Personal recollections of the Civil War. By a Virginian. (D.H. Strother) [Installment 4]

Posted on August 1, 2010 by


Returning to where I left off (my June 1, 2010/third installment of D.H. Strother’s “Recollections”), when Strother was present for the actions leading up to the taking of Harper’s Ferry by Virginia militia… and when he encountered “old friends” who were partaking in the endeavor…

As these gentlemen had unadvisedly, perhaps, communicated their plans to me, I might under ordinary circumstances have felt averse to saying or doing any thing calculated to thwart them. I had determined not to meddle with public affairs, and did not care to exhibit any officious zeal in a matter respecting which Government was doubtless better informed than myself. Yet there was a nearer view of the subject. If any thing I could say would prevent Captain Botts, or any of my young friends and kinsman whom I had seen under arms from taking a step which I was assured would be fatal to them, I certainly would not permit any trifling punctilio to interfere with a full expression of my views. I told him that I considered the whole movement an atrocious swindle, contrived by a set of desperate and unprincipled conspirators at Richmond, who, fearing that their treasonable schemes would be denounced by the people at the polls, had determined to plunge the State irrevocably into a war with the General Government without allowing an opportunity for the expression of popular opinion on the question.

I did not believe the statements made to me at Harper’s Ferry in regard to the passage of an act of Secession by the Convention and the seizure of the Norfolk Navy-yard. There was no public information that either of these events had occurred, and it was impossible that these gentlemen, who had come by the inland route from Richmond, could have knowledge of the occurrences at Norfolk in advance of the telegraph. On the other hand, it was clearly evident that they were agents of the Revolutionary Committee, whose business it was to precipitate the events referred to by accomplishing the seizure of Harper’s Ferry. Moreover, what does it signify if all the agencies of the State – Governor, Legislature, and Convention combined – should order you to draw your sword against your country. Can you feel yourself in any manner bound to obey such an order? Does it not rather prove to you that those whom the people have entrusted with the management of their State affairs have themselves turned traitors and are conspiring against our common Government? So far from feeling it my duty to obey such circumstances, I would, if I had control of these troops, march them to Harper’s Ferry and, without hesitation, arrest and imprison every man I found there engaged in this infernal business, and then offer my services to the United States Government for the defense of the place. I believed that such action would be not only right and justifiable in itself, but would be highly applauded by the people of Virginia. Unless this rebellious movement was immediately met with some such decisive counteraction we would presently find both our State and country involved in revolutionary anarchy, with a future of irretrievable ruin.

Without hoping to obtain his acquiescence in my extreme views, I was nevertheless gratified to perceive that what I said made its impression upon Captain Botts. Educated at a Southern college, the narrow political ideas so sedulously inculcated at those schools still combated the more liberal and national teachings of his mature life. His social sympathies and soldierly pride were also enlisted in the struggle against his clearer and higher sense of duty to his country. Thanking me courteously for my frankness he left me for a time, and I saw him engaged in earnest and excited conversation with some of his brother-officers. Presently he returned and asked if I would repeat to the field-officers of the regiment what I had said to him.

I consented without hesitation, and accompanied him to a private room, where I met Colonel Allen and some others. I here repeated substantially what I had said to Captain Botts – with somewhat more of reserve in language, however, as I was not so well acquainted with the gentlemen present. I was heard with respect and evident emotion. A printed proclamation, which had been circulated by the Richmond emissaries, was brought in and subjected to critical discussion. I was a call upon the voluntary military and the people generally to rise and protect their honor, their property, and their rights, by seizing the national arsenals at Harper’s Ferry. It recited the passage of the Secession Ordinance and the seizure of the Norfolk Navy-yard, and was signed by Turner Ashby, claiming to act by order of the Governor of Virginia. On examination it was pronounced unsatisfactory, and Colonel Allen declared that unless he had some better authority his regiment should not move. He, moreover, became excited at the suggestion that there was an attempt to practice deception by the State agents; and declared that if they had dared to deceive him he would hold them to personal account.
Acquaintances of Messrs. Ashby and Seddon insisted that they were honorable men, and that their personal statements had been more clear and conclusive than the printed circular.

I asserted broadly that I did not believe either what they had said or what was published and that in times like the present I would trust no man’s word or honor who was acting with the revolutionary junta, whatever might have been his previous character.

After some further discussion it was determined by the Colonel that the regiment should move to Halltown, the appointed place of rendezvous, but they should go no further unless he obtained more satisfactory authority from the State Government.

I was disappointed at this conclusion, for I felt assured that, once at the rendezvous, influences would be brought to bear which would carry Colonel Allen forward in spite of himself; and as he was disposed to acknowledge the validity of an order from a State officer commanding him to make war on the United states, I did not doubt he would be speedily furnished with such authority.

Although apparently acquiescing in the Colonel’s decision, I could perceive that Captain Botts was as much disappointed as myself, and before parting he urged me to accompany them to the rendezvous, with the expression of a vague hope that I might use some influence even there, to avert the commission of a deed which he abhorred from his inmost soul. I promised to follow them. The regiment moved off, and after dinner I walked down the turnpike to Halltown, four miles distant from Charlestown. Here I found the troops halted, awaiting reinforcements, which were reported on the march from various quarters to join them.

By this time I had satisfactorily weighed the elements by which I was surrounded, and concluded not to meddle further with the business unless formally called upon for counsel. So I sat apart and amused myself sketching the animated and picturesque scene. In the course of the afternoon several of the expected companies arrived. Captain Ashby and Mr. Seddon had come up from Harper’s Ferry, while Dick Ashby, a brother of the Captain, had arrived from Fauquier with a small squad of cavalry. An earnest and excited discussion among the leaders was kept up for a long time, and while some countenances appeared vexed with doubt and indecision, others lowered with anger and dissatisfaction. I was not invited to join the council, but could easily divine the trouble. Ashby, who had greeted me so frankly in the morning, now passed with averted face. As we supped together at a neighboring farm-house, he studiously avoided exchanging words or looks with me. I was glad that we had understood each other without he scandal of an open quarrel. This seed, however, bore evil fruit at a future day.

While we were at table a courier arrived from the direction of Winchester, man and horse bespattered with mud and reeling with fatigue. On opening his dispatch Ashby’s cloudy brow cleared and rising hastily from his chair he handed the paper to Colonel Allen. As he read it Allen also sprung to his feet, and turning to me said, cheerily, ‘Now I can act with a clear conscious. Here is a paper I can recognize, a preemptory order to seize Harper’s Ferry, with the official endorsement of the Adjutant-General of the State.’

The arrival of this paper seemed to have satisfied all scruples and dispelled all doubts. Spurs jingled, sabres rattled, horses neighed, and the voices of officers were heard in every direction marshaling their troops. The men, flattered with the idea of being foremost in the enterprise, sprung to arms and formed their column with alacrity.

It was quite dark, and as I passed out of the house Captain Botts took my arm, and in an agitated manner inquired what I thought now of the posture of affairs.

I asked if he was sure the order which had arrived was not a forgery. He was fully assured of its authenticity. I then went on to repeat the views and arguments I had exhibited in the morning, urging them with still greater vehemence of manner, and, if possible, in stronger language.

Admitting that he chose to recognize a right which I did not – the right of the Convention to pass an act of secession – this act would have no validity, even under the assumption of legality upon which it was based, until accepted and confirmed by a formal vote of the people. That vote had not been taken. It could not lawfully be taken for thirty days after the passage of an ordinance of secession by the Convention. The people of Virginia would never confirm such an act by their vote. The proposed movement on Harper’s Ferry was therefore not only a treasonable attack upon the Government of the country, but it was also a most atrocious outrage and fraud upon the people of Virginia. In electing the Convention the people had demanded the right to consider and pronounce upon its action. By this rash and unauthorized move the people were betrayed, their rights trampled upon, and by those whom they had trusted with this guardianship.

‘Yet I hold my commission from the State and am bound to obey the orders of the Governor,’ said the Captain. ‘What would you have me to do?’

I answered with heat: ‘Can any miserable local functionary have the right to order a free citizen to commit a crime against his country? Can you feel bound to obey an order which involves so flagrant a violation both of State and National law; of all faith and honor both to Government and people? Does your commission bind you to this extent? If so, you should tear it to shreds and throw it to the winds.’

My friend listened without essaying to re-ply, but sat with his elbows resting on his knees and covering his face with his clenched hands.

When I concluded he rose, and in a voice of anguish exclaimed: ‘Great God! I would willingly give my life to know at this moment what course I ought to pursue, and where my duty lies!’ With this he hurried to join the column, which was already in motion.

I had intended to go no further than Halltown, but the entrancement of curiosity and interest was irresistible, and I continued to follow the march of the troops at a short distances. The stars twinkled clear and chill overhead, whole the measured tread of the men and occasional half-whispered word of command were the only sounds that broke the stillness of the night. It was an awful opportunity for reflection.

The column was suddenly brought to a halt by the peremptory and startling challenge of a sentinel in the road. It was too dark to see what was going on, but I presently heard the order given to load with ball-cartridge, followed by the ringing of ramrods and clicking of musket-locks. The leading company then fixed bayonets, and forming across the turnpike, swept forward at a double-quick. The challengers had retired, and the column resumed its march. At the toll-gate near Alstadt’s they were again challenged and halted, with the same result.

Here I overtook an acquaintance who was following the column in a buggy, and feeling fatigued from my walk accepted the vacant seat beside him. He professed himself greatly distressed at the proceedings, and said he had done all in his power to stop them, but without avail. I told him I had ‘said my say,’ and did not intend to meddle further with the business, yet, from present appearances, it was possible there would be a fight. I suggested that during the tremor which immediately precedes decisive action men are sometimes more willing to accept reasonable counsel, and conjured him to use his influence (which I knew was great) to stop the movement.

He said it was useless to attempt further interference, as every thing had been ordered and determined by high authority. He was doubtless better informed than I, at that time, of the power and deep design which directed the movement.

More to follow in installment 5

[Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.]