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Chapter 4


The night had been the most intensely cold that the country had known for
many years. Peach and other tender trees had been killed by the frosty
rigor, and sentinels had been frozen to death in our neighborhood. The
deep snow on which we made our beds, the icy covering of the streams near
us, the limbs of the trees above us, had been cracking with loud noises
all night, from the bitter cold.

We were camped around Jonesville, each of the four companies lying on one
of the roads leading from the town. Company L lay about a mile from the
Court House. On a knoll at the end of the village toward us, and at a
point where two roads separated,--one of which led to us,--stood a
three-inch Rodman rifle, belonging to the Twenty-second Ohio Battery.
It and its squad of eighteen men, under command of Lieutenant Alger and
Sergeant Davis, had been sent up to us a few days before from the Gap.

The comfortless gray dawn was crawling sluggishly over the mountain-tops,
as if numb as the animal and vegetable life which had been shrinking all
the long hours under the fierce chill.

The Major's bugler had saluted the morn with the lively, ringing
tarr-r-r-a-ta-ara of the Regulation reveille, and the company buglers,
as fast as they could thaw out their mouth-pieces, were answering him.

I lay on my bed, dreading to get up, and yet not anxious to lie still.
It was a question which would be the more uncomfortable. I turned over,
to see if there was not another position in which it would be warmer,
and began wishing for the thousandth time that the efforts for the
amelioration of the horrors of warfare would progress to such a point as
to put a stop to all Winter soldiering, so that a fellow could go home as
soon as cold weather began, sit around a comfortable stove in a country
store; and tell camp stories until the Spring was far enough advanced to
let him go back to the front wearing a straw hat and a linen duster.

Then I began wondering how much longer I would dare lie there, before the
Orderly Sergeant would draw me out by the heels, and accompany the
operation with numerous unkind and sulphurous remarks.

This cogitation, was abruptly terminated by hearing an excited shout from
the Captain:

"Turn Out!--COMPANY L!! TURNOUT ! ! !"

Almost at the same instant rose that shrill, piercing Rebel yell, which
one who has once heard it rarely forgets, and this was followed by a
crashing volley from apparently a regiment of rifles.

I arose-promptly.

There was evidently something of more interest on hand than the weather.

Cap, overcoat, boots and revolver belt went on, and eyes opened at about
the same instant.

As I snatched up my carbine, I looked out in front, and the whole woods
appeared to be full of Rebels, rushing toward us, all yelling and some
firing. My Captain and First Lieutenant had taken up position on the
right front of the tents, and part of the boys were running up to form a
line alongside them. The Second Lieutenant had stationed himself on a
knoll on the left front, and about a third of the company was rallying
around him.

My chum was a silent, sententious sort of a chap, and as we ran forward
to the Captain's line, he remarked earnestly:

"Well: this beats hell!"

I thought he had a clear idea of the situation.

All this occupied an inappreciably short space of time. The Rebels had
not stopped to reload, but were rushing impetuously toward us. We gave
them a hot, rolling volley from our carbines. Many fell, more stopped to
load and reply, but the mass surged straight forward at us. Then our
fire grew so deadly that they showed a disposition to cover themselves
behind the rocks and trees. Again they were urged forward; and a body of
them headed by their Colonel, mounted on a white horse, pushed forward
through the gap between us and the Second Lieutenant. The Rebel Colonel
dashed up to the Second Lieutenant, and ordered him to surrender. The
latter-a gallant old graybeard--cursed the Rebel bitterly and snapped his
now empty revolver in his face. The Colonel fired and killed him,
whereupon his squad, with two of its Sergeants killed and half its
numbers on the ground, surrendered.

The Rebels in our front and flank pressed us with equal closeness.
It seemed as if it was absolutely impossible to check their rush for an
instant, and as we saw the fate of our companions the Captain gave the
word for every man to look out for himself. We ran back a little
distance, sprang over the fence into the fields, and rushed toward Town,
the Rebels encouraging us to make good time by a sharp fire into our
backs from the fence.

While we were vainly attempting to stem the onset of the column dashed
against us, better success was secured elsewhere. Another column swept
down the other road, upon which there was only an outlying picket. This
had to come back on the run before the overwhelming numbers, and the
Rebels galloped straight for the three-inch Rodman. Company M was the
first to get saddled and mounted, and now came up at a steady, swinging
gallop, in two platoons, saber and revolver in hand, and led by two
Sergeants-Key and McWright,--printer boys from Bloomington, Illinois.
They divined the object of the Rebel dash, and strained every nerve to
reach the gun first. The Rebels were too near, and got the gun and
turned it. Before they could fire it, Company M struck them headlong,
but they took the terrible impact without flinching, and for a few
minutes there was fierce hand-to-hand work, with sword and pistol.
The Rebel leader sank under a half-dozen simultaneous wounds, and fell
dead almost under the gun. Men dropped from their horses each instant,
and the riderless steeds fled away. The scale of victory was turned by
the Major dashing against the Rebel left flank at the head of Company I,
and a portion of the artillery squad. The Rebels gave ground slowly,
and were packed into a dense mass in the lane up which they had charged.
After they had been crowded back, say fifty yards, word was passed
through our men to open to the right and left on the sides of the road.
The artillerymen had turned the gun and loaded it with a solid shot.
Instantly a wide lane opened through our ranks; the man with the lanyard
drew the fatal cord, fire burst from the primer and the muzzle, the long
gun sprang up and recoiled, and there seemed to be a demoniac yell in its
ear-splitting crash, as the heavy ball left the mouth, and tore its
bloody way through the bodies of the struggling mass of men and horses.

This ended it. The Rebels gave way in disorder, and our men fell back to
give the gun an opportunity to throw shell and canister.

The Rebels now saw that we were not to be run over like a field of
cornstalks, and they fell back to devise further tactics, giving us a
breathing spell to get ourselves in shape for defense.

The dullest could see that we were in a desperate situation. Critical
positions were no new experience to us, as they never are to a cavalry
command after a few months in the field, but, though the pitcher goes
often to the well, it is broken at last, and our time was evidently at
hand. The narrow throat of the Valley, through which lay the road back
to the Gap, was held by a force of Rebels evidently much superior to our
own, and strongly posted. The road was a slender, tortuous one, winding
through rocks and gorges. Nowhere was there room enough to move with
even a platoon front against the enemy, and this precluded all chances of
cutting out. The best we could do was a slow, difficult movement, in
column of fours, and this would have been suicide. On the other side of
the Town the Rebels were massed stronger, while to the right and left
rose the steep mountain sides. We were caught-trapped as surely as a rat
ever was in a wire trap.

As we learned afterwards, a whole division of cavalry, under command of
the noted Rebel, Major General Sam Jones, had been sent to effect our
capture, to offset in a measure Longstreet's repulse at Knoxville.
A gross overestimate of our numbers had caused the sending of so large
a force on this errand, and the rough treatment we gave the two columns
that attacked us first confirmed the Rebel General's ideas of our
strength, and led him to adopt cautious tactics, instead of crushing us
out speedily, by a determined advance of all parts of his encircling

The lull in the fight did not last long. A portion of the Rebel line on
the east rushed forward to gain a more commanding position.

We concentrated in that direction and drove it back, the Rodman assisting
with a couple of well-aimed shells.--This was followed by a similar but
more successful attempt by another part of the Rebel line, and so it went
on all day--the Rebels rushing up first on this side, and then on that,
and we, hastily collecting at the exposed points, seeking to drive them
back. We were frequently successful; we were on the inside, and had the
advantage of the short interior lines, so that our few men and our
breech-loaders told to a good purpose.

There were frequent crises in the struggle, that at some times gave
encouragement, but never hope. Once a determined onset was made from the
East, and was met by the equally determined resistance of nearly our
whole force. Our fire was so galling that a large number of our foes
crowded into a house on a knoll, and making loopholes in its walls, began
replying to us pretty sharply. We sent word to our faithful
artillerists, who trained the gun upon the house. The first shell
screamed over the roof, and burst harmlessly beyond. We suspended fire
to watch the next. It crashed through the side; for an instant all was
deathly still; we thought it had gone on through. Then came a roar and a
crash; the clapboards flew off the roof, and smoke poured out;
panic-stricken Rebels rushed from the doors and sprang from the windows
--like bees from a disturbed hive; the shell had burst among the
confined mass of men inside! We afterwards heard that twenty-five were
killed there.

At another time a considerable force of rebels gained the cover of a
fence in easy range of our main force. Companies L and K were ordered to
charge forward on foot and dislodge them. Away we went, under a fire
that seemed to drop a man at every step. A hundred yards in front of the
Rebels was a little cover, and behind this our men lay down as if by one
impulse. Then came a close, desperate duel at short range. It was a
question between Northern pluck and Southern courage, as to which could
stand the most punishment. Lying as flat as possible on the crusted
snow, only raising the head or body enough to load and aim, the men on
both sides, with their teeth set, their glaring eyes fastened on the foe,
their nerves as tense as tightly-drawn steel wires, rained shot on each
other as fast as excited hands could crowd cartridges into the guns and
discharge them.

Not a word was said.

The shallower enthusiasm that expresses itself in oaths and shouts had
given way to the deep, voiceless rage of men in a death grapple. The
Rebel line was a rolling torrent of flame, their bullets shrieked angrily
as they flew past, they struck the snow in front of us, and threw its
cold flakes in faces that were white with the fires of consuming hate;
they buried themselves with a dull thud in the quivering bodies of the
enraged combatants.

Minutes passed; they seemed hours.

Would the villains, scoundrels, hell-hounds, sons of vipers never go?

At length a few Rebels sprang up and tried to fly. They were shot down

Then the whole line rose and ran!

The relief was so great that we jumped to our feet and cheered wildly,
forgetting in our excitement to make use of our victory by shooting down
our flying enemies.

Nor was an element of fun lacking. A Second Lieutenant was ordered to
take a party of skirmishers to the top of a hill and engage those of the
Rebels stationed on another hill-top across a ravine. He had but lately
joined us from the Regular Army, where he was a Drill Sergeant.
Naturally, he was very methodical in his way, and scorned to do otherwise
under fire than he would upon the parade ground. He moved his little
command to the hill-top, in close order, and faced them to the front.
The Johnnies received them with a yell and a volley, whereat the boys
winced a little, much to the Lieutenant's disgust, who swore at them;
then had them count off with great deliberation, and deployed them as
coolly as if them was not an enemy within a hundred miles. After the
line deployed, he "dressed" it, commanded "Front!" and "Begin, firing!"
his attention was called another way for an instant, and when he looked
back again, there was not a man of his nicely formed skirmish line
visible. The logs and stones had evidently been put there for the use of
skirmishers, the boys thought, and in an instant they availed themselves
of their shelter.

Never was there an angrier man than that Second Lieutenant; he brandished
his saber and swore; he seemed to feel that all his soldierly reputation
was gone, but the boys stuck to their shelter for all that, informing him
that when the Rebels would stand out in the open field and take their
fire, they would likewise.

Despite all our efforts, the Rebel line crawled up closer an closer to
us; we were driven back from knoll to knoll, and from one fence after
another. We had maintained the unequal struggle for eight hours; over
one-fourth of our number were stretched upon the snow, killed or badly
wounded. Our cartridges were nearly all gone; the cannon had fired its
last shot long ago, and having a blank cartridge left, had shot the
rammer at a gathering party of the enemy.

Just as the Winter sun was going down upon a day of gloom the bugle
called us all up on the hillside. Then the Rebels saw for the first time
how few there were, and began an almost simultaneous charge all along the
line. The Major raised piece of a shelter tent upon a pole. The line
halted. An officer rode out from it, followed by two privates.

Approaching the Major, he said, "Who is in command this force?"

The Major replied: "I am."

"Then, Sir, I demand your sword."

"What is your rank, Sir!"

"I am Adjutant of the Sixty-fourth Virginia."

The punctillious soul of the old "Regular"--for such the Major was
swelled up instantly, and he answered:

"By ---, sir, I will never surrender to my inferior in rank!"

The Adjutant reined his horse back. His two followers leveled their
pieces at the Major and waited orders to fire. They were covered by a
dozen carbines in the hands of our men. The Adjutant ordered his men to
"recover arms," and rode away with them. He presently returned with a
Colonel, and to him the Major handed his saber.

As the men realized what was being done, the first thought of many of
them was to snatch out the cylinder's of their revolvers, and the slides
of their carbines, and throw them away, so as to make the arms useless.

We were overcome with rage and humiliation at being compelled to yield to
an enemy whom we had hated so bitterly. As we stood there on the bleak
mountain-side, the biting wind soughing through the leafless branches,
the shadows of a gloomy winter night closing around us, the groans and
shrieks of our wounded mingling with the triumphant yells of the Rebels
plundering our tents, it seemed as if Fate could press to man's lips no
cup with bitterer dregs in it than this.

John McElroy