Friday, September 9, 2016

Major Wilder Dwight, April 24, 1862

Camp Between New Market And Sparta,
Thursday, April 24, 1862.

When I awoke on Easter morning in my dripping bivouac, and looked gloomily at my boots, which, with studied carelessness, I had so placed as to receive the stream from the flimsy shelter over me, and which were full of water, when, more than all, I poured the water out and put the boots on, I might have known, by intuitive conjecture, that our forces would the next day occupy Sparta. The storm did not abate until Tuesday, and it left us in hopeless mud and rain. Our advance is now in Harrisonburg, and Jackson's force has crossed the gap, and is on its way to Gordonsville. “The Valley” is cleared; and General Banks has been enjoying himself with a “general order” of congratulation, back-patting, and praise, worthy of little Jack Horner, and his thumb and his plum. Still, one fact is stubborn. Our column has penetrated Virginia one hundred miles, and is very near to important Rebel lines of communication, and has achieved important results with reasonable promptness and without disaster.

We hear to-day that the freshets of the Potomac and Shenandoah have combined to carry away the railroad bridge over the Potomac at Harper's Ferry. This will interfere with our supplies, and, I think, hasten our course over the Blue Ridge towards Gordonsville.

I have enjoyed for the past two days the slight alleviation of weather. Tuesday afternoon the Colonel and I rode through the gap opposite New Market, over the Massannattan Mountain, into the other valley which is bounded by the Blue Ridge. The road is a graded, gradual ascent, winding in and out. At its summit is one of the signal-stations, whence the view into both valleys is very fine, and, under the changing, clouded, and showery light, the scene had a great charm, heightened by the camps which were scattered over the green fields of the valley. We descended into the other valley to visit the Third Wisconsin, a regiment of Colonel Gordon's brigade, which is stationed there to protect two bridges over the South Fork of the Shenandoah and another stream.

Yesterday was a bright, breezy, sunshiny day, tempting one strongly to out-door life, — otherwise I should have written you a word on my birthday. Colonel Gordon and I drove down to Rood's Hill to examine the position which Jackson occupied there. We found it of great natural strength, with a river on either flank, and a broad, flat bottom, over which our approach would have been made.

We saw one scene in the course of our ride which illustrates the vile tyranny, oppression, and outrage which has been practised by the Rebels here. A neatly-dressed woman, with five little children, — one in her arms, — was crossing the field. We stopped and spoke to her. “Indeed it is,” said she, “hard times for poor folks. Jackson took my husband off with him. They gave him his choice to go or death. I expect him back, though, now that you've got here. He promised to run away the first chance.” Comment on such a “volunteer’ system is unnecessary. I told you that we were living near the house of Mr. Williamson, and took our meals there. I am now writing in the parlor, which is brigade head-quarters. The husband and father of the family is off with the army, but his uncle, the owner of the farm, an old man of eighty years, is here. He is an intelligent man. He heard John Randolph's maiden speech in Congress at Philadelphia. He sat in Richmond in the Convention to amend Virginia's constitution with Madison and Monroe. His farm here contains sixteen hundred acres, and as he sees his rail-fences disappearing before our camps he recalls how it looked in New Jersey years after Washington's army had wintered there; not a fence for miles. This helps his philosophy a little, but he is a bitter Secessionist, though his hope flickers under the blast of Northern invasion. One of the most amusing things connected with our movement into this country is the constant and odd exhibition of its effect on the negro. Day before yesterday our pickets brought in six contrabands. They had fled from above Harrisonburg, to avoid being drawn off with Jackson's army. One of them was almost white; another was of quite mature years, and very much disposed to philosophize and consider and pause over this emancipation question, and act “for the best.” I must try to give you a snatch from the dialogue between Colonel Gordon and the negroes; but I must leave out the brogue and laugh and aspect of the men which made up the incomparable effect. After asking them where they came from, &c., the Colonel, “Well, why didn't you go off with your master?” Ans. I didn't want to go South. Q. The South are your friends, ain't they? A. No, dey isn't no friends to colored people. Q. Well, what made you think we should be? Didn't your master tell you we wanted to steal you and sell you to Cuba? A. Yes, but we don't believe no such nonsense as dat. De Norf is our friends. I've heard all about de Norf, and I never see black men chained together and driven off to de Norf, but I have seen ’em, hundreds of ’em driven off Souf. I'd ruffer trust to de Norf, and I'd like to try it. Q. Well, but you can't work and take care of yourself, can you? Your master always took care of you, didn't he? A. Bress you, if de nigger don't work, who does? De white folks don't do no work. I've hired myself out for five years, made de bargain myself, and my master got de money. Yah! yah! yah! And they all laughed. Q. Well, you want to go Norf, do you? A. Yes. Then the philosopher, who was named George, reasoned a little more about it. At last the Colonel said: “Well, you are free; you can go where you please. You ain't slaves any longer, unless you choose to go back. Now, what are you going to do? Ain't you going to do something? ain't you going to turn somersets?” The negroes laughed and were exuberant. “Turn over, George, turn over,” said the darkies; and down the old fellow dumped, and went heels over head on the floor amid a general conviviality.

That's what I call the practical effect of invasion. Where the army goes, slavery topples and falls. For my part, I enjoy it hugely.

As I write this letter, two men are brought in. They are just out of Jackson's army. They live over on the Blue Ridge. A fortnight ago they were hunted into the woods by cavalry, shot at, and caught and put into the army. They say that the woods are full of men hiding in the same way, and that the cavalry are hunting them out. “The South is fighting for independence,” says Lord John Russell; “the North, for empire.” “No man's liberty of speech or person is interrupted,” says Jefferson Davis.

I believe I am fighting in God's cause against the most diabolical conspirators, rebels, and tyrants in the world.

The bright sun of yesterday dried the ground so much that we had battalion drill, and I had the pleasure of drilling the battalion. This morning, however, this treacherous climate again betrayed us, and it is snowing! for all day, I fear.

I rejoice to receive your letter of April 14, just brought in. It brings me news of Howard and William and home, in which I delight. I hope William's forebodings are not well founded, but McClellan must gather fruit soon or go to the wall. Still, silence to all clamor against him, and let us await the issue. I agree with Howard, that this military life gets wearisome.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, Editor, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols., p. 237-40

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