October 2001

Lucy Hayes
by James L. Walker

"Give me the telegram first," Lucy said. "Now, now, Lucy Ware, it can't be all that important. Finish reading the clipping from the Enquirer and then turn to the telegram," Lucy's uncle urged.

"No! I already know what has been heard in Cincinnati. The list of fatalities must run down the column for three inches. Rutherford's name heads the second paragraph. But the telegram is directed to me; it may have fresh news."

Her uncle feared that the message from the U.S. Department of War would confirm and maybe amplify the Cincinnati newspaper's report about the October 19, 1864, battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia. He hesitated to hand it to the thirty-four-old woman whom he regarded as "almost a daughter." Yet Lucy showed no intention of changing her mind, so he reluctantly handed her the personal dispatch.

"I don't know what to think," the wife of Col. Rutherford B. Hayes confessed after having read the telegram twice. "This is from a captain with whose name I'm not familiar. It was dispatched nearly two days ago, but you know how long it takes to get a telegram to a civilian. According to it, Rutherford had a bad fall and injured an ankle, but he's otherwise all right."

"What's the date line of the newspaper account?"
"I don't know; it was cut off."
"Then you have no idea which of the reports is right. He could have been injured first and then killed while lying on the field."

"Either way, he's seriously hurt or dead. I must find him - or his body. I'll nurse him if he's injured, and see that he has a proper burial if he is dead."

"Just what are you proposing to do, young lady?" her uncle inquired. "I will pack a few things and leave for Baltimore on the first train. I've been there often, and many of the officers know me. They'll arrange transportation so I can find my husband - alive or dead."

"That's foolish. No woman has any business going into a battle zone. Besides, your baby needs you here; he's been showing some signs of weakness, you know."

"The housemaid is perfectly capable of looking after my little George; I expect to be gone only four or five days at most."

Slipping from the bed in which she had been reading when the contradictory messages arrived, Lucy Hays, formerly Lucy Ware Webb, dressed and moved swiftly. At 1:15pm, she left Chillicothe, Ohio, on her way to Maryland.

Having often been with her husband in one of his camps, Lucy was in the habit of saying a prayer of thanksgiving for every night that passed without bad news. Rutherford had been in battle a number of times and had sustained a serious injury at South Mountain two years earlier. At least three times, he had been in danger of being killed or captured when his horse took an enemy's ball or fragment of a shell. It was entirely possible that his luck had run out during the clash at Cedar Creek.

From the Baltimore train station, Lucy hurried to Fort Dix. She didn't have to go into detail about why she was in urgent need of an ambulance and a driver; word of Hayes's death had reached the Federal installation before her arrival. Barely two days after receiving the conflicting reports concerning her husband, she was headed toward Winchester, Virginia.

When she reached the town, which had served as a base for Federal operations at Cedar Creek, she stopped at the two-story Logan House to ask for work of her husband. Although the big residence had served as headquarters for Gen. Philip Sheridan only a few days earlier, no one knew anything about her husband's fate. A man, whose name she did not learn, offered her a somewhat casual answer to her question.

"He may still be lying where he fell; there were lots of casualties on both sides. And some of the dead haven't been moved yet."

"In Ohio, newspapers listed the names of some of our officers who were known to have been killed in action, but they did not give estimates of casualties -- at least, not before I left in order to come here."

"The battle you Yankees call Cedar Creek was plenty bloody. Around here, most of us call it Belle Grove, but the name don't make any difference to the dead. Folks say that Gen. Philip Sheridan lost nearly 6,000 men - some dead, some wounded, and a whole lot of 'em missin' They say three of his generals were hit, but nobody around here knows their names. They sure don't know nothin' about blue-coat colonels."

"How do I get to the battlefield?"
"Lady, just follow the Valley Pike from here. There was fightin' all over the place, and you can't miss it."

Pausing as though he was a bit pleased to convey bad news to a woman from "way up in Ohio," the unidentified informant added, "If you don't see anything right away, you'll smell it. They started burning horses day before yesterday."

Lucy's heart pounded at the mention of horses; her husband was a skilled rider, but he'd already had three mounts shot from under him. If his animal had fallen while Rebels were advancing against his division, he could have been trapped in the saddle and helpless to make his escape before some of them reached him.

Following the Valley Turnpike toward Middletown, Virginia, Lucy encountered several bedraggled bands of Federal stragglers. No one knew anything about Col. Hayes; most of them didn't even know he was in the battle. Skirting a hill that was covered with dense underbrush, Lucy proceeded southward as fast as her horse would take her. She had spent time in numerous camps and had seen a few battlefields after the action was over. But nothing in her experience had prepared her for what she found near the banks of a rivulet around which fierce fighting had swirled for six or eight hours a few days earlier.

Ready finders were still picking through the debris left behind; most of them carried baskets, but a few dragged what looked like big crocus bags that were half full. Lucy didn't have to ask what these scavengers were after; shoes and rifles were worth money regardless of their condition. Civilians were always ready to shell out for souvenirs, so ready finders had a market for nearly everything they gleaned.

Spokes of wheels, fragments of caissons, plus bits and pieces of blue and gray uniforms littered the ground as far as Lucy could see. An occasional canteen or cartridge box that had been overlooked by the scavengers protruded above the surface. Three or four squads of soldiers were busy felling small trees to get fuel for the pyres on which dead horses had been dumped. Long before she reached her destination, the woman from the Buckeye State had been forced to hold a kerchief to her nose and mouth in a futile attempt to ward off the stench of death.

Only one of the fellows burning horses nodded when the woman climbed out of her ambulance and asked if anyone had word about Col. Rutherford B. Hayes.

"I heard he got it when the Johnnies made their first attack," he informed her. "Seems a minie ball took down his horse when he was trying to cross a gully. Never heard anything about what happened to him after Little Phil got here and rallied the boys."

Glad to have a break from swinging his ax, the Federal soldier put his hands on his hips and leaned backward, easing his aching muscles. "You won't find nothin' around here, lady. Best place to ask is the Belle Grove house. You'll find it about a mile from here, on the pike to Strasburg. That big house is close to Three-Top Mountain," he volunteered. "They say a Rebel general named Gordon rode up the mountain before the surprise attack started an' got a good look at our camp so he could decide which way to send his men."

Following the soldier's directions, Lucy found the desolate ruins of what must have been the Belle Grove house, but no one was in sight. She resumed her journey and soon found that stragglers were established in what was left of Hottle's Mill. Although initially suspicious that the woman would turn them in, two or three of them warmed up a bit when she explained her mission.

"Tell you the truth, lady, we don't know nothin' about the battle except what we heard since," one of them explained. "When we saw them long gray lines headed toward us at a trot, most of us got out while the getting' was good. Lots of our officers and men bought it fairly early, and they say some of 'em are still lying' in the brush where they fell. Fella you're lookin' for might be just about anywhere."

Lucy was unable to restrain her emotions. Perhaps feeling a tad sorry for her, her informant offered a suggestion: "If you'll take a turn toward the north, you'll likely run into one of the Stickleys. They're big farmers in the valley an' they get around a lot. Just ask for Dan or Annie or Henry half a mile up the road."

However, not a single Stickley was to be found. With the sun dropping fast, the wife of the missing colonel decided she'd better spend the night in her ambulance. At first light the next morning, she realized that she was in sight of the Valley Turnpike, which she had followed from Winchester. Turning onto the turnpike, she soon found the charred ruins of a big farm house that she judged might have belonged to one of the Stickleys.

While pausing to take a quick look at the utter destruction of the civilian home, she was spotted by a Virginian walking from the direction of Middletown. He stopped, said that he had been a hand at Burnt Mills "until it really got burnt," and asked if he could be of help. When she explained what seemed to be her impossible mission, he gave her the most valuable clue she had received yet.

"They say prisoners taken by Rebels were sent to Richmond," he explained. "But lots of the dead an' wounded Yanks went thataway." Pointing in the general direction of Washington, about sixty miles southeast of the battlefield, he made his meaning clear despite the woman's lack of knowledge about regional geography.

"Thank you! Thank you! If my husband was sent to the capital, I know I can find him - or his body. They keep careful records in Washington, you know."

Her ambulance driver, who had been extremely patient thus far, reminded her that if they went to Washington, he could leave her there and get back to his base. He'd be expected to turn in his rig in three or four more days.

Slightly more than halfway to her new destination, the second day after leaving Cedar Creek, Lucy signaled for her driver to stop. "Do you think we're headed into another battle?" she asked. "I have heard enough artillery to know that guns are being fired somewhere up ahead."

"Couldn't say," responded the private. "Could be a skirmish, I guess, but we're getting close to Washington. More'n likely it's the salute that Grant ordered fired to celebrate Little Phil's big win at Cedar Creek."

In the capital, Lucy got no answer to her questions about Rutherford. Nurses at one of the hospitals volunteered, however, that "Colonel Hayes was mentioned in a lot of the dispatches." This news did not help her in the search, but the woman from Chillicothe had been around military men long enough to know that the information was significant. If Rutherford was still alive and on the road to recovery, he'd stand a good chance to be made a brigadier as a reward for his service at Cedar Creek.

She called at only three or four hospitals before she realized that her husband wasn't likely to be in the capital after all. It's hospitals had been packed with wounded and sick soldiers long before the first casualties arrived from Cedar Creek. A few probably went to the Union Hotel Hospital in nearby Georgetown, a surgeon told her. There was an outside chance that he could have found a bed in this small facility, but it was much more likely that he was somewhere near the Maryland State line. Quite a few temporary hospitals there had received men from Cedar Creek, but it would be days or weeks before records were brought up to date so that a specific individual could be located.

Using a carriage rented in the capital, Lucy, expecting to learn any moment that she was a widow, went from one hastily requisitioned business or residence to another. Each of the temporary hospitals she visited was full, and many of their occupants had been at Cedar Creek. By this time she had become accustomed to seeing heads shake. Lucy was not surprised that no one seemed to know much about anything - least of all a colonel who had led a division of the Army of Western Virginia more than a week earlier.

Realizing that her options were quickly running out, the woman who was "on a scout for a missing husband" suddenly found out that Col. Hayes was somewhere close by. "He might be on Gibson's Island," said a surgeon from Columbus, Ohio, who was familiar with her husband's name from a notorious trial in which Rutherford received a lot of publicity.

Following the suggestions of the surgeon, whom she had encountered by chance, Lucy Hayes found her husband injured, but not technically wounded. After a long and silent embrace, she managed simultaneously to smile and sob. "I left Chillicothe two weeks ago, as soon as I heard about Cedar Creek," she explained. "My uncle didn't want me to go, but I told him I'd either find you in a hospital and help to nurse you --or I would find your body and give it a proper burial."

After having assured her that she was right to launch her search, Rutherford told her why he was hospitalized. A huge body of Rebels, most of who behaved like veterans of earlier combat, had attacked Federal forces in a predawn fog. In a turn of events that he never quite understood, he had ridden between his own line and that of the enemy.

Suddenly realizing the extreme danger to which he was exposed, he spurred his horse toward a big patch of undergrowth that bordered a ravine. Just as he thought he had reached safety, his horse was hit by a ball that killed it instantly. When the animal's full weight pinned him to the ground, Hayes felt his right ankle give way. No bones were broken, but he suffered a sprain so severe that he knew he couldn't walk until he'd had time to recuperate. After having been shunted from one facility to another, he had landed on Gibson's Island, where his determined wife finally caught up with him.

Lucy fervently hoped that the injury would lead to her husband's discharge, but it did not. He remained in uniform until June 1865, after which he resumed his law practice and entered politics, eventually becoming America's nineteenth president. Later in life, he was much sought after as a platform speaker in his own and other states. Hence, he told many audiences that he might not be standing before them had not "a remarkably brave and determined wife mounted a one-woman scout for her husband's corpse - only to find him alive and kicking."

As an afterthought, he added, "Any way you look at it, Cedar Creek was unique. It may have been the only full-scale battle of 5the Civil War that involved the active participation of two Buckeyes who were destined to achieve modicum of political success. One of them was your speaker, who was colonel of the 23rd Ohio regiment. The other was Major William McKinley of the same regiment. McKinley and I had a lot in common - but only one of us got lost in the shuffle after the battle of Cedar Creek and was found by a female scout."

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