FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
THE movements concluded on at this time were pregnant with results, and had been the subject of serious conference, not to say controversy, between General McClellan and the War Department at Washington. The final conclusions showed plainly the truth of Napoleon's remark, that "an army is better commanded by one bad general than two good ones." General McClellan wanted General McDowell's command, which included Shield's division, collected and sent to him on the Peninsula, or marched by the line of the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad to form his right wing in his operations before Richmond. The general represented the matter in the strongest form, and urged most strenuously this addition to his forces, declaring that to insure success this junction was necessary, while the War Department just as vigorously opposed it as resulting in the uncovering of Washington and thus inviting invasion by a portion of Johnston's or Lee's army. Viewed in the light of what followed, General McClellan was right and the Washington authorities were wrong. Had General McClellan been reinforced by McDowell's whole command, - probably twenty-five thousand men, - thus extending his right wing, he might have employed his army in further enveloping Richmond or had a powerful reserve to fall back on, and given the enemy so much to do at home he would have been unable to detach any force that General Fremont, who was then approaching the valley, could not handle, by this means keeping Jackson away from that avenue to the Potomac and from threatening the capital, which movement at this time was being consummated, and was doubtless intended as a diversion on the part of the enemy to recall McDowell and prevent the junction desired by General McClellan, which was precisely what it did accomplish. This rendered it possible for Jackson, with his well-known celerity, to execute that brilliant movement on McClellan's right flank on one of the days of the Seven Days' Battles, and aiding materially in forcing the Union army to fall back to Harrison's Landing, on the James River, for a new base of operations. The War Department was more powerful than the general, hence McDowell's command did not form a junction with General McClellan's, and the result was as stated. This, however, carries us in advance of the events intended to be related here, to which we return.
It may be remarked that Jackson was a follower of, and apparently set a higher value on Napoleon's tactics than any other general officer, and to the following of which the emperor is indebted for his marvellous success, and with his other great qualities stamped him the genius he was, which was simply to throw an overwhelming force on the point attacked; this, combined with celerity of movement, always made him assume the aggressive, and even if his force was outnumbered by his enemy, he almost invariably secured this. We might take for example Austerlitz and Wagram. In the first named he drove such a force through the Russian centre, and repeated it with the Austrians in the latter. Eylau and Jena are illustrations of his flank movements: the first with the Russians, and the last named with the Prussians. These were Jaackson's tactics and his strength; and operating usually on an inner, consequently a shorter line, in a country where every white face was the face of a friend and a bearer of intelligence, he could strike blows of telling force, while his opponent might be, and generally was, totally ignorant of his whereabouts or the force under his command.
It was fully expected that Shields's command would cross the river the next day; the bridges being destroyed there were pontoons ready for crossing. Remained here until the 25th, when marching orders were received. As was afterwards ascertained, the enemy had sent a large force under General Jackson towards the valley, which, after completely using up General Kenly's small brigade, near Front Royal, had crossed the Shenandoah River and was sweeping down the valley, carrying everything before him; meeting General Banks at Winchester, routing and driving him out of the valley and across the Potomac River with the remnant of his command.
All this had been going on while McDowell's command was en route to and lying at Fredericksburg. This apparently changed the intention of the commanding general or the War Department, or, at least, brought the one or the other to a determination so far as Shields's division was concerned, for after the receipt of shelter-tents (a description of which has already been given in these pages), shoes, and leggings, and a re-brigading of the regiments, making four brigades of the three, - a change which placed the First Virginia, Seventh Indiana, Eighty-fourth and One Hundred and Tenth Pennsylvania Regiments into one brigade, the Fourth, and Colonel Carroll, a regular army officer, formerly colonel of the Eighth Ohio, placed in command, or acting brigadier-general. What other changes were made, doubtless a number, is not known. Marching orders were received and the regiment marched at ten A.M. towards Catlett's Station. As the command was leaving, a portion of McDowell's was met on the road to cross the Rappahannock River. Next day the brigade was on the march at six A.M., and rested at nine P.M. at Catlett's, having marched twenty-four miles. This forced marching led some of the thinking ones to conclude that there was an object in it which would be developed ere long. There was great excitement here, the scouts of Duryea having reported the body of men approaching to be Longstreet's. In consequence of this the former fell back in great haste, his men leaving a lot of commissary stores, besides food already prepared. The men soon discovered this, and without regard to whose it was, saved the food and stores by eating them, thus securing a substantial meal without the trouble of preparing it. The command remained here the next day, removing to a suitable piece of ground for camping purposes, and put up the shelter-tents, expecting to make a stay, but the day following there was inspection of arms and equipments by Colonel Carroll, when orders were received to strike the shelters, and the brigade marched at three P.M. to two miles in advance of Haymarket and bivouacked, having marched fourteen miles. The route for some reason was through unfrequented roads, causing considerable alarm among the inhabitants. On the 29th left camp at six A.M. and rested at Rectortown at two P.M.; marched again at five P.M., and continued all night, covering twenty miles, or thirty-four miles from the last camping-ground; stopped at five A.M., made breakfast, and marched again at eleven A.M. through Manassas Gap to Front Royal, seventeen miles; bivouacked at six P.M. The men had no knowledge as to the whereabouts of the other three brigades, but felt satisfied they were considerably in the rear.
Next day, 31st of May, the regiment advanced, skirmishing with the enemy, for four miles along the road leading in the direction of Winchester, the shell from his guns at times falling very close. Lieutenant Crawford, leading a party or skirmishers, was killed by a shell passing through him. The enemy finally retreated in the direction of Winchester, when the regiment returned to camp. During the night there was a heavy rain, which made the surroundings very disagreeable. June 1, Sunday, marched about ten miles towards Luray; raining hard and roads very muddy; camped, and after erecting the shelters they were blown away. This was a hard march, followed by a very bad night; the men very tired, without sleep, and thoroughly drenched with rain. The next morning the regiment was on the road at eight o'clock; the rain continued, apparently harder than at any time before, the road was a stream; men and animals almost worn out; some of the horses fell down in their traces, dying in the road, and before night many of the men were lying by the roadside completely done up. Seventeen miles were travelled this day, stopping for rest about six P.M. with about three hundred men in line. The rain continuing all night, everybody was exposed to it, standing, sitting, or lying down. Some of the men slept with little more than eyes, nose, and mouth out of water. The next morning the sick-call was well responded to, thus further depleting the battalion. The attempt to dry clothes and clean arms was only partially successful. Marched at two A.M. the next day to a point twelve miles farther up the Shenandoah, where it was learned that Columbia bridge was destroyed. Camped at five P.M. five miles north of the bridge, the rain, to the surprise of all, still continuing; the river was out of its banks and covered all the roads in the vicinity. Occasionally small squads of the enemy could be seen on the opposite side of the river. This proved to be another miserable night.
An incident that is in the writer's recollection occurred at this time, and may be worth notice. Going into a house in the little village or hamlet called Kitetown, not far from Honeyville, there were found two sick soldiers, the sole occupants. Upon inquiry they were found to be Alabamians, and the poor fellows were needing attention very badly. The women of the place had no means of assisting them or of alleviating their condition in any way, or, indeed, any idea of how to help them, and it is possible that they were ignorant of any duty they owed these poor sufferers. On returning afterwards it was found that one of them had died and the other past any help that could be offered, - body emaciated and mind gone. It probably did not occur to anyone at the time that Shields's command had never met an Alabama regiment, and that these men must certainly have belonged to reinforcements or a new command entirely. The incident, it is believed, was mentioned to one or more officers, but no importance appeared to be attached to it. To some officers, however, the information would have been valuable, as disclosing the presence of new troops, of which the people in the vicinity could give information as to numbers, etc.
The men at this time were so short of rations that they were compelled to forage the country for subsistence for men and animals, having nothing to eat but flour, and not much of this. Disagreeable as this was, necessity knows no law, and they were compelled to set hard heart against women's tears when the keys of the storeroom and smoke-houses were demanded. The men and horses must have subsistence. They succeeded in getting a limited supply of flour and poor mutton, - the former a poor substitute for bread, as there was no means of baking it, however, sufficed to drive off starvation. The men stood this rough ordeal very well. Of course they, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, longed for the flesh-pots of Egypt, in this instance flitch, beans, and coffee; but these could not be transported over the apology for roads that had been travelled, and the train doubtless was many miles in the rear. It was only by joining two or three teams, and assisted at times by the men, that the artillery could accompany the infantry through these almost impassable mud-holes. The misery of the situation was added no little to by being compelled to take the necessaries of life from these comparatively poor people, as it was plain to be seen that some of them had little or no means to replace the loss. On the 6th two or three wagons succeeded in reaching the regiment with a few barrels of bread and sugar. This relief was timely. These wagons were then used for taking the knapsacks of the men to the rear, which, while depriving them of little comforts, was a great relief on the march. Wonderful energy and perseverance were necessary on the part of the quartermaster, assisted by Wagon-Master Holliday, to get these wagons up, which was appreciated by the men. The battalion mustered at this time less than two hundred muskets, and the whole brigade was in number about equal to a regiment. On the 7th the march was continued up the river sixteen miles, resting at ten P.M. at Conrad's Store. At this time the services of some refugees, who had been hiding in the mountains in the vicinity, were secured to guide the command to Port Republic bridge. On Sunday, 8th, the brigade marched at one A.M., having stopped for about three hours for rest, without sleep and without breakfast, unwashed, unkempt, and tired. Through swamps and forests the trail led. As may be supposed, these men were in poor condition to acquit themselves well in an emergency calling for all the good qualities in a soldier. A man requires a full stomach to march and fight on. How the artillery kept up with the little column is hard to say. It was there on hand, however, but in poor condition. The brigade came to a halt near Port Republic bridge, which is in the southern part of Rockingham County, and near the borders of Augusta and Albemarle.