FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
THE regiment remained at Cedar Creek until the 1st of June, two weeks, being long enough in these exciting times to recover from a repulse and to blunt the keen feelings of sorrow for the loss of comrades, when orders were received to march and join the command of General Hunter, which was then being organized for some expedition, General Hunter having relieved General Sigel of the command in the valley.
It was supposed that the cause of General Sigel's removal was his loss of the battle of Newmarket; but to the officers and men, participants in that action, it was thought that the blame attached to that defeat should not be placed on General Sigel's shoulders. This action appeared to be on a smaller scale a repetition of the Second Bull Run battle, there being wholly lacking unity of action, and to this may be attributed the loss of the battle. While General Sigel was the chief officer, the men did not think he should be held responsible for this, any more than General Pope is held responsible for the want of cordial co-operation on the part of General Porter at the battle mentioned. However, though General Sigel was relieved of this command, and General Hunter was appointed to it in his stead, it is probable that this change was made by, or at the request of, General Grant for the special purpose he then had in view, which was the Lynchburg expedition, - General Hunter probably possessing qualities which were supposed to fit him for this service. As General Sigel was retained in command of the lower valley this is probably correct, and after the perusal of the narrative that follows of this expedition, the selection of the commander of it probably will be considered complimentary to General Sigel. On the day mentioned the command moved, taking the line of march up the valley, again passing through the towns before mentioned on this route, including Newmarket; and here learning through the scouts that the enemy had fortified a hill some distance beyond Harrisonburg on the direct road up the valley, it was concluded by the commander of the force that it wou1d be better to flank the position, not deeming it necessary to sacrifice the men in assaulting it. Accordingly, a detour to the left was made, marching to the eastward on a road leading to Port Republic, a point the men have a distinct recollection of, being connected with suffering and loss, from which place there is a road leading to Staunton. Passing the village of Port Repub1ic, the command moved out on the Staunton road to the hamlet of Piedmont, in the vicinity of which the enemy had dug riflepits and made breastworks of logs and rails - chevaux de frise - to defend the road, being a naturally strong position, well fortified.
The command at this point on the morning of the 5th, being a beautiful clear morning, all nature bright and cheerful in its early summer hues. The First, with the other regiments of the Second Brigade, was ordered to move forward and feel the enemy's position near the town; having advanced about three-quarters of a mile, dressed the line, then moved forward in support of the One Hundred and Sixteenth Ohio Infantry, which, charging a piece of woods occupied in force by the enemy, drove him from the position, though stubbornly held for a time. The First then occupied this advanced position lately held by the enemy, while the First Brigade, to which the regiment for the present engagement was attached, advanced and formed line on the edge of this piece of woods in front of the enemy's position; these movements all being made under a heavy fire if musketry and artillery from the line of defences. The First was then ordered by General Sullivan to take position on the right of the First Brigade; after taking this position the order was given to move forward, and having advanced about one hundred yards, the order was given to halt and open fire, which was done, the regiment maintaining this position for a short time, delivering and receiving a heavy fire, when, finding it impossible to drive the enemy from his works, being well protected in them, the order was given to fall back again and take position at the edge of the woods mentioned before, which order, a trying one under such circumstances, was executed with steadiness and without confusion, - remaining there, being somewhat protected by the timber, delivering an effective fire as the men in the defences exposed their bodies in firing. At this juncture Colonel Weddle, in examining the surroundings, had the good fortune to discover a depression in the ridge - which ridge ran the length of the meadow mentioned - of sufficient width, in his opinion, to accommodate the working of two guns, being within effective, indeed close, range of the enemy's defences; thereupon he hastened to notify Captain Von Kleiser, of the Thirtieth New York Battery, of it, and requested him to detach a section of his battery to the place. Captain Von Kleiser, evidently a good soldier and knowing his business, at once repaired to the spot indicated, and no sooner had he noted the position of things than he said, "Never you mind, colonel, wait a little, I'll show you something," returned to his battery and ordered two guns to the point referred to, and opening his fire, planted his shells in the defences, bursting in the midst of the gray-coats, producing a commotion at once among them, every shot telling.
At this time Colonel Thoburn with the balance of the Second Brigade had worked around and, by extending his line, got on the left flank of the enemy, and was delivering his fire with visible effect. Colonel Weddle saw the opportunity and called on the First, "Boys, there's Colonel Thoburn doubling up the enemy on the right, let us meet him in the defences. Charge!" The men responded with a cheer, and steadily the regiment advanced, increasing the pace to the double-quick, and, as the distance decreased, into a run, arriving at the fortifications, jumping and clambering over them. Nothing the enemy could do would stop them, and gaining the inside of the works, giving the defenders little or no time to rally, commenced a hand-to-hand contest, pushing them back and putting them over the river-bank into the water, where the fight was continued for some time. The rout was complete, and the trophies of the fight to the First were one hundred and fifty-one prisoners of the thirty-sixth Virginia and the colors of that regiment.
Thus ended the battle of Piedmont, probably as signal a defeat as the enemy sustained during the war. The loss of the regiment in this engagement cannot be given; it was heavy, however, considering the number of men engaged. if the records ever showed, being unattainable, no information respecting this can be written, and but little reliance, it may be stated, can be placed in any other reports; neither is the loss (killed and wounded) of the enemy known. It was stated at the time in the newspapers that "a worse whipped or more utterly demoralized crowd of beaten men never fled from a field," which was certainly very near the truth. The enemy was commanded by Generals Jones and McCausland, the former being killed in the action; the latter will be recognized as he of Chambersburg burning notoriety, which occurred in the latter part of the following month (July).
The regiment bivouacked for the night on the battle-ground, inside of the works. In the language of the official report, "the conduct of the regiment under fire, on the part of both officers and men, was cool, firm, and praiseworthy." Evidences were here noted of the straits the Confederacy was in to furnish the army with men. One very sad and instructive incident connected with this in support of the statement may be presented here, which, doubtless, is only one of many that might be mentioned of like character. Colonel Thoburn and Lieutenant-Colonel Weddle were passing among the wounded of the enemy when they came across a man who had long ago passed the exemption period, being probably sixty years of age, and to all appearances was physically wholly unfitted for the exposure and hardships of a soldier's life. This man was mortally wounded, his time on earth but a few hours at most, and appeared to be anxious to speak to the officers mentioned, who had spoken encouraging words to him, at the same time seeing the hopeless condition of the poor fellow. The wounded man informed the officers that he had been taken, like many others, from his home in Staunton, unfitted as he was for the service, and compelled to join the army, adding, "They could do this, but they couldn't give me the heart to fight against my country; and though in the ranks of foes, I have never fired a shot against that old flag, my love for it preventing me." Adding further, as his life ebbed and his voice became low, "There lays my gun; pick it up, and you will find that I have driven a pin into the tube to prevent its firing, and the load remains in it, which will prove to you that what I say is true." The lieutenant-colonel examined the gun and found the statement correct. On returning to the spot shortly afterwards the wounded man was dead. Among the dead, wounded, and prisoners were striplings, - mere boys, - probably forced into the service. The woods took fire during the evening and many of the dead were horribly burned, and it was feared that some of the wounded were also burned, though every effort was made to collect all and remove them from danger of this kind. over eleven hundred prisoners were captured, and a very large number of muskets; the latter were piled up and burned. The next morning the command marched on Staunton, arriving there the same day (6th), taking possession of the town, awaiting the arrival of reinforcements, as was rumored.
At this point, as was afterwards learned, it was explained that General Crook with his command, coming from the Kanawha Valley, would join forces with General hunter. Accordingly, in the evening General Crook arrived; the commander of the united forces being General Hunter, he being the senior officer. It was generally understood among the officers that Lynchburg was the objective-point, - and what was known regarding the destination at any time to the line-officers the men usually became possessed of in a short time, - the purpose being to compel General Lee to detach a portion of his command to meet Hunter, thus weakening his lines, of which General Grant proposed to take advantage. The men, however, thought the object to be the capture of Lynchburg. It evidently was not the intention to attempt to hold the town, the force sent being entirely inadequate to do this, though it was sufficiently formidable to awake apprehension on the part of the enemy, compelling him to detach a larger force to keep intact his communications and line of supply.
With the division under command of General Hunter the regiment left Staunton at seven A.M. on the 10th of June. After marching eighteen miles, skirmishing on the front with the enemy's cavalry, which appeared to be very active, and continued almost the whole day, bivouacked at a little town called Midway. The men at this time were placed on half-rations. On the 11th the division marched at six A.M., and one mile north of Lexington met the enemy, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, in strong force, evidently prepared to make a stand, but whose attempts to bar the way, though vigorous, were futile; his column being too light was driven through the town on the double-quick, spreading consternation by the way. The command bivouacked in and around the town. On the next day an ordinary event following in a contest of this description occurred. General Hunter having ordered the burning of the Virginia Military Institute, it was committed to the flames, all the buildings connected therewith being destroyed. The house of Governor Letcher here was also burned. The governor's daughter begged most earnestly of General Hunter to spare some of their household goods, - probably articles of little value to any one but members of the fami1y, - but all to no purpose; they were all consigned to the flames, the general being relentless. Mrs. Letcher and her family sat on the grass in the afternoon near to where the house had stood, without a home or shelter, probably dependent for food upon their kind and more fortunate neighbors. The fine library of the institute was destroyed, - the volumes were scattered through the camp, - and when orders were received to move, book, maps, and scientific instruments were either burnt or thrown away by the men. Flour and other provisions were taken from the stores and shops, thus making war support war, a feature of the contest the men of the First had seen comparatively little of, and then only resorted to in order to prevent starvation. To the surprise of all and the disgust of many, the bronze statue of Washington, which had adorned the grounds of the Military Institute, was loaded into one of the wagons of the train and hauled up the valley, across the mountains to Lynchburg, and on the retreat across rivers, plains, and mountains, down the Kanawha and up the Ohio to Wheeling, where for a time it remained placed in front of the Linsly Institute, in the eyes of many a standing reproach to the leader of the expedition. Humanely speaking this was a mistake, as the wagon used for the transportation of this statue might have been better employed in relieving the worn-out, sick, and dying of the command, as will be narrated.
On the 13th General Duffie returned from his expedition in search of property sent away by the citizens in wagons, which, by order of the commander, he was to find and destroy. In this he had been successful, having destroyed two hundred and forty wagons loaded with provisions, clothing, etc. It was the intention to secrete this property in the mountains until after the passage of the Union troops. This was a mistake on the part of the people, as much of it might have been preserved by leaving it in the town. But such was the terror inspired by the reported acts of Hunter's command, that this attempt was made to save it. The report prevailed here that this command was taking or destroying all such property, the tears of the women and the cries of the children being unheeded; indeed, it was found that the people of this part of the State had been taught to look upon the armed defenders of the Union as monsters, capable of doing anything to injure them. An instance showing this feeling occurred here, which is mentioned as illustrating to what extent this was indulged in. Some of the men by accident discovered a sort of cave or fissure in the ground, the entrance to which was overgrown with weeds. One of them, nosing about, discovered at the bottom quite a large, heavy trunk, which, upon examination, was found to contain silver and plated ware, fine linen, etc., no doubt of considerable value to the owner, but of none to the men, the commander of the regiment was informed of the discovery, and shortly afterwards an elderly gentleman, evidently respectable and intelligent, appeared, and stated that the property was his, having hidden it there for safety, being advised that the soldiers would take everything they could lay hands on of any value. When asked asked if he credited such tales, he replied that it was a part of the warfare, as conducted by the North, to despoil them of all their goods and chattels, and that even the persons of their wives and daughters would by no means be secure if the Northern soldiers occupied the country. When the lieutenant-colonel ordered the men to carry the trunk with its contents to the house of the owner he could hardly credit the evidence of his senses, and inquired what regiment it was; when informed, this was another surprise to him, as he had never heard of a Virginia command being in the Union army. it may be supposed that this man left with changed feelings regarding "Lincoln's army of hirelings."
Among the prisoners brought in here by General Duffie were three familiar faces to the men of the regiment from Wheeling, - Dr. C., P. B., and B., G., the latter well known in the upper part of the town. The first named was released on parole, the other two were sent North as prisoners for exchange. On the 14th the command left Lexington at five A.M., marching through a rather poor and rough country. Weeds and scrubby timber began taking the place of fine, fertile fields and magnificent forest-trees of the beautiful valley. Arriving at Buchanan, a village in Botetourt County, on Little James River. The commanding general has a bushwhacker shot this day, leaving his body lying on the residue, refusing to allow it burial. Probably this was intended as a warning to his comrades. The command was still on half-rations. One advantage following on this was little preparation was needed for meals, hence were soon dispatched. Crossed the Peaks of Otter, the highest peaks in Virginia. Thirty hours were occupied in crossing these mountains, stopping at midnight for the single meal taken during this time. On the 15th passed through the little town of Liberty, which is on the Virginia Central Railroad. At this time the mills and all other buildings near the line of march were destroyed, the railroad named was also torn up and temporarily rendered useless. This part of the State was made to suffer severely by the destruction of flourmills and factories, also fine dwellings belonging to the prominent rebels. All that were seen were destroyed. This course of the commander of the expedition was severely condemned by many of the officers and men of the command, but the orders had to be obeyed. And it is probable that this mode of dealing with the enemy had the tendency desired, which was to render the country incapable of supporting an army, hence would necessarily shorten the contest. This day General Averill had a spy shot, and, not to be outdone by the commander, left his body unburied in the woods. The men were now subsisting on a pint of flour, three-quarters of a pound of beef, and half-ration of coffee and sugar per day. This was slim fare for men pushed on the march as this command was. This night the command bivouacked between Big and Little Otter Creeks, about twenty miles from Lynchburg.
On the 16th, marched again at daylight, skirmishing along the entire road, the enemy apparently having been reinforced. On this day, General Crook's command being in the advance, when within five miles of the town, met the enemy in strong force, and after a severe fight drove him back to the town. Hunter's division arrived on the battle-field at dark, relieving Crook's. At night the enemy continued his artillery and musketry fire, the division losing a number of men by it and seriously disturbing the repose of all. The division was placed under arms, and advancing, drove the enemy back and into his defences. Being a beautiful moonlight night, there was no difficulty in executing orders, as the enemy could be seen almost as distinctly as by daylight. The command was close enough to the fortifications surrounding the town to hear the movement of the wheels of the guns being placed in position, cutting down trees, etc., to strengthen the defences. To all appearances there was a strong force assembled here, and it began to look as though the Union force was a day or two late for success to follow an attack on the town, if this was the object, and defeat was hardly to be thought of, as that certainly looked like destruction to the whole command. There was little sleep in Hunter's army that night, as all, even the most obtuse or reckless, saw that it was a hazardous position, - that General Lee was throwing a strong force into the Lynchburg defences, and that they could not be taken without a very heavy loss to the assaulting party, even if then, and many a poor fellow before the setting of another sun would be missed by his comrades. On the 17th, at daylight after a sleepless night, the enemy opened fire. Lieutenant Gordon, Company C, a gallant officer, was mortally wounded here, and died during the day, and a number of the regiment were killed and wounded, the regiment being in the front line. Captain Dougherty, Company I, was badly wounded in the side and left in the hands of the enemy. Remained here all the day; during this time the cavalry was engaged in reconnoitring the works, and the infantry in holding position before the town. The First lost additional men during the day. To be severely wounded under the circumstances was almost sure to result in death to the unfortunate man, whether captured or not. The trains on the railroad could be heard arriving from the direction of Richmond, and there could be no question as to the meaning of this. Colonel Powell with his brigade of cavalry and two pieces of artillery started at daylight to get in rear of the town if possible, but when within three miles of the railroad in the rear he met a large force, - too large for him to attack, therefore was compelled to fall back, and in executing this movement was confronted by another strong force, through which he had to fight his way, which he succeeded in doing, suffering considerable loss in effecting his retreat.