Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Christmas Picket

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 25, 2016

[This post originally appeared 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.

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14 Responses

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  1. Shoshana Bee said, on December 25, 2016 at 12:49 am

    IF you posted this passage every year for the next 20 years, it would still have the the same impact as the first time. The words evoke images of youth, remembrance and loss that are profoundly moving. As someone who embraces melancholy as a way to remember and honour the sacrifices of those who came before us, I always appreciate that I can still be emotionally affected by the echoes of our distant past.

    • Andy Hall said, on December 25, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Thanks. Val Giles seems a little like family to me, in part because his memoir of service with the Fourth Texas Infantry did a lot to help me understand the experiences of one of my own relatives in that regiment. His posthumous memoir, Rags and Hope, is one of the best I’ve ever read — perceptive, poignant, and funny all at the same time. It recounts his experiences during the war from the perspective of a much older man looking back, with the ability to laugh at himself in the situations he found himself in.

      There is another connection to Val Giles for me, as well. He was active and prominent in the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association and in various UCV activities during his later years. My first cousin, Katie Daffan, was secretary of the association, and as a writer she did much of what we would today call public outreach for that group. She was as prominent in the organization as any of the male officers, because they came and went over the years while she remained. When Val Giles died in 1914, it was Katie who announced it to the press, and who helped organize his funeral as a veteran.

      And just this morning, I found this picture of him that I’d not seen before:

      • OhioGuy said, on December 25, 2016 at 11:08 am

        Andy,

        I really appreciate you posting this story. As one who has had ESP experiences, I find this story both moving and credible. I know some will scoff, but not me. In fact, ESP “ability” seems to run in my family. However, it is not on my Civil War side (paternal) but my more recent Icelandic immigrant side (maternal). My Amma (Icelandic word for grandmother) had vivid dreams that told her of the deaths in Canada of each of her siblings days or weeks before official word arrived in Minnesota. These experiences seem similar to those of Giles.

        Merry Christmas to all who read this!

        Carl Jón Denbow
        Ancestors served in
        Co. K, 78th Ohio VVI
        http://www.78ohio.org

        • Andy Hall said, on December 25, 2016 at 12:08 pm

          I tend to be highly empirical and skeptical about most things, but I’ve had things like this happen n my own family, as well. Can’t explain it.

      • Shoshana Bee said, on December 25, 2016 at 1:47 pm

        Wow — so many thoughts come to mind after reading your comment. I envy your personal connection to this study of the Civil War. I really do. I always feel like a bystander, a third wheel so to speak, when I read about the extensive family connections that exist with those around me. The other more pressing thought that I had, regarding your cousin, is that it falls to the living to keep the memory of the dead, alive. This was a edict that was hammered into my head my whole life, from both very diverse sides of my gene pool. Merry Christmas, Andy.

        • Andy Hall said, on December 25, 2016 at 5:51 pm

          Thank you. Family history can be a mixed bag. It’s a package deal, and you have to take the good with the bad.

          Katie was a fascinating person. My mother knew her well, or at least as well as a child can know a middle-aged adult. Katie used to take her to Houston occasionally where they would have fun window shopping together (this was during the Great Depression), and have lunch at some swank place downtown (probably just the coffee shop at Foley’s or something, but that’s how my mother remembered it). For my mother, Cousin Katie was sort of an Auntie Mame figure, who would let her get away with stuff that her own mother, Katie’s first cousin, would never have allowed. Katie even (sort of) ran for governor in 1930.

          Katie was the embodiment of the UDC and the Lost Cause in the model of the early 20th century. There’s not much that she and I would probably agree on, but she would sure be interesting to talk to.

          • Barry said, on January 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm

            Have you heard of a Randy Bigham who is said to be writing a biography of Katie Daffan?

            • Andy Hall said, on January 3, 2017 at 8:14 pm

              I have read some short online pieces he wrote a long time back, but was not aware he was writing a biography of her. Thanks.

              • Barry said, on January 4, 2017 at 5:02 pm

                It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard about the book so who knows? There was a lady who was going to do a one person play about her in town. I don’t think that ever happened. I was wondering if Katie’s father Lawrence was a member of the KKK? Of course maybe that wasn’t something “talked about” in the family. Actually, if you have any other info on her I have become quite interested in her story.

              • Andy Hall said, on January 4, 2017 at 6:12 pm

                Yes, he was. I know this because Katie made sure to include in the memorial book she assembled after his death. My mother knew Katie, when she was a child and Katie was middle-aged, but I doubt my mother ever knew about that.

                https://deadconfederates.com/2013/07/14/the-klansman/

  2. Kevin Dally said, on December 25, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Thanks for posting this, Andy!

  3. OhioGuy said, on December 25, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks for the added detail, Andy. I found it most interesting!

  4. Tim S said, on December 27, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    I should not do this. It takes up too much time spent otherwise. Maybe it will not become obsessive. I really do stay busy. Great story about strange voices. Doubt if it is true, but still a great story nonetheless. Could have been the Holy Ghost. Before learning about the war I couldn’t get enough. Now it is becoming old news. I have 8 CW grandfathers. All in Alabama units. Dozens of uncles from Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Both direct paternal and maternal ancestors were in the Valley of Death at the Slaughter Pen. One lived another year, the other another 23. Slavery was on the way out already. It was just living on borrowed time. The CW completed a full circle after Jefferson and Hamilton agreed to disagree. The Revolution to end the George III experience was of course about Jefferson. The 1860 election was about Hamilton. Hamilton still lives today in DC. He just goes by a different name. Lee did win a tactical or a strategic victory or both in every battle except the election of 1864. McClellan was a loser. (So was Pope, Burnside and Hooker.) It had to be much more fun to fight without radios, jeeps and trucks. God bless


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