Friday, August 19, 2016

Major Wilder Dwight: April 6, 1862

camp Near Edinburg, April 6, 1862.

It might be a June morning, by its sunshine and warmth. This broken valley, the “interval” of two sharp, dark-wooded ranges of cuts, itself broken and furrowed by impatient “runs,” as they call every water-flow in Virginia, might be a fitting scene for a pleasure journey. All the air might a Sabbath stillness hold, but another solemn influence is everywhere present. Within a mile of our quiet camp the outposts of two armies are watching one another. The cannon and rifle tone break the silence now and then. If you go down to our line of pickets, you will see the men watching with eager though patient eyes for a good shot; and as the smoke breaks from some cover on the opposite bank of the stream, you may hear a ball whistle near you, and some sentry near by will send his quick reply. I had quite an animated day yesterday. As field-officer of the day, I had charge of our line of outposts. I found in the morning that the Rebel pickets were quite importunate and vexatious. I also thought it important to change the position of some of our pickets; and, in order to do so, desired to reconnoitre the ground. I was soon interrupted in my quiet use of my field-glass by the whistle of bullets following the crack of rifles. The devils had probably worked down through the ravines. I moved my horse quietly under cover of a small house, and could listen to the sound without exposing any other sense. I soon changed my position; and thought, that, as the road went quite too close to the river, I would take the field. But I had not gone far in that direction when a rapid volley assailed me from behind a straw-rick, and I was again led to turn back, more especially as some of the shots seemed to be from some quarter quite too near for security. That is the working of these Rebels. They work themselves into safe covers, and pop away. Even their artillery, from which we have three or four attacks every day, is often so masked that even the smoke fails to disclose it. I leaped my horse over a fence, and made arrangements for my picket on a line a little less exposed. But you can get some idea of the persistency of the devils. They seem to act with a bitter personal hate and venom. In my ride yesterday afternoon I came to a house about which there was a gathering of curious soldiers. The poor woman was in great trouble. The Rebel battery had just thrown two shells through the house, shattering windows and plastering, &c. She was in terror, and her husband was away serving in the army whose missiles had terrified her. “Pa is pressed into the militia,” said the little boy to me. “He's gone away to New Market.” Yet these people explain their misfortunes by our invasion, not by their rebellion. “I wish you'd move your men away or stop their firing,” said a young girl to me at a farm-house. “Our boys'll shell the house sure, if you don't take care.” They cling to their allegiance to their flying army, — and why shouldn't they? It is made up of their brothers and sons and lovers. We find very few men. Indeed, their practical conscription leaves nothing male and able-bodied out of the ranks.

But I must not omit to tell you of my revenge on the men who fired at me. The straw-rick stood just in front of a barn. From the hill on which a section of our battery was posted it was a good mark. On my return to that point I directed a few shell to be thrown there. With lucky aim two of them struck the barn itself; and their explosion had, at least, the result to scatter the men within, who were seen to run back to the woods.

We hear an odd story of an incident in the battle at Winchester. It shows that the Second Regiment has a name in this valley. Probably its long continuance here, and the fact that a flag was given to it at Harper's Ferry, have attracted Rebel attention to it. It is said by some of the soldiers who were in the battle, that when one of the Ohio regiments was broken by the Rebel fire, and faltered a little, some of the Rebels jumped up from the corner of their stone-wall and shouted, “Where's Gordon's bloody Second? Bring it on.” A good deal of curiosity was also expressed by the Rebel wounded and prisoners to know about the regiment, and if it was here. They might any of them have seen it the other day if they would only have waited!

It seems that the Rebels swell their numbers now by a systematic and general compulsion. Such troops will only be an embarrassment to them, I think. But their unscrupulous tyranny spares nothing. An old free negro woman, living in a small hut near our camp, says, “They took away my son last summer to Manassas, and I've had a hard winter without him; but they left me my young son, a poor cripple boy. The other day they come and took him, and my horse and wagon to carry off their sick. He's a poor, weak boy, and all I've got, but they wouldn't spare him to me. I can't help it, but I feel more kind to you all whom I never saw than to them that I was born among.” So she talked on sadly of her troubles.

Look at another picture of this free and happy people, with their patriarchal institutions. Colonel Gordon stopped for the night at a house near Snicker's Ferry. The master was out of the room, and a mulatto slave woman was busy about the table. “You are happy, are you not?” says Colonel G. “No,” with a dull, whining, sad tone in her reply. “Your master's kind to you, isn't he?” “No, he sold my mother fifteen years ago.” That memory and loss had been her life and sorrow for fifteen years, and it would last. Pretty pictures of pastoral content!

“Do not take my corn and grain,” says Mr. Ransom, of Charlestown, a courtly Virginian gentleman. “I've a large family of negroes dependent on me, and I must have enough left to feed them, and to take care of my horses and cows till spring. My poor servants will starve.”

The army moves on; a week passes, and Mr. Ransom may be seen taking care of his single remaining cow and horse. His dependent servants have taken care of themselves, and Mr. Ransom is rubbing his eyes over the abrupt lightening of his burdens. Let us clear our minds of cant, — pro or anti slavery. There is full as much of the former cant as of the latter.

It was Sunday when I began this letter; it is now Monday. We make no movement yet. The Rebel shells have not been thrown among us for a whole day! so life is a little monotonous.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, Editor, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols., p. 227-30

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