Chapter VIII, Reminiscences Of The Civil War By John B.Gordon
IT was nearly seven months after the battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, before I was able to return to my duties at the front. Even then the wound through my face had not healed; but Nature, at last, did her perfect work, and thus deprived the army surgeons of a proposed operation. Although my enforced absence from the army was prolonged and tedious, it was not without its incidents and interest. Some of the simple-hearted people who lived in remote districts had quaint conceptions of the size of an army. One of these, a matron about fifty years of age, came a considerable distance to see me and to inquire about her son. She opened the conversation by asking: "Do you know William ?"
"What William, madam ?"
"My son William."
I replied: "Really, I do not know whether I have ever met your son William or not. Can you tell me what regiment or brigade or division or corps he belongs to?"
She answered: "No, I can't, but I know he belongs to Gin'al Lee's company."
I think the dear old soul left with the impression that I was something of a fraud because I did not know every man in "Gin'al Lee's company "--especially William.
After I had begun to convalesce, it was my privilege to be thrown with the author of "Georgia Scenes," Judge Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who was widely known in the Southern States as an able jurist, a distinguished educator, and an eminent Methodist divine, as well as a great humorist and wit. His book, "Georgia Scenes," is now rarely seen, and it may be interesting to those who have never known of Judge Longstreet or his famous stories to give an instance here of the inimitable fun of this many-sided genius, who aided me in whiling away the time of my enforced absence from the army. Judge Longstreet was at that time an old man, but still full of the fire of earlier years, and of that irresistible humor with which his conversation sparkled. On one occasion, when a number of gentlemen were present, I asked the judge to give us the facts which led him to write that remarkable story called "The Debating Society." He said that Mr. McDuffie, who afterward became one of the South's great statesmen, was his classmate and roommate at school. Both were disposed to stir into the monotony of school days a little seasoning of innocent fun. During one of the school terms, they were appointed a committee to select and propose to the society a suitable subject for debate. As they left the hall, Longstreet said to his friend, "Now, McDuffie, is our chance. If we could induce the society to adopt for debate some subject which sounds well, but in which there is no sense at all, wouldn't it be a great joke ?" McDuffie's reply was a roar of laughter. They hastened to their room to begin the selection of the great subject for debate. They agreed that each should write all the high-sounding phrases he could think of, and then by comparing notes, and combining the best of both, they could make up their report. They sat up late, conferring and laughing at the suggestions, and at last concocted the question, "Whether at public elections should the votes of faction predominate by internal suggestions, or the bias of jurisprudence ?" With boyish glee they pronounced their work well done, and laughed themselves to sleep. On the next morning their report was to be submitted, and the society was to vote as to its adoption. They arose early, full of confidence in their ability to palm off this wonderful subject on the society; for they reasoned thus: no boy will be willing to admit that he is less intelligent or less able to comprehend great public questions or metaphysical subjects than the committee, and therefore each one of them will at once pretend to be delighted at the selection, and depend upon reading and investigation to prepare himself for the following week's debate upon it. They had not miscalculated the chances of success, nor underestimated the boyish pride of their schoolmates. The question was unanimously adopted.
It is impossible to give any conception of Judge Longstreet's description of the debate upon the question; of how he and McDuffie led off with thoroughly prepared speeches full of resounding rhetoric and rounded periods, but as devoid of sense as the subject itself, the one arguing the affirmative, the other the negative of the proposition. Nor shall I attempt any description of Judge Longstreet's wonderful mimicry of the boys, many of whom became men of distinction in after years; of how they stammered and struggled and agonized in the effort to rise to the height of the great argument; and finally, of the effort of the president of the society, who was, of course, one of the schoolboys, to sum up the points made and determine on which side were the weightiest and most cogent arguments. Suffice it to say that I recall with grateful pleasure the hours spent during my convalescence in the presence of this remarkable man. His inimitable and delicate humor was the sunshine of his useful and laborious life, and will remain a bright spot in my recollections of the sixties.
On my return to the army, I was assigned to the command of perhaps the largest brigade in the Confederate army, composed of six regiments from my own State, Georgia. No more superb material ever filled the ranks of any command in any army. It was, of course, a most trying moment to my sensibilities when the time came for my parting from the old command with which I had passed through so many scenes of bitter trial; but these men were destined to come back to me again. It is trite, but worth the repetition, to say that there are few ties stronger and more sacred than those which bind together in immortal fellowship men who with unfaltering faith in each other have passed through such scenes of terror and blood.
Years afterward, my daughter met a small son of one of these brave comrades, and asked him his name.
"Gordon Wright," was his prompt reply.
"And for whom are you named, Gordon ?"
"I don't know, miss," he answered, "but I believe my mamma said I was named for General Lee."
I had been with my new command but a short time when the great battle of Chancellorsville occurred. It was just before this bloody engagement that my young brother had so accurately and firmly predicted his own death, and it was here the immortal Jackson fell. I never write or pronounce this name without an impulse to pause in veneration for that American phenomenon. The young men of this country cannot study the character of General Jackson without benefit to their manhood, and for those who are not familiar with his characteristics I make this descriptive allusion to him.
As to whether he fell by the fire of his own men, or from that of the Union men in his front, will perhaps never be definitely determined. The general, the almost universal, belief at the South is that he was killed by a volley from the Confederate lines; but I have had grave doubts of this raised in my own mind by conversations with thoughtful Union officers who were at the time in his front and near the point where he was killed. It seems to me quite possible that the fatal ball might have come from either army. This much-mooted question as to the manner of his death is, however, of less consequence than the manner of his life. Any life of such nobility and strength must always be a matter of vital import and interest.
At the inception of the movement upon General Hooker's army at Chancellorsville, a remarkable interview occurred between General Lee and General Jackson, which is of peculiar interest because it illustrates, in a measure, the characteristics of both these great soldiers.
It was repeated to me soon after its occurrence, by the Rev. Dr. Lacey, who was with them at the time Jackson rode up to the Commander-in-Chief, and said to him: "General Lee, this is not the best way to move on Hooker."
"Well, General Jackson, you must remember that I am compelled to depend to some extent upon information furnished me by others, especially by the engineers, as to the topography, the obstructions, etc., and these engineers are of the opinion that this is a very good way of approach."
"Your engineers are mistaken, sir."
"What do you know about it, General Jackson ? You have not had time to examine the situation."
"But I have, sir; I have ridden over the whole field."
And he had. Riding with the swiftness of the wind and looking with the eye of an eagle, he had caught the strong and weak points of the entire situation, and was back on his panting steed at the great commander's side to assure him that there was a better route.
"Then what is to be done, General Jackson ?"
"Take the route you yourself at first suggested. Move on the flank--move on the flank."
"Then you will at once make the movement, sir." Immediately and swiftly, Jackson's "foot cavalry," as they were called, were rushing along a byway through the dense woodland. Soon the wild shout of his charge was heard on the flank and his red cross of battle was floating over General Hooker's breastworks.
General Hooker, "Fighting Joe," as he was proudly called by his devoted followers, and whom it was my pleasure to meet and to know well after the war, was one of the brilliant soldiers of the Union army. He was afterward hailed as the hero of the "Battle of the Clouds" at Lookout Mountain, and whatever may be said of the small force which he met in the fight upon that mountain's sides and top, the conception was a bold one. It is most improbable that General Hooker was informed as to the number of Confederates he was to meet in the effort to capture the high and rugged Point Lookout, which commanded a perfect view of the city of Chattanooga and the entire field of operations around it. His movement through the dense underbrush, up the rocky steeps, and over the limestone cliffs was executed with a celerity and dash which reflected high credit upon both the commander and his men. Among these men, by the way, was one of those merrymakers--those dispensers of good cheer--found in both the Confederate and Union armies, who were veritable fountains of good-humor, whose spirits glowed and sparkled in all situations, whether in the camp, on the march, or under fire. The special rôle of this one was to entertain his comrades with song, and as Hooker's men were struggling up the sides of Lookout Mountain, climbing over the huge rocks, and being picked off them by the Confederate sharpshooters, this frolicsome soldier amused and amazed his comrades by singing, in stentorian tones, his droll camp-song, the refrain of which was "Big pig, little pig, root hog or die." The singer was H. S. Cooper, now a prominent physician of Colorado.
But to return to the consideration of General Jackson's character. Every right-minded citizen, as well as every knightly soldier, whatever the color of his uniform, will appreciate the beauty of the tribute paid by General Lee to General Jackson, when he received the latter's message announcing the loss of his left arm. "Go tell General Jackson," said Lee, "that his loss is small compared to mine; for while he loses his left arm, I lose the right arm of my army." No prouder or juster tribute was ever paid by a great commander to a soldier under him.
But a truth of more importance than anything I have yet said of Jackson may be compassed, I think, in the observation that he added to a marvellous genius for war a character as man and Christian which was absolutely without blemish. His childlike trust and faith, the simplicity, sincerity, and constancy of his unosten-tatious piety, did not come with the war, nor was it changed by the trials and dangers of war. If the war affected him at all in this particular, it only intensified his religious devotion, because of the tremendous responsibilities which it imposed; but long before, his religious thought and word and example were leading to the higher life young men intrusted to his care, at the Virginia Military Institute. In the army nothing deterred or diverted him from the discharge of his religious duties, nor deprived him of the solace resulting from his unaffected trust. A deep-rooted belief in God, in His word and His providence, was under him and over him and through him, permeating every fibre of his being, dominating his every thought, controlling his every action. Wherever he went and whatever he did, whether he was dispensing light and joy in the family circle; imparting lessons of lofty thought to his pupils in the schoolroom at Lexington; planning masterful strategy in his tent; praying in the woods for Heaven's guidance; or riding like the incarnate spirit of war through the storm of battle, as his resistless legions swept the field of carnage with the fury of a tornado--Stonewall Jackson was the faithful disciple of his Divine Master. He died as he had lived, with his ever-active and then fevered brain working out the problems to which his duty called him, and, even with the chill of death upon him, his loving heart prompted the message to his weary soldiers, "Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees." That his own spirit will eternally rest in the shade of the Tree of Life, none who knew him can for one moment doubt.
An incident during this battle illustrates the bounding spirits of that great cavalry leader, General "Jeb" Stuart. After Jackson's fall, Stuart was designated to lead Jackson's troops in the final charge. The soul of this brilliant cavalry commander was as full of sentiment as it was of the spirit of self-sacrifice. He was as musical as he was brave. He sang as he fought. Placing himself at the head of Jackson's advancing lines and shouting to them "Forward," he at once led off in that song, "Won't you come out of the wilderness?" He changed the words to suit the occasion. Through the dense woodland, blending in strange harmony with the rattle of rifles, could be distinctly heard that song and words, "Now, Joe Hooker, won't you come out of the wilderness?" This dashing Confederate lost his life later in battle near Richmond.
While the battle was progressing at Chancellorsville, near which point Lee's left rested, his right extended to or near Fredericksburg. Early's division held this position, and my brigade the right of that division; and it was determined that General Early should attempt, near sunrise, to retake the fort on Marye's Heights, from which the Confederates had been driven the day before. I was ordered to move with this new brigade, with which I had never been in battle, and to lead in that assault; at least, such was my interpretation of the order as it reached me. Whether it was my fault or the fault of the wording of the order itself, I am not able to say; but there was a serious misunderstanding about it. My brigade was intended, as it afterward appeared, to be only a portion of the attacking force, whereas I had understood the order to direct me to proceed at once to the assault upon the fort; and I proceeded. As I was officially a comparative stranger to the men of this brigade, I said in a few sentences to them that we should know each other better when the battle of the day was over; that I trusted we should go together into that fort, and that if there were a man in the brigade who did not wish to go with us, I would excuse him if he would step to the front and make himself known. Of course, there was no man found who desired to be excused, and I then announced that every man in that splendid brigade of Georgians had thus declared his purpose to go into the fortress. They answered this announcement by a prolonged and thrilling shout, and moved briskly to the attack. When we were under full headway and under fire from the heights, I received an order to halt, with the explanation that the other troops were to unite in the assault; but the order had come too late. My men were already under heavy fire and were nearing the fort. They were rushing upon it with tremendous impetuosity. I replied to the order that it was too late to halt then, and that a few minutes more would decide the result of the charge. General Early playfully but earnestly remarked, after the fort was taken, that success had saved me from being court-martialed for disobedience to orders.
During this charge I came into possession of a most remarkable horse, whose fine spirit convinced me that horses now and then, in the furor of fight, were almost as sentient as their riders. This was especially true of the high-strung thoroughbreds. At least, such was my experience with a number of the noble animals I rode, some of which it was my painful fortune to leave on the field as silent witnesses of the storm which had passed over it. At Marye's Heights, the horse which I had ridden into the fight was exhausted in my effort to personally watch every portion of my line as it swept forward, and he had been in some way partially disabled, so that his movements became most unsatisfactory. At this juncture the beautiful animal to which I have referred, and from which a Union officer had just been shot, galloped into our lines. I was quickly upon her back, and she proved to be the most superb battle-horse that it was my fortune to mount during the war. For ordinary uses she was by no means remarkable--merely a good saddle animal, which Mrs. Gordon often rode in camp, and which I called "Marye," from the name of the hill where she was captured. Indeed, she was ordinarily rather sluggish, and required free use of the spur. But when the battle opened she was absolutely transformed. She seemed at once to catch the ardor and enthusiasm of the men around her. The bones of her legs were converted into steel springs and her sinews into india-rubber. With head up and nostrils distended, her whole frame seemed to thrill with a delight akin to that of foxhounds when the hunter's horn summons them to the chase. With the ease of an antelope, she would bound across ditches and over fences which no amount of coaxing or spurring could induce her to undertake when not under the excitement of battle. Her courage was equal to her other high qualities. She was afraid of nothing. Neither the shouting of troops, nor the rattle of rifles, nor the roar of artillery, nor their bursting shells, intimidated her in the slightest degree. In addition to all this, she seemed to have a charmed life, for she bore me through the hottest fires and was never wounded.
I recall another animal of different temperament, turned over to me by the quartermaster, after capture, in exchange, as usual, for one of my own horses. In the Valley of Virginia, during the retreat of the Union General, Milroy, my men captured a horse of magnificent appearance and handsomely caparisoned. He was solid black in color and dangerously treacherous in disposition. He was brought to me by his captors with the statement that he was General Milroy's horse, and he was at once christened "Milroy" by my men. I have no idea that he belonged to the general, for that officer was too true a soldier to have ridden such a beast in battle--certainly not after one test of his cowardice. His fear of Minié balls was absolutely uncontrollable. He came near disgracing me in the first and only fight in which I attempted to ride him. Indeed, if it had chanced to be my first appearance under fire with my men, they would probably have followed my example as they saw me flying to the rear on this elephantine brute. He was an immense horse of unusually fine proportions, and had behaved very well under the cannonading; but as we drew nearer the blue lines in front, and their musketry sent the bullets whistling around his ears, he wheeled and fled at such a rate of speed that I was powerless to check him until he had carried me more than a hundred yards to the rear. Fortunately, some of the artillerymen aided me in dismounting, and promptly gave me a more reliable steed, on whose back I rapidly returned in time to redeem my reputation. My obligations to General Milroy were very great for having evacuated at night the fort at Winchester (near which this horse was captured), and for permitting us to move over its deserted and silent ramparts in perfect security; but if this huge black horse were really his, General Milroy, in leaving him for me, had cancelled all the obligations under which he had placed me.
This Georgia brigade, with its six splendid regiments, whose war acquaintance I had made at Marye's Heights, contributed afterward from their pittance of monthly pay, and bought, without my knowledge, at a fabulous price, a magnificent horse, and presented him to me. These brave and self-denying men realized that such a horse would cost more than I could pay. He gave me great comfort, and I hoped that, like "Marye," he might go unscathed through successive battles; but at Monocacy, in Maryland, he paid the forfeit of his life by coming in collision with a whizzing missile, as he was proudly galloping along my lines, then advancing upon General Lew Wallace's forces. I deeply regretted this splendid animal's death, not only because of his great value at the time, but far more because he was the gift of my gallant men.
In one of the battles in the Wilderness, in 1864, and during a flank movement, a thoroughbred bay stallion was captured--a magnificent creature, said to have been the favorite war-horse of General Shaler, whom we also captured. As was customary, the horse was named for his former master, and was known by no other title than "General Shaler." My obligations to this horse are twofold and memorable: he saved me from capture, when I had ridden, by mistake, into Sedgwick's corps by night; and at Appomattox he brought me enough greenbacks to save me from walking back to Georgia. He was so handsome that a Union officer, who was a judge of horses, asked me if I wished to sell him. I at once assured this officer that I would be delighted to sell the horse or anything else I possessed, as I had not a dollar except Confederate money, which, at that period of its history, was somewhat below par. The officer, General Curtin, of Pennsylvania, generously paid me in greenbacks more than I asked for the horse. I met this gentleman in 1894, nearly thirty years afterward, at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He gratified me again by informing me that he had sold "General Shaler" for a much higher price than he paid me for him.
If there is a hereafter for horses, as there is a heaven for the redeemed among men, I fear that the old black traitor that ran away with me from the fight will never reach it, but the brave and trusty steeds that so gallantly bore their riders through our American Civil War will not fail of admittance.
Job wrote of the war-horse that "smelleth the battle from afar off." Alexander the Great had his "Buchephalus," that dashed away as if on wings as his daring master mounted him. Zachary Taylor had his "Old Whity," from whose mane and tail the American patriots pulled for souvenirs nearly all the hairs, as he grazed on the green at the White House. Lee had his "Traveller," whose memory is perpetuated in enduring bronze. Stonewall Jackson had his high-mettled "Old Sorrel," whose life was nursed with tenderest care long after the death of his immortal rider; but if I were a poet I would ignore them all and embalm in song my own glorious "Marye," whose spirit I would know was that of Joan of Arc, if the transmigration of souls were true.
This page last updated 02/16/02
RETURN TO BATTLE OF CHANCELLORSVILLE OFFICIAL RECORDS PAGE