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Reminiscences of a Rebel by Wayland Fuller Dunaway

Reminiscences of a Rebel
Wayland Fuller Dunaway

Chapter I

"Lay down the axe; fling by the spade; Leave in its track the toiling plow; The rifle and the bayonet-blade For arms like yours were fitter now; And let the hands that ply the pen Quit the light task, and learn to wield The horseman's crooked brand, and rein The charger on the battle field." —Bryant.

IN the fall of the year 1860, when I was in my nineteenth year, I boarded the steamboat Virginia,—the only one then running on the Rappahannock river,—and went to Fredericksburg on my way to the University of Virginia. It was my expectation to spend two sessions in the classes of the professors of law, John B. Minor and James P. Holcombe, and then, having been graduated, to follow that profession in Lancaster, my native county. 

The political sky had assumed a threatening aspect. The minds of the Southern people had been inflamed by the insurrectionary raid of John Brown upon Harper's Ferry, especially because it had been approved by some Northern officials, and because the surrender of some fugitives from justice, who had taken part in that murderous adventure, had been refused by Ohio and Iowa. The election of Abraham Lincoln added fuel to the flame. Having been nominated by the Republican party, he was constitutionally chosen President of the United States, although he had not received a majority of the popular vote. The election was ominous, because it was sectional, Mr. Lincoln having carried all the Northern states but not one of the Southern. The intensest excitement prevailed, while passion blew the gale and held the rudder too. 

While I believed in the right of secession I deprecated the exercise of that right, because I loved the Union and the flag under which my ancestors had enjoyed the blessings of civil and religious liberty. I did not think that Lincoln's election was a sufficient cause for dissolving the Union, for he had announced no evil designs concerning Southern institutions; and, even if he had, he was powerless to put them into execution. He could have done nothing without the consent of Congress, and his party was in a minority both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. Before Christmas South Carolina, not caring for consequences and blind to the horrible future, passed an ordinance of secession; and her example was followed in quick succession by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. These seven states organized the Southern Confederacy, of which Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President, February 18, 1861. In April Fort Sumter was captured, and on the 15th of that month President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling on the remaining states to furnish their quotas of an army of seventy-five thousand soldiers for the purpose of destroying the Confederate government. Two days later the Virginia convention passed an ordinance of secession. Being compelled to take sides, the Old Dominion naturally cast her lot with her Southern sisters. War had begun,—intestine war, of whose magnitude and duration no living man had any adequate conception.

These events conspired with other causes to infuse in me a martial spirit. The conviction was growing in me that, as my native state was about to be invaded, I must have a place in the ranks of her defenders. I was influenced by speeches delivered by Governor Floyd, Professor Holcombe, and Dr. Bledsoe, and still more by the contagious example of my roommate, William H. Chapman, who had gone with a company of students to Harper's Ferry, and had returned. What brought the conviction to a head was a flag. One morning in the latter part of April, as I was walking from my boarding-house to the University I saw a Confederate banner floating above the rotunda. Some of the students during the night, surmounting difficulty and braving danger, had clambered to the summit and erected there the symbol of a new nation. I was thrilled by the sight of it as if by an electric shock. There it was, outstretched by a bracing northwest wind, flapping defiantly, arousing patriotic emotion. Unable longer to refrain, I went as soon as the lecture was concluded to Professor Minor's residence and told him I was going to enter the military service of Virginia. He sought to dissuade me, but, perceiving that he could not alter my rash decision, he gave at my request a written permission to leave his classes. 

But how to get home?—that had become a perplexing question. I could not go the way I had come, because the Virginia fearful of capture had ceased to make trips from Fredericksburg to Lancaster, and there was no railroad to that part of the state. Knowing that my uncle, Addison Hall, was a member of the Convention, I determined to take a train to Richmond and seek his advice. I felt relieved when he informed me that he was going the next morning, and that I could go along with him. We took an early train to West Point, and being ferried across the Mattaponi river, obtained from one of his friends a conveyance to Urbanna. We hired a sloop to take us to Carter's creek, and thence we proceeded in a farm wagon to his home in the village of Kilmarnock. The next morning he sent me to the home of the Rev. Dr. Thomas S. Dunaway, my brother, and my guardian.

In a few days I enlisted in a company that was being raised by Captain Samuel P. Gresham, who had been a student at the Virginia Military Institute. And thus the student's gown was exchanged for the soldier's uniform. Before we were regularly mustered into service an expedition was undertaken that indicated at once the forwardness of our people to engage the enemy and their ignorance of military affairs. The report having been circulated that a Federal gunboat was lying in Mill Creek in Northumberland county, its capture, or destruction, was resolved upon by about a hundred men, who had assembled at the county seat of Lancaster. With no weapons except an old smooth-bore six-pound cannon, and that loaded with scrap iron gathered from a blacksmith's shop, we proceeded to Mill Creek and unlimbered on the bank in plain view of the boat, and distant from it some two or three hundred yards. I have always been glad that we had sense enough to refrain from shooting, for otherwise most of us would have been killed then and there. Seeing the hopelessness of an unequal combat, we retired from the scene somewhat wiser than when we went. In that instance was not "discretion the better part of valor"?

Chapter II

War, war is still the cry, "War to the knife." —Byron.

THERE was in the central part of the county a beautiful grove in which the Methodists were accustomed to hold their annual camp-meetings. On account of its location and the shelter afforded by its tents it was in 1861 transformed into a rendezvous of a radically different nature, the military companies that had been raised in the county assembling there preparatory to going into the army. It was there that Captain Gresham's company, known as the Lacy Rifles, was formally enrolled by Col. R. A. Claybrook and Dr. James Simmonds. When they came to where I stood in the line of men they declined to enlist me because I appeared pale and weak on account of recent sickness. I said, ''Do as you like, gentlemen, but I am going with the boys anyhow." "If you talk like that," they replied, "we will insert your name."

Not many days afterward the company assembled at the court-house, and, having sworn allegiance to the Southern Confederacy, was duly mustered into its service. In vehicles of all sorts we drove to Monaskon wharf, where the schooner Extra was moored to receive us and to convey us up the Rappahannock river. As the vessel glided along what a jolly set we were!—gay as larks, merry as crickets, playful as kittens. There was singing, dancing, feasting on the palatable provisions supplied by the loving friends we were leaving, with no thought of captivity, wounds, nor death. Ignorant of war, we were advancing toward its devouring jaws with such conduct as became an excursion of pleasure. The only arms we then possessed were two-edged daggers made of rasps in blacksmith shops, and with these we were going to hew our way to victory through the serried ranks of the invading army! Ah, well! we knew better what war was after we had become the seasoned veterans of many campaigns. When the vessel had proceeded up the river as far as Fort Lowry it rounded to, because a solid shot ricochetted before the bow, and we were transferred to the steamboat Virginia, which carried us to Fredericksburg. Passing along the streets, attracting attention by our neat gray uniforms, we marched out to the fair-grounds, and rejoiced to obtain the friendly shelter of the cattle stalls. They were not as comfortable as the chambers of our homes—but what of it? Were we not soldiers now? It is wonderful and blessed how human nature can accommodate itself to altered environments.

We were supplied with smoothbore, muzzle-loading, Springfield muskets, small leather boxes for percussion caps, and larger ones for cartridges. For the information of the present generation let it be explained that the cartridge was made of tough paper containing powder in one end and the ounce ball of lead in the other; and the manner of load ing was this : the soldier tore off with his teeth the end, poured the powder into the muzzle, and then rammed down the ball; this being done, a cap was placed on the nipple of the breech, and the gun was ready to be fired. That musket is antiquated now, but it did much execution in former days.

Maj. J. H. Lacy, for whom the company was named, presented an elegant silk banner, which at Captain Gresham's request I received in the best language at my command. It was never borne in battle, for it was not companies but regiments that carried banners. There was but one flag to a regiment, and that was always carried in the center. Twice a day there was a course of drilling in tactical evolutions and in the handling of the muskets. At first I was hardly strong enough to sustain the fatigue, but I rapidly grew stronger under the combined influence of exercise, sleeping in the open air, and the excitement of a military life. The war did me harm in many ways, but it was the means of increasing my capacity for bodily exertion. During the encampment at Fredericksburg many of my spare moments were spent in reading the New Testament and Pollok's "Course of Time." We did not long remain in Fredericksburg; but being transported on cars to Brooke Station we marched up to camp Chappawamsic, near a Baptist church of that name. There the Lacy Rifles became Company F in the 47th regiment of Virginia Volunteers, commanded by Col. G. W. Richardson of Henrico county, who had been a member of the Virginia Convention that passed the ordinance of secession. He was a brave and patriotic gentleman, but unskilled in military affairs; and he did not long retain the command. 

From the summer of 1861 until the spring of 1862 we spent the time in company and regimental drill, and in picketing the shore of the Potomac river day and night, lest the enemy should effect a landing and take us unaware. During that time no shots were exchanged with the enemy, because no landing was attempted. The only fighting that we saw was at Dumfries where there was a Confederate fort, to which we marched to act as a support in case the Yankees came ashore. Three vessels of the Federal navy passed slowly down the river, between which and the fort there was a brief but lively cannonade; but so far as I know there was no resulting damage to either side.

On Sunday, July 21, we heard the booming of the cannon at Bull Run, lamenting that we had no part in the battle. When we afterward heard how McDowell's army skedaddled back to Washington more rapidly than they came, we thought that the war would end without our firing a gun. So little did we understand the firmness of President Lincoln's mind and the settled purpose of the North!

The winter was spent in comparative comfort, for we moved out of tents into cabins built of pine logs, each one having a wide arch and a chimney. At Christmas some good things were sent to me, among which was a dressed turkey, which I did not know how to prepare for the table, for even if I had possessed some knowledge of the culinary art there was no suitable oven. Fortunately a comrade by the name of John Cook,—an appropriate name for that occasion,—came to my relief and solved the problem in a most satisfactory manner. The bird was suspended by a string before the open fire, and being continually turned right and left, and basted with grease from a plate beneath, it was beautifully browned and cooked to a turn.

Wayland Fuller Dunaway, Reminiscences of a Rebel (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1913), 7-20.


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