NIU Libraries Digitization Projects
Lincoln/Net Prairie Fire Illinois During the Civil War Illinois During the Gilded Age Mark Twain's Mississippi Back to Digitization Projects Contact Us

Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document:

Previous section

Next section

Notes of the War.

IF I had ever professed to be an amateur military critic, my experience in America would have disgusted me with the task. I used to hear and read so much of profound military speculations from men who knew even less about the science of war than I did myself, that I got almost to disbelieve in the existence of such an art at all. I plead guilty to an heretical belief that even the recognised professors of the science talk about a basis of operations, a concentrated movement, a system of strategy, in order to invest themselves with an uncalled-for appearance of profundity. I remember Mr. Hawthorne once remarking to me about a certain metaphysical philosopher, that he never knew a man who had such a talent for confusing a simple

-- 2 --

question, and I confess that this talent seems to me to be largely developed amongst military critics. At Washington, during the war, every militia officer, and everybody who might have been a militia officer, and everybody whose friend had, might, would or could have been an officer, considered himself justified in talking about Jomini and Vauban and the science of strategics. My own impression is, that in the American war there was very little possibility for scientific operations of any kind; and that if there was such a possibility, it certainly was not improved. However, right or wrong, I have no intention of filling my pages with descriptions of the military campaign. When I was in Italy two years ago, during the Garibaldian war, of all the facts and incidents connected with it, the one which brought the war nearest home to my mind, was a scene I once witnessed in the back streets of Naples. It was at the time when the siege of Capua was going on, and a decisive battle was hourly expected. I had been hunting up and down the low purlieus of Naples, to look after a refugee who was keeping out of sight, and to whom I was anxious to deliver a letter. I was passing up the narrow squalid staircase of one of the deserted palaces, where hundreds of poor families appear to burrow in one common wretchedness. I had not succeeded in finding the object of my search, and was making my way out as rapidly as I could, when an old woman rushed out, and,

-- 3 --

in the rapid Neapolitan patois, besought me to tell her, for the love of God and of the Holy Virgin, whether it was true that there had been a battle. I tried to make her understand, in the best Neapolitan that I could muster up, that for twenty-four hours at least there was no prospect of a fight. "Graz' a Dio!" was her ejaculation, repeated many times; and then, turning to me, she said, in explanation, "C'e il figlio unico nell' armata, Lei mi scusi; [1] and then she crouched down again upon the ground, praying and telling her beads. And I own that whenever I think of the Italian war, I think also of the widowed mother, praying in that gloomy, squalid alley for her only son.

So, what little I have recorded of this American campaign, are some few incidents in its course which came under my own notice. These, with the reflections that at the time they forced upon me, are the sole contributions that I shall give to the military history of the war.

In a book, too clever to have been so soon forgotten, I remember meeting, years ago, with a passage which, at the time, struck me strangely. I speak of the "Travels of a Roving Englishman." The recollection of the exact words has passed from me, but the sense of the passage was after this fashion. The writer told you how he stood one day at the latticed window of a high gable-roofed house, looking out upon the lime-shadowed

-- 4 --

market-place of a great city in the fair German land, when the loud, glorious music of an Austrian band came crashing by; and how, as the music died away, and was followed by the dull, heavy tramp of the soldiers' feet, the thought passed across him, that this grand music might have much to answer for in the nation's history; that the strains of glory and pomp and war, which the band seemed to send thrilling through you, were such as no people could listen to daily without danger.

While at Washington I recalled this passage often. From the windows of my lodgings, I looked out upon the mile-long Pennsylvania Avenue, leading from the broad Potomac river, by the marble palace of the President's, up to the snow-white Capitol, and every hour of the day almost I was disturbed while writing by the sound of some military band, as regiment after regiment passed, marching southwards. The Germans have brought with them into their new fatherland the instinct of instrumental music, and the bands are fine ones, above the average of those of a French or English line regiment. The tunes were mostly those well known to us across the water — "Cheer boys, cheer," the "Red, White, and Blue," and "Dixie's Land," being the favourites. For the war had brought out hitherto no war-inspired melody, and the quaint, half-grotesque, half passion-stirring air of

"John Brown's body lies a mould'ring in the grave,"

-- 5 --

was still under McClellan's interdict. But yet, be the tunes what they may, the drums and fifes and trumpets rouse the same heart-beatings as in the Old World, and teach the same lessons of glory and ambition and martial pride. Can this teaching fail to work? is the question that I asked myself daily, as yet without an answer.

Surely no nation in the world has gone through such a baptism of war as the people of the United States underwent in one short year's time. With the men of the Revolution the memories of the revolutionary wars had died out. Two generations had passed away to whom war was little more than a name. The Mexican campaign was rather a military demonstration than an actual war, and the sixteen years which had elapsed since its termination form a long period in the life of a nation whose whole existence has not completed its first century. Twenty months ago there were not more than 12,000 soldiers in a country of 31,000,000. A soldier was as rare an object throughout America as in one of our country hamlets. I recollect a Northern lady telling me that, till within a year before, she could not recall the name of a single person whom she had ever known in the army, and that now she had sixty friends and relatives who were serving in the war; and her case was by no means an uncommon one. Once in four years, on the fourth of March, two or three thousand troops were collected in Washington to add to the

-- 6 --

pomp of the Presidential inauguration; and this was the one military pageant the country had to boast of. Almost in a day this state of things passed away. Our English critics were so fond of repeating what the North could not do — how it could not fight, nor raise money, nor conquer the South — that they omitted to mention what the North had done. There was no need to go farther than my windows at Washington to see the immensity of the war. It was curious to me to watch the troops as they came marching past. Whether they were regulars or volunteers, it was hard for the unprofessional critic to discern; for all were clad alike, in the same dull, grey-blue overcoats, and most of the few regular regiments were filled with such raw recruits that the difference between volunteer and regular was not a marked one. Of course it was easy enough to pick faults in the aspect of such troops. As each regiment marched, or rather waded through the dense slush and mud which covered the roads, you could observe many inaccuracies of military attire. One man would have his trousers rolled up almost to his knees; another would wear them tucked inside his boots; and a third would appear with one leg of his trousers hanging down, and the other gathered tightly up. It was not unfrequent, too, to see an officer with his epaulettes sewed on to a common plain frock-coat. Then there was a slouching gait about the men, not soldier-like to English eyes. They used to turn their heads

-- 7 --

round when on parade, with an indifference to rule which would drive an old drill-sergeant out of his senses. There was an absence, also, of precision in the march. The men kept in step; but I always was at a loss to discover how they ever managed to do so. The system of march, it is true, was copied rather from the French than the English or Austrian fashion; but still it was something very different from the orderly disorder of a Zouave march. That all these, and a score of similar irregularities, are faults, no one — an American least of all — would deny. But there are two sides to the picture.

One thing is certain, that there is no physical degeneracy about a race which could produce such regiments as those which formed the army of the Potomac. Men of high stature and burly frames were rare, except in the Kentucky troops; but, on the other hand, small, stunted men were almost unknown. I have seen the armies of most European countries; and I have no hesitation in saying that, as far as the average raw material of the rank and file is concerned, the American army is the finest. The officers are, undoubtedly, the weak point of the system. They have not the military air, the self-possession which long habit of command alone can give; while the footing of equality on which they inevitably stand with the volunteer privates, deprives them of the esprit du corps belonging to a ruling class. Still they are active, energetic, and

-- 8 --

constantly with their troops. Wonderfully well equipped too, at this period of the war, were both officers and men. Their clothing was substantial and fitted easily, their arms were good, and the military arrangements were as perfect as money alone could make them. It was remarkable to me how rapidly the new recruits fell into the habits of military service. I have seen a Pennsylvanian regiment, raised chiefly from the mechanics of Philadelphia, which, six weeks after its formation, was, in my eyes, equal to the average of our best-trained volunteer corps, as far as marching and drill-exercise went. Indeed, I often asked myself what it was that made the Northern volunteer troops look, as a rule, so much more soldier-like than our own. I suppose the reason is, that across the Atlantic there was actual war, and that at home there was at most only a parade. I have no doubt that, in the event of civil war or invasion, England would raise a million volunteers as rapidly as America has done — more rapidly she could not; and that, when fighting had once begun, there would only be too much of grim earnestness about our soldiering; but it is no want of patriotism to say that the American volunteers looked to me more business-like than our own. At the scene of war itself there was no playing at soldiering. No gaudy uniforms or crack companies, no distinction of classes. From every part of the North; from the ports of New York and Boston; from the homesteads of New England; from the mines

-- 9 --

of Pennsylvania and the factories of Pittsburgh; from the shores of the great lakes; from the Mississippi valley; and from the far-away Texan prairies, these men had come to fight for the Union. It is idle to talk of their being attracted by the pay alone. Large as it is, the pay of thirteen dollars a month is only two dollars more than the ordinary pay of privates in the Federal army during peace times. Thirteen shillings a week is poor pay for a labouring man in America, even with board, especially during this war, when the wages of unskilled labour amounted to from twenty to thirty shillings a week. It is false, moreover, to assert, as the opponents of the North are fond of doing, that the Federal armies were composed exclusively, or even principally, of foreigners. In the North, the proportion of foreign immigrants to native-born Americans is about thirty per cent., and the same proportions were observed in the Federal volunteer army. Judging from my own observation, I should say that the per-centage of foreigners amongst the privates of the army of the Potomac was barely ten per cent. But, in the West, which is almost peopled with Germans, foreigners are, probably, in the majority. The bulk of the native volunteers consisted of men who had given up good situations in order to enlist, and who had families to support at home; and for such men the additional pay was not an adequate inducement to incur the dangers and hardships of war. Of course, wherever there is an army, the scum of the population will

-- 10 --

always be gathered together; but the average morale and character of the couple of hundred thousand troops collected round Washington was extremely good. There was very little outward drunkenness, and less brawling about the streets than if half a dozen English militia regiments had been quartered there. The number of papers purchased daily by the common soldiers, and the amount of letters which they sent through the military post, was astonishing to a foreigner, though less strange when you considered that every man in that army, with the exception of a few recent immigrants, could both read and write. The ministers, also, of the different sects, who went out on the Sundays to preach to the troops, found no difficulty in obtaining large and attentive audiences.

The general impression left upon me by my observations of the army of the Potomac was a very favourable one. All day, and every day while I resided at Washington, the scene before my eyes was one of war. An endless military panorama seemed to be unrolling itself ceaselessly. Sometimes it was a line of artillery struggling and floundering onwards through the mud — sometimes it was a company of wild Texan cavalry, rattling past, with the jingle of their belts and spurs. Sometimes it was a long train of sutlers' waggons, ambulance vans, or forage-carts, drawn by the shaggy Pennsylvanian mules. Orderlies innumerable galloped up and down, patrols without end passed along the pavements, and at

-- 11 --

every window and doorstep and street corner you saw soldiers standing. You had to go far away from Washington to leave the war behind you. If you went up to any high point in the city whence you could look over the surrounding country, every hill-side seemed covered with camps. The white tents caught your eye on all sides; and across the river, where the dense brushwood obscured the prospect, the great army of the Potomac stretched miles away, right up to the advanced posts of the Confederates, south of the far-famed Manassas. The numbers were so vast that it was hard to realize them. During one week fifty thousand men were embarked from Washington, and yet the town and neighbourhood still swarmed with troops and camps, as it seemed, undiminished in number. And here, remember, I saw only one portion of the gigantic army. Along a line of two thousand miles or so, from the Potomac down to New Mexico, there were at that time Federal armies fighting their way southwards. At Fortress Monroe too, Ship Island, Mobile, and at every accessible point along the Atlantic seaboard, expeditions numbered by tens of thousands were stationed, waiting for the signal to advance. At this time the muster-roll of the Federal army numbered 672,000 men, or, at least, that number were drawing pay daily from the Treasury, though a large allowance must be made for absentees and non-effectives.

Try to realize all this, and then picture to yourself

-- 12 --

what its effect, seen in fact, and not portrayed by feeble description, must be upon a nation unused to war. The wonder to me is, that the American people were not more intoxicated with the consciousness of their new-born strength. Still the military passion — the lust of war — is a plant of rapid growth, and that, when the war is over, the nation will lay down their arms at once, and return to the arts of peace, is a thing more to be hoped for than expected. I recollect at the time reading an article in an English periodical of high repute, wherein the writer characterized as an acknowledged fact, the essentially blackguardly nature of the whole American war; and amidst some very clever discussion about the essence of a gentleman, paused to point a pungent paragraph by a sneer at the Federal army. Children play with lucifer-matches amongst powder-barrels, and, probably, the class of writers of whom this gentleman is a type, have not the faintest notion that, by words like these, they are sowing the seeds of war. Still, for the credit of their own country, I wish they would remember that power and strength and will, however misapplied, are never essentially blackguardly, and that there is something in an army of half a million men raised in six months' time, worth thinking about as well as sneering at.

How bitterly Americans feel this sort of ill-natured comment from English critics, it is hard for anybody who has not lived in the country to appreciate. I

-- 13 --

recollect arguing once with a Northern gentleman, whose name as an author is known and honoured in this country, about what seemed to me his unreasonable animosity towards England. After a concession on his part, that possibly his feelings were morbidly exaggerated, he turned round and pointed to the portrait of a very near and dear relative of his — a brave, handsome lad — who had been killed a few months before when leading his men into action at the fatal defeat of Ball's Bluff. "How," he said to me, "would you like, yourself, to read constantly that that lad died in a miserable cause, and, as an American officer, should be called a coward?" And I own to that argument I could make no adequate reply. Let me quote, too, a paragraph from a letter I received the other day from another friend of mine, whose works have been read eagerly wherever the English tongue is spoken. "I have," he wrote, "a stake in this contest, which makes me nervous and tremulous and impatient of contradiction. I have a noble boy, a captain in one of our regiments, which has been fearfully decimated by battle and disease, and himself twice wounded within a hair's-breadth of his life." If you consider that in almost every Northern family there is thus some personal interest at stake in the war, it is not to be wondered at if the nation itself is also unduly impatient of contradiction.

But I have been wandering away from the subject

-- 14 --

of the army. At the period when I reached Washington (the beginning of March) the advance of the Potomac army was daily expected. I took an early opportunity of visiting the camp. By the kindness of General McClellan — kindness which, I would add, was extended freely to every English visitor — I had a pass furnished me on any occasion when I wished to cross the lines. I have taken few prettier or pleasanter rides in my life than those which I made at different times through the broken uplands of Virginia. One morning I can recall in particular, when I started in company with Mr. Russell and two other English gentlemen, to visit Blencker's division. It was a lovely spring morning, and the trees, which are but little more forward than those of England, were just beginning to show their first buds. The whole way from Washington to Georgetown — a distance of some three miles — was an unbroken line of sutlers' waggons, carrying out provisions to the army. Anything more like the long, low English suburb of a northern manufacturing town, than Georgetown, it is not possible to conceive; and if it had not been for the hosts of negroes which swarm about this — the black — quarter of Washington, I should have fancied myself home in England. At the river-side we were stopped by the sentries, had our passes carefully inspected, and then allowed to pass.

Close to this bridge the tide on the Potomac stops. The difference in the look of the river above and below

-- 15 --

Yorktown is very curious. Below, it is a great tidal river, as broad, though not as deep, as the Mersey at Liverpool. Above, it is a clear rapid stream, about the breadth of the Thames at Hammersmith. It was always a surprise to me that the planners of the City of Washington, who had a very definite conception in their heads of what they meant the capital to be like, seem to have contemplated making so little use of the river. Even if the original design of Washington had ever been carried out, the Potomac could hardly have been a feature in the town. Yet in any country but America it would rank among the grandest of rivers. As it is, Washington is just too far off to enjoy the view of the river, and too near to escape its odours. The White House, which stands nearer the Potomac than any other part of the City, is rendered very unhealthy by the accumulation of refuse and garbage, which the tide washes to and fro between the piles of the long chain-bridge.

With that quickness of invention which characterizes the Americans in all mechanical matters, the Federals had made a bridge across the Potomac by the device of letting the water out of a canal, which was carried over the river at Georgetown, and using the trough of the canal for a roadway. We rode at a foot's pace, in obedience to the sentry's orders, through the long narrow trench, which, with its planked sides, looked like an elongated coffin; and the moment we had emerged from it, we found ourselves not only in a new State, but in

-- 16 --

a new country. There is a marked and curious difference between the natural aspect of Virginia and Maryland. The latter is a bare open country, not unlike Sussex. The former is a wild, broken district, covered with brushwood. Our road lay through Arlington Park, the residence of the Confederate General Lee. It certainly must have required a good deal of patriotism to induce any man to leave such a pleasant residence for the hardships of a camp. But then it must be remembered that when the General with his family left his mansion at the outbreak of Secession, he was confident of returning in triumph within a few weeks. When the Federals took possession of the house, and turned it into the head-quarters of General Macdowell's division, they found the whole place just in the state that it would have been left if the owners had only intended to go away for a week's holiday. The ground belonging to the house must stretch over a space of some five or six square miles. Very little of the park is cultivated according to our English notion, and indeed it resembles much more nearly the hill-side of the vale of Albury, than Richmond Park or Blenheim. The timber, however — a circumstance which is rare in America — is remarkably fine, and the aspect of Washington owes the chief part of what little beauty it possesses to the wooded slopes of Arlington Heights, which face the city across the Potomac. Regard for this consideration, and for the

-- 17 --

historical associations with which the house is connected, and, above all, the social influence which General Lee possessed, had induced the Federal officers to use every precaution in order to protect the house and grounds from injury. The greatest difficulty was experienced in hindering the soldiers from cutting down the trees; and when at last Western regiments were stationed at Arlington Heights, it was found impossible to protect the timber. To soldiers from the backwoods' settlements it seemed simply absurd to suppose that any man could object to having his ground cleared for him; and no amount of argument or expostulation could persuade them that it was not one of the rights of man to cut down any tree he came across. Hence, by this time the park had been sadly devastated. It had, too, that dreary, deserted look which a park always has when there is nobody to look after it. The ground was so covered with stumps of trees and broken fences, that it was with difficulty we could pilot our horses through the brushwood. The regiments which were formerly encamped here had now moved onwards towards Manassas, and the only trace of the army was to be found in the number of blackened circles, which showed where camp-fires had been. Every now and then we could hear the booming of cannon towards the front, and constantly we heard, too, the less pleasant sound of the whirr of a rifle bullet, which showed us that, according to the fashion

-- 18 --

of the American army, some private or other was occupying his leisure in firing at any object he saw. Great attempts had been made to put a stop to this practice in the grounds of the park, where, from the dense character of the brushwood, it was extremely dangerous. But practically, with the extreme reluctance entertained to the infliction of any punishment on the volunteer soldiers, it was found impossible to enforce the prevention of this promiscuous shooting. After riding some miles across the park, we came out upon the main road, which led across the chain-bridge from Washington to the camp. At this period, the Government papers and the military authorities were all impressing on the public that, in the state of the Virginia roads, any immediate advance was out of the question. Now, on this and other occasions I saw the roads myself in their worst state, and in the very places where they had been most cut up by the passage of artillery. I confess frankly that the roads were shockingly bad. Like most of the American highways, they were hardly roads in our sense of the word, but mere tracks without any foundation. The soil of Virginia is a sort of sandy loam; and what with the rain and the passage of so many thousands of wheels, the surface of the high road had become a soft quick-sand, or slush, into which you sunk from one to two feet. It was not pleasant riding when every hundred yards or so your horse would stumble into a hollow

-- 19 --

and half bury himself and you in this "Slough of Despond." The only comfort was that, even if your horse fell down, the ground was so soft it was impossible for him to receive any injury. I saw artillery being dragged along these roads, and can bear witness to the fact that the task was one of great trouble and labour. Still, I doubt very much whether the condition of the roads was such as to render an advance impossible. They were not worse than many of the roads in the south of Italy, over which the Sardinian army marched in 1860. It was only for bits that these quagmires extended; and I suspect that, if any trouble had been taken to secure an efficient corps of road-makers, the roads might have been made passable without difficulty. It is possible that in this opinion I may do injustice to McClellan, but I fancy that the impassability of the Virginia roads was as much exaggerated as the impregnability of the earthworks at Manassas.

The rear of the army of the Potomac was then stationed three or four miles to the south of the river, while the front extended nearly as far as Centreville. It had been our purpose on this occasion to ride out as far as the outposts, but with that extraordinary variability which distinguishes the American climate, the sky had clouded over almost at once, and the temperature from that of summer had become as cold as it is us in the depth of winter. The snow began

-- 20 --

to fall in heavy flakes, and the wind blew as icy cold as if it came direct from the Arctic Ocean. In consequence, we changed our plans, and resolved to confine our visit to Blencker's division.

Of all camps I have seen, this of Blencker's seemed to me the most comfortable. Lying on a high table-land, the soil was dry; and the temperature in Virginia is rarely such for any length of time as to make living in the open air a severe trial. Every precaution, too, was taken to make the tents as warm as possible. Indeed, tents they could hardly be called. Each hut was floored with planks and fenced in with logs some three feet above the ground. The canvas tents were drawn tightly down over these log walls, so that very little air could penetrate, and each hut was provided with a stove; and except for the discomfort of having to sleep with two or three comrades in a space about eight feet square and seven high, I could not see that there was anything to complain of. The camp was arranged in a square intersected with broad passages parallel to each other. About the tents I looked there was an air of rough comfort, and in many cases of luxury; and both drainage and ventilation appeared excellent. The result of such care was shown in excellent health of the troops. Out of a body of some thousand men there were only thirty or so in the hospital; and most of these invalids were sufferers from drink or other maladies for which camp life is not

-- 21 --

directly responsible. Whether the result was equally favourable in training the men to undergo the hardships of a campaign I doubted at the time, and have seen cause since to doubt still more.

Blencker's division were the enfans perdus of the Federal army. Their commander even then enjoyed a most doubtful reputation, and the men justly or unjustly shared in the repute of the General. They had been moved as far away from Washington as possible, and not without cause. In the Potomac army commanded by McClellan the number of foreign regiments was at that period extremely small, and almost all of them were attached to Blencker's division. The camp I visited was filled with the black sheep of every nation under the sun. The word of command had to be given in four different languages, and the officers were foreigners almost without an exception. In a party with whom we spent the afternoon, there were officers who had served in the Papal brigade, the army of Francis II., the Garibaldian expedition, the British and Spanish legions, the wars of Baden, the Morocco campaign, and I know not where else beside. Both men and officers were a fine dare-devil looking set of fellows, and might doubtless have been made excellent soldiers with strict training. The difficulty here, as to a less excellent throughout the whole Federal army, was, that with a volunteer organization it was impossible to use the stern discipline necessary to break the troops into order.

-- 22 --

At the time of my visit to Blencker's camp, the army was hourly awaiting orders to march on Manassas. Within a week or so afterwards, the news came, that the Confederates had evacuated the mud forts and quaker guns which had kept McClellan so long at bay, and were retiring upon Richmond. Ten days had not passed before Yankee energy had reconstructed the railroad which led from Alexandria to Manassas Gap; and the offer having been made me to accompany the first trial-trip after the completion of the line, I gladly availed myself of it. It was the loveliest of spring mornings when I left Washington early to join the expedition. A steamboat carried us from the foot of the chain-bridge to Alexandria. The wide river was covered with fleets of transports, dropping down with the tide to convey provisions to the army which had just begun to sail for the peninsula. The wharves of Alexandria were covered with troops waiting for embarkment. The great river-steamers, which lay alongside, were crowded with troops singing and cheering lustily. The whole nation was overjoyed at the thought that at last the day of the "masterly inaction" was over, and that the long-expected hour of victory had struck. The army shared in the general enthusiasm; and there were few, I think, who contemplated even the possibility of a temporary reverse. I own, laying claim as I do to no pretensions as a military authority, that I shared in that impression. It seems to me even now incredible at times, that that

-- 23 --

grand army, which I watched for days and weeks defiling through Washington, should not have swept all before it; and I confess, that I still believe its failure was due to want of generalship. The nation, at any rate, at that time was confident, proud of its General, proud of its army, proud of its coming victory; and when the "Young Napoleon," — with that affectation of the Napoleonic style he was so partial to — declared in the address he issued, almost on the day of which I write, that hereafter his troops "would ask no higher honour than the proud consciousness that they belonged to the army of the Potomac," he uttered a boast which found an echo in every Northern breast.

My companions on the excursion, among whom were Mr. Hawthorne and Mr. N. P. Willis, were all Northerners; and all of them, the ladies especially, showed a natural feeling of pride at the appearance of the troops about to start on that ill-fated expedition. It struck me, however, curiously at the time, how all the party talked about our excursion as if we were going to visit a strange country. The sacred soil of Virginia seemed as imperfectly known to them as Ireland is to myself; and they looked upon their excursion with much the same sort of interest as I should do on a trip across St. George's Channel.

Half an hour's sail brought us to Alexandria. Like most of the old Virginia and Maryland towns, it has a very English air about it: the red brick houses, the

-- 24 --

broad sleepy streets, the long straggling wharves might have been imported direct from Norfolk or Lincolnshire. The town itself was crammed with troops; but neither then nor on the other occasions when I visited it was there anything to be seen of the inhabitants. They had left the place for the most part, or lived in retirement. Closely connected as the little town is with Washington, it was bitterly "secesh;" and the citizens of Alexandria showed their dislike of the Federal army of occupation by every means in their power. The women, as may be supposed, displayed their animosity most outspokenly. Unless they were foully belied, they used to take pleasure in insulting the private soldiers with epithets which will not bear repetition. The common Yankee soldiers seemed to feel these insults from women with a susceptibility I felt it hard to account for. English soldiers, under like circumstances, would have retorted with language still more unmentionable, or would have adopted the spirit of General Butler's famous order without compunction. But the Americans appeared to writhe under these insults. The bad language of the Alexandria women was constantly complained of in the papers as a bitter personal injury. I remember one stalwart Massachusetts soldier in the hospital, who complained seriously, that when he was recovered, and went back to duty, he should be subjected again to the abuse of these Southern ladies; and said — "It was so hard to bear." It was here, by

-- 25 --

the way, that the first blood shed in the war was spilt by the murder of Lieutenant Ellsworth, when hoisting up the Union flag at the first outbreak of secession. A flag-staff, bearing the stars and stripes, had been erected on the house where he was killed; and, on that morning, it floated bravely in the sunlight, as though in honour of the approaching Union triumphs.

At the wharf, a train was waiting to convey our party. It was the first which had started, and the resumption of the traffic was the sign of returning peace and order. But the event excited no comment in that sullen, gloomy town, and only a few boys and negroes were collected together to witness our departure. Slowly we moved on through the dead streets till we reached the camps outside the town, and then passing onwards at an increased speed, we were soon in the hilly Virginia country, which a few days before had been occupied by the Confederate forces.

The country through which our road lay impressed me strangely with a sense of desolation. If the reader knows the Surrey downs, near Albury, and can fancy what they would be, if the mansions and cottages were all removed, if the woods were replaced by pine forests, if the place of roads was supplied by mud tracks, and if the whole district was intersected by steep gullies filled with clear sparkling torrent streams, he will have a pretty good notion of what Northern Virginia is like. For miles and miles together you passed through long

-- 26 --

tracts of pine-wood, broken by patches of deserted fields, where the brushwood was growing up again amidst the stumps of the forest trees, which had been cleared years ago. Every now and then you came to an open space, where you caught a glimpse of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, and then you passed again into the gloomy pine-wood shade. Along the journey of twenty miles or so, you never saw a village; and the number of houses that you passed might be counted on your fingers. In the fields there was no one working; the snake fences were broken down; at the roadside stations there were no passengers; and the few people loitering about gazed sullenly at us as we passed. Actual traces of the war there were not many. We passed a few deserted camps, and a house or two which had been burnt down by one of the two armies which had occupied the soil in turn; but that was all. Indeed, the look of desolation could have proceeded but partially from the presence of the war. I never saw the same aspect elsewhere, even in States which had suffered as much from invasion. The state of the fields and fences, and roads and farmhouses, betokened a decay of much longer standing than that of a year's time. The exhaustion of the soil, even more than the havoc of men, was the cause of the deserted air which hung over everything. With the wasteful system of tobacco-growing and slave labour, Virginia is rapidly sinking back into its primitive desolation.

-- 27 --

At last we emerged from the pine-woods, and began to ascend by a steep incline — an open table-land — at whose foot run the now famous stream of Bull Run. Here we had to move slowly, and stop every few hundred yards to remove huge logs, which had been rolled across the rails to obstruct the passage. Then, reaching the top of the incline, we found ourselves in the centre of Manassas camp. It had hardly yet been visited since the departure of the Confederates; everything which could be destroyed had been burnt before their retreat; and the whole ground for miles was covered with the débris of an army's stores. Smashed carriages, broken arms, empty coffins, charred planks, decaying skeletons of horses, pots, pans, and cartridges, lay heaped together in a weird disorder. A detachment of Federal soldiers were on duty there, collecting any remnants of the stores which were worth preserving; but, otherwise, there was not a soul visible. The few soldiers' huts which were left standing were knocked hastily together with the rudest planks, and swarmed inside with vermin of every description. A foul smell of charred animal matter hung about the place, and flights of crows were feeding upon the garbage strewn on every side. The whole ground was covered with stray leaves of tracts and bibles, which some southern religious society had obviously been distributing amongst the troops. Letters, too, were to be picked up by dozens; and, indeed, the collectors of

-- 28 --

curiosities amongst our party had their researches richly rewarded.

As to the value of the fortifications, I could form no opinion. To me they appeared of the rudest and poorest description of earthworks; and I fancy were intended rather to protect the retreat of the army in case of a sudden attack, than to keep off the enemy. On the other hand, the position of Manassas in itself was obviously a strong one. The wide plateau on which it stood sloped down rapidly towards the North; so that an army advancing from Washington would have had to mount this slope, exposed to the full fire of the enemy's batteries. At this time, by the way, there was an embittered discussion going on in the American press, as to whether the Confederates had manned their works with wooden cannon, in order to give a false impression of strength. The anti-slavery party asserted positively that such was the case, and that McClellan had been frightened from attacking Manassas by a scarecrow. The democratic party asserted as stoutly that the whole story was an invention. Curious to say, the fact of the existence of the "quaker guns" was never either demonstrated or disproved. I can only say, that soldiers I saw at Manassas assured me that they had seen the wooden cannon on their first arrival. On the other hand, persons who took more trouble to investigate the truth came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of the fact; but to me the

-- 29 --

definite result seemed to be that, from some cause or other, the Federal commanders failed invariably to obtain reliable information as to the position and movements of the Southern army.

Our visit was but a short one, for the train had to return early, in order to avoid the risk of travelling through that half-hostile country after dark. On our return to the cars, we came upon a strange living evidence of the results of this strange war. Huddled together upon a truck were a group of some dozen runaway slaves. There were three men, four women, and half a dozen children. Anything more helpless or wretched than their aspect I never saw. Miserably clothed, footsore, and weary, they crouched in the hot sunlight more like animals than men. They seemed to have no idea, no plan, and no distinct purpose. They were field-hands, on a farm some score of miles off, and had walked all night; so at least they told us. Now they were going North as far as Washington, which appeared to them the end of the world. They had no fear of being recaptured, partly, I think, because they had reached Northern troops, still more because their home seemed to them so far away. With the exception of one woman, who was going to look for her husband, who was hired out somewhere in the District of Columbia, they talked as if they had no friends or acquaintances in the new land they were travelling to. For the present they were content that they

-- 30 --

could sit in the sun without being forced to work. Some of our party gave them money, and broken victuals which they valued more. I overheard one of the men saying to a woman, as he munched some white bread he had picked up, "Massa never gave us food like that." Poor things, if their idea of freedom was white bread and rest, they must have been disappointed bitterly! As strangers and guests of official personages, it was impossible for us to do anything for them. We got them a lift upon the truck to Alexandria. But whenever I think of that incident, I wish that we could have done, that we had done, more. Before we reached the town they got down, and our roads parted. What became of them heaven knows.

Instead of returning by the river from Alexandria, the train carried us to the foot of the long chain-bridge which crosses the Potomac in front of Washington. For hours we found it impossible to cross, as a division of 16,000 men were marching over on their way to Alexandria, to embark for the peninsula. With colours flying, and bands playing, regiment after regiment defiled past us. In the grey evening light the long endless files bore a phantom aspect. The men were singing, shouting, cheering; under cover of the darkness, they chanted "John Brown's Hymn," in defiance of McClellan's orders, and the heavy tramp of a thousand feet beat time to that strange

-- 31 --

weird melody. As the New England regiments passed our train, they shouted to us to tell the people at home that we had seen them in Dixie's Land, and on the way to Richmond. Ah, me! how many, I wonder, of those who flitted before us in the twilight, came home themselves to tell their own story?

-- 32 --

Previous section

Next section

Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document:
Powered by PhiloLogic