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Chapter 11


The Butler Guards were the finest military company in the world. I do not believe there was a fellow in the Boy's Town who ever even tried to imagine a more splendid body of troops: when they talked of them, as they did a great deal, it was simply to revel in the recognition of their perfection. I forget just what their uniform was, but there were white pantaloons in it, and a tuft of white-and-red cockerel plumes that almost covered the front of the hat, and swayed when the soldier walked, and blew in the wind. I think the coat was gray, and the skirts were buttoned back with buff, but I will not be sure of this; and somehow I cannot say how the officers differed from the privates in dress; it was impossible for them to be more magnificent. They walked backwards in front of the platoons, with their swords drawn, and held in their white-gloved hands at hilt and point, and kept holloing, "Shoulder-r-r—arms! Carry—arms! Present—arms!" and then faced round, and walked a few steps forward, till they could think of something else to make the soldiers do.

The Butler Guards

Every boy intended to belong to the Butler Guards when he grew up; and he would have given anything to be the drummer or the marker. These were both boys, and they were just as much dressed up as the Guards themselves, only they had caps instead of hats with plumes. It was strange that the other fellows somehow did not know who these boys were; but they never knew, or at least my boy never knew. They thought more of the marker than of the drummer; for the marker carried a little flag, and when the officers holloed out, "By the left flank—left! Wheel!" he set his flag against his shoulder, and stood marking time with his feet till the soldiers all got by him, and then he ran up to the front rank, with the flag fluttering behind him. The fellows used to wonder how he got to be marker, and to plan how they could get to be markers in other companies, if not in the Butler Guards. There were other companies that used to come to town on the Fourth of July and Muster Day, from smaller places round about; and some of them had richer uniforms: one company had blue coats with gold epaulets, and gold braid going down in loops on the sides of their legs; all the soldiers, of course, had braid straight down the outer seams of their pantaloons. One Muster Day, a captain of one of the country companies came home with my boy's father to dinner; he was in full uniform, and he put his plumed helmet down on the entry table just like any other hat.

There was a company of Germans, or Dutchmen, as the boys always called them; and the boys believed that they each had hay in his right shoe, and straw in his left, because a Dutchman was too dumb, as the boys said for stupid, to know his feet apart any other way; and that the Dutch officers had to call out to the men when they were marching, "Up mit de hay-foot, down mit de straw-foot—links, links, links!" (Left, left, left!) But the boys honored even these imperfect intelligences so much in their quality of soldiers that they would any of them have been proud to be marker in the Dutch company; and they followed the Dutchmen round in their march as fondly as any other body of troops. Of course, school let out when there was a regular muster, and the boys gave the whole day to it; but I do not know just when the Muster Day came. They fired the cannon a good deal on the river-bank, and they must have camped somewhere near the town, though no recollection of tents remained in my boy's mind. He believed with the rest of the boys that the right way to fire the cannon was to get it so hot you need not touch it off, but just keep your thumb on the touch-hole, and take it away when you wanted the cannon to go off. Once he saw the soldiers ram the piece full of dog-fennel on top of the usual charge, and then he expected the cannon to burst. But it only roared away as usual.

The boys had their own ideas of what that cannon could do if aptly fired into a force of British, or Bridish, as they called them. They wished there could be a war with England, just to see; and their national feeling was kept hot by the presence of veterans of the War of 1812 at all the celebrations. One of the boys had a grandfather who had been in the Revolutionary War, and when he died the Butler Guards fired a salute over his grave. It was secret sorrow and sometimes open shame to my boy that his grandfather should be an Englishman, and that even his father should have been a year old when he came to this country; but on his mother's side he could boast a grandfather and a great-grandfather who had taken part, however briefly or obscurely, in both the wars against Great Britain. He hated just as much as any of the boys, or perhaps more, to be the Bridish when they were playing war, and he longed as truly as any of them to march against the hereditary, or half-hereditary, enemy.

Playing war was one of the regular plays, and the sides were always Americans and Bridish, and the Bridish always got whipped. But this was a different thing, and a far less serious thing, than having a company. The boys began to have companies after every muster, of course; but sometimes they began to have them for no external reason. Very likely they would start having a company from just finding a rooster's tail-feather, and begin making plumes at once. It was easy to make a plume: you picked up a lot of feathers that the hens and geese had dropped; and you whittled a pine stick, and bound the feathers in spirals around it with white thread. That was a first-rate plume, but the uniform offered the same difficulties as the circus dress, and you could not do anything towards it by rolling up your pantaloons. It was pretty easy to make swords out of laths, but guns again were hard to realize. Some fellows had little toy guns left over from Christmas, but they were considered rather babyish, and any kind of stick was better; the right kind of a gun for a boy's company was a wooden gun, such as some of the big boys had, with the barrel painted different from the stock. The little fellows never had any such guns, and if the question of uniform could have been got over, this question of arms would still have remained. In these troubles the fellows' mothers had to suffer almost as much as the fellows themselves, the fellows teased them so much for bits of finery that they thought they could turn to account in eking out a uniform. Once it came to quite a lot of fellows getting their mothers to ask their fathers if they would buy them some little soldier-hats that one of the hatters had laid in, perhaps after a muster, when he knew the boys would begin recruiting. My boy was by when his mother asked his father, and stood with his heart in his mouth, while the question was argued; it was decided against him, both because his father hated the tomfoolery of the thing, and because he would not have the child honor any semblance of soldiering, even such a feeble image of it as a boys' company could present. But, after all, a paper chapeau, with a panache of slitted paper, was no bad soldier-hat; it went far to constitute a whole uniform; and it was this that the boys devolved upon at last. It was the only company they ever really got together, for everybody wanted to be captain and lieutenant, just as they wanted to be clown and ring-master in a circus. I cannot understand how my boy came to hold either office; perhaps the fellows found that the only way to keep the company together was to take turn-about; but, at any rate, he was marshalling his forces near his grandfather's gate one evening when his grandfather came home to tea. The old Methodist class-leader, who had been born and brought up a Quaker, stared at the poor little apparition in horror. Then he caught the paper chapeau from the boy's head, and, saying "Dear me! Dear me!" trampled it under foot. It was an awful moment, and in his hot and bitter heart the boy, who was put to shame before all his fellows, did not know whether to order them to attack his grandfather in a body, or to engage him in single combat with his own lath-sword. In the end he did neither; his grandfather walked on into tea, and the boy was left with a wound that was sore till he grew old enough to know how true and brave a man his grandfather was in a cause where so many warlike hearts wanted courage.

It was already the time of the Mexican war, when that part of the West at least was crazed with a dream of the conquest which was to carry slavery wherever the flag of freedom went. The volunteers were mustered in at the Boy's Town; and the boys, who understood that they were real soldiers, and were going to a war where they might get killed, suffered a disappointment from the plain blue of their uniform and the simplicity of their caps, which had not the sign of a feather in them. It was a consolation to know that they were going to fight the Mexicans; not so much consolation as if it had been the Bridish, though still something. The boys were proud of them, and they did not realize that most of these poor fellows were just country-jakes. Somehow they effaced even the Butler Guards in their fancy, though the Guards paraded with them, in all their splendor, as escort.

But this civic satisfaction was alloyed for my boy by the consciousness that both his father and his grandfather abhorred the war that the volunteers were going to. His grandfather, as an Abolitionist, and his father, as a Henry Clay Whig, had both been opposed to the annexation of Texas (which the boy heard talked of without knowing in the least what annexation meant), and they were both of the mind that the war growing out of it was wanton and wicked. His father wrote against it in every number of his paper, and made himself hated among its friends, who were the large majority in the Boy's Town. My boy could not help feeling that his father was little better than a Mexican, and whilst his filial love was hurt by things that he heard to his disadvantage, he was not sure that he was not rightly hated. It gave him a trouble of mind that was not wholly appeased by some pieces of poetry that he used to hear his father reading and quoting at that time, with huge enjoyment. The pieces were called "The Biglow Papers," and his father read them out of a Boston newspaper, and thought them the wisest and wittiest things that ever were. The boy always remembered how he recited the lines—

"Ez fur war, I call it murder—
There ye hev it plain and flat;
'N I don't want to go no furder
Then my Testament fur that.
God hez said so plump and fairly:

It's as long as it is broad;
And ye'll hev to git up airly,
Ef ye want to take in God."

He thought this fine, too, but still, it seemed to him, in the narrow little world where a child dwells, that his father and his grandfather were about the only people there were who did not wish the Mexicans whipped, and he felt secretly guilty for them before the other boys.

It was all the harder to bear because, up to this time, there had been no shadow of difference about politics between him and the boys he went with. They were Whig boys, and nearly all the fellows in the Boy's Town seemed to be Whigs. There must have been some Locofoco boys, of course, for my boy and his friends used to advance, on their side, the position that


Eat dead rats!"

The counter-argument that,

Eat dead pigs!"

had no force in a pork-raising country like that; but it was urged, and there must have been Democratic boys to urge it. Still, they must have been few in number, or else my boy did not know them. At any rate, they had no club, and the Whig boys always had a club. They had a Henry Clay Club in 1844, and they had Buckeye Clubs whenever there was an election for governor, and they had clubs at every exciting town or county or district election. The business of a Whig club among the boys was to raise ash flag-poles, in honor of Henry Clay's home at Ashland, and to learn the Whig songs and go about singing them. You had to have a wagon, too, and some of the club pulled while the others rode; it could be such a wagon as you went walnutting with; and you had to wear strands of buckeyes round your neck. Then you were a real Whig boy, and you had a right to throw fire-balls and roll tar-barrels for the bonfires on election nights.

I do not know why there should have been so many empty tar-barrels in the Boy's Town, or what they used so much tar for; but there were barrels enough to celebrate all the Whig victories that the boys ever heard of, and more, too; the boys did not always wait for the victories, but celebrated every election with bonfires, in the faith that it would turn out right.

Maybe the boys nowadays do not throw fire-balls, or know about them. They were made of cotton rags wound tight and sewed, and then soaked in turpentine. When a ball was lighted a boy caught it quickly up, and threw it, and it made a splendid streaming blaze through the air, and a thrilling whir as it flew. A boy had to be very nimble not to get burned, and a great many boys dropped the ball for every boy that threw it. I am not ready to say why these fire-balls did not set the Boy's Town on fire, and burn it down, but I know they never did. There was no law against them, and the boys were never disturbed in throwing them, any more than they were in building bonfires; and this shows, as much as anything, what a glorious town that was for boys. The way they used to build their bonfires was to set one tar-barrel on top of another, as high as the biggest boy could reach, and then drop a match into them; in a moment a dusky, smoky flame would burst from the top, and fly there like a crimson flag, while all the boys leaped and danced round it, and hurrahed for the Whig candidates. Sometimes they would tumble the blazing barrels over, and roll them up and down the street.

The reason why they wore buckeyes was that the buckeye was the emblem of Ohio, and Ohio, they knew, was a Whig state. I doubt if they knew that the local elections always went heavily against the Whigs; but perhaps they would not have cared. What they felt was a high public spirit, which had to express itself in some way. One night, out of pure zeal for the common good, they wished to mob the negro quarter of the town, because the "Dumb Negro" (a deaf-mute of color who was a very prominent personage in their eyes) was said to have hit a white boy. I believe the mob never came to anything. I only know that my boy ran a long way with the other fellows, and, when he gave out, had to come home alone through the dark, and was so afraid of ghosts that he would have been glad of the company of the lowest-down black boy in town.

There were always fights on election-day between well-known Whig and Democratic champions, which the boys somehow felt were as entirely for their entertainment as the circuses. My boy never had the heart to look on, but he shared the excitement of the affair, and rejoiced in the triumph of Whig principles in these contests as cordially as the hardiest witness. The fighting must have come from the drinking, which began as soon as the polls were opened, and went on all day and night with a devotion to principle which is now rarely seen. In fact, the politics of the Boy's Town seem to have been transacted with an eye single to the diversion of the boys; or if not that quite, they were marked by traits of a primitive civilization among the men. The traditions of a rude hospitality in the pioneer times still lingered, and once there was a Whig barbecue, which had all the profusion of a civic feast in mediæval Italy. Every Whig family contributed loaves of bread and boiled hams; the Whig farmers brought in barrels of cider and wagon-loads of apples; there were heaps of pies and cakes; sheep were roasted whole, and young roast pigs, with oranges in their mouths, stood in the act of chasing one another over the long tables which were spread in one of the largest pork-houses, where every comer was freely welcome. I suppose boys, though, were not allowed at the dinner; all that my boy saw of the barbecue were the heaps of loaves and hams left over, that piled the floor in one of the rooms to the ceiling.

He remained an ardent Whig till his eleventh year, when his father left the party because the Whigs had nominated, as their candidate for president, General Taylor, who had won his distinction in the Mexican war, and was believed to be a friend of slavery, though afterwards he turned out otherwise. My boy then joined a Free-Soil club, and sang songs in support of Van Buren and Adams. His faith in the purity of the Whigs had been much shaken by their behavior in trying to make capital out of a war they condemned; and he had been bitterly disappointed by their preferring Taylor to Tom Corwin, the favorite of the anti-slavery Whigs. The "Biglow Papers" and their humor might not have moved him from his life-long allegiance, but the eloquence of Corwin's famous speech against the Mexican war had grounded him in principles which he could not afterwards forsake. He had spoken passages of that speech at school; he had warned our invading hosts of the vengeance that has waited upon the lust of conquest in all times, and has driven the conquerors back with trailing battle-flags. "So shall it be with yours!" he had declaimed. "You may carry them to the loftiest peaks of the Cordilleras; they may float in insolent triumph in the halls of Montezuma; but the weakest hand in Mexico, uplifted in prayer, can call down a power against you before which the iron hearts of your warriors shall be turned into ashes!" It must have been a terrible wrench for him to part from the Whig boys in politics, and the wrench must have been a sudden one at last; he was ashamed of his father for opposing the war, and then, all at once, he was proud of him for it, and was roaring out songs against Taylor as the hero of that war, and praising Little Van, whom he had hitherto despised as the "Fox of Kinderhook."

The fox was the emblem (totem) of the Democrats in the campaigns of 1840 and 1844; and in their processions they always had a fox chained to the hickory flag-poles which they carried round on their wagons, together with a cock, reconciled probably in a common terror. The Whigs always had the best processions; and one of the most signal days of my boy's life was the day he spent in following round a Henry Clay procession, where the different trades and industries were represented in the wagons. There were coopers, hatters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, bakers, tinners, and others, all hard at work; and from time to time they threw out to the crowd something they had made. My boy caught a tin cup, and if it had been of solid silver he could not have felt it a greater prize. He ran home to show it and leave it in safe-keeping, and then hurried back, so as to walk with the other boys abreast of a great platform on wheels, where an old woman sat spinning inside of a log-cabin, and a pioneer in a hunting-shirt stood at the door, with his long rifle in his hand. In the window sat a raccoon, which was the Whig emblem, and which, on all their banners, was painted with the legend, "That same old Coon!" to show that they had not changed at all since the great days when they elected the pioneer, General Harrison, president of the United States. Another proof of the fact was the barrel of hard-cider which lay under the cabin window.

William Dean Howells

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