This is the fourth in a series about our hero George Alfred Townsend, a New York World reporter attached to the Union Army of the Potomac in 1862. Delaware-born “Gath” — the pen name he adopted later in life — was about to gain his initial experience with an army on the march.
When last seen, the youthful George Alfred was drifting off to sleep in a warm, comfortable bed in Northern Virginia while dreaming of Miss Bessie’s long curls. He had accompanied an army foraging expedition that included a farm belonging to an old man and a few young girls — including the charming Miss Bessie.
Invited to stay the night at the farmhouse, Gath’s reverie with the young lady received a jolt back to reality the next morning when he learned the army would soon be on the move. Returning to camp, he observed “drummer-boys beating music … field officers shouting orders from their saddles, and cannon limbered up as if ready to move — tents taken down and teams waiting to be loaded.…”
Gath described some of the regiments marching in silence, while others “sang familiar ballads as they moved in column…” Frightened farmers along the route stared at the passing regiments, while farm dogs bayed in alarm as 15,000 soldiers disrupted their solitude.
A rainstorm soon caused havoc as swollen streams flooded the roads, and wagon wheels bogged down requiring time-consuming effort to keep the army moving forward. Farm fence rails soon disappeared into warming fires during stoppages to console the drenched troops.
Young Townsend woke the next morning “with inflamed throat, rheumatic limbs, and every indication of chills and fever.” For fear George Alfred would become dangerously ill, his military contact advised him to push forward toward Washington rather than accompanying the slow-moving army.
While on his own, Gath “emerged half drowned” while fording a creek with his horse. Finding it was only a branch leading to an island, he once again dismounted and swam his horse across a “deep, broad, and violent” channel.
Now hopelessly lost, Townsend came upon “negro quarters” not far from a mansion where a black boy was “singing some negro hymns in an uproarious manner.” He noted the lyrics: “Stephen came a runnin’, His Marster fur to see; But Gabriel says he is not yar’; He gone to Calvary!”
The boy informed Gath he was moving away from, rather than toward, Washington, which was 19 miles distant, and set him on the correct path. Thinking he was headed toward Alexandria, Townsend ended up at “the wretched hamlet” named Drainesville — still some 22 miles from D.C.
Townsend retraced his steps, and hours later arrived at the Chain Bridge across the Potomac River, and made for the Kirkwood Hotel. The next morning he learned that his appointed unit, the Pennsylvania Reserves, was now in Alexandria, and set out on horseback for that town, which had become “a military city” with its “streets, its docks, its warehouses, its dwellings and its suburbs … absorbed to the thousand uses of war.”
On the nearby Potomac, “troops were embarking on board steamers; [and] transports were taking in tons of baggage and subsistence.” A schooner carried locomotives, and a brig loaded artillery horses “lifted … bodily from the shore and deposited them in the hold of the vessel.”
Political reality confronted an Alexandria builder who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, and, therefore, was not compensated for his confiscated property. The homes of leading Alexandria citizens became armories, arsenals and hospitals.
At the City Hotel where Gath had a “scant and badly prepared” dinner, the proprietor had agreed to take the oath of allegiance and “made more money since the date of Federal occupation than during his whole life previously.”
The owner’s new-found source of wealth derived from “drinking rooms” serving cocktails and juleps in the darkness. His only fear was “discovery and prohibition.”
Gath admitted he was under surveillance by the War Department for writing “an indiscreet paragraph” in the Washington Chronicle. As a result, he traveled to New York, and received another challenging assignment.
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 of which are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, at Card Smart in Milford and on Amazon.com. Contact him at email@example.com.