March 6, 1889
It is always a great pleasure to meet the Ohio family of the Loyal Legion, and I wish I had some suitable talk with which to respond to this call upon me. Various circumstances have prevented me from making proper preparation to undertake to entertain you. I have had the impression that such papers as we have listened to tonight—the paper of Companion Chamberlin—form a very important part of the solid work of this Commandery. When we began it, the first person called upon to prepare a paper was General Force. In talking with him about it, and he alludes to it in the opening part of that paper, I said to him that the advantage of talking as we could talk here was precisely that which we have in our own families when we indulge in our war talks at home. We are permitted to use the perpendicular pronoun: we may say “I” as often as we please. We may speak of those things which are egotistical without immodesty. If, for instance, I am tonight chargeable with talking too much of myself and my own performances, my neighbor is permitted to do it the next night, or whenever he is called upon. And if I put up with him and his vanity, he must be charitable to me. In like manner, if the story be rather a large one, why there is a contract between us, as Companion Harrison said in his inaugural address—on his part it was spoken, on the part of the people it was unspoken. It is unspoken in this case, but it is a real contract—“I will believe you if you will believe me.” So, however large the story that my friend, Companion Dayton, or Companion Hickenlooper, may tell, I will believe it. I select them because I suppose they have a capacity in that way. But they must be equally charitable and generous toward me.
Now, I understand that this is a secret society. I see its proceedings are all published in the newspapers—probably that is what makes it a secret. I told a Quaker friend of mine, who was scolding me because I was connected with a secret society, that he would find these proceedings in the “Cincinnati Enquirer” and “Gazette.” But he had learned of something or other that was not told, and I explained to him that it was in no sense a secret society, as others are that we hear of, but that, to be sure, we were just like a family—there were some things that were confidential. We do not tell who is rejected, or why he is rejected, or what cause it is that rejects him. That is a confidential matter. It is not a secret society; and yet if there are any gentlemen present who propose to put an account of our proceedings of tonight into the newspapers, I hope they will stop when they come to what I am saying. Leave that out—regard that as confidential.
I have a story of which, I believe, I am largely the hero, and I would like to tell it. I always enjoy telling stories of that sort, but do not often have a chance to tell them. There is a requirement that public men should be modest and not talk too much about themselves, and when I have to obey that requirement I do it, but I always dislike to obey it.
In regard to the battles of our war, I think nothing is more tragic, pathetic, and interesting that many of the little incidents that occurred. I will relate one of these little incidents that occurred in my immediate neighborhood on the field.
At the battle of Cedar Creek, we were astonished in the morning, and left the place where we were astonished and advanced away from it, until finally we formed a tolerable line, facing, as I supposed, toward the enemy, and, looking up to the left of the line, found that I was in front of it. I naturally would desire to have the line in my front, but the circumstances of the morning were such that it was difficult to find out where I should place myself, and I made a mistake and got in front of the line of battle. I went up to the extreme left, which rested on a little grove of hillock, where there was a pretty strong force—a brigade that I was not much acquainted with. It had lately joined us. I went to the commander, and said to him: “Can you hold on here?” “Oh yes,” said he, “I shall have no trouble. This is a good position, and I can hold on here if you can hold on down there.” His was a new command, and I felt that sort of assurance in the presence of a new recruit that I would naturally feel, and I said to him: “You need not feel afraid of my line. I will guarantee that my line will stand there.” But, happening to turn around, I saw my line breaking. Naturally I was somewhat surprised, and I galloped down to see what was going on. I saw nothing that would indicate what had taken place, until I got some distance—to a point where the line bent off first in this was and then in that way. I galloped on, and as I rode down the descent I saw what the trouble was. There was a rebel line coming gust this way. My men were old soldiers, and knew what had to be done without orders, and, in advance of orders, they were leaving. The situation evidently demanded that sort of strategy. Although I was galloping rapidly, I could not get away as rapidly as they did, and, therefore, got the full benefit of the firing from the rebel line. My horse rolled over and was dead. I fell, and for a moment I suppose I was bewildered, and was also somewhat disabled in one ankle. I lay there some little time, how long I do not know precisely, but the men of the retreating line saw me there, and carried the report to the rear that I was killed. When I awoke out of a sort of fainting spell, I saw that the rebel like was too near to me to escape, unless I used a good deal of strategy and a good deal of speed. I put out one leg, and then the other, and found there was some trouble with my right ankle, but I got myself together, and started up the hill for the little grove. Just then there came a tremendous yelling from those graybacks; I cannot repeat their language even in the privacy of the family. The names they called me reflected disrespect upon my parentage. I was in the kindest possible way advised to stop, but I succeeded in getting away, and finally I was on a horse again, but, as I have said, the report that I had been killed went to the rear.
Now, it happened that my family was better known than other families were in the command to which I belonged, as my wife had been frequently with us in camp. About that time a very interesting circumstance had occurred in my family, at home, in Ohio. A child had been born. We had been having some victories that were notable, at the battle of Winchester and Fisher Hill, and when the news came of this incident at my home, I let it be known that I had a new boy at home and that I should call him George Crook, after our corps commander. I will now skip along to the night of that day. At night we had a victory. You have heard, of course, about that; it is spoken of by T. Buchanan Read in the historical poem that he has issued.
At night, the reporters, who had got together at the telegraph headquarters, were sending off accounts of the battle. The colonel commanding the First Division of Crook’s corps had been killed; the colonel commanding the Second Division, which was myself, had been killed, and so on, making out a large list. These reporters like a good butcher’s bill, you know. A gentleman, a captain of my command, who knew something about what had transpired, and who had seen me on horseback all of the latter part of the battle, said to them: “Why, you are not sending off word that Colonel Hayes is dead?” “Oh yes, it has gone off long ago; he was killed in the morning. We have seen men who saw him killed.” “Well,” said he, “that is not so; I saw him until dark.” You know Sheridan had carried out his promise to those stragglers; you remember his promise to them? As he met them he said, Buchanan Reed has it, “a terrible oath.” Do you remember what that terrible oath was? He said: “Boys turn back; face the other way. I am going to sleep in that camp tonight or in hell.” Those were the words which Sheridan turned them back.
Well, that captain was a man of sense, a good man to have about when any thing was going on. He sat right down at the instrument and telegraphed to my wife, at Chillicothe, Ohio: “The report that your husband was killed this morning is untrue. He was wounded, not dangerously, and is safe.”
The next morning, or the next but one after the battle, the carrier took the daily paper to my wife as usual. It was carried into the room in which she was lying in bed, and was laid upon the bed, as she was in the habit of reading it. Her uncle saw the paper coming, and hurried into the room, and before she could take it up, he grabbed it and quietly put in to one side, a little disturbed. He had heard what was in it, that a list of the dead was there, and a little complimentary obituary notice, which it is pleasant to have. It might be pleasant under some circumstances, but he concluded it would not be regarded so at that time, so he drew the paper away, and just at that moment it so happened that the telegraph boy came with the dispatch from the captain of my command, giving the message that I have recited. When that was read, the relief came.
Rather an interesting incident grew out of the sending of that dispatch. As soon as I learned of it, I inquired for the name that was signed to the dispatch. It was given to me, and I at once inquired for persons of that name. I found a reporter of the “New York Herald” of that name. “Did you send the dispatch?” I asked him, for I desired to thank him for this good act. “No,” said he; “I should have been very glad to have done it, but I did not send it.” I found four persons of the same name. The first name was not known, but I found four of the same surname. Each one resolutely denied sending it, and for thirteen years I continued to inquire, telling about it in circles, hoping to find that man, and one time, about thirteen years afterward, when I was somewhat in the situation that our Benjamin is in today, I was telling about it in the White House to some gentlemen from West Virginia, when one of them said: “Why, I know who that man is, it is so and so, of our village.” It turned out to be a quiet man who had not told it to me, and made no fuss about it, but at home had told it. So, thirteen years after the battle of Cedar Creek, I found the man who sent that dispatch, and I have been very fond of him ever since.
There is another thing that I will tell about, as being a little curious, of that same battle. Sheridan has written quite an admirable book, you know. I am afraid it is not getting as wide a circulation as it ought to have. It is very well written and very interesting. In speaking of that fight he says that, passing up the pike, sometimes on one side, and sometimes on the other, coming to Cedar Creek, he struck first the division of the Getty, of the Sixth Corps; that he passed along that division a short distance, when there arose out of a hollow before him a line consisting entirely of officers of Crook’s Army of West Virginia and of color-bearers. The army had been stampeded in the morning, but these people were not panic-stricken. They saluted him, but there was nothing now between the enemy and him and the fugitives but this division of Getty’s. Said he: “These officers seemed to rise right up from the ground.” This was twenty-four years afterward, but he recollects it perfectly well except names. Among them, however, he recollects seeing one, Colonel R.B. Hayes, since President of the United States, and drops the story there, leaving the impression that there were no men there—no privates, no army—simply some color-bearers and some officers.
The fact is that in the hollow, just in the rear, was a line of men, a thousand or twelve hundred, probably, and they had thrown up a little barricade and were lying close behind it. He came up and saw these officers and did not see the men, or seems not to have seen them; but I had no idea at the time that he did not see the private soldiers in that line. He now tells that singular story of a line of officers, a line of color-bearers, and no force. The fact is that first came Getty’s division, and then mine, and then came General Keifer’s division, all lying down behind the barricade, but in good condition, except that there had been some losses in the morning. General Keifer was next to me, and then came the rest of the Sixth Corps, and farther down I have no doubt the Nineteenth corps was in line. We had then been, I suppose, an hour or an hour and a half in that position. We had learned that General Sheridan was in Winchester, and the moment he found out there was a battle on, and that disaster had befallen his men, we knew that he would come as rapidly as the horse could bear him to the scene of the trouble. We were confident of another thing—that we were strong enough, if any commander would take charge of our army, to completely overwhelm the army that had driven us in the morning. In the first place, they had marched that night and were worn out, and we had slept well until they disturbed us early in the morning. We were comparatively rested, therefore, and when Sheridan came, there was along the whole line a thrill of joy and satisfaction, for we knew that when he came victory was not far off.
I do not, of course, mention this by way of criticism. It only shows that the wisest and best and bravest of men can not see all that occurs in a battle, and this has led me very often to regret to see the accounts that we sometimes see in print. We hear that such an organization behaved badly, from a person who perhaps knows nothing of the situation of that organization. Soldiers, it seems to me, should be careful to be very charitable toward their neighbors. It is so difficult to put ourselves in their places. Suppose you had been with that division where Colonel Thoburn was killed, which was surprised in the morning—would you have done better? And so with three-fourths—I don’t know but nine-tenths—of the unpleasant controversies that we see in the magazines and newspapers between soldiers. The practical lesson that I would draw from all this loose talk that I have been giving you is, that battles can not be known in their entirety, from beginning to end, from one end of a long line to another, by any one man. No one is authorized to say that in some distant part of the field there was bad behavior, or inexcusable behavior. There may have been disaster, but if I had been there with my favorite troops the same disaster would perhaps have occurred. Let us then be charitable and good-natured to our comrades and Companions.