A Reminiscence of the Christmas of 1861
It was Christmas day in the year 1861. A party of officers and soldiers of the old First Virginia Cavalry, then encamped near Bull Run, had assembled to celebrate the day at Stuart's Tavern, on the Little River Turnpike. The party was composed of Captain Jas. H. Drake, Captain Irving, Lieutenant Larrick, Dave and Gash Drake, Wm. Guy, Wm. Meade, and the writer of this; it there were others I cannot, at this distant day, recall their names. The day was "cold and dark and dreary," but the bright fire from the old fashioned fireplace, shining upon the polished and irons, sanded floor, and cheerful faces of "mine host" and his guests in their gray uniforms and their burnished side arms leaning conveniently in the corners of the room, gave an air of comfort and snugness to the scene which contrasted favorably with the outdoor gloom, and gave something like a home feeling to the soldiers who, for several months, had known nothing better than a fly tent, or a cross roads bivouac.
Our horses were picketed at the front fence, ready to mount and away should any foraging party of the enemy happen along and disturb us in our festivities, but we trusted to the inclemency of the weather and proximity of our infantry pickets, to prevent any such interruption, but the rule of our lives in the front under "Jeb" Stuart, was vigilance, and on this occasion it was not relaxed.
With song and jest and story interspersed with occasional libation to the Shrine of Bacchus, (represented by a large bowl of punch and an egg nog on the center table,) the hours passed merrily away while the landlord busied himself with preparations for diner, and the odor of the roast turkey and other good things from the kitchen, sharpened the already keen appetites of the hungry soldier -- such appetites as we had twenty years ago.
In the midst of the scene of enjoyment, a "solitary horseman" rode up to the house, dismounted and entered -- a tall soldierly looting man, in uniform of a Captain of Infantry. Seeing that we were a private party and believing himself to be an intruder, he was about to beat a retreat, but we pressed him to join us, and after some hesitation he consented to do so. He introduced himself as Captain Atkins, of Wheat's battalion, and told us that the battalion was on picket duty, and he on the grand round, and had come out of his way to warm himself by the hospitable fireside of the tavern. Learning from him that Major Wheat was on the line Meade and I started off in search of him. We found him at his headquarters, a fly, under a tree at the cross road it required no great deal of eloquence to induce him to join our dinner party, for the Major was one of those whole souls that would never hesitate to exchange a mud hole and camp fare for a cheerful fireside, boon companions, and a good dinner, when his duty did not forbid it, as willingly as he would the reverse, when the long roll sounded, or the call was -- duty. Of a genial disposition, graceful manners, and air of savoir faire, mingled with a certain amount of recklessness, and a lover of good things, he was at once installed, by virtu of military precedence and age, the ruler of the feast.
In fancy I can see the happy faces that gathered around the table and responded to the toast, "Our Dixie Land." Alas! ere another Christmas had come around some of them had paid the soldier's debt -- friends were scattered, and another scenes were being enacted. For us there was but one Christmas of the four spent in service at "Stuart's tavern;" and of those who answered to the roll call that day, how many could now answer "Here! The gallant Wheat fell in the battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1862; Colonel Drake fell at the head of the Old First, at Falling Waters, on the retreat from Gettysburg. The others did their part, and some "laid their heads upon the lap of earth," to fame unknown, and in other commands, but under one flag bore the brunt of the Virginia campaigns.
The memory of those days seems like a beautiful dream -- seem through the mists of the rolling years. We were boys then, fired with enthusiasm and arbor in the cause we loved so much. The dark side of war had no dimmed the halo that invested all things with a beautiful romance. Up to that time we had known no such word as defeat. The victories of Bull Run and Manassas, and several in our colors and our chief. The cypress had not become so entwined with the laurel as so dim the lustre of our chaplets, and cause us to mingle tears with our songs of triumph; and "victory" was the watchword of those who followed the feather of Stuart.
The dinner passed pleasantly without interruption, and the stars had "set their sentinel watch in the sky" when we parted and make our way back to camp, filled with enthusiasm, turkey, and punch, to say nothing of egg nog, oysters, and many other delicacies provided by our host. Indeed, so happy were we, that we found some difficultly in getting back camp, though the road was plain, and there were few paths in the country around Manassas unknown to Stuart's Cavalry. They had learned them all, as the infantry would say, in "buttermilk ranging."
I do not know that this will meet the eye of any of those who met at Stuart's Tavern that Christmas day, or even that any of them survive the storms of twenty years; but should it do so, I feel assured that they will recall with pleasure this little episode in our camp life, and sigh to think of the days that can come no more, and of the comrades who will meet no more, who counted it happiness to endure fatigue, hardship, and privations in the cause we loved, and under the man we loved as only soldiers can love such a leader as the glorious "Jeb" Stuart.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume XI. Richmond, Va., June, 1883. No. 6.
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