The Ride by Night by Edward William Thomson
Mr. Adam Baines is a little Gray about
the temples, but still looks so young
that few could suppose him to have served in
the Civil War. Indeed, he was in the army
less than a year. How he went out of it he
told me in some such words as these:—
An orderly from the direction of Meade's
headquarters galloped into our parade ground,
and straight for the man on guard before the
colonel's tent. That was pretty late in the
afternoon of a bright March day in 1865, but
the parade ground was all red mud with shallow
pools. I remember well how the hind hoofs of
the orderly's galloper threw away great chunks
of earth as he splashed diagonally across the
His rider never slowed till he brought his
horse to its haunches before the sentry. There
he flung himself off instantly, caught up his
sabre, and ran through the middle opening
of the high screen of sapling pines stuck on
end, side by side, all around the acre or so
occupied by the officers' quarters.
The day, though sunny, was not warm, and
nearly all the men of my regiment were in
their huts when that galloping was heard.
Then they hurried out like bees from rows
of hives, ran up the lanes between the lines
of huts, and collected, each company separately,
on the edge of the parade ground opposite the
You see we had a notion that the orderly
had brought the word to break camp. For five
months the Army of the Potomac had been in
winter quarters, and for weeks nothing more
exciting than vidette duty had broken the
monotony of our brigade. We understood that
Sheridan had received command of all Grant's
cavalry, but did not know but the orderly had
rushed from Sheridan himself. Yet we awaited
the man's re-appearance with intense curiosity.
Soon, instead of the orderly, out ran our
first lieutenant, a small, wiry, long-haired man
named Miller. He was in undress uniform,—just
a blouse and trousers,—and bare-headed.
Though he wore low shoes, he dashed through
mud and water toward us, plainly in a great
"Sergeant Kennedy, I want ten men at once—mounted,"
Miller said. "Choose the ten
best able for a long ride, and give them the
best horses in the company. You understand,—no
matter whose the ten best horses are, give
'em to the ten best riders."
"I understand, sir," said Kennedy.
By this time half the company had started
for the stables, for fully half considered themselves
among the best riders. The lieutenant
laughed at their eagerness.
"Halt, boys!" he cried. "Sergeant, I'll
pick out four myself. Come yourself, and bring
Corporal Crowfoot, Private Bader, and Private
Crowfoot, Bader, and Gray had been running
for the stables with the rest. Now these three
old soldiers grinned and walked, as much as to
say, "We needn't hurry; we're picked anyhow;"
while the others hurried on. I remained
near Kennedy, for I was so young and green a
soldier that I supposed I had no chance to go.
"Hurry up! parade as soon as possible.
One day's rations; light marching order—no
blankets—fetch over-coats and ponchos," said
Miller, turning; "and in choosing your men,
favor light weights."
That was, no doubt, the remark which
brought me in. I was lanky, light, bred among
horses, and one of the best in the regiment
had fallen to my lot. Kennedy wheeled, and
his eye fell on me.
"Saddle up, Adam, boy," said he; "I guess
Lieutenant Miller ran back to his quarters,
his long hair flying wide. When he reappeared
fifteen minutes later, we were trotting across
the parade ground to meet him. He was
mounted, not on his own charger, but on the
colonel's famous thorough-bred bay. Then we
knew a hard ride must be in prospect.
"What! one of the boys?" cried Miller,
as he saw me. "He's too young."
"He's very light, sir; tough as hickory. I
guess he'll do," said Kennedy.
"Well, no time to change now. Follow me!
But, hang it, you've got your carbines! Oh, I
forgot! Keep pistols only! throw down your
sabres and carbines—anywhere—never mind
As we still hesitated to throw down our
clean guns, he shouted: "Down with them—anywhere!
Now, boys, after me, by twos! Trot—gallop!"
Away we went, not a man jack of us knew
for where or what. The colonel and officers,
standing grouped before regimental headquarters,
volleyed a cheer at us. It was taken
up by the whole regiment; it was taken up by
the brigade; it was repeated by regiment after
regiment of infantry as we galloped through the
great camp toward the left front of the army.
The speed at which Miller led over a rough
corduroy road was extraordinary, and all the
men suspected some desperate enterprise afoot.
Red and brazen was the set of the sun. I
remember it well, after we got clear of the
forts, clear of the breastworks, clear of the
reserves, down the long slope and across the wide
ford of Grimthorpe's Creek, never drawing
The lieutenant led by ten yards or so. He
had ordered each two to take as much distance
from the other two in advance; but we rode
so fast that the water from the heels of his
horse and from the heels of each two splashed
into the faces of the following men.
From the ford we loped up a hill, and passed
the most advanced infantry pickets, who laughed
and chaffed us, asking us for locks of our hair,
and if our mothers knew we were out, and
promising to report our last words faithfully to
the folks at home.
Soon we turned to the left again, swept close
by several cavalry videttes, and knew then that
we were bound for a ride through a country
that might or might not be within Lee's outer
lines, at that time extended so thinly in many
places that his pickets were far out of touch with
one another. To this day I do not know precisely
where we went, nor precisely what for. Soldiers
are seldom informed of the meaning of their
What I do know is what we did while I was
in the ride. As we were approaching dense
pine woods the lieutenant turned in his saddle,
slacked pace a little, and shouted, "Boys,
bunch up near me!"
He screwed round in his saddle so far that
we could all see and hear, and said:—
"Boys, the order is to follow this road as
fast as we can till our horses drop, or else the
Johnnies drop us, or else we drop upon three
brigades of our own infantry. I guess they've got
astray somehow; but I don't know myself what
the trouble is. Our orders are plain. The
brigades are supposed to be somewhere on this
road. I guess we shall do a big thing if we
reach those men to-night. All we've got to do
is to ride and deliver this despatch to the
general in command. You all understand?"
"Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!"
"It's necessary you all should. Hark, now!
We are not likely to strike the enemy in force,
but we are likely to run up against small
parties. Now, Kennedy, if they down me, you
are to stop just long enough to grab the
despatch from my breast; then away you go,—always
on the main road. If they down you
after you've got the paper, the man who can
grab it first is to take it and hurry forward. So
on right to the last man. If they down him,
and he's got his senses when he falls, he's to
tear the paper up, and scatter it as widely as he
can. You all understand?"
"Yes, sir! Yes, sir!"
"All right, then. String out again!"
He touched the big bay with the spur, and
shot quickly ahead.
With the long rest of the winter our horses
were in prime spirits, though mostly a little too
fleshy for perfect condition. I had cared well
for my horse; he was fast and sound in wind
and limb. I was certainly the lightest rider of
I was still thinking of the probability that I
should get further on the way than any comrade
except the lieutenant, or perhaps Crowfoot and
Bader, whose horses were in great shape; I
was thinking myself likely to win promotion
before morning, when a cry came out of the
darkness ahead. The words of the challenge I
was not able to catch, but I heard Miller shout,
We shook out more speed just as a rifle spat
its long flash at us from about a hundred yards
ahead. For one moment I plainly saw the
Southerner's figure. Kennedy reeled beside
me, flung up his hands with a scream, and fell.
His horse stopped at once. In a moment the
lieutenant had ridden the sentry down.
Then from the right side of the road a party,
who must have been lying round the camp-fire
that we faintly saw in among the pines, let fly
at us. They had surely been surprised in their
sleep. I clearly saw them as their guns flashed.
"Forward! Don't shoot! Ride on," shouted
Miller. "Bushwhackers! Thank God, not
mounted! Any of you make out horses with
"No, sir! No, sir!"
"Who yelled? who went down?"
"Kennedy, sir," I cried.
"Too bad! Any one else?"
"I'm touched in my right arm; but it's
nothing," I said. The twinge was slight, and
in the fleshy place in front of my shoulder. I
could not make out that I was losing blood,
and the pain from the hurt was scarcely
"Good boy! Keep up, Adam!" called the
lieutenant with a kind tone. I remember my
delight that he spoke my front name. On we
Possibly the shots had been heard by the
party half a mile further on, for they greeted us
with a volley. A horse coughed hard and
pitched down behind me. His rider yelled as
he fell. Then two more shots came: Crowfoot
reeled in front of me, and somehow checked
his horse. I saw him no more. Next moment
we were upon the group with our pistols.
"Forward, men! Don't stop to fight!"
roared Miller, as he got clear. A rifle was
fired so close to my head that the flame burned
my back hair, and my ears rang for half an
hour or more. My bay leaped high and dashed
down a man. In a few seconds I was fairly
out of the scrimmage.
How many of my comrades had gone down
I knew not, nor beside whom I was riding.
Suddenly our horses plunged into a hole; his
stumbled, the man pitched forward, and was
left behind. Then I heard a shot, the clatter
of another falling horse, the angry yell of
another thrown rider.
On we went,—the relics of us. Now we
rushed out of the pine forest into broad moonlight,
and I saw two riders between me and the
lieutenant,—one man almost at my shoulder
and another galloping ten yards behind. Very
gradually this man dropped to the rear. We
had lost five men already, and still the night
Bader and Absalom Gray were nearest me.
Neither spoke a word till we struck upon a
space of sandy road. Then I could hear, far
behind the rear man, a sound of galloping on
the hard highway.
"They're after us, lieutenant!" shouted
"Many?" He slacked speed, and we listened
"Only one," cried Miller. "He's coming
The pursuer gained so rapidly that we looked
to our pistols again. Then Absalom Gray cried:
"It's only a horse!"
In a few moments the great gray of fallen
Corporal Crowfoot overtook us, went ahead,
and slacked speed by the lieutenant.
"Good! He'll be fresh when the rest go
down!" shouted Miller. "Let the last man
mount the gray!"
By this time we had begun to think ourselves
clear of the enemy, and doomed to race on till
the horses should fall.
Suddenly the hoofs of Crowfoot's gray and
the lieutenant's bay thundered upon a plank
road whose hollow noise, when we all reached
it, should have been heard far. It took us
through wide orchard lands into a low-lying
mist by the banks of a great marsh, till we
passed through that fog, strode heavily up a
slope, and saw the shimmer of roofs under the
moon. Straight, through the main street we
Whether it was wholly deserted I know not,
but not a human being was in the streets, nor
any face visible at the black windows. Not
even a dog barked. I noticed no living thing
except some turkeys roosting on a fence, and
a white cat that sprang upon the pillar of a
gateway and thence to a tree.
Some of the houses seemed to have been
ruined by a cannonade. I suppose it was one
of the places almost destroyed in Willoughby's
recent raid. Here we thundered, expecting
ambush and conflict every moment, while the
loneliness of the street imposed on me such
a sense as might come of galloping through a
long cemetery of the dead.
Out of the village we went off the planks
again upon sand. I began to suspect that I
was losing a good deal of blood. My brain
was on fire with whirling thoughts and wonder
where all was to end. Out of this daze I came,
in amazement to find that we were quickly
overtaking our lieutenant's thoroughbred.
Had he been hit in the fray, and bled to
weakness? I only know that, still galloping
while we gained, the famous horse lurched forward,
almost turned a somersault, and fell on
"Stop—the paper!" shouted Bader.
We drew rein, turned, dismounted, and found
Miller's left leg under the big bay's shoulder.
The horse was quite dead, the rider's long hair
lay on the sand, his face was white under the
We stopped long enough to extricate him,
and he came to his senses just as we made out
that his left leg was broken.
"Forward!" he groaned. "What in thunder
are you stopped for? Oh, the despatch! Here!
away you go! Good-bye."
In attending to Miller we had forgotten the
rider who had been long gradually dropping
behind. Now as we galloped away,—Bader,
Absalom Gray, myself, and Crowfoot's riderless
horse,—I looked behind for that comrade;
but he was not to be seen or heard. We three
were left of the eleven.
From the loss of so many comrades the
importance of our mission seemed huge. With
the speed, the noise, the deaths, the strangeness
of the gallop through that forsaken village, the
wonder how all would end, the increasing belief
that thousands of lives depended on our success,
and the longing to win, my brain was
wild. A raging desire to be first held me, and
I galloped as if in a dream.
Bader led; the riderless gray thundered
beside him; Absalom rode stirrup to stirrup
with me. He was a veteran of the whole war.
Where it was that his sorrel rolled over I do
not remember at all, though I perfectly remember
how Absalom sprang up, staggered, shouted,
"My foot is sprained!" and fell as I turned to
look at him and went racing on.
Then I heard above the sound of our hoofs
the voice of the veteran of the war. Down as
he was, his spirit was unbroken. In the favorite
song of the army his voice rose clear and gay
"Hurrah for the Union!
Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Shouting the battle-cry of freedom!"
We turned our heads and cheered him as
we flew, for there was something indescribably
inspiriting in the gallant and cheerful lilt of the
fallen man. It was as if he flung us, from the
grief of utter defeat, a soul unconquerable; and
I felt the life in me strengthened by the tone.
Old Bader and I for it! He led by a
hundred yards, and Crowfoot's gray kept his
stride. Was I gaining on them? How was it
that I could see his figure outlined more clearly
against the horizon? Surely dawn was not
No; I looked round on a world of naked
peach-orchards, and corn-fields ragged with last
year's stalks, all dimly lit by a moon that
showed far from midnight; and that faint light
on the horizon was not in the east, but in the
west. The truth flashed on me,—I was looking
at such an illumination of the sky as would
be caused by the camp-fires of an army.
"The missing brigade!" I shouted.
"Or a Southern division!" Bader cried.
"Come on!" I was certainly gaining on him,
but very slowly. Before the nose of my bay
was beyond the tail of his roan, the wide illuminations
had become more distinct; and still
not a vidette, not a picket, not a sound of the
proximity of an army.
Bader and I now rode side by side, and
Crowfoot's gray easily kept the pace. My
horse was in plain distress, but Bader's was
"Take the paper, Adam," he said; "my roan
won't go much further. Good-bye, youngster.
Away you go!" and I drew now quickly ahead.
Still Bader rode on behind me. In a few
minutes he was considerably behind. Perhaps
the sense of being alone increased my feeling
of weakness. Was I going to reel out of the
saddle? Had I lost so much blood as that?
Still I could hear Bader riding on. I turned to
look at him. Already he was scarcely visible.
Soon he dropped out of sight; but still I heard
the laborious pounding of his desperate horse.
My bay was gasping horribly. How far was
that faintly yellow sky ahead? It might be
two, it might be five miles. Were Union or
Southern soldiers beneath it? Could it be
conceived that no troops of the enemy were
between me and it?
Never mind; my orders were clear. I rode
straight on, and I was still riding straight on,
marking no increase in the distress of my bay,
when he stopped as if shot, staggered, fell on
his knees, tried to rise, rolled to his side,
groaned and lay.
I was so weak I could not clear myself. I
remember my right spur catching in my saddle-cloth
as I tried to free my foot; then I pitched
forward and fell. Not yet senseless, I clutched
at my breast for the despatch, meaning to tear
it to pieces; but there my brain failed, and in
full view of the goal of the night I lay
When I came to, I rose on my left elbow,
and looked around. Near my feet my poor
bay lay, stone dead. Crowfoot's gray!—where
was Crowfoot's gray? It flashed on me that I
might mount the fresh horse and ride on. But
where was the gray? As I peered round I
heard faintly the sound of a galloper. Was he
coming my way? No; faintly and more faintly
I heard the hoofs.
Had the gray gone on then, without the
despatch? I clutched at my breast. My coat
was unbuttoned—the paper was gone!
Well, sir, I cheered. My God! but it was
comforting to hear those far-away hoofs, and
know that Bader must have come up, taken the
papers, and mounted Crowfoot's gray, still good
for a ten-mile ride! The despatch was gone
forward; we had not all fallen in vain; maybe
the brigades would be saved!
How purely the stars shone! When I stifled
my groaning they seemed to tell me of a great
peace to come. How still was the night! and
I thought of the silence of the multitudes who
had died for the Union.
Now the galloping had quite died away.
There was not a sound,—a slight breeze blew,
but there were no leaves to rustle. I put my
head down on the neck of my dead horse.
Extreme fatigue was benumbing the pain of my
now swelling arm; perhaps sleep was near,
perhaps I was swooning.
But a sound came that somewhat revived me.
Far, low, joyful, it crept on the air. I sat up,
wide awake. The sound, at first faint, died as
the little breeze fell, then grew in the lull, and
came ever more clearly as the wind arose. It
was a sound never to be forgotten,—the sound
of the distant cheering of thousands of men.
Then I knew that Bader had galloped into
the Union lines, delivered the despatch, and
told a story which had quickly passed through
Bader I never saw again, nor Lieutenant
Miller, nor any man with whom I rode that
night. When I came to my senses I was in
hospital at City Point. Thence I went home
invalided. No surgeon, no nurse, no soldier
at the hospital could tell me of my regiment,
or how or why I was where I was. All they
could tell me was that Richmond was taken,
the army far away in pursuit of Lee, and a
rumor flying that the great commander of the
South had surrendered near Appomattox Court