Buford, who had been sharply pursued by Fitzhugh Lee's division over the plains of Stevensburg, had retired more rapidly than Kilpatrick, and, unaware of his comrade's danger, had suffered Lee to plant his batteries on the high hills which commanded Kilpatrick's right, while the Rebel troopers, in three heavy lines of battle, held the only route by which Kilpatrick could retreat. Lee's sharpshooters also occupied the woods in the immediate vicinity of Kilpatrick's columns, where they were making themselves a source of damage and great annoyance. To increase the danger of the situation, Stuart, by hard marching, had swung around to Kilpatrick's left, and had taken possession of a range of hills, planted batteries, and was preparing to charge down upon the surrounded division below.
This was a situation to try the stoutest hearts. Nothing daunted, however, by this terrific array of the enemy, Kilpatrick displayed that decision and daring which have ever characterized him as a great cavalry leader, and he proved himself worthy of the brave men who compose his command. His preparation for the grand charge was soon completed. Forming his division into three lines of battle, he assigned the right to Davies, the left to Custer, and, placing himself with Pleasonton in the centre, he advanced with unwavering determination to the contest. Having approached to within a few yards of the enemy's lines on his front, he ordered his band to strike up a national air, to whose spirit-stirring strains was joined the blast of scores of bugles ringing forth the charge.
With his usual daring Davies was foremost in the fray, leading his command for the fourth time on this memorable field. To his men he had addressed these stirring words: "Soldiers of the First Brigade! I know you have not forgotten the example of your brave comrades, who, in past engagements here, were not afraid to die in defence of the old flag."
Custer, the daring, terrible demon that he is in battle, pulled off his cap and handed it to his orderly, then dashed madly forward in the charge, while his yellow locks floated like pennants on the breeze. Pennington and Elder handled their batteries with great agility and success, at times opening huge gaps in the serried lines of the enemy.
Fired to an almost divine potency, and with a majestic madness, this band of heroic troopers shook the air with their battle-cry, and dashed forward to meet the hitherto exultant foe. Ambulances, forges, and cannon, with pack-horses and mules, non-combatants and others, all joined to swell the mighty tide. Brave hearts grew braver, and faltering ones waxed warmer and stronger, until pride of country had touched this raging sea of thought and emotion, kindling an unconquerable principle, which emphatically affirmed every man a hero unto death. So swiftly swept forward this tide of animated power, that the Rebel lines broke in wild dismay before the uplifted and firmly-grasped sabres of these unflinching veterans, who, feeling that life and country were at stake, risked them both upon the fearful issue.
Kilpatrick thus escaped disaster, defeated his pursuers, captured several pieces of the enemy's artillery, and presented to the beholders one of the grandest scenes ever witnessed in the New World.
"By Heaven! it was a splendid sight to see, For one who had no friend or brother there."
No one who looked upon that wonderful panorama can ever forget it. On the great field were riderless horses and dying men; clouds of dust from solid shot and bursting shell occasionally obscured the sky; broken caissons and upturned ambulances obstructed the way, while long lines of cavalry were pressing forward in the charge, with their drawn sabres, glistening in the bright sunlight. Far beyond the scene of tumult were the quiet, dark green forests which skirt the banks of the Rappahannock. The poet Havard, in his "Scauderberg," has well described the scene:
"Hark! the death-denouncing trumpet sounds. The fatal charge, and shouts proclaim the onset. Destruction rushes dreadful to the field And bathes itself in blood: havoc let loose, Now undistinguish'd, rages all around; While Ruin, seated on her dreary throne, Sees the plain strewed with subjects, truly hers, Breathless and cold."
The Rebel cavalry, undoubtedly ashamed of their own conduct and defeat, reorganized their broken ranks, and again advanced upon Kilpatrick and Buford, whose divisions had united to repel the attack. For at least two long hours of slaughter these opposing squadrons dashed upon one another over these historic fields. Charges and counter-charges followed in quick succession, and at times the "gray" and the "blue" were so confusedly commingled together, that it was difficult to conjecture how they could regain their appropriate places. Quite a number of prisoners were made on both sides. It was a scene of wild commotion and blood. This carnival continued until late at night, when the exhausted and beaten foe sank back upon safer grounds to rest, while our victorious braves, crowned with undying laurels, gathered up their wounded and dead companions, and, unmolested, recrossed the Rappahannock.
October 12.—To-day a portion of our infantry was thrown across the Rappahannock. They advanced by a forced march to reconnoitre as far as Brandy Station, where they met the enemy in force and engaged him in a sharp contest. They returned, however, without serious loss. Our main army is retreating toward Washington.
On the evening of the thirteenth, while bivouacking near Bealeton Station, a serio-comical scene diverted for a time the attention of our officers and men. By a strange accident an ammunition wagon took fire, which caused the rapid explosion of its contents. Shells flew and burst in every direction, and the apparent musketry was terrible. The consequence was a widespread alarm, which brought every trooper to his horse ready to engage the foe, who was supposed to have made a furious onset. Great merriment and relished rest followed the discovery of the cause of disturbance, especially as no one was seriously hurt.
Since our last reconnoissance to Brandy Station, Stuart has been very active, following our rear very closely, and committing all the depredations possible. In his hands have fallen many stragglers, who, it is true, were of very little use to us, but who would count as well as true men in the Rebel lists of exchanges of prisoners. Some of Stuart's performances were exceedingly hazardous, as the following well-described narrative from a well-known pen will clearly show:
"Stuart, with two thousand of his cavalry, pressed our rear so eagerly that, when near Catlett's Station, he had inadvertently got ahead, by a flank movement of our Second Corps, General Warren acting as rearguard, and was hemmed in, where his whole command must have been destroyed or captured had he not succeeded in hiding it in a thicket of old field-pines, close by the road whereon our men marched by: the rear of the corps encamping close beside the enemy, utterly unsuspicious of their neighborhood, though every word uttered in our lines, as they passed, was distinctly heard by the lurking foe. Stuart at first resolved to abandon his guns and attempt to escape with moderate loss, but finally picked three of his men, gave them muskets, made them up so as to look as much as possible like our soldiers, and thus drop silently into our ranks as they passed, march awhile, then slip out on the other side of the column, and make all haste to General Lee, at Warrenton, in quest of help. During the night two of our officers, who stepped into the thicket, were quietly captured.
"At daylight the crack of skirmishers' muskets in the distance gave token that Lee had received and responded to the prayer for help, when Stuart promptly opened with grape and canister on the rear of our astounded column, which had bivouacked just in his front, throwing it into such confusion that he easily dashed by and rejoined his chief, having inflicted some loss and suffered little or none."
BATTLE OF BRISTOE.
The above manoeuvre was a great and unexpected or unsought risk, which, however, did not prove disastrous to the authors, but which might not again be ventured with similar results. A performance resembling it somewhat was enacted by the Rebels, but with very different issue. Early in the morning of the fourteenth A. P. Hill's corps left Warrenton, with orders to strike our rear at Bristoe Station. They moved up the Alexandria Turnpike to Broad Run Church, where they deflected on the road to Greenwich, and soon after struck our trail just behind the Third Corps, and eagerly pursued it. They were busy picking up stragglers and making some preparation for an attack upon our unsuspecting corps, when about noon General Warren's Second Corps, which was still behind, and bringing up the rear, made its appearance on the tapis, and materially changed the programme of the scene. Hill, finding himself nicely sandwiched or trapped by his own indiscretion, turned away from the retreating Third Corps, to fight, and, if possible, drive back the advancing Second. Warren's surprise in finding an enemy in force before him was not less than Hill's in finding one behind him; but it took Warren only about ten minutes to adjust himself to this unexpected position of affairs, when his batteries opened with such precision and effect, aided by the musketry of his infantry, that the Rebels fell back in much greater haste than they had advanced, leaving six of their guns in our hands and multitudes of dead, wounded, and prisoners. Five of the captured guns, still serviceable, were at once seized and used against the disappointed foe with telling power. One historian says, "Our loss in killed and wounded was about two hundred, including Colonel James E. Mallon, Forty-second New York, killed, and General Tile, of Pennsylvania, wounded; that of the enemy was probably four hundred (besides prisoners), including Generals Posey (mortally), Kirkland, and Cooke, wounded, and Colonels Ruffin, First North Carolina, and Thompson, Fifth North Carolina Cavalry, killed."
This Bristoe fiasco was a stunning blow to the Rebel pursuit, and greatly checked their incursions. But our soldiers held the field so lately won only until dark, and "then followed the rest of the army, whose retreat they had so effectually covered."
General Meade continued his retreat to Centreville, and then, seemingly ashamed—as well he might be—of his flight, would have retraced his steps and pushed back the insolent foe, but he was prevented from executing his plans by a heavy rain-storm, which began on the sixteenth. While he was awaiting the arrival of pontoons to enable him to recross Bull Run, which was enormously swollen, the enemy, after some daring skirmishes along his front, and some feints of attack, retreated quite rapidly, completely destroying the Orange and Alexandria Railroad from Manassas Junction to the Rappahannock. A more thorough work of destruction was never witnessed. Scarcely a tie even remained. The ties were generally heaped together, and set on fire, and the rails were laid upon the heaps cross-wise. As the middle of the rails became heated, the ends lopped down, forming a graceful bow. They were thus effectually ruined. In many instances the rails thus heated were twisted around the trees. The road and the telegraph lines and posts were utterly demolished.
For a few days the Harris Light was bivouacking near Sudley Church, and the cavalry was picketing, scouting, and patrolling on either side of Bull Run; and, on one occasion, while endeavoring to ford the swollen stream, several men and horses were drowned.
October 18.—To-day Kilpatrick advanced with his division, which consists of Custer's and Davies' brigades, to within a half-mile of Gainesville, where we bivouacked for the night. A terrific rain-storm raged nearly all night, making our condition very uncomfortable, and rendering the going impracticable, except upon the turnpikes. At this time of the year these night-storms in Virginia are very cold, and the sufferings of men mostly unsheltered, as we were, are beyond description. On such a night one will naturally recall such passages as the following, from Byron's "Childe Harold:"
"The sky is changed, and such a change! oh, night, And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong, Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light Of a dark eye in woman! far along From peak to peak, the rattling crags among, Leaps the live thunder! not from one lone cloud, But every mountain now hath found a tongue, And Jura answers through her misty shroud, Back to the joyous Alps, who call to her aloud! And this is in the night: most glorious night! Thou wert not sent for slumber! let me be A sharer in thy fierce and far delight,— A portion of the tempest and of thee!"
It is true that the poet, looking out upon the storm and listening to its mutterings from his comfortable studio, may call such a night "glorious," and may find in it depths of inspiration and delight; but to us poor soldiers it seemed more appropriate to take up Shakespeare's lines:
"The tyranny of th' open night's too rough For nature to endure,"
while every one felt to say,
"The gathering clouds, like meeting armies, Come on apace."—Lee's "Mithridates."
All night long our pickets along Cedar Run were confronted by Stuart's pickets, though no disposition to fight us was manifest in the morning. Dripping with wet and somewhat stiffened with cold, we were ordered in battle array early in the morning, and the command, about two thousand strong, advanced toward Buckland Mills. The Rebel pickets were quickly withdrawn, and their whole force slowly and without resistance retired before us. With some degree of hesitation, yet unconscious of imminent danger, we advanced on the main turnpike toward Warrenton. Our advance-brigade had just passed New Baltimore, when Fitz-Hugh Lee, who had surprised and cut his way through a small detachment of our infantry at Thoroughfare Gap, then had swiftly swung around our right by an unpicketed road, fell upon our rearguard at Buckland Mills, and opened upon our unsuspecting column with a battery of flying artillery. At this signal Stuart, who had hitherto retired before us quietly, now turned about and advanced upon us in front with terrible determination. Thus unexpected troubles were multiplying around us. Scarcely had we time to recover our senses from the first shock of attack upon our rear and front, when General Gordon, with a division of infantry, until now concealed behind a low range of hills and woods on our left, appeared upon the scene, and advanced upon our flank with a furious attack, which threatened to sever our two small brigades and to annihilate the entire command. We were now completely surrounded by a force which outnumbered us at least four to one.
This was a critical situation; but "Kil" (as the general is familiarly styled among us) seemed to comprehend it in a moment. All thought and effort now centralized into a plan of escape from the snares which the enemy had laid for us, and into which we had too easily thrown ourselves. Kilpatrick is supposed by some to have unnecessarily exposed himself, in which he suffered his first defeat, though escaping with a remarkably small loss.
Quickly ordering his force to wheel about, he led them back in a determined charge upon Lee's columns and artillery, now planted on the banks along Cedar Run. This timely order, executed with masterly skill, saved his command from utter disaster, and justified his course. As it was, however, he lost nearly three hundred men, including quite a number who were drowned in the creek while endeavoring to escape. The scene was one of great confusion and distress.
THE AUTHOR'S CAPTURE.
By the sudden evolution of the command, when the order was first executed, the Harris Light, which was in front, while advancing, was thrown in the rear, and was thus compelled to meet the desperate charges of the enemy in pursuit, and to defend itself as best it could from fire on the flank. Having reached a slight elevation of ground in the road, we made a stand, and for some time checked the advancing columns of the Rebels by pouring into their ranks rapid and deadly volleys from our carbines and revolvers. Stuart, who commanded in person, saw clearly that the quickest and almost only way to dislodge us was by charging upon us, and, consequently ordering the charge, he came with a whole brigade amid deafening yells. Our men stood firmly, almost like rocks before the surging sea. We were soon engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand conflict with the advancing columns.
In Byron's "Corsair" we find a description of the scene:
"Within a narrow ring compressed, beset, Hopeless, not heartless, strive and struggle yet,— Ah! now they fight in firmest file no more, Hemmed in—cut off—cleft down—and trampled o'er, But each strikes singly, silently, and home, And sinks outwearied rather than o'ercome, His last faint quittance rendering with his breath, Till the blade glimmers in the grasp of death."
At this important juncture my faithful horse was shot under me, and we both fell to the ground. Meanwhile our little party, outnumbered ten to one, was hurled back by the overpowering shock of the Rebels, who rode directly over me. Injured somewhat by the falling of my horse, and nearly killed by the charging squadrons, which one after the other trod upon me, I lay in the mud for some time quite insensible. How long I lay there I cannot tell; but when I returned to consciousness the scene had changed. I was in the hands of a Rebel guard, who were carrying me hastily from the hard-fought field. My arms had been taken from me, and my pockets rifled of all their valuables, including my watch. I was unceremoniously borne to the vicinity of an old building, where I met a number of my comrades, who with me had shared the misfortunes of the day. And thus ended three years and more of camping and campaigning with the Harris Light.
What I saw and endured, thought and experienced, during a little more than a year among the Rebels, in several of their loathsome prisons, may be found recorded in a volume I published in 1865, entitled "The Capture, Prison-Pen, and Escape."
Transcriber's Note: Some inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Typographical errors corrected in the text: Page xii Hull's changed to Hall's Page 21 pic-nic changed to picnic Page 41 Leesburgh changed to Leesburg Page 41 patroling changed to patrolling Page 73 Fredericksburgh changed to Fredericksburg Page 74 Gordonville changed to Gordonsville Page 99 Pleasanton changed to Pleasonton Page 100 Pleasanton changed to Pleasonton Page 175 Bristerburg changed to Bristersburg Page 182 bad changed to had Page 189 mast changed to must Page 193 Pleasanton changed to Pleasonton Page 238 Heintzleman's changed to Heintzelman's Page 241 Stahil's changed to Stahel's Page 257 shrapnell changed to shrapnel Page 263 Hallech changed to Halleck Page 300 Leesburgh changed to Leesburg