Civil War Profiles
The adventurous George Alfred Townsend, as discussed in previous columns, received a plum assignment in 1862 as a New York World reporter attached to Union forces in Virginia. His initial experiences did not include “seeing the elephant” — the quaint phrase Civil War soldiers applied to initial exposure to live fire — but, that would soon change!
After “Gath” — the penname he adopted — arrived at White House Plantation in Virginia, he ferried over to Indiantown Island, and met mixed-race Native Americans and Africans. One was a very old woman named “Mag” with “great repute at medicines, pow-wows, and divination,” sitting in the threshold of a dilapidated log house.
The skeptical correspondent hunkered down on a wooden stool as his ancient hostess solicited, “Does you want you fauchun told by de ole’ oman?” Townsend detected “this daughter of the Delawares” had an unwholesome odor of “fire-water” blended with “fumes of her calumet,” or peace pipe.
Gath gave the medicine woman a dime to prognosticate the outcome of the North-South conflict. The old gal produced an earthenware cup with coffee sediments and said, “I’se been a lookin’ into dat,” but soon disappeared with the dime, “chuckling and chattering” into her hut.
Back on the mainland, the plan for Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac to attack and capture Richmond resumed on May 20, as two columns marched toward Mechanicsville and Bottom Bridges. After three days, the army deployed along a 10-mile stretch of the Chickahominy hills.
Accompanying the army along this route, Gath “studied … the native Virginian character ... compounds of the cavalier and the boor.” He extended this stern observation to older African women whose “greatest delight lay in the coppers and the dimes,” he said, gathered by selling buttermilk and corn-cakes to the passing troops in blue.
Townsend made note of “the prodigious number of stragglers from the Federal lines” who haunted the countryside, searching cabins, smokehouses, cellars and stables. Although Gath did not elaborate, stragglers were notorious for looting isolated farms and families in the countryside.
The affable George Alfred came upon a “tidy farm-house” on the New Bridge road where a “youngish woman” lived with several small children and her sister-in-law, plus “five faithful negroes.” He obtained a meal and a place to stay overnight, and “fell almost in love” with the pretty hostess, whose “dialect was softer and more musical than that of most Southerners.”
Back to reality the next day, Townsend rejoined the army as it marched on while gathering sheep, geese, chickens and pigs along the route, stripping mills of flour and meal, and gathering vegetables in gardens to feed the ravenous tens of thousands.
After Gath accepted an invitation to accompany a Union cavalry scouting party, the major in charge shouted, “Attention! Mount!” The riders sprang to their saddles and moved northward toward Hanover Court House.
After a two-hour ride, the commander called a halt when he spotted hoof-marks along the bank of a stream. The relative quiet ended with explosions in rapid succession, followed by “several persons firing at once.” The chaos of sudden combat resounded with the “floundering of steeds, the cries and curses of men, and ringing of steel striking steel.”
A scout informed the major that a squad of the enemy was straight ahead. He shouted, “Forward,” and Townsend reined his horse aside as the column “dashed hotly past me,” while the reporter followed in the rear.
Gath tried to keep up with these cavaliers intent on capturing the unseen enemy ahead, but fell too far behind. He fantasized “my hand clutched a sabre, and despised myself that it was not there.”
After the Rebels escaped, the Union troop halted in the village of Hanover and dismounted. The toll of this skirmish included two dead cavalrymen in blue, as well as many Southerners left lying in the woods.
Gath regained presence of mind, gathered Richmond newspapers found in town, as well as “some items of intelligence,” and decided to head back to White House Plantation, some 20 miles distant, on his own — no doubt to file a report. Despite the major’s warning of his “foolhardiness,” George Alfred decided to risk the danger, and “bade them good-by.”
To be continued….
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” both available at Bethany Beach Books and on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point