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"So Ends The Great Rebel Army…”
To Union Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, Lincoln was a weak President, Grant an uninspired commander, Lee a slippery foe. His outspoken diary, never published before, memorably describes the Civil War’s final year
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
We have had a lovely day for this the first stage of our march; clear and soft as June, and an excellent road all the way. Gregg led out with one brigade of cavalry and a horse battery; leaving his other brigade to cover the right flank and the rear.
The head of the infantry column reached this place, Freeman’s Ford, about two hours before dark. It was ten o’clock before our headquarters wagons crossed, so that supper could be got ready. I was fortunate enough to get a nice steak and a cup of coffee from the engineers soon after dark along with General Warren. I have never eaten a nicer steak in the field, though it was cooked in a frying pan. Soon after I got the batteries over and in camp, I spread my blankets under the trees about fifty yards above the bridge head and went to sleep.
This was one of the romances of camp life: the soft night air; the tall leafless trees under which we bivouacked, and which stretched all along the south side of the river; the wide open plain on the opposite bank; the bridge, lighted up by great pitch-pine fires; the noise of the men, horses and mules—all contributed to make a picture such as one dreams of.
I do not know how exactly to designate the spot where we camp tonight; it being merely at a house by the roadside. The master of the house is not at home, having gone, so at least his wife told us, some twelve or fifteen miles off to get salt for putting down his winter’s supply of bacon. The poor fellow might as well have saved his time and money, for he will find no pigs to slaughter when he gets back, our men having killed and eaten the two large hogs before dark. I arrived here about four o’clock, and the afternoon having come off somewhat cold, I went into the house to warm myself. Everything shows the poverty of the inhabitants, though the house was a large one, and the builder no doubt at that time thought himself pretty well-to-do in the world. Now the white part of the household were evidently all living in one room: the family consisting, beside the absent man, of a poor sickly-looking wife, with a young babe at the breast, two other children, and a sister of the man, who I suspect was the backbone of the whole establishment.
In this room were two large four-poster bedsteads, and it seemed to be the only place where they had a fire, at the time of our arrival, for they were baking some cakes there in a dutch oven. These cakes consisted of nothing but cornmeal and water, with the addition of a small proportion of wheat flour.
All the infantry were at work today destroying the railroad, and the work was pretty effectually done for some twenty miles between the Nottaway and Meherrin Rivers; the ties being all taken up and the rails heated and bent. Beyond this, we could do nothing save destroy a few culverts. Gregg’s cavalry pushed on to the Meherrin and tried to burn the bridge there, but did not sueceed.
Last night was very hard on the men; it began to snow soon after dark, followed by a fine rain and cold. This morning everything was sheeted with ice; each spray of the trees and blade of grass was completely coated, making the country a most beautiful sight when the sun came out, but the roads terrible for the footmen. There was more drunkenness among the infantry than on our march out, and one of Stewart’s men had got royally tight. This was the only case of either drunkenness or straggling I heard of in my own command during the whole raid. He was in charge of the first sergeant, who got him up to his battery and tied him behind one of the guns, where he marched the rest of the day, and was made sober by the aid of a bucket of water thrown over him every once in a while.
The men had behaved so well up to this afternoon that I am doubly sorry to have a long black mark to set against them. Still, if the story told is true, there was great provocation; not enough to justify their acts at all, but somewhat excuse’them. It is said that some two or three dead men, stripped, were found by the roadside by our advance, who were supposed to be some of our men who had got very drunk when we went out, and then been murdered by guerrillas. Just north of Suffolk Court House a naked body was found which was recognized as a sergeant in one of the regiments; and while the men were burying it, a negro came up and said that the man who shot the sergeant was in a house which he pointed out, hid away under some cornshucks in the garret. The lieutenant commanding the ex-sergeant’s company thereupon took his men, surrounded the house, searched the attic, and found a man hid there as the negro had described. Leaving the man there, he set the house on fire, and burned the man in it. This is the story as told to me; if all true, including the negro’s testimony as to the identity of the murderer of the sergeant, one cannot blame his comrades for takine the law into their own hands.