Thomas Hughes, A Boy's Experiences

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From Hughes, Thomas. A Boy’s Experiences in the Civil War 1860 – 1865, privately published, 1904

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...When the Virginia Military Institute was burned after the battle of New Market where the cadets lost a number who were killed and where many were wounded, the corps was sent to Richmond. Every Richmond boy had a great ambition to go to the Institute, at that time regarded as the West Point of the South. The cadets were a part of the Confederate army and every graduate was given an officer's commission in the army. Incidents were constantly occurring to keep alive and active this spirit to become a cadet - boys have little fear of bullets, they enjoy the excitement of active army life and even death and wounds appeal to them as making heroes. After the battle of New Market one of the cadets a son of Dr. Cabell of Richmond who was killed in that battle was


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brought to Richmond for burial and his funeral took place from his father's home on Franklin street where he lived, a neighbor of General Lee. I remember as the remains after the service were borne down the front steps and through the iron front gate the intense awe and respect in the face of the young men assembled on the pavement around the entrance to the open space in front of the house. It was here I believe I first formed the determination to be a cadet and strange to say when I first entered the cadet ranks, the drill master assigned to our squad was Bob Cabell a brother of the cadet whose funeral I had attended that day.

        The Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute were in number about five or six hundred, were from all over the South and ranged in age from about sixteen years to about twenty-four or five. I entered the Institute shortly before the evacuation of Richmond and enjoyed the distinction, as I have stated, of being the youngest cadet in the corps. When the cadets first came to Richmond, they marched with singularly soldier-like precision and carriage out Grace street to the Fair grounds where they were for a time quartered. The uniforms of the boys as also their food began to partake of the Confederate soldier variety and it was pathetic to see some of these boys marching in ranks through Richmond to their quarters with pants torn or worn out at the bottom and variegated in outfit, some with cadet jackets and plain pants, others with cadet pants and plain jackets. The Richmond Alms house was assigned to the cadets for their quarters. Life there would have been ordinarily recognized as singularly trying; to the young men in the corps it was a perpetual joy, alloyed alone by the obligation to attend lectures. The rooms that were a delight to them were simply unmentionable. In my room about twelve feet wide and twenty-four feet long were sixteen cadets who slept and studied there. In the day time the mattresses were piled each on top of the other in a single corner of the room - at night time they


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were arranged side by side with head against the wall. One long table occupied the center of the room. It was supposed to be a study table and was occupied at night by a favored one to sleep upon. In the day time it was never occupied except by the boys lounging upon it in lieu of chairs, smoking their pipes and gossiping. Pure atmosphere day or night in that room was not needed by those young men with their wonderful vitality. In day time the air was redolent with tobacco smoke from their pipes. At night time the door was invariably kept closed by any who were up playing cards or gossiping after the retiring hour to shut out from view the officer of the guard, who whenever he wished to investigate for such breaches of discipline always discretely and considerately knocked before entering, opening the door to find everything in perfect order. Each room had a petty officer usually a corporal a senior who was supposed to be responsible for the good order and cleanliness of the room. One of the duties of this senior was to initiate by "bucking" any new cadet introduced into his room. This "bucking", peculiar to the Institute, consisted in taking the new comer's right hand, carrying it behind his back, twisting it around until he was compelled thereby to bend over when he would be struck by the senior with a bayonet scabbard on his posterior once for each letter in his name and in the event he was without a middle name he was given the right to select one and upon failure to do so was given the name Constantinople for its many letters. There upon he was dubbed a "rat", which name he bore for one year. He was liable to have trouble for the whole first year and might have to take another bucking or stand up to a fight, which usually was brought about in a formal way and was a great affair. The corporal of our room was a mild mannered gentlemanly fellow named Bayard of Georgia, whose father was, I believe, in the Confederate Congress from that State. After bucking me and permitting me to chose Asa for my middle name he dubbed me "mouse" and stated


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to me that if any one attempted to give me any trouble to let him know. No trouble was there though for me, it was one constant stretch of delightful experiences. The association with older boys and men who treated me not simply as an equal but from my youth and boyishness showed me every favor rendered my life one of joyous ease. I was informed by the cadet whose name immediately preceded mine in roll call of my company that any time I wanted to get off to let him know and he would answer twice, once for himself, once for me. I was introduced by a friendly cadet to the apothecary's assistant who turned an honest dollar in selling surreptitiously to the boys ginger cakes and pies at a thousand per cent profit. I was recommended to old "Judge", the negro head cook and steward, who black as coal was with the boys the most popular person in the corps, but for his favors which usually comprised an extra allowance of bread, expected a suitable remembrance. A room I have here described could furnish no more than living quarters for the number occupying it, and how any studying could be done at night by two dull tallow candles, the only lights was inexplicable. Toilets were performed in a general wash room, adjoining a larger room where all trunks were kept and these two rooms were on the same stoop or porch and a little apart from the living rooms that all adjoined. If meagre fare contributed to good health, the boys were entitled to the extraordinary health they possessed with such surroundings. A typical breakfast was "growley", bread and Confederate coffee. Sometimes sorghum molasses took the place of "growley." This latter dish was quite watery, being a hash of beef, potatoes and onions. A typical dinner was boiled Irish potatoes, boiled corned beef and bread. Meals were served in the large dining room in the basement at plain pine tables with no covering each table seating about one cozen. At the head of the table stood the large dish of growley or the cornbeef and at each cadet's plate was his half loaf of bread.


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It required practice and expertness to slide one's tin plate over the table, to the "growley" for a helping and some art to secure at long distance the favorable disposition of the cadet sitting at the head to whom fell the delightful emolument of apportioning the "growley. " The half of loaf of bread was where old "Judge" came in, for you always felt as if you wanted more. Each cadet was furnished his own two pronged fork and a good large table knife both of the rough bone handled variety, colored a dark brown. This fare with undue discipline would have been unbearable but with the free and independent life led there it was only a pleasing passing incident in the daily routine of cadet life constantly filled with ever recurring incidents to surprise, interest and exhilarate and no grumbling ever took place, only high spirits and the fullest animal enjoyment in the flush of health.

        A bell rang for classes or lectures and the class rooms were a wonder. The classes were so large that many would have to stand up grouped together, usually near the door. Before the lecture was finished the groups would be greatly thinned out, for from time to time while the professor was absorbed in his work or inspecting the black boards the door would softly open and out would slip some member of the group who would softly close the door and walk past the windows of the class room as naturally as if he were on a mission, the only evidence of irregularity being the exceedingly expert quick way with which he vanished through the door. Another result of the large classes was the effort to test the students by requiring several to recite at once, as one at a time would never have reached around. This was supposed to be accomplished by means of the blackboard, at each of the five or six boards was stationed one cadet and the same test was furnished to all at once. Out of the entire number at work usually at least one knew his task well. The others made a show of great industry and with much waste of chalk and many changes and corrections and


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with a sharp eye on his neighbor's work he managed to construct a passable performance. The last exhibit I saw in the geography class was a curiously drawn map in chalk outlining South America. It was not difficult to identify the copies of various grades and conditions, nor the original from which made. I suppose the professor was charitable in not holding his students to a too strict accountability. I wonder indeed how they could do any studying with such conditions or surroundings, instead of showing the general faithfulness that they did to their work.

        As I have stated a fight was a very formal affair; while usually originating in quite an unmentionable way it was arranged to take place with a full regard to the proprieties. One of the sixteen men in my room was a jew named Lovenstein from Richmond. He was a new cadet like myself and was therefore liable to have trouble. He had declined to submit to some indignity required of him by an older cadet and he was thereupon challenged to fight. This latter he had no way of escaping. It was passed around during the day that there was to be a fight in so and so's room that night, I got there in company with the men from our room about half after eight o'clock the hour these affairs usually occurred. The room was packed to suffocation, standing around an improvised ring. The air was filled with tobacco smoke but there was absolutely no talking or noise. In the ring in the center of the room the two fighters were facing each other. My sympathies were with the jew because he came from our room. A jew in the South or in Richmond who comported himself as a gentleman was received as such, the commercialism that attached to the race elsewhere did not at that date affect his status as a gentleman in the South. Lovenstein stood up manfully to his task, with the creditable result that secured for him the regard of the other inmates of our room and it soon became understood that


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he was to be protected thereafter and that no further trouble was to be put up for him.

        The gala performance of the day was at dress parade. This occurred at five in the afternoon. The large plaza fronting the full width of the Alms House furnished a fine parade ground. Colonel Shipp, a portly, dignified impressive man who at the time of my present writing is still at the Institution now as Superintendent was then the Commandant, his adjutant was a little man named Woodbridge and these two with the well drilled corps as a whole furnished the three striking incidents of the parade. The awkward squads consisting of new cadets were put through simple evolutions at the same hour off from the parade ground at each end of the building. Visitors in large numbers assembled to watch each drill of the corps. At the close, the cadets were at liberty to stroll off in the neighborhood for an hour recreation, and that was liberally availed of. Soldierly dignity was not invariably preserved in these strolls. Pent up youthful vitality freed from restraint showed itself in rough play and upon one occasion an older companion of mine in the exuberance of his spirits lifted me to his shoulders and completed his walk bearing me with him in this position until his return to the restraining formalities of the Institute grounds. One's introduction to the Institute was in strict military discipline; the details of name, age, residence and the taking of the oath of allegiance to the State and to the Confederacy were followed by a written requisition for a blanket, mattress, knife and fork, etc., and an assignment to a room and company. Mine was B Company. A sedate and dignified looking cadet named Ross was captain, a good, old fashioned, friendly fellow named Royston was orderly sergeant. My introduction to the corporal of my room was through an army officer, Captain Shriver who had recently graduated and who accompanied me and my father on my entrance into the Institute.


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General Smith, the Superintendent, was only seen by the cadets in his private office at the far end of the building. The only visit I made to him was quite an event in my life. Usually visits to the Superintendent were quite serious affairs, furnishing checks to exuberant spirits, often grave in consequences. Therefore a notification that your presence was desired by the Superintendent was calculated to set the heart going more rapidly and to stir the memory for some breach that must have been discovered. The summons to me one day just as I was about to attend my French lecture was as unattractive as attending the lecture. But when I reached the Superintendent's room I found there three Confederate soldiers constituents of my fathers and friends of my family who had come out to see me and had secured permission for me to accompany them back to Richmond to spend the day. An event of the day was the taking of a photograph in a group, this with a good supply of peanuts and a visit to the theatre furnished quite a full day for us four, three seedy and friendly Confederate soldiers and a youthful cadet just fourteen years old. Their request to Genl. Smith to allow me to accompany them on their lark had evidently appeared so unique that I was struck with the degree of pleasure it seemed to afford him and my soldier friends.

        The meagre fare made me yearn greatly to participate of the food that I knew was being enjoyed at my home and I was not slow in availing myself of any temporary leave I could obtain. One of these occasions took place just shortly before the evacuation of Richmond and upon my return to the Institute I was greeted by an almost empty building. I found the Corps had been called out the night before to go to the front, leaving me as a younger cadet with a number of others as a detail to guard the Institute. For the short time we were in charge, there was of course no lectures and little discipline, each one could go and come as he chose, with the result that my visits to my home board were more interesting and in my saunters


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along the streets I began to notice on the Saturday prior to the evacuation premonitions of coming trouble. Great activity was suddenly manifested through the various Confederate Government departments. The Cadets at the Institute were extended permission to remove their trunks. This was availed of on Saturday and also on Sunday until the Institute was practically abandoned by every one there, but was filled with the furniture and the trunks of all the absent cadets, except of those few who had friends to take charge of them. Besides my own trunk I was able to care for that of another room-mate and sent it to him by express to his home some weeks later.

        On Sunday morning the 2d of April, 1865, it was apparent to anyone that the City was to be abandoned by the Confederate troops. Great piles of official documents and papers of all sorts were brought out from the departments, piled up in the centre of the streets in separate piles at short distances apart and then set on fire to be destroyed, some few burned entirely, others only smouldered and others again failed to burn at all. The result seemed to depend on the quality of the paper and the density of the bundles. From one pile I took out a roll of Confederate bonds with all coupons attached and from another pile a bundle of official papers of various sorts. On Monday morning the 3d of April, I saw going up Marshall street about daylight two Confederate cavalryman on foot who were the very last of the Confederate soldiers to leave Richmond, on the same morning about eleven o'clock I saw the first Union soldier to enter Richmond he was also a cavalryman, riding up Broad street and was near Tenth street when I saw him and was surrounded and followed by a howling, frantic mob of about five hundred negro boys, there being no other person except myself that I could see on the street in the vicinity. Between these two periods, the going of the last Confederates and the coming of the first Union soldier stirring scenes were being elsewhere enacted. I had first gone out to the


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Institute to see how matters stood there and I found it was in possession of a horde of men, women and children from all the neighborhood around, who had broken open the building and were carrying away everything movable, furniture, cadets' trunks, books, guns and swords indeed their vandalism spared nothing. I went to my room and was able to secure my blankets and my knife and fork and my books. It was intensely distressing to observe the property of the cadets who were off in the discharge of their duty, boldly appropriated and carried off before my eyes by these multitudinous freebooters who preyed upon it as if it was so much public spoils free to all who chose to help themselves. I tarried there a very short while, carrying away with me what I had been able to save of my own to my home. In leaving I noticed that the brick arsenal across the road from the Institute had been during the night blown up with such force that the fresh dirt in two graves alongside had been blown out. They were the graves of two negroes who shortly before had been hung on the hill to the east of the Institute, having been found guilty of burglarously entering the cellar of the Rev. Dr. Moses D. Hoge, the Presbyterian minister in Richmond, out of which they had stolen a couple of hams. After reaching my home I went down to the Spotswood Hotel at the corner of 8th and Main streets just on the edge of where the fire was raging. Why the Confederate troops had set fire as was reported of them in their evacuation of Richmond I could not understand. The fire was most disastrous in extent and in the character of the buildings. It was in the business section; and the post office, a granite building on Main street between 9th and 10th in which was President Davis' office was the only building left standing within a wide radius. Scenes similar to what I had seen enacted at the Military Institute were also taking place on the edge of the fire district. Stores were being broken into and looted by women, men and boys. Barrels of flour were being rolled away, bolts of


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cloth, boxes filled with all sorts of commodities, groceries, tobacco, etc. In the midst of this carnival of plunder a lot of women, a half dozen in number had concentrated their attention on a particular bolt of unbleached coarse cotton cloth and in the contest for it had unwound it each one pulling her way, others around were carrying away equally valuable goods ad libitum, but these viragos ignored the ample opportunities elsewhere, concentrating their energies on their fight for this particular cloth. The temptation to myself and to another boy of my age with me was so strong to incommode them in their senseless conduct that we took small bags of tobacco from two barrels in front of a store under the Spotswood Hotel and pelted them with the tobacco. While thus engaged the fire gradually crept around in the rear of Main street towards Franklin and had reached an arsenal on 8th street for making bomb shells. Soon the shells began to burst and pieces flew in our direction, breaking windows and scattering the crowd, including the fighting women, who got away with no plunder from that immediate locality.


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After the war closed the condition of the Confederate graves in Hollywood cemetery was so deplorable that a general call was extended to all ex-Confederate soldiers in Richmond to volunteer to put them in condition. At the time appointed great numbers assembled at the Cemetery for the purpose, including very many old cadets. Each particular division of the graves had a certain number assigned to it and there fell to the cadets a plot in the lower ground comprising several hundred graves. Each one of the cadets was furnished a hoe and the task that at once confronted us was how we were to distinguish the precise location of each grave. None of these graves were marked and all any of us knew was that wherever there was any indication of the grave, there had been placed the remains of a Confederate soldier. It seems to me that however loving our motive, we had better left undone our volunteer task, for all the workers in common solved their difficulty in identifying exact outlines of graves by raising at regular and even intervals the little mounds that were supposed to cover the places of interment, so that if any indications previously existed as to the precise location of any grave whereby some one familiar with the surroundings would have identified it, these were effectually destroyed by this service in putting in decent order the burial places of the dead. And it was utterly impossible thereafter to tell the exact resting place of any whose grave was unmarked, the condition of very nearly all.

Page last updated on 03/12/2008