MILITARY REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR
BY JACOB DOLSON COX, A.M., LL.D.
Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps
CARNIFEX FERRY--TO SEWELL MOUNTAIN AND BACK
Rosecrans's march to join me--Reaches Cross Lanes--Advance against Floyd--Engagement at Carnifex Ferry--My advance to Sunday Road--Conference with Rosecrans--McCook's brigade joins me--Advance to Camp Lookout--Brigade commanders--Rosecrans's personal characteristics--Hartsuff--Floyd and Wise again--"Battle of Bontecou"--Sewell Mountain--The equinoctial--General Schenck arrives--Rough lodgings--Withdrawal from the mountain--Rear-guard duties--Major Slemmer of
Fort Pickens fame--New positions covering Gauley Bridge--Floyd at Cotton Mountain--Rosecrans's methods with private soldiers--Progress in discipline.
General Rosecrans had succeeded McClellan as ranking officer in West Virginia, but it was not until the latter part of September that the region was made a department and he was regularly assigned to command. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. pp. 604, 616, 647.] Meanwhile the three months' enlistments were expiring, many regiments were sent home, new ones were received, and a complete reorganization of his forces took place. Besides holding the railroad, he fortified the Cheat Mountain pass looking toward Staunton, and the pass at Elkwater on the mountain summit between Huttonsville and Huntersville. My own fortifications at Gauley Bridge were part of the system of defensive works he had ordered. By the middle of August he had established a chain of posts, with a regiment or two at each, on a line upon which he afterwards marched, from Weston by way of Bulltown, Sutton, and
Summersville to Gauley Bridge.
[Illustration Map--Affair At Carnifex Ferry]
As soon as he received the news of Floyd's attack upon Tyler at Cross Lanes, he hastened his preparations and began his march southward from Clarksburg with three brigades, having left the Upper Potomac line in command of
General Kelley, and the Cheat Mountain region in command of General J. J. Reynolds. His route (already indicated) was a rough one, and the portion of it between Sutton and Summersville, over Birch Mountain, was very wild and difficult. He crossed the mountain on the 9th, and left his bivouac on the morning of the 10th of September, before daybreak. Marching through Summersville, he reached Cross Lanes about two o'clock in the afternoon. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. p. 129.] Floyd's position was now about two miles distant, and, waiting only for his column to close up, he again pressed forward. General Benham's brigade was in front, and soon met the enemy's pickets. Getting the impression that Floyd was in retreat, Benham pressed forward rather rashly, deploying to the left and coming under a sharp fire from the right of the enemy's works. Floyd had intrenched a line across a bend of the Gauley River, where the road from Cross Lanes to Lewisburg finds its way down the cliffs to Carnifex Ferry. His flanks rested upon precipices rising abruptly from the water's edge, and he also intrenched some rising ground in front of his principal line. Benham's line advanced through dense and tangled woods, ignorant of the enemy's position till it was checked by the fire from his breastworks. It was too late for a proper reconnoissance, and Rosecrans could only hasten the advance and deployment of the other brigades under Colonels McCook and Scammon. [Footnote: For organization of Rosecrans's forces, see Id., vol. li. pt. i. p. 471.] Benham had sent a howitzer battery and two rifled cannon with his head of column at the left, and these soon got a position from which, in fact, they enfiladed part of Floyd's line, though it was impossible to see much of the situation. Charges were made by portions of Benham's and McCook's brigades as they came up, but they lacked unity, and Rosecrans was dissatisfied that his head of column should be engaged before he had time to plan an attack. Colonel Lowe of the Twelfth Ohio had been killed at the head of his regiment, and Colonel Lytle of the Tenth had been wounded; darkness was rapidly coming on, and Rosecrans ordered the troops withdrawn from fire till positions could be rectified, and the attack renewed in the morning. Seventeen had been killed, and 141 had been wounded in the sharp but irregular combat. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. p. 146.] Floyd, however, had learned that his position could be subjected to destructive cannonade; he was himself slightly wounded, and his officers and men were discouraged. He therefore retreated across the Gauley in the night, having great difficulty in carrying his artillery down the cliffs by a wretched road in the darkness. He had built a slight foot-bridge for infantry in the bit of smooth water known as the Ferry, though both above and below the stream is an impassable mountain torrent. The artillery crossed in the flatboats. Once over, the bridge was broken up and the ferry-boats were sunk. He reported but twenty casualties, and threw much of the responsibility upon Wise, who had not obeyed orders to reinforce him. His hospital, containing the wounded prisoners taken from Tyler, fell into Rosecrans's hands. [Footnote: A very graphic description of this engagement and of Floyd's retreat fell into my hands soon afterward. It was a journal of the campaign written by Major Isaac Smith of the Twenty-second Virginia Regiment, which he tried to send through our lines to his family in
Charleston, W. Va., but which was intercepted. A copy is on file in the War Archives. See also Floyd's report, _Id._, vol. v. pp. 146-148.]
General Rosecrans found the country so difficult a one that he was in no little doubt as to the plan of campaign it was now best to follow. It was out of the question to supply his column by wagon trains over the mountainous roads from Clarksburg, and the Kanawha River must therefore be made the line of communication with his base, which had to be transferred to Gallipolis. In anticipation of this, I had accumulated supplies and ordnance stores at Gauley Bridge as much as possible with my small wagon trains, and had arranged for a larger depot at the head of steamboat navigation. I was ready therefore to turn over the control of my supply lines to Rosecrans's officers of the quartermaster and commissary departments as soon as his wagon trains could be transferred. It was to consult in regard to these matters, as was as in regard to the future conduct of the campaign, that the general directed me to visit his headquarters at Carnifex Ferry. I rode over from my camp at the Sunday Road junction on the morning of the 15th, found that one of the little flatboats had been again raised and repaired at Carnifex, and passing through the field of the recent combat, reached the general's headquarters near Cross Lanes. I was able from personal observation to assure him that it was easy for his command to follow the line of the march on which Floyd had retreated, if better means of crossing the Gauley were provided; but when they should join me on the Lewisburg turnpike, that highway would be the proper line of supply, making Gauley Bridge his depot. He hesitated to commit himself to either line for decisive operations until the Gauley should be bridged, but on my description of the commodious ferry I had made at Gauley Bridge by means of a very large flatboat running along a hawser stretched from bank to bank, he determined to advance, and to have a bridge of boats made in place of my ferry. McCook's brigade was ordered to report to me as soon as it could be put over the river, and I was authorized to advance some six miles toward the enemy, to Alberson's or Spy Rock, already mentioned beyond which Big Sewell Mountain is fourteen miles further to the southwest. [Footnote: Official Records vol. v. p. 602.]
At Cross Lanes I met the commanders of the other brigades who were called in by General Rosecrans of an informal consultation based upon my knowledge of the country and the enemy. I naturally scanned them with some interest, and tried to make the most of the opportunity to become acquainted with them. General Benham I knew already, from his visit to me at Gauley Bridge in his capacity of engineer officer. I had met Colonel Robert McCook at
Camp Dennison, and now that it was intimated that he would be for some days under my command, I recalled a scene I had witnessed there which left many doubts in my mind whether he would prove an agreeable subordinate. I had gone, one morning, to General Bates's office, and as I entered found McCook expressing himself with more vigor than elegance in regard to some order which had been issued respecting his regiment. My presence did not seem to interfere with the fluency of his remarks or the force of his expletives, but after a moment or two he seemed to notice a look of surprise in my face, and his own broadened humorously as his manner changed from vehemence to geniality. General Bates and he were familiar acquaintances at the bar in Cincinnati, and McCook had evidently presumed upon this as a warrant for speaking his mind as he pleased. When he reported to me at this later period, I found a hearty and loyal character under his bluff exterior and rough speech, with real courage, a quick eye for topography, and no lack of earnest subordination when work was to be done. Although our service together was short, I learned to have real respect for him, and sincerely mourned his loss when, later in the war, he met his tragic death. The other brigade commander was _Colonel E. P. Scammon _ of the Twenty-third Ohio. He had graduated from West Point in 1837, and had served in the Topographical Engineers of the regular army and as instructor in the Military Academy. In the
Mexican War he had been aide-de-camp to
General Scott. He had been out of the army for some years before the rebellion, and was acting as professor of mathematics in St. Xavier's College, Cincinnati, when he was appointed to the colonelcy of the Twenty-third Ohio upon Rosecrans's promotion. Like Rosecrans, he was a Roman Catholic, though himself of Puritan descent. It seems that at the time of the Puseyite movement in England and in this country there had been a good many conversions to Romanism among the students and teachers at West Point, under the influence of the chaplain of the post, and Scammon, among a number of young men who subsequently became distinguished officers, was in this number. It need hardly be said that Scammon was well instructed in his profession. He was perhaps too much wedded to the routine of the service, and was looked upon by his subordinates as a martinet who had not patience enough with the inexperience of volunteer soldiers. He was one of the older men of our army, somewhat under the average height and weight, with a precise politeness of manner which reminded one of a Frenchman, and the resemblance was increased by his free use of his snuff-box. His nervous irritability was the cause of considerable chafing in his command, but this left him under fire, and those who had been with him in action learned to admire his courage and conduct. He was with me subsequently at South Mountain and Antietam, and still later had the misfortune to be one of those prisoners in the Confederates' hands who were exposed to the fire of our batteries in front of Charleston, S. C.
But being a subordinate, I was most interested in the characteristics of our commander. Our Camp Dennison acquaintance had been a pleasant one, and he greeted me with a cordiality that was reassuring. His general appearance was attractive. He was tall but not heavy, with the rather long head and countenance that is sometimes called Norman. His aquiline nose and bright eyes gave him an incisive expression, increased by rapid utterance in his speech, which was apt to grow hurried, almost to stammering, when he was excited. His impulsiveness was plain to all who approached him; his irritation quickly flashed out in words when he was crossed, and his social geniality would show itself in smiles and in almost caressing gestures when he was pleased. In discussing military questions he made free use of his theoretic knowledge, often quoted authorities and cited maxims of war, and compared the problem before him to analogous cases in military history. This did not go far enough to be pedantic, and was full of a lively intelligence; yet it did not impress me as that highest form of military insight and knowledge which solves the question before it upon its own merits and without conscious comparison with historical examples, through a power of judgment and perception ripened and broadened by the mastery of principles which have ruled the great campaigns of the world. He was fond of conviviality, loved to banter good-humoredly his staff officers and intimates, and was altogether an attractive and companionable man, with intellectual activity enough to make his society stimulating and full of lively discussion. I could easily understand Garfield's saying, in his letter to
Secretary Chase which afterward became the subject of much debate, that he "loved every bone in his body." [Footnote: An anecdote told at my table in 1890 by the Rev. Dr. Morris, long Professor in Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, is so characteristic of Rosecrans that it is worth repeating. After the battle of Stone's River (January, 1863) Dr. Morris, who was then minister of a Presbyterian church in Columbus, was made by Governor Tod a member of a commission sent to look after the wounded soldiers. He called on General Rosecrans at his headquarters in Murfreesboro, and among others met there Father Tracy, the general's chaplain, a Roman Catholic priest. During the visit Rosecrans was called aside (but in the same room) by a staff officer to receive information about a spy who had been caught within the lines. The general got quite excited over the information, talked loudly and hurriedly in giving directions concerning the matter, using some profane language. It seemed suddenly to occur to him that the clergymen were present, and from the opposite side of the room he turned toward them, exclaiming apologetically, "Gentlemen, I sometimes _swear_, but I never _blaspheme!_"]
Rosecrans's adjutant-general was Captain George L. Hartsuff, an officer of the regular army, who was well qualified to supplement in many ways the abilities and deficiencies of his chief. [Footnote: Hartsuff was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers in the next year and was severely wounded at Antietam, after which he was made major-general and commanded the Twenty-third Army Corps in Burnside's campaign of East Tennessee.] He was a large man, of heavy frame; his face was broad, and his bald head, tapering high, gave a peculiar pyramidal appearance to his figure. He was systematic and accurate in administrative work, patient and insistent in bringing the young volunteer officers in his department into habits of order and good military form. His coolness tempered the impulsiveness of his chief, and as they were of similar age and had about the same standing in the army before the war, the familiarity between them was that of comrades and equals more than of commander and subordinate.
My intercourse with these officers on the occasion of my visit to Cross Lanes was only the beginning of the acquaintance on which I based the estimate of them which I have given; but it was a good beginning, for the cordial freedom of thought and speech in the conference was such as to bring out the characteristics of the men. I rode back to my camp in the evening, feeling a sense of relief at the transfer of responsibility to other shoulders. The command of my brigade under the orders of Rosecrans seemed an easy task compared with the anxieties and the difficulties of the preceding three months. And so it was. The difference between chief responsibility in military movements and the leadership even of the largest subordinate organizations of an army is heaven-wide; and I believe that no one who has tried both will hesitate to say that the subordinate knows little or nothing of the strain upon the will and the moral faculties which the chief has to bear.
McCook's brigade joined me on the 16th, and we immediately marched to Alderson's, where we made a camp afterward known as Camp Lookout. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. ii. pt. i. p. 481.] I was able to bring up the Second Kentucky Regiment from Gauley Bridge, giving me in hand three regiments of my own brigade. I sent forward Major Hines with five companies as an advance-guard, and with these he scouted the country as far as the top of Big Sewell Mountain, and was able to give us definite information that Floyd had retreated as far as Meadow Bluff, where the Wilderness road joins the turnpike. Wise halted at Big Sewell Mountain and persisted in keeping his command separate from Floyd, who ordered him to join the rest of the column at Meadow Bluff. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. pp. 854,855,862.] On the 20th September my advance-guard occupied the crest of the mountain, whilst Wise withdrew to a parallel ridge a mile beyond, and loudly insisted that Floyd should join him there instead of concentrating the Confederate force at Meadow Bluff. General Lee reached the latter place in person on the 21st, but found Wise's headstrong and captious spirit hardly more amenable to his discipline than to Floyd's. He shared Floyd's opinion that it was better to await Rosecrans's advance at Meadow Bluff, throwing upon the National forces the burden of transportation over the extended line, whilst guarding against a possible turning movement by the Wilderness road. But Wise was so noisy in his assertions that his was the only position in which to fight, that Lee hesitated to order him back peremptorily, and finally yielded to his clamor and directed Floyd to advance to Wise's position. [Footnote: _Id_., pp. 868,874,878,879.] The scandal of the quarrel between the two officers had, however, become so notorious that the Richmond government had authorized Lee to send Wise elsewhere, and, probably on his advice, the Confederate War Department ordered Wise to report at Richmond in person. The last scene in the comedy was decidedly amusing. Wise appealed passionately to Lee to say whether his military honor did not require that he should disobey the order till the expected battle should be fought, and Lee, no doubt in dismay lest he should still fail to get rid of so intractable a subordinate, gravely advised him that both honor and duty would be safe in obeying promptly the order. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. p. 879.]
Whilst waiting at Camp Lookout for authority to move forward, an incident occurred which gave us a little excitement and amusement, and which shows, better than much explanation could do, the difficult and intricate character of the country in which we were operating. A wagon-master from our camp had gone out hunting for forage, which was very scarce. He soon came back in excitement, reporting that he had come upon an encampment of a regiment of the enemy between our camp and New River and somewhat in our rear. His report was very circumstantial, but was so improbable that I was confident there was some mistake about it. He was, however, so earnest in his assertions that he could not be mistaken, that McCook, in whose brigade he was, sent out an officer with some men, guided by the wagon-master, to verify the report. The story was confirmed, and the matter was brought to me for action. Puzzled but not convinced, and thinking that as McCook's command was new to the country, it would be better to send some one who was used to scouting in the mountains, I ordered a lieutenant named Bontecou, of the Second Kentucky Regiment, to take a small party and examine the case anew. Bontecou had done a good deal of successful work in this line, and was regarded as a good woodsman and an enterprising scout. He too came back at nightfall, saying that there could be no mistake about it. He had crept close to the sentinels of the camp, had counted the tents, and being challenged by the guard, had made a run for it through the thicket, losing his hat. The position of the enemy was, by all the reports, about three miles from us, diagonally in rear of our right flank. It now seemed that it must be true that some detachment had been delayed in joining the retreating column, and had found itself thus partly cut off by our advance. I therefore ordered McCook to start at earliest peep of day, upon the Chestnutburg road (on which the wagon-master had been foraging), and passing beyond the hostile detachment, attack from the other side, it being agreed by all the scouting parties that this would drive the enemy toward our camp. My own brigade would be disposed of to intercept the enemy and prevent escape. McCook moved out as ordered, and following his guides came by many devious turns to a fork in the road, following which, they told him, a few minutes would bring him upon the enemy. He halted the column, and with a small skirmishing party went carefully forward. The guides pointed to a thicket from which the Confederates could be seen. His instinct for topography had made him suspect the truth, as he had noted the courses in advancing, and crawling through the thicket, he looked out from the other side upon what he at once recognized as the rear of his own camp, and the tents of the very regiment from which he had sent an officer to test the wagon-master's report. All the scouts had been so deceived by the tangle of wooded hills and circling roads that they fully believed they were still miles from our position; and, bewildered in the labyrinth, they were sure the tents they saw were the enemy's and not ours. The march had been through rain and mist, through dripping thickets and on muddy roads, and the first impulse was wrath at the erring scouts; but the ludicrous side soon prevailed, and officers and men joined in hearty laughter over their wild-goose chase. They dubbed the expedition the "Battle of Bontecou," and it was long before the lieutenant heard the last of the chaffing at his talents as a scout. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. li. pt. i. pp. 484, 485.]
Major Hines's reports of the strength of the position on Sewell Mountain which the enemy had occupied, and my own reconnoissance of the intervening country, satisfied me that if we meant to advance on this line, we ought not to give the enemy time to reconsider and to reoccupy the mountain top from which he had retreated. On representing this to General Rosecrans, he authorized me to advance twelve miles to the Confederate camp on Big Sewell, directing me, however, to remain upon the defensive when there, and to avoid bringing on any engagement till he could bring up the rest of the column. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. li. pt. i. pp. 484, 486.] His means of crossing at Carnifex Ferry were so poor that what he had thought would be done in two or three days from the time McCook joined me, took a full fortnight to accomplish.
I marched with my own and McCook's brigades on the 23d September, but when I reached the Confederate camp where Hines with the advance-guard awaited me, it was evident at a glance that we must go further. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 487.] The position was a very strong one for resisting an approach from our direction, but was commanded by higher ground beyond. The true crest of the mountain was two miles further on, and there alone could we successfully bar the way against a superior force coming from the east. I therefore marched rapidly forward and occupied the crest in force. It was impossible to hide the whole of our camp from view and properly hold the position, but we made use of such cover as we could find, and prepared to defend the pass against all comers, since it was vain to attempt to mystify the enemy as to our advance in force.
On the 24th we had a lively skirmish with Wise's legion in front, and forced it to retire to a ridge out of range of our artillery. We dismounted one of his howitzers in the engagement, but contented ourselves with making him yield the ground which would interfere with our easy holding of our own position and the spurs of the mountain directly connected with it. Wise had learned that Rosecrans was not with my column, and on the supposition that the advance was made by my brigade only, Lee concluded to order Floyd to Wise's camp, being now satisfied that no movement of our troops had been made by way of the Wilderness road. It was at this time that Wise was relieved of command and ordered to Richmond, and Lee found it advisable to unite his forces and take command in person.
The relations of these three distinguished Virginians had not begun with this campaign, but dated back to the capture of John Brown at
Harper's Ferry. Wise was then the governor of his State, and received from Lee the prisoner whose execution at Charlestown was to become an historical event. Floyd, who himself had once been governor of Virginia, was then Buchanan's Secretary of War, and ordered Lee with the detachment of marines to Harper's Ferry, where they stormed the engine-house which Brown had made his fort. Dealing with such men as his subordinates, and with such a history behind them, it can easily be understood that Lee would feel no ordinary delicacy in asserting his authority, and no common embarrassment at their quarrels.
Rosecrans was at first disturbed at my going further than had been expected; [Footnote: Rosecrans's Dispatches, Official Records, vol. li. pt. i. pp. 486, 487.] but he was soon satisfied that nothing better could have been done. It is true that I was thirty-five miles from the supports in the rear, whether at Carnifex Ferry or Gauley Bridge; but the position was almost impregnable in front, and by watchfulness I should know of any attempt to turn it in time to make safe my retreat to Camp Lookout. On the 26th Scammon's brigade came within easy supporting distance, and General Rosecrans came in person to my camp. He had not been able to bring up his headquarters train, and was my guest for two or three days, sharing my tent with me. Cold autumnal rains set in on the very day the general came to the front, and continued almost without intermission. In the hope of still having some favorable weather for campaigning, the other brigades were brought forward, and the whole force was concentrated at the mountain except the necessary garrisons for the posts in the rear. Brigadier-General Robert C, Schenck reported for duty in the evening of a fearfully stormy day whilst Rosecrans was still my tent-mate. He had heard rumors of fighting at the front, and had hurried forward with a couple of staff officers, but without baggage. My staff officers were sharing their shelter with the gentlemen who had accompanied Rosecrans, but the new-comers were made heartily welcome to what we had. In my own tent General Rosecrans occupied my camp cot; I had improvised a rough bunk for myself on the other side of the tent, but as General Schenck got in too late for the construction of any better resting-place, he was obliged to content himself with a bed made of three or four camp-stools set in a row. Anything was better than lying on the damp ground in such a storm; but Schenck long remembered the aching weariness of that night, as he balanced upon the narrow and unstable supports which threatened to tumble him upon the ground at the least effort to change the position of stiffened body and limbs. One could not desire better companionship than we had during our waking hours, for both my guests had had varied and interesting experience and knew how to make it the means of delightful social intercourse and discussion. The chilly temperature of the tent was pleasantly modified by a furnace which was the successful invention of the private soldiers. A square trench was dug from the middle of the tent leading out behind it; this was capped with flat stones three or four inches thick, which were abundant on the mountain. At the end of it, on the outside, a chimney of stones plastered with mud was built up, and the whole topped out by an empty cracker-barrel by way of chimney-pot. The fire built in the furnace had good draught, and the thick stones held the heat well, making, on the whole, the best means of warming a tent which I ever tried. The objection to the little sheet-iron stoves furnished with the Sibley tent is that they are cold in a minute if the fire dies out.
The rains, when once they began, continued with such violence that the streams were soon up, the common fords became impassable, and the roads became so muddy and slippery that it was with the utmost difficulty our little army was supplied. The four brigades were so reduced by sickness and by detachments that Rosecrans reported the whole as making only 5200 effective men. Every wagon was put to work hauling supplies and ammunition, even the headquarters baggage wagons and the regimental wagons of the troops, as well those stationed in the rear as those in front. We were sixty miles from the head of steamboat navigation, the wagon trains were too small for a condition of things where the teams could hardly haul half loads, and by the 1st of October we had demonstrated the fact that it was impossible to sustain our army any further from its base unless we could rely upon settled weather and good roads.
Lee had directed an effort to be made by General Loring, his subordinate, on the Staunton line, to test the strength of the posts under Reynolds at Cheat Mountain and Elkwater, and lively combats had resulted on the 12th, and 14th of September. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. pp. 185-193.] Reynolds held firm, and as Rosecrans was not diverted from his plans and was pushing forward on the Lewisburg line, Lee ordered Loring to report to him with most of his command. Reynolds, in return, made a forced reconnoissance upon the Confederate position at Greenbrier River on October 2d, but found it too strong to be carried. The reinforcement by Loring gave Lee a very positive advantage in numbers, but the storms and foundering roads paralyzed both armies, which lay opposite each other upon the crests of Big Sewell separated by a deep gorge. On the 5th of October the condition of the Kanawha valley had become such that Rosecrans felt compelled to withdraw his forces to the vicinity of Gauley Bridge. The freshet had been an extraordinary one. At Charleston the Kanawha River usually flows in a bed forty or fifty feet below the plateau on which the town is built; but the waters now rose above these high banks and flooded the town itself, being four or five feet deep in the first story of dwelling-houses built in what was considered a neighborhood safe from floods. The inundation almost stopped communication, though our quartermasters tried to remedy part of the mischief by forcing light steamers up as near to the Kanawha Falls as possible. But it was very difficult to protect the supplies landed upon a muddy bank where were no warehouses, and no protection but canvas covers stretched over the piles of barrels and boxes of bread and sacks of grain. There was enormous waste and loss, but we managed to keep our men in rations, and were better off than the Confederates, in regard to whom Floyd afterward reported to his government that the eleven days of cold storms at Sewell Mountain had "cost more men, sick and dead, than the battle of Manassas Plains."
It has been asserted by Confederate writers that Lee was executing a movement to turn Rosecrans's left flank when the latter marched back from Sewell Mountain. If so, it certainly had not gone far enough to attract our attention, and from my own knowledge of the situation, I do not believe it had passed beyond the form of discussion of a possible movement when the weather should become settled. Such plans were discussed on both sides, but the physical condition of the country was an imperative veto upon aggressive action.
During the 5th of October our sick and spare baggage were sent back to Camp Lookout. Tents were struck at ten o'clock in the evening, and the trains sent on their way under escort at eleven. The column moved as soon as the trains were out of the way, except my own brigade, to which was assigned the duty of rear-guard. We remained upon the crest of the hill till half-past one, the men being formed in line of battle and directed to lie down till the time for them to march. Our sentinels had been posted with extra precaution, so that they might be withdrawn an hour or two after the brigade should move. Extra reserves were assigned to them, and Major Hines put in command of the whole detachment, with orders to keep in communication with me at the extreme rear of the marching column. It was interesting to observe the effect of this night movement upon the men. Their imagination was excited by the novelty of the situation, and they furnished abundant evidence that the unknown is always, in such cases, the wonderful. The night had cleared off and the stars were out. The Confederate position was eastward from us, and as a bright star rose above the ridge on which the enemy was, we could hear soldiers saying in a low tone to each other, "There goes a fire
balloon--it must be a signal--they must have discovered what we are doing!" The exaggerated parallax at the horizon made the rising star seem to move rapidly for the first few minutes, and men, ignorant of this, naturally mistook its character. In a similar way an occasional shot on the picket line would be the cause of a subdued excitement. I doubt if soldiers ever make a night movement in an enemy's presence without being under a nervous strain which exaggerates the importance of everything they see and hear, and this gives uncertainty and increases the difficulty of such duty. It is no small part of the duty of officers, in such cases, to allay this tendency to excitement, to explain the situation, and by a wise mixture of information and discipline to keep the men intelligently cool and in full command of their faculties.
General Rosecrans had gone with the head of the column, and had left with me Major Slemmer, his inspector-general, to bring him word when the rear of the column should be in march. Slemmer was the officer who, as a lieutenant, had distinguished himself by holding Fort Pickens in
Pensacola harbor at the outbreak of the rebellion. He was a man of marked character, and in view of his experience it may easily be understood that we had no lack of interesting matter for conversation as we paced in rear of the reclining men during the midnight hours. His failing health prevented his taking the prominent part in the war that his abilities warranted, but I have retained, from that evening's work together, a pleasing impression of his character and a respect for his military knowledge and talents. In impressing on me the fact that my position was the one of special honor in this movement, he expressed the wish that Rosecrans had himself remained there; but the result showed that hardly less than the commanding general's own authority and energy could have got the column forward in the mud and darkness. The troops had marched but a mile or two when they overtook part of the wagon train toiling slowly over the steep and slippery hills. Here and there a team would be "stalled" in the mud, and it looked as if daylight would overtake us before even a tolerably defensive position would be reached. Rosecrans now gave his personal supervision to the moving of the wagons and artillery,--wagon-master's work, it maybe said, but it was work which had to be done if the little army was not to be found in the morning strung out and exposed to the blows of the enemy if he should prove enterprising.
We who were at the rear did not know of the difficulty the column was having, and when my messenger reported the rear of the preceding brigade a mile or more from the camp, I gave the order to march, and my men filed into the road. Slemmer went forward to inform the general that we were in movement, and I remained with Major Hines till all was quiet, when he was directed to call in his pickets and sentinels and follow. I had gone hardly a mile when we were brought to a halt by the head of the brigade overtaking those who had preceded us. Word was brought back that the artillery was finding great difficulty in getting over the first considerable hill west of the mountain. We ourselves were upon the downward road from the mountain crest, but our way led along the side of a spur of the mountain which towered above us on our left. We were in a dense wood that shut out the stars, and in darkness that could almost be felt. I rode back a little to meet Hines and to keep some distance between the column and his little rear-guard. We sent a chain of sentinels over the hill commanding the road, and waited, listening for any evidence that the enemy had discovered our movement and followed. An hour passed in this way, and the column moved on a short distance. Again there was a halt, and again a deployment of our sentries. When at last day broke, we were only three or four miles from our camp of the evening before; but we had reached a position which was easily defensible, and where I could halt the brigade and wait for the others to get entirely out of our way. The men boiled their coffee, cooked their breakfast, and rested. Early in the forenoon a small body of the enemy's cavalry followed us, but were contented with very slight skirmishing, and we marched leisurely to Camp Lookout before evening. Such night marches from the presence of an enemy are among the most wearing and trying in the soldier's experience, yet, in spite of the temptation to invest them with extraordinary peril, they are rarely interfered with. It is the uncertainty, the darkness, and the effect of these upon men and officers that make the duty a delicate one. The risk is more from panic than from the foe, and the loss is more likely to be in baggage and in wagons than in men. I have several times been in command of rear-guards on such occasions, and I believe that I would generally prefer an open withdrawal by day. It is not hard to hold even a bold enemy at bay by a determined brigade or division, and a whole army may be saved from the exhaustion and exposure which rapidly fill the hospitals, and may cost more than several combats between rear and advance guards.
My brigade remained two or three days at Camp Lookout, where we were put upon the alert on the 7th by a reported advance of the enemy, but it amounted to nothing more than a lively skirmish of some cavalry with our outposts. Lee was glad to move back to Meadow Bluff to be nearer his supplies, and Rosecrans encamped his troops between Hawk's Nest and the Tompkins farm, all of them being now within a few miles of Gauley Bridge. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. p. 253. See also Official Atlas, pl. ix.] Part of my brigade garrisoned the post at the bridge, but by Rosecrans's direction my own headquarters tents were pitched near his own upon the Tompkins farm. Both parties now remained in observation till near the end of October. Floyd, more enterprising in plans than resolute or skilful in carrying them out, had obtained Lee's consent to make an attempt to render our position untenable by operations on the opposite side of New River. Lee had intended to co-operate by moving against us with the rest of his force, but on the 20th of October the reports from the Staunton region were so threatening that he determined to send Loring back there, [Footnote: _Id_., p. 908.] and this, of course, settled it that Lewisburg would be covered in front only by Wise's Legion, commanded by Colonel Davis. Although Floyd complained of this change of plan, he did not abandon his purpose, but ordering the militia on that side of the river to reassemble, he marched to Fayette C. H. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. v. p. 286.]
Rosecrans had distributed his brigades in _echelon_ along the turnpike,--Schenck's, the most advanced, being ten miles from Gauley Bridge; McCook's eight miles, where the road from Fayette C. H. by way of Miller's Ferry comes in across New River; Benham's six miles, whilst of my own one regiment at the Tompkins farm guarded headquarters, and the rest were at Gauley Bridge and lower posts where they could protect the navigation of the Kanawha. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 253.] McCook by Rosecrans's direction marched to Fayette C. H. about the 20th of October, and on his return reported that only guerilla parties were abroad in that vicinity. Rosecrans seems to have expected that at least a foothold would be kept on the other side of New River at Miller's Ferry, but McCook left nothing there, and when he tried to place a detachment on that side about the 25th, the shore and cliffs were found to be held by a force of sharpshooters. This marked the advance of Floyd, who established his camp in front of Fayette C. H. at the forking of the roads to Miller's Ferry and to Gauley Bridge. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 285.] For a few days he made no serious demonstration, and Rosecrans hastened forward the work of clothing and paying his men, recruiting his teams and bringing back to the ranks the soldiers whom exposure had sent to the hospital. He had heard in a trustworthy way of Lee's intention to move against us by the turnpike whilst Floyd advanced on the other side of the river, but Tie had not yet learned of the withdrawal of Lee with Loring's troops. He therefore remained quiet and expectant, awaiting the definite development of events.
As this had been my first service in the field as part of a larger command, I was keenly alive to the opportunity of comparing the progress we had made in discipline and instruction with that of other brigades, so that I might cure defects in my own methods and improve the soldierly character as well as the administration of my own command. I was gratified to see in my troops evidence of a pride in their own organization and a wholesome emulation, which made them take kindly to the drill and discipline which were necessary to improvement. I was particularly interested in observing Rosecrans's methods with the men. His standard of soldierly excellence was high, and he was earnest in insisting that his brigadiers and his staff officers should co-operate vigorously in trying to attain it. His impulsiveness, however, led him sometimes into personal efforts at discipline where the results were at least doubtful. He would sometimes go out through the camps in the evening, and if he saw a tent lighted after "taps," or heard men singing or talking, he would strike loudly on the canvas with the flat of his sword and command silence or the extinguishment of the light. The men, in good-humored mischief, would try different ways of "getting even" with him. One that gave much amusement to the camp was this: the men in a tent thus attacked pretended to believe that their regimental wagon-master was playing a practical joke on them, and shouted back to him all sorts of rough camp chaff. When the exasperated general appeared at the door of the tent, they were, of course, overwhelmed with the most innocent astonishment, and explained that that wagon-master was in the habit of annoying them, and that they really had not heard the "taps." I have been with the general in approaching a picket, when he would hotly lecture a sentinel who showed ignorance of some of his duties or inattention to them. I thought I could see in all such cases that it would have been wiser to avoid any unnecessary collision with the privates, but to take the responsible officer aside and make him privately understand that he must answer for such lack of instruction or of discipline among his men. An impulsive man is too apt to meddle with details, and so to weaken the sense of responsibility in the intermediate officers, who hate to be ignored or belittled before the soldiers. But if Rosecrans's method was not an ideal one, it was at least vigorous, and every week showed that the little army was improving in discipline and in knowledge of duty.