J. E. B. Stuart's Camp at "The Bower", September-October, 1862
By Heros von Borcke (1835-1895)
Heros von Borcke was a tall, German-born soldier on Confederate Gen. J. E. B. Stuart's staff whose accounts of the War are among the most engaging written. After the dreadful battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland, September 17th, 1862, Stuart's men repaired south into Virginia along today's Route 480, settling at the ancestral home of the Dandridge family, called “The Bower.” Stuart's several hundred men encamped, partied, and disappeared momentarily on raids for nearly a month - all from The Bower. It was the point of departure and return for Gen. Stuart's humiliating ride to the north around Gen. George B. McClellan's Union army of some 60,000 inert men, made doubly so because President Lincoln was then fulminating against the young, unsure General to make more decisive movements into Virginia.
The Bower, where romances thrived in the Indian summer air, was truly a "brief shining moment," all the more unattainable later, because so many of those under its fleeting spell would die later in battle.
A generation before, the South was enthralled with the book, "Swallow Barn," that captured an elegant, benign type of plantation life that became almost iconic to Southern self-image. Its author, Southern-born, Baltimore lawyer, John Pendleton Kennedy, summered at the Bower, owned by a distant relation. His papers at the Peabody Institute indicate that it was the model for "Swallow Barn." The Bower plantation had its darker side, of course, as documented by descendants of those serving the table. (See “Memories of Enslavement” and Bertha Fox Jones’ interview)
Von Borcke also relates a visit to Shepherdstown to a "Mrs. L." This refers to Lily Parran Lee, widow and once half of a young military couple that the Stuarts befriended when both couples were stationed in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri before secession.
Mrs. Lee's husband, Col. William F. Lee, a graduate of VMI, mysteriously accepted from the young Stuart at Jefferson Barracks a set of silver spurs admirers had given to Stuart. The spurs, meant to cite a young "rising star" would prove to have a darker mission. Tragically Col. Lee died after lingering days from wounds at the Battle First Manassas/Bull Run in 1861, from when he led an unordered cavalry charge.
The then ownerless silver spurs were, according to family tradition, given back to Gen. Stuart at this Shepherdstown visit, amid squealing young girls snipping off Stuart's buttons and locks of hair at Mrs. Lee's house on the northeast corner of German and Mill Streets.
When dying from wounds in 1864, Gen. Stuart asked that these same spurs, which he was wearing, be returned once again to Mrs. Lee in Shepherdstown. Unlucky spurs indeed. - ED
Taken from. Heros von Borcke's "Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence," W. Blackwood & Sons: Edinburgh, 1866. PP. 187-190, 193, 204-206, 222-223
“As a renewed attack on the morrow was not to be expected, General Stuart with his Staff and escort started at dusk for our new headquarters in the elysian fields of "The Bower," the beauty of which spot my comrades had given me such glowing accounts, that I waited with great impatience and curiosity the light of the morning arriving there, as we did, after midnight in utter darkness.
“When I arose from my grassy couch at sunrise on the 29th (September, 1862 - ED), I found, indeed, that the half had not been told me of The Bower. Our headquarters were situated on a hill beneath a grove of lofty umbrageous oaks of primitive growth, which extended on the right, towards the large mansion-house, the thick brick walls of which, in the blush of the early sunlight, were just visible in little patches of red through the rich verdure of the embosoming garden. At the foot of this hill, skirting a main road to which the slope was smooth and gradual, ran the bright little river Opequan, its limpid waters breaking through and tumbling over cliffs and rocks, thus forming a cascade of considerable height, with rainbows in its spray as the sun changed every falling drop into a ruby or a diamond.
“This lovely entourage was now enlivened and diversified by the white tents of our encampment, the General's, with its fluttering battle-flag, in the center, by the smoke of the camp-fires where the Negroes were busily engaged in cooking breakfasts, by the picturesque groups of officers and men who were strolling about or cleaning their arms, and by the un-tethered horses and mules which were quietly grazing all over the ground. One may be pardoned some extravagance of language in attempting to describe the scene which brought a feeling of thankful happiness to the soldier, weary of the excitement, the toil, the hardships, and the anguish of war. We had now plenty of food for our exhausted animals, which had undergone so much fatigue and privation, and our own commissariat was far more abundant than it had been for many weeks. The long mess-table, at which we dined together in the open all loaded with substantials that seemed dainties and luxuries to us, who often for days together had gone without food, and at best could secure only a meager repast.
“The plantation of The Bower had been long in the possession of the family of Dandridge, one member of which more than a century ago, was the pretty widow Custis, nee Dandridge, afterwards the wife of George Washington, whose beauty and amiability have been preserved in history and fiction, who was delineated by the pencil of Stuart in one generation, and the pen of Thackeray in another. Nowhere, perhaps, in the wide limits of the State, could one have formed a better idea of the refined manners and profuse hospitable life of dear old Virginia, and before the breaking-out of the war. The Bower had rarely been without its guests.
“The proprietor at the time I knew the place was a kind-hearted intelligent gentleman of fifty or thereabouts, whose charming wife retained, in a remarkable degree for America, the personal attractiveness of her youthful bloom. The rest of the numerous family consisted of grown and growing sons and daughters and nieces. Of the boys, three were in the army fighting bravely for cause and country. The girls, some of whom were exceedingly handsome, and all of whom were pleasing and accomplished, remained beneath the rooftree of the old homestead. With these amiable people I soon contracted a very intimate friendship, which neither time nor distance can ever weaken.
“Frequently, when the mocha, of which we had captured a large supply from the enemy, was smoking invitingly on our breakfast-table, we had the pleasure of greeting the proprietor as a welcome guest at our morning meal at headquarters; later in the day a lady's skirt might even be seen in the streets of our encampment; but regularly every night we proceeded with our band to the house, where dancing was kept up till a late hour. The musical director of our band was a private of one of our regiments, whom Stuart had detached to his military family for his musical talent alone, Bob Sweeney, a brother of the celebrated banjo-player, Joe Sweeney, forerunner of all the Christy's; Bob Sweeney, who also played this favorite instrument of the family with amazing cleverness; who knew sentimental, bibulous, martial, nautical, comic songs out of number; who was carried about with him by the General everywhere; who will have a conspicuous place in some of our later adventures; and who, after having safely passed through many accidents of war, died at last of small-pox, regretted by everybody, but most of all by Jeb Stuart.
“Bob was assisted by two of our couriers who played the violin, musicians of inferior merit; but his chief reliance was in Mulatto Bob, Stuart's servant, who worked the bones with the most surprising and extraordinary agility, and became so excited that both head and feet were in constant employment, and his body twisted about so rapidly and curiously that one could not help fearing that he would dislocate his limbs and fly to pieces in the midst of the break-down. General Stuart was himself always the gayest and noisiest of the party, starting usually at the close of the festivity the famous song-
‘If you want to have a good time,
Jine the cavalry,
Jine the cavalry,’ &c.
- the whole of the excited company, young and old, uniting in the chorus, the last notes of which sounded far through the still air of the night as we walked back to our tents. General Stuart did not like it at all if any one of his Staff officers withdrew himself from these innocent merry-makings, after the fatigues of the day, to seek an early rest, and would always rouse him from his slumbers to take part in the revelry.”
The Visit to Mrs. Lily Parran Lee in Shepherdstown
“On our return through Shepherdstown, we stopped for an hour at the house of a lady, a friend of General Stuart, Mrs. L., who had lost her husband, one of his former classmates (This is wrong. Stuart went to West Point, Lee VMI - ED), at the first battle of Manassas. To her and her sisters I was presented; at a later period I became well acquainted with them. The General's presence was no sooner known in the village than a mob of young and pretty girls collected at Mrs. L.'s house, all very much excited - to such an extent, indeed, that the General's uniform was in a few minutes entirely shorn of its buttons, taken as souvenirs; and if he had given as many locks of his hair as were asked for, our commander would soon have been totally bald. Stuart suffered all this very gracefully, with the greater resignation as every one of these patriotic young ladies gave him a kiss as tribute and reward. This latter favor was unhappily not extended to the staff-officers, and it may be readily imagined that it was tantalizing for us to look on and not take part in the pleasant ceremony. We arrived at The Bower at a late hour of the night, but found our kind host yet awake, the excitement and anxiety of the day having prevented him from retiring. Here we obtained compensation for the loss of our dinner in an abundant supply of cold meat, and cut into a capital Virginia ham with a greater amount of destruction than we had done during the day into the ranks of the enemy.”
A Fitful Trip to the Wine Auction near Charles Town
(Von Borcke's companion is Thomas Rosser who would become a general-ED).
“Our supplies now began to fail in the country around The Bower. The partridges had grown exceedingly wild, and we were obliged, each in his turn, to make long excursions into the woods and fields to keep our mess-table furnished.
“I was therefore very much gratified when my friend Rosser appeared early one morning at my tent, with the news that there was to be a large auction sale of native wines and other supplies that very day, at a plantation only eight miles off in the direction of Charlestown. As all was quiet along our lines, we at once determined to attend the sale, so the horses were hitched to the yellow-painted wagon, and we were soon proceeding at a rapid trot over the rocky road, amid the loud outcries and bitter complaints of my gallant Colonel of the 5th Virginia Cavalry, who declared that he had never in his life experienced such joltings. Arrived at the place of destination, we bought largely, making frequent trials and tastings of Corinth and blackberry wines, and returned to camp with our wagon well-filled with stores of various kinds. Among our purchases was an immense pot of lard, which we placed in the back part of the wagon, regarding it as an acquisition of great value for our camp biscuit-bakery. We had not, however, counted on the melting influence of the sun upon the lard, and the consequence was that with every jolt of the wagon over the frequent stones in the road, the fluid mass sent its jets of grease in a fountain over the hams, potatoes, and apples that covered the bottom of the vehicle. This annoyance, provoking as it was, little disturbed our temper, which had been somewhat mellowed by the frequent imbibitions of the country wine (in the way of tasting); and we continued our drive at a rattling pace, varying our discourse from the gay to the sentimental. We had just reached the topic of the tender passion, when, all unheeding the roadway before us, I bumped the wagon against a large stone with so severe a shock that Rosser was thrown out far to the left, while I settled down, after a tremendous leap, far to the right. Fortunately, beyond some slight contusions, neither of us sustained any damage by this rude winding-up of our romantic conversation. The horses were reasonable enough not to run off, and we quietly continued our drive to headquarters, but we talked no more sentiment on the way.”
A Ball at The Bower
“At headquarters we had some very agreeable guests, among whom were Colonel Bradley T. Johnston, and an intimate friend of General Stuart and myself, Colonel Brien, who had formerly commanded the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and had resigned his commission in consequence of his failing health. Every evening before starting for the mansion-house we all assembled - guests, officers, couriers, and Negroes - around a roaring wood-fire in the centre of our encampment, where Sweeney, with his banjo, gave us selections from his repertoire, which were followed by a fine quartette by some of our soldiers, who had excellent voices, the al fresco concert always concluding with the famous chorus of “Jine the cavalry” already mentioned, which was much more noisy than melodious. But every evening the Negroes would ask for the lively measures of a jig or a breakdown - a request invariably granted; and then these darkies danced within the circle of spectators like dervishes - the spectators themselves applauding to the echo.
“On the 7th (October, 1862 - ED), a grand ball was to take place at The Bower, to which Mr. D. had invited families from Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, and Charlestown, and in the success of which we all felt a great interest. As an exceptional bit of fun, Colonel Brien and I had secretly prepared a little pantomime, ‘The Pennsylvania Farmer and his Wife,’ in which the Colonel was to personate the farmer and I the spouse. Accordingly, when the guests had all assembled and the ball was quite en train, the immense couple entered the brilliantly lighted apartment - Brien enveloped in an ample greatcoat, which had been stuffed with pillows until the form of the wearer had assumed the most enormous proportions; I dressed in an old white ball-dress of Mrs. D.’s that had been enlarged in every direction, and sweetly ornamented with half-a-bushel of artificial flowers in my hair. Our success greatly outran our expectations. Stuart, exploding with laughter, scrutinised me closely on all sides, scarcely crediting the fact that within that tall bundle of feminine habiliments dwelt the soul of his Chief of Staff. Again and again we were made to repeat our little play in dumb show, until, getting tired of it and wishing to put a stop to it, I gracefully fainted away and was carried from the room by Brien and three or four assistants, amid the wild applause of the company, who insisted on a repetition of the fainting scene. When, in a few moments, I made my appearance in uniform, the laughter and applause recommenced, and Stuart throwing his arms around my neck in a burlesque of pathos, said, ‘My dear old Von, if I could ever forget you as I know you on the field of battle, your appearance as a woman would never fade from my memory.’ So the joyous night went on with dancing and merriment, until the sun stole in at the windows, and the reveille sounding from camp reminded us that the hour of separation had arrived.
“From a long rest, after the dissipations of the past night, I was roused about noon by General Stuart, with orders to ride, upon some little matters of duty, to the camp of General Jackson. I was also honoured with the pleasing mission of presenting to old Stonewall, as a slight token of Stuart’s high regard, a new and very ‘stunning’ uniform coat, which had just arrived from the hands of a Richmond tailor. The garment, neatly wrapped up, was borne on the pommel of his saddle by one of our couriers who accompanied me; and starting at once I reached the simple tent of our great general just in time for dinner. I found him in his old weather-stained coat, from which all the buttons had been clipped long since by the fair hands of patriotic ladies, and which, from exposure to sun and rain and powder-smoke, and by reason of many rents and patches, was in a very unseemly condition.”