The Christmas Picket: A Civil War Christmas, Part 12

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Advance picket guard keeping watch against surprise attack.

December 25, 1861. A nineteen year old private in the Confederate army, Valerius Cincinnatus Giles, was on guard detail along the Potomac River this Winter day, pacing back and forth and occasionally staring over at the Yankees of General Sickles’ New York Brigade on the Maryland side.

Private Giles of the 4th Texas, was on picket duty on December 21, 1861, when he had an uncanny encounter.
Private Giles of the 4th Texas was on picket duty on December 21, 1861, when he had an uncanny encounter.

As a picket, his duty was give the alarm of any enemy activity, lest the vile Yankees should decide to leave the comfort of their warm huts and brave the bleak cold outside. Private Giles’ unit, a detachment of the 4th Texas Infantry, had just relieved another unit guarding that sector. The men would rather have been back in camp, enjoying the holiday as best they could; but duty called, and someone needed to be on duty, no matter what.

Private Giles and his two brothers had all answered the call of duty and volunteered for the Confederate army. Giles, still smartly dressed in his long grey frock coat with black waist belt and black strap over his right shoulder, and adorned with a black Hardee hat with one side turned up, looked the model of a military man. One of Giles’s brothers was serving with the Tenth Texas Infantry in Arkansas, while the other, brother Lew, was with Terry’s Rangers (Eighth Texas Cavalry), somewhere in Kentucky.

There was little likelihood of Valerius being in any personal danger that Christmas; the Yankees desired a break from war that day as much as the Rebels. That afternoon there was a brief to-do when a Yankee steamboat came in sight. But it was soon recognized as a hospital ship and not a gunboat, and so was left alone to ply it trade on the opposite shore.

Picket Duty for either side in Winter was an unpleasant task--all the more so on Christmas Day.  Illustration by William Trego
Picket Duty for either side in Winter was an unpleasant task–all the more so on Christmas Day. Illustration by William Trego

More out of boredom than necessity, Private Giles began to walk his post, tramping through snow knee deep in places. The colder clime of northern Virginia was a change of scene for the Texas boy and there in the piney woods in midwinter, when the earth and green branches of the trees were covered with snow, there was no sound of birds singing or crickets chirping. With not a breath of air blowing, the stillness all around him seemed oppressive.

Valerius’s thoughts naturally started to wander, thinking about his home and family members on that Christmas Day. It was at four p.m. that afternoon when he heard it. He remembered that he was not sleepy or drowsy and perfectly wide awake when he heard it. He heard his brother Lew Giles’s voice, clear as day, calling out his name:

“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.”

Knowing Lew was far away to the west somewhere in either Kentucky or Tennessee, Val thought at first that somehow it was just his homesickness playing on his imagination; that it was some kind of delusion. Yet he knew his brother’s voice and knew that the voice he had heard was his brother’s.

Gallatin, Tennessee, where Valerius' brother Lew was brought after being wounded in Kentucky.
Gallatin, Tennessee, where Valerius’ brother Lew was brought after being wounded in Kentucky.

It was only later that Val learned that Lew had been wounded at the Battle of Mumfordville, in Kentucky, on the seventeenth of December. Seriously injured, he had been taken to Gallatin, Tennessee, to the home of a family friend, where he lingered for several days.

That at about the same time that his brother was dying, Valerius heard his voice cry out was  unbelievable, but in his heart the young soldier knew it to be true

According to information the family later received from their father’s friend in Gallatin, Lew Giles expired at exactly four p.m. on Christmas Day of 1861.

For more true Civil War stories, see: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.  Now out is my latest Civil War book,  Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.

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Ambrose Bierce is famed as a noted American writer, satirist and cynic. Less well known is Bierce’s military career during the Civil War, where he fought with distinction in many of the major battles of the war. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife chronicles his wartime experiences in depth for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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