Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"We Will Protect This Town!"

A letter surfaces from Private Christopher of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry to his family and friends in the Old Dominion recounting the Battle Of Payson and his experience behind enemy lines. It would later be reprinted in The Williamsburg Star, published by his brother.

April 10, 1862

To My Dearest Family,

I do hope this letter finds you in comfort. It warms me to tell you our regiment is once again victorious in the face of aggression, despite a siege upon a mountain community which forced us to regroup and counterattack with speed and aggression to fulfill our word to the people whom we pledged to defend.

In the bright daylight of the morning, we marched into the town of Payson with orders to protect the citizens from any Yankee encroachment. Having heard of the terrible and vicious arson of Prescott days ago filled us with both fear and determination, and a deep desire manifested within us to reassure the citizens of their safety. Our commanders established pickets on the edges of the community to spot any signs of trouble while we ventured among the townsfolk to gauge their feelings and be of service to them.

I must tell you the citizens are a curious and proud people, rooted like the pines that grow all around them. They are not prone to fear, much less to worry, and they welcomed us with a friendly and yet cautious trust. Private Cooper and I spent much time among them, giving our personal assurance, "We will protect this town." Yet many had heard of the Prescott conflagration which reduced it to ashes, and the winds of rumor buffeted them in spite of our repeated efforts to contain the propaganda. They mentioned what they had heard of Northern spies even as they asked us to stand and pose in front of tiny silver boxes they held in their hands which produced the most stunning daguerreotypes I have ever seen.

I recall one gentleman asking where he should displace himself should things come to a fight. I told him we hoped things would not come to that, but if he insisted, he best stay away from the streets. Another gentleman sat upon a porch with his wife, and I shall never forget the tall stovepipe hat atop his head, one at least twice the height of even the tallest hats I had seen in St. Louis many months ago. All the while, a lady of the town saw fit to entertain us with a rendition of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" on her dulcimer, with two other young ladies joining in on fiddles. That seemed to calm many a frayed nerve, as we saw many townsfolk content to sit in the noonday sunshine and forget any talk of war.

Just as Private Cooper and I were convincing a few more citizens of our dedication, we heard the voluminous explosion of artillery fire in the distance. Our commanders formed us up and dispatched us to the source of the disturbance, where we soon observed a detachment of Northern skirmishers running away from us. At once we returned to the town, where I gleefully noted the would-be aggressors' departure to many a concerned citizen: "You see how fast those Yankees ran?" I bellowed. "They know not to mess with us!" Private Cooper echoed my observations but cautioned me as to the possibility of Federal spies amongst the citizens.

I doubt with certainty I had given away any secrets, but to our fear, the skirmishers sent for reinforcements, and within a half hour I was standing across the field from a line of 1st Minnesota troops who sought to invade the town. Our cannons failed to stop them, and they pushed us back into a defensive position along the western edge. Our Colonel ordered us to hold the line, and we hit them back with a series of volleys as they advanced. At once I felt the sting of a ball to my face and my chest, and I regret to tell you I crumpled before my brothers in arms, who continued to stand firm. I struggled to get to my feet, determined to give the enemy at least one more taste of powder from my Springfield, but the Colonel directed me away limping to the camp nurse, judging my injuries too severe.

As she tended to my wounds, I could hear the Yankees storming into the town despite our best efforts. A few moments later, as the Colonel was assisting me, I saw three Federals confront us, catching us effectively unarmed. They took the Colonel, Private Cooper and I prisoner without deference to my injured state. "Look at what you did to his face!" the Colonel shouted to them as I lay sputtering on the ground. "Three holes in his face!" Private Cooper shared in my suffering, grieving the loss of my countenance.

However, the ladies of the town had formulated their own contingency plan. To our great astonishment, they gathered what rifles they could find and formed up against the Federals along the main street, threatening to shoot if the aggressors should lay flame to the buildings as they did in Prescott. I must tell you they were well disciplined and versed in the manual of arms from where I could observe them. One could tell from their stiff faces and piercing glances with the muskets in their hands, they would fall to their deaths to keep a single match from striking. Only the expedient intervention of the mayor halted the stalemate, with the Yankee Colonel pledging not to burn the town if the ladies kindly dispersed. His bargain greatly displeased the more radical soldiers among them.

One of their commanders had at least the decency to offer chairs for us, even as the young privates among them taunted. A sharpshooter in a balcony above kept threatening to burn the town. Even through the pain of my throbbing head, I taunted back: "You couldn't even stand up to those ladies! Your uniform ought to be yellow!"

The Colonel calmed me several times, urging me to conserve my strength in the loss of much blood. "Look what they did to his face!" he cried again to all within his booming voice. "He was once the most famed dancer in the ballroom of Richmond! Who will dance with him now?"

Another nurse tended to my head before the Federal commander determined he had tolerated enough of us, with our incessant complaints and aggravations, along with a round of "The Bonnie Blue Flag." He ordered us moved to a holding area greatly displaced from his troops. There we found respite, and I succumbed to rest, although I continued to hear my fellow prisoners discuss the roots of the great conflict. A lady approached me and generously offered me homemade bread and butter, which I accepted thankfully. It has been long since I tasted such fine foods, and I am confident I will do so again when I return to you.

A young gentleman of the town was overhearing our conversations, and we asked which side he was favoring. “Neither,” he told us, for his Faith opposed warfare. He must be a Mennonite, we observed, or a Quaker. “Let's see you quake!” someone chuckled. Yet we were respectful to his beliefs and his neutrality.

I had little additional time to rest as the Yankees grew alarmed. In the distance we saw our 1st Virginia brethren reformed and marching towards us. As the bluebellies hustled to reform, our Colonel saw an opportunity to slip away, and he motioned for us to follow him. We quickly escaped and ran for our lives. After a frantic sprint, we were back in the ranks of our fellow soldiers, who taunted them with a few volleys more before falling back to plan our next advance. Back at camp, the Colonel soon devised a counterattack, and we received our orders to retake the town.

His strategy dared flank the town around the rear and then hit the Federals directly. We marched in and made quick work of their ineffective defense, splitting our companies to rout them. As we circled around the rear, the ladies cheered us on to victory as we approached the town square. We announced our arrival with a ferocious series of volleys. Burning wads of musket cartridges flew into the wind, the lightning for our thunder of rifle fire which echoed through the town. It was a joyful noise if I ever heard one. We saw the Federals fall to their deaths one by one and litter the square until they could no longer stand and fight. Now it was their turn to hold up their hands and surrender, and I took great delight in seeing them do it where I once was taken prisoner.

The townspeople were grateful to us, having honored our word and kept the torches away from their homes and shops. They surrounded us and heaped praise upon us, and I am certain that many questions of their allegiance have been resolved. We shall continue to guard the town until our orders take us onward. I do not know how much longer this war shall last, but I shall never forget the kindness and hospitality shown to us by the good and strong people of Payson.

May GOD continue to watch over you, my loved ones and friends, until I return.

With Warmest Regards,
Pvt. Christopher Francis
1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry

See more from the fray here.

A big Thank You -- and a bow -- to the people of Payson for once again showing us their hospitality and support. We shall continue to defend your town!

FLASHBACK! Read Pvt. Christopher's original Dispatch from Payson.

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