A bitter cold morning
and A warm awakening-trouble
all along the line -fierce
conflicts, assaults and defense-prolonged
and desperate struggle ending
with A surrender.
The night had been the most intensely
cold that the country had known for many years.
Peach and other tender trees had been killed by the
frosty rigor, and sentinels had been frozen to death
in our neighborhood. The deep snow on which
we made our beds, the icy covering of the streams near
us, the limbs of the trees above us, had been cracking
with loud noises all night, from the bitter cold.
We were camped around Jonesville,
each of the four companies lying on one of the roads
leading from the town. Company L lay about a
mile from the Court House. On a knoll at the
end of the village toward us, and at a point where
two roads separated,-one of which led to
us,-stood a three-inch Rodman rifle, belonging
to the Twenty-second Ohio Battery. It and its
squad of eighteen men, under command of Lieutenant
Alger and Sergeant Davis, had been sent up to us a
few days before from the Gap.
The comfortless gray dawn was crawling
sluggishly over the mountain-tops, as if numb as the
animal and vegetable life which had been shrinking
all the long hours under the fierce chill.
The Major’s bugler had saluted
the morn with the lively, ringing tarr-r-r-a-ta-ara
of the Regulation reveille, and the company buglers,
as fast as they could thaw out their mouth-pieces,
were answering him.
I lay on my bed, dreading to get up,
and yet not anxious to lie still. It was a question
which would be the more uncomfortable. I turned
over, to see if there was not another position in
which it would be warmer, and began wishing for the
thousandth time that the efforts for the amelioration
of the horrors of warfare would progress to such a
point as to put a stop to all Winter soldiering, so
that a fellow could go home as soon as cold weather
began, sit around a comfortable stove in a country
store; and tell camp stories until the Spring was far
enough advanced to let him go back to the front wearing
a straw hat and a linen duster.
Then I began wondering how much longer
I would dare lie there, before the Orderly Sergeant
would draw me out by the heels, and accompany the
operation with numerous unkind and sulphurous remarks.
This cogitation, was abruptly terminated
by hearing an excited shout from the Captain:
“Turn Out!-Company L!!
Turnout ! ! !”
Almost at the same instant rose that
shrill, piercing Rebel yell, which one who has once
heard it rarely forgets, and this was followed by a
crashing volley from apparently a regiment of rifles.
There was evidently something of more interest on
hand than the weather.
Cap, overcoat, boots and revolver
belt went on, and eyes opened at about the same instant.
As I snatched up my carbine, I looked
out in front, and the whole woods appeared to be full
of Rebels, rushing toward us, all yelling and some
firing. My Captain and First Lieutenant had taken
up position on the right front of the tents, and part
of the boys were running up to form a line alongside
them. The Second Lieutenant had stationed himself
on a knoll on the left front, and about a third of
the company was rallying around him.
My chum was a silent, sententious
sort of a chap, and as we ran forward to the Captain’s
line, he remarked earnestly:
“Well: this beats hell!”
I thought he had a clear idea of the situation.
All this occupied an inappreciably
short space of time. The Rebels had not stopped
to reload, but were rushing impetuously toward us.
We gave them a hot, rolling volley from our carbines.
Many fell, more stopped to load and reply, but the
mass surged straight forward at us. Then our
fire grew so deadly that they showed a disposition
to cover themselves behind the rocks and trees.
Again they were urged forward; and a body of them
headed by their Colonel, mounted on a white horse,
pushed forward through the gap between us and the
Second Lieutenant. The Rebel Colonel dashed
up to the Second Lieutenant, and ordered him to surrender.
The latter-a gallant old graybeard-cursed
the Rebel bitterly and snapped his now empty revolver
in his face. The Colonel fired and killed him,
whereupon his squad, with two of its Sergeants killed
and half its numbers on the ground, surrendered.
The Rebels in our front and flank
pressed us with equal closeness. It seemed as
if it was absolutely impossible to check their rush
for an instant, and as we saw the fate of our companions
the Captain gave the word for every man to look out
for himself. We ran back a little distance,
sprang over the fence into the fields, and rushed toward
Town, the Rebels encouraging us to make good time
by a sharp fire into our backs from the fence.
While we were vainly attempting to
stem the onset of the column dashed against us, better
success was secured elsewhere. Another column
swept down the other road, upon which there was only
an outlying picket. This had to come back on
the run before the overwhelming numbers, and the Rebels
galloped straight for the three-inch Rodman.
Company M was the first to get saddled and mounted,
and now came up at a steady, swinging gallop, in two
platoons, saber and revolver in hand, and led by two
Sergeants-Key and McWright,-printer boys
from Bloomington, Illinois. They divined the
object of the Rebel dash, and strained every nerve
to reach the gun first. The Rebels were too
near, and got the gun and turned it. Before
they could fire it, Company M struck them headlong,
but they took the terrible impact without flinching,
and for a few minutes there was fierce hand-to-hand
work, with sword and pistol. The Rebel leader
sank under a half-dozen simultaneous wounds, and fell
dead almost under the gun. Men dropped from their
horses each instant, and the riderless steeds fled
away. The scale of victory was turned by the
Major dashing against the Rebel left flank at the head
of Company I, and a portion of the artillery squad.
The Rebels gave ground slowly, and were packed into
a dense mass in the lane up which they had charged.
After they had been crowded back, say fifty yards,
word was passed through our men to open to the right
and left on the sides of the road. The artillerymen
had turned the gun and loaded it with a solid shot.
Instantly a wide lane opened through our ranks; the
man with the lanyard drew the fatal cord, fire burst
from the primer and the muzzle, the long gun sprang
up and recoiled, and there seemed to be a demoniac
yell in its ear-splitting crash, as the heavy ball
left the mouth, and tore its bloody way through the
bodies of the struggling mass of men and horses.
This ended it. The Rebels gave
way in disorder, and our men fell back to give the
gun an opportunity to throw shell and canister.
The Rebels now saw that we were not
to be run over like a field of cornstalks, and they
fell back to devise further tactics, giving us a breathing
spell to get ourselves in shape for defense.
The dullest could see that we were
in a desperate situation. Critical positions
were no new experience to us, as they never are to
a cavalry command after a few months in the field,
but, though the pitcher goes often to the well, it
is broken at last, and our time was evidently at hand.
The narrow throat of the Valley, through which lay
the road back to the Gap, was held by a force of Rebels
evidently much superior to our own, and strongly posted.
The road was a slender, tortuous one, winding through
rocks and gorges. Nowhere was there room enough
to move with even a platoon front against the enemy,
and this precluded all chances of cutting out.
The best we could do was a slow, difficult movement,
in column of fours, and this would have been suicide.
On the other side of the Town the Rebels were massed
stronger, while to the right and left rose the steep
mountain sides. We were caught-trapped as surely
as a rat ever was in a wire trap.
As we learned afterwards, a whole
division of cavalry, under command of the noted Rebel,
Major General Sam Jones, had been sent to effect our
capture, to offset in a measure Longstreet’s
repulse at Knoxville. A gross overestimate of
our numbers had caused the sending of so large a force
on this errand, and the rough treatment we gave the
two columns that attacked us first confirmed the Rebel
General’s ideas of our strength, and led him
to adopt cautious tactics, instead of crushing us
out speedily, by a determined advance of all parts
of his encircling lines.
The lull in the fight did not last
long. A portion of the Rebel line on the east
rushed forward to gain a more commanding position.
We concentrated in that direction
and drove it back, the Rodman assisting with a couple
of well-aimed shells.-This was followed
by a similar but more successful attempt by another
part of the Rebel line, and so it went on all day-the
Rebels rushing up first on this side, and then on that,
and we, hastily collecting at the exposed points, seeking
to drive them back. We were frequently successful;
we were on the inside, and had the advantage of the
short interior lines, so that our few men and our
breech-loaders told to a good purpose.
There were frequent crises in the
struggle, that at some times gave encouragement, but
never hope. Once a determined onset was made
from the East, and was met by the equally determined
resistance of nearly our whole force. Our fire
was so galling that a large number of our foes crowded
into a house on a knoll, and making loopholes in its
walls, began replying to us pretty sharply.
We sent word to our faithful artillerists, who trained
the gun upon the house. The first shell screamed
over the roof, and burst harmlessly beyond. We
suspended fire to watch the next. It crashed
through the side; for an instant all was deathly still;
we thought it had gone on through. Then came
a roar and a crash; the clapboards flew off the roof,
and smoke poured out; panic-stricken Rebels rushed
from the doors and sprang from the windows -like
bees from a disturbed hive; the shell had burst among
the confined mass of men inside! We afterwards
heard that twenty-five were killed there.
At another time a considerable force
of rebels gained the cover of a fence in easy range
of our main force. Companies L and K were ordered
to charge forward on foot and dislodge them.
Away we went, under a fire that seemed to drop a
man at every step. A hundred yards in front of
the Rebels was a little cover, and behind this our
men lay down as if by one impulse. Then came
a close, desperate duel at short range. It was
a question between Northern pluck and Southern courage,
as to which could stand the most punishment.
Lying as flat as possible on the crusted snow, only
raising the head or body enough to load and aim, the
men on both sides, with their teeth set, their glaring
eyes fastened on the foe, their nerves as tense as
tightly-drawn steel wires, rained shot on each other
as fast as excited hands could crowd cartridges into
the guns and discharge them.
Not a word was said.
The shallower enthusiasm that expresses
itself in oaths and shouts had given way to the deep,
voiceless rage of men in a death grapple. The
Rebel line was a rolling torrent of flame, their bullets
shrieked angrily as they flew past, they struck the
snow in front of us, and threw its cold flakes in
faces that were white with the fires of consuming hate;
they buried themselves with a dull thud in the quivering
bodies of the enraged combatants.
Minutes passed; they seemed hours.
Would the villains, scoundrels, hell-hounds, sons
of vipers never go?
At length a few Rebels sprang up and
tried to fly. They were shot down instantly.
Then the whole line rose and ran!
The relief was so great that we jumped
to our feet and cheered wildly, forgetting in our
excitement to make use of our victory by shooting down
our flying enemies.
Nor was an element of fun lacking.
A Second Lieutenant was ordered to take a party of
skirmishers to the top of a hill and engage those of
the Rebels stationed on another hill-top across a
ravine. He had but lately joined us from the
Regular Army, where he was a Drill Sergeant.
Naturally, he was very methodical in his way, and scorned
to do otherwise under fire than he would upon the
parade ground. He moved his little command to
the hill-top, in close order, and faced them to the
front. The Johnnies received them with a yell
and a volley, whereat the boys winced a little, much
to the Lieutenant’s disgust, who swore at them;
then had them count off with great deliberation, and
deployed them as coolly as if them was not an enemy
within a hundred miles. After the line deployed,
he “dressed” it, commanded “Front!”
and “Begin, firing!” his attention was
called another way for an instant, and when he looked
back again, there was not a man of his nicely formed
skirmish line visible. The logs and stones had
evidently been put there for the use of skirmishers,
the boys thought, and in an instant they availed themselves
of their shelter.
Never was there an angrier man than
that Second Lieutenant; he brandished his saber and
swore; he seemed to feel that all his soldierly reputation
was gone, but the boys stuck to their shelter for all
that, informing him that when the Rebels would stand
out in the open field and take their fire, they would
Despite all our efforts, the Rebel
line crawled up closer an closer to us; we were driven
back from knoll to knoll, and from one fence after
another. We had maintained the unequal struggle
for eight hours; over one-fourth of our number were
stretched upon the snow, killed or badly wounded.
Our cartridges were nearly all gone; the cannon had
fired its last shot long ago, and having a blank cartridge
left, had shot the rammer at a gathering party of
Just as the Winter sun was going down
upon a day of gloom the bugle called us all up on
the hillside. Then the Rebels saw for the first
time how few there were, and began an almost simultaneous
charge all along the line. The Major raised
piece of a shelter tent upon a pole. The line
halted. An officer rode out from it, followed
by two privates.
Approaching the Major, he said, “Who
is in command this force?”
The Major replied: “I am.”
“Then, Sir, I demand your sword.”
“What is your rank, Sir!”
“I am Adjutant of the Sixty-fourth Virginia.”
The punctillious soul of the old “Regular”-for
such the Major was swelled up instantly, and he answered:
“By –, sir, I will never surrender
to my inferior in rank!”
The Adjutant reined his horse back.
His two followers leveled their pieces at the Major
and waited orders to fire. They were covered
by a dozen carbines in the hands of our men.
The Adjutant ordered his men to “recover arms,”
and rode away with them. He presently returned
with a Colonel, and to him the Major handed his saber.
As the men realized what was being
done, the first thought of many of them was to snatch
out the cylinder’s of their revolvers, and the
slides of their carbines, and throw them away, so
as to make the arms useless.
We were overcome with rage and humiliation
at being compelled to yield to an enemy whom we had
hated so bitterly. As we stood there on the bleak
mountain-side, the biting wind soughing through the
leafless branches, the shadows of a gloomy winter
night closing around us, the groans and shrieks of
our wounded mingling with the triumphant yells of the
Rebels plundering our tents, it seemed as if Fate
could press to man’s lips no cup with bitterer
dregs in it than this.