As the rigors of winter have kept me much indoors I have not been able to use my cane presented me as a Christmas gift by a member of the Marlinton bar, and must draw on reminiscences. The cane referred to has a history to the effect that it grew on one of the Richmond battlefields, in soil once red with fraternal blood and was fashioned by an inmate of the Old Soldiers' Home.
My thoughts reverte [sic] to a Sabbath morning, April 13th, 1862. To the people then dwelling in the beautiful Highland Valley, wherein the town of McDowell is located that was a morning of painful suspense, for General Milroy's army was momentarily expected from Monterey. The citizens, who felt obliged to leave home, were busily preparing to be off at a moments warning.
About sunset the evening before I saddled up Harry Lightfoot and packed up my effects for an indefinite absence and took my departure just before the Confederate troops passed through on their way to new quarters on Shenandoah Mountain. About two miles from McDowell I stopped for the night at the home of Ewing Devier, from whom I learned the particulars that make up much of this article.
Mr. Devier was one of a squad of guerrilla scouts who had operated about Cheat Mountain the previous summer and was one of the party that ambushed Union scouts at the bridge over the west prong of Greenbrier River on the Parkersburg road, near where the town of Durbin now stands. It seems, from the way Mr. Devier told his story that when the Confederates retired from the Northwest after the Rich Mountain disaster several of the citizens organized a band with a view to cutting off the Federal scouts and check their pursuit after the panic stricken Confederates whose precipitate retreat across Cheat Mountain is so vividly remembered by our older people in upper Pocahontas.
These patriots upon hearing the doleful news, requested their wives and daughters to fix up something good to eat, enough for several days, and to do it quick for they were determined that General McClelland [sic] should not cross Cheat Mountain without a brush, and if he did not look sharp that mountain would be his grave, and he would be cheated out of his notion of going to Richmond by the McDowell route anyhow.
The citizens referred to naturally preferred their own tried and trusty rifles with which in former days, they had brought down many a bounding deer, and raving bear, in those very forests now swarming with the pursuing Federal troops. Nine or ten met at the home of a Mr. Gum on Back Allegheny and agreed on a plan of operation. After several hours spent in clambering over rocks and crawling through dense thickets, briers and laurel, they succeeded in reaching West Prong Bridge, where they had planned to wait for the enemy. This plan was modified after hearing from a citizen of the vicinity, who was near the road the day before reported that about forty of the Federal cavalry scouted nearly a mile to the east and returned. Thereupon it was thought advisable to reserve their fire, permit the scouts to pass, find out how many there were "to let them have it in the back." With a view to this they chose their positions. In a short while eight finely mounted and well equipped men appeared moving cautiously down the mountain, they were supposed to be the advance guard of a squadron of cavalry. Contrary to expectation, these horsemen did not come upon the bridge, but suddenly wheeled to one side and rode into the stream, to let their horses drink and cross below the bridge. It is supposed this move was taken to avoid the rumbling noise that would be made by their horses on the bridge and in that way fail to attract attention and possibly they might surround a house not far beyond and take some "secesh prisoners" supposed to be there as pickets. By this unloked [sic] for movement the men in ambush found they would be rode over and discovered as soon as the stream would be thus forded. it seemed to them now the only chance for their escape lay in firing at once upon the supposed advance squad and hide themselves bfore [sic] the others could come up.
The horses were quietly drinking, their riders were conversing in subdued tones while our scouts selected each his man. One of the troopers drew the reins and started over, this was the signal for the opening fire. The thrilling report of the first rifle was heard the others followed in rapid succession and all with fatal effects. Six fell into the water, and when the smoke cleared away, they were seen struggling in dying agonies. The seventh was dismounted but was holding himself up by his horses mane. The other dashed across the river, passed the scouts without being noticed, but when discovered was about a hundred yards off, looking on as if he was endeavoring to find out what was going on anyhow, our scouts supposing him to be one of a party that had probably passed before they reached the bridge, immediately took to the woods, leaving all behind.
So soon as they had thus disappeared the surviving trooper dashed back, rushed the bridge and fled up the mountain at the topmost speed. The citizen scouts now thinking that prudence is the better part of valor, continued their retreat by the way along which they had come.
They disbanded by mutual consent and returned to their respective homes. In connection with this affair, Mr. Devier told of this touching incident, which still haunts my memory and awakens my sympathetic feelings. Two of the party were young and handsome men and were very near each other, when fired upon. One was shot first and as he fell forward upon his horse's neck and was trying to hold on, his comrade turned, caught him by the arm and was in the act of leading him away, when a fatal bullet pierced him between the shoulders. Both fell together, their blood flowing in a mingled stream as they struggled together in dying throes and expired almost literally in each others arms. Their fate would prompt copious tears were it not for the thought that they were slain by men who had sweet homes to defend, and lovely families to protect. By some means or other Mr. Devier's name became known to the Federals and he was advised to elude arrest by keeping with or near the Confederate army. About 8 o'clock that April, Sabbath morning, while the pheasants were busily drumming in the distant woods from us, we imagined that we heard the drums of the expected army under the Milroy [sic]. In less time than it takes to tell it my patriotic friend, and his oldest son, a Confederate volunteer, were on their way to the camp on Shenandoah Mountain, leaving the much attached family outside the Confederate lines and the parting scene was deeply affecting.
One of the family, a youth of sixteen years was down with fever, and I staid by him to give the medicine while the hurried parting scene was passing.
For a time the mother and daughters retired to weep, with brokenness of heart and gloomy apprehension of impending trouble so sadly had they been impressed by the horrible rumors that were in circulation.
Upon becoming composed, they returned to the room, and one of the sisters relieved me of my charge. The mother handed me the Bible and had me examine the eleventh chapter of Daniel telling me that different persons had referred to it as a portion of Scripture prophecy, having its fulfillment "in these our times." It was not long after reading the chapter and some conversation about its contents, I was overcome with a drowsiness so intense that I fell into a profound slumber on my chair that continued for hours and from which I awoke much refreshed and invigorated. In my sleep I had dreamed of war, and about what I had been reading, and upon awakening my thoughts turned to what was at the time an all absorbing subject. A sweet impression fastened itself upon my mind that there would soon be peace, and I felt very much inclined to converse cheerfully with my sorrowing friends around me.
Our pleasant interview late that Sabbath afternoon was disturbed however by seeing Mrs. Henrietta Sitlington, a well known lady of the McDowell vicinity riding up to the stile in a great hurry and she called for some one to come out, in a very excited manner. Mrs. Devier hastened to her and soon I was called for, but before I could reach the stile she had dismounted and beckoned me to withdraw to ourselves. She told me in very suppressed tones of voice that the Federals had just reached McDowell in full force. three or four of the cavalry rode up to a house hear the bridge and asked for something to eat, be given them to use while on their horses.
The proprietor had kindly invited them to dismount and come in, where a good dinner should be prepared for them. The troopers declined for the reason that they were in a great hurry to be after the rebels, and they were now on their way to capture Staunton.
The Confederates had left for their camp on Shaws Fork about thirty minutes previously to the arrival of the Union army, to report no enemy advancing nor anywhere in sight. There was every reason to believe what she reported was true, and I saw at a glance that if the Unionists were advancing and should ambuscade the Bull Pasture mountain to cut off the scouts that might be sent out, the Confederates would be in their power and the capture or stampede of the squadron of cavalry would surely follow. It seemed easy for me to see also that should this occur that it would greatly embarrass the operations of the infantry in the east base of the Shenandoah Mountain and might possibly lead to very serious consequences. In less than five minutes I had my horse and luggage ready to cross the mountain by a near cut and report what I heard to General Johnson. To my great chagrin I found Harry Lightfoot so lame he could scarcely put one of his forefeet to the ground.
Nevertheless I had made up my mind to try it on a three-legged horse. Just as I was in the act of mounting and making a start anyhow, a six year old servant boy belonging to ex-governor Joseph Johnson, who had spent the winter in a log tenement near Mr. Devier's, as a refugee, passed by on a strong, good looking horse. When he saw I was making poor speed on my three footed horse, he readily consented to my riding his horse since I was to pass right by the place where his "old master," Gov. Joseph Johnson, was refugeeing. I had him ride behind me, and left Harry Lightfoot to run his chances. My aim was to strike a bypath and be at the cavalry camp before the Federals could possibly reach there and give the information I had just received as to their movements.
While riding along the little chocolate complexioned boy was quite talkative. What he said was to the effect that he had heard the Yankees being at McDowell, and he was afraid they might take his old master away with them, if they ever should find out where he was; old master had been running away from them most a year, and lived all winter in a log cabin in the woods, near a road where nobody hardly ever went over. "How old are you, my boy?" "I shall be six years old next July." "How do you like to live up in these mountains?" "O, very well. I like to live anywhere old master and mammy does." "What did you and your mammy leave Clarksburg for?" "Why to git away from the Yankees, and me and mammy are going to try to git away from 'em till they git us penned up and then I rekon they'll have to get us when we can't help ourselves." "So you think that the Yankees will try to take our men on Shaw's Fork to night?" "I don't know, sah, the Yankees is such devils that there is no telling what they'll do. Old marster and mammy thought they would come to McDowell but they have come and I do believe they are going to get us penned up. If they go to Shaw's Ridge as you say, and we stay here, they will have us certain." By this time I reached the log hut occupied by the venerable ex-Governor of Virginia.
He was standing just outside the rude door, anxiously awaiting the return of the boy. The scene is indelibly impressed upon my imagination and was one worthy of the most artistic pencil, shortly after the war closed a correspondent of the Religious Herald visited him at his home at Bridgeport, Harrison county, West Virginia, and wrote what I will insert just here. The correspondent writes in this strain: "In all my travels in both hemispheres, I have seldom met a person so easy in all his manners as Governor Johnson. He served fourteen sessions in Congress, was elected Governor of Virginia, the first one by the people, besides being five times elected to the Legislature and once to a constitutional convention. He is emphatically the last of a past generation. He was in Congress with Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Hayne, Silas Wright, Martin Van Buren, Thomas H. Benton and that class of men who are now all gone. It was pleasing to hear him delineate the characters of each of these great men, who preformed so important a part in their day.
"Born in 1785, Gov. Johnson is older than the Constitution of the United States, has lived to see twenty-four states added to the glorious thirteen and the population increase from four to forty millions. He remembers when the country mourned the death of Washington and has been personally acquainted with the presidents from Jefferson to Buchannon [sic]. In all his long and eventful life there has never rested a stain upon his public and private character."
Such was the illustrious man I saw under these strangely weird circumstances that Sabbath evening in April, 1862, in his 78th year. What was quotes from the Religious Herald was written about him in his 89th year.
With all possible respect I met him and hurriedly endeavored to whisper to him my business and an explanation of my conduct in using his horse as I was. I found him so hard of hearing, however, that I had to speak quite loud and could have been overheard by others a considerable distance.
Needing his horse to make his own escape upon he could not lend me longer than time enough to crop the Cow Pasture river near the Forks. The colored boy went along as he had been riding behind me to bring the Governor's horse back. Soon after starting the boy on his return I was so fortunate as to meet a nice young secession lady, Miss Cordelia Morton, whose brother died at the battle of McDowell a few weeks afterwards and she lent me her beautiful horse. Thus with but little delay, I hastened on at good speed through mud, swelling waters and rain. Upon reaching the cavalry encampment just at dusk, I found all in comfortable unconsciousness of the approaching Federals being any nearer than Monterey. The troopers were busily engaged in preparing supper and grooming their horses, while a group of mischievous fellows passed, pretended to be guards and ordered me to halt, enjoyed themselves at my expense and detained me for a moment. I soon found out that I was sold and pressed on to the captain's quarters. I communicated to him as privately as I could, the information I had brought, so as not to cause a panic in camp. A courier was sent immediately to Gen. Edward Johnston [sic], east of the mountain.
I had not intended to go further but some of the officers advised me to go in person before the General. After feeding and resting my jaded horse and having eaten a very nice supper in the Captain's tent, to whom I first communicated my message, I set out in a leisurely manner across the mountain. It was now becoming quite dark and I was annoyed with the fear that the clatter of my horse's feet might prevent me from hearing the sentinel's challenge, but a bright fire near the post rendered my fears unfounded. Upon reaching the out posts of the encampment of the mountain top I found troops in motion called out to reinforce the pickets. The General had received a dispatch and was promptly taking precautionary measures. The scene that opened up was deeply impressive, hundreds of camp fires were blazing brightly on the mountain slopes, revealing the white tents and the forms of soldiers passing and repassing. Above the hum of words and crackling of the flames were heard the strains of sacred song rising from a tent far below me near the center of the first infantry encampment. the chorus was all that i could make out and my emotions were thrilled as I caught these words from time to time, borne upwards that Sabbath evening in earnest manly voices:
"Remember me, remember me,Not far from the foot of the mountain I met the Rev. John Miller, who had charge of the artillery and was on his way to his battery at the summit of the mountain.
O, Lord, remember me."
In some respects this artillery officer is one of the most interesting and unique characters I ever met. Were his biography written out just as he lived, thought, wrote and talked, it would make a story more romantic than conventional romance could possible make it.
The Captain offered to return with me to the General's quarters about a fourth of a mile farther on, where he knew General Johnstons [sic] would be glad to have me come. I was more than glad to accept the Captain's proposal. We soon came to Mason's shanties, built by Stonewall's famous engineer and found the General in a comfortable log cabin with his aid examining a map. He had about completed his arrangements but received me very politely in his way of doing things. I could perceive, however, from the way he worked his ears and the difficulty he had in suppressing profane expletives that he believed the whole affair was much ado about very little, if anything, in reality. He had me repeat what I had come to tell him which I did quickly and quietly as I could. There was nothing but what he already learned from the dispatch sent him from the cavalry camp. So it turned out that before I saw him, everything was so arranged as to prevent surprise and yet most of the troops were permitted to remain in shelter. This showed that the General had a heart to feel for the comfort of his men. He loved his boys dearly, though at times he would outflander Flanders swearing at them.
Capt. Miller made my return very interesting and pleasant until we parted at his battery on the summit. Upon separating Capt. Miller observed "here is where I turn off and must leave you, as you insist upon going on, good night to you, and a safe journey back." It was now about ten o'clock, profound stillness prevailed over the different encampments, the fires did not blaze so brightly as two hours before. By pressing on in the silent darkness of the western slopes of the mountain, I soon came to the last outpost. I was challenged but my horse being hard on the bit and going towards home, too, would not stop when I tried to check him. The sentinel again challenged me, raised and cocked his musket, when by an extraordinary effort, I checked the horse before the triggers were pulled, as they would have been in another instant.
Having read my permit, the sentinel allowed me to pass out. I was now very weary and concluded to call for the night a nice, but humble home not far below the Parkersburg road, where it enters the Shaws Fork Valley.
After I had called a few times at my loudest, the man of the house, Mr. Jonas Chew, whose only son at the time was a prisoner of war at Camp Chase, Ohio, came to an upper window and gave me leave to come in for the night. After I had groomed my tired horse, I returned to the house, where I found a very nice fire in full blaze which Mr. Chew had kindled while I was attending to the horse. About midnight I fell sweetly asleep, somehow feeling very secure in the care of my Heavenly Father, who cares for the sparrows though I may not be of the value of many sparrows.
While on that humble couch, so weary as I was at the midnight hour rarely have I ever appreciated more intensely the beauty and reality of what Night Thinkers say about sleep.
Tired Nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep.W.T. PRICE.
He like the world, his ready visit pays,
Where fortune smiles, the wretched he forsakes,
Swift on his downy pionions flies from woe,
And lights on lids unsullied with a tear.
Marlinton, W. Va., February 15, 1904.
Price, W. T., "Guerrilla Warfare: the Ambush on Greenbrier River in Which Seven Troopers were Killed,"West Virginia Historical Magazine 4(July 1904):241-249.
UPLOADED: 11 FEBRUARY 1998.