Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 3

LIVING OFF THE ENEMY--REVELING IN THE FATNESS OF THE COUNTRY--SOLDIERLY
PURVEYING AND CAMP COOKERY--SUSCEPTIBLE TEAMSTERS AND THEIR TENDENCY TO
FLIGHTINESS--MAKING SOLDIER'S BED.

For weeks we rode up and down--hither and thither--along the length of
the narrow, granite-walled Valley; between mountains so lofty that the
sun labored slowly over them in the morning, occupying half the forenoon
in getting to where his rays would reach the stream that ran through the
Valley's center. Perpetual shadow reigned on the northern and western
faces of these towering Nights--not enough warmth and sunshine reaching
them in the cold months to check the growth of the ever-lengthening
icicles hanging from the jutting cliffs, or melt the arabesque
frost-forms with which the many dashing cascades decorated the adjacent
rocks and shrubbery. Occasionally we would see where some little stream
ran down over the face of the bare, black rocks for many hundred feet,
and then its course would be a long band of sheeny white, like a great
rich, spotless scarf of satin, festooning the war-grimed walls of some
old castle.

Our duty now was to break up any nuclei of concentration that the Rebels
might attempt to form, and to guard our foragers--that is, the teamsters
and employee of the Quartermaster's Department--who were loading grain
into wagons and hauling it away.

This last was an arduous task. There is no man in the world that needs
as much protection as an Army teamster. He is worse in this respect than
a New England manufacturer, or an old maid on her travels. He is given
to sudden fears and causeless panics. Very innocent cedars have a
fashion of assuming in his eyes the appearance of desperate Rebels armed
with murderous guns, and there is no telling what moment a rock may take
such a form as to freeze his young blood, and make each particular hair
stand on end like quills upon the fretful porcupine. One has to be
particular about snapping caps in his neighborhood, and give to him
careful warning before discharging a carbine to clean it. His first
impulse, when anything occurs to jar upon his delicate nerves, is to cut
his wheel-mule loose and retire with the precipitation of a man having an
appointment to keep and being behind time. There is no man who can get
as much speed out of a mule as a teamster falling back from the
neighborhood of heavy firing.

This nervous tremor was not peculiar to the engineers of our
transportation department. It was noticeable in the gentry who carted
the scanty provisions of the Rebels. One of Wheeler's cavalrymen told me
that the brigade to which he belonged was one evening ordered to move at
daybreak. The night was rainy, and it was thought best to discharge the
guns and reload before starting. Unfortunately, it was neglected to
inform the teamsters of this, and at the first discharge they varnished
from the scene with such energy that it was over a week before the
brigade succeeded in getting them back again.

Why association with the mule should thus demoralize a man, has always
been a puzzle to me, for while the mule, as Col. Ingersoll has remarked,
is an animal without pride of ancestry or hope of posterity, he is still
not a coward by any means. It is beyond dispute that a full-grown and
active lioness once attacked a mule in the grounds of the Cincinnati
Zoological Garden, and was ignominiously beaten, receiving injuries from
which she died shortly afterward.

The apparition of a badly-scared teamster urging one of his wheel mules
at break-neck speed over the rough ground, yelling for protection against
"them Johnnies," who had appeared on some hilltop in sight of where he
was gathering corn, was an almost hourly occurrence. Of course the squad
dispatched to his assistance found nobody.

Still, there were plenty of Rebels in the country, and they hung around
our front, exchanging shots with us at long taw, and occasionally
treating us to a volley at close range, from some favorable point.
But we had the decided advantage of them at this game. Our Sharpe's
carbines were much superior in every way to their Enfields. They would
shoot much farther, and a great deal more rapidly, so that the Virginians
were not long in discovering that they were losing more than they gained
in this useless warfare.

Once they played a sharp practical joke upon us. Copper River is a deep,
exceedingly rapid mountain stream, with a very slippery rocky bottom.
The Rebels blockaded a ford in such a way that it was almost impossible
for a horse to keep his feet. Then they tolled us off in pursuit of a
small party to this ford. When we came to it there was a light line of
skirmishers on the opposite bank, who popped away at us industriously.
Our boys formed in line, gave the customary, cheer, and dashed in to
carry the ford at a charge. As they did so at least one-half of the
horses went down as if they were shot, and rolled over their riders in
the swift running, ice-cold waters. The Rebels yelled a triumphant
laugh, as they galloped away, and the laugh was re-echoed by our fellows,
who were as quick to see the joke as the other side. We tried to get
even with them by a sharp chase, but we gave it up after a few miles,
without having taken any prisoners.

But, after all, there was much to make our sojourn in the Valley
endurable. Though we did not wear fine linen, we fared sumptuously--for
soldiers--every day. The cavalryman is always charged by the infantry
and artillery with having a finer and surer scent for the good things in
the country than any other man in the service. He is believed to have an
instinct that will unfailingly lead him, in the dankest night, to the
roosting place of the most desirable poultry, and after he has camped in
a neighborhood for awhile it would require a close chemical analysis to
find a trace of ham.

We did our best to sustain the reputation of our arm of the service.
We found the most delicious hams packed away in the ash-houses.
They were small, and had that; exquisite nutty flavor, peculiar to
mast-fed bacon. Then there was an abundance of the delightful little
apple known as "romanites." There were turnips, pumpkins, cabbages,
potatoes, and the usual products of the field in plenty, even profusion.
The corn in the fields furnished an ample supply of breadstuff. We
carried it to and ground it in the quaintest, rudest little mills that
can be imagined outside of the primitive affairs by which the women of
Arabia coarsely powder the grain for the family meal. Sometimes the
mill would consist only of four stout posts thrust into the ground at
the edge of some stream. A line of boulders reaching diagonally across
the stream answered for a dam, by diverting a portion of the volume of
water to a channel at the side, where it moved a clumsily constructed
wheel, that turned two small stones, not larger than good-sized
grindstones. Over this would be a shed made by resting poles in forked
posts stuck into the ground, and covering these with clapboards held in
place by large flat stones. They resembled the mills of the gods--in
grinding slowly. It used to seem that a healthy man could eat the meal
faster than they ground it.

But what savory meals we used to concoct around the campfires, out of the
rich materials collected during the day's ride! Such stews, such soups,
such broils, such wonderful commixtures of things diverse in nature and
antagonistic in properties such daring culinary experiments in combining
materials never before attempted to be combined. The French say of
untasteful arrangement of hues in dress "that the colors swear at each
other." I have often thought the same thing of the heterogeneities that
go to make up a soldier's pot-a feu.

But for all that they never failed to taste deliciously after a long
day's ride. They were washed down by a tincupful of coffee strong enough
to tan leather, then came a brier-wood pipeful of fragrant kinnikinnic,
and a seat by the ruddy, sparkling fire of aromatic cedar logs, that
diffused at once warmth, and spicy, pleasing incense. A chat over the
events of the day, and the prospect of the morrow, the wonderful merits
of each man's horse, and the disgusting irregularities of the mails from
home, lasted until the silver-voiced bugle rang out the sweet, mournful
tattoo of the Regulations, to the flowing cadences of which the boys had
arranged the absurdly incongruous words:

"S-a-y--D-e-u-t-c-h-e-r-will-you fight-mit Sigel!
Zwei-glass of lager-bier, ja! ja! JA!"

Words were fitted to all the calls, which generally bore some
relativeness to the sigmal, but these were as, destitute of congruity as
of sense.

Tattoo always produces an impression of extreme loneliness. As its
weird, half-availing notes ring out and are answered back from the
distant rocks shrouded in night, and perhaps concealing the lurking foe,
the soldier remembers that he is far away from home and friends--deep in
the enemy's country, encompassed on every hand by those in deadly
hostility to him, who are perhaps even then maturing the preparations for
his destruction.

As the tattoo sounds, the boys arise from around the fire, visit the
horse line, see that their horses are securely tied, rub off from the
fetlocks and legs such specks of mud as may have escaped the cleaning in
the early evening, and if possible, smuggle their faithful four-footed
friends a few ears of corn, or another bunch of hay.

If not too tired, and everything else is favorable, the cavalryman has
prepared himself a comfortable couch for the night. He always sleeps
with a chum. The two have gathered enough small tufts of pine or cedar
to make a comfortable, springy, mattress-like foundation. On this is
laid the poncho or rubber blanket. Next comes one of their overcoats,
and upon this they lie, covering themselves with the two blankets and the
other overcoat, their feet towards the fire, their boots at the foot, and
their belts, with revolver, saber and carbine, at the sides of the bed.
It is surprising what an amount of comfort a man can get out of such a
couch, and how, at an alarm, he springs from it, almost instantly dressed
and armed.

Half an hour after tattoo the bugle rings out another sadly sweet strain,
that hath a dying sound.

John McElroy