Belle Boyd about the Battle of Front Royal
| Among the Federals who then occupied Front Royal was one Mr. Clark, a reporter to the "New York Herald," and, although an Irishman, by no means a gentleman.|
He was domiciled at head-quarters, which were established, as I have before mentioned, at my aunt's residence; and thus it was that I saw him daily, for we could not possibly get into the street without crossing the court-yard and passing through the hall way.
This Mr. Clark endeavoured upon several occasions to intrude his society upon me; and, although I told him plainly his advances were extremely distasteful, he persevered so far that I was forced more than once to bolt the door of the room in which my cousin and myself were seated, in his face.
These rebuffs he never forgave, and from an intrusive friend he became an inveterate enemy. It is to him I am indebted for the first violent, undisguised abuse with which my name was coupled in any Federal journal; but I must do the editors of the Yankee newspapers the justice to admit they were not slow to follow the example set them by Mr. Clark. They seemed to think that to insult an innocent young girl was to prove their manhood and evince their patriotism. I think my English readers will neither admire their taste nor applaud their spirit.
On the evening of the 23rd May I was sitting at the window of our room, reading to my grandmother and cousin, when one of the servants rushed in, and shouted, or rather shrieked -
"Oh, Miss Belle, I t'inks de revels am a-comin', for de Yankees are a-makin' orful fuss in de street."
I immediately sprang from my seat and went to the door, and I then found that the servant's report was true. The streets were thronged with Yankee soldiers, hurrying about in every direction in the greatest confusion.
I asked a Federal officer, who just then happened to be passing by, what was the matter. He answered that the Confederates were approaching the town in force, under Generals Jackson and Ewell, that they had surprised and captured the outside pickets, and had actually advanced within a mile of the town, without the attack being even suspected.
"Now," he added, "we are endeavouring to get the ordnance and the quartermaster's stores out of their reach."
"But what will you do, "I asked, "with the stores in the large depot?"
"Burn them, of course!"
"But suppose the rebels come upon you too quickly?"
"Then we will fight as long as we can by any possibility show a front, and in the event of defeat make good our retreat upon Winchester, burning the bridges as soon as we cross them, and finally effect a junction with General Banks' force."
I parted with the Federal officer, and, returning to the house, I began to walk quietly up-stairs, when suddenly I heard the report of a rifle, and almost at the same moment I encountered Mr. Clark, who, in his rapid descent from his room, very nearly knocked me down.
"Great heavens! what is the matter?" he ejaculated, as soon as he had regained his breath, which the concussion and flight had deprived him of.
"Nothing to speak of," said I; "only the rebels are coming, and you had best prepare yourself for a visit to Libby Prison."
He answered not a word, but rushed back to his room and commenced compressing into as small a compass as possible all the manuscripts upon which he so much plumed himself, and upon which he relied for fame and credit with the illustrious journal to which he was contributor. It was his intention to collect and secure these inestimable treasures, and then to skedaddle.
I immediately went for my opera-glasses, and, on my way to the balcony in front of the house, from which position I intended to reconnoitre, I was obliged to pass Mr. Clark's door. It was open, but the key was on the outside. The temptation of making a Yankee prisoner was too strong to be resisted, and, yielding to the impulse, I quietly locked in the "Special Correspondent" of the "New York Herald."
After this feat I hurried to the balcony, and, by the aid of my glasses, descried the advance guard of the Confederates at the distance of about three-quarters of a mile, marching rapidly upon the town.
To add to my anxiety, my father, who was at that time upon General Garnett's staff, was with them. My heart beat alternately with hope and fear. I was not ignorant of the trap the Yankees had set for my friends. I was in possession of much important information, which if I could only contrive to convey to General Jackson, I knew our victory would be secure. Without it I had every reason to anticipate defeat and disaster.
The intelligence I was in possession of instructed me that General Banks was at Strasbourg with four thousand men, that the small force at Winchester could be readily reinforced by General White, who was at Harper's Ferry, and that Generals Shields and Geary were a short distance below Front Royal, while Fremont was beyond the Valley; further, and this was the vital point, that it had been decided all these separate divisions should co-operate against General Jackson.
I again went down to the door, and this time I observed, standing about in groups, several men who had always professed attachment to the cause of the South. I demanded if there was one among them who would venture to carry to General Jackson the information I possessed. They all with one accord said, "No, no. You go."
I did not stop to reflect. My heart, though beating fast, was not appalled. I put on a white sun-bonnet, and started at a run down the street, which was thronged with Federal officers and men. I soon cleared the town and gained the open fields, which I traversed with unabated speed, hoping to escape observation until such time as I could make good my way to the Confederate line, which was still rapidly advancing.
I had on a dark blue dress, with a little fancy white apron over it; and this contrast of colours, being visible at a great distance, made me far more conspicuous than was just then agreeable. The skirmishing between the outposts was sharp. The main forces of the opposing armies were disposed as follows: -
The Federals had placed their artillery upon a lofty eminence, which commanded the road by which the Confederates were advancing. Their infantry occupied in force the hospital buildings, which were of great size, and sheltered by which they kept up an incessant fire.
The Confederates were in line directly in front of the hospital, into which their artillerymen were throwing shells with deadly precision; for the Yankees had taken this as a shelter, and were firing upon the Confederate troops from the windows.
At this moment the Federal pickets, who were rapidly falling back, perceived me still running as fast as I was able, and immediately fired upon me.
My escape was most providential; for, although I was not hit, the rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me, and more than one struck the ground so near my feet as to throw the dust in my eyes. Nor was this all: the Federals in the hospital seeing in what direction the shots of their pickets were aimed, followed the example and also opened fire upon me.
Upon this occasion my life was spared by what seemed to me then, and seems still, little short of a miracle; for, besides the numerous bullets that whistled by my ears, several actually pierced different parts of my clothing, but not one reached my body. Besides all this, I was exposed to a cross fire from the Federal and Confederate artillery, whose shot and shell flew whistling and hissing over my head.
At length a Federal shell struck the ground within twenty yards of my feet; and the explosion, of course, sent the fragments flying, in every direction around me. I had, however, just time to throw myself flat upon the ground before the deadly engine burst; and again Providence spared my life.
Springing up when the danger was passed, I pursued my career, still under a heavy fire. I shall never run again as I ran on that, to me, memorable day. Hope, fear, the love of life, and the determination to serve my country to the last, conspired to fill my heart with more than feminine courage, and to lend preternatural strength and swiftness to my limbs. I often marvel and even shudder when I reflect how I cleared the fields and bounded over the fences with the agility of a deer.
As I neared our line I waved my bonnet to our soldiers, to intimate that they should press forward, upon which one regiment, the 1st Maryland "rebel" Infantry, and Hay's Louisiana Brigade, gave me a loud cheer, and, without waiting for further orders, dashed upon the town at a rapid pace.
They did not then know who I was, and they were naturally surprised to see a woman on the battle-field, and on a spot, too, where the fire was so hot. Their shouts of approbation and triumph rang in my ears for many a day afterwards, and I still hear them not infrequently in my dreams.
At this juncture the main body of the Confederates was hidden from my view by a slight elevation which intervened between me and them. My heart almost ceased to beat within me; for the dreadful thought arose in my mind that our force must be too weak to be any match for the Federals, and that the gallant men who had just been applauding me were rushing upon a certain and fruitless death. I accused myself of having urged them to their fate; and now, quite overcome by fatigue and by the feelings which tormented me, I sank upon my knees and offered a short but earnest prayer to God.
Then I felt as if my supplication was answered, and that I was inspired with fresh spirits and a new life. Not only despair, but fear also forsook me; and I had again no thought but how to fulfill the mission I had already pursued so far.
I arose from my kneeling posture, and had proceeded but a short distance, when, to my unspeakable, indescribable joy, I caught sight of the main body fast approaching; and soon an old friend and connection of mine, Major Harry Douglas, rode up, and, recognizing me, cried out, while he seized my hand -
"Good God, Belle, you here! what is it?"
"Oh, Harry," I gasped out, "give me time to recover my breath."
For some seconds I could say no more; but, as soon as I had sufficiently recovered myself, I produced the "little note," and told him all, urging him to hurry on the cavalry, with orders to them to seize the bridges before the retreating Federals should have time to destroy them.
He instantly galloped off to report to General Jackson, who immediately rode forward, and asked me if I would have an escort and a horse wherewith to return to the village. I thanked him, and said, "No; I would go as I came;" and then, acting upon the information I had been spared to convey, the Confederates gained a most complete victory.
Though the depot building had been fired, and was burning, our cavalry reached the bridges barely in time to save them from destruction: the retreating Federals had just crossed, and were actually upon the point of lighting the slow match which, communicating with the bursting charge, would have riven the arches in pieces. So hasty was their retreat that they left all their killed and wounded in our hands.
Although we lost many of our best and bravest - among others the gallant Captain Sheetes, of Ashby's cavalry, who fell leading a brilliant and successful charge upon the Federal infantry - the day was ours; and I had the heartfelt satisfaction to know that it was in consequence of the information I had conveyed at such risk to myself General Jackson made the flank movement which led to such fortunate results.
And here let me pause a moment to do justice to the memory of a brave enemy, Colonel Kenly, who commanded the Federals, and who fought at their head with the courage of desperation, until he fell mortally wounded.
The Confederates, following up theirs victory crossed the river by the still standing bridges, and pushed on by the road which led to Winchester.
General Banks was startled from his lair at Strasbourg, and, leaving everything but his own head and a handful of cavalry behind him, with the Victorious Confederates in hot pursuit, rushed through Winchester and Martinsburg, and finally crossed the river at Williamsport, Maryland; and it is said that he and his command have never stopped running since.
During this hasty flight General Banks halted for a few minutes to take breath in the main street of Martinsburg. Upon the side-walk were standing many children and young girls, among whom was my little sister.
One of these girls, recognizing General Banks aide-de-camp, walked up to him and said -
"Captain, how long are you going to stay here?"
"Until Gabriel blows his horn," replied he.
To this mistimed vaunt my sister quietly rejoined, looking full in his face as she spoke -
"Ah, Captain, if you were to hear Jackson's horn just outside the town, you would not wait for Gabriel's."
Nor did they wait; for the echo of the Confederate General's bugles had little less terror for them than the sound of the archangel's trump.
When I first returned from the battlefield, tired, or, to say the truth, utterly enervated and exhausted, the Confederates were filing through the town, and the enthusiastic hurrahs with which they greeted me did more than anything else could have done to revive my drooping spirits and restore my failing powers. The dead and wounded were now being brought in, and our house soon became a hospital.
Notwithstanding my fatigue, I contrived to render some assistance in dressing the wounds and alleviating the sufferings of our poor soldiers, who consoled themselves in their agonies with the reflection that they had done their duty nobly, and that their pangs were not embittered by the sting and remorse with which defeat always torments a true soldier.
Among the dead who were brought next day to our house for interment were Captains Sheetes, Baxter, and Thaxter, all of Ashby's cavalry, and Major Davis, of Louisiana. To my great joy my father came safer out of the battle, with but a very slight wound in the leg.
All the Federals left in Front Royal were captured; among them my particular friend Mr. Clark, who, upon endeavouring to leave his room unseen during the confusion, found himself locked in.
I afterwards heard an amusing account of the manner in which he extricated himself by letting himself down from the window; this, however, was unfortunately a work of time, and the delay was the cause of his capture. He was being escorted a prisoner down the street, when, catching sight of me as I stood upon the door-step, he shouted out -
"I'll make you rue this: it's your doing that I am a prisoner here."
During the battle, and while Colonel Fillebrowne was preparing to remove his effects from Winchester, a gentleman of high social position and Southern proclivities stepped into his office and said, "Colonel, how on earth did you get into such a trap? Did you know nothing of the advance of the Confederates?" Colonel Fillebrowne turned, and, pointing to the bouquet I had sent him only a day or two before, he said, "That bouquet did all the mischief: the donor of that gift is responsible for all this misfortune."
I could not but be aware that I had been of some service to my country; and I had the further satisfaction of feeling that neither a desire of fame nor notoriety had been my motive for enacting the role I did in this sad drama. I was not prepared, however, for that recognition of my services which was received on the very day they were rendered, and which I here transcribe: -
"May 23rd, 1862.
"MISS BELLE BOYD,
"Hastily, I am your Friend,
This short note, which was written at Mr. Richards' house, very near Front Royal, was brought to me by a courier, and I am free to confess I value it far beyond anything I possess in the world.
The object General Jackson had in view was too important to admit of his leaving behind him an adequate force for the protection of Front Royal; one regiment, the 12th Georgia Infantry, was all that could be spared; and thus Front Royal was retaken by the Federals just one week after its brilliant capture by our troops.
During our short possession of the town there was, among the prisoners taken in the pursuit beyond the river and sent back into our custody, a woman who represented herself to be the wife of a soldier belonging to the Michigan cavalry. She was handed over to me, and I furnished her with clothing, and did all that lay in my power to make her comfortable and happy.
Upon the arrival of the Federals, under General Geary, most of the 12th Georgia were taken prisoners, together with all the sick and wounded.
The woman of whom I have just spoken was of course liberated, and the first use she made of her freedom was to report me to General Kimball as a most dangerous rebel, and a malignant enemy to the Federal Government.
The General immediately placed me under arrest, and surrounded our house with sentries, so that to escape was actually impossible. Within a few hours, however, after my incarceration General Shields arrived, and, being senior in the service to General Kimball, naturally superseded him in the command of the army. He at once released me, and I thank him for his urbanity and kindness.
Rumors soon reached us to the effect that the Confederate army was retreating up the Valley, and once more all this portion of the country fell into the hands of the Yankees.
Taken from: BELLE BOYD, In Camp and Prison, Vol. 1, Chapter VI