FIRST REGIMENT VIRGINIA INFANTRY.
THE situation of Hunter's command viewed in any light was indeed a grave, if not a desperate one; almost entirely without subsistence for the men or forage for the animals, without the possibility of getting possession of the town, two lines of retreat only practicable, - the one the route already passed over to the valley, with the certainty almost, if taken, of a force being sent by rail to intercept, which force might, in all probability would, be strong enough to destroy the command, and the other over the mountains to the Kanawha Valley, more than two hundred miles of a rough country, already cleanly swept of provisions and forage, was the outlook, and what was to be done must be done quickly, as the privations to be undergone would be increased with delay. The determination of the general was soon formed. One of his good qualities was arriving speedily at a conclusion and acting on it at once. After a thorough reconnoissance of the situation, General Hunter in the evening, placing General Averill's division of cavalry as the rear-guard to cover the movement, ordered a retreat, which commenced the movement, which commenced the same night, General Powell with his brigade forming the rear, and for three days and nights this gallant officer with his small brigade performed this most arduous duty, it is said without rest or relief for his men, fighting the pursuers at every available or good defensive point. The whole command marched for these three days and nights, halting but three times to make coffee and eat a few mouthfuls. On the evening of the 20th the men were halted for sleep; tired nature could do no more, - their eyes closing as they marched. At three A.M. the march was resumed. All there was to subsist on was a little hard bread and fresh beef, the latter doled out in half-rations, and the animals without forage of any kind; picking up a little grass by the roadside was all they had to quiet the pangs of hunger. The command passed through the little town of Salem, Roanoke County, after which a mountain road was struck and followed. The wagon-train well guarded being in the advance, the artillery following not so well protected. The former passed through a defile in the mountain but a short distance west of Salem; the enemy made an attack on the artillery, and before support could be brought up captured eight pieces, four of which belonged to Carlin's battery, and two each to two other batteries of the command. Somebody was very much to blame for this disgraceful affair, for allowing the support, infantry and cavalry, to be so far from these guns. No blame can be attached to the artillery for this loss. General Hunter was at the time severely censured for this. To what extent he was responsible for it, in the absence of official information, cannot be stated.
The road at this time being traversed was a very bad one. What road was not bad throughout that region? In consequence of this the column was a very long one, the men being very much scattered, and taking considerable time to collect them made a defence very difficult, the enemy at the same time watching his opportunity to capture men and material whenever chance offered, and accepted this one. The road followed by the command from Salem to Meadow Bluffs winds over the highest range of the Alleghanies, and was the same one used by General Averill in the winter of 1863 when making his raid into the southeastern part of Virginia. One the 22d, bad as the road was, the command marched twenty-two miles, subsisting on one "cracker," weighing, probably, two ounces, and a tincup of coffee to the man from three A.M. to eleven P.M., when the command was halted, and, with coffee again and a small piece of fresh beef, made a sumptuous meal, invigorating the men very greatly. At three P.M. on the 23d, after a sleep, the march was again resumed, which continued until four A.M. of the 24th, arriving at the Sweet Sulphur Springs. The men at the time were falling to sleep on their horses, and hundreds of the infantry dropping down by the roadside done out completely, many men on the last day, particularly of the New York Heavy Artillery, lying down by the roadside to be picked up by the enemy following, and some of them never to get up again. Many horses and mules dropped dead in the road during the last two days of this march, which compelled the burning of a number of wagons and the pontoon-train in order to release enough animals to save the guns; added to the difficulties mentioned, the sun was intensely hot and a number of the men dying from sunstroke. The wagons were as full of the sick, wounded, and exhausted as the animals could haul in their weakened condition; all through this the Washington statue had a wagon for its transportation. The command left the Sweet Springs at five A.M. of the 24th, pushing on all day and all the night, arriving at the White Sulphur Springs at nine A.M. on the 25th. The men here were allowed time to make coffee and take a little sleep, being roused up again and on the march at four P.M. The entire command was entirely out of bread and meat; this march continued until eleven P.M., passing through Lewisburg in the evening and bivouacking near Meadow Bluff until daylight of the 26th, receiving a small supply of food at this point, and, while not much, made it evident to the men that there was a supply that would be reached probably before long, which encouraged them to further efforts. This was another hard day, and in the evening, resting at the foot of Big Sewell Mountain for the night, the question as to who would be able to surmount this was a serious one. The next morning, however, with weak and uncertain steps, the men barely able to carry their muskets, and ill calculated to meet the difficulties of a march over this mountain, yet stepped out cheerfully; and toiling along the steep winding road all day long, the shades of evening found the command near Hawk's Nest, where the men had long-wished for and most welcome supply of food, followed by a good night's rest, the refreshing sweetness of which cannot be described, but may be imagined.
At daylight on the 28th they were again on the way, and, without any event of sufficient importance to note, arrived in the evening on the Tompkins farm, - a well-known camping-ground of the locality, - resting here for the night, and on the next day the command arrived at Gauley Bridge, when rations for the men and forage for the animals were obtained. This terminated the retreat, which had occupied twelve days, most of which were days of privations and suffering that none but the strongest were able to endure. The First, by reason of former experiences of this kind, were as well prepared for this march as any regiment or battalion of the division, and much better than the majority, hence passed through this rough ordeal with probably a less percentage of loss than any other body of men of the command, losing very few from exhaustion, almost the entire loss sustained being on account of wounds. The troops were divided here, the larger portion proceeding down the Kanawha to Charleston. The First remained here, and with plenty to eat and rather light duty to perform, the men soon began to present an improved appearance, though some of them through overeating were on the sick list for some days. The animals, which needed food and rest quite as much as the men, were partly compensated here for the late hardships undergone.
It is with hesitation that the writer refers to events which lend truth to the old adage, "Man's inhumanity to man," etc., but truth urges the statement. Along the line of march, in houses of people to all appearances having but little of this world's goods, as well as of those in better circumstances and of the affluent, every article that could be eaten was taken; and not satisfied with this, the soldiers in many instances broke up the furniture, glass, and crockery, tore up the bedding, scattering it about the house, and even at times destroyed the children's clothing; women and children, with rare exceptions, were in charge of the premises. The route of march of the men was followed by the loudly expressed grief of these poor people, sometimes with the curses of the despoiled ones on the invading "Yankees." Starvation almost stared these people in the face, which many of them said they would welcome rather than submit to the government. Reflecting on this abuse, it added to the feeling of enmity already entertained, which of course would be imparted to their husbands, sons, and brothers in the army, and little mercy might be expected from them towards Union soldiers falling into their hands in the future. Few of the people of the region passed through from Lynchburg to the mountains, if appearances are to be relied on, had the wherewith to sustain life until the corn was fit for use; many of the women had a half-starved look. This treatment at the hands of the soldiers was a great surprise to these people, as they had been assured by the returned rebel prisoners that they had been well, even kindly, treated in Northern prisons, hence they expected the same from the army passing through the country; how cruelly they were deceived may be judged from the foregoing. To the honor of the majority of the men of the First, it should be stated that they had no part in this. The two watering-places mentioned were beautiful summer resorts when the army arrived in the vicinity. On its departure there was a change for the worse, the houses being pillaged, carpets torn up, furniture broken, etc.
Hunter's command in this expedition lost eighteen hundred men killed, wounded, and missing, being about one-fourth the number composing it. The officers and men thought a mistake was made in selecting General Hunter for the leader of the expedition; it is doubtful, however, if any other leader would have succeeded better with the means at disposal.
The regiment remained on the Kanawha near Gauley Bridge but for a few days, when orders were received for a move down the river (Kanawha) and up the Ohio, - destination supposed to be the valley. The Ohio River being very low, much difficulty was experienced on the trip by steamboat to Parkersburg, where the regiment arrived after very hard rubbing over the shoal places. Took the cars at this point, and were again on the way to the well-beaten track in the valley, to enter, as it proved, on the final campaign on that battle-ground, the end of which found the rebellion near its collapse, so far as that part of the State was concerned. On the 9th of July the regiment arrived at Cherry Run Station, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; at this time Imboden was at Hagerstown, a few miles distant, levying contributions on the town, burning government property, and collecting and carrying off provisions and forage, making Hagerstown pay dearly for his occupancy.
As half of 1864 has already passed, this is a good point at which to pause in the narrative of events connected directly with the story of the regiment to record the military events of the year, some of which had a bearing on the operations just narrated. For a time after the desperate fighting in November and December of the previous year there appeared to be a lull, both sides using every effort to strengthen the position and fill their armies, - a very difficult matter with the South. The Mississippi River, with the whole of Kentucky and the larger part of Tennessee, were in possession of the Union army, the trans-Mississippi department being cut off entirely from the eastern and southeastern States in rebellion. Union cavalry expeditions into the enemy's territory were frequent, and resulting almost invariable in great damage to his lines of communication of his forces uncertain. The larger armies of the Union were placed in command of tried man, measured by a military rather than a political gauge, the incompetent men having been pretty thoroughly weeded out. The eyes of the country and the hopes of all in the North appeared to be concentrated upon the two rising chiefs of the war, needing only one more year's experience to render them heroes indeed, alive to the situation and knowing how to meet it, - Grant and Sherman, - one to operate in Virginia, the other in Tennessee and Georgia. The first named was made lieutenant-general March 2, and appointed commander-in-chief of the United States armies on the 12th, while the latter commanded the armies in the States mentioned; practically a separate and distinct command, though acting together (no rivalry or jealousy between these two men) to employ the whole forces of the Confederacy at the same time.
On the 1st of February the President ordered a draft of five hundred thousand men, and on the 25th of March called for two hundred thousand more. General Forrest, the Confederate chief of cavalry in the Southwest, failed in his attempt to capture Paducah, Kentucky, on the 25th of March, and on the 28th the Union forces secured a victory at Cane River, Louisiana. On the 8th of April General Banks suffered a reverse on Red River, and was compelled to retreat after considerable loss. On the 12th the enemy, under command of General Forrest, captured Fort Pillow, an earthwork on the Mississippi River, above Memphis, defended by colored troops, many of the latter being barbarously murdered. On the 4th of May General Grant crossed the Rapidan River and commenced his bloody Wilderness campaign, which at first was a reverse, ending, however, during the month in manoeuvring General Lee out of his intrenchments, the latter falling back to Spottsylvania Court-House, thence to the North Anna River, and again to and across the Pamunkey, fighting hard at every point, both armies losing heavily, though, as General Lee was protected by earthworks usually, Grant being the aggressor, the latter's loss was heavier. Sherman during the month drove General Johnston from Resaca, after two days' hard fighting. June 1 was fought the battle of Cold Harbor, one of the hardest contests of the war, between Grant and Lee; being a repulse to the Union arms, both sides sustaining a heavy loss, particularly Grant. The reader's attention is called to the period of General Hunter's expedition, a diversion, as stated, designed by General Grant to weaken Lee's forces on his front in order to defend Lynchburg. On the 15th of this month Hunter's command was approaching the town named, being but one day's march distant, arriving before it on the 16th, hence the information respecting the route of his command and its objective-point must have been known to Lee, which could no longer be doubtful. After having crossed the mountains, General Grant, of course, having a full understanding beforehand of the probable time of arrival, could make his disposition accordingly. The latter crossed the James River, below Richmond, on the 12th, with his army, having sent General Sheridan to break and injure as much as possible Lee's railroad communications by the Virginia Central, expecting the co-operation of General Hunter, who, however, had passed farther west, hence failed in forming a junction with him, if such was designed. After damaging the road and bridges, General Sheridan rejoined General Grant. The latter, on the 15th, 16th, and 17th, made several desperate attempts to capture the works about Petersburg, but in each instance found Lee prepared to defend them, and, save the gaining of a few temporary advantages, ended in failure and a heavy loss to the Union army, at the same time, though, inflicting a heavy loss on Lee.
On the 21st the hard fighting was renewed, the result doubtless being that General Grant discovered that General Hunter had not created sufficient diversion to materially weaken Lee's army; the Petersburg defences, which were very strong, remaining in the enemy's hands despite his (Grant's) best efforts. Sherman was pushing Johnston at this time, having adopted the same tactics as Grant. At Kenesaw mountain he suffered a reverse from the latter wily antagonist, perhaps the best strategist in the Confederate army, who knew how and when to fight and when to retreat. In this engagement a friend and former schoolmate of the writer, F. A. Bartleson, colonel of the One Hundredth Illinois Regiment, in command of a brigade was killed. Colonel Bartleson will be remembered by the older citizens of Wheeling as the son of one of the proprietors of the WHEELING TIMES, associated with James E. Wharton in the publication of that paper. In a communication to a Pittsburg paper at the time describing the repulse, it was stated that "We left the noblest spirit in the command on the bloody heights, F. A. Bartleson, colonel of the One Hundredth Illinois Regiment." While this has no connection with the narrative, the digression is made to pay a deserved tribute to as true a friend, as pure a character, and unselfish a patriot as took up arms in defence of the Union.
During the first week in July, General Early, with twenty thousand men, was detached by Lee to create a diversion for the purpose of relieving the pressure in the Petersburg lines. Jackson's loss must have been very severely felt at this time by General Lee; this expedition, so well calculated to secure the end desired, if in the hands of "Stonewall," would probably have had a different termination to what it had commanded by General Early, who, while an admirable officer as a subordinate, lacked the qualities needed to secure the result expected and reasonably hoped for at one time by the Confederate government which was, as is believed, no less than the capture of Washington. Passing into Maryland, Early fought a severe battle with General Wallace on the Monocacy River, and a few days afterwards appeared before Washington, threatening an attack, but, fortunately for the safety of the capital, General Grant had detached the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to the defence of the city, and these troops, owing to the delay caused by the severe handling Early had received from Wallace, arrived just in time to be thrown into the defences, thus securing the city against capture. Early then fell back into Virginia, recrossing the Potomac at one of the lower fords.