While on our rout to Kingsport, a man by the roadside told me that the infantry and artillery stationed there had crossed our route six hours before marching to Bloutsville, expecting to intercept us there. While on the high ridge above Kingsport we had a beautiful view of a snowy mountain illumined by the setting sun. At fifty miles distance towered up the black mountain of North Carolina, six thousand nine hundred feet in the air,–the highest land in the old United States proper, standing like Saul a full head and shoulders over all his companions. It looked exceedingly rugged at that great distance, with its rude concave side towards us, seamed and furrowed by tremendous chasms from top to bottom. It had a crest of two or three miles in length, and is crescent-shaped on top, very steep on both ends, and towering so high above all others, seemed not to be a member of any chain of mountains that I could perceive in the distance. For an isolated mountain it was very picturesque in appearance, and was beautified by being covered with snow, while the surrounding landscape was dark. It looked a-rifted, inaccessible, and uninhabitable as the high Alps of Switzerland. Riding at night down the South Holston at Kingsport,–there a broad and beautiful stream fit for steamboating,–we were fired upon from over the river, the bullets whistling over our heads and striking the fence between our horses. I got tired at the one-sided arrangement and ordered some of my lads, who are adepts with their rifles, to try some long shots in the moonlight–dismounted; they never require a second bidding for that kind of work, and the popping from over the river was quickly ended. I cannot tell if there was “anbody hurt,” but we came off clear. After fording the north Holston at its junction with the main stream, we marched on to a very fine and extensive farm, where the horses were fed and the men had their coffee. The night had become unusually nipping, and large fires with fence-rails were a great luxury to benumbed fingers and toes. The enemy would not let us rest in peace to enjoy our coffee, but kept popping at us from the hill-tops occasionally. There was quite a little skirmish back in town. Some of the cavalry following us up had the audacity after dark to attack Col. Carter, his orderly and a private, at a hotel in Kingsport, where he was acquainted, and had halted behind the column to appease his hunger. Some twenty or thirty shots were exchanged in the dark. The orderly got a ball through his hand, and our force of three were compelled to beat a retreat to camp across the North Fork. Our pickets dashed into the town, but the enemy had fled and all was quiet again. After resting three hours, we were in the saddle again at midnight, understanding there were some two hundred cavalry forward of us whom we desired to capture. Our advance came near their camp near Clinch river, but they fled and our poor horses were too jaded to pursue them. The “bushwhackers” had quite a busy time, popping at us crossing Clinch river. Rested at night for a few hours on a limestone mountain, and exchanged a few long shots with the enemy to no purpose. Started at daybreak, without breakfast or horse-feed, on our last long day’s march to the Cumberland mountain, crossing Powell’s mountain, river, and valley. The “bushwhackers” here had an unusually busy day at it, even for them, lively as they are. But they are either miserable shots or have miserable guns, for they have not touched a man since we left the railroad, except Col. Carter’s orderly, shot in the hand-to-hand fight; whereas two of the Michigan sharp-shooters “incontinently” rolled two of them down the rocks at about seven hundred yards. While I was fording Powell’s river, they were darting in and out among the trees and rocky hill-tops, and throwing down some lead in a very spiteful way, but did no damage. I concluded, after crossing and seeing one fellow blazing away among the rocks, to try and cure him with a little saltpetre, as salt was scarce, and called tow of my lads out of the ranks. One of them drew a sight on him, and he cut up some very ludicrous antics for a sane man. He flew round and scrabbled about among the rocks, and then made a dart up the hill, rattling down the stones at an alarming rate; he bounced about it as if burnt with a hot iron, and not at all pleased with the impression made.
At Jonesville, Va., the rebels had quite a force. After our column had passed they engaged our rear guard of the Seventh Ohio, and we were all halted, the General sending back the rifles of Co. B. Ninth Pa. Cavalry, to deploy as skirmishers and engage them in the open field, and Co. D. Ninth Pa., with sabres. It was understood that they expected to engage our attention, so long as to enable a force to move around by Poor valley, occupy the mountain pass, engage our front, and have us between two fires. We were crossing at our old gap (only twenty miles from the Cumberland Gap), contrary to their expectations. There was some little firing on our front, and quite a brisk little skirmish in the rear. As usual they kept at too great a distance for their shooting and did no harm, but there were several rebels shot down by our rear guard and skirmishers, among whom were some Michigan rifles, when they concluded to draw off and let us go on our “winding way,” which we did without further molestation. We had made a very sever day’s march, with a little sprinkling of fighting, and nothing to eat since the night before for man or beast, and while we were at Jonesville, there was a very fair prospect of a regular mountain battle for the possession of the pass. I had been giddy from want of food and rest, while marching down to Watauga, but did not feel it much during the excitement of the homeward march. I slept on my horse during the bushwhacking of the day; and while waiting for the rear to scatter the enemy at Jonesville, one of my men said he was hungry. I had entirely forgotten that I had not eaten for twenty-four hours, and felt no symptoms of hunger, and told him that we might yet have a two days’ fight up the cliff of the Cumberland mountain without coffee, and I felt as if I would be able to stand it for three. We moved on to the foot of the mountain, and now there was the excitement to know whose horse would reach the top and whose would fail. They were all very carefully handled, but many a one of them failed, and the poor cavalryman would be seen breaking up his saddle with a rock and cutting up the leather with a knife to prevent sechesh from using it. The poor horse wanted no quietus; he generally dropped dead in his efforts to scale a rock, and fell over out of the path, except one that made a convenient stepping-place for his more fortunate fellow horse. There must have been thirty horses fallen dead ascending the Cumberland. The men shouldered their blankets, gave one last look at their steed stiffening in the keen frosty night air, and clambered on over the rocks. When I reached the topmost crest I cried, “All hail, Kentucky!” and stretched out my arm as if to grasp and welcome a long lost friend. The excitement was over, and I felt faint and giddy. I scarcely know how I got down; and when I reached the little valley at the foot of the mountain, and had a fire of rails kindled, fatigue overpowered all the animal wants and ailments, and the moment I lay down upon the frozen earth, I was fast asleep, and so continued until well shaken after sunrise. Our horses had corn here, but we were on short rations. The ground was frozen hard, and all the shoes had been put on the horses’ feet, and none short of Richmond or Nicholasville. There had been no kegs of shoes brought to McKees with the corn, and the prospects ahead were dark for the men who had limping horses whose feet were worn to the quick. I saw them cut up clothes and blankets and tie them on their feet, but it did no good; nothing but iron would answer on the frozen and rocky creek beds and gullies which formed our path. We had been signally favored by Providence with unfrozen roads in the enemy’s country, but now they were telling on horse-flesh. Every day a score or more of men were compelled to drop their horses and shoulder their muskets. There was no murmuring; nor did I hear a whimper from any man who marched twenty or thirty miles in a day (all unused to walking as he was), with his boots worn and torn, and his feet on the rocks and frozen ground. Two days after our arrival on Kentucky soil, we encountered a storm, which raised all the Tennessee rivers and made them unfordable. Two days after our arrival here at Nicholasville, has come upon us the heaviest snow-storm for many years. I lift my hands in praise when I think of our escape from this storm among the mountains, and shudder at the thought of what would have been the condition of man and beast there without food or forage. We should have been compelled to adopt the plan Duroc proposed to Napoleon at Moscow; to slaughter, salt, and eat his horses to save his men. Our most arduous and hazardous march of five hundred miles to and fro in twenty days, over an almost impracticable mountain country in mid-winter, has been a complete success. Of one thousand men, there were only two killed, two wounded, and six missing–supposed to be captured.
I must relate a little incident of the march coming down the Red Bird, in a country where “corndodgers” are worth a dime. A part of one I had preserved as a curiosity, for its fossil-like appearance, to show what a soldier can subsist on when he is put to it. I think I must have it engraven for Harper or Frank Leslie, with all the finger-marks on it. The “corndodger” is an institution; and he is fitly named, as any one can tell who takes him in hand; for if he is mixed up as usual with water and no salt, and well baked and thrown at you, if you do not dodge, and he hits you, his name will be remembered for many a long day, I warrant it.
In the western counties of Kentucky saw-mills and grist-mills are known to but few inhabitants. The corn is broken into coarse grains with a pestle attached to a spring-pole, or grated on a piece of tin or iron punched out rough with a nail. The country is clear of wind-mills or sieves to clear it of husks; such superfluities have been played out, or rather they have never been played in; but hospitality has not been played out. I will relate an incident. the horse of one of my soldiers yielded up his life on the rugged paths this side of the Cumberland mountain. The soldier was making his way in the rear of the column over the rocks of the Red Bird, with his pistol at his belt and his trusty rifle, which had done him such good service at Watauga river (his “Betsy Ann,” as he called it), on one shoulder and his blankets on the other, trudging along at sunset for the camp, miles ahead of him, and “whistling as he went for want of thought,” when a native overtook him. “Stranger,” said he, “you have a heavy load; give me your blankets” (and he took them off his shoulder). “You must come and stay with me to-night down to my house at the Big Rocks.” So soldier, nothing loth, acquiesced, and they trudged through mud and over rocks, and in the bed of the creek for some miles, and arrived at his clay-chinked cabin, where were his “household gods” in form of a wife and a host of children, such as are to be found in every poor man’s cabin in Kentucky. You will almost see the exact counterpart of the primer-book picture of John Rogers’ wife, excepting there will be ten, eleven, or twelve children who can just peep over each others’ heads in regular gradation beside “the one at the breast.” The host says, “Mary Ann, can you get supper for this tired soldier?” “Yes,” says the wife, “if you pound the corn,” and she handed him four ears, which he soon manipulated with his spring pole and pestle in the yard. The supper was soon prepared of the corn mixed with water (no salt, for they had none), and scraps of bacon fried, and he ate on the principle of the Indian, “eat much, get strong!” The tired soldier, who had not seen the inside of a house for months, rested, after six days’ march and no sleep, as only such men can rest when they know the pickets are posted and the guard mounted; he taking the Kentuckian for his guard. At sunrise he was wakened by the “thud, thud,” of the corn-grinding machine, and presently the good dame invited him to sit at the table to the corndodgers, the bacon scraps, and the corn-coffee, innocent of sugar or cream, so as to expedite him on his way before the children were up to have their remnants of clothes put on them. After he had eaten, not before, his host apologized for the lateness of his breakfast, saying that his corn was all eaten over night, and he had to go four miles to borrow some of his near neighbor for the soldier’s breakfast. The soldier donning his load, having received no pay for more than four months, thanked him as he should have been thanked by a man ready and willing to pay, but having no money in his pocket, and with unwonted full stomach went on his way rejoicing to overtake his comrades.
Where indeed among the rich will such hospitality, such abnegation of self be found? or where among them the man that will contribute such a mite to his country? It is like the scriptural widow, who, out of her poverty “gave even all that she had.” When we arrived at Big Hill we were met by a wagon train ladened with rations and corn that had been sent for by Gen. Carter’s messenger pressed on before us at Manchester, on our homeward route, to order the train forward to us. When the white-topped wagons were seen by our men, one universal shout went up as a glorification for the hard bread they knew them to contain. To men who had been roasting lumps of corn meal or of wheat flour in the ashes for days, the transition was great indeed, and ere dark the “slow enough” coffee was boiling, the bacon toasting on the sticks, and “there was a great feast of fat things” that night. Resting at Big Hill a few hours, with the cares and perplexities of the march off my shoulders, I had time to look back at the beauties of the place, which I had not done when we moved forward. Here is a table-land four hundred feet high, which was once the shore of the great lake of which the “blue grass region” is the bottom. The sand-stone strata of seventy feet crowning this table land has been washed into many singular and unique forms, each cliff so unlike the other that each would make a separate picture. In one place there is a genuine mountain, apart as it were. The water had washed entirely around it. The soft under strata giving way was only saved by the capping, which, covered with some earth and trees, once formed an island in the lake some distance from shore. Moving along for several miles these sand-stone cap rocks are seen in fantastic array succeeding each other, and you are astonished at the varied forms of them and at the sudden change in the form of each as you view it from another point. They are all well worth transferring to canvas, and as they have been somewhat noted in these wars, they should be placed with its illustrations. The quiet “blue grass region” possessed a great charm to our worn and anxious minds longing for rest, and the old walnut-trees near Richmond, covered with mistletoe until they looked like pine-trees, had a charm of still life in them that was very soothing, lulling the mind into dreams of the Druids and of that olden time when rushing, fiery modern wars were unknown.
Originally posted 2008-01-29 00:35:02.