A LIVELY TIME
If you should happen to be in the city of
Providence, R. I., and should make your way to No. 19 College
Street, and knock at the door of Room 18, you will be greeted
by a cheery "Come in," and will find yourself face to
face with a handsome, sturdy man, with a bright eye, gray beard
and scantily covered head of hair. Although at this writing (1907)
he is verging closely upon the proverbial three-score and ten,
he is as vigorous, alert and wide awake as most men two-thirds
of his age. If the great Civil War claimed its hundreds of thousands
of valuable lives, it must not be forgotten that it saved many
others. Those who in their early manhood passed safely through
its perils, hardships and the rough out-door exposure became strong,
rugged and tough. Multitudes of pale, dyspeptic youths who enlisted
came out with physiques that laughed weakness and disease to scorn.
They have lived the scores of years since in the enjoyment of
high health, which otherwise could never have been theirs.
The gentleman to whom I allude is Judge
George N. Bliss, but in his case he was a splendid specimen of
athletic manhood from the beginning. He is a native of Eagleville,
Tiverton, R. I., where he was born, July 22, 1837. He was graduated
from Union College, Schenectady, with the of A. B., in June, 1860.
Shortly after he entered the Albany Law School, and on his graduation,
in May, 1861, was. admitted to the Bar of the State of New York.
In September of the same year he enlisted as a private in Company
B, First Rhode Island Cavalry. Young Bliss's ability caused him
to be made quartermaster-sergeant soon after, quickly followed
by his promotion to first lieutenant, which rank he held until
mustered in as captain of Company C, in August, 1862.
Having enlisted as a soldier, Captain Bliss
set out to become a thorough one. He was a daring and skilful
horseman, he had fenced with foils when a schoolboy, and became
one of the finest swordsmen in the army. He was known as a man
of undaunted bravery, always ready and eager to obey the orders
of his superior officers, and never flinching in the face of any
peril, no matter how great nor how hopeless the chance of victory
might seem. Captain Bliss's modesty causes him to pass lightly
over many of his exploits, which would have brought fame to any
soldier. But his old comrades agree in pronouncing him a superb
officer, whose example in the most trying circumstances was a
model to others. He was a splendid type of the American volunteers
which have carried our Rag to triumph on many a crimson battlefield.
His qualities in this respect won the admiration of his enemies,
with whom he crossed swords again and again in the hot conflict,
which seemed at times and for so long to waver in the balance.
Captain Bliss's regiment was with Sheridan's
army in the valley of the Shenandoah, and in September, 1864,
was on duty at General Torbert's headquarters, where Bliss was
in command of the provost guard. After the victories of Sheridan
at Winchester, on the 19th, and Fisher's Hill, on the 22d, General
Torbert with his cavalry occupied Waynes borough, Va. On September
28 they set out to destroy the railway bridge.
About the middle of the afternoon on the
day named, Captain Bliss was directed by Major Farrington to ride
into Waynesborough with orders to the provost guards to prevent
soldiers from entering the houses, since the entire cavalry was
about to pass through the town to water their horses in the Shenandoah.
It was a crisp, cool day in early autumn, and the captain was
in high spirits. A few weeks before he had been in the hospital,
but the pure air, delicious spring water, good rations, and rough,
out-door life had restored him to his usual perfect health. Life
never looked more attractive to the young patriot.
The captain had in his charge about fifty
prisoners, captured a day or so before. Just before entering the
town a sergeant was met with a large quantity of bread, which
by orders of the captain had been baked in Waynesborough for the
captives. Promising soon to return, Bliss rode into town to give
his orders to the provost guards. Having done so, he was about
to go back, when his attention was drawn to the efforts of a Vermont
cavalry regiment to destroy the railway bridge. They had nearly
completed the work before Captain Bliss heard firing in the distance
across the river. Looking in that direction, he saw, about a mile
away, the enemy driving in the Union pickets. The latter fell
back to the reserves, who charged and drove the Confederates in
Captain Bliss supposed the affair was only
a skirmish, but when he saw the Union reserve hurled back, he
knew it was an attack in force. He galloped back into the village,
where Captain Willis C. Capron, of the First Rhode Island Cavalry,
had command of about a dozen men as provost guard, and ordered
him to form them in line across the main street, and allow none
but wounded men to pass to the rear. This was done, and Bliss
was on the point of returning to his squadron, when Captain Capron
begged him to take command. Captain Bliss refused, but Capron
insisted, and the faces of his men showed that their wishes were
the same. They knew that in Bliss they would have the best of
leaders. He read the expression of their countenances, and in
his crisp, military fashion said:
"Very well; I'll take command; pass
to the rear as junior captain.
At the same time, Captain Bliss drew his
saber and placed himself at the front. The firing on the opposite
side of the river became hotter, but the Confederates steadily
pushed the Federals back and the situation was fast becoming desperate.
Seeing that something must be done quickly, Captain Bliss gathered
about thirty men for a charge across the river, accompanied by
cheering, the object being to make the enemy believe reinforcements
were approaching. At the same time the main body of Union cavalry
would be given time in which to rally for action.
The charge was made, and Bliss had nearly
reached the front, when a major galloped up to him with orders
from Colonel Lowell to take his command to the ford of the river
and stop the stragglers. By his promptness, Captain Bliss checked
fully a hundred and fifty panic-stricken men. With the aid of
the lieutenants among them they were gotten into line, when a
Confederate battery began dropping shells among them. The whole
body was terrified and dashed so tumultuously across the river
that they swept Captain Bliss's small force off their feet. He
dashed after them, and succeeded in getting a few together, and
began to throw up a barricade across the main street. There was
not time to complete it, however, and the little body fell back
till they reached the Third New Jersey Cavalry, drawn up in column
of squadrons in the western suburbs of the town.
Looking again toward the enemy, Captain
Bliss saw Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who had been in command
of the picket line, approaching with his horse on a walk. He was
the last man to fall back before the advance of the Confederates.
The bullets were whistling all about the brave officer, and little
puffs of dust in the road showed where many struck. Captain Bliss
hurried out to meet him.
"Colonel Lowell, I had only' a few
of the provost guards, but I did all I could with them to help
"There is no question of that; but,
captain, we must check their advance with a saber charge. Isn't
that the best thing we can do?"
"I think is."
A few minutes later they came up to the
Third New Jersey Cavalry. Colonel Lowell addressed the officer
"Major, let your first squadron sling
their carbines, draw their sabers and charge."
The order was given, but not a man moved.
They were demoralized by having seen the troops driven back. Colonel
"Give a cheer, boys, and go at them!"
He and Captain Bliss set the example, arid
charged, cheering and waving their sabers. It was just the thing
needed, and the squadron dashed hot after them. A little farther
on Colonel Lowell drew to one side, so as to send other troops
to the support of the squadron.
This left Captain Bliss to lead the charge.
He was mounted on a large, powerful sorrel horse, which speedily
carried him a hundred yards in advance of the others. Reaching
the partially built barricade, he reined up and looked back. His
men were coming on with a splendid squadron front, while in the
other direction the enemy, in column of fours, were turning to
retreat. It was the psychological moment for a charge, and Captain
Bliss, waving his saber high above his head, shouted at the top
of his voice:
"Come on, boys! we've got them on the
run Touching spur to his horse, he went over the barricade at
a single leap, and thrilled by the chance of routing the enemy,
the captain put his steed on a dead run, and the next moment was
among them swinging his saber right and left, striking wherever
he saw a chance of reaching a horseman. Almost in the same instant
he made the discovery that he was entirely alone. The men had
not followed, and he was caught in the most terrifying peril of
his life, for here was one man attacking a squadron of cavalry
When the fearful truth broke upon Captain
Bliss, he had penetrated so far into the company that fully a
dozen were behind him. They were retreating in a loose column
of fours, and he had three files on his left hand and one on the
right. He says that fifty men were shouting:
"Kill that damned Yankee!" and
all set vigorously to work to do it.
Captain Bliss did not believe he had one
chance in a million. He was certain to be cut down if he tried
to retreat, and the farther he went, the worse would his situation
become. In the dizzying whirl of the moment, he thought that if
he could fight off death until he reached a side street he would
spur his horse into that and try to make a circuit back to his
lines. He set out to attempt the impossible.
It need not be said that all this time the
captain was the busiest man that can be imagined. His saber flashed
right and left, for he must needs use it with skill and might
and main to repulse the assaults upon him. He aimed one blow at
Captain Morgan Strother, who dodged, and W. T. Haines ducked just
in time to save his head. But Captain William A. Moss; Hugh Hamilton,
color bearer of the Fourth Virginia Cavalry, Robert L. Baber and
Thomas W. Garnett all caught it fairly and were wounded. (Later
on we shall explain how their names came to be known.)
While laying about him like a Trojan, Captain
Bliss was on the alert for the side street to which he had pinned
his hopes. He caught sight of one on his left, and dropping his
head close to his horse's neck, he broke through three files,
plunged into the opening and felt a thrill of hope; but at that
instant a shot fired at him struck his steed and fatally wounded
him. Feeling him going, the rider vigorously jerked the reins
and struck his spurs deep into his flank. The noble animal strove
bravely, but he was doomed and went down with a plunge which flung
the captain to the ground. Before he could leap to his feet two
horsemen were upon him, and each struck a vicious, well-aimed
blow. One used his carbine, and Bliss parried the stroke, which
otherwise would have killed him. He had no chance to ward off
the saber, which inflicted an ugly cut on his forehead. Getting
upon his feet, he called out:
"For God's sake do not kill a prisoner!"
"Then surrender!" commanded the
"I do surrender."
"Give me your sword and pistol."*
(* Referring to this incident, Captain Bliss
in a letter to the writer says: "I suppose Shepherd, to whom
I surrendered, did not dream how near death he was. If he had
refused me mercy, I would have run him at once through the body,
and we should have died together.")
The captain handed the weapons to his captor,
but had hardly done so when he received a blow in the back, which
knocked him forward several paces. Turning his head to learn the
cause, he saw that a soldier had ridden up with his horse on a
trot and stabbed him with his saber. The captain grimly says that
the reason the weapon did not pass entirely through his body was
that the soldier, "in his ignorance of the proper use of
the weapon, had failed to make the half turn of the wrist necessary
to give the saber smooth entrance between the ribs."
In the same moment Captain Bliss observed
another soldier taking aim at him with a revolver. In that crisis,
when his life seemed scarcely worth a second's purchase, the prisoner
made the grand hailing sign of distress of a Mason. Captain Henry
C. Lee, the acting adjutant-general, instantly recognized it and
dashed up on his horse, and peremptorily checked every demonstration
against the w9unded man. He ordered one of the soldiers to take
him to the rear and see that his wounds were dressed. The order
was obeyed, though on the way the prisoner was obliged to give
up his gold watch, his money, and afterward to exchange his cavalry
boots for a pair of canvas shoes.
Captain Bliss's wounds bled so much that
he was too weak to mount a horse without help, but he was gotten
into place behind one of the guards, and a ride of three miles
brought him to a field hospital, where his wounds were dressed.
Later in the evening he was put into an ambulance with Captain
William A. Moss - at that time a lieutenant - who had received
a bullet wound in addition to the saber cut from Captain Bliss.
Captain Moss, like Bliss, was a Mason, and did his utmost for
the comfort of the prisoner. The saber thrust caused the latter
more trouble than the wound in his forehead. His lung had been
injured, and he had to be plentifully dosed with morphine before
he could sleep.
The next forenoon a mounted courier came
to the hospital with orders to take Captain Bliss to the headquarters
of General Thomas T. Munford, commanding the Confederate force
that had made the attack the previous day. The prisoner, however,
was too weak to sit a horse, and the messenger went back without
him. Late at night the wounded were all landed by the cars in
Charlottesville, and Bliss was placed in the officers' hospital.
During the two weeks that he remained there he was treated with
every courtesy and kindness. The surgeon in charge, J. S. Davis,
Professor in the University of Virginia, was specially attentive
and did everything in his power for the comfort of the Union prisoner.*
(* Captain Bliss informs me that he met
seven Union officers whose lives were saved during the Civil War
through their being Free Masons. And these were only a few among
the hundreds and thousands on both sides.)
A few days after the arrival at Charlottesville,
a wounded Confederate called upon Captain Bliss.
"I am W. T. Haines," said he with
a smile, "and was the first man you attacked in the ranks
of the Fourth Virginia at Waynesborough."
"But you were not hurt," remarked
"No; I was lucky enough to dodge that
cut; if I hadn't, I shouldn't be here to shake you by the hand.
No man ever tried harder to kill another than I tried to kill
you, but your horse was too swift for me; as I followed, your
saber looked like a snake writhing in the air."
By the middle of October, Captain Bliss's
wounds had healed and he was sent to Lynchburg, where he remained
two days, going thence to Libby Prison, in Richmond. The long,
hard journey from Charlottesville reopened his saber wound, and
he was placed in the hospital, which was located at the south
end of Libby. He recovered so rapidly that in little more than
a week he was transferred to the regular prison quarters, where
he met an old college friend in Captain Lieutenant Murray, were
sent down the James River on the flag-of-truce boat and re-entered
the Union lines.
The experience of Captain Bliss in Libby
Prison was interesting, but the story of the prisoners confined
there during the progress of the war has been told too many times
to be repeated in this place. The four months' confinement broke
the health for the time of the rugged young man, and he was placed
on light duty as president of a court-martial at Annapolis, Maryland.
On May 15 he was mustered out of service and returned to the profession
of law in his native State of Rhode Island.
The stirring events narrated were followed,
as has been the case in many other similar instances, by a pleasant
sequel. In June, 1875, the Richmond Commandery of Knights Templars
made a brief visit to Providence on their return from the celebration
of the centennial anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill. Captain
Bliss had a cheery time with a number of the members, to whom
he related his experience at Waynesborough. When they went home
they retold the story. Thus the way was opened for not only an
acquaintance with the ex-Confederates whom he encountered, but
for the recovery of the saber which the captain had been compelled
to surrender when his horse was killed and he stood in imminent
danger of death.
Under date of March 24, 1902, Robert L.
Baber wrote from Rock Island, Va., to Captain Bliss, asking for
his photograph in return for the three saber wounds he had inflicted
on his head in that lively scrimmage nearly forty years before.
He got the photo and further correspondence followed. As proof
of the truth of the account given of Captain Bliss's notable exploit,
we quote from some of these letters. Mr. Baber, writing April
29, 1902, said:
"I was highly gratified to learn of
the man who gave me such an awful drubbing, but proud to know
that it did not seriously injure me: it only gave me six weeks'
furlough. You say that three of the men whom you wounded after
thirty years are still living, which is correct. Mr. Thomas W.
Garnett is the man, if I mistake not, whose name you had not learned,
who is living and whose post-office is Arcanum, Buckingham County,
Va. Captain William A. Moss has been dead twelve or fourteen years,
"I am nearly seventy-six years of age,
have been a member of the Methodist Church nearly sixty years,
was justice of the peace twenty-five years, a Mason nearly forty-two
years and am a notary public now and have been for about twenty-eight
Upon receipt of this letter, Captain Bliss
wrote to Thoma8 W. Garnett, who answered on May 14, 1902:
"DEAR SIR: I am agreeably surprised
to hear from you. I was at Waynesborough, Va., on September 28,
1864. I was wounded by the same man who wounded Captain William
A. Moss and Robert L. Baber. (His name I have forgotten.)
"I received a saber wound on my head.
He or you gave me a right cut and passed on. I followed you to
a left-hand street. I shot at you and your horse fell. Just then
Captain Moss called me to his assistance. I went and did not see
you again until that night at the hospital. I was the first man
you wounded in the fight.
"I got your saber; from Thad Sheppard
and carried it the balance of the war, and buried it on my return
home after the surrender.
"I never knew Hamilton. Captain Moss
has been dead about twelve years. I know Barber. He lives about
thirty miles from here. I am glad we are both still living. Write
Garnett set out to recover the saber of
Captain Bliss with the purpose of restoring it to him. Two months
later he wrote to the captain, telling him that after General
Lee surrendered at Appomattox, General Munford called for men
to go with him to join General Jo Johnston, then at Danville,
Va. Garnett was one of the volunteers. When they reached Lynchburg,
they saw it was useless to try to go farther and gave up. On the
way back, Garnett was advised to get rid of his side arms, through
danger of being mistaken for one of Mosby's scouts. Ten miles
from Arcanum, he hid the saber under the bottom rail of a fence,
intending to return and get it after things had quieted down,
but he never did so. The saber was found by the owner of the place
when removing the fence, and he notified Garnett that while he
was willing to let him have it for nothing, it must be with the
provision that it was for himself alone; but if he wished it for
any other purpose, he would have to redeem it. Garnett wrote on
July 27, 1902:
"I had to make the second tri p to
see Mr. B. F. Sheppard before I caught him. He said I was welcome
to the saber, but if sent to you, five dollars must be paid for
it. I put the saber under the fence April 11, 1865, and Sheppard
found it in 1874. Nine years under the fence had left their marks.
The leather on the hilt had rotted off and the scabbard was nearly
eaten up by rust. Sheppard put a wooden hilt on in place of the
leather, and used it to kill rats with, and cut off a part of
the guard to make it handy. There is but one thing about it I
can recognize, and that is the dent in the edge, which was in
it when I got it." [This dent was made by the parrying of
the carbine, as has been described.]
The old, battered, but precious saber reached
Captain Bliss a few days later, and it need not be said that no
relic in the possession of the brave veteran is held in such proud
and loving remembrance. It was on exhibition at the annual reunion
of the First Rhode Island Cavalry, August 9, 1902. A noteworthy
incident on that occasion was the presence of Color Bearer Hugh
Hamilton, who received the warmest of welcomes from his former
foes, but now his ardent friends. He was the guest of Judge Bliss.
Hamilton is four years younger than the judge, erect as an Indian,
tall, soldierly, courteous and strikingly handsome. The two had
their photographs taken together, and under the picture, which
is before me as I write, Judge Bliss has placed the following:
"Once foes, for many years past and
for all the years to come, friends."
Captain A. D. Payne died at Warrenton, Va.,
in March, 1893. In his account of the remarkable exploit of Captain
Bliss, he wrote:
"The Fourth Virginia Regiment was at
this point in the front, and Captain Morgan Strother, its commander,
when he discovered the barricade, ordered some of his men to dismount
to remove the obstruction. While this was being done, he suddenly
gave the order for the dismounted men to mount, which was immediately
obeyed, and just then an incident occurred worthy of mention,
as exhibiting a deed of individual heroism rarely witnessed. Just
as the men of the Fourth Regiment were well in the saddle, after
the order of their commanding officer, a single soldier, coming
from the direction of the enemy, with sword in hand, dashed into
the Black Horse Troop, which composed one of the squadrons of
the Fourth Virginia a Cavalry, and on that occasion was the color
squadron, sabering the men right and left, wounding several, and
among them Lieutenant William A. Moss and Corporal Hugh Hamilton,
a gallant soldier and the color bearer. The boldness and suddenness
of the attack paralyzed for a moment or two the Confederates,
and in that interval this bold assailant succeeded in forcing
his way through the Confederate column, and might possibly have
escaped, but a shot fired by a Confederate brought his horse down,
and he fell with it. He was at once surrounded, and received a
saber cut in the face while in the act of parrying a blow from
a carbine. Another Confederate gave him a saber thrust in the
back, and in all probability he would have been slain but for
the timely interference of Captain Henry C. Lee, an aid of Colonel
Munford, who, seeing the struggle, rode up and put an end to it.
It is said that Captain Lee recognized in the prostrate man a
brother Mason, through some sign or cry used by the Masonic order
in times of distress or danger."
Brigadier-General T. T. Munford at this
date is living at Lynchburg, Va. Writing on March 4, 1882, to
Judge Bliss, he thus referred to the olden times:
"In fighting over our battles, as all
good soldiers love to do with those who went hand in hand together,
I have frequently had the incidents you recalled in your letter
mentioned by those of us who witnessed it, and it affords me pleasure
to say it was worthy of a better support than you
I received from the ranking officer ordering the charge or the
men who should have followed. A little dare-deviltry in a cavalry
officer sometimes acts like magic; a few dashing fellows well
led have turned a victory from one side to a rout on the other,
without any cause. Your courage will never be doubted by any Confederate
who saw your manly bravery in the fight, and you may thank a kind
Providence that you are now alive to tell your own story in your
own way. You have spoken in a manly and generous way of what passed
in our lines. When I saw you at night, sitting behind a Confederate
cavalryman, with the blood streaming down your face, going to
the rear a prisoner, I said to Dr. Randolph, brigade surgeon,
that you were one of the 'widow's son party.' He being one of
the elder brothers, replied, 'I'll see your mother's son well
taken care of this night,' and as most of the staff-officers were
of the clan, they did the best they could for a brother in trouble.
"I am not a Mason, but most of my staff
were Masons, and I know they frequently did many things that seemed
to give them extra pleasure for the unfortunate on the other side.
I was sure the institution was full of good works, and although
I was only a poor soldier who tried to do his duty, with6ut being
a Mason, I believed the organization was based upon Christian
principles, and was always in sympathy with the work of the fraternity."
In some respects the most peculiar interest
attaches to the narrative of Captain Henry C. Lee, for it will
be remembered that he was the one who recognized the Masonic call
of Captain Bliss when driven to the last extremity, and by instantly
responding saved him from certain death. Captain Lee at that time
was in his twenty-third year, so that he could not have been a
Mason for more than about a year and a half. He died in Richmond
in June, 1889. Some five years before his death he wrote to Judge
"Just as Captain Moss got into town,
owing to the Third not being up and the Second not well in position,
I was sent forward by Colonel Munford, who was then commanding
our brigade, to halt the squadron of the Fourth, and as I was
galloping up one side (the right) of these squadrons (we were
in columns of fours), I saw you galloping down on the other side.
Knowing you would be looked after, particularly as you were alone,
I kept on and halted the head of the troops, and then I saw your
men going in the opposite direction. They were the ones you told
me, when I first saw you after the war, you expected to lead in
the charge against us and thought they were following you. My
orders were also to bring our troops back that had been sent up
on the road to the right, the First Regiment, for we were nearly
into Sheridan's camp, and were fearful that your troops might
sweep down this street and cut this party off. It was as I was
returning, and had gotten to the corner, that I saw your horse
fall and three or four of our men with you. As I passed you, you
called out for relief as a Mason, and making a sign which I recognized,
I ordered our men to let you alone, take you to the rear and see
that you were attended to, as you seemed to be wounded. I had
to go on to bring our troops back, and, although you said something
to me, I had no time to stop. One of our men was about to kill
you when I got to you, and informed me that you had badly wounded
Captain Moss, and had struck somebody else, and thought it wrong
for me to interfere. When I came back of course you were gone,
and the horse, too, I think, and I never saw you again until you
came down to see me here in 1880. I heard that you and Captain
Moss were carried back in the same ambulance, and Moss, having
some 'apple-jack,' our national drink, you took a drink together.
In conclusion, it may be said that Captain
Bliss received the Congressional medal for gallantry, September
28, 1864, and the records of the War for the Union tell of no
exploit that was more deserving of the honor. Two of his sons
served in the navy during our late war with Spain, and the veteran
has long been a judge in the Seventh District Court of East Providence,
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