Monthly Archives: January 2019


In the early part of 1863, when the Union army was encamped at Falmouth, and picketing the banks of the Rappahannock, the utmost tact and ingenuity were displayed by the scouts and vicettes, in gaining a knowledge of contemplated movements on either side; and here, as at various other times, the shrewdness of the African camp attendants was very remarkable.

One circumstance in particular shows how quick the race are in learning the art of communicating by signals.

There came into the Union lines a negro from a farm on the other side of the river, known by the name of Dabney, who was found to possess a remarkably clear knowledge of the topography of the whole region; and he was employed as cook and body servant at headquarters. When he first saw our system of army telegraphs, the idea interested him intensely, and he begged the operators to explain the signs to him. They did so, and found that he could understand and remember the meaning of the various movements as well as any of his brethren of paler hue.

Not long after, his wife, who had come with him, expressed a great anxiety to be allowed to go over to the other side as servant to a “secesh woman,” whom General Hooker was about sending over to her friends. The request was granted. Dabney’s wife went across the Rappahannock, and in a few days was duly installed as laundress at the headquarters of a prominent rebel General. Dabney, her husband, on the north bank, was soon found to be wonderfully well informed as to all the rebel plans. Within an hour of the time that a movement of any kind was projected, or ever discussed, among the rebel generals, Hooker knew all about it. He knew which corps was moving, or about to move, in what direction, how long they had been on the march, and in what force; and all this knowledge came through Dabney, and his reports always turned out to be true.

Yet Dabney was never absent, and never talked with the scouts, and seemed to be always taken up with his duties as cook and groom about headquarters.

How he obtained his information remained for some time a puzzle to the Union officers. At length, upon much solicitation, he unfolded his marvellous secret to one of our officers.

Taking him to a point where a clear view could be obtained of Fredericksburg, he pointed out a little cabin in the suburbs near the river bank, and asked him if he saw that clothes-line with clothes hanging on it to dry. “Well,” said he, “that clothes-line tells me in half an hour just what goes on at Lee’s headquarters. You see my wife over there; she washes for the officers, and cooks, and waits around, and as soon as she hears about any movement or anything going on, she comes down and moves the clothes on that line so I can understand it in a minute. That there gray shirt is Longstreet; and when she takes it off, it means he’s gone down about Richmond. That white shirt means Hill; and when she moves it up to the west end of the line, Hill’s corps has moved up stream. That red one is Stonewall. He’s down on the right now, and if he moves, she will move that red shirt.”

One morning Dabney came in and reported a movement over there. “But,” says he, “it don’t amount to any thing. They’re just making believe.”

An officer went out to look at the clothes line telegraph through his field-glass. There had been quite a shifting over there among the army flannels. “But how do you know but there is something in it?”

“Do you see those two blankets pinned together at the bottom?” said Dabney. “Yes, but what of it?” said the officer. “Why, that’s her way of making a fish-trap; and when she pins the clothes together that way, it means that Lee is only trying to draw us into his fish-trap.”

As long as the two armies lay watching each other on opposite banks of the stream, Dabney, with his clothes-line telegraph, continued to be one of the promptest and most reliable of General Hooker’s scouts.

Originally posted 2009-08-05 15:27:05.

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A soldier gives the following account of one of the most brilliant exhibitions of bravery and daring that occurred during the war:

“When the advance of the rebel cavalry arrived at Manassas Junction, on the evening of the 26th of August, 1862, about fifty stragglers belonging to different regiments in Pope’s and McClellan’s commands gathered around the railroad depot, with loaded muskets, uncertain whether to run or stay by and try to defend the place. Among the number was one Samuel Conde, a member of the Eleventh New York battery, who for the previous two months had been on duty at General Pope’s headquarters, and was then on his way to Washington. Finding there was no commissioned officer to take command, and that the rebels were close upon us, this brave young man seized a musket, and calling upon his comrades to rally and follow him, he posted his little company at a short distance from the railroad, near an old rebel fortification, and awaited with fixed bayonets the approach of the enemy. The first that appeared was a squadron of cavalry, who dashed up furiously towards the depot. No sooner had they passed us than our little band, led by their new commander, charge I with a shout at the enemy, scattering them in all directions. On reaching the depot, we were surrounded by a whole regiment of rebel infantry, who commanded us to surrender. ‘Never,’ shouted our brave leader, and with the words ‘come on, boys,’ we dashed through their ranks, only to find ourselves still further surrounded by a large force of cavalry. Here, for a moment, we faltered; but hearing our leader still urging us on, we pushed forward through, a heavy volly of musketry, and soon passed the enemy’s lines with the loss of more than half of our little band, including our brave commander. Finding it folly to remain longer in that vicinity, we took to the woods, and arrived at Fairfax Station early the next morning. It would be impossible for me to give the names of any of this little band, for we are all strangers to each other, and I can only bear testimony to the fearless bravery of our leader, who, I fear, has fallen a victim to a rebel bullet, hoping that, if this ever meets the eye of any of his friends, they may have the gratification of knowing that he died a hero.”

Originally posted 2009-08-04 19:30:19.

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Early on Monday morning, General Nelson despatched an orderly from a cavalry company to the river with a message. The General waited in vain for an answer, and the day wore away without hearing from the messenger. General Nelson was furious, and directed, the following day, a search to be made for the orderly. He was, after some trouble, found, and taken immediately to headquarters. He was called upon for an account, and said, in a brief, off-hand manner, that when he got to the river, he found several thousand skulkers, and six hundred of these agreed to go into action if they could find a leader. The young cavalryman promptly offered himself, and as promptly led the men into the hottest of the fight. He reported to General Crittenden, was assigned a position which he maintained all day, losing from his impromptu command ten men killed and fifty wounded. The General was so well pleased with the young man and his gallant conduct, that he immediately sent his name to General Buell, and instead of being a private, he is now a commissioned officer.

A begrimed individual, face several shades blacker than the ace of spades, and continually deepening in color from a contact with powder, hurriedly ran up to Captain Pick Russell and asked for a few rounds of cartridges. “Give me some, for God’s sake, Captain; right down here I have a bully place, and every time I fire, down goes a secesher.” He was accommodated, and while the Captain was filling his cartridge-box, the fellow was loading his piece. After being supplied, he dashed to the left and disappeared in the woods. A roar of musketry in the direction he took was kept up all day, but whether he escaped or not has not been ascertained.

Originally posted 2009-08-04 05:18:01.

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A correspondent gives the following account of the panic and flight at the battle of Bull Run: “I was near the rear of the movement, with the brave Captain Alexander, who endeavored, by the most gallant but unavailable exertions, to check the onward tumult. It was difficult to believe in the reality of our sudden reverse. ‘What does it all mean?’ I asked Alexander. ‘It means defeat,’ was his reply. ‘We are beaten; it is a shameful, a cowardly retreat! Hold up, men!’ he shouted; ‘don’t be such infernal cowards!’ and he rode backwards and forwards, placing his horse across the road, and vainly trying to rally the running troops. The teams and wagons confused and dismembered every corps. We were now cut off from the advance body by the enemy’s infantry, who had rushed on the slope just left by us, surrounded the guns and sutlers’ wagons, and were apparently pressing up against us. ‘It’s no use, Alexander,’ I said; ‘you must leave with the rest.’ ‘I’ll be d–d if I will,’ was the sullen reply; and the splendid fellow rode back to make his way as best he could. Meantime, I saw officers with leaves and eagles on their shoulder-straps, Majors and Colonels, who had deserted their commands, pass me, galloping as if for dear life. No enemy pursued just then; but I suppose all were afraid that his guns would be trained down the long, narrow avenue, and mow the retreating thousands, and batter to pieces army wagons and everything else which crowded it. Only one field-officer so far as my observation extended, seemed to have remembered his duty. Lieutenant-Colonel Speidel, a foreigner, attached to a Connecticut regiment, strove against the current for a league. I positively declare that, with the two exceptions mentioned, all efforts made to check the panic before Centreville was reached, were confined to civilians. I saw a man in citizen’s dress, who had thrown off his coat, seize a musket, and was trying to rally the soldiers who came by at the point of the bayonet. In reply to a request for his name, he said it was Washburne, and I learned he was the member by that name from Illinois. The Hon. Mr. Kellogg madea a similar effort. Both these Congressmen bravely stood their ground till the last moment, and were serviceable at Centreville in assisting the halt there ultimately made. All other civilians did what they could.

“But what a scene! and how terrible the onset of that tumultuous retreat! For three miles, hosts of Federal troops–all detached from their regiments, all mingled in one disorderly rout–were fleeing along the road, but mostly through the lots on either side. Army wagons, sutlers’ teams, and private carriages, choked the passage, tumbling against each other, amid clouds of dust, and sickening sights and sounds. Hacks, containing unlucky spectators of the late affray, were smashed like glass, and the occupants were lost sight of in the debris. Horsess, flying wildly by, galloped at random forward, joining in the stampede. Those on foot, who could catch them, rode them bareback, as much to save themselves from being run over, as to make quicker time. Wounded men, lying along the banks,–the few neither left on the field nor taken to the captured hospitals,–appealed, with raised hands, to those who rode horses, begging to be lifted behind, but few regarded such petitions. Then the artillery–such as was saved–came thundering along, smashing and overpowering everything. The regular cavalry (I record it to their shame) joined in the melee, adding to its terrors, for they rode down footmen without mercy. One of the great guns was overturned, and lay amid the ruins of a caisson. As I passed it, I saw an artilleryman running between the ponderous fore and after wheels of his gun-carriage, hanging on with hands, and vainly striving to jump upon the ordeinance. The drivers were spurring the horses, he could not cling much longer, and a more agonized expression never fixed the features of a drowning man. The carriage bounded from the roughness of a steep hill leading to a creek; he lost his hold, fell, and in an instant the great wheels had crushed the life out of him. Who ever saw such a flight? Could the retreat at Borodino have exceeded it in confusion and cumult? I think not. It did not slack in the least until Centreville was reached. There the sight of the reserve–Miles’ brigade–formed in order on the hill, seemed somewhat to reassure the van. But still the teams and foot soldiers pushed on, passing their own camps, and heading swiftly for the distant Potomac, until, for ten miles, the road over which the grand army had so lately passed southward, gay with unstained banners, and flushed with surety of strength, was covered with the fragments of its retreating forces, shattered and panic-stricken in a single day. From the branch route, the trains attached to Hunter’s division had caught the contagion of the flight, and poured into its already swollen current another turbid freshet of confusion and dismay. Who ever saw a more shameful abandonment of munitions, gathered at such vast expense? The teamsters, many of them, cut the traces of their horses, and galloped from the wagons. Others threw out their loads to accelerate their flight, and grain, picks, and shovels, and provisions of every kind, lay trampled in the dust for leagues. Thousands of muskets strewed the route, and when some of us succeeded it rallying a body of fugitives, and forming them in a line across the road, hardly one but had thrown away his arms. If the enemy had brought up his artillery, and served it upon the retreating train, or had intercepted our progress with five hundred of his cavalry, he might have captured enough supplies for a week’s feast of thanksgiving. As it was, enough was left behind to tell the story of the panic. The rout of the Federal army seemed complete.”

Originally posted 2009-08-01 23:02:29.

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