in "Parole camp" at Christiansburg. In April, the enemy advanced again from East Tennessee. Stoneman raided through North Carolina—tapped the only road which connected Richmond with the Southern territory still available, at Salisbury, and then suddenly turned up in our rear, and between us and Richmond. This decided General Early, who was then commanding the department, to move eastwardly that he might get closer to General Lee. All the troops in the department were massed, and we moved as rapidly as it was possible to do. At Wytheville, Giltner met a detachment of the enemy and defeated it. At New river, we found the bridge burned by the enemy, who had anticipated us there, and we marched on toward Lynchburg, on his track. General Early having fallen ill, the command devolved upon General Echols. This officer did all that any man could have done, to preserve the morale of the troops. He was possessed of remarkable administrative capacity, and great tact, as well as energy. While firm, he was exceedingly popular in manner and address, and maintained good humor and satisfaction among the troops, while he preserved order and efficiency.
General Echols had, at this time, besides the cavalry commands of Vaughan, Cosby, Giltner and mine, some four or five thousand infantry—the division of General Wharton, and the small brigades commanded by Colonels Trigg and Preston. My brigade was doing duty as infantry—the horses having not yet returned. Marching about twenty-five miles every day, the men became more than ever disgusted with the infantry service, and their feet suffered as much as their temper. It was observed that the men just returned from prison, although least prepared for it, complained least of the hard marching.
We well knew at this time, that General Lee had been at length forced to evacuate Richmond, but we hoped that followed by the bulk of his army, he would retreat safely to some point where he could effect a junction with General Joseph Johnston, and collect, also, all of the detachments of troops which had previously operated at a distance from the large armies. The troops which General Echols commanded, were veterans, and they understood the signs which were now rife and public. But they were not altogether hopeless, and were still resolute although their old enthusiasm was utterly gone. They still received encouragement from the citizens of the section through which they marched.
It is but justice to the noble people of Virginia to declare that they did not despair of their country until after it was no more. There were individual defections among the Virginians—rare and indelibly branded—but as a people, they were worthy of their traditions and their hereditary honor. With rocking crash and ruin all around her, the grand old commonwealth, scathed by the storm and shaken by the resistless convulsion, still towered erect and proud to the last, and fell only when the entire land had given away beneath her. Two strange features characterized the temper of the Southern people in the last days of the Confederacy. Crushed and dispirited as they were, they still seemed unable to realize the fact that the cause was utterly lost. Even when their fate stared them in the face, they could not recognize it.
Again, when our final ruin came, it was consummated in the twinkling of an eye. We floated confidently to the edge of the cataract, went whirling over and lying utterly stunned at the bottom, never looked back at the path we had followed. The Southern people strained every nerve to resist, and when all efforts failed, sank powerless and unnerved.
The struggle was a hard one. Since the days of Roman conquest the earth has not seen such energy, persistency and ingenuity in arts of subjugation. Since Titus encompassed Jerusalem and the Aurelian shook the east with his fierce legions, a more stubborn, desperate and lavish resistance has not been witnessed against attack so resolute, systematic and overwhelming. The Roman eagle never presaged a wider, more thorough desolation than that of which the flag of the Union was the harbinger. For four years the struggle was maintained against this mighty power. When in the spring of 1865, one hundred and thirty-four thousand wretched, broken-down rebels stood, from Richmond to the Rio Grande, confronting one million fifteen thousand veteran soldiers, trained to all the vicissitudes, equal to all the shocks of war—is it wonderful that when this tremendous host moved all at once, resistance at length, and finally ceased. And this struggle had worn down the people as well as the soldiery. Four years of such bitter, constant, exhausting strife, racking the entire land, until the foot of the conqueror had tracked it from one end to the other, accomplished its objects in time. Even the women, whose heroism outshone any ever displayed upon the battlefield, whose devoted self-sacrificing charity and benevolence can never be justly recorded, whose courage had seemed dauntless, were at last overcome by the misery which surrounded them, and a power which seemed resistless and inexorable.
While we were marching to join General Lee, and after the news of the evacuation of Richmond had been confirmed, we heard of an event which was as ominous as it was melancholy. We learned that a man had been killed, whose name had so long been associated with the army of Northern Virginia and its victories, that it almost seemed as if his life must be identified with its existence. The officer who was the very incarnation of the chivalry, the big-souled constancy, the glorious vigor of that army—General A.P. Hill—was dead. He was a hero, and he died like one. When the lines around Richmond were forced—his gallant corps overpowered, he was slain in the front still facing the enemy. His record had been completed, and he gave his life away, as if it were worthless after the cause to which he had pledged it was lost.
While General Echols was still confident that he would be able to join General Lee at some point to the south west of Richmond, most probably Danville, we learned with a dismay which is indescribable, that he had surrendered. If the light of heaven had gone out, a more utter despair and consternation would not have ensued. When the news first came, it perfectly paralyzed every one. Men looked at each other as if they had just heard a sentence of death and eternal ruin passed upon all. The effect of the news upon the infantry was to cause an entire disorganization. Crowds of them threw down their arms and left, and those who remained lost all sense of discipline.
On the next day, General Echols called a council of war, announced his intention of taking all the men who would follow him to General Joseph E. Johnston, and consulted his officers regarding the temper of the men. The infantry officers declared that their men would not go, and that it was useless to attempt to make them.
General Echols then issued an order furloughing the infantry soldiers for sixty days. He believed that this method would, at the end of that time, if the war was still going on, secure many to the Confederacy, while to attempt to force them to follow him would be unavailing and would make them all bitterly hostile in the future. He issued orders to the cavalry commanders to be prepared to march at four P.M., in the direction of North Carolina.
I obtained permission from him to mount my men on mules taken from the wagons, which were necessarily abandoned. My command was about six hundred strong. All the men furloughed during the winter and spring had promptly reported, and it was increased by more than two hundred exchanged men. Of the entire number, not more than ten (some of these officers) failed to respond to the orders to continue their march to General Johnston's army. The rain was falling in torrents when we prepared to start upon a march which seemed fraught with danger. The men were drenched, and mounted upon mules without saddles, and with blind bridles or rope halters. Every thing conspired to remind them of the gloomy situation. The dreadful news was fresh in their ears. Thousands of men had disbanded around them, two Kentucky brigades had left in their sight to go home, they were told that Stoneman held the gaps in the mountains through which they would have to pass. The gloomy skies seemed to threaten disaster. But braver in the hour of despair than ever before, they never faltered or murmured. The trial found them true, I can safely say that the men of my brigade were even more prompt in rendering obedience, more careful in doing their full duty at this time, when it was entirely optional with themselves whether they should go or stay, than they had ever been in the most prosperous days of the Confederacy. To command such men was the proudest honor that an officer could obtain.
We moved off in silence, broken by a cheer when we passed Vaughan's brigade which was also going on. On the next day we were overtaken by ninety men from Giltner's brigade, who came to join us. Colonel Dimond and Captains Scott, Rogers, Barrett, and Willis, and Lieutenant Freeman, well known as among the best officers of the Kentucky Confederate troops, commanded them. These men felt as we did, that disaster gave us no right to quit the service in which we had enlisted, and that so long as the Confederate Government survived, it had a claim upon us that we could not refuse.
The reports that the gaps were occupied by the enemy proved untrue, and we entered North Carolina without seeing a Federal. At Statesville, General Echols left us to go to General Johnston's camp. Vaughan was instructed to proceed to Morgantown, south of the Catawba river, and I pushed on toward Lincolnton, where I expected to find Colonel Napier with the horses. Just after crossing the river, information was received that a part of Stoneman's force was marching from the west in the same direction. I hoped, by moving rapidly, to get to Lincolnton first. The enemy's column moved upon a road which approached closely to the one by which we were marching. Our scouts were fighting, during the afternoon, upon the by-roads which connected the main ones. When within two miles of Lincolnton, videttes came back rapidly to tell me that the enemy had occupied the town, and were coming out to meet us.
I was unwilling to fight, and knew that to countermarch would be ruinous. Fortunately an officer had, a little while before, mentioned that a small road turned off to the left two miles from Lincolnton, and led to other traces and paths, which conducted to the main road to Charlotte. The head of the column was just at a road which answered to the description he had given, and, strengthening the advance guard to hold the enemy in check, I turned the column into it. It proved to be the right one, and, pressing guides, we reached, after a march of twelve or fifteen miles, the Charlotte road, and were between that place and the enemy. At daybreak next morning we moved on slowly. The enemy reached the bridge over the Catawba after we had passed and had partially torn up the bottom. At Charlotte we found a battalion of General Ferguson's brigade of Mississippi cavalry.
On the next day, Mr. Davis and his Cabinet arrived, escorted by General Debrell's division of cavalry, in which was Williams' Kentucky brigade, commanded then by Colonel Breckinridge. In a day or two the town was filled with unattached officers, disbanded and straggling soldiers, the relics of the naval forces, fleeing officials and the small change of the Richmond bureaux.
The negotiations were then pending between Generals Johnston and Sherman. General Breckinridge, in his capacity of Secretary of War, assisted at these conferences, but he was impatiently expected by Mr. Davis. The latter, on the day of his arrival, made the speech which has been so much commented upon. It was simply a manly, courageous appeal to the people to be true to themselves. The news of the assassination of Mr. Lincoln was received, during this period, but was almost universally disbelieved. When General Breckenridge arrived, he brought the first authoritative account of the Sherman and Johnston cartel. But two days later, General Johnston telegraphed that the authorities at Washington had repudiated it; that the armistice was broken off, and that he was preparing to surrender. Then there was another stir and commotion among the refugees. The greater part chose to remain at Charlotte, and accept the terms granted General Johnston's army.
Mr. Davis, accompanied by General Breckinridge and the members of his cabinet, quitted Charlotte, to march, if possible, to Generals Taylor and Forrest, in Alabama. The five brigades of Ferguson, Debrell, Breckinridge, Vaughan, and mine, composed his escort. At Unionville I found Colonel Napier, with all the forces he had been able to save from the enemy, and seventy or eighty men. This increased the strength of the brigade to 751 effectives.
I asked and obtained promotion, well won and deserved, for several officers. Major Steele was made Colonel; Captains Logan and Messick, Lieutenant-Colonels; Sergeant Jno. Carter, Captain; Captains Davis and Gwynn, of my staff, to whom I owed gratitude for inestimable assistance, were made Majors. I wished for promotion for other officers—indeed they all deserved it—but was assured that so many commissions could not be issued at once. Even the gallant officers who had joined us with the detachment from Giltner's brigade, could not obtain commissions, which they would have valued the more highly, because they were soon to expire.
We moved through South Carolina with great deliberation—so slowly, indeed, that with the detachments constantly passing them on their way to surrender, the morale of the troops was seriously impaired. Nothing demoralizes cavalry more than dilatory movements in time of danger. They argue that it indicates irresolution on the part of their leaders.
While in South Carolina, an old lady reproached some men of my brigade very bitterly for taking forage from her barn. "You are a gang of thieving, rascally, Kentuckians," she said; "afraid to go home, while our boys are surrendering decently." "Madam," answered one of them, "you are speaking out of your turn; South Carolina had a good deal to say in getting up this war, but we Kentuckians have contracted to close it out."
At Abbeville, where we were received with the kindest hospitality, was held the last Confederate council of war. Mr. Davis desired to know, from his brigade commanders, the true spirit of the men. He presided himself. Beside Generals Breckinridge and Bragg, none others were present than the five brigade commanders. Mr. Davis was apparently untouched by any of the demoralization which prevailed—he was affable, dignified and looked the very personification of high and undaunted courage. Each officer gave in turn, a statement of the condition and feeling of his men, and, when urged to do so, declared his own views of the situation. In substance, all said the same. They and their followers despaired of successfully conducting the war, and doubted the propriety of prolonging it. The honor of the soldiery was involved in securing Mr. Davis' safe escape, and their pride induced them to put off submission to the last moment. They would risk battle in the accomplishments of these objects—but would not ask their men to struggle against a fate, which was inevitable, and forfeit all hope of a restoration to their homes and friends. Mr. Davis declared that he wished to hear no plan which had for its object, only his safety—that twenty-five hundred brave men were enough to prolong the war, until the panic had passed away, and they would then be a nucleus for thousands more. He urged us to accept his views. We were silent, for we could not agree with him, and respected him too much to reply. He then said, bitterly, that he saw all hope was gone—that all the friends of the South were prepared to consent to her degradation. When he arose to leave the room, he had lost his erect bearing, his face was pale, and he faltered so much in his step that he was compelled to lean upon General Breckinridge. It was a sad sight to men who felt toward him as we did. I will venture to say that nothing he has subsequently endured, equaled the bitterness of that moment.
At the Savannah river, next day, the men were paid, through the influence of General Breckinridge, with a portion of the gold brought from Richmond. Each man got from twenty-six to thirty-two dollars—as he was lucky. Generals Vaughan and Debrell remained at the river to surrender. At Washington, Georgia, on the same day, the 7th of May, Mr. Davis left us, with the understanding that he was to attempt to make his escape. General Breckinridge had determined to proceed, with all the men remaining, in an opposite direction, and divert if possible all pursuit from Mr. Davis. That night, General Ferguson's brigade went to Macon to surrender, Ferguson himself going to Mississippi. On the next morning, some three hundred fifty of my brigade and a portion of William's brigade, under Colonel Breckinridge, marched to Woodstock, Georgia.
Many men of my brigade, dismounted and unable to obtain horses, and many of the paroled men, hoping to be exchanged, had followed us out from Virginia, walking more than three hundred miles. When at length, unwilling to expose them to further risk and suffering, I positively prohibited their coming further, they wept like children. A great portion of the men with Colonel Breckinridge were from his own regiment, the Ninth Kentucky, and the former "Morgan men," so long separated, were united just as all was lost. The glorious old "Kentucky brigade," as the infantry brigade, first commanded by General Breckinridge, then by Hanson and Helm, was not many miles distant, and surrendered about the same time. Upon leaving Washington, General Breckinridge, accompanied by his staff and some forty-five men, personally commanded by Colonel Breckinridge had taken a different road from that upon which the brigade had marched. When I arrived at Woodstock I did not find him there as I had expected.
Hours elapsed and he did not come. They were hours of intense anxiety. In our front was a much superior force of Federal cavalry—to go forward would provoke an engagement, and it could only result in severe and bloody defeat.
Retreat, by the way we had come, was impossible. Upon the left, if we escaped the enemy, we would be stopped by the sea.
I could not determine to surrender until I had heard from General Breckinridge, who was, at once, commander of all the Confederate forces yet in the field, in this vicinity, and the sole remaining officer of the Government.
Nor, until he declared it, could I know that enough had been done to assure the escape of Mr. Davis.
The suspense was galling. At length Colonel Breckinridge arrived with a message from the General.
While proceeding leisurely along the road, upon which he had left Washington, General Breckinridge had suddenly encountered a battalion of Federal cavalry, formed his forty-five men, and prepared to charge them. They halted, sent in a flag of truce, and parlied.
General Breckinridge saw that he could no longer delay his own attempt at escape, and while the conference was proceeding; set off with a few of his personal staff.
After a sufficient time had elapsed to let him get all away, Colonel Breckinridge marched by the enemy (a flag of truce having been agreed on), and came directly to Woodstock. General Breckinridge directed him to say, that he had good reason to believe that Generals Forrest and Taylor had already surrendered. That if we succeeded in crossing the Mississippi, we would find all there prepared to surrender. He counseled an immediate surrender upon our part, urging that it was folly to think of holding out longer and criminal to risk the lives of the men when no good could possibly be accomplished. He wished them to return to Kentucky—to their homes and kindred. He forbade any effort to assist his escape. "I will not have," he said, "one of these young men to encounter one hazard more for my sake." Bidding his young countrymen return to the loved land of their birth, he went off into exile.
The men were immediately formed, and the words of the chieftain they most loved and honored, repeated to them. They declared that they had striven to do their duty and preserve their honor, and felt that they could accept, without disgrace, release from service which they had worthily discharged. Then the last organization of "Morgan men" was disbanded. Comrades, who felt for each other the esteem and affection which brave and true men cherish, parted with sad hearts and dimmed eyes. There remained of the "old command," only the recollections of an eventful career and the ties of friendship which would ever bind its members together. There was no humiliation for these men. They had done their part and served faithfully, until there was no longer a cause and a country to serve. They knew not what their fate would be, and indulged in no speculation regarding it. They had been taught fortitude by the past, and, without useless repining and unmanly fear, they faced the future.
Transcriber's note: many words, in particular proper names, have a variety of spellings in the original document, in which case a consistent spelling has been applied.