Returning to where I left off (my August 1, 2010/fourth installment of D.H. Strother’s “Recollections”)…
The troops were now marching up the southern slope of the hill, since called Bolivar Heights, the crest of which was covered with pine woods and dense thickets of undergrowth, and furnished a favorable position from which to resist their advance. From certain unmistakable symptoms I concluded that very little force would have been required to drive back the raw soldiers and morally irresolute men who composed the advancing column. I expected momentarily to hear the opening volley from the summit, and advised my companion to drive his wagon aside from the line of fire. To my surprise the march was unmolested, and they moved on to the cemetery at the forks of the road above the village of Bolivar. Here another challenge halted them for the third time.
Meanwhile emissaries from the town had brought information that the Armory employees and citizen volunteers had joined the United States troops, and would assist in defending the place. Taking advantage of this unreliable report I again urged my companion to attempt some interference which might avert the impending calamity. The defenders would now have the advantage in numbers as well as the superior skill and hardihood of the men. An attempt to seize the national property must surely result in bloodshed and disaster, filling our whole district with mourning, and entailing upon those engaged the double dishonor of unsuccessful treason. While we were talking a group of the leaders came riding to the rear, engaged in high discussion. I heard Colonel Allen say, in a peremptory tone, that his men should not move another step.
It appeared that instead of three thousand me expected by Ashby, only three hundred and forty had assembled, including the cavalry and some artillerists, with an old iron 6-pounder from Charlestown. At Halltown the paucity of numbers was overlooked in the eagerness to seize the virgin honors of the enterprise. Now, when within musket-shot, more prudent counsels were entertained. A little less glory and a few more men would answer the purpose quite as well. It was not a fight they were seeking, but the possession of Harper’s Ferry, with its supplies of arms and valuable machinery. If this purpose could be better accomplished without bloodshed, why not wait for the reinforcements now on their way? Colonel Harman, of Augusta, who had arrived since dark, reported them to be hastening forward from all points up the Valley. Mr. Seddon said, as he was not a man of war he could not advise in the premises. But as Allen’s command comprised nearly the whole force present his decision was generally acquiesced in. Ashby alone seemed impatient and dissatisfied with the proposed delay. While the officers were thus discoursing and looking toward the town there was a sudden flash that illuminated for miles around the romantic gorge where the rivers meet. Then followed a dull report, reverberating from mountain to mountain until it died away in a sullen road. The flashes and detonations were several times repeated; then a steadier flame was seen rising from two distinct points, silently and rapidly increasing in volume until each rock and tree on the Loudon and Maryland Heights were distinctly visible, and the now overclouded sky was ruddy with the sinister glare. This occurred, I think, between 9 and 10 o’clock P.M. For the moment all was excitement and conjecture. Some thought they had heard artillery, while others declared the Potomac bridge had been blown up. The more skillful presently guessed the truth, and concluded that the officer in command had set fire to the arsenals and abandoned the ton. Ashby immediately dashed down the hill at the head of his cavalry to reconnoiter and ascertain the facts. The idea that there was to be no fight seemed to afford very general relief. My sympathy with this feeling was mingled with a deep sense of humiliation, in knowing that my Government had yielded so rich a prize to the revolution upon so feeble a demonstration.
Quietly withdrawing from the circle of acquaintances with whom I was conversing, I walked down to the town alone, by the Bolivar Road. The Old Arsenal buildings on Shenandoah Street and several of the shops in the Armory inclosure on Potomac Street were in full blaze. The road was alive with men, women and children hurrying to and fro, laden with spoils from the work-shops and soldiers’ barracks. There were women with their arms full of muskets, little girls loaded with sheaves of bayonets, boys dragging cartridge boxes and cross-belts enough to equip a platoon, men with barrels of pork or flour, kegs of molasses, and boxes of hard bread on their shoulders or trundling in wheel-barrows.
Taking advantage of the first opportunity that had offered during their lives perhaps, these people seem to have entered upon the work of sacking and plundering as promptly and skillfully as veteran soldiers could have done, wherefrom I conclude that this propensity is inherent in the human character, and only awaits opportunity for development. The ground around the burning buildings was glittering with splinters of glass which had been blown out by the explosion of gunpowder used to ignite the fires. The streets in the vicinity were silent and vacant, the train of plunderers from the shops avoiding the route. I took my seat upon a barrel and commenced sketching the scene by fire-light, when a man called to me from a distance advising me to leave, as the whole place was mined and would presently blow up. I thanked him, but concluded to take my chance, as I thought all the powder was already burned.
This impression accounted for the loneliness of the neighborhood when I arrived. As I kept my position in apparent security the dread of a general explosion gradually disappeared and the reassured inhabitants began to swarm around the fires. Some of the workmen got out the engines and succeeded in extinguishing the flames at the stock factory.
The people were for the most part tongue-tied with terror. Overwhelmed with ruin, they either did not know who was responsible, or were afraid to speak their thoughts. Occasionally a woman would use the privilege of her sex and open her mind pretty freely, abusing Yankees and Southerners alternately, and consigning both parties to the bottom of the river.
When at length it seemed to be definitely ascertained that there were no mines to be exploded a noisier and more demonstrative company of actors appeared on the stage. These were the chronic loafers who used to crowd the bar-rooms discussing local politics and strong drinks, who were regular attendants on the platform on the arrival of the passenger trains, and prominent men about elections. These fellows were armed to the teeth, and ran hither and thither in high excitement, threatening blood and thunder against whomsoever it might concern. Chief among them was a late civil functionary of the county, well known in former times. Reeking with dirt and whisky this worthy paraded the streets armed like a war mandarin of the Celestial Empire, carrying a rifle with sabre bayonet on either shoulder, and girt about with a belt containing several additional bayonets of the old pattern.
For some time I was in doubt as to which side of the question these fellows had espoused, but at length the tendency of their sympathies was developed by a furious discussion as to whether they should pursue Lieutenant Jones, who was said to be retreating with his men toward Hagerstown, or whether they should go down to Washington forthwith and ‘jerk old Abe Lincoln out of the White House.’ The majority in council having determined on sacrificing the Lieutenant, they started for the Potomac bridge with frightful yells and many formidable gesticulations.
A by-stander happening to suggest that the bridge might possibly be mined, they considered the questions and concluded that Jones was not a bad fellow after all, and had only obeyed the orders of his rascally Government. Whereupon they retired, in search of more ammunition perhaps.
As the night advanced the streets became more crowded with people from the town and neighborhood, but up to the hour of midnight no troops except Ashby’s squad of horse had made their appearance. By one o’clock the fires had sunk to ashes, when, gloomy, chilled, and fatigued, I sought a bed at the house of an acquaintance.
As I ascended the hill I met Colonel Allen’s regiment coming down. From over-exertion and excitement I did not sleep soundly, and was frequently disturbed during the night by the sound of drums and the tramp of passing squadrons.
More to follow in the sixth installment…
[Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.]