Private Valerius Giles had picket duty on Christmas day, 1861. A member of the 4th Texas Regiment, Giles “had a splendid view of the river for two or three miles in each direction.” Across the river was a Union brigade from New York.
The day was bitterly cold, with snow “gently and silently falling, deepening the hills and valleys, melting as it struck the cold bosom of the dark river.” Everything was calm as Val Giles stood sentry, about 100 yards from a battery of Confederate guns. Then he heard a man call out: “Look out, Lieutenant, a gun boat is coming down the river!”
Val listened as the officer in charge of the artillery, Lt. Lambert, barked orders to his men, and shells were rammed home in the cannons. Looking down on the river the Texas sentinel could see a cloud of black smoke as the boat turned a bend in the river, “coming dead ahead under full steam.” But the excitement was short-lived. Another cry came out, “Oh, pshaw, Lieutenant, don’t shoot! She’s nothing but an old hospital boat, covered over with ‘yaller’ flags.” Yellow flags were used to mark hospitals and ambulance units.
Soon Giles could read the name Harriet Lane on the boat, in use by the Hospital Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac. As it would turn out, its appearance was a sort of omen.
After the alarm died down, Val described that “a melancholy stillness settled around me.” The clouds became more leaden, the white silence ominous. He felt restless and uneasy in the oppressive stillness, and “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.”
Val was safe from any threat, but something was wrong:
“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 knew — 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 four in the afternoon of December 25th. Private Giles knew that he’d heard his brother calling to him, but then decided it must have been his imagination.
Lewis Giles was assigned to the Eight Texas Cavalry, known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. On December 17th, 1861, Lewis took part in a charge at the Battle of Munfordville in Kentucky. Badly wounded, Lewis was taken to Gallatin, Tennessee, to the home of Captain John Turner, a close friend of his father. The family later received word from Captain Turner that Lewis had died, at four PM on Christmas Day, 1861, while his brother Val stood picket on the banks of the Potomac.