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Chapter 2

SCARCITY OF FOOD FOR THE ARMY--RAID FOR FORAGE--ENCOUNTER WIT THE REBELS
--SHARP CAVALRY FIGHT--DEFEAT OF THE "JOHNNIES"--POWELL'S VALLEY OPENED
UP.

As the Autumn of 1863 advanced towards Winter the difficulty of supplying
the forces concentrated around Cumberland Gap--as well as the rest of
Burnside's army in East Tennessee--became greater and greater. The base
of supplies was at Camp Nelson, near Lexington, Ky., one hundred and
eighty miles from the Gap, and all that the Army used had to be hauled
that distance by mule teams over roads that, in their best state were
wretched, and which the copious rains and heavy traffic had rendered
well-nigh impassable. All the country to our possession had been drained
of its stock of whatever would contribute to the support of man or beast.
That portion of Powell's Valley extending from the Gap into Virginia was
still in the hands of the Rebels; its stock of products was as yet almost
exempt from military contributions. Consequently a raid was projected to
reduce the Valley to our possession, and secure its much needed stores.
It was guarded by the Sixty-fourth Virginia, a mounted regiment, made up
of the young men of the locality, who had then been in the service about
two years.

Maj. C. H. Beer's third Battalion, Sixteenth Illinois Cavalry--four
companies, each about 75 strong--was sent on the errand of driving out
the Rebels and opening up the Valley for our foraging teams. The writer
was invited to attend the excursion. As he held the honorable, but not
very lucrative position of "high, private" in Company L, of the
Battalion, and the invitation came from his Captain, he did not feel at
liberty to decline. He went, as private soldiers have been in the habit
of doing ever since the days of the old Centurion, who said with the
characteristic boastfulness of one of the lower grades of commissioned
officers when he happens to be a snob:

For I am also a man set under authority, having under me soldiers,
and I say unto one, Go; and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he
cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

Rather "airy" talk that for a man who nowadays would take rank with
Captains of infantry.

Three hundred of us responded to the signal of "boots and saddles,"
buckled on three hundred more or less trusty sabers and revolvers,
saddled three hundred more or less gallant steeds, came into line "as
companies" with the automatic listlessness of the old soldiers, "counted
off by fours" in that queer gamut-running style that makes a company of
men "counting off"--each shouting a number in a different voice from his
neighbor--sound like running the scales on some great organ badly out of
tune; something like this:

One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two. Three. Four. One. Two. Three.
Four.

Then, as the bugle sounded "Right forward! fours right!" we moved off at
a walk through the melancholy mist that soaked through the very fiber of
man and horse, and reduced the minds of both to a condition of limp
indifference as to things past, present and future.

Whither we were going we knew not, nor cared. Such matters had long
since ceased to excite any interest. A cavalryman soon recognizes as the
least astonishing thing in his existence the signal to "Fall in!" and
start somewhere. He feels that he is the "Poor Joe" of the Army--under
perpetual orders to "move on."

Down we wound over the road that zig-tagged through the forts, batteries
and rifle-pits covering the eastern ascent to the Flap-past the wonderful
Murrell Spring--so-called because the robber chief had killed, as he
stooped to drink of its crystal waters, a rich drover, whom he was
pretending to pilot through the mountains--down to where the "Virginia
road" turned off sharply to the left and entered Powell's Valley. The
mist had become a chill, dreary rain, through, which we plodded silently,
until night closed in around us some ten miles from the Gap. As we
halted to go into camp, an indignant Virginian resented the invasion of
the sacred soil by firing at one of the guards moving out to his place.
The guard looked at the fellow contemptuously, as if he hated to waste
powder on a man who had no better sense than to stay out in such a rain,
when he could go in-doors, and the bushwhacker escaped, without even a
return shot.

Fires were built, coffee made, horses rubbed, and we laid down with feet
to the fire to get what sleep we could.

Before morning we were awakened by the bitter cold. It had cleared off
during the night and turned so cold that everything was frozen stiff.
This was better than the rain, at all events. A good fire and a hot cup
of coffee would make the cold quite endurable.

At daylight the bugle sounded "Right forward! fours right!" again, and
the 300 of us resumed our onward plod over the rocky, cedar-crowned
hills.

In the meantime, other things were taking place elsewhere. Our esteemed
friends of the Sixty-fourth Virginia, who were in camp at the little town
of Jonesville, about 40 miles from the Gap, had learned of our starting
up the Valley to drive them out, and they showed that warm reciprocity
characteristic of the Southern soldier, by mounting and starting down the
Valley to drive us out. Nothing could be more harmonious, it will be
perceived. Barring the trifling divergence of yews as to who was to
drive and who be driven, there was perfect accord in our ideas.

Our numbers were about equal. If I were to say that they considerably
outnumbered us, I would be following the universal precedent.
No soldier-high or low-ever admitted engaging an equal or inferior force
of the enemy.

About 9 o'clock in the morning--Sunday--they rode through the streets of
Jonesville on their way to give us battle. It was here that most of the
members of the Regiment lived. Every man, woman and child in the town
was related in some way to nearly every one of the soldiers.

The women turned out to wave their fathers, husbands, brothers and lovers
on to victory. The old men gathered to give parting counsel and
encouragement to their sons and kindred. The Sixty-fourth rode away to
what hope told them would be a glorious victory.

At noon we are still straggling along without much attempt at soldierly
order, over the rough, frozen hill-sides. It is yet bitterly cold, and
men and horses draw themselves together, as if to expose as little
surface as possible to the unkind elements. Not a word had been spoken
by any one for hours.

The head of the column has just reached the top of the hill, and the rest
of us are strung along for a quarter of a mile or so back.

Suddenly a few shots ring out upon the frosty air from the carbines of
the advance. The general apathy is instantly, replaced by keen
attention, and the boys instinctively range themselves into fours--the
cavalry unit of action. The Major, who is riding about the middle of the
first Company--I--dashes to the front. A glance seems to satisfy him,
for he turns in his saddle and his voice rings out:

"Company I! FOURS LEFT INTO LINE!--MARCH!!"

The Company swings around on the hill-top like a great, jointed toy
snake. As the fours come into line on a trot, we see every man draw his
saber and revolver. The Company raises a mighty cheer and dashes
forward.

Company K presses forward to the ground Company I has just left, the
fours sweep around into line, the sabers and revolvers come out
spontaneously, the men cheer and the Company flings itself forward.

All this time we of Company L can see nothing except what the companies
ahead of us are doing. We are wrought up to the highest pitch. As
Company K clears its ground, we press forward eagerly. Now we go into
line just as we raise the hill, and as my four comes around, I catch a
hurried glimpse through a rift in the smoke of a line of butternut and
gray clad men a hundred yards or so away. Their guns are at their faces,
and I see the smoke and fire spurt from the muzzles. At the same instant
our sabers and revolvers are drawn. We shout in a frenzy of excitement,
and the horses spring forward as if shot from a bow.

I see nothing more until I reach the place where the Rebel line stood.
Then I find it is gone. Looking beyond toward the bottom of the hill, I
see the woods filled with Rebels, flying in disorder and our men yelling
in pursuit. This is the portion of the line which Companies I and K
struck. Here and there are men in butternut clothing, prone on the
frozen ground, wounded and dying. I have just time to notice closely one
middle-aged man lying almost under my horse's feet. He has received a
carbine bullet through his head and his blood colors a great space around
him.

One brave man, riding a roan horse, attempts to rally his companions.
He halts on a little knoll, wheels his horse to face us, and waves his
hat to draw his companions to him. A tall, lank fellow in the next four
to me--who goes by the nickname of "'Leven Yards"--aims his carbine at
him, and, without checking his horse's pace, fires. The heavy Sharpe's
bullet tears a gaping hole through the Rebel's heart. He drops from his
saddle, his life-blood runs down in little rills on either side of the
knoll, and his riderless horse dashes away in a panic.

At this instant comes an order for the Company to break up into fours and
press on through the forest in pursuit. My four trots off to the road at
the right. A Rebel bugler, who hag been cut off, leaps his horse into
the road in front of us. We all fire at him on the impulse of the
moment. He falls from his horse with a bullet through his back. Company
M, which has remained in column as a reserve, is now thundering up close
behind at a gallop. Its seventy-five powerful horses are spurning the
solid earth with steel-clad hoofs. The man will be ground into a
shapeless mass if left where he has fallen. We spring from our horses
and drag him into a fence corner; then remount and join in the pursuit.

This happened on the summit of Chestnut Ridge, fifteen miles from
Jonesville.

Late in the afternoon the anxious watchers at Jonesville saw a single
fugitive urging his well-nigh spent horse down the slope of the hill
toward town. In an agony of anxiety they hurried forward to meet him and
learn his news.

The first messenger who rushed into Job's presence to announce the
beginning of the series of misfortunes which were to afflict the upright
man of Uz is a type of all the cowards who, before or since then, have
been the first to speed away from the field of battle to spread the news
of disaster. He said:

"And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have
slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped
alone to tell thee."

So this fleeing Virginian shouted to his expectant friends:

"The boys are all cut to pieces; I'm the only one that got away."

The terrible extent of his words was belied a little later, by the
appearance on the distant summit of the hill of a considerable mob of
fugitives, flying at the utmost speed of their nearly exhausted horses.
As they came on down the hill as almost equally disorganized crowd of
pursuers appeared on the summit, yelling in voices hoarse with continued
shouting, and pouring an incessant fire of carbine and revolver bullets
upon the hapless men of the Sixty-fourth Virginia.

The two masses of men swept on through the town. Beyond it, the road
branched in several directions, the pursued scattered on each of these,
and the worn-out pursuers gave up the chase.

Returning to Jonesville, we took an account of stock, and found that we
were "ahead" one hundred and fifteen prisoners, nearly that many horses,
and a considerable quantity of small arms. How many of the enemy had
been killed and wounded could not be told, as they were scattered over
the whole fifteen miles between where the fight occurred and the pursuit
ended. Our loss was trifling.

Comparing notes around the camp-fires in the evening, we found that our
success had been owing to the Major's instinct, his grasp of the
situation, and the soldierly way in which he took advantage of it. When
he reached the summit of the hill he found the Rebel line nearly formed
and ready for action. A moment's hesitation might have been fatal to us.
At his command Company I went into line with the thought-like celerity of
trained cavalry, and instantly dashed through the right of the Rebel
line. Company K followed and plunged through the Rebel center, and when
we of Company L arrived on the ground, and charged the left, the last
vestige of resistance was swept away. The whole affair did not probably
occupy more than fifteen minutes.

This was the way Powell's Valley was opened to our foragers.

John McElroy