STUART'S RIDE AROUND McCLELLAN
By W.T. Robins, Colonel, C.S.A.
The road now being clear, we marched on briskly, and arriving we charged down upon it with a yell. We could see the enemy scattered about the building and lounging around before we charged them. The greater part scattered for cover, and were pursued by our people. I pushed straight for the station-house, where I found the captain of the company of infantry, with thirteen of his men, standing in front of the building, but with no arms in their hands. Only one of them seemed disposed to show fight. He ran to the platform where the muskets were stacked, and, seizing one of them, began to load. Before he could ram his cartridge home, a sweep of the saber, in close proximity to his head, made him throw down his gun, and, jumping into a ditch, he dodged under the bridge over the railroad and made his escape. I had no time to pursue him; but, turning to look after the others, met the captain, who, sword in hand, advanced and surrendered himself and his company as prisoners of war. I then proceeded to obstruct the railroad.
To do this effectually, I caused a tree to be cut down which was standing on the side of the road. It fell across the railroad. In addition to this, I placed across the tracks an oak-sill about a foot square and fourteen feet long. I had barely time to do this before a train from the direction of Richmond came thundering down. At this time General Stuart, with the main body, arrived at the station. The engine driver of the coming train, probably seeing the obstructions on the track and a large force of cavalry there, suspected danger, and, being a plucky fellow, put on all steam, and came rushing down. The engine, striking the obstructions, knocked them out of the way and pressed on without accident. General Stuart had dismounted a number of his men, and posted them on a high bank overlooking a cut in the road, just below the station, through which the train was about to pass. They threw in a close and effective fire upon the passing train, loaded with troops. Many of these were killed and wounded.
It was now the second night since leaving camp, and haversacks with which we started from camp had long since been emptied. The march had been so rapid that there was little opportunity of foraging for man or beast. Except a little bread and meat, brought out to the column by the country people as we passed along, we had had nothing since daybreak, The men were weary and hungry, and the horses almost exhausted by the long fast and severe exercise. As soon as a proper disposition had been made of the prisoners and of the captured horses and mules, the column moved on. Down through New Kent County, to a place called New Baltimore, we marched as rapidly as our condition would permit. I was still in the command of the advance-guard, marching some distance ahead of the column, and had orders to halt at this point, and await the coming up of the main body. Fortunately, an enterprising Yankee had established a store here, to catch the trade of all persons passing from McClellan's army to his base of supplies at the White House. He had crackers, cheese, canned fruits, sardines, and many other dainties dear to the cavalryman; and in the brief hour spent with him, we, of the advance, were made new men. I fear little was left to cheer and to invigorate those in the rear. The main body arriving, "forward" was the order-straight down through New Kent to Sycamore Ford on the Chickahominy.
A beautiful full moon lighted our way and cast weird shadows across our path. Expecting each moment to meet the enemy, every bush in the distance looked like a sentinel, and every jagged tree bending over the road like a vidette. Marching all night, we arrived at the ford between daybreak and sunrise; and here our real troubles began. To our chagrin, we found the stream swollen by recent rains almost out of its banks, and running like a torrent. No man or horse could get over without swimming, and it happened that the entrance to the ford on our side was below the point at which we had to come out on the other side. Therefore, we had to swim against the current. Owing to the mud, it was not practicable for any number of horses to approach the river at any point except by the road leading to the ford.
We therefore tried it there for two long hours. The 9th Cavalry made the trial. After repeated efforts to swim the horses over we give up, for we had crossed over only seventy-five men and horses in two hours. While we were trying to reach the opposite bank Stuart came up, and, finding the crossing at this point impracticable, rode off to find another farther down the river. At a point about one mile below, known as Forge Bridge, he succeeded in throwing across one branch of the river a bridge strong enough to bear the artillery, and upon which the men, having been dismounted, could walk. Here the approach on our side was higher up stream than the point at which we would come out on the other side. So the horses were formed into a column of fours, pushed into the water, and, swimming down stream, they easily landed on the other side. After a few horses had been crossed in this manner we found no difficulty, the others following on quite readily.
The column was now upon an island formed by the two branches of the Chickahominy, and to reach the mainland it was necessary to cross the other branch of that river. This was, however, accomplished, but with some difficulty. The ford at this crossing was at that time very deep, and the river out of its banks and overflowing the flats to the depth of about two feet for at least a half-mile. At this place the limber of a caisson stuck fast in the mud, and we left it.
On leaving the river, General Stuart directed me to take charge of the rear-guard, and, when all had crossed, to burn the bridge. In accordance with these orders, I directed the men to collect piles of fence rails, heap them on the bridge, and set them afire. By my orders the horses had been led some distance back from the river into the brush, where they were concealed from view. The men were lounging about on the ground when the bridge fell in. I was seated under a tree on the bank of the river, and at the moment that the hissing of the burning timbers of the bridge let me know that it had fallen into the water, a rifle-shot rang out from the other side, and the whistling bullet cut off a small limb over my head, which fell into my lap. The shot was probably fired by some scout who had been following us, but who was afraid to fire until the bridge was gone. With a thankful heart for his bad aim, I, at once, withdrew the men and pushed on after the column. When I came to the ford, I found it necessary to swim the horses a short distance, it having been deepened by the crossing of such a large body of horse. Soon the column was in sight, and the march across Charles City County to the James River was made as vigorously as the jaded horses were able to stand. The men, though weary and hungry; were in fine spirits, and jubilant over the successful crossing of the Chickahominy. About sunset we neared the James, at the plantation of Colonel Wilcox. Here we rested for about two hours, having marched into a field of clover, where the horses ate their all. In the twilight, fires were lighted to cook the rations just brought in by our foragers.
We were now twenty-five miles from Richmond, on the "James River Road." Had the enemy been aware of our position, it would have been easy for him to throw a force between us and Richmond, and so cut us off. But the Federal General was not well served by his scouts, nor did his cavalry furnish him with accurate information of our movements. Relying upon the mistakes of the enemy, Stuart resolved to march straight on into Richmond by the River road on which we now lay. To accomplish this with the greater safety, it was necessary for him to march at once. Accordingly, I was ordered to take the advance guard and move out. As soon as the cravings of hunger were appeased, sleep took possession of us. Although in the saddle and in motion, and aware that the safety of the expedition depended on great vigilance in case the enemy should be encountered, it was hard to keep awake. I was constantly falling asleep, and awaking with a start when almost off my horse. This was the condition of every man in the column. Not one had closed his eyes in sleep for forty-eight hours.
The full moon lighted us on our way as we passed along the River road, and frequently the windings of this road brought us near to and in sight of the James River, where lay the enemy's fleet. In the gray twilight of the dawn of Sunday, we passed the "Double Gates," "Strawberry Plains," and "Tighlman's gate" in succession. at "Tighlman's" we could see the masts of the Fleet, not far off. Happily for us, the banks were high, and I imagine they had no lookout in the rigging, and we passed by unobserved. The sight of the enemy's fleet had aroused us somewhat, when "Who goes there!" rang out on the stillness of the early morning. The challenger proved to be a vidette of the 10th Virginia Cavalry, commanded by Colonel J. Lucius Davis, who was picketing that road. Soon I was shaking hands with Colonel Davis and receiving his congratulations. Then we crossed the stream by the jug factory, up toward "New Market" heights, by the drill-house, and about a mile beyond we called halt for a little rest and food. From this point the several regiments were dismissed to their respective camps.
We lost one man killed and a few wounded, and no prisoners. The most important result was the confidence the men had gained in themselves and in their leaders. The country rang out with praises of the men who had raided entirely around General McClellan's powerful army, bringing prisoners and plunder from under his very nose. The Southern papers were filled with accounts of the expedition, none accurate, and most of them marvelous.