Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

1863. happened at the end of a long march. With all these

failings he had, to a remarkable degree, the God-given instinct which is said to be one of the qualities of the war-horse, — he could snuff the battle from afar, and took advantage of this gift by absenting himself at a time when it was difficult, afterward, to say absolutely whether it was cowardice or his wandering spirit that prompted him to “light out," as could have been determined if he had waited until the last moment. Just before we went into the battle of Manassas, having been too closely watched to enable him to disappear, he stopped to tie his shoe, and never returned to the regiment again. When we were small boys and saw the troops in fine uniforms marching through the streets, it seemed a glorious thing to be a soldier. In our youthful imagination every man who carried a gun was a hero, but after having one's heels trod on and the calves of one's legs kicked by the muddy feet of a man who had no rhythm in his soul, there didn't seem to be quite so much of a heroic halo surrounding the soldier as we had pictured. Therefore we were glad he never came back.

Another specimen we had was “ Smoothbore.” If there was a man in the regiment who had fewer instincts of cleanliness than this man he will lose the opportunity of being recorded in these pages. Smoothbore acquired his sobriquet from that antiquated and useless arm called the smooth-bore musket. The likeness of the two, so far as usefulness went, was such that the name stuck to our hero. He was bitterly opposed to the use of water in any way but internally. The men of his company, with the authority of the captain, once undertook to wash him, and it required a considerable force to carry out this laudable purpose. When his clothes were removed he was found to be as dirty and lousy as a saint under penance. Having succeeded in getting him into the brook, they procured some flat stones and scrubbed him until he looked like a boiled lobster. In consequence of his struggling, - so the boys explained to the captain in answer to Smoothbore's complaint of hard usage, some of his hide, that was too thin to stand the chafing, came off with the dirt. It was a useless piece of work they did, for the experience intensified his prejudice against the use of water, which

1863. he never after used externally. Just before the battle of

Manassas he deserted, carrying with him an inexhaustible supply of the pediculus vestimenti. He was so melancholy and selfish that we were glad he also had departed.

We had great pleasure in recalling these old heroes, who had escaped death so many times by keeping out of danger.

The “shirk” whose history we are about to relate did not desert. He neither “ struck for the flag nor “struck for home.” He stayed with us for three years, because it required more energy than he possessed to desert, and because he led a peaceful and contented life in spite of his being in the army. He was one of those taken into the regiment to fill up the quota of a company as we were about leaving home. Though an enlisted man ḥe never did any duty as such, preferring the primrose paths of a pampered menial where there was plenty to eat and little to do. He must have had a good deal of shrewdness to have succeeded for three years in escaping the duties for which he enlisted. He could whine to perfection, and very early in his service he acquired a reputation for being absolutely worthless for any duty requiring courage or exertion — the position of hostler filling his ambition. At one time, being out of a job as hostler, he sought admission to the hospital; but the doctors would not have him occupying a bed, nor would they employ him in any capacity, sending him back to his company. He was useless in his company, as he was elsewhere, so he was turned out and told to “ Go to the devil; go anywhere ; but you can't stay with us." He became attached to the wagon-train, where he spent the rest of his service, doing as little as possible.

Soon after the regiment was discharged, concluding that he was unsitted for the active duties of a man who had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, he entered that haven of rest called the almshouse. This step was not taken, however, until he had thoroughly tested the capacity of his friends in supporting him.

He had superior qualifications for a pauper's life, - contentment, perfect health, a good appetite, and excellent digestive organs. Unfortunately for him his appetite was a little too good, as it excited the animosity of the cook, and through her the selectmen of the town.

1863.

It often happens in country towns, when the question

of reducing the taxes is agitated, that the selectmen call round to the almshouse to see if the butcher's bills cannot be trimmed down a little, for, as Ben. Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Now, when they learned what an appetite our old hero had, and listened to the grumbling of the cook, they determined to bounce him out of his comfortable nest; but to turn an old soldier out into the cold world meant something in a community where every soldier was a hero. The selectmen knew the women would have made it hot for them if they tried it. So they reflected; and in a quiet way they began to question him about his past life, and in what towns hie had paid taxes, until they discovered a flaw in his settlement in the fact that his enlistment was credited to another town. They could hardly repress their fiendish glee at this discovery, and promptly notified the other town of the fact, with the request that they must provide for him. Then followed a long dispute, which ended, at last, by his removal. The authorities of the town to which he was removed were dismayed at the prospect of supporting him in idleness for long years to come, and would have rebelled but for the sentiment which the women of this town kept alive for the old soldier, as they do in other towns in the State, without regard to his worth as such.

After the matter was finally settled the question arose as to whether or not some income might be obtained toward his support; whereupon the authorities paid his expenses to Boston to hunt up some of his old comrades to see if they couldn't aid him in procuring a pension, and this is how our interest in him was renewed. We were much interested when he informed us of the purpose of his visit; but a disability must be found before papers could be made out. This was a difficult thing to do, as his three years of service had been passed in continuous tranquillity, remote from danger. He was asked to mention some accident or sickness that by a possible stretch of the imagination might be construed as having affected him. When asked if he ever had any pains he said, “ A year or two ago I had a pain in my back.” — “What do you think was the cause of that?” we inquired. This was a poser. Though he couldn't look 1863. into the future, he still held his grip on the past; so he

slowly carried his mind back twenty-four years to a day when riding on the ammunition wagon, he recalled that it suddenly stopped, throwing him forward with his hands resting on the haunches of the mule in front of him, from which position he allowed that he pushed himself back into his seat without difficulty. He felt nothing at the time, nor, indeed, until twenty-two years had passed. What an ideal life this man must have led, that it was necessary to go back twenty-two years to find cause for a passing pain in the back ! We looked at this hero, as his mind went back to the stirring scenes of the war, and noticed how gently time had dealt with him. His fat round body and rosy cheeks showed the value of regular habits, with plenty of food and sleep, and nothing to do. It was hard lines for us to do it, but we broke it to him as gently as possible by telling him that, instead of the government owing him anything, he owed the government a pension. He then left us and returned to the almshouse. The case didn't end here, for a committee of the selectinen came to Boston at the town's expense, to interview members of his regiment and to urge his claim, saying it was the duty of his old comrades to assist in obtaining a pension, which would help the town in its support of him. These worthy men, after listening to our refusal, and our statement that he was a disgrace to the regiment, had the effrontery to say it was our duty to support him, and lectured us on our lack of feeling for an old comrade-in-arms, adding that they should always remember what a contemptible set of men composed the Thirteenth Regiment.

As long as there are women in that town, we needn't worry about his support, for they will look after this old hero, and shower upon him all the blessings their tender sympathies can suggest.

After we have all joined “the innumerable caravan” that Mr. Bryant wrote about, he will still be living — probably the last surviving member of his regiment. By that time the women of his town will cry, For shame! to keep an old scarred veteran in the almshouse!” They will possibly hold an annual “fair" to provide money for his maintenance in some respectable family where he can have comfort and liberty. On festive occasions he will be trotted out as the brave 1863. soldier who made great sacrifices that the country might

be saved. On Memorial day he will be carted round in a carriage, and the orator will point to him with feelings of pride as “a glorious old relic, whose deeds of valor in the War of the Rebellion shed a lustre on the town," and the crowd will respond with long-continued applause. When he is ninety years of age, perhaps some giddy young woman, burning with desire to be a soldier's bride, will marry him, and in the year two thousand and something she may be drawing a widow's pension for services her husband was supposed to have rendered in the nineteenth century. Stranger things than these have happened.

When old soldiers see the tender solicitude that women sometimes display for the shirks and bummers, those lilies of the army who toiled not, neither did they fight, it provokes some rather uncharitable remarks, not at the motive which prompts the kindness, but the useless waste of sympathy showered on such specimens. If this statement meets the eyes of one of these tender-hearted women, she will be shocked, of course. When we see these fellows sailing along under false colors, the recipients of charity intended for worthy but unfortunate soldiers, we cannot help thinking of those old days when every man was expected to do his duty, particularly when that duty was fighting, as Farragut said, and recalling how ingenious were some of the devices practised by these fellows to rid themselves of disagreeable or dangerous service. The surgeons of the army could tell some funny stories of their experience, and the officers and men of every company could relate some also. It is not a pleasant thing to criticise exhibitions of well-meant, though indiscriminate generosity; but it is a fact that every man had a record of some kind, with which the members of his regiment are familiar, and it ought not to be a very difficult thing to obtain the facts. These men should be weeded out from association with deserving ones.

In a regiment of men you will meet all shades of character. The generous and the frugal, the obliging and the surly, the conscientious and the unscrupulous, the brutal and the gentle, the cheerful and the dejected, are all bunched together in closest intimacy. Some may be found full of merriment, overcoming trials

« VorigeDoorgaan »