Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Christmas Picket

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 25, 2011

One hundred fifty years ago today, a nineteen-year-old Confederate soldier named Valerius Cincinnatus Giles (right, 1842-1915) went out on picket duty along the Potomac.

On Christmas morning a detail of twenty men was sent from the Fourth Texas Regiment to relieve the picket guard along the river. This detail was commanded by Lieutenant R. J. Lambert.

The post assigned me was on Cock Pit Point, about 100 yards from the masked battery. This battery of four guns was planted twenty feet back from the edge of the bluff. completely hidden from view by an abatis of pine brush felled and stacked, with the sharpened ends of the trunks pointing outward. as a crude defense. From my post I had a splendid view of the river for two or three miles in each direction. The low range of hills on the Maryland side opposite were covered with white tents and log cabins, the winter quarter of General Daniel E. Sickles’s New York Brigade.

The war had just fairly begun, and this was new to me. The novelty of the situation, the magnificent view before me, the river rolling majestically along between white hills and evergreen pines so charmed and captivated me at first that I felt not the bitter cold. The snow was gently and silently falling. deepening 011 the hills and valleys, melting as it struck the cold bosom of the dark river. I had been on post but a short time when I beard the signal corps man sing out from the crow’s-nest high up in a sawed-off pine tree, saying to the officer in charge: “Look out, Lieutenant, a gun boat is coming down the river!”

I could hear the artillery officer giving orders to his men, but from my position I could not see them. Looking up the river I saw a cloud of black smoke rising above the tops of the trees. All was excitement at the battery. and I could hear the artillerymen ramming home their shells, preparing to sink the approaching boat. Directly the steamer turned a bend in the river with volumes of black smoke pouring from her smokestacks. She was in the middle of the stream, coming dead ahead under full steam. It was really a disappointment to the fellows at the battery as well as myself, when the soldier in the crow’s-nest called out again: “0h, pshaw, Lieutenant, don’t shoot! She’s nothing but an old hospital boat, covered over with ‘yaller’ flags.”

Of course a Confederate battery would not fire on a yellow flag any more than on a white one.

The boat came steadily on down the river until she got nearly opposite Cock Pit Point, when she blew her whistle and turned toward the Maryland shore. As she made the turn she came within 200 yards of the Virginia bank and I could distinctly read her name on the wheel house. It was the old Harriet Lane. named in honor of the accomplished niece of President James Buchanan, who was queen of the White House during the administration of that eccentric old bachelor. In the winter of 1861 the Harriet Lane was in the employ of the Hospital Corps of the Army of the Potomac. A few days after that, she left her mooring on the Maryland side and pulled out down the river. She subsequently became a warship of some kind and met defeat at the Battle of Galveston in January, 1863.

After the boat bad landed and the excitement was over, a melancholy stillness settled around me. The novelty and fascination of my surroundings soon lost their charm. The lowering clouds above me and the white silence about me became monotonous and I began to feel restless and uneasy. If you are in a forest or on a prairie on a still summer day and will stop and listen attentively, you can bear the songs of birds, the chirping of crickets or the drowsy hum of insects. hut in a piney woods in midwinter, when the earth and green branches of the trees are covered with snow, with not a breath of air blowing, the stillness is oppressive. I must have bad a slight attack of homesickness, for I began to think of home and my mother and father away out in Texas waiting and praying for the safe return of their three boys, all in the army and all in different parts of the Confederacy — one in the Tenth Texas Infantry at an Arkansas post, one in Tennessee or Kentucky with Terry’s Rangers, and one in the Fourth Texas Infantry in Virginia. . . .

While I stood at my post on the banks of the Potomac I knew I was perfectly safe from any personal danger, yet something seemed to warn me of approaching evil. I tramped through the snow, half-knee-deep, although I was not required to walk my beat. I tried to divert my mind from the gloomy thoughts that possessed me, but all in vain. Suddenly I was startled from my sad reflections of home and kindred by distinctly hearing a voice I new — my brother Lew’s voice — calling my name. I turned quickly, looked in every direction, heard nothing more and saw nothing but the white world around me and the dark river below me. He was two years my senior, had been my constant companion and playmate up to the beginning of the war.

It was then 4 P.M., December 25, 1861. I was not sleeping or dreaming. and firmly believed at the time that I heard my brother calling me, but it must have been a delusion of the imagination.

However, Lewis L. Giles of Terry’s Texas Rangers, Troop D, Eighth Texas Cavalry, was mortally wounded at the battle of Mumfordsville, [Woodsonville] Kentucky, December 17, 1861, in the same charge in which Colonel Terry was killed. He was removed by his comrades to Gallatin, Tennessee. and died at the residence of Captain John G. Turner, a lifelong mend of my father. He breathed his last precisely at four o’clock on Christmas Day. 1861, while I stood picket on the banks of the Potomac.[1]

[1] Mary Lasswell, ed., Rags and Hope: The Memoirs of Val c. Giles, Four Years with Hood’s Texas Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865 (New York: Coward-McCann, 1961), 59-62. The compiled service record of Private Lewis L. Giles, Co. D, 8th Texas Cavalry, gives his date of death as Christmas Eve, December 24.


Image: Private Val Giles in the spring of 1861, at the time of his enlistment in the Tom Green Rifles, a company later rolled into the Fourth Texas Infantry. From Voices of the Civil War: Soldier Life.

4 Responses

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  1. Matt McKeon said, on December 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Quite moving Andy, thanks for posting it.

  2. corkingiron said, on December 25, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Very touching, Andy – his writing brings the human touch. Best of the season to you and yours.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 25, 2011 at 7:31 pm

      Giles’ book desperately needs reprinting — AFAIK the original 1961 edition is the only one, and they’re a little hard to find. He writes with a great sense of humor.

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