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- Taken Alive - 3/66 -


Confederates came up in the darkness and shelled us out of such quarters as we had found. We had to leave our boiling coffee behind us--one of the greatest hardships I have ever known. Then followed a long night-ride down the Peninsula, in driving sleet and rain.

The next morning the sun broke out gloriously, warming and drying our chilled, wet forms. Nearly all that day we maintained a line of battle confronting the pursuing enemy. One brigade would take a defensive position, while the other would march about five miles to a commanding point, where it in turn would form a line. The first brigade would then give way, pass through the second, and take position well to the rear. Thus, although retreating, we were always ready to fight. At one point the enemy pressed us closely, and I saw a magnificent cavalry charge down a gentle descent in the road. Every sabre seemed tipped with fire in the brilliant sunshine.

In the afternoon it became evident that there was a body of troops before us. Who or what they were was at first unknown, and for a time the impression prevailed that we should have to cut our way through by a headlong charge. We soon learned, however, that the force was a brigade of colored infantry, sent up to cover our retreat. It was the first time we had seen negro troops, but as the long line of glistening bayonets and light-blue uniforms came into view, prejudices, if any there were, vanished at once, and a cheer from the begrimed troopers rang down our line, waking the echoes. It was a pleasant thing to march past that array of faces, friendly though black, and know we were safe. They represented the F.F.V.'s of Old Virginia, we then wished to see. On the last day of the march my horse gave out, compelling me to walk and lead him.

On the day after our arrival at Yorktown, Kilpatrick gave me despatches for the authorities at Washington. President Lincoln, learning that I had just returned from the raid, sent for me, and I had a memorable interview with him alone in his private room. He expressed profound solicitude for Colonel Dahlgren and his party. They had been detached from the main force, and I could give no information concerning them. We eventually learned of the death of that heroic young officer, Colonel Dahlgren. Although partially helpless from the loss of a leg, he led a daring expedition at the cost of his life.

I expressed regret to the President that the object of the raid had not been accomplished. "Pick the flint, and try it again," said Mr. Lincoln, heartily. I went out from his presence awed by the courage and sublime simplicity of the man. While he gave the impression that he was bearing the nation on his heart, one was made to feel that it was also large enough for sympathy with all striving with him in the humblest way.

My wife joined me in Washington, and few days later accompanied me to the scene of my new labors at Hampton Hospital, near Fortress Monroe. There were not many patients at that time (March, 1864) in the large barrack wards; but as soon as the Army of the Potomac broke through the Wilderness and approached our vicinity, transports in increasing numbers, laden with desperately wounded men, came to our wharf. During the early summer the wooden barracks were speedily filled, and many tent wards were added. Duty became constant and severe, while the scenes witnessed were often painful in the last degree. More truly than on the field, the real horrors of war are learned from the long agonies in the hospital. While in the cavalry service, I gained in vigor daily; in two months of hospital work I lost thirty pounds. On one day I buried as many as twenty-nine men. Every evening, till the duty became like a nightmare, I followed the dead-cart, filled up with coffins, once, twice, and often thrice, to the cemetery. Eventually an associate chaplain was appointed, who relieved me of this task.

Fortunately, my tastes led me to employ an antidote to my daily work as useful to me as to the patients. Surrounding the hospital was much waste land. This, with the approval of the surgeon in charge, Dr. Ely McMillan, and the aid of the convalescents, I transformed into a garden, and for two successive seasons sent to the general kitchen fresh vegetables by the wagon-load. If reward were needed, the wistful delight with which a patient from the front would regard a raw onion was ample; while for me the care of the homely, growing vegetables and fruit brought a diversion of mind which made life more endurable.

One of the great needs of the patients who had to fight the winning or losing battle of life was good reading, and I speedily sought to obtain a supply. Hearts and purses at the North responded promptly and liberally; publishers threw off fifty per cent from their prices; and I was eventually able to collect, by gift and purchase, about three thousand volumes. In gathering this library, I provided what may be distinctly termed religious reading in abundance; but I also recognized the need of diversion. Long wards were filled with men who had lost a leg or an arm, and who must lie in one position for weeks. To help them get through the time was to help them to live. I therefore made the library rich in popular fiction and genial books of travel and biography. Full sets of Irving, Cooper, Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, Marryat, and other standard works were bought; and many a time I have seen a poor fellow absorbed in their pages while holding his stump lest the jar of a footstep should send a dart of agony to the point of mutilation. My wife gave much assistance in my hospital duties, often reaching and influencing those beyond me. I recall one poor fellow who was actually six months in dying from a very painful wound. Profanity appeared to be his vernacular, and in bitter protest at his fate, he would curse nearly every one and everything. Mrs. Roe's sympathy and attentions changed him very much, and he would listen quietly as long as she would read to him. Some of the hospital attendants, men and women, had good voices, and we organized a choir. Every Sunday afternoon we went from ward to ward singing familiar hymns. It was touching to see rough fellows drawing their blankets over their heads to hide the emotion caused by words and melodies associated, in many instances, with home and mother.

Northern generosity, and, in the main, convalescent labor enabled me to build a large commodious chapel and to make great improvements in the hospital farm. The site of the hospital and garden is now occupied by General Armstrong's Normal and Agricultural Institute for Freedmen, and the chapel was occupied as a place of worship until very recently. Thus a noble and most useful work is being accomplished on the ground consecrated by the life-and-death struggles of so many Union soldiers.

In 1865 the blessed era of peace began, bringing its many changes. In October the hospital became practically empty, and I resigned. The books were sent to Fortress Monroe for the use of the garrison, and I found many of them there long years after, almost worn out from use.

After a little rest and some candidating for a church, I took a small parish at Highland Falls, about a mile from West Point, New York, entering on my labors in January, 1866. In this village my wife and I spent nine very happy years. They were full of trial and many cares, but free from those events which bring the deep shadows into one's life. We soon became engaged in building a new stone church, whose granite walls are so thick, and hard-wood finish so substantial that passing centuries should add only the mellowness of age. The effort to raise funds for this enterprise led me into the lecture-field and here I found my cavalry-raid and army life in general exceedingly useful. I looked around for a patch of garden-ground as instinctively as a duck seeks water. The small plot adjoining the parsonage speedily grew into about three acres, from which eventually came a book entitled "Play and Profit in my Garden."

Up to the year 1871 I had written little for publication beyond occasional contributions to the New York "Evangelist," nor had I seriously contemplated a literary life. I had always been extremely fond of fiction, and from boyhood had formed a habit of beguiling the solitary hours in weaving crude fancies around people who for any reason interested me. I usually had a mental serial running, to which I returned when it was my mood; but I had never written even a short story. In October, 1871, I was asked to preach for a far uptown congregation in New York, with the possibility of a settlement in view. On Monday following the services of the Sabbath, the officers of the church were kind enough to ask me to spend a week with them and visit among the people. Meantime, the morning papers laid before us the startling fact that the city of Chicago was burning and that its population were becoming homeless. The tidings impressed me powerfully, waking the deepest sympathy. I said to myself, "Here is a phase of life as remarkable as any witnessed during the war." I obeyed the impulse to be on the scene as soon as possible, stated my purpose to my friends, and was soon among the smoking ruins, finding an abiding-place with throngs of others in a partially finished hotel. For days and nights I wandered where a city had been, and among the extemporized places of refuge harboring all classes of people. Late one night I sat for a long time on the steps of Robert Collyer's church and watched the full moon through the roofless walls and shattered steeple. There was not an evidence of life where had been populous streets. It was there and then, as nearly as I can remember, that the vague outlines of my first story, "Barriers Burned Away," began to take form in my mind. I soon returned home, and began to dream and write, giving during the following year such hours as could be withdrawn from many other duties to the construction of the story. I wrote when and where I could--on steamboats, in railway cars, and at all odd hours of leisure, often with long breaks in the work of composition, caused by the pressure of other affairs, again getting up a sort of white heat from incessantly dwelling upon scenes and incidents that had become real to me. In brief, the story took possession of my mind, and grew as naturally as a plant or a weed in my garden.

It will thus be obvious that at nearly middle age, and in obedience to an impulse, I was launched as an author; that I had very slight literary training; and that my appearance as a novelist was quite as great a surprise to myself as to any of my friends. The writing of sermons certainly does not prepare one for the construction of a novel; and to this day certain critics contemptuously dismiss my books as "preaching." During nearly four years of army life, at a period when most young men are forming style and making the acquaintance of literature, I scarcely had a chance to read at all. The subsequent years of the pastorate were too active, except for an occasional dip into a favorite author.

While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one's power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when


Taken Alive - 3/66

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