Montgomery News Messenger
November 30, 1957

W. K. Bell's Father Had Several Thrilling War Experiences With Blacksburg Company of the Battle at Chambersburg

By W. K. Bell

Some years before the Civil War a man of military experience organized a volunteer company at Blacksburg. This company went to different places --- Richmond for one --- in competitive drill and was known as one of the best drilled companies in the state. The old company from Blacksburg was the first company to leave the county when war was declared and was put into the fourth Virginia Infantry of the Stonewall Brigade.

Not all people by any means favored war. Col. Preston spoke in the county before a big crowd saying, "I would rather go home and sign the freedom of all my slaves than to see one man dying on the battlefield for nothing."

Soon after the first battle of Manassas, Andrew Hoge had his body servants join him at the front. When he picked out a few of his closest friends for the mess, Jeff was chosen to be the cook. Jeff proved to be a fine cook. His pots and pans had to be spotless and he looked after the camp when the men were gone. His master came first. Later, being brought into contact with the men of the mess, he formed a friendship for them. He nursed them when sick or wounded and called them his boys. He said, "You can always count on them to be at the front --they don't have to be pushed out when battles are to be fought -- they aren't stump hunters."

When in camp, men would visit, have a social game of cards or talk to pass away the time. Jeff would, when able, gather walnuts and hickory nuts and add the kernels to his sweetcake mixture. He guarded the secret of the cake mixture and men who ate them swore they were the best they ever ate.

A fine tenor singer who had visited the camp and ate some of Jeff's cakes came back later and sang for the men. One of the songs he sang was Annie Laurie. Someone has said that song is sweet as heaven and sad as death. A far away look came over the faces of the listeners as their thoughts drifted away to the fireside of loved ones at home or sweethearts they might never see again.

Taylor in a beautiful poem tells us about English troops in a hostile land far from home and loved ones. All sang Annie Laurie knowing the coming day they were due to storm an enemy heavily fortified works which would cost them dearly. Jeff was entranced with the song as sung by the visitor and when he asked Jeff about some cakes Jeff was ready to give him all of them and bake more.

There was another man, a great musician as well as singer, who would stop at the camp, he was the singer who entertained Stewart at his camp. He sang old Southern songs using his banjo as an accompaniment. One of his songs they liked was "Pickaune Butler is Coming to Town."

Those were great days, but of course it was not always quiet, but they took it as it came. Now comes a great event. The Southern army planned an invasion. Moving as rapidly as possible they moved northward crossing the Potomac on to Hagerstown. My father was now serving as a scout and it meant hard work all day and possibly into the night.

Reaching into the northern states after going through Maryland, in Pennsylvania. Chambersburg fell and the city was partially destroyed by fire. My father being a scout, was there before the main army. He was passing a large frame building and the upper part of the building was in flames. He saw women and children in the front room, so he rushed in and told the middle aged lady that the upper part of the house was on fire.

The door was thrown open and a man rushed in shouting, "I will kill you." But the woman grabbed him trying to explain who my father was, but he paid no attention to her. The man who my father had holding his horse saw what was going on and he rushed into the room. He grabbed the man, took the pistol away from him, and told him why my father rushed in.

Later in the day my father had an experience of a different nature. His horse was stumbling along and he couldn't push him. My Father realized he would have to get a fresh horse. He hated to lose this one, but he had been pushed too hard. Meeting a doctor on the street, he told the doctor they would swap horses. The doctor hesitated, but my Father said, "We are trading." He told the doctor he was getting the best of the bargain since his horse was a fine young horse but he had been pushed too hard.

He took his saddle and bridle and put them on the horse he got from the doctor and then took the doctor's saddle and bridle and put them on the horse he had ridden. The doctor was mute when the change was made. He got on the horse and was starting away. My Father called him to come back and get his bag saying, "I don't want your pills."

My Father always claimed that Southern soldiers did not set Chambersburg on fire. No one could truly say who did it except the parties who set the fire in the first place. Pushing on, the army reached Gettysburg, Pa. A hard battle was bound to be fought since the Southern army was making an invasion and could not stop. Fighting at different places was in progress for several days before Pickett's charge on the Union center.

At one place the 4th Virginia Infantry charged a strong federal position on the top of a hill or ridge. It's possible the whole Stonewall Brigade was not in this charge, but I am only speaking about one sector and my information comes from men who went forward in that charge. The advance started from a cleared piece of land upward to a deep hollow with a heavy growth of timber on both sides of the gorge or hollow.

Federal artillery defending their position was shelling the Southern advance, but it was hard to locate the advancing troops since the trees wee covered with leaves. Therefore, the advance up the hollow and along the ridge did not lose many troops.

Just before the Southern troops broke through the timber to the open field the artillery switched to grape and canister and then men commenced to fall. They charged swiftly across the open; the color bearer went down in the rush. They left the flag and struck the union entrenchment's. Fighting there was fierce, close action, but they could not break the Union line, so they were forced to fall back.

As they went back they noticed ramrods sticking in the side of trees facing the earthworks. This proved the exited state of the defenders. Someone grabbed the flag and then they retreated. Some men were pinned down sheltered by rocks and boulders, but the main body retreated down the hollow and along the ridges. Some distance down the gorge a bunch of men stopped to rest and some more men joined them.

One of them said, "This is one devil of a place." A man spoke up and said, "You are right --- it's one devil of place, man." "It's the devil's den." So it got its name from the Virginia troops who made the charge up that rugged gorge.

Following the failure of the Virginia troops to carry the works by assault, the artillery fire slackened, but some guns were still being served shelling the area where the Southern troops concentrated before they charged the federal works near the open field.

My Father passed by following a course near where the men were coming back from the charge. They stopped him and told him of the charge. As he was starting away one of the men who had just come up said, "Bill Andrew fell just before we broke into the open field. We stopped a few minutes to line up and I saw him fall. I am afraid he is hard hit. I did not see him any more after he fell."

My Father hurried back to make his report, also telling that the charge on the ridge had been repulsed. Then he hurried at once to the tent to get some things he might need and told Jeff that Andrew was down up near the Federal works. Jeff asked what he was going to do.

My Father said, "I am going right now and get an ambulance and bring him in." Jeff said, "I am going. He is my master."

They were lucky and got an ambulance and hurried on. They later reached the place where the hollow reached the cleared land.

Stopping, Jeff said, "I am going for him and bring him out, wait for me."

My Father said, "I will stay right here."

On the way sown he told Jeff as best he could where he would find Andrew and to be careful or he would be killed or wounded since he would be close to the Federal works. Jeff said not a word.

Now Jeff was on his way soon lost to view in the timber. My Father said it seemed, after waiting what he considered more than an hour, that Jeff should be back. Soon time wore on and still no sign of Jeff. He felt sure Jeff must have exposed himself and been killed or wounded looking for his master. Well, he said he would wait and he would not give a thought to leaving Jeff. He had been under considerably worse fire in the past, so he would stay regardless of how long Jeff was gone on his mission of mercy.

At last he saw someone coming out of the woodland on to the open. Whoever it was was coming slowly. Then he saw it was Jeff with a burden in his arms. Jeff would come a short distance and stop. Some men left the edge of the woods and joined him. They offered to help him carry the body. Jeff shook his head. When they reached the ambulance Jeff was on the point of collapse. He could only say a word or two at a time and that was with difficulty.

The men who came along with Jeff helped put Andrew's dead body in the ambulance. Jeff crawled into the ambulance beside his master and with the worst wounded men they moved through the waving grain of the wheatfield and then back to where the army was stationed.

They were able to have Andrew's body sent back to Blacksburg where he is buried. Some old soldiers on sick leave or retired from service joined together and fired three volleys over his grave --- a mark of respect few got in those days. Jeff would come and visit the old home. Since my Father was the last of his boys he wanted Jeff to make that his home, saying "you can help around the house," but the old surroundings where he nursed and helped to care for his master still were dear to him.

I don't remember seeing Jeff. I often heard my Father speak of him and he made sure Jeff was not in want, sending things from the home and my Mother would always give Jeff some spending money saying, "I want to do a little to help." She always told Jeff he was welcome there at any time. In closing I am writing four lines in memory of Jeff.

Love for his master drove him on
There could not be a doubt.
When he struggled through the
Devil's Den

Return to Newspaper Articles
Last updated