Monday, April 2, 2012

April 4, 1862: Birdsall Cornell & 1st NJ Cavalry in Virginia

By April 1862, members of the First New Jersey Cavalry were camped in Alexandria, Virginia.  Sergeant Birdsall Cornell, of Company K, sent a dispatch to The Belvidere Intelligencer on April 4 to report on a recent scouting mission.

Cornell, of Branchville, Sussex County, reported, "On Tuesday of last week, two battalions of our Regiment, under Colonel Sir Percy Windham, started on a scout and did not get back 'till Thursday night. We passed several miles (on the other side of the Occoquan) through the camps that the rebels had recently deserted, and I was surprised to find their quarters so warm and comfortable.  They had but few tents, and for the want of them, had built log houses as a shelter.  The logs are of pine, and very straight, and all the houses show that they had taken a great deal of pains in their construction.  All that I had examined had good floor boards, and 'bunks' had been made, and plenty of straw provided to lie upon.  The chimneys were of sticks plastered with mud.  Whole villages of these houses we passed at different places on our route towards Dumfries, and we found a great many loose things scattered around, such as cartridge boxes, dirks, Bowie knives, &c. (some of them with blades nearly as large as cutlasses), and bushels of letters frm lovers and friends.  Some of these letters aroused my sympathy as they depicted such a woeful state of misery and destitution at home, but the greater part of them breathed a fierce spirit of wrath against the Yankees, until Forts Henry and Donaldson fell into our hands.  These reverses to their arms somewhat changed the tone of their letters, and many were getting evidently alarmed. 

"One of our boys found an old fish horn, which for want of something better, they used as a trumpet, and Yankee 'tin skimmers' in considerable numbers had been fastened to their coats as shoulder scales (the object of them being to ward off the force of a sabre stroke).

"Last spring, the rebels burnt the bridge across the river at Occoquan village, and endeavored to obstruct the fording place two miles above by throwing in large rocks  blown from a quarry, having square corners and sharp edges.  In crossing at that point the other morning, the horse of Henry P. Cook, of Warren, a private in Company K, lost its footing and both horse and rider were carried some distance down the river, as the water was high and running rapidly.   Cook finally, after running great danger of being drowned, brought his horse out on terra firma on the same side they  had went in - returned to the place where we had bivouacked the night previous, dried himself, crossed the river safely, and joined his company again by the middle of the day. "

Cornell noted many Virginia farmers had left their homes.  He wrote, "The greater bulk of farmers have run away and joined their fortunes with the secesh, leaving everything behind.  A house not far from our Camp was deserted containing furniture that had cost not less that five thousand dollars - all has since been swept away by soldiers and others.  I called not long since at a large mansion, vacated by its proprietor, and found much valuable furniture, and among the rest was a piano worth perhaps five to six hundred dollars.  In this house, I picked up a will dated 1757, or one hundred and five years ago.  The person who made the will disposed first of his real estate, then of his personal property, and the balance which was in money, be divided equally among his heirs to be invested expressly in the purchase of healthy young Negro girls of the proper age to commence breeding - just as a farmer at the North   would but with some two year old heifers, and expect to raise calves from the spring following."

Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards

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