SCENES IN THE SHENANDOAH.
November 3, 1864
SCENES IN THE SHENANDOAH.
A Visit to Martinsburg – The Depopulation of the Valley—Talks with Refugees – Incidente.
Correspondence of the New York Post.
Martinsburg, Va., October 29, 1864.
A visit to this town since Sheridan began his operations in the Shenandoah Valley is peculiarly interesting. The place is now held as a military post by our forces, and it population is largely increased by the arrival of refugees from all parts of the valley. Originally it contained between three and four thousand inhabitants. Yesterday afternoon, after obtaining quarters through the assistance of some military friends, I sallied out for a look at the town.
Darkness was near at hand, and the sight was picturesque in the extreme. – Over a space of fifty acres or more were spread unique clusters, hundreds of families of the Valley of the Shenandoah. The government had furnished them with soft bituminous Cumberland coal, which abounds in this region, and each little family had lighted a pile which burned bright, but smoky like a blacksmith’s fire, and around it were grouped the few articles of household gear which, like the children of Israel they carried with them from out of Egypt. They were scattered over chests, in the lea of bureaus or behind barricades of tables; covered with wounded. A church was taken possession of the pews bustled out in piles, and there, in long rows on the floor, lay brave uncomplaining fellows, passed from the daring skirmish and fierce shock of battle to the steady suffering of the hospital and the uncomplaining endurance of wounds and sickness, which is so marvelous to all whose duties have brought them among the hospitals of this war,
But the cavalry men ! It seems as if the step had broken away between the sublimity of New England’s soap and water, and the ridiculousness of Virginia’s dirt and raggedness – for such cute, sensible, ragged, unwashed, unkempt, patriotic, noble New England and western men surely never eye lighted on before. “Their washerwoman had neglected to call for several weeks, and the last batch of lines she forgot to bring home,” remarked one, amid the haw-haws of his comrades.
These men had had their horses shot from day to day during the long brilliant maneuvers of Sheridan, and were hurrying back to Harper’s Ferry for new ones, and then “Hurrah for the front again!” They were all merry and talkative, and had just been drawing their rations. Their tattered blue uniforms were stained with mud. Some of them were loaded down with saddles, blankets and bridles, with a carbine shining like silver, or a sabre like polished steel at their sides. Hats—some straw, some felt , with many a horse-bite taken from the rim; caps—some with visors, some without, showing a many a hole or sabre out, crowned their uncut hair and immense beards.
I sat down in the cold air among a group of these men, huddled about one of the coal fires, which were kept burning like a colliery all day long, over acres and acres of ground. Their appetites were of a kind to excite the terror of a boardinghouse keeper, for they demolished raw pork and hard tack with gusto, in the fierce wind. – Home-made humor seasoned the repast, and little smoking cups of coffee gave a relish that Dives himself would have purchased at great price.
Some were too hungry to wait for coffee and washed down their “grub” with muddy Virginia water, a dangerous proceeding I thought, considering the growing coldness of the weather. “Butter,” they said “they were out of,” There was a gaunt fellow at my side “fighting his battles over,” and in the course of his narration he was now and then corrected by some man among the squad. He was telling me about the skirmishes attending Sheriden’s movements, “Ah,” said he, “when we drive the pickets in there’s music for you. We got at ‘em on a charge. Yip! Yip! Yip! Lord, how the men do yell, some of us get popped over, but the ‘Johnnies’ skedaddle; and then comes the main force at our heels and support us.” “I know,” said I. “You do?” said he. “Oh, yes; I’ve been in the service; I know how the Minie bullets go ‘zip, zip, zip,’ and how the shells scream.” “Bully for you!” said the gaunt fellow. “Ah, yes,” said I, “those are the times that kill or curse a man; if there is anything in him it comes out; and there’s no friend so dear as one that you have stood beside on field after field of battle, and tried him and know him.” “True as preachin’, sir,” said one over against me; and then they asked me where I had been in service, and I told them and come into full communion at once, for they had been over the same ground. “Old Sheridan,” said another, “he’s a gay boy, any way. By gracious, how he waxes old Early. Then look at him last Tuesday offering one thousand dollars for that other gun if we would only take it, so make up the dozen with. He’s the kind of a man for me.”
I asked them about Sheridan’s orders to clear the Valley. “Well,” said one, “I tell you, ‘tis pretty hard. We get orders to clean out a section. The Captain, he picks his men;” (here they all grinned;) “he knows pretty well who to take, and then we get orders to burn every barn, every stack of grain, everything expect the houses, and then we start the people. We go out in squads of ten or a dozen; and the way we ride is a caution. You see the most of ‘em’s secesh families; the women are Union – to a man –“ winked he, “and their husbands, and brothers, and sons are in with the rebs; but for all that its hard when the women come out on their knees crying and praying, and the children clinging to ‘em.”
“But,” said he, “it’s a good deal harder to go along a road, and right along by the side of the woods, to find your own brother hanging to a tree, with his ears, his nose, and his lips cut off, as I did mine last week!” “These devils,” said he, “if they’d only come out in clear day and fight us as we do them, and not murder us, they never would have had their country cleared out as we have been forced to do.” This man had a diary kept for two years in which the events of each day had been entered.
War is a terrible thing, we all agreed; but there are greater evils than that even.
I had to leave these groups and attend to business. After a cheerless morning, no one found me ready to leave. I picked my way among the curious collection of old arks drawn by means of harnesses patched with rope and twine, and horses of the “Gothic” order of architecture, putting to blush a team which I once saw in Eastern Virginia, and which for incongruity has ever held a high place in my remembrance. It consisted of a mule and an ox in double harness, attached to a heavy cart, with the negro driver riding the ox, which was also saddled. This light and elegant equipage had hitherto been without a rival, but now was forced to hide its blushing honors.
The railroad, new built and surrounded with tons and tons of heated and twisted rails from former raids, was now lined with refugee families, all “bound for Ohio.” The Government gives them transportation for themselves and their effects, and rations to keep them from starving, and thus the Shenandoah valley is cleaned out at the rate of fifty or sixty families a day. The clothes of these people are of the most common kind generally. They go like the children of Israel out of Egypt, and intend to settle in Ohio or some other free western State and go to farming.
With a long freight train loaded with these men and women, with soldiers, freedmen and others, we crept slowly along to Harper’s Ferry – but no slower than was safe, we afterwards found; for the train that followed us four hours after , was attacked, robbed and burned by guerillas. – Harper’s Ferry was safely reached, and the long assorted cargo of human beings was unloaded and sent hither and thither, while the departing train for Washington bore my snuffling and cold-racked head, body and shoulder, over its single track.
Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: Undated: November 1864