A Rebel's Recollections
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I am wholly unable to give the reader any connected account of the adventures and life struggles through which these men had passed, for the reason that I was never able to win their full and unreserved confidence; but I caught glimpses of their past, here and there, from which I think it safe to assume that their personal histories had been of a dramatic, not to say of a sensational sort. My battery was sent one day to Bee's Creek, on the South Carolina coast, to meet an anticipated advance of the enemy. No enemy came, however, and we lay there on the sand, under a scorching sub-tropical sun, in a swarm of sand-flies so dense that many of our horses died of their stings, while neither sleep nor rest was possible to the men. A gun-boat lay just out of reach beyond a point in the inlet, annoying us by throwing at us an occasional shell of about the size and shape of a street lamp. Having a book with me I sought a place under a caisson for the sake of the shade, and spent an hour or two in reading. While I was there, Jack Delaney and Tommy Martin, knowing nothing of my presence, took seats on the ammunition chests, and fell to talking.
"An' faith, Tommy," said Jack, "an' it isn't this sort of foightin' I'm afther loikin' at all, bad luck to it."
"An' will ye tell me, Jack," said his companion, "what sort of foightin' it is, ye loikes?"
"Ah, Tommy, it's mesilf that loikes the raal foightin'. Give me an open sea, an' close quarthers, an' a black flag, Tommy, an' that's the sort of foightin' I'm afther 'oikin', sure."
"A-an' I believe it's a poirate ye are, Jack."
"You're roight, Tommy; it's a poirate I am, ivery inch o' me!"
Here was a glimpse of the man's character which proved also a hint of his life story, as I afterwards learned. He had been a pirate, and an English court, discovering the fact, had "ordered his funeral," as he phrased it, but by some means or other he had secured a pardon on condition of his enlistment in the British navy, from which he had deserted at the first opportunity. Jack was very much devoted to his friends, and especially to those above him in social or military rank; and a more loyal fellow I never knew. The captain of the battery and I were tent mates and mess mates, and although we kept a competent negro servant, Jack insisted upon blacking our boots, stretching our tent, brushing our clothes, looking after our fire, and doing a hundred other services of the sort, for which he could never be persuaded to accept compensation of any kind.
When we arrived in Charleston for the first time, on our way to the post assigned us at Coosawhatchie, we were obliged to remain a whole day in the city, awaiting transportation. Knowing the temper of our "criminal class," we were obliged to confine all the men strictly within camp boundaries, lest our Baltimore Irishmen and their fellows should get drunk and give us trouble. We peremptorily refused to let any of the men pass the line of sentinels, but Jack Delaney, being in sad need of a pair of boots, was permitted to go into the city in company with the captain.That officer guarded him carefully, and as they were returning to camp the captain, thinking that there could be no danger in allowing the man one dram, invited him to drink at a hotel counter.
"Give us your very best whisky," he said to the man behind the bar; whereupon that functionary placed a decanter and two glasses before them.
Jack's one eye flashed fire instantly, and jumping upon the counter he screamed, "What d'ye mean, ye bloody spalpeen, by insultin' me captain in that way? I'll teach ye your manners, ye haythen." The captain could not guess the meaning of the Irishman's wrath, but he interfered for the protection of the frightened servitor, and asked Jack what he meant.
"What do I mean? An' sure an' I mean to break his bit of a head, savin' your presence, captain. I'll teach him not to insult me captain before me very eyes, by givin' him the same bottle he gives Jack Delaney to drink out of. An' sure an' me moother learnt me betther manners nor to presume to drink from the same bottle with me betthers."
The captain saved the bar-tender from the effects of Jack's wrath, but failed utterly to convince that well-bred Irish gentleman that no offense against good manners had been committed. He refused to drink from the "captain's bottle," and a separate decanter was provided for him.
On another occasion Jack went with one of the officers to a tailor's shop, and, without apparent cause, knocked the knight of the shears down and was proceeding to beat him, when the officer commanded him to desist.
"An' sure if your honor says he's had enough, I'll quit, but I'd loike to murdher him."
Upon being questioned as to the cause of his singular behavior, he explained that the tailor had shown unpardonably bad manners by keeping his hat on his head while taking the lieutenant's measure.
These men were afraid of nothing and respected nothing but rank; but their regard for that was sufficiently exaggerated perhaps to atone for their short-comings in other respects. A single chevron on a man's sleeve made them at once his obedient servants, and never once, even in their cups, did they resist constituted authority, directly asserted. For general rules they had no respect whatever. Anything which assumed the form of law they violated as a matter of course, if not, as I suspect, as a matter of conscience; but the direct command of even a corporal was held binding always. Jack Delaney, who never disobeyed any order delivered to him in person, used to swim the Ashley River every night, at imminent risk of being eaten by sharks, chiefly because it was a positive violation of orders to cross at all from our camp on Wappoo Creek to Charleston.
Tommy Martin and Tim Considine were bosom friends, and inseparable companions. They fought each other frequently, but these little episodes worked no ill to their friendship. One day they quarreled about something, and Considine, drawing a huge knife from his belt, rushed upon Martin with evident murderous intent. Martin, planting himself firmly, dealt his antagonist a blow exactly between the eyes, which laid him at full length on the ground. I ran at once to command the peace, but before I got to the scene of action I heard Considine call out, from his supine position, —
"Bully for you, Tommy! I niver knew a blow better delivered in me loife!" And that ended the dispute.
One night, after taps, a fearful hubbub arose in the Irish quarter of the camp, and running to the place, the captain, a corporal, and I managed to separate the combatants; but as Jack Delaney had a great butcher knife in his hands with which it appeared he had already severely cut another Irishman, Dan Gorman by name, we thought it best to bind him with a prolonge. He submitted readily, lying down on the ground to be tied. While we were drawing the rope around him, Gorman, a giant in size and strength, leaned over us and dashed a brick with all his force into the prostrate man's face. Had it struck his skull it must have killed him instantly, as indeed we supposed for a time that it had.
"What do you mean by that, sir?" asked the captain, seizing Gorman by the collar.
Pointing to a fearful gash in his own neck, the man replied, —
"Don't ye see I'm a dead man, captain? An' sure an' do ye think I'm goin' to hell widout me pardner?"
The tone of voice in which the question was asked clearly indicated that in his view nothing could possibly be more utterly preposterous than such a supposition.
Charley Lear belonged to this party, though he was not a Celt, but an Englishman. Charley was a tailor by trade and a desperado in practice. He had kept a bar in Vicksburg, had dug gold in California, and had "roughed it" in various other parts of the world. His was a scarred breast, showing seven knife thrusts and the marks of two bullets, one of which had passed entirely through him. And yet he was in perfect health and strength. He was a man of considerable intelligence and fair education, whose association with ruffians was altogether a matter of choice. He was in no sense a criminal, I think, and while I knew him, at least, was perfectly peaceful. But he liked rough company and sought it diligently, taking the consequences when they came. He professed great regard and even affection for me, because I had done him a rather important service once.
Finding it impossible to govern these men without subjecting the rest of the company to a much severer discipline than was otherwise necessary or desirable, we secured the transfer of our ruffians to another command in the fall of 1862, and I saw no more of any of them until after the close of the war. I went into a tailor's shop in Memphis one day, during the winter of 1865-66, to order a suit of clothing. After selecting the goods I was asked to step up-stairs to be measured. While the cutter was using his tape upon me, one of the journeymen on the great bench at the end of the room suddenly dropped his work, and, bounding forward, literally clasped me in his arms, giving me a hug which a grizzly bear might be proud of. It was Charley Lear, of course, and I had the utmost difficulty in refusing his offer to pay for the goods and make my clothes himself without charge.
Our assortment of queer people was a varied one, and among the rest there were two ex-circus actors, Jack Hawkins and Colonel Denton, to wit. Hawkins was an inoffensive and even a timid fellow, whose delight it was to sing bold robber songs in the metallic voice peculiar to vocalists of the circus. There was something inexpressibly ludicrous in the contrast between the bloody-mindedness of his songs and the gentle shyness and timidity of the man who sang them. Everybody domineered over him, and he was especially oppressed in the presence of our other ex-clown, whose assumption of superior wisdom and experience often overpowered stronger men than poor John Hawkins ever was. Denton was one of those men who are sure, in one way or another, to become either "colonel" or "judge." He was sixty-five years old when I first knew him, and had been "the colonel" longer than anybody could remember. He was of good parentage, and until he ran away with a circus at the age of eleven had lived among genteel people. His appearance and manner were imposing always, and never more so than when he was drunk. He buttoned his coat with the air of a man who is about to ride over broad ancestral acres, and ate his dinner, whatever it might consist of, with all the dignity of a host who does his guests great honor in entertaining them. He was an epicure in his tastes, of course, and delighted to describe peculiarly well-prepared dinners which he said he had eaten in company with especially distinguished gentlemen. He was an expert, too, he claimed, in the preparation of salads and the other arts of a like nature in which fine gentlemen like to excel even professional cooks. When rations happened to be more than ordinarily limited in quantity or worse than usual in quality, Denton was sure to visit various messes while they were at dinner, and regale them with a highly wrought description of an imaginary feast from which he would profess to have risen ten minutes before.
"You ought to have dined with me to-day," he would say. "I had a deviled leg of turkey, and some beautiful broiled oysters with Spanish olives. I never eat broiled oysters without olives. You try it sometime, and you'll never regret it. Then I had a stuffed wild goose's liver. Did you ever eat one? Well, you don't know what a real titbit is, then. Not stuffed in the ordinary way, but stuffed scientifically and cooked in a way you never saw it done before." And thus he would go on, naming impossible viands and describing preposterous processes of cookery, until "cooked in a way you never saw it done before" became a proverb in the camp. The old sinner would do all this on an empty stomach too, and I sometimes fancied he found in the delights of his imaginary banquets some compensation for the short rations and hard fare of his actual experience.
He was in his glory, however, only when he was away from camp and among strangers. He always managed to impress people who didn't know him with his great wealth and prominence. I overheard him once, in the office of the Charleston Hotel, inviting some gentlemen to visit and dine with him.
"Come out this evening," he said, "to my place in Charleston Neck, and take a bachelor dinner with me. I've just got some duck from Virginia, – canvas-back, you know, – and my steward will be sure to have something else good on hand. I've got some good madeira too, that I imported myself. Now you'll not disappoint me, will you? And after dinner we'll have a turn at billiards: I've just had my tables overhauled. But you'll have to excuse me long enough now for me to ride down and tell the major to take care of things in camp till morning."
And with that he gave them an address in the aristocratic quarter of Charleston, leaving them to meditate upon the good luck they had fallen upon in meeting this wealthy and hospitable "colonel."
Denton was an inveterate gambler, and was in the habit of winning a good deal of money from the men after pay-day. One day he gave some sound advice to a young man from whom he had just taken a watch in settlement of a score.
"Now let me give you some advice, Bill," he said. "I've seen a good deal of this kind of thing, and I know what I'm talking about. You play fair now, and you always lose. You'll win after a while if you keep on, but I tell you, Bill, nobody ever can win at cards without cheating. You'll cheat a little after a while, and you'll cheat a good deal before you've done with it. You'd better quit now, while you're honest, because you'll cheat if you keep on, and when a man cheats at cards he'll steal, Bill. I speak from experience." All of which impressed me as a singularly frank confession under the circumstances.
Among other odd specimens we had in our battery the most ingenious malingerer I ever heard of. He was in service four years, drew his pay regularly, was of robust frame and in perfect health always, and yet during the whole time he was never off the sick-list for a single day. His capacity to endure contempt was wholly unlimited, else he would have been shamed by the gibes of the men, the sneers of the surgeons, and the denunciations of the officers, into some show, at least, of a disposition to do duty. He spent the greater part of his time in hospital, never staying in camp a moment longer than he was obliged to do. When discharged, as a well man, from one hospital, he would start toward his command, and continue in that direction till he came to another infirmary, when he would have a relapse at once, and gain admission there. Discharged again he would repeat the process at the next hospital, and one day near the end of the war he counted up something like a hundred different post and general hospitals of which he had been an inmate, while he had been admitted to some of them more than half a dozen times each. The surgeons resorted to a variety of expedients by which to get rid of him. They burned his back with hot coppers; gave him the most nauseous mixtures; put him on the lowest possible diet; treated him to cold shower-baths four or five times daily; and did everything else they could think of to drive him from the hospitals, but all to no purpose. In camp it was much the same. On the morning after his arrival from hospital he would wake up with some totally new ache, and report himself upon the sick-list. There was no way by which to conquer his obstinacy, and, as I have said, he escaped duty to the last.
Another curious case, and one which is less easily explained, was that of a much more intelligent man, who for more than a year feigned every conceivable disease, in the hope that he might be discharged the service. One or two of us amused ourselves with his case, by mentioning in his presence the symptoms of some disease of which he had never heard, the surgeon furnishing us the necessary information, and in every case he had the disease within less than twenty-four hours. Finally, and this was the oddest part of the matter, he gave up the attempt, recovered his health suddenly, and became one of the very best soldiers in the battery, a man always ready for duty, and always faithful in its discharge. He was made a corporal and afterwards a sergeant, and there was no better in the battery.