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Surry of Eagle's-Nest or The Memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia by John Esten Cooke

Surry of Eagle's-Nest or The Memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia
John Esten Cooke


On the floor of the Convention the advocates and opponents of secession meanwhile thundered on from day to day, and in the committees the leaders grappled furiously, as though in a breast-to-breast struggle for life or death. The shifting phases of that great contest will some day be delineated by the historian. They will not be followed here.

These memoirs hurry on to other scenes, and cannot dwell upon those fierce battles of the tongue preluding the conflict of bayonets. I will here record, however, my conviction that I, for one, did injustice to many who opposed the adoption of the Ordinance of Secession. I then thought they were untrue to the honor of the Commonwealth. I now think that they only differed with their opponents upon the expediency of secession at the moment. They thought that Virginia would be able to mediate between the extremes of both sections—that she could "command the peace"—and that her voice would be heard across the storm. Vain hope! All at once these mists of delusion were divided by the lightning flash. President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand men to coerce the Gulf States, and Virginia was directed to furnish her quota. 

From that moment all opposition to immediate secession ended. Its advocates triumphed—its opponents were paralyzed, or, rather, acknowledged that no other course was left. The choice was now between fighting with and fighting against the Southern States, and the Convention no longer hesitated.

It was on the I8th day of April, I think, that, hastening toward the Capitol, whither I had been attracted by a sudden rumor, I saw the Confederate flag rise in the place of the stars and stripes.

The Convention had just adjourned for the day, and I met my father in the throng. His countenance glowed, and in his earnest look I read deep feeling. Many of the members' faces exhibited traces of tears.

At my ardent expressions of joy, my father smiled—rather sadly, I thought,

"We have done our duty, my son," he said; "and you know I have advocated this step from the beginning, when I think the war might have been prevented. Now it is a fixed fact. What do you propose to do?"

"To return at once to King William, and set about raising a company. If they choose me to command them—good. If not, I will serve in the ranks."

My father walked on in silence, evidently reflecting. "Wait two or three days," he said; "there will be time enough."

And we continued our way.

Three days afterward lie came into my chamber, and said, with a smile:

"Good morning. Captain."

I laughed, and replied:

" You give me my title in advance."

"No; I have addressed you properly."

And he handed me a large envelope, upon one corner of which were stamped the Virginia arms. I tore it open, and found that it contained my appointment as captain in the Provisional Army of Virginia, with orders to report to Colonel Jackson, commanding at Harper's Ferry!

Never did lover greet more rapturously the handwriting of his mistress. I rose to my full height, waved the paper round my head, and uttered a "hurrah!" which shook the windows.

Turning with flushed face and sparkling eyes toward my father, I saw him looking at me with inexpressible tenderness and sweetness.

I addressed myself to the task of procuring my equipments with an ardor which I now look back to with a satirical smile. Ah, those good days of the good year 1861! How anxious we all were to get to horse and march away under the bonnie blue flag! How fearful we were that a battle would be fought before we arrived; that we would not have an opportunity of reaping the glory of having our heads carried off by a cannon ball! That romance soon passed, and the war became a "heavy  affair"—but then it was all illusion and romance.

At the end of a week I had procured my uniform and equipments. The first consisted of a suit of gray, the sleeves of the coat profusely decorated by my fanciful tailor with the gold braid of a captain : the latter of a light sabre, pistol, saddle, and single blanket, strapped behind. My slender wardrobe was carried in the valise upon the horse of my servant, an active young negro, who had figured as my body servant, and was delighted at "going to the wars."

I bade my friends good-by, and then went to have a last interview with my father. I still see his noble face, and hear his grave, sweet accents. There were tears in his eyes as he pressed my hand, and I think my own were not dry.

I got into the saddle, waved my hand, and, followed by my servant, set out upon the untried future.

John Esten Cooke, Surry of Eagle's-Nest or The memoirs of a Staff-Officer Serving in Virginia (New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1866), 26-28.


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