|Good-by to the Army of the Potomac||17|
|New Orleans After the War||41|
|A Military Execution||59|
|Marches Through Pine Forests||83|
|Out of the Wilderness||95|
General Custer was given scant time, after the last gun of the war was fired, to realize the blessings of peace. While others hastened to discard the well-worn uniforms, and don again the dress of civilians, hurrying to the cars, and groaning over the slowness of the fast-flying trains that bore them to their homes, my husband was almost breathlessly preparing for a long journey to Texas. He did not even see the last of that grand review of the 23d and 24th of May, 1865. On the first day he was permitted to doff his hat and bow low, as he proudly led that superb body of men, the Third Division of Cavalry, in front of the grand stand, where sat the “powers that be.” Along the line of the division, each soldier straightened himself in the saddle, and felt the proud blood fill his veins, as he realized that he was one of those who, in six months, had taken 111 of the enemy’s guns, sixty-five battle-flags, and upward of 10,000 prisoners of war, while they had never lost a flag, or failed to capture a gun for which they fought.
In the afternoon of that memorable day General Custer and his staff rode to the outskirts of Washington, where his beloved Third Cavalry Division had encamped after returning from taking part in the review. The trumpet was sounded, and the call brought these war-worn veterans out once more, not for a charge, not for duty, but to say that word which we, who have been compelled to live in its mournful sound so many years, dread even to write. Down the line rode their yellow-haired “boy general,” waving his hat, but setting his teeth and trying to hold with iron nerve the quivering muscles of his speaking face; keeping his eyes wide open, that the moisture dimming their vision might not gather and fall. Cheer after cheer rose on that soft spring air. Some enthusiastic voice started up afresh, before the hurrahs were done, “A tiger for old Curley!” Off came the hats again, and up went hundreds of arms, waving the good-by and wafting innumerable blessings after the man who was sending them home in a blaze of glory, with a record of which they might boast around their firesides. I began to realize, as I watched this sad parting, the truth of what the General had been telling me; he held that no friendship was like that cemented by mutual danger on the battle-field.
The soldiers, accustomed to suppression through strict military discipline, now vehemently expressed their feelings; and though it gladdened the General’s heart, it was still the hardest sort of work to endure it all without show of emotion. As he rode up to where I was waiting, he could not, dared not, trust himself to speak to me. To those intrepid men he was indebted for his success. Their unfailing trust in his judgment, their willingness to follow where he led — ah! he knew well that one looks upon such men but once in a lifetime. Some of the soldiers called out for the General’s wife. The staff urged me to ride forward to the troops, as it was but a little thing thus to respond to their good-by. I tried to do so, but after a few steps, I begged those beside whom I rode to take me back to where we had been standing. I was too overcome, from having seen the suffering on my husband’s face, to endure any more sorrow.
As the officers gathered about the General and wrung his hand in parting, to my surprise the soldiers gave me a cheer. Though very grateful for the tribute to me as their acknowledged comrade, I did not feel that I deserved it. Hardships such as they had suffered for a principle require a far higher order of character than the same hardships endured when the motive is devotion individualized.
Once more the General leaped into the saddle, and we rode rapidly out of sight. How glad I was, as I watched the set features of my husband’s face, saw his eyes fixed immovably in front of him, listened in vain for one word from his overburdened heart, that I, being a woman, need not tax every nerve to suppress emotion, but could let the tears stream down my face, on all our silent way back to the city.
Then began the gathering of our “traps,” a hasty collection of a few suitable things for a Southern climate, orders about shipping the horses, a wild tearing around of the improvident, thoughtless staff — good fighters, but poor providers for themselves. Most of them were young men, for whom my husband had applied when he was made a brigadier. His first step after his promotion was to write home for his schoolmates, or select aides from his early friends then in service. It was a comfort, when I found myself grieving over the parting with my husband’s Division, that our military family were to go with us. At dark we were on the cars, with our faces turned southward. To General Custer this move had been unexpected. General Sheridan knew that he needed little time to decide, so he sent for him as soon as we encamped at Arlington, after our march up from Richmond, and asked if he would like to take command of a division of cavalry on the Red River in Louisiana, and march throughout Texas, with the possibility of eventually entering Mexico. Our Government was just then thinking it was high time the French knew that if there was any invasion of Mexico, with an idea of a complete “gobbling up” of that country, the one to do the seizure and gather in the spoils was Brother Jonathan. Very wisely, General Custer kept this latter part of the understanding why he was sent South from the “weepy” part of his family. He preferred transportation by steamer, rather than to be floated southward by floods of feminine tears. All I knew was, that Texas, having been so outside of the limit where the armies marched and fought, was unhappily unaware that the war was over, and continued a career of bushwhacking and lawlessness that was only tolerated from necessity before the surrender, and must now cease. It was considered expedient to fit out two detachments of cavalry, and start them on a march through the northern and southern portions of Texas, as a means of informing that isolated State that depredations and raids might come to an end. In my mind, Texas then seemed the stepping-off place; but I was indifferent to the points of the compass, so long as I was not left behind.
The train in which we set out was crowded with a joyous, rollicking, irrepressible throng of discharged officers and soldiers, going home to make their swords into ploughshares. Everybody talked with everybody, and all spoke at once. The Babel was unceasing night and day; there was not a vein that was not bursting with joy. The swift blood rushed into the heart and out again, laden with one glad thought, “The war is over!” At the stations, soldiers tumbled out and rushed into some woman’s waiting arms, while bands tooted excited welcomes, no one instrument according with another, because of throats overcharged already with bursting notes of patriotism that would not be set music. The customary train of street gamins, who imitate all parades and promptly copy the pomp of the circus and other processions, stepped off in a mimic march, following the conquering heroes as they were lost to our sight down the street, going home.
Sometimes the voices of the hilarious crowd at the station were stilled, and a hush of reverent silence preceded the careful lifting from the car of a stretcher bearing a form broken and bleeding from wounds, willingly borne, that the home to which he was coming might be unharmed. Tender women received and hovered lovingly over the precious freight, strong arms carried him away; and we contrasted the devoted care, the love that would teach new ways to heal, with the condition of the poor fellows we had left in the crowded Washington hospitals, attended only by strangers. Some of the broken-to-pieces soldiers were on our train, so deftly mended that they stumped their way down the platform, and began their one-legged tramp through life, amidst the loud huzzas that a maimed hero then received. They even joked about their misfortunes. I remember one undaunted fellow, with the fresh color of buoyant youth beginning again to dye his cheek, even after the amputation of a leg, which so depletes the system. He said some grave words of wisdom to me in such a roguish way, and followed up his counsel by adding, “You ought to heed such advice from a man with one foot in the grave.”
We missed all the home-coming, all the glorification awarded to the hero. General Custer said no word of regret. He had accepted the offer for further active service, and gratefully thanked his chief for giving him the opportunity. I, however, should have liked to have him get some of the celebrations that our country was then showering on its defenders. I missed the bonfires, the processions, the public meeting of distinguished citizens, who eloquently thanked the veterans, the editorials that lauded each townsman’s deed, the poetry in the corner of the newspaper that was dedicated to a hero, the overflow of a woman’s heart singing praise to her military idol. But the cannon were fired, the drums beat, the music sounded for all but us. Offices of trust were offered at once to men coming home to private life, and towns and cities felt themselves honored because some one of their number had gone out and made himself so glorious a name that his very home became celebrated. He was made the mayor, or the Congressman, and given a home which it would have taken him many years of hard work to earn. Song, story and history have long recounted what a hero is to a woman. Imagination pictured to my eye troops of beautiful women gathering around each gallant soldier on his return. The adoring eyes spoke admiration, while the tongue subtly wove, in many a sentence, its meed of praise. The General and his staff of boys, loving and reverencing women, missed what men wisely count the sweetest of adulation. One weather-beaten slip of a girl had to do all their banqueting, cannonading, bonfiring, brass-banding, and general hallelujahs all the way to Texas, and — yes, even after we got there; for the Southern women, true to their idea of patriotism, turned their pretty faces away from our handsome fellows, and resisted, for a long time, even the mildest flirtation.
The drawing-room car was then unthought of in the minds of those who plan new luxuries as our race demand more ease and elegance. There was a ladies’ car, to which no men unaccompanied by women were admitted. It was never so full as the other coaches, and was much cleaner and better ventilated. This was at first a damper to the enjoyment of a military family, who lost no opportunity of being together, for it compelled the men to remain in the other cars. The scamp among us devised a plan to outwit the brakemen; he borrowed my bag just before we were obliged to change cars, and after waiting till the General and I were safely seated, boldly walked up and demanded entrance, on the plea that he had a lady inside. This scheme worked so well that the others took up the cue, and my cloak, bag, umbrella, lunch-basket, and parcel of books and papers were distributed among the rest before we stopped, and were used to obtain entrance into the better car. Even our faithful servant, Eliza, was unexpectedly overwhelmed with urgent offers of assistance; for she always went with us, and sat by the door. This plan was a great success, in so far as it kept our party together, but it proved disastrous to me, as the scamp forgot my bag at some station, and I was minus all those hundred-and-one articles that seem indispensable to a traveler’s comfort. In that plight I had to journey until, in some merciful detention, we had an hour in which to seek out a shop, and hastily make the necessary purchases.
At one of our stops for dinner we all made the usual rush for the dining-hall, as in the confusion of over-laden trains at that excited time it was necessary to hurry, and, besides, as there were delays and irregularities in traveling, on account of the home-coming of the troops, we never knew how long it might be before the next eating-house was reached. The General insisted upon Eliza’s going right with us, as no other table was provided. The proprietor, already rendered indifferent to people’s comfort by his extraordinary gains, said there was no table for servants. Eliza, the best-bred of maids, begged to go back dinnerless into the car, but the General insisted on her sitting down between us at the crowded table. A position so unusual, and to her so totally out of place, made her appetite waver, and it vanished entirely when the proprietor came, and told the General that no colored folks could be allowed at his table. My husband quietly replied that he had been obliged to give the woman that place, as the house had provided no other. The determined man still stood threateningly over us, demanding her removal, and Eliza uneasily and nervously tried to go. I trembled, and the fork failed to carry the food, owing to a very wobbly arm. The General firmly refused, the staff rose about us, and all along the table up sprang men we had supposed to be citizens, as they were in the dress of civilians. “General, stand your ground; we’ll back you; the woman shall have food.” How little we realize in these piping times of peace, how great a flame a little fire kindled in those agitating days. The proprietor slunk back to his desk; the General and his hungry staff went on eating as calmly as ever; Eliza hung her embarrassed head, and her mistress idly twirled her useless fork — while the proprietor made $1.50 clear gain on two women that were too frightened to swallow a mouthful. I spread a sandwich for Eliza, while the General, mindful of the returning hunger of the terrified woman, and perfectly indifferent as to making himself ridiculous with parcels, marched by the infuriated but subdued bully, with either a whole pie or some such modest capture in his hand. We had put some hours of travel between ourselves and the “twenty-minutes-for-dinner” place which came so near being a battle-ground, before Eliza could eat what we had brought for her.
I wonder if any one is waiting for me to say that this incident happened south of the Mason and Dixon line. It did not. It was in Ohio — I don’t remember the place. After all, the memory over which one complains, when he finds how little he can recall, has its advantages. It hopelessly buries the names of persons and places, when one starts to tell tales out of school. It is like extracting the fangs from a rattlesnake; the reptile, like the story, may be very disagreeable, but I can only hope that a tale unadorned with names or places is as harmless as a snake with its poison withdrawn.
I must stop a moment and give our Eliza, on whom this battle was waged, a little space in this story, for she occupied no small part in the events of the six years after; and when she left us and took an upward step in life by marrying a colored lawyer, I could not reconcile myself to the loss; and though she has lived through all the grandeur of a union with a man “who gets a heap of money for his speeches in politics, and brass bands to meet him at the stations, Miss Libbie,” she came to my little home not long since with tears of joy illuminating the bright bronze of her expressive face. It reminded me so of the first time I knew that the negro race regarded shades of color as a distinctive feature, a beauty or a blemish, as it might be. Eliza stood in front of a bronze medallion of my husband when it was first sent from the artist’s in 1865, and amused him hugely, by saying, in that partnership manner she had in our affairs, “Why, Ginnel, it’s jest my color.” After that, I noticed that she referred to her race according to the deepness of tint, telling me, with scorn, of one of her numerous suitors: “Why, Miss Libbie, he needent think to shine up to me; he’s nothing but a black African.” I am thus introducing Eliza, color and all, that she may not seem the vague character of other days; and whoever chances to meet her will find in her a good war historian, a modest chronicler of a really self-dying and courageous life. It was rather a surprise to me that she was not an old woman when I saw her again this autumn, after so many years, but she is not yet fifty. I imagine she did so much mothering in those days when she comforted me in my loneliness, and quieted me in my frights, that I counted her old even then.
Eliza requests that she be permitted to make her little bow to the reader, and repeat a wish of hers that I take great pains in quoting her, and not represent her as saying, “like field-hands, whar and thar.” She says her people in Virginia, whom she reverences and loves, always taught her not to say “them words; and if they should see what I have told you they’d feel bad to think I forgot.” If whar and thar appear occasionally in my efforts to transfer her literally to these pages, it is only a lapsus linguæ on her part. Besides, she has lived North so long now, there is not that distinctive dialect peculiar to the Southern servant. In her excitement, narrating our scenes of danger or pleasure or merriment, she occasionally drops into expressions that belonged to her early life. It is the fault of her historian if these phrases get into print. To me they are charming, for they are Eliza in undress uniform — Eliza without her company manners.
She describes her leaving the old plantation during war times: “I jined the Ginnel at Amosville, Rappahannock County, in August, 1863. Everybody was excited over freedom, and I wanted to see how it was. Everybody keeps asking me why I left. I can’t see why they can’t recollect what war was for, and that we was all bound to try and see for ourselves how it was. After the ’Mancipation, everybody was a-standin’ up for liberty, and I wasent goin’ to stay home when everybody else was a-goin’. The day I came into camp, there was a good many other darkeys from all about our place. We was a-standin’ round waitin’ when I first seed the Ginnel.
“He and Captain Lyon cum up to me, and the Ginnel says, ‘Well, what’s your name!’ I told him Eliza; and he says, looking me all over fust, ‘Well, Eliza, would you like to cum and live with me?’ I waited a minute, Miss Libbie. I looked him all over, too, and finally I sez, ‘I reckon I would.’ So the bargain was fixed up. But, oh, how awful lonesome I was at fust, and I was afraid of everything in the shape of war. I used to wish myself back on the old plantation with my mother. I was mighty glad when you cum, Miss Libbie. Why, sometimes I never sot eyes on a woman for weeks at a time.”
Eliza’s story of her war life is too long for these pages; but in spite of her confession of being so “‘fraid,” she was a marvel of courage. She was captured by the enemy, escaped, and found her way back after sunset to the General’s camp. She had strange and narrow escapes. She says, quaintly: “Well, Miss Libbie, I set in to see the war, beginning and end. There was many niggers that cut into cities and huddled up thar, and laid around and saw hard times; but I went to see the end, and I stuck it out. I allus thought this, that I didn’t set down to wait to have ’em all free me. I helped to free myself. I was all ready to step to the front whenever I was called upon, even if I didn’t shoulder the musket. Well, I went to the end, and there’s many folks says that a woman can’t follow the army without throwing themselves away, but I know better. I went in, and I cum out with the respect of the men and the officers.”
Eliza often cooked under fire, and only lately one of the General’s staff, recounting war days, described her as she was preparing the General’s dinner in the field. A shell would burst near her; she would turn her head in anger at being disturbed, unconscious that she was observed, begin to growl to herself about being obliged to move, but take up her kettle and frying-pan, march farther away, make a new fire, and begin cooking as unperturbed as if it were an ordinary disturbance instead of a sky filled with bits of falling shell. I do not repeat that polite fiction of having been on the spot, as neither the artist nor I had Eliza’s grit or pluck; but we arranged the camp-kettle, and Eliza fell into the exact expression, as she volubly began telling the tale of “how mad those busting shells used to make her.” It is an excellent likeness, even though Eliza objects to the bandana, which she has abandoned in her new position; and I must not forget that I found her one day turning her head critically from side to side looking at her picture; and, out of regard to her, will mention that her nose, of which she is very proud, is, she fears, a touch too flat in the sketch. She speaks of her dress as “completely whittled out with bullets,” but she would like me to mention that “she don’t wear them rags now.”
When Eliza reached New York this past autumn, she told me, when I asked her to choose where she would go, as my time was to be entirely given to her, that she wanted first to go to the Fifth Avenue Hotel and see if it looked just the same as it did “when you was a bride, Miss Libbie, and the Ginnel took you and me there on leave of absence.” We went through the halls and drawing-rooms, narrowly watched by the major-domo, who stands guard over tramps, but fortified by my voice, she “oh’d” and “ah’d” over its grandeur to her heart’s content. One day I left her in Madison Square, to go on a business errand, and cautioned her not to stray away. When I returned I asked anxiously, “Did any one speak to you, Eliza?” “Everybody, Miss Libbie,” as nonchalant and as complacent as if it were her idea of New York hospitality. Then she begged me to go round the Square, “to hunt a lady from Avenue A, who see’d you pass with me, Miss Libbie, and said she knowed you was a lady, though I reckon she couldn’t ‘count for me and you bein’ together.” We found the Avenue A lady, and I was presented, and, to her satisfaction, admired the baby that had been brought over to that blessed breathing-place of our city.
The Elevated railroad was a surprise to Eliza. She “didn’t believe it would be so high.” At that celebrated curve on the Sixth Avenue line, where Monsieur de Lesseps, even, exclaimed, “Mon Dieu! but the Americans are a brave people,” the poor, frightened woman clung to me and whispered, “Miss Libbie, couldn’t we get down anyway? Miss Libbie, I’se seed enough. I can tell the folks at home all about it now. Oh, I never did ’spect to be so near heaven till I went up for good.”
At the Brooklyn Bridge she demurred. She is so intelligent that I wanted to have her see the shipping, the wharves, the harbor, and the statue of Liberty; but nothing kept her from flight save her desire to tell her townspeople that she had seen the place where the crank jumped off. The police-man, in answer to my inquiry, commanded us in martial tones to stay still till he said the word; and when the wagon crossing passed the spot, and the maintainer of the peace said “Now!” Eliza shivered and whispered, “Now, let’s go home, Miss Libbie. I dun took the cullud part of the town fo’ I come; the white folks hain’t seen what I has, and they’ll be took when I tell ‘em;” and off she toddled, for Eliza is not the slender woman I once knew her.
Her description of the Wild West exhibition was most droll. I sent her down because we had lived through so many of the scenes depicted, and I felt sure that nothing would recall so vividly the life on the frontier as that most realistic and faithful representation of a Western life that has ceased to be, with advancing civilization. She went to Mr. Cody’s tent after the exhibition, to present my card of introduction, for he had served as General Custer’s scout after Eliza left us, and she was, therefore, unknown to him except by hearsay. They had twenty subjects in common; for Eliza, in her way, was as deserving of praise as was the courageous Cody. She was delighted with all she saw, and on her return her description of it, mingled with imitations of the voices of the hawkers and the performers, was so incoherent that it presented only a confused jumble to my ears. The buffalo were a surprise, a wonderful revival to her of those hunting-days when our plains were darkened by the herds. “When the buffalo cum in, I was ready to leap up and holler, Miss Libbie; it ’minded me of ole times. They made me think of the fifteen the Ginnel fust struck in Kansas. He jest pushed down his ole hat, and went after ’em linkety-clink. Well, Miss Libbie, when Mr. Cody come up, I see at once his back and hips was built precisely like the Ginnel, and when I come on to his tent, I jest said to him: ‘Mr. Buffalo Bill, when you cum up to the stand and wheeled round, I said to myself, “Well, if he ain’t the ’spress image of Ginnel Custer in battle I never seed any one that was!”’ I jest wish he’d come to my town and give a show! He could have the hull fairground there. My! he could raise money so fast ’twouldn’t take him long to pay for a church. And the shootin’ and ridin’! why, Miss Libbie, when I seed one of them ponies brought out, I know’d he was one of the hatefulest, sulkiest ponies that ever lived. He was a-prancin’ and curvin’, and he jest stretched his ole neck and throwed the men as fast as ever they got on.”
After we had strolled through the streets for many days, Eliza always amusing me by her droll comments, she said to me one day: “Miss Libbie, you don’t take notice, when me and you’s walking on, a-lookin’ into shop-windows and a-gazin’ at the new things I never see before, how the folks does stare at us. But I see ‘em a-gazin’, and I can see ‘em a-ponderin’ and sayin’ to theirsel’s, ‘Well, I do declar’! that’s a lady, there ain’t no manner of doubt. She’s one of the bong tong; but whatever she’s a-doin’ with that old scrub nigger, I can’t make out.’” I can hardly express what a recreation and delight it was to go about with this humorous woman and listen to her comments, her unique criticisms, her grateful delight, when she turned on the street to say: “Oh, what a good time me and you is having, Miss Libbie, and how I will ’stonish them people at home!” The best of it all was the manner in which she brought back our past, and the hundred small events we recalled, which were made more vivid by the imitation of voice, walk, gesture she gave in speaking of those we followed in the old marching days.
On this journey to Texas some accident happened to our engine, and detained us all night. We campaigners, accustomed to all sorts of unexpected inconveniences, had learned not to mind discomforts. Each officer sank out of sight into his great-coat collar, and slept on by the hour, while I slumbered till morning, curled up in a heap, thankful to have the luxury of one seat to myself. We rather gloried over the citizens who tramped up and down the aisle, groaning and becoming more emphatic in their language as the night advanced, indulging in the belief that the women were too sound asleep to hear them. I wakened enough to hear one old man say, fretfully, and with many adjectives: “Just see how those army folks sleep; they can tumble down anywhere, while I am so lame and sore, from the cramped-up place I am in, I can’t even doze.” As morning came we noticed our scamp at the other end of the car, with his legs stretched comfortably on the seat turned over in front of him. All this unusual luxury he accounted for afterward, by telling us the trick that his ingenuity had suggested to obtain more room. “You see,” the wag said, “two old codgers sat down in front of my pal and me, late last night, and went on counting up their gains in the rise of corn, owing to the war, which, to say the least, was harrowing to us poor devils who had fought the battles that had made them rich and left us without a ‘red.’ I concluded, if that was all they had done for their country, two of its brave defenders had more of a right to the seat than they had. I just turned to H—— and began solemnly to talk about what store I set by my old army coat, then on the seat they occupied; said I couldn’t give it up, though I had been obliged to cover a comrade who had died of small-pox, I not being afraid of contagion, having had varioloid. Well, I got that far when the eyes of the old galoots started out of their heads, and they vamoosed the ranche, I can tell you, and I saw them peering through the window at the end of the next car, the horror still in their faces.” The General exploded with merriment. How strange it seems, to contrast those noisy, boisterous times, when everybody shouted with laughter, called loudly from one end of the car to the other, told stories for the whole public to hear, and sang war-songs, with the quiet, orderly travelers of nowadays, who, even in the tremor of meeting or parting, speak below their breath, and, ashamed of emotion, quickly wink back to its source the prehistoric tear.
We bade good-by to railroads at Louisville, and the journeying south was then made by steamer. How peculiar it seemed to us, accustomed as we were to lake craft with deep hulls, to see for the first time those flat-bottomed boats drawing so little water, with several stories, and upper decks loaded with freight. I could hardly rid myself of the fear that, being so top-heavy, we would blow over. The tempests of our western lakes were then my only idea of sailing weather. Then the long, sloping levees, the preparations for the rise of water, the strange sensation, when the river was high, of looking over the embankment, down upon the earth! It is a novel feeling to be for the first time on a great river, with such a current as the Mississippi flowing on above the level of the plantations, hemmed in by an embankment on either side. Though we saw the manner of its construction at one point where the levee was being repaired, and found how firmly and substantially the earth was fortified with stone and logs against the river, it still seemed to me an unnatural sort of voyaging to be above the level of the ground; and my tremors on the subject, and other novel experiences, were instantly made use of as a new and fruitful source of practical jokes. For instance, the steamer bumped into the shore anywhere it happened to be wooded, and an army of negroes appeared, running over the gang-plank like ants. Sometimes at night the pine torches, and the resinous knots burning in iron baskets slung over the side of the boat, made a weird and gruesome sight, the shadows were so black, the streams of light so intense, while the hurrying negroes loaded on the wood, under the brutal voice of a steamer’s mate. Once a negro fell in. They made a pretense of rescuing him, gave it up soon, and up hurried our scamp to the upper deck to tell me the horrible tale. He had good command of language, and allowed no scruples to spoil a story. After that I imagined, at every night wood-lading, some poor soul was swept down under the boat and off into eternity. The General was sorry for me, and sometimes, when I imagined the calls of the crew to be the despairing wail of a dying man, he made pilgrimages, for my sake, to the lower deck to make sure that no one was drowned. My imaginings were not always so respected, for the occasion gave too good an opportunity for a joke, to be passed quietly by. The scamp and my husband put their heads together soon after this, and prepared a tale for the “old lady,” as they called me. As we were about to make a landing, they ran to me and said, “Come, Libbie, hurry up! hurry up! You’ll miss the fun if you don’t scrabble.” “Miss what?” was my very natural question, and exactly the reply they wanted me to make. “Why, they’re going to bury a dead man when we land.” I exclaimed in horror, “Another man drowned? how can you speak so irreverently of death?” With a “do you suppose the mate cares for one darkey more or less?” they dragged me to the deck. There I saw the great cable which was used to tie us up, fastened to a strong spar, the two ends of which were buried in the bank. The ground was hollowed out underneath the centre, and the rope slipped under to fasten it around the log. After I had watched this process of securing our boat to the shore, these irrepressibles said, solemnly, “The sad ceremony is now ended, and no other will take place till we tie up at the next stop.” When it dawned upon me that “tying up” was called, in steamer vernacular, “burying a dead man,” my eyes returned to their proper place in the sockets, breath came back, and indignation filled my soul. Language deserts us at such moments, and I resorted to force.
The Ruth was accounted one of the largest and most beautiful steamers that had ever been on the Mississippi River, her expenses being $1,000 a day. The decorations were sumptuous, and we enjoyed every luxury. We ate our dinners to very good music, which the boat furnished. We had been on plain fare too long not to watch with eagerness the arrival of the procession of white-coated negro waiters, who each day came in from the pastry-cook with some new device in cake, ices, or confectionery. There was a beautiful Ruth gleaning in a field, in a painting that filled the semicircle over the entrance of the cabin. Ruths with sheaves held up the branches of the chandeliers, while the pretty gleaner looked out from the glass of the stateroom doors. The captain being very patient as well as polite, we pervaded every corner of the great boat. The General and his boy-soldiers were too accustomed to activity to be quiet in the cabin. Even that unapproachable man at the wheel yielded to our longing eyes, and let us into his round tower. Oh, how good he was to me! The General took me up there, and the pilot made a place for us, where, with my bit of work, I listened for hours to his stories. My husband made fifty trips up and down, sometimes detained when we were nearing an interesting point, to hear the story of the crevasse. Such tales were thrilling enough even for him, accustomed as he then was to the most exciting scenes. The pilot pointed out places where the river, wild with the rush and fury of spring freshets, had burst its way through the levees, and, sweeping over a peninsula, returned to the channel beyond, utterly annihilating and sinking out of sight forever the ground where happy people had lived on their plantations. It was a sad time to take that journey, and even in the midst of our intense enjoyment of the novelty of the trip, the freedom from anxiety, and the absence of responsibility of any kind, I recall how the General grieved over the destruction of plantations by the breaks in the levee. The work on these embankments was done by assessment, I think. They were cared for as our roads and bridges are kept in order, and when men were absent in the war, only the negroes were left to attend to the repairing. But the inundations then were slight, compared with many from which the State has since suffered. In 1874 thirty parishes were either wholly or partly overflowed by an extraordinary rise in the river. On our trip we saw one plantation after another submerged, the grand old houses abandoned, and standing in lakes of water, while the negro quarters and barns were almost out of sight. Sometimes the cattle huddled on a little rise of ground, helpless and pitiful. We wished, as we used to do in that beautiful Shenandoah Valley, that if wars must come, the devastation of homes might be avoided; and I usually added, with one of the totally impracticable suggestions conjured up by a woman, that battles might be fought in desert places.
A Southern woman, who afterward entertained us, described, in the graphic and varied language which is their gift, the breaking of the levee on their own plantation. How stealthily the small stream of water crept on and on, until their first warning was its serpent-like progress past their house. Then the excitement and rush of all the household to the crevasse, the hasty gathering in of the field-hands, and the homely devices for stopping the break until more substantial materials could be gathered. It was a race for life on all sides. Each one, old or young, knew that his safety depended on the superhuman effort of the first hour of danger. In our safe homes we scarcely realize what it would be to look out from our windows upon, what seemed to me, a small and insufficient mound of earth stretching along the frontage of an estate, and know that it was our only rampart against a rushing flood, which seemed human in its revengeful desire to engulf us.
The General was intensely interested in those portions of the country where both naval and land warfare had been carried on. At Island No. 10, and Fort Pillow especially, there seemed, even then, no evidence that fighting had gone on so lately. The luxuriant vegetation of the South had covered the fortifications; nature seemed hastening to throw a mantle over soil that had so lately been reddened with such a precious dye. The fighting had been so desperate at the latter point, it is reported the Confederate General Forrest said: “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards.”
At one of our stops on the route, the Confederate General Hood came on board, to go to a town a short distance below, and my husband, hearing he was on the boat, hastened to seek him out and introduce himself. Such reunions have now become common, I am thankful to say, but I confess to watching curiously every expression of those men, as it seemed very early, in those times of excited and vehement conduct, to begin such overtures. And yet I did not forget that my husband sent messages of friendship to his classmates on the other side throughout the war. As I watched this meeting, they looked, while they grasped each other’s hand, as if they were old-time friends happily united. After they had carried on an animated conversation for awhile, my husband, always thinking how to share his enjoyment, hurried to bring me into the group. General Custer had already taught me, even in those bitter times, that he knew his classmates fought from their convictions of right, and that, now the war was over, I must not be adding fuel to a fire that both sides should strive to smother.
General Hood was tall, fair, dignified and soldierly. He used his crutch with difficulty, and it was an effort for him to rise when I was presented. We three instantly resumed the war talk that my coming had interrupted. The men plied each other with questions as to the situation of troops at certain engagements, and the General fairly bombarded General Hood with inquiries about the action on their side in different campaigns. At that time nothing had been written for Northern papers and magazines by the South. All we knew was from the brief accounts in the Southern newspapers that our pickets exchanged, and from papers captured or received from Europe by way of blockade-runners. We were greatly amused by the comical manner in which General Hood described his efforts to suit himself to an artificial leg, after he had contributed his own to his beloved cause. In his campaigns he was obliged to carry an extra one, in case of accident to the one he wore, which was strapped to his led horse. He asked me to picture the surprise of the troops who captured all the reserve horses at one time, and found this false leg of his suspended from the saddle. He said he had tried five, at different times, to see which of the inventions was lightest and easiest to wear; “and I am obliged to confess, Mrs. Custer, much as you may imagine it goes against me to do so, that of the five — English, German, French, Yankee and Confederate — the Yankee leg was the best of all.” When General Custer carefully helped the maimed hero down the cabin stairs and over the gangway, we bade him good-by with real regret — so quickly do soldiers make and cement a friendship when both find the same qualities to admire in each other.
The novelty of Mississippi travel kept even our active, restless party interested. One of our number played guitar accompaniments, and we sang choruses on deck at night, forgetting that the war-songs might grate on the ears of some of the people about us. The captain and steamer’s crew allowed us to roam up and down the boat at will, and when we found, by the map or crew, that we were about to touch the bank in a hitherto unvisited State, we were the first to run over the gang-plank and caper up and down the soil, to add a new State to our fast-swelling list of those in which we had been. We rather wondered, though, what we would do if asked questions by our elders at home as to what we thought of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, as we had only scampered on and off the river bank of those States while the wooding went on. We were like children let out of school, and everything interested us. Even the low water was an event. The sudden stop of our great steamer, which, large as it was, drew but a few feet of water, made the timbers groan and the machinery creak. Then we took ourselves to the bow, where the captain, mate and deck-hands were preparing for a siege, as the force of the engines had ploughed us deep into a sand-bar. There was wrenching, veering and struggling of the huge boat; and at last a resort to those two spars which seem to be so uselessly attached to each side of the forward deck of the river steamers. These were swung out and plunged into the bank, the rope and tackle put into use, and with the aid of these stilts we were skipped over the sand-bar into the deeper water. It was on that journey that I first heard the name Mr. Clemens took as his nom de plume. The droning voice of the sailor taking soundings, as we slowly crept through low water, called out, “Mark twain!” and the pilot answered by steering the boat according to the story of the plumb-line.
The trip on a Mississippi steamer, as we knew it, is now one of the things of the past. It was accounted then, and before the war, our most luxurious mode of travel. Every one was sociable, and in the constant association of the long trip some warm friendships sprung up. We had then our first acquaintance with Bostonians as well as with Southerners. Of course, it was too soon for Southern women, robbed of home, and even the necessities of life, by the cruelty of war, to be wholly cordial. We were more and more amazed at the ignorance in the South concerning the North. A young girl, otherwise intelligent, thawed out enough to confess to me that she had really no idea that Yankee soldiers were like their own physically. She imagined they would be as widely different as black from white, and a sort of combination of gorilla and chimpanzee. Gunboats had but a short time before moored at the levee that bounded her grandmother’s plantation, and the negroes ran into the house crying the terrible news of the approach of the enemy. The very thought of a Yankee was abhorrent; but the girl, more absorbed with curiosity than fear, slipped out of the house to where a view of the walk from the landing was to be had, and, seeing a naval officer approaching, raced back to her grandmother, crying out in surprise at finding a being like unto her own people, “Why, it’s a man!”
As we approached New Orleans the plantations grew richer. The palmetto and the orange, by which we are “twice blessed” in its simultaneous blossom and fruit; the oleander, treasured in conservatories at home, here growing to tree size along the country roads, all charmed us. The wide galleries around the two stories of the houses were a delight. The course of our boat was often near enough the shore for us to see the family gathered around the supper-table spread on the upper gallery, which was protected from the sun by blinds or shades of matting.
We left the steamer at New Orleans with regret. It seems, even now, that it is rather too bad we have grown into so hurried a race that we cannot spare the time to travel as leisurely or luxuriously as we did then. Even pleasure-seekers going off for a tour, when they are not restricted by time nor mode of journeying, study the time-tables closely, to see by which route the quickest passage can be made.
We were detained, by orders, for a little time in New Orleans, and the General was enthusiastic over the city. All day we strolled through the streets, visiting the French quarter, contrasting the foreign shopkeepers — who were never too hurried to be polite — with our brusque, business-like Northern clerk; dined in the charming French restaurants, where we saw eating made a fine art. The sea-food was then new to me, and I hovered over the crabs, lobsters and shrimps, but remember how amused the General was by my quick retreat from a huge live green turtle, whose locomotion was suspended by his being turned upon his back. He was unconsciously bearing his own epitaph fastened upon his shell: “I will be served up for dinner at 5 p. m.” We of course spent hours, even matutinal hours, at the market, and the General drank so much coffee that the old mammy who served him said many a “Mon Dieu!” in surprise at his capacity, and volubly described in French to her neighbors what marvels a Yankee man could do in coffee-sipping. For years after, when very good coffee was praised, or even Eliza’s strongly commended, his ne plus ultra was, “Almost equal to the French market.” We here learned what artistic effects could be produced with prosaic carrots, beets, onions and turnips. The General looked with wonder upon the leisurely creole grandee who came to order his own dinner. After his epicurean selection he showed the interest and skill that a Northern man might in the buying of a picture or a horse, when the servant bearing the basket was entrusted with what was to be enjoyed at night. We had never known men that took time to market, except as our hurried Northern fathers of families sometimes made sudden raids upon the butcher, on the way to business, and called off an order as they ran for a car.
The wide-terraced Canal Street, with its throng of leisurely promenaders, was our daily resort. The stands of Parma violets on the street corners perfumed the whole block, and the war seemed not even to have cast a cloud over the first foreign pleasure-loving people we had seen. The General was so pleased with the picturesque costumes of the servants that Eliza was put into a turban at his entreaty. In vain we tried for a glimpse of the creole beauties. The duenna that guarded them in their rare promenades, as they glided by, wearing gracefully the lace mantilla, bonnetless, and shaded by a French parasol, whisked the pretty things out of sight, quick as we were to discover and respectfully follow them. The effects of General Butler’s reign were still visible in the marvelous cleanliness of the city. We drove on the shell road, spent hours in the horse-cars, went to the theatres, and even penetrated the rooms of the most exclusive milliners, for General Custer liked the shops as much as I did. Indeed, we had a grand play-day, and were not in the least troubled at our detention.
General Scott was then in our hotel, about to set out for the North. He remembered Lieutenant Custer, who had reported to him in 1861, and was the bearer of despatches sent by him to the front, and he congratulated my husband on his career in terms that, coming from such a veteran, made his boy-heart leap for joy. General Scott was then very infirm, and, expressing a wish to see me, with old-time gallantry begged my husband to explain to me that he would be compelled to claim the privilege of sitting. But it was too much for his etiquettical instincts, and, weak as he was, he feebly drew his tall form to a half-standing position, leaning against the lounge as I entered. Pictures of General Scott, in my father’s home, belonged to my earliest recollections. He was a colossal figure on a fiery steed, whose prancing forefeet never touched the earth. The Mexican War had hung a halo about him, and my childish explanation of the clouds of dust that the artist sought to represent was the smoke of battle, in which I supposed the hero lived perpetually. And now this decrepit, tottering man — I was almost sorry to have seen him at all, except for the praise that he bestowed upon my husband, which, coming from so old a soldier, I deeply appreciated.
General Sheridan had assumed command of the Department of the Mississippi, and the Government had hired a beautiful mansion for headquarters, where he was at last living handsomely after all his rough campaigning. When we dined with him, we could but contrast the food prepared over a Virginia camp-fire, with the dainty French cookery of the old colored Mary, who served him afterward so many years. General Custer was, of course, glad to be under his chief again, and after dinner, while I was given over to some of the military family to entertain, the two men, sitting on the wide gallery, talked of what it was then believed would be a campaign across the border. I was left in complete ignorance, and did not even know that an army of 70,000 men was being organized under General Sheridan’s masterly hand. My husband read the Eastern papers to me, and took the liberty of reserving such articles as might prove incendiary in his family. If our incorrigible scamp spoke of the expected wealth he intended to acquire from the sacking of palaces and the spoils of churches, he was frowned upon, not only because the General tried to teach him that there were some subjects too sacred to be touched by his irreverent tongue, but because he did not wish my anxieties to be aroused by the prospect of another campaign. As much of my story must be of the hardships my husband endured, I have here lingered a little over the holiday that our journey and the detention in New Orleans gave him. I hardly think any one can recall a complaint of his in those fourteen years of tent-life; but he was taught, through deprivations, how to enjoy every moment of such days as that charming journey and city experience gave us.
The steamer chartered to take troops up the Red River was finally ready, and we sailed the last week in June. There were horses and Government freight on board. The captain was well named Greathouse, as he greeted us with hospitality and put his little steamer at our disposal. Besides the fact that this contract for transportation would line his pockets well, he really seemed glad to have us. He was a Yankee, and gave us his native State (Indiana) in copious and inexhaustible supplies, as his contribution to the talks on deck. Long residence in the South had not dimmed his patriotism; and in the rapid transits from deck to pilot-house, of this tall Hoosier, I almost saw the straps fastening down the trousers of Brother Jonathan, as well as the coat-tails cut from the American flag, so entirely did he personate in his figure our emblematic Uncle Sam. It is customary for the Government to defray the expenses of officers and soldiers when traveling under orders; but so much red-tape is involved that they often pay their own way at the time, and the quartermaster reimburses them at the journey’s end. The captain knew this, and thought he would give himself the pleasure of having us as his guests. Accordingly, he took the General one side, and imparted this very pleasing information. Even with the provident ones this would be a relief; while we had come on board almost wrecked in our finances by the theatre, the tempting flowers, the fascinating restaurants, and finally, a disastrous lingering one day in the beguiling shop of Madam Olympe, the reigning milliner. The General had bought some folly for me, in spite of the heroic protest that I made about its inappropriateness for Texas, and it left us just enough to pay for our food on our journey, provided we ordered nothing extra, and had no delays. Captain Greathouse little knew to what paupers he was extending his hospitality. No one can comprehend how carelessly and enjoyably army people can walk about with empty pockets, knowing that it is but a matter of thirty days’ waiting till Richard shall be himself again. My husband made haste to impart the news quietly to the staff, that the captain was going to invite them all to be his guests, and so relieve their anxiety about financial embarrassment. The scamp saw a chance for a joke, and when the captain again appeared he knew that he was going to receive the invitation, and anticipated it. In our presence he jingled the last twenty-six cents he had in the world against the knife in his almost empty pockets, assumed a Crœsus-like air, and begged to know the cost of the journey, as he loftily said he made it a rule always to pay in advance. At this, the General, unable to smother his laughter, precipitated himself out of the cabin-door, nearly over the narrow guard, to avoid having his merriment seen. When the captain said blandly that he was about to invite our party to partake of his hospitality, our scamp bowed, and accepted the courtesy as if it were condescension on his part, and proceeded to take possession, and almost command, of the steamer.
It was a curious trip, that journey up the Red River. We saw the dull brownish-red water from the clay bed and banks mingling with the clearer current of the Mississippi long before we entered the mouth of the Red River. We had a delightful journey; but I don’t know why, except that youth, health and buoyant spirits rise superior to everything. The river was ugliness itself. The tree trunks, far up, were gray and slimy with the late freshet, the hanging moss adding a dismal feature to the scene. The waters still covered the low, muddy banks strewn with fallen trees and underbrush. The river was very narrow in places, and in our way there were precursors of the Red River raft above. At one time, before Government work was begun, the raft extended forty-five miles beyond Shreveport, and closed the channel to steamers. Sometimes the pilot wound us round just such obstructions — logs and driftwood jammed in so firmly, and so immovable, they looked like solid ground, while rank vegetation sprung up through the thick moss that covered the decaying tree trunks. The river was very crooked. The whistle screeched when approaching a turn; but so sudden were some of these, that a steamer coming down, not slackening speed, almost ran into us at one sharp bend. It shaved our sides and set our boat a-quivering, while the vituperations of the boat’s crew, and the loud, angry voices of the captain and pilot, with a prompt return of such civilities from the other steamer, made us aware that emergencies brought forth a special and extensive set of invectives, reserved for careless navigation on the Red River of the South. We grew to have an increasing respect for the skill of the pilot, as he steered us around sharp turns, across low water filled with branching upturned tree trunks, and skillfully took a narrow path between the shore and a snag that menacingly ran its black point out of the water. A steamer in advance of us, carrying troops, had encountered a snag, while going at great speed, and the obstructing tree ran entirely through the boat, coming out at the pilot-house. The troops were unloaded and taken up afterward by another steamer. Sometimes the roots of great forest trees, swept down by a freshet, become imbedded in the river, and the whole length of the trunk is under water, swaying up and down, but not visible below the turbid surface. The forest is dense at some points, and we could see but a short distance as we made our circuitous, dangerous way.
The sand-bars, and the soft red clay of the river-banks, were a fitting home for the alligators that lay sunning themselves, or sluggishly crawled into the stream as the General aimed at them with his rifle from the steamer’s guards. They were new game, and gave some fresh excitement to the long, idle days. He never gave up trying, in his determined way, for the vulnerable spot in their hide just behind the eye. I thought the sand-hill crane must have first acquired its tiresome habit of standing on one leg, from its disgust at letting down the reserve foot into such thick, noisome water. It seemed a pity that some of those shots from the steamer’s deck had not ended its melancholy existence. Through all this mournful river-way the guitar twanged, and the dense forest resounded to war choruses or old college glees that we sent out in happy notes as we sat on deck. I believe Captain Greathouse bade us good-by with regret, as he seemed to enjoy the jolly party, and when we landed at Alexandria he gave us a hogshead of ice, the last we were to see for a year.
A house abandoned by its owners, and used by General Banks for headquarters during the war, was selected for our temporary home. As we stepped upon the levee, a tall Southerner came toward me and extended his hand. At that time the citizens were not wont to welcome the Yankee in that manner. He had to tell me who he was, as unfortunately I had forgotten, and I began to realize the truth of the saying, that “there are but two hundred and fifty people in the world,” when I found an acquaintance in this isolated town. He proved to be the only Southerner I had ever known in my native town in Michigan, who came there when a lad to visit kinsfolk. In those days his long black hair, large dark eyes and languishing manner, added to the smooth, soft-flowing, flattering speeches, made sad havoc in our school-girl ranks. I suppose the youthful and probably susceptible hearts of our circle were all set fluttering, for the boy seemed to find pleasure in a chat with any one of us that fell to him in our walks to and from school. The captivating part of it all was the lines written on the pages of my arithmetic, otherwise so odious to me — “Come with me to my distant home, where, under soft Southern skies, we’ll breathe the odor of orange groves.” None of us had answered to his “Come,” possibly because of the infantile state of our existence, possibly because the invitation was too general. And here stood our youthful hero, worn prematurely old and shabby after his four years of fighting for “the cause.” The boasted “halls of his ancestors,” the same to which we had been so ardently invited, were a plain white cottage. No orange groves, but a few lime-trees sparsely scattered over the prescribed lawn. In the pleasant visit that we all had, there was discreet avoidance of the poetic license he had taken in early years, when describing his home under the southern sky.
Alexandria had been partly burned during the war, and was built up mostly with one-story cottages. Indeed, it was always the popular mode of building there. We found everything a hundred years behind the times. The houses of our mechanics at home had more conveniences and modern improvements. I suppose the retinue of servants before the war rendered the inhabitants indifferent to what we think absolutely necessary for comfort. The house we used as headquarters had large, lofty rooms separated by a wide hall, while in addition there were two wings. A family occupied one-half of the house, caring for it in the absence of the owners. In the six weeks we were there, we never saw them, and naturally concluded they were not filled with joy at our presence. The house was delightfully airy; but we took up the Southern custom of living on the gallery. The library was still intact, in spite of its having been headquarters for our army; and evidently the people had lived in what was considered luxury for the South in its former days, yet everything was primitive enough. This great house, filled as it once was with servants, had its sole water supply from two tanks or cisterns above ground at the rear. The rich and the poor were alike dependent upon these receptacles for water; and it was not a result of the war, for this was the only kind of reservoir provided, even in prosperous times. But one well was dug in Alexandria, as the water was brackish and impure. Each house, no matter how small, had cisterns, sometimes as high as the smaller cottages themselves. The water in those where we lived was very low, the tops were uncovered, and dust, leaves, bugs and flies were blown in, while the cats strolled around the upper rim during their midnight orchestral overtures. We found it necessary to husband the fast lowering water, as the rains were over for the summer. The servants were enjoined to draw out the home-made plug (there was not even a Yankee faucet) with the utmost care, while some one was to keep vigilant watch on a cow, very advanced in cunning, that used to come and hook at the plug till it was loosened and fell out. The sound of flowing water was our first warning of the precious wasting. No one could drink the river-water, and even in our ablutions we turned our eyes away as we poured the water from the pitcher into the bowl. Our rain-water was so full of gallinippers and pollywogs, that a glass stood by the plate untouched until the sediment and natural history united at the bottom, while heaven knows what a microscope, had we possessed one, would have revealed!
Eliza was well primed with stories of alligators by the negroes and soldiers, who loved to frighten her. One measuring thirteen feet eight inches was killed on the river-bank, they said, as he was about to partake of his favorite supper, a negro sleeping on the sand. It was enough for Eliza when she heard of this preference for those of her color, and she duly stampeded. She was not well up in the habits of animals, and having seen the alligators crawling over the mud of the river banks, she believed they were so constituted that at night they could take long tramps over the country. She used to assure me that she nightly heard them crawling around the house. One night, when some fearful sounds issued from the cavernous depths of the old cistern, she ran to one of the old negroes of the place, her carefully braided wool rising from her head in consternation, and called out, “Jest listen! jest listen!” The old mammy quieted her by, “Oh la, honey, don’t you be skeart; nothin’s goin’ to hurt you; them’s only bull-toads.” This information, though it quieted Eliza’s fears, did not make the cistern-water any more enjoyable to us.
The houses along Red River were raised from the ground on piles, as the soil was too soft and porous for cellars. Before the fences were destroyed and the place fell into dilapidation, there might have been a lattice around the base of the building, but now it was gone. Though this open space under the house gave vent for what air was stirring, it also offered free circulation to pigs, that ran grunting and squealing back and forth, and even the calves sought its grateful shelter from the sun and flies. And, oh, the mosquitoes! Others have exhausted adjectives in trying to describe them, and until I came to know those of the Missouri River at Fort Lincoln, Dakota, I joined in the general testimony, that the Red River of the South could not be outdone. The bayous about us, filled with decaying vegetable matter, and surrounded with marshy ground, and the frequent rapid fall of the river, leaving banks of mud, all bred mosquitoes, or gallinippers, as the darkies called them. Eliza took counsel as to the best mode of extermination, and brought old kettles with raw cotton into our room, from which proceeded such smudges and such odors as would soon have wilted a Northern mosquito; but it only resulted in making us feel like a piece of dried meat hanging in a smoke-house, while the undisturbed insect winged its way about our heads, singing as it swirled and dipped and plunged its javelin into our defenseless flesh. There were days there, as at Fort Lincoln, when the wind, blowing in a certain direction, brought such myriads of them that I was obliged to beat a retreat under the netting that enveloped the high, broad bed, which is a specialty of the extreme South, and with my book, writing or sewing, listened triumphantly to the clamoring army beating on the outside of the bars. The General made fun of me thus enthroned, when he returned from office work; but I used to reply that he could afford to remain unprotected, if the greedy creatures could draw their sustenance from his veins without leaving a sting.
At the rear of our house were two rows of negro quarters, which Eliza soon penetrated, and afterward begged me to visit. Only the very old and worthless servants remained. The owners of the place on which we were living had three other sugar plantations in the valley, from one of which alone 2,300 hogsheads of sugar were shipped in one season, and at the approach of the army 500 able-bodied negroes were sent into Texas. Eliza described the decamping of the owner of the plantation thus, “Oh, Miss Libbie, the war made a mighty scatter.” The poor creatures left were in desperate straits. One, a bed-ridden woman, having been a house-servant, was intelligent for one of her race. After Eliza had taken me the rounds, I piloted the General, and he found that, though the very old woman did not know her exact age, she could tell him of events that she remembered when she was in New Orleans with her mistress, which enabled him to calculate her years to be almost a hundred. Three old people claimed to remember “Washington’s war.” I look back to our visit to her little cabin, where we sat beside her bed, as one of vivid interest. The old woman knew little of the war, and no one had told her of the proclamation until our arrival. We were both much moved when, after asking us questions, she said to me, “And, Missey, is it really true that I is free?” Then she raised her eyes to heaven, and blessed the Lord for letting her live to see the day. The General, who had to expostulate with Eliza sometimes for her habit of feeding every one out of our supplies, whether needy or not, had no word to say now. Our kitchen could be full of grizzly, tottering old wrecks, and he only smiled on the generous dispenser of her master’s substance. Indeed, he had them fed all the time we stayed there, and they dragged their tattered caps from their old heads, and blessed him as we left, for what he had done, and for the food that he provided for them after we were gone.
It was at Alexandria that I first visited a negro prayer-meeting. As we sat on the gallery one evening, we heard the shouting and singing, and quietly crept round to the cabin where the exhorting and groaning were going on. My husband stood with uncovered head, reverencing their sincerity, and not a muscle of his face moved, though it was rather difficult to keep back a smile at the grotesqueness of the scene. The language and the absorbed manner in which these old slaves held communion with their Lord, as if He were there in person, and told Him in simple but powerful language their thanks that the day of Jubilee had come, that their lives had been spared to see freedom come to His people, made us sure that a faith that brought their Saviour down in their midst was superior to that of the more civilized, who send petitions to a throne that they themselves surround with clouds of doctrine and doubt. Though they were so poor and helpless, and seemingly without anything to inspire gratitude, evidently there were reasons in their own minds for heartfelt thanks, as there was no mistaking the genuineness of feeling when they sang:
Old as some of these people were, their religion took a very energetic form. They swayed back and forth as they sat about the dimly lighted cabin, clapped their hands spasmodically, and raised their eyes to heaven in moments of absorption. There were those among the younger people who jumped up and down as the “power” possessed them, and the very feeblest uttered groans, and quavered out the chorus of the old tunes, in place of the more active demonstrations for which their rheumatic old limbs now unfitted them. When, afterward, my husband read to me newspaper accounts of negro camp-meetings or prayer-meetings graphically written, no description seemed exaggerated to us; and he used to say that nothing compared with that night when we first listened to those serious, earnest old centenarians, whose feeble voices still quavered out a tune of gratitude, as, with bent forms and bowed heads, they stood leaning on their canes and crutches.
As the heat became more overpowering, I began to make excuses for the slip-shod manner of living of the Red River people. Active as was my temperament, climatic influences told, and I felt that I should have merited the denunciation of the antique woman in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” of “Heow shiftless!” It was hard to move about in the heat of the day, but at evening we all went for a ride. It seemed to me a land of enchantment. We had never known such luxuriance of vegetation. The valley of the river extended several miles inland, the foliage was varied and abundant, and the sunsets had deeper, richer colors than any at the North. The General, getting such constant pleasure out of nature, and not in the least minding to express it, was glad to hear even the prosaic one of our number, who rarely cared for color or scenery, go into raptures over the gorgeous orange and red of that Southern sky. We sometimes rode for miles along the country roads, between hedges of osage-orange on one side, and a double white rose on the other, growing fifteen feet high. The dew enhanced the fragrance, and a lavish profusion was displayed by nature in that valley, which was a constant delight to us. Sometimes my husband and I remained out very late, loth to come back to the prosy, uninteresting town, with its streets flecked with bits of cotton, evidences of the traffic of the world, as the levee was now piled up with bales ready for shipment. Once the staff crossed with us to the other side of the river, and rode out through more beautiful country roads, to what was still called Sherman Institute. General Sherman had been at the head of this military school before the war, but it was subsequently converted into a hospital. It was in a lonely and deserted district, and the great empty stone building, with its turreted corners and modern architecture, seemed utterly incongruous in the wild pine forest that surrounded it. We returned to the river, and visited two forts on the bank opposite Alexandria. They were built by a Confederate officer who used his Federal prisoners for workmen. The General took in at once the admirable situation selected, which commanded the river for many miles. He thoroughly appreciated, and endeavored carefully to explain to me, how cleverly the few materials at the disposal of the impoverished South had been utilized. The moat about the forts was the deepest our officers had ever seen. Closely as my husband studied the plan and formation, he said it would have added greatly to his appreciation, had he then known, what he afterward learned, that the Confederate engineer who planned this admirable fortification was one of his classmates at West Point, of whom he was very fond. In 1864 an immense expedition of our forces was sent up the Red River, to capture Shreveport and open up the great cotton districts of Texas. It was unsuccessful, and the retreat was rendered impossible by low water, while much damage was done to our fleet by the very Confederate forts we were now visiting. A dam was constructed near Alexandria, and the squadron was saved from capture or annihilation by this timely conception of a quick-witted Western man, Colonel Joseph Bailey. The dam was visible from the walls of the forts, where we climbed for a view.
As we resumed our ride to the steamer, the General, who was usually an admirable pathfinder, proposed a new and shorter road; and liking variety too much to wish to travel the same country twice over, all gladly assented. Everything went very well for a time. We were absorbed in talking, noting new scenes on the route, or, as was our custom when riding off from the public highway, we sang some chorus; and thus laughing, singing, joking, we galloped over the ground thoughtlessly into the very midst of serious danger. Apparently, nothing before us impeded our way. We knew very little of the nature of the soil in that country, but had become somewhat accustomed to the bayous that either start from the river or appear suddenly inland, quite disconnected from any stream. On that day we dashed heedlessly to the bank of a wide bayou that poured its waters into the Red River. Instead of thinking twice, and taking the precaution to follow its course farther up into the country, where the mud was dryer and the space to cross much narrower, we determined not to delay, and prepared to go over. The most venturesome dashed first on to this bit of dried slough, and though the crust swayed and sunk under the horses’ flying feet, it still seemed caked hard enough to bear every weight. There were seams and fissures in portions of the bayou, through which the moist mud oozed; but these were not sufficient warning to impetuous people. Another and another sprang over the undulating soil. Having reached the other side, they rode up and down the opposite bank shouting to us where they thought it the safest to cross, and of course interlarded their directions with good-natured scoffing about hesitation, timidity, and so on. The General, never second in anything when he could help it, remained behind to fortify my sinking heart and urge me to undertake the crossing with him. He reminded me how carefully Custis Lee had learned to follow and to trust to him, and he would doubtless plant his hoofs in the very tracks of his own horse. Another of our party tried to bolster up my courage, assuring me that if the heavy one among us was safely on the other bank, my light weight might be trusted. I dreaded making the party wait until we had gone further up the bayou, and might have mustered up the required pluck had I not met with trepidation on the part of my horse. His fine, delicate ears told me, as plainly as if he could speak, that I was asking a great deal of him. We had encountered quicksands together in the bed of a Virginia stream, and both horse and rider were recalling the fearful sensation when the animal’s hindlegs sank, leaving his body engulfed in the soil. With powerful struggles with his forefeet and muscular shoulders, we plunged to the right and left, and found at last firm soil on which to escape. With such a recollection still fresh, as memory is sure to retain terrors like that, it was hardly a wonder that we shrank from the next step. His trembling flanks shook as much as the unsteady hand that held his bridle. He quivered from head to foot, and held back. I urged, and patted his neck, while we both continued to shiver on the brink. The General laughed at the two cowards we really were, but still gave us time to get our courage up to the mark. The officer remaining with us continued to encourage me with assurances that there was “not an atom of danger,” and finally, with a bound, shouting out, “Look how well I shall go over!” sprang upon the vibrating crust. In an instant, with a crack like a pistol, the thin layer of solid mud broke, and down went the gay, handsomely caparisoned fellow, engulfed to his waist in the foul black crust. There was at once a commotion. With no ropes, it was hard to effect his release. His horse helped him most, struggling frantically for the bank, while the officers, having flung themselves off from their animals to rush to his rescue, brought poles and tree branches, which the imbedded man was not slow to grasp and drag himself from the perilous spot when only superhuman strength could deliver him, as the mud of a bayou sucks under its surface with great rapidity anything with which it comes in contact. As soon as the officer was dragged safely on to firm earth, a shout went up that rent the air with its merriment. Scarcely any one spoke while they labored to save the man’s life, but once he was out of peril, the rescuers felt their hour had come. They called out to him, in tones of derision, the vaunting air with which he said just before his engulfment, “Look at me; see how I go over!” He was indeed a sorry sight, plastered from head to foot with black mud. Frightened as I was — for the trembling had advanced to shivering, and my chattering teeth and breathless voice were past my control — I still felt that little internal tremor of laughter that somehow pervades one who has a sense of the ludicrous in very dangerous surroundings.
I had certainly made a very narrow escape, for it would have been doubly hard to extricate me. The riding habits in those days were very long, and loaded so with lead to keep them down in high winds — and, I may add, in furious riding — that it was about all I could do to lift my skirt when I put it on.
I held my horse with a snaffle, to get good, smooth going out of him, and my wrists became pretty strong; but in that slough I would have found them of little avail, I fear. There remained no opposition to seeking a narrower part of the bayou, above where I had made such an escape, and there was still another good result of this severe lesson after that: when we came to such ominous-looking soil, Custis Lee and his mistress were allowed all the shivering on the brink that their cowardice produced, while the party scattered to investigate the sort of foundation we were likely to find, before we attempted to plunge over a Louisiana quagmire.
The bayous were a strange feature of that country. Often without inlet or outlet, a strip of water appeared, black and sluggish, filled with logs, snags, masses of underbrush and leaves. The banks, covered with weeds, noisome plants and rank tangled vegetation, seemed the dankest, darkest, most weird and mournful spots imaginable, a fit home for ghouls and bogies. There could be no more appropriate place for a sensational novelist to locate a murder. After a time I became accustomed to these frequently occurring water-ways, but it took me a good while to enjoy going fishing on them. The men were glad to vary their days by dropping a line in that vile water, and I could not escape their urging to go, though I was excused from fishing.
On one occasion we went down the river on a steamer, the sailors dragging the small boats over the strip of land between the river and the bayou, and all went fishing or hunting. This excursion was one that I am likely to remember forever. The officers, intent on their fishing, were rowed slowly through the thick water, while I was wondering to myself if there could be, anywhere, such a wild jungle of vines and moss as hung from the trees and entangled itself in the mass of weeds and water-plants below. We followed little indentations of the stream, and the boat was rowed into small bays and near dark pools, where the fish are known to stay, and finally we floated. The very limbs of the trees and the gnarled trunks took on human shape, while the drooping moss swayed as if it might be the drapery of a lamia, evolved out of the noisome vapors and floating above us. These fears and imaginings, which would have been put to flight by the assurances of the General, had he not been so intent on his line, proved to be not wholly spectres of the imagination. A mass of logs in front of us seemed to move. They did move, and the alligator, that looked so like a tree-trunk, established his identity by separating himself from the floating timber and making off. It was my scream, for the officers themselves did not enjoy the proximity of the beast, that caused the instant use of the oars and a quick retreat.
I went fishing after that, of course; I couldn’t get out of it; indeed I was supported through my tremors by a pleasure to which a woman cannot be indifferent — that of being wanted on all sorts of excursions. But logs in the water never looked like logs after that; to my distended vision they appeared to writhe with the slow contortions of loathsome animals.
A soldier captured a baby-alligator one day, and the General, thinking to quiet my terror of them by letting me see the reptile “close to,” as the children say, took me down to camp, where the delighted soldier told me how he had caught it, holding on to the tail, which is its weapon. The animal was all head and tail; there seemed to be no intermediate anatomy. He flung the latter member at a hat in so vicious and violent a way, that I believed instantly the story, which I had first received with doubt, of his rapping over a puppy and swallowing him before rescue could come. This pet was in a long tank of water the owner had built, and it gave the soldiers much amusement.
The General was greatly interested in alligator-hunting. It was said that the scales were as thick as a china plate, except on the head, and he began to believe so when he found his balls glancing off the impenetrable hide as if from the side of an ironclad. I suppose it was very exciting, after the officers had yelped and barked like a dog, to see the great monster decoyed from some dark retreat by the sound of his favorite tidbit. The wary game came slowly down the bayou, under fire of the kneeling huntsmen concealed in the underbrush, and was soon despatched. For myself, I should have preferred, had I been consulted, a post of observation in the top of some tree, instead of the boat in which I was being rowed.
There was a great deal to do in those weeks of our detention at Alexandria, during the working hours of the day, in organizing the division of cavalry for the march. Troops that had been serving in the West during the war were brought together at that point from all directions, and an effort was made to form them into a disciplined body. This herculean task gave my husband great perplexity. He wrote to my father that he did not entirely blame the men for the restlessness and insubordination they exhibited, as their comrades, who had enlisted only for the war, had gone home, and, of course, wrote back letters to their friends of the pleasures of reunion with their families and kindred, and the welcome given them by their townspeople. The troops with us had not served out the time of their enlistment, and the Government, according to the strict letter of the law, had a right to the unexpired time for which the men were pledged. Some of the regiments had not known the smell of gunpowder during the entire war, having been stationed in and near Southern cities, and that duty is generally demoralizing. In the reorganizing of this material, every order issued was met with growls and grumbling. It seemed that it had been the custom with some of their officers to issue an order, and then go out and make a speech, explaining the whys and wherefores. One of the colonels came to the General one day at his own quarters, thinking it a better place than the office to make his request. He was a spectacle, and though General Custer was never in after years incautious enough to mention his name, he could not, with his keen sense of the ludicrous, resist a laughing description of the interview. The man was large and bulky in build. Over the breast of a long, loose, untidy linen duster he had spread the crimson sash, as he was officer of the day. A military sword-belt gathered in the voluminous folds of the coat, and from his side hung a parade sword. A slouch hat was crowded down on a shock of bushy hair. One trouser-leg was tucked into his boot, as if to represent one foot in the cavalry; the other, true to the infantry, was down in its proper place. He began his interview by praising his regiment, gave an account of the success with which he was drilling his men, and, leaning confidentially on the General’s knee, told him he “would make them so —— near like regglers you couldn’t tell ’em apart.” Two officers of the regular army were then in command of the two brigades, to one of which this man’s regiment was assigned. But the object of the visit was not solely to praise his regiment; he went on to say that an order had been issued which the men did not like, and he had come up to expostulate. He did not ask to have the order rescinded, but told the General he would like to have him come down and give the reasons to the troops. He added that this was what they expected, and when he issued any command he went out and got upon a barrel and explained it to the boys. My husband listened patiently, but declined, as that manner of issuing orders was hardly in accordance with his ideas of discipline.
The soldiers did not confine their maledictions to the regular officers in command; they openly refused to obey their own officers. One of the colonels (I am glad I have forgotten his name) made a social call at our house. He was in great perturbation of mind, and evidently terrified, as in the preceding night his dissatisfied soldiers had riddled his tent with bullets, and but for his “lying low” he would have been perforated like a sieve. The men supposed they had ended his military career; but at daylight he crept out. The soldiers were punished; but there seemed to be little to expect in the way of obedience if, after four years, they ignored their superiors and took affairs into their own hands. Threats began to make their way to our house. The staff had their tents on the lawn in front of us, and even they tried to persuade the General to lock the doors and bolt the windows, which were left wide open day and night. Failing to gain his consent to take any precautions, they asked me to use my influence; but in such affairs I had little success in persuasion. The servants, and even the orderlies, came to me and solemnly warned me of the threats and the danger that menaced the General. Thoroughly frightened in his behalf, they prefaced their warnings with the old-fashioned sensational language: “This night, at 12 o’clock,” etc. The fixing of the hour for the arrival of the assassin completely unnerved me, as I had not then escaped from the influence that the melodramatic has upon youth. I ran to the General the moment he came from his office duties, to tell him, with tears and agitation, of his peril. As usual, he soothed my fears, but, on this occasion, only temporarily. Still, seeing what I suffered from anxiety, he made one concession, and consented, after much imploring, to put a pistol under his pillow. A complete battery of artillery round our house could not have secured to me more peace of mind than that pistol; for I knew the accuracy of his aim, and I had known too much of his cool, resolute action, in moments of peril, not to be sure that the small weapon would do its work. Peace was restored to the head of our house; he had a respite from the whimpering and begging. I even grew so courageous as to be able to repeat to Eliza, when she came next morning to put the room in order, what the General had said to me, that “barking dogs do not bite.” The mattress was proudly lifted, and the pistol, of which I stood in awe, in spite of my faith in its efficacy, was exhibited to her in triumph. I made wide détours around that side of the bed the rest of the time we remained at Alexandria, afraid of the very weapon to which I was indebted for tranquil hours. The cats, pigs and calves might charge at will under the house. If I mistook them for the approaching adversary I remembered the revolver and was calmed.
Long afterward, during our winter in Texas, my husband began one day to appear mysterious, and assume the suppressed air that invariably prefaced a season of tormenting, when a siege of questions only brought out deeper and obscurer answers to me. Pouting, tossing of the head, and reiterated announcements that I didn’t care a rap, I didn’t want to know, etc., were met by chuckles of triumph and wild juba patting and dancing around the victim, unrestrained by my saying that such was the custom of the savage while torturing his prisoner. Still, he persisted that he had such a good joke on me. And it certainly was: there had not been a round of ammunition in the house that we occupied at Alexandria, neither had that old pistol been loaded during the entire summer!
The soldiers became bolder in their rebellion; insubordination reached a point where it was almost uncontrollable. Reports were sent to General Sheridan, in command of the Department, and he replied to my husband, “Use such summary measures as you deem proper to overcome the mutinous disposition of the individuals in your command.” A Western officer, a stranger to us up to that time, published an account of one of the regiments, which explains what was not clear to us then, as we had come directly from the Army of the Potomac:
“One regiment had suffered somewhat from indifferent field officers, but more from the bad fortune that overtook so many Western regiments in the shape of garrison duty in small squads or squadrons, so scattered as to make each a sort of independent command, which in the end resulted in a loss of discipline, and the ruin of those bonds of sympathy that bound most regiments together. To lead such a regiment into a hotly contested fight would be a blessing, and would effectually set at rest all such trouble; but their fighting had been altogether of the guerrilla kind, and there was no regimental pride of character, simply because there had been no regimental deed of valor. Tired out with the long service, weary with an uncomfortable journey by river from Memphis, sweltering under a Gulf-coast sun, under orders to go farther and farther from home when the war was over, the one desire was to be mustered out and released from a service that became irksome and baleful when a prospect of crushing the enemy no longer existed. All these, added to the dissatisfaction among the officers, rendered the situation truly deplorable. The command had hardly pitched their tents at Alexandria before the spirit of reckless disregard of authority began to manifest itself. The men, singly or in squads, began to go on extemporaneous raids through the adjoining country, robbing and plundering indiscriminately in every direction. They seemed to have no idea that a conquered and subdued people could possibly have any rights that the conquerors were bound to respect. But General Custer was under orders to treat the people kindly and considerately, and he obeyed orders with the same punctiliousness with which he exacted obedience from his command.” The anger and hatred of these troops toward one especial officer culminated in their peremptory demand that he should resign. They drew up a paper, and signed their names. He had not a friend, and sought the commanding officer for protection. This was too pronounced a case of mutiny to be treated with any but the promptest, severest measures, and all who had put their names to the document were placed under arrest. The paper was in reality but a small part of the incessant persecution, which included threats of all kinds against the life of the hated man; but it was written proof that his statements regarding his danger were true.
All but one of those that were implicated apologized, and were restored to duty. A sergeant held out, and refused to acknowledge himself in the wrong. A court-martial tried him and he was sentenced to death. Those who had been associated in the rebellion against their officer were thoroughly frightened, and seriously grieved at the fate to which their comrade had been consigned by their uncontrollable rage, and began to speak among themselves of the wife and children at home. The wife was unconscious that the heartbreaking revelations were on their way; that the saddest of woman’s sorrows, widowhood, was hers to endure, and that her children must bear a tainted name. It came to be whispered about that the doomed man wore on his heart a curl of baby’s hair, that had been cut from his child’s head when he went out to serve his imperiled country. Finally, the wretched, conscience-stricken soldiers sued for pardon for their condemned companion, and the very man against whom the enmity had been cherished, and who owed his life to an accident, busied himself in collecting the name of every man in the command, begging clemency for the imperiled sergeant. Six days passed, and there was increased misery among the men, who felt themselves responsible for their comrade’s life. The prayer for pardon, with its long roll of names, had been met by the General with the reply that the matter would be considered.
The men now prepared for vengeance. They lay around the camp-fires, or grouped themselves in tents, saying that the commanding officer would not dare to execute the sentence of the court-martial, while messages of this kind reached my husband in cowardly, roundabout ways, and threats and menaces seemed to fill the air. The preparation for the sergeant’s execution was ordered, and directions given that a deserter, tried by court-martial and condemned, should be shot on the same day. This man, a vagabond and criminal before his enlistment, had deserted three or four times, and his sentence drew little pity from his comrades. At last dawned in the lovely valley that dreadful day, which I recall now with a shudder. It was impossible to keep me from knowing that an execution was to occur. There was no place to send me. The subterfuges by which my husband had kept me from knowing the tragic or the sorrowful in our military life heretofore, were of no avail now. Fortunately, I knew nothing of the petition for pardon; nothing, thank God! of the wife at her home, or of the curl of baby’s hair that was rising and falling over the throbbing, agonized heart of the condemned father. And how the capacity we may have for embracing the sorrows of the whole world disappears when our selfish terrors concentrate on the safety of our own loved ones!
The sergeant’s life was precious as a life; but the threats, the ominous and quiet watching, the malignant, revengeful faces of the troops about us, told me plainly that another day might darken my life forever, and I was consumed by my own torturing suspense. Rumors of the proposed murder of my husband reached me through the kitchen, the orderlies about our quarters, and at last through the staff. They had fallen into the fashion of my husband, and spared me anything that was agitating or alarming; but this was a time, they felt, when all possible measures should be taken to protect the General, and they implored me to induce him to take precautions for his safety. My pleading was of no avail. He had ordered the staff to follow him unarmed to the execution. They begged him to wear his side-arms, or at least permit them the privilege, in order that they might defend him; but he resolutely refused. How trivial seem all attempts to describe the agonies of mind that filled that black hour when the General and his staff rode from our lawn toward the dreaded field!
Eliza, ever thoughtful of me, hovered round the bed, where I had buried my head in the pillows to deaden the sound of the expected volley. With terms of endearment and soothing, she sought to assure me that nothing would happen to the General. “Nothin’ ever does, you know, Miss Libbie,” she said, her voice full of the mother in us all when we seek to console. And yet that woman knew all the plans for the General’s death, all the venom in the hearts of those who surrounded us, and she felt no hope for his safety.
Pomp and circumstance are not alone for “glorious war,” but in army life must also be observed in times of peace. There are good reasons for it, I suppose. The more form and solemnity, the deeper the impression; and as this day was to be a crucial one, in proving to the insubordinate that order must eventually prevail, nothing was hurried, none of the usual customs were omitted. Five thousand soldiers formed a hollow square in a field near the town. The staff, accustomed to take a position and remain with their General near the opening left by the division, followed with wonder and alarm as he rode slowly around the entire line, so near the troops that a hand might have been stretched out to deal a fatal blow. The wagon, drawn by four horses, bearing the criminals sitting on their coffins, followed at a slow pace, escorted by the guard and the firing-party, with reversed arms. The coffins were placed in the centre of the square, and the men seated upon them at the foot of their open graves. Eight men, with livid countenances and vehemently beating hearts, took their places in front of their comrades, and looked upon the blanched, despairing faces of those whom they were ordered to kill. The provost-marshal carried their carbines off to a distance, loaded seven, and placed a blank cartridge in the eighth, thus giving the merciful boon of permanent uncertainty as to whose was the fatal shot. The eyes of the poor victims were then bandaged, while thousands of men held their breath as the tragedy went on. The still, Southern air of that garden on earth was unmoved by any sound, save the unceasing notes of the mocking-birds that sang night and day in the hedges. Preparations had been so accurately made that there was but one word to be spoken after the reading of the warrant for execution, and that the last that those most miserable and hopeless of God’s creatures should hear on earth.
There was still one more duty for the provost-marshal before the fatal word, “Fire!” was sounded. But one person understood his movements as he stealthily drew near the sergeant, took his arm, and led him aside. In an instant his voice rang out the fatal word, and the deserter fell back dead, in blessed ignorance that he went into eternity alone; while the sergeant swooned in the arms of the provost-marshal. When he was revived, it was explained to him that the General believed him to have been the victim of undue influence, and had long since determined upon the pardon; but some punishment he thought necessary, and he was also determined that the soldiers should not feel that he had been intimidated from performing his duty because his own life was in peril. It was ascertained afterward that the sergeant’s regiment had gone out that day with loaded carbines and forty rounds besides; but the knowledge of this would have altered no plan, nor would it have induced the commanding officer to reveal to any but his provost-marshal the final decision.
Let us hope that in these blessed days of peace some other tiny curls are nestling in a grandfather’s neck, instead of lying over his heart, as did the son’s in those days, when memories and mementos were all we had of those we loved.
General Custer not only had his own Division to organize and discipline, but was constantly occupied in trying to establish some sort of harmony between the Confederate soldiers, the citizens, and his command. The blood of everyone was at boiling-point then. The soldiers had not the grief of returning to homes desolated by war, because Louisiana escaped much and Texas all of the devastation of campaigns; but they came home obliged to begin the world again. The negroes of the Red River country were not an easy class to manage in days of slavery. We heard that all desperate characters in the border States had been sold into Louisiana, because of its comparative isolation, and that the most ungovernable cases were congregated in the valley of the Red River. However that may have been, it certainly was difficult to make them conform to the new state of affairs. The master, unaccustomed to freedom, still treated the negro as a slave. The colored man, inflated with freedom and reveling in idleness, would not accept common directions in labor. How even the South tolerates a name that it once hated, in the prosperity of the new regime, and in the prospect of their splendid future! How fresh the enthusiasm in the present day, at any mention of the liberator of the slaves!
But when we consider through what bungling errors we groped blindly in those early days of emancipation, we might well wish that Abraham Lincoln could have been spared to bring his justice and gentle humanity to bear upon the adjusting of that great transition from slavery to freedom.
At the least intimation of a “show” or a funeral — which is a festivity to them, on account of the crowds that congregate — off went the entire body of men, even if the crops were in danger of spoiling for want of harvesting. It was a time in our history that one does not like to look back upon. The excitement into which the land was thrown, not only by war, but by the puzzling question of how to reconcile master to servant and servant to master — for the colored people were an element most difficult to manage, owing to their ignorance and the sudden change of relations to their former owners — all this created new and perplexing problems, which were the order of each day.
The Confederate soldiers had to get their blood down from fever heat. Some took advantage of the fact that the war was over and the Government was ordering its soldiers into the State, not as invaders but as pacifiers, to drag their sabres through the street and talk loudly on the corners in belligerent language, without fear of the imprisonment that in war-times had so quickly followed.
The General was obliged to issue simultaneous orders to his own men, demanding their observance of every right of the citizen, and to the returned Confederate soldiers, assuring them that the Government had not sent troops into their country as belligerents, but insisting upon certain obligations, as citizens, from them.
In an order to the Division, he said: “Numerous complaints having reached these headquarters, of depredations having been committed by persons belonging to this command, all officers and soldiers are hereby urged to use every exertion to prevent the committal of acts of lawlessness, which, if permitted to pass unpunished, will bring discredit upon the command. Now that the war is virtually ended, the rebellion put down, and peace about to be restored to our entire country, let not the lustre of the past four years be dimmed by a single act of misconduct toward the persons or property of those with whom we may be brought in contact. In the future, and particularly on the march, the utmost care will be exercised to save the inhabitants of the country in which we may be located from any molestation whatever. Every violation of order regarding foraging will be punished. The Commanding-General is well aware that the number of those upon whom the enforcement of this order will be necessary will be small, and he trusts that in no case will it be necessary. All officers and soldiers of this command are earnestly reminded to treat the inhabitants of this Department with conciliation and kindness, and particularly is this injunction necessary when we are brought in contact with those who lately were in arms against us. You can well afford to be generous and magnanimous.”
In another order, addressed to the Confederate soldiers, he said: “It is expected, and it will be required, that those who were once our enemies, but are now to be treated as friends, will in return refrain from idle boasts, which can only result in harm to themselves. If there still be any who, blind to the events of the past four years, continue to indulge in seditious harangues, all such disturbers of the peace will be arrested, and brought to these headquarters.”
Between the troublesome negroes, the unsubdued Confederates, and the lawless among our own soldiers, life was by no means an easy problem to solve. A boy of twenty-five was then expected to act the subtle part of statesman and patriot, and conciliate and soothe the citizen; the part of stern and unrelenting soldier, punishing evidences of unsuppressed rebellion on the part of the conquered; and at the same time the vigilant commanding officer, exacting obedience from his own disaffected soldiery.
As for the positions he filled toward the negro, they were varied — counseling these duties to those who employed them, warning them from idleness, and urging them to work, feeding and clothing the impoverished and the old. It seems to me it was a position combining in one man doctor, lawyer, taskmaster, father and provider. The town and camp swarmed with the colored people, lazily lying around waiting for the Government to take care of them, and it was necessary to issue a long order to the negroes, from which I make an extract:
“Since the recent advent of the United States forces into this vicinity, many of the freedmen of the surrounding country seem to have imbibed the idea that they will no longer be required to labor for their own support and the support of those depending upon them. Such ideas cannot be tolerated, being alike injurious to the interests and welfare of the freedmen and their employers. Freedmen must not look upon military posts as places of idle resort, from which they can draw their means of support. Their proper course is to obtain employment, if possible, upon the same plantations where they were previously employed. General Order No. 23, Headquarters Department of the Gulf, March 11, 1865, prescribes the rules of contract in the case of these persons. The coming crops, already maturing, require cultivation, and will furnish employment for all who are disposed to be industrious. Hereafter, no freedmen will be permitted to remain in the vicinity of the camps who are not engaged in some proper employment.”
Standing alone in the midst of all this confusion, and endeavoring to administer justice on all sides, General Custer had by no means an enviable task. I do not wonder now that he kept his perplexities as much as possible from me. He wished to spare me anxiety, and the romp or the gallop over the fragrant field, which he asked for as soon as office-hours were over, was probably more enjoyable with a woman with uncorrugated brow. Still, I see now the puzzled shake of the head as he said, “A man may do everything to keep a woman from knowledge of official matters, and then she gets so confounded keen in putting little trifles together, the first thing you know she is reading a man’s very thoughts.” Yet it does not strike me as remarkable keenness on the part of a woman if, after the experience she gains in following the bugle a time, and with her wits sharpened by affection, she decides that a move is about to take place. The General used to turn quickly, almost suspiciously, to me and say, as if I had been told by the staff, “How did you find out we were ordered to move?” — when he had been sending for the quartermaster and the commissary, and looking at his maps, for ever so long before! It was not much of a mystery to solve when the quartermaster meant transportation, the commissary food, and the maps a new route.
After determined efforts to establish discipline, order began to be evolved out of the chaos, and the men resigned themselves to their hard fate. Much as I feared them, and greatly as I had resented their attempt to lay all their present detention and compulsory service to my husband, I could not but agree with him when he argued for them that it was pretty hard not to be allowed to go home, when the other soldiers had returned to receive the rewards of the victorious. They wrote home abusive newspaper articles, which were promptly mailed to the General by unknown hands, but of which he took no notice. I recollect only once, after that, knowing of an absolutely disagreeable encounter. During the following winter in Texas, my husband came quickly into our room one morning, took my riding-whip and returned across the hall to his office. In a short time he as quickly returned, and restored it to its place, and I extracted from him an explanation. Among the newspaper articles sent him from the North, there was an attack on his dear, quiet, unoffending father and mother. He sent for the officer who was credited with the authorship, and, after his denial of the article, told him what he had intended to do had he been guilty of such an assault; that he was prepared for any attack on himself, but nothing would make him submit to seeing his gray-haired parents assailed. Then he bade him good-morning, and bowed him out.
The effect of the weeks of discipline on the Division was visible on our march into Texas. The General had believed that the men would eventually conform to the restrictions, and he was heartily relieved and glad to find that they did. The Texans were amazed at the absence of the lawlessness they had expected from our army, and thankful to find that the Yankee column was neither devastating nor even injuring their hitherto unmolested State, for the war on land had not reached Texas. The troops were not permitted to live on the country, as is the usage of war, and only one instance occurred, during the entire march, of a soldier’s simply helping himself to a farmer’s grain. Every pound of food and forage was bought by the quartermaster. It was hard to realize that the column marching in a methodical and orderly manner was, so short a time before, a lawless and mutinous command.
They hated us, I suppose. That is the penalty the commanding officer generally pays for what still seems to me the questionable privilege of rank and power. Whatever they thought, it did not deter us from commending, among ourselves, the good material in those Western men, which so soon made them orderly and obedient soldiers.
But I have anticipated somewhat, and must go back and say good-by to that rich, flower-scented valley. It had been a strange experience to me. I had no woman but Eliza to whom I could speak. The country and all its customs seemed like another world, into which I had unexpectedly entered. I had spent many hours of anxiety about my husband’s safety. But the anxiety, heat, mosquitoes, poor water, alligators, mutiny, all combined, failed to extract a complaint. There was not an atom of heroism in this; it was undeniably the shrewd cunning of which women are accused, for I lived in hourly dread of being sent to Texas by the other route, via New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The General had been advised by letters from home to send me that way, on the ground that I could not endure a march at that season. Officers took on a tone of superiority, and said that they would not think of taking their wives into such a wilderness. My fate hung in the balance, and under such circumstances it was not strange that the inconveniences of our stay on Red River were not even so much as acknowledged. It is true that I was not then a veteran campaigner, and the very newness of the hardships would, doubtless, have called forth a few sighs, had not the fear of another separation haunted me. It is astonishing how much grumbling is suppressed by the fear of something worse awaiting you. In the decision which direction I was to take, I won; my husband’s scruples were overcome by my unanswerable arguments and his own inclination.
I prepared to leave Alexandria with regret, for the pleasures of our stay had outnumbered the drawbacks. It was our first knowledge that the earth could be so lovely and so lavishly laden with what began to be tropical luxuriance. I do not recall the names of all the birds, but the throats of all of them seemed to be filled with song. In a semicircle on the lawn in front of our house, grew a thick hedge of crape myrtle, covered with fragrant blossoms. Here the mocking-birds fearlessly built their nests, and the stillest hour of the night was made melodious with the song that twilight had been too short to complete. Really, the summer day there was too brief to tell all that these birds had to say to their mates.
To the General, who would have had an aviary had it been just the thing for a mounted regiment, all this song, day and night, was enchanting. In after years he never forgot those midnight serenades, and in 1873 he took a mocking-bird into the bleak climate of Dakota. Eliza mildly growled at “sich nonsense” as “toting round a bird, when ‘twas all folks like us could do to get transportation for a cooking-kit.” Nevertheless, she took excellent care of the feathered tribe that we owned.
Among the fruits we first ate in Louisiana were fresh figs, which we picked from the tree. It was something to write home about, but at the same time we wished that instead we might have a Northern apple.
The time came to bid farewell to birds, fruits, jasmine and rose, and prepare for a plunge into the wilderness — much talked of with foreboding prophecies by the citizens, but a hundred times worse in reality than the gloomiest predictions.
It was known that the country through which we were to travel, having been inaccessible to merchants, and being even then infested with guerrillas, had large accumulations of cotton stored at intervals along the route that was marked out for our journey. Speculators arrived from New Orleans, and solicited the privilege of following with wagons that they intended to load with cotton. They asked no favors, desiring only the protection that the cavalry column would afford, and expected to make their way in our wake until the seaboard was reached and they could ship their purchases by the Gulf of Mexico. But their request was refused, as the General hardly thought it a fitting use to which to put the army. Then they assailed the quartermaster, offering twenty-five thousand dollars to the General and him, as a bribe. But both men laughed to scorn that manner of getting rich, and returned to their homes the year after as poor as when they had left there five years before. As I think of the instances that came under my knowledge, when quartermasters could have made fortunes, it is a marvel to me that they so often resisted all manner of temptation. The old tale, perhaps dating back to the War of 1812, still applies, as it is a constantly recurring experience. There was once a wag in the quartermaster’s department, and even when weighted down with grave responsibility of a portion of the Government treasury, he still retained a glimmer of fun. Contractors lay in wait for him with bribes, which his spirit of humor allowed to increase, even though the offers were insults to his honor. Finally, reaching a very large sum, in sheer desperation he wrote to the War Department: “In the name of all the gods, relieve me from this Department; they’ve almost got up to my price.” Civilians hardly realize that, even in times of peace like this, when the disbursements will not compare with the money spent in years of war, between eight and nine millions of dollars are yearly paid out by the quartermaster’s department alone. Since the war the embezzlements have been hardly worthy of so serious a name, amounting to but a few hundred dollars, all told.
The General had an ambulance fitted up as a traveling-wagon for me; the seats so arranged that the leather backs could be unstrapped at the sides and laid down so as to form a bed, if I wished to rest during the march. There was a pocket for my needlework and book, and a box for luncheon, while my traveling-bag and shawl were strapped at the side, convenient, but out of the way. It was quite a complete little house of itself. One of the soldiers, who was interested in the preparations for my comfort, covered a canteen with leather, adding of his own accord, in fine stitchery in the yellow silk used by the saddlers, “Lady Custer.” Each day of our journey this lofty distinction became more and more incongruous and amusing, as I realized the increasing ugliness, for which the rough life was, in a measure, responsible. By the time we reached the end of our march there was a yawning gulf between the soldier’s title and the appearance of the owner of the canteen. The guide that had been employed was well up in all the devices for securing what little measure of comfort was to be found in overland travel. I followed his suggestion, and after the canteen was filled in the morning, it was covered with a piece of wet blanket and hung, with the cork left out, to the roof of the wagon, in order to catch all the air that might be stirring. Under this damp treatment the yellow letters of “Lady Custer” faded out as effectually as did all semblance of whatever delicacy of coloring the owner once possessed.
A short time after we set out, we left the valley of the Red River, with its fertile plantations, and entered a pine forest on the table-land, through which our route lay for a hundred and fifty miles. A great portion of the higher ground was sterile, and the forest much of the way was thinly inhabited. We had expected to hire a room in any farm-house at which we halted at the end of each day’s journey, and have the privilege of sleeping in a bed. Camping on the ground was an old story to me after our long march in Virginia; but, with the prospect of using the bosom of mother Earth as a resting-place for the coming thirty years, we were willing to improve any opportunity to be comfortable when we could. The cabins that we passed on the first day discouraged us. Small, low, log huts, consisting of one room each, entirely separated and having a floored open space between them, were the customary architecture. The windows and doors were filled with the vacant faces of the untidy children of the poor white trash and negroes. The men and women slouched and skulked around the cabins out of sight, and every sign of abject, loathsome poverty was visible, even in the gaunt and famished pigs that rooted around the doorway. I determined to camp out until we came to more inviting habitations, which, I regret to say, we did not find on that march. We had not brought the thin mattress and pillows that had been made for our traveling-wagon in Virginia; but the hardest sort of resting-place was preferable to braving the squalor of the huts along our way.
My husband rolled his overcoat for my pillow, telling me that a soldier slept like a top with such an one, and it was much better than a saddle, in the hollow of which he had often laid his flaxen top-knot. But a woman cannot make herself into a good soldier all in a minute. If one takes hold of the thick, unwieldy material that Uncle Sam puts into the army overcoat, some idea can be gained of the rocky roll it makes when doing duty as a resting-place; and anyone whose neck has made the steep incline from head to shoulder that this substitute for a pillow necessitates, is apt to waken less patriotic than when he retired. After repeated efforts to get accustomed to this, buoyed up by my husband’s praise of my veteran-like behavior, I confided to Eliza that I should not be ungrateful for any device she might think out for my relief, if she would promise not to tell that I had spoken to her. The next day she gathered moss from the trees along the stream, and I felt that I could serve my country just as well by resting on this soft bed. I had begged off from using a tent in that country, as there seemed to be no insect that was not poisonous, and even many of the vines and underbrush were dangerous to touch. My husband had the wagon placed in front of the tent every night when our march was ended, and lifted me in and out of the high sleeping-room, where I felt that nothing venomous could climb up and sting. The moss, though very comfortable, often held in its meshes the horned toad, a harmless little mottled creature that had two tiny horns, which it turned from side to side in the gravest, most knowing sort of way. The officers sent these little creatures home by mail as curiosities, and, true to their well-known indifference to air, they jumped out of the box at the journey’s end in just the same active manner that they had hopped about under our feet. Still, harmless as they were held to be, they were not exactly my choice as bed-fellows, any more than the lizards the Texans call swifts, which also haunted the tangles of the moss. Eliza tried to shake out and beat it thoroughly, in order to dislodge any inhabitants, before making my bed. One night I found that hay had been substituted, and felt myself rich in luxury. I remembered gladly that hay was so clean, so free from all natural history, and closed my eyes in gratitude. And then it smelt so good, so much better than the damp, vegetable odor of the moss. A smudge at the end of the wagon was rising about me to drive away mosquitoes, and though the smoke scalds the eyes in this heroic remedy, I still comforted myself with the fresh odor of the hay, and quietly thought that life in a manger was not the worst fate that could come to one. All this pervading sense of comfort was slightly disturbed in the night, when I was awakened by a munching and crunching at my ear. Wisps of hay were lying over the side of the wagon, as it was too warm to leave the curtains down, and the attraction proved too much for a stray mule, which was quietly eating the pillow from under my head. It was well our tent and wagon were placed to one side, quite off by themselves, for the General would have waked the camp with his peals of laughter at my indignation and momentary fright. It did not need much persuasion to rout the mule after all the hubbub my husband made with his merriment, but I found that I inclined to the moss bed after that.
As we advanced farther into the forest, Eliza received further whispered confidences about my neck, stiff and sore from the roll of patriotic blue that was still the rest for my tired head, and she resolved to make an attempt to get a feather pillow. One day she discovered, near our camp, a house that was cleaner than the rest we had seen, and began negotiations with the mistress. She offered a “greenback,” as we had no silver then; but they had never seen one, and would not believe that it was legal money. Finally, the woman said that, if we had any calico or muslin for sale, she would exchange her pillows for either the one or the other. Eliza forgot her diplomacy, and rather indignantly explained that we were not traveling peddlers. At last, after several trips to and from our camp, in which I was secretly interested, she made what she thought a successful trade by exchanging some blankets. Like the wag’s description of the first Pullman-car pillows, which he said he lost in his ear, they were diminutive excuses for our idea of what one should be, but I cannot remember anything that ever impressed me as such a luxury; and I was glad to see that, when the pillows were installed in their place, the faith in my patriotism and in my willingness to endure privations was not shaken.
The General was satisfied with his soldiers, and admired the manner in which they endured the trials of that hard experience. His perplexities departed when they took everything so bravely. He tried to arrange our marches every day so that we might not travel over fifteen miles. So far as I can remember, there was no one whose temper and strength were not tried to the uttermost, except my husband. His seeming indifference to excessive heat, his having long before conquered thirst, his apparent unconsciousness of the stings or bites of insects, were powerful aids in encountering those suffocating days. Frequently after a long march, when we all gasped for breath, and in our exhaustion flung ourselves down “anywhere to die,” as we laughingly said, a fresh horse was saddled, and off went the General for a hunt, or to look up the prospects for water in our next day’s journey. If this stifling atmosphere, to which we were daily subjected, disturbed him, we did not know it. He held that grumbling did not mend matters; but I differed with him. I still think a little complaining, when the patience is sorely taxed, eases the troubled soul, though at that time I took good care not to put my theory into practice, for reasons I have explained when the question of my joining the march hung in the balance.
My life in a wagon soon became such an old story that I could hardly believe I had ever had a room. It constantly reminded me of my father. He had opposed my marrying in the army, as I suppose most fond fathers do. His opposition caused me great suspense, and I thought, as all the very young are apt to, that it was hopeless misery. Now that the struggle was ended, I began to recall the arguments of my parents. Father’s principal one, mindful of the deprivations he had seen officers’ wives endure in Michigan’s early days, was that, after the charm and dazzle of the epaulet had passed, I might have to travel “in a covered wagon like an emigrant.” I told this reason of my father’s to my husband, and he often laughed over it. When I was lifted from my rather lofty apartment, and set down in the tent in the dark — and before dawn in a pine forest it is dark — the candle revealed a twinkle in the eye of a man who could joke before breakfast. “I wonder what your father would say now,” was the oft-repeated remark, while the silent partner scrabbled around to get ready for the day. There was always a pervading terror of being late, and I could not believe but that it might happen, some day, that thousands of men would be kept waiting because a woman had lost her hair-pins. Imaging the ignominy of any of the little trifles that delay us in getting ourselves together, being the cause of detaining an expedition in its morning start on the march. Fortunately, the soldiers would have been kept in merciful ignorance of the cause of the detention, as a commanding officer is not obliged to explain why he orders the trumpeter to delay the call of “boots and saddles;” but the chagrin would have been just as great on the part of the “camp-follower,” and it would have given the color of truth to the General’s occasional declaration that “it is easier to command a whole division of cavalry than one woman.” I made no protest to this declaration, as I had observed, even in those early days of my married life, that, in matrimonial experiences, the men that make open statements of their wrongs in rather a pompous, boastful way, are not the real sufferers. Pride teaches subtlety in hiding genuine injuries.
Though I had a continued succession of frights, while prowling around the tent before day hunting my things, believing them lost sometimes, and thus being thrown into wild stampedes, I escaped the mortification of detaining the command. The Frenchman’s weariness of a life that was given over to buttoning and unbuttoning, was mine, and in the short time between reveillé and breakfast, I lived through much perturbation of mind, fearing I was behind time, and devoutly wished that women who followed the drum could have been clothed like the feathered tribe, and ready for the wing at a moment’s notice. On this expedition I brought down the art of dressing in a hurry to so fine a point that I could take my bath and dress entirely in seven minutes. My husband timed me one day, without my knowledge, and I had the honor of having this added to a very brief list of my attributes as a soldier. There was a second recommendation, which did duty as a mild plaudit for years afterward. When faithful soldiers are discharged after their term of service has expired, they have papers given them by the Government, with statements of their ability and trustworthiness. Mine consisted in the words usually used in presenting me to a friend. Instead of referring to a few meagre accomplishments which my teachers had struggled to implant, as is the fashion of some exuberant husbands, who proudly introduce their wives to intimate friends, the General usually said, “Oh, I want you to know my wife; she slept four months in a wagon.”
Perhaps some people in the States may not realize that army women have a hard time even in saying their prayers. The closet that the New Testament tells us to frequent is seldom ours, for rarely does our frugal Government allow us one in army quarters large enough to crowd in our few gowns, much less to “enter in and shut the door”; while on a march like that in Texas, devotions would be somewhat disturbed when one kneeled down in a tent, uncertain whether it would be on a centipede or a horned toad. To say a prayer undisturbed, it was necessary to wait until one went to bed. Fortunately, mine were brief, since I had nothing to ask for, as I believed the best of everything on earth had already been given to me. If I was tired, and fell asleep in the midst of my thanks, I could only hope the Heavenly Father would forgive me. I was often so exhausted at night, that it was hard to keep my eyes open after my head had touched the pillow, especially after the acquisition of the blessed feather pillow. An army woman I love, the most consistent and honorable of her sex, was once so worn out after a day of danger and fatigue on a march, that she fell asleep while kneeling beside the bed in the room she occupied, saying her prayers; and there she found herself, still on her knees, when the sun wakened her in the morning.
For exasperating heat, commend me to a pine forest.
Those tall and almost branchless Southern pines were simply smothering. In the fringed tops the wind swayed the delicate limbs, while not a breath descended to us below. We fumed and fussed, but not ill-naturedly, when trying to find a spot in which to take a nap. If we put ourselves in a narrow strip of shadow made by the slender trunk of a tree, remorseless Sol followed persistently, and we drowsily dragged ourselves to another, to be pursued in the same determined manner and stared into instant wakefulness by the burning rays.
The General had reveillé sounded at 2 o’clock in the morning, causing our scamp to remark, sotto voce, that if we were to be routed out in the night, he thought he would eat his breakfast the evening before, in order to save time. It was absolutely necessary to move before dawn, as the moment the sun came in sight the heat was suffocating. It was so dark when we set out that it was with difficulty we reached the main road, from our night’s camp, in safety. My husband tossed me into the saddle, and cautioned me to follow as close as my horse could walk, as we picked our way over logs and through ditches or underbrush. Custis Lee was doglike in his behavior at these times. He seemed to aim to put his hoof exactly in the footprint of the General’s horse. In times of difficulty or moments of peril, he evidently considered that he was following the commanding officer rather than carrying me. I scarcely blamed him, much as I liked to control my own horse, and gladly let the bridle slacken on his neck as he cautiously picked his circuitous way; but once on the main road, the intelligent animal allowed me to take control again. Out of the dark my husband’s voice came cheerily, as if he were riding in a path of sunshine: “Are you all right?” “Give Lee his head.” “Trust that old plug of yours to bring you out ship-shape.” This insult to my splendid, spirited, high-stepping F. F. V. — for he was that among horses, as well as by birth — was received calmly by his owner, especially as the sagacious animal was taking better care of me than I could possibly take of myself, and I spent a brief time in calling out a defense of him through the gloom of the forest. This little diversion was indulged in now and again by the General to provoke an argument, and thus assure himself that I was safe and closely following; and so it went on, before day and after dark; there was no hour or circumstance out of which we did not extract some amusement.
The nights, fortunately, were cool; but such dews fell, and it was so chilly that we were obliged to begin our morning march in thick coats, which were tossed off as soon as the sun rose. The dews drenched the bedding. I was sometimes sure that it was raining in the night, and woke my husband to ask to have the ambulance curtains of our bed lowered; but it was always a false alarm; not a drop of rain fell in that blistering August. I soon learned to shut our clothes in a little valise at night, after undressing in the tent, to ensure dry linen in the penetrating dampness of the morning. My husband lifted me out of the wagon, when reveillé sounded, into the tent, and by the light of a tallow candle I had my bath and got into my clothes, combing my hair straight back, as it was too dark to part it. Then, to keep my shoes from being soaked with the wet grass, I was carried to the dining-tent, and lifted upon my horse afterward.
One of my hurried toilets was stopped short one morning by the loss of the body of my riding-habit. In vain I tossed our few traps about to find it, and finally remembered that I had exchanged the waist for a jacket, and left it under a tree where we had been taking a siesta the day before. Eliza had brought in the blanket, books, and hats, but alas for my dress body! it was hopelessly lost. In a pine forest, dark and thick with fallen trees, what good did one tallow dip do in the hasty search we made? A column of thousands of men could not be detained for a woman’s gown. My husband had asked me to braid the sleeves like his own velvet jacket. Five rows of gilt braid in five loops made a dash of color that he liked, which, though entirely out of place in a thoroughfare, was admissible in our frontier life. He regretted the loss, but insisted on sending for more gilt braid as soon as we were out of the wilderness, and then began to laugh to himself and wonder if the traveler that came after us, not knowing who had preceded him, might not think he had come upon a part of the wardrobe of a circus troupe. It would have been rather serious joking if in the small outfit in my valise I had not brought a jacket, for which, though it rendered me more of a fright than sun and wind had made me, I still was very thankful; for without the happy accident that brought it along, I should have been huddled inside the closed ambulance, waistless and alone. Our looks did not enter into the question very much. All we thought of was how to keep from being prostrated by the heat, and how to get rested after the march for the next day’s task.
We had a unique character for a guide. He was a citizen of Texas, who boasted that not a road or a trail in the State was unfamiliar to him. His mule, Betty, was a trial; she walked so fast that no one could keep up with her, but not faster did she travel than her master’s tongue. As we rode at the head of the column, the sun pouring down upon our heads, we would call out to him, “In heaven’s name, Stillman, how much longer is this to keep up?” meaning, When shall we find a creek on which to camp? “Oh, three miles further you’re sure to find a bold-flowin’ stream,” was his confident reply; and, sure enough, the grass began to look greener, the moss hung from the trees, the pines were varied by beautiful cypress, or some low-branched tree, and hope sprang up in our hearts. The very horses showed, by quickening step, they knew what awaited us. Our scorched and parched throats began to taste, in imagination, what was our idea of a bold-flowing stream — it was cool and limpid, dancing over pebbles on its merry way. We found ourselves in reality in the bed of a dried creek, nothing but pools of muddy water, with a coating of green mold on the surface. The Custers made use of this expression the rest of their lives. If ever we came to a puny, crawling driblet of water, they said, “This must be one of Stillman’s bold-flowing streams.” On we went again, with that fabricator calling out from Betty’s back, “Sho’ to find finest water in the land five miles on!” Whenever he had “been in these parts afore, he had always found at all seasons a roaring torrent.” One day we dragged through forty miles of arid land, and after passing the dried beds of three streams, the General was obliged to camp at last, on account of the exhausted horses, on a creek with pools of muddy, standing water, which Stillman, coming back to the column, described as “rather low.” This was our worst day, and we felt the heat intensely, as we usually finished our march and were in camp before the sun was very high. I do not remember one good drink of water on that march. When it was not muddy or stagnant, it tasted of the roots of the trees. Some one had given my husband some claret for me when we set out, and but for that, I don’t really know how the thirst of the midsummer days could have been endured. The General had already taught himself not to drink between meals, and I was trying to do so. All he drank was his mug of coffee in the early morning and at dinner, and cold tea or coffee, which Eliza kept in a bottle, for luncheon.
The privations did not quench the buoyancy of those gay young fellows. The General and his staff told stories and sang, and a man with good descriptive powers recounted the bills of fare of good dinners and choice viands he had enjoyed, while we knew we had nothing to anticipate in this wilderness but army fare. Sometimes, as we marched along, almost melted with heat, and our throats parched for water, the odor of cucumbers was wafted toward us. Stillman, the guide, being called on for an explanation, as we wondered if we were nearing a farm, slackened Betty, waited for us, and took down our hopes by explaining that it was a certain species of snake, which infested that part of the country. The scorpions, centipedes and tarantulas were daily encountered. I not only grew more and more unwilling to take my nap, after the march was over, under a tree, but made life a burden to my husband till he gave up flinging himself down anywhere to sleep, and induced him to take his rest in the traveling wagon. I had been indolently lying outstretched in a little grateful shade one day, when I was hurriedly roused by some one, and moved to avoid what seemed to me a small, dried twig. It was the most venomous of snakes, called the pine-tree rattlesnake. It was very strange that we all escaped being stung or bitten in the midst of thousands of those poisonous reptiles and insects. One teamster died from a scorpion’s bite, and, unfortunately, I saw his bloated, disfigured body as we marched by. It lay on a wagon, ready for burial, without even a coffin, as we had no lumber.
What was most aggravating were two pests of that region, the seed-tick and the chigger. The latter bury their heads under the skin, and when they are swollen with blood, it is almost impossible to extract them without leaving the head imbedded. This festers, and the irritation is almost unbearable. If they see fit to locate on neck, face or arms, it is possible to outwit them in their progress; but they generally choose that unattainable spot between the shoulders, and the surgical operation of taking them out with a needle or knife-point, must devolve upon some one else. To ride thus with the skin on fire, and know that it must be endured till the march was ended, caused some grumbling, but it did not last long. The enemy being routed, out trilled a song or laugh from young and happy throats. If we came to a sandy stretch of ground, loud groans from the staff began, and a cry, “We’re in for the chiggers!” was an immediate warning. We all grew very wary of lying down to rest in such a locality, but were thankful that the little pests were not venomous. There’s nothing like being where something dangerous lies in wait for you, to teach submission to what is only an irritating inconvenience.
One of the small incidents out of which we invariably extracted fun, was our march at dawn past the cabins of the few inhabitants. On the open platform, sometimes covered, but often with no roof, which connects the two log huts, the family are wont to sleep in hot weather. There they lay on rude cots, and were only awakened by the actual presence of the cavalry, of whose approach they were unaware. The children sat up in bed, in wide-gaping wonder; the grown people raised their heads, but instantly ducked under the covers again, thinking they would get up in a moment, as soon as the cavalcade had passed. From time to time a head was cautiously raised, hoping to see the end of the column. Then such a shout from the soldiers, a fusillade of the wittiest comments, such as only soldiers can make — for I never expect to hear brighter speeches than issue from a marching column — and down went the venturesome head, compelled to obey an unspoken military mandate and remain “under cover.” There these people lay till the sun was scorching them, imprisoned under their bed-clothes by modesty, while the several thousand men filed by, two by two, and the long wagon-train in the rear had passed the house.
There came a day when I could not laugh and joke with the rest. I was mortified to find myself ill — I, who had been pluming myself on being such a good campaigner, my desire to keep well being heightened by overhearing the General boasting to Tom that “nothing makes the old lady ill.” We did not know that sleeping in the sun in that climate brings on a chill, and I had been frightened away from the snake-infested ground, where there might be shade, to the wagon for my afternoon sleep. It was embarrassing in the extreme. I could neither be sent back, nor remain in that wilderness, which was infested by guerrillas. The surgeon compelled me to lie down on the march. It was very lonely, for I missed the laughter and story at the head of the column, which had lightened the privations of the journey. The soil was so shallow that the wagon was kept on a continual joggle by the roots of the trees over which we passed. This unevenness was of course not noticeable on horseback, but now it was painfully so at every revolution of the wheels. The General and Tom came back to comfort me every now and again, while Eliza “mammied” and nursed me, and rode in the seat by the driver. It was “break-bone fever.” No one knowing about it can read these words and not feel a shudder. I believe it is not dangerous, but the patient is introduced, in the most painful manner, to every bone in his body. Incredible as it used to seem when, in school, we repeated the number of bones, it now became no longer a wonder, and the only marvel was, how some of the smallest on the list could contain so large an ache. I used to lie and speculate how one slender woman could possibly conceal so many bones under the skin. Anatomy had been on the list of hated books in school; but I began then to study it from life, in a manner that made it likely to be remembered. The surgeon, as is the custom of the admirable men of that profession in the army, paid me the strictest attention, and I swallowed quinine, it seemed to me, by the spoonful. As I had never taken any medicine to speak of, it did its duty quickly, and in a few days I was lifted into the saddle, tottering and light-headed, but partly relieved from the pain, and very glad to get back to our military family, who welcomed me so warmly that I was aglow with gratitude. I wished to ignore the fact that I had fallen by the way, and was kept in lively fear that they would all vote me a bother. After that, my husband had the soldiers who were detailed for duty at headquarters, when they cut the wood for camp-fires, build a rough shade of pine branches over the wagon, when we reached camp. Even that troubled me, though the kind-hearted fellows did not seem to mind it; but the General quieted me by explaining that the men, being excused from night duty as sentinels, would not mind building the shade as much as losing their sleep, and, besides, we were soon afterward out of the pine forest and on the prairie.
Our officers suffered dreadfully on that march, though they made light of it, and were soon merry after a trial or hardship was over. The drenching dews chilled the air that was encountered just at daybreak. They were then plunged into a steam bath from the overpowering sun, and the impure water told frightfully on their health. I have seen them turn pale and almost reel in the saddle, as we marched on. They kept quinine in their vest-pockets, and horrified me by taking large quantities at any hour when they began to feel a chill coming on, or were especially faint. Our brother Tom did not become quite strong, after his attack of fever, for a long time, and had inflammatory rheumatism at Fort Riley a year or more afterward, which the surgeons attributed to his Texas exposure. I used to see the haggard face of the adjutant-general, Colonel Jacob Greene, grow drawn and gray with the inward fever that filled his veins and racked his bones with pain. The very hue of his skin comes back to me after all these years, for we grieved over his suffering, as we had all just welcomed him back from the starvation of Libby Prison.
I rode in their midst, month after month, ever revolving in my mind the question, whence came the inexhaustible supply of pluck that seemed at their command, to meet all trials and privations, just as their unfaltering courage had enabled them to go through the battles of the war? And yet, how much harder it was to face such trials, unsupported by the excitement of the trumpet-call and the charge. There was no wild clamor of war to enable them to forget the absence of the commonest necessities of existence. In Texas and Kansas, the life was often for months unattended by excitement of any description. It was only to be endured by a grim shutting of the teeth, and an iron will. The mother of one of the fallen heroes of the Seventh Cavalry, who passed uncomplainingly through the privations of the frontier, and gave up his life at last, writes to me in a recent letter that she considers “those late experiences of hardship and suffering, so gallantly borne, by far the most interesting of General Custer’s life, and the least known.” For my part I was constantly mystified as I considered how our officers, coming from all the wild enthusiasm of their Virginia life, could, as they expressed it, “buckle down” to the dull, exhausting days of a monotonous march.
Young as I then was, I thought that to endure, to fight for and inflexibly pursue a purpose or general principle like patriotism, seemed to require far more patience and courage than when it is individualized. I did not venture to put my thoughts into words, for two reasons: I was too wary to let them think I acknowledged there were hardships, lest they might think I repented having come; for I knew then, as I know now, but feared they did not, that I would go through it all a hundred times over, if inspired by the reasons that actuated me. In the second place, I had already found what a habit it is to ridicule and make light of misfortune or vicissitude. It cut me to the quick at first, and I thought the officers and soldiers lacking in sympathy. But I learned to know what splendid, loyal friends they really were, if misfortune came and help was needed; how they denied themselves to loan money, if it is the financial difficulty of a friend; how they nursed one another in illness or accident; how they quietly fought the battles of the absent; and one occasion I remember, that an officer, being ill, was unable to help himself when a soldier behaved in a most insolent manner, and his brother officer knocked him down, but immediately apologized to the captain for taking the matter out of his hands. A hundred ways of showing the most unswerving fidelity taught me, as years went on, to submit to what I still think the deplorable habit, if not of ridicule, of suppressed sympathy. I used to think that even if a misfortune was not serious, it ought to be recognized, and none were afraid of showing that they possessed truly tender, gentle, sympathetic natures, with me or with any woman that came among them.
The rivers, and even the small streams, in Texas have high banks. It is a land of freshets, and the most innocent little rill can rise to a roaring torrent in no time. Anticipating these crossings, we had in our train a pontoon bridge. We had to make long halts while this bridge was being laid, and then, oh! the getting down to it. If the sun was high, and the surgeon had consigned me to the traveling-wagon, I looked down the deep gulley with more than inward quaking. My trembling hands clutched wildly at the seat and my head was out at the side to see my husband’s face, as he directed the descent, cautioned the driver, and encouraged me. The brake was frequently not enough, and the soldiers had to man the wheels, for the soil was wet and slippery from the constant passing of the pioneer force, who had laid the bridge. The heavy wagons, carrying the boats and lumber for the bridge, had made the side-hill a difficult bit of ground to traverse. The four faithful mules apparently sat down and slid to the water’s edge; but the driver, so patient with my quiet imploring to go slowly, kept his strong foot on the brake and knotted the reins in his powerful hands. I blessed him for his caution, and then at every turn of the wheel I implored him again to be careful. Finally, when I poured out my thanks at the safe transit, the color mounted in his brown face, as if he had led a successful charge. In talking at night to Eliza, of my tremors as we plunged down the bank and were bounced upon the pontoon, which descended to the water’s edge under the sudden rush with which we came, I added my praise of the driver’s skill, which she carefully repeated as she slipped him, on the sly, the mug of coffee and hot biscuits with which she invariably rewarded merit, whether in officers or men. When I could, I made these descents on horseback, and climbed up the opposite bank with my hands wound in Custis Lee’s abundant mane.
Eliza, in spite of her constant lookout for some variety for our table, could seldom find any vegetables, even at the huts we passed. Corn pone and chine were the principal food of these shiftless citizens, butternut-colored in clothing and complexion, indifferent alike to food and to drink. At the Sabine River the water was somewhat clearer. The soldiers, leading their horses, crossed carefully, as it was dangerous to stop here, lest the weight should carry the bridge under; but they are too quick-witted not to watch every chance to procure a comfort, and they tied strings to their canteens and dragged them beside the bridge, getting, even in that short progress, one tolerably good drink. The wagon-train was of course a long time in crossing, and dinner looked dubious to our staff. Our faithful Eliza, as we talk over that march, will prove in her own language, better than I can portray, how she constantly bore our comfort on her mind:
“Miss Libbie, do you mind, after we crossed the Sabine River, we went into camp? Well, we hadn’t much supplies, and the wagons wasn’t up; so, as I was a-waitin’ for you all, I says to the boys, ‘Now, you make a fire, and I’ll go a-fishin’.’ The first thing, I got a fish — well, as long as my arm. It was big, and jumped so it scart me, and I let the line go, but one of the men caught hold and jumped for me and I had him, and went to work on him right away. I cleaned him, salted him, rolled him in flour, and fried him; and, Miss Libbie, we had a nice platter of fish, and the General was just delighted when he came up, and he was surprised, too, and he found his dinner — for I had some cold biscuit and a bottle of tea in the lunch-box — while the rest was a-waitin’ for the supplies to come up. For while all the rest was a-waitin’, I went fishin’, mind you!”
As we came out of the forest, the country improved somewhat. The farm-houses began to show a little look of comfort, and it occurred to us that we might now vary the monotony of our fare by marketing. My husband and I sometimes rode on in advance of the command, and approached the houses with our best manners, soliciting the privilege of buying butter and eggs. The farmer’s wife was taking her first look at Yankees, but she found that we neither wore horns nor were cloven-footed, and she even so far unbent as to apologize for not having butter, adding, what seemed then so flimsy an excuse, that “I don’t make more than enough butter for our own use, as we are only milking seven cows now.” We had yet to learn that what makes a respectable dairy at home was nothing in a country where the cows give a cupful of milk and all run to horns. It was a great relief to get out of the wilderness, but though our hardships were great, I do not want them to appear to outnumber the pleasures. The absence of creature comforts is easily itemized. We are either too warm or too cold, we sleep uncomfortably, we have poor food, we are wet by storms, we are made ill by exposure. Happiness cannot be itemized so readily; it is hard to define what goes to round and complete a perfect day. We remember hours of pleasure as bathed in a mist that blends all shades into a roseate hue; but it is impossible to take one tint from colors so perfectly mingled, and define how it adds to the perfect whole.
The days now seemed to grow shorter and brighter. In place of the monotonous pines, we had magnolia, mulberry, pecan, persimmon and live-oak, as well as many of our own Northern trees, that grew along the streams. The cactus, often four feet high, was covered with rich red blossoms, and made spots of gorgeous color in the prairie grass. I had not then seen the enormous cacti of old Mexico, and four feet of that plant seemed immense, as at home we labored to get one to grow six inches. The wild-flowers were charming in color, variety and luxuriance. The air, even then beginning to taste of the sea, blew softly about us. Stillman no longer blackened his soul with prophecies about the streams on which we nightly pitched our tents. The water did flow in them, and though they were then low, so that the thousands of horses were scattered far up and down when watering-time came, the green scum of sluggish pools was a thing of the past.
A few days before we reached what was to be a permanent camp, a staff-officer rode out to meet us, and brought some mail. It was a strange sensation to feel ourselves restored by these letters to the outside world. General Custer received a great surprise. He was brevetted major, lieutenant-colonel and brigadier-general in the regular army. The officers went off one side to read their sweethearts’ letters; and some of our number renewed their youth, sacrificed in that dreadful forest to fever, when they read the good news of the coming of their wives by sea. At Hempstead we halted, and the General made a permanent camp, in order to recruit men and horses after their exhausting march. Here General Sheridan and some of his staff came, by way of Galveston, and brought with them our father Custer, whom the General had sent for to pay us a visit. General Sheridan expressed great pleasure at the appearance of the men and horses, and heard with relief and satisfaction of the orderly manner in which they had marched through the enemy’s country, of how few horses had perished from the heat, and how seldom sunstroke had occurred. He commended the General — as he knew how to do so splendidly — and placed him in command of all the cavalry in the State. Our own Division then numbered four thousand men.
I was again mortified to have to be compelled to lie down for a day or two, as so many weeks in the saddle had brought me to the first discovery of a spinal column. It was nothing but sheer fatigue, for I was perfectly well, and could laugh and talk with the rest, though not quite equal to the effort of sitting upright, especially as we had nothing but camp-stools, on which it is impossible to rest. Indisposition, or even actual illness, has less terrors in army life than in the States. We were not condemned to a gloomy upper chamber in a house, and shut in alone with a nurse whom we had never before seen. In our old life, ailing people lay on a lounge in the midst of all the garrison, who were coming and going a dozen times a day, asking, “How does it go now?” and if you had studied up anything that they could do for you? I principally recall being laid up by fatigue, because of the impetuous assault that my vehement father Custer made on his son for allowing me to share the discomforts; and when I defended my husband by explaining how I had insisted upon coming, he only replied, “Can’t help it if you did. Armstrong, you had no right to put her through such a jaunt.” It was amusing to see the old man’s horror when our staff told him what we had been through. It would have appeared that I was his own daughter, and the General a son-in-law, by the manner in which he renewed his attack on the innocent man. Several years afterward it cost Lieutenant James Calhoun long pleading, and a probationary state of two years, before the old man would consent to his taking his daughter Margaret into the army. He shook his gray head determinedly, and said, “Oh, no; you don’t get me to say she shall go through what Libbie has.” But the old gentleman was soon too busy with his own affairs, defending himself against not only the ingenious attacks of his two incorrigible boys, but the staff, some of whom had known him in Monroe. His eyes twinkled, and his face wrinkled itself into comical smiles, as he came every morning with fresh tales of what a “night of it he had put in.” He had a collection of mild vituperations for the boys, gathered from Maryland, Ohio and Michigan, where he had lived, which, extensive as the list was, did not, in my mind, half meet the situation.
The stream on which we had encamped was wide and deep, and had a current. Our tents were on the bank, which gently sloped to the water. We had one open at both ends, over which was built a shade of pine boughs, which was extended in front far enough for a porch. Some lumber from a pontoon bridge was made into the unusual luxury of a floor. My husband still indulged my desire to have the traveling-wagon at the rear, so that I might take up a safe position at night, when sleep interrupted my vigils over the insects and reptiles that were about us constantly. The cook-tent, with another shade over it, was near us, where Eliza flourished a skillet as usual. The staff were at some distance down the bank, while the Division was stretched along the stream, having, at last, plenty of water. Beyond us, fifty miles of prairie stretched out to the sea. We encamped on an unused part of the plantation of the oldest resident of Texas, who came forth with a welcome and offers of hospitality, which we declined, as our camp was comfortable. His wife sent me over a few things to make our tent habitable, as I suppose her husband told her that our furniture consisted of a bucket and two camp-stools. There’s no denying that I sank down into one of the chairs, which had a back, with a sense of enjoyment of what seemed to me the greatest luxury I had ever known. The milk, vegetables, roast of mutton, jelly, and other things which she also sent, were not enough to tempt me out of the delightful hollow, from which I thought I never could emerge again. But military despots pick up their families and carry them out to their dinner, if they refuse to walk. The new neighbors offered us a room with them, but the General never left his men, and it is superfluous to say that I thought our clean, new hospital tent, as large again as a wall-tent, and much higher, was palatial after the trials of the pine forests.
The old neighbor continued his kindness, which was returned by sending him game after the General’s hunt, and protecting his estate. He had owned 130 slaves, with forty in his house. He gave us dogs and sent us vegetables, and spent many hours under our shade. He had lived under eight governments in his Texas experience, and, possibly, the habit of “speeding the parting and welcoming the coming guest” had something to do with his hospitality. I did not realize how Texas had been tossed about in a game of battle-door and shuttle-cock till he told me of his life under Mexican rule, the Confederacy, and the United States.
I find mention, in an old letter to my parents, of a great luxury that here appeared, and quote the words of the exuberant and much-underlined girl missive: “I rejoice to tell you that I am the happy possessor of a mattress. It is made of the moss which festoons the branches of all the trees at the South. The moss is prepared by boiling it, then burying it in the ground for a long time, till only the small thread inside is left, and this looks like horse-hair. An old darkey furnished the moss for three dollars, and the whole thing only cost seven dollars — very cheap for this country. We are living finely now; we get plenty of eggs, butter, lard and chickens. Eliza cooks better than ever, by a few logs, with camp-kettles and stew-pans. She has been washing this past week, and drying her things on a line tied to the tent-poles and on bushes, and ironing on the ground, with her ironing-sheet held down by a stone on each corner. To-day we are dressed in white. She invites us to mark Sunday by the luxury of wearing white. Her ‘ole miss used to.’ We are regulated by the doings of that ‘ole miss,’ and I am glad that among the characteristics of my venerable predecessor, which we are expected to follow, wearing white gowns is included.”
Eliza, sitting here beside me to-day, has just reminded me of that week, as it was marked in her memory by a catastrophe. Eliza’s misfortunes were usually within the confines of domestic routine. I quote her words: “It was on the Gros Creek, Miss Libbie, that I had out that big wash, and all your lace-trimmed things, and all the Ginnel’s white linen pants and coats. I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout the high winds then, but I ain’t like to forget ‘em ever again. The first thing I I knew, the line was jest lifted up, and the clothes jest spread in every direction, and I jest stood still and looked at ‘em, and I says, ‘Is this Texas? How long am I to contend with this?’ [With hands uplifted and a camp-meeting roll in her eyes.] But I had to go to work and pick ‘em all up. Some fell in the sand, and some on the grass. I gathered ‘em all, with the sun boiling down hot enough to cook an egg. While I was a-pickin’ ‘em up, the Ginnel was a-standin’ in the tent entrance, wipin’ down his moustache, like he did when he didn’t want us to see him laughin’. Well, Miss Libbie, I was that mad when he hollered out to me, ‘Well, Eliza, you’ve got a spread-eagle thar.’ Oh, I was so mad and hot, but he jest bust right out laughin’. But there wasn’t anything to do but rinse and hang ‘em up again.”
We had been in camp but a short time when the daughter of the newly appointed collector of the port came from their plantation near to see us. She invited me to make my home with them while we remained, but I was quite sure there was nothing on earth equal to our camp. The girl’s father had been a Union man during the war, and was hopelessly invalided by a long political imprisonment. I remember nothing bitter, or even gloomy, about that hospitable, delightful family. The young girl’s visit was the precursor of many more, and our young officers were in clover. There were three young women in the family, and they came to our camp and rode and drove with us, while we made our first acquaintance with Southern home life. The house was always full of guests. The large dining-table was not long enough, however, unless placed diagonally across the dining-room, and it was sometimes laid three times before all had dined. The upper part of the house was divided by a hall running the length of the house. On one side the women and their guests — usually a lot of rollicking girls — were quartered, while the men visitors had rooms opposite; and then I first saw the manner in which a Southern gallant comes as a suitor or a friend. He rode up to the house with his servant on another horse, carrying a portmanteau. They came to stay several weeks. I wondered that there was ever an uncongenial marriage in the South, when a man had such a chance to see his sweetheart. This was one of the usages of the country that our Northern men adopted when they could get leave to be absent from camp, and delightful visits we all had.
It seemed a great privilege to be again with women, after the long season in which I had only Eliza to represent the sex. But I lost my presence of mind when I went into a room for the first time and caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. The only glass I had brought from the East was broken early in the march, and I had made my toilet by feeling. The shock of the apparition comes back to me afresh, and the memory is emphasized by my fastidious mother’s horror when she saw me afterward. I had nothing but a narrow-brimmed hat with which to contend against a Texas sun. My face was almost parboiled and swollen with sunburn, while my hair was faded and rough. Of course, when I caught the first glimpse of myself in the glass I instantly hurried to the General and Tom, and cried out indignantly, “Why didn’t you tell me how horridly I looked?” — the inconsistent woman in me forgetting that it would not have made my ugliness any easier to endure. My husband hung his head in assumed humility when he returned me to my mother, six months later, my complexion seemingly hopelessly thickened and darkened; for, though happily it improved after living in a house, it never again looked as it did before the Texas life. My indignant mother looked as if her son-in-law was guilty of an unpardonable crime. I told her, rather flippantly, that it had been offered up on the altar of my country, and she ought to be glad to have so patriotic a family; but she withered the General with a look that spoke volumes. He took the first opportunity to whisper condescendingly that, though my mother was ready to disown me, and quite prepared to annihilate him, he would endeavor not to cast me off, if I was black, and would try to like me, “notwithstanding all.”
The planters about the country began to seek out the General, and invite him to go hunting; and, as there was but little to do while the command was recruiting from the march, he took his father and the staff and went to the different plantations where the meet was planned. The start was made long before day, and breakfast was served at the house where the hunters assembled, dinner being enjoyed at the same hospitable board on the return at night. Each planter brought his hounds, and I remember the General’s delight at his first sight of the different packs — thirty-seven dogs in all — and his enthusiasm at finding that every dog responded to his master’s horn. He thereupon purchased a horn, and practiced in camp until he nearly split his cheeks in twain, not to mention the spasms into which we were driven; for his five hounds, presents from the farmers, ranged themselves in an admiring and sympathetic semicircle, accompanying all his practicing by tuning their voices until they reached the same key. I had no idea it was such a difficult thing to learn to sound notes on a horn. When we begged off sometimes from the impromptu serenades of the hunter and his dogs, the answer was, “I am obliged to practice, for if anyone thinks it is an easy thing to blow on a horn, just let him try it.” Of course Tom caught the fever, and came in one day with the polished horn of a Texas steer ready for action. The two were impervious to ridicule. No detailed description of their red, distended cheeks, bulging eyes, bent and laborious forms, as they struggled, suspended the operation. The early stages of this horn music gave little idea of the gay picture of these debonair and spirited athletes, as they afterward appeared. When their musical education was completed, they were wont to leap into the saddle, lift the horn in unconscious grace to their lips, curbing their excited and rearing horses with the free hand, and dash away amidst the frantic leaping, barking and joyous demonstration of their dogs.
At the first hunt, when one of our number killed a deer, the farmers made known to our officers, on the sly, the old established custom of the chase. While Captain Lyon stood over his game, volubly narrating, in excited tones, how the shot had been sent and where it had entered, a signal, which he was too absorbed to notice, was given, and the crowd rushed upon him and so plastered him with blood from the deer that scarcely an inch of his hair, hands and face was spared, while his garments were red from neck to toes. After this baptism of gore, they dragged him to our tent on their return, to exhibit him, and it was well that he was one of the finest-hearted fellows in the world, for day and night these pestering fellows kept up the joke. Notwithstanding he had been subjected to the custom of the country, which demands that the blood of the first deer killed in the chase shall anoint the hunter, he had glory enough through his success to enable him to submit to the penalty.
Tom also shot a deer that day, but his glory was dimmed by a misfortune, of which he seemed fated never to hear the last. The custom was to place one or two men at stated intervals in different parts of the country where the deer were pretty sure to run, and Tom was on stand watching through the woods in the direction from which the sound of the dogs came. As the deer bounded toward him, he was so excited that when he fired, the shot went harmlessly by the buck and landed in one of the General’s dogs, killing the poor hound instantly. Though this was a loss keenly felt, there was no resisting the chance to guy the hunter. Even after Tom had come to be one of the best shots in the Seventh Cavalry, and when the General never went hunting without him, if he could help it, he continued to say, “Oh, Tom’s a good shot, a sure aim — he’s sure to hit something!” Tom was very apt, also, to find newspaper clippings laid around, with apparent carelessness by his brother, where he would see them. For example, like this one, which I have kept among some old letters, as a reminder of those merry days: “An editor went hunting the other day, for the first time in twenty-two years, and he was lucky enough to bring down an old farmer by a shot in the leg. The distance was sixty-six yards.”
We had long and delightful rides over the level country. Sometimes my husband and I, riding quietly along at twilight, for the days were still too warm for much exercise at noon-time, came upon as many as three coveys of quail scurrying to the underbrush. In a short walk from camp he could bag a dozen birds, and we had plenty of duck in the creek near us. The bird dog was a perpetual pleasure. She was the dearest, chummiest sort of house-dog, and when we took her out she still visited with us perpetually, running to us every now and again to utter a little whine, or to have us witness her tail, which, in her excitement in rushing through the underbrush, cacti and weeds, was usually scratched, torn and bleeding. The country was so dry that we could roam at will, regardless of roads. Our horses were accustomed to fording streams, pushing their way through thickets and brambles, and becoming so interested in making a route through them that my habit sometimes caught in the briars, and my hat was lifted off by the low-hanging moss and branches; and if I was not very watchful, the horse would go through a passage between two trees just wide enough for himself, and rub me off, unless I scrambled to the pommel. The greater the obstacles my husband encountered, even in his sports, the more pleasure it was to him. His own horses were so trained that he shot from their backs without their moving. Mine would also stand fire, and at the report of a gun, behaved much better than his mistress.
Eliza, instead of finding the General wearing his white linen to celebrate Sunday, according to her observances, was apt to get it on week-days after office-hours, far too often to suit her. On the Sabbath, she was immensely puffed up to see him emerge from the tent, speckless and spotless, because she said to me, “Whilst the rest of the officers is only too glad to get a white shirt, the Ginnel walks out among ’em all, in linen from top to toe.” She has been sitting beside me, talking over a day at that time: “Do you mind, Miss Libbie, that while we was down in Texas the Ginnel was startin’ off on a deer-hunt, I jest went up to him and tole him, ‘Now, Ginnel, you go take off them there white pants.’ He said so quiet, sassy, cool, roguish-like, ‘The deer always like something white’ — telling me that jest ’cause he wanted to keep ’em on. Well, he went, all the same, and when he came back, I says, ‘I don’t think the deer saw you in those pants.’ He was covered with grass-stains and mud, and a young fawn swinging across the saddle. But them pants was mud and blood, and green and yellow blotches, from hem to bindin’. But he jest laughed at me because I was a-scoldin’, and brought the deer out to me, and I skinned it the fust time I ever did, and cooked it next day, and we had a nice dinner.”
At that time Eliza was a famous belle. Our colored coachman, Henry, was a permanent fixture at the foot of her throne, while the darkeys on the neighboring plantations came nightly to worship. She bore her honors becomingly, as well as the fact that she was the proud possessor of a showy outfit, including silk dresses. The soldiers to whom Eliza had been kind in Virginia had given her clothes that they had found in the caches where the farmers endeavored to hide their valuables during the war. Eliza had made one of these very receptacles for her “ole miss” before she left the plantation, and while her conscience allowed her to take the silken finery of some other woman whom she did not know, she kept the secret of the hiding-place of her own people’s valuables until after the war, when the General sent her home in charge of one of his sergeants to pay a visit. Even the old mistress did not know the spot that Eliza had chosen, which had been for years a secret, and she describes the joy at sight of her, and her going to the place in the field and digging up the property “with right smart of money, too, Miss Libbie — enough, with that the Ginnel gave me to take home, to keep ‘em till the crops could be harvested.”
This finery of Eliza’s drove a woman servant at the next place to plan a miserable revenge, which came near sending us all into another world. We were taking our breakfast one morning, with the table spread under the awning in front of our tent. The air, not yet heated by the sun, came over the prairie from the sea. The little green swift and the chameleon, which the General had found in the arbor roof and tamed as pets, looked down upon as reposeful and pretty a scene as one could wish, when we suddenly discovered a blaze in the cook-tent, where we had now a stove — but Eliza shall tell the story; “When I fust saw the fire, Miss Libbie, I was a-waitin’ on you at breakfast. Then the first thought was the Ginnel’s powder-can, and I jest dropped everythin’ and ran and found the blaze was a-runnin’ up the canvas of my tent, nearly reachin’ the powder. The can had two handles, and I ketched it up and ran outside. When I first got in the tent, it had burnt clar up to the ridge-pole on one side. Some things in my trunk was scorched mightily, and one side of it was pretty well burnt. The fire was started right behind my trunk, not very near the cook-stove. The Ginnel said to me how cool and deliberate I was, and he told me right away that if my things had been destroyed, I would have everythin’ replaced, for he was bound I wasn’t going to lose nothin’.”
My husband, in this emergency, was as cool as he always was. He followed Eliza as she ran for the powder-can, and saved the tent and its contents from destruction, and, without doubt, saved our lives. The noble part that I bore in the moment of peril was to take a safe position in our tent, wring my hands and cry. If there was no one else to rush forward in moments of danger, courage came unexpectedly, but I do not recall much brave volunteering on my part.
Eliza put such a broad interpretation upon the General’s oft-repeated instruction not to let any needy person go away from our tent or quarters hungry, that occasionally we had to protest. She describes to me now his telling her she was carrying her benevolence rather too far, and her replying, “Yes, Ginnel, I do take in some one once and a while, off and on.” “Yes,” he replied to me, “more on than off, I should say.” “One chile I had to hide in the weeds a week, Miss Libbie. The Ginnel used to come out to the cook-tent and stand there kinder careless like, and he would spy a little path running out into the weeds. Well, he used to carry me high and dry about them little roads leading off to folks he said I was a-feedin.’ I would say, when I saw him lookin’ at the little path in the weeds, ‘Well, what is it, Ginnel?’ He would look at me so keen-like out of his eyes, and say, ‘That’s what I say.’ Then he’d say he was goin’ to get a couple of bloodhounds, and run ’em through the bushes to find out just how many I was a-feedin’. Then, Miss Libbie, we never did come to a brush or a thicket but that he would look around at me so kinder sly like, and tell me that would be a fust-rate ranch for me. Then I would say, ‘Well, it’s a good thing I do have somebody sometimes, ‘cause my cook-tent is allus stuck way off by itself, and it’s lonesome, and sometimes I’m so scart.’ But, you know, Miss Libbie,” she added, afraid I might think she reflected on one whose memory she reveres, “my tent was obliged to be a good bit off, ’cause the smell of the cookin’ took away the Ginnel’s appetite; he was so uncertain like in his eatin’, you remember.”
In Texas, two wretched little ragamuffins — one, of the poor white trash, and another a negro — were kept skulking about the cook-tent, making long, circuitous détours to the creek for water, for fear we would see them, as they said “Miss Lize tole us you’d make a scatter if you knew ‘no ’count’ chillern was a-bein’ fed at the cook-tent.” They slipped into the underbrush at our approach, and lay low in the grass at the rear of the tent if they heard our voices. The General at first thought that, after Eliza had thoroughly stuffed them and made them fetch and carry for her, they would disappear, and so chose to ignore their presence, pretending he had not seen them. But at last they appeared to be a permanent addition, and we concluded that the best plan would be to acknowledge their presence and make the best of the infliction; so we named one Texas, and the other Jeff. Eliza beamed, and told the orphans, who capered out boldly in sight for the first time, and ran after Miss “Lize” to do her bidding. Both of them, from being starved, wretched, and dull, grew quite “peart” under her care. The first evidence of gratitude I had was the creeping into the tent of the little saffron-colored white boy, with downcast eyes, mumbling that “Miss Lize said that I could pick the scorpions out of your shoes.” I asked, in wonder — one spark of generosity blazing up before its final obliteration — “And how, in the name of mercy, do you get on with the things yourself?” He lifted up a diminutive heel, and proudly showed me a scar. The boy had probably never had on a pair of shoes, consequently this part of his pedal extremity was absolutely so callous, so evidently obdurate to any object less penetrating than a sharpened spike driven in with a hammer, I found myself wondering how a scorpion’s little spear could have effected an entrance through the seemingly impervious outer cuticle. Finally, I concluded that at a more tender age that “too solid flesh” may have been susceptible to an “honorable wound.” It turned out that this cowed and apparently lifeless little midget was perfectly indifferent to scorpions. By this time I no longer pretended to courage of any sort; I had found one in my trunk, and if, after that, I was compelled to go to it, I flung up the lid, ran to the other side of the tent, and “shoo-shooed” with that eminently senseless feminine call which is used alike for cows, geese, or any of these acknowledged foes. Doubtless a bear would be greeted with the same word, until the supposed occupants had run off. Night and morning my husband shook and beat my clothes while he helped me to dress. The officers daily came in with stories of the trick, so common to the venomous reptiles, of hiding between the sheets, and the General then even shook the bedding in our eyrie room in the wagon. Of all this he was relieved by the boy that Eliza called “poor little picked sparrow,” who was appointed as my maid. Night and morning the yellow dot ran his hands into shoes, stockings, night-gown, and dress-sleeves, in all the places where the scorpions love to lurk; and I bravely and generously gathered myself into the armchair while the search went on.
Eliza has been reminding me of our daily terror of the creeping, venomous enemy of those hot lands. She says, “One day, Miss Libbie, I got a bite, and I squalled out to the Ginnel, ‘Somethin’s bit me!’ The Ginnel, he said, ‘Bit you! bit you whar?’ I says, ‘On my arm;’ and, Miss Libbie, it was pizen, for my arm it just swelled enormous and got all up in lumps. Then it pained me so the Ginnel stopped a-laughin’ and sent for the doctor, and he giv’ me a drink of whiskey. Then what do you think! when I got better, didn’t he go and say I was playin’ off on him, just to get a big drink of whiskey? But I ’clar’ to you, Miss Libbie, I was bad off that night. The centipede had crept into my bedclothes, and got a good chance at me, I can tell you.”
Our surgeon was a naturalist, and studied up the vipers and venomous insects of that almost tropical land. He showed me a captured scorpion one day, and, to make me more vigilant, infuriated the loathsome creature till it flung its javelin of a tail over on its back and stung itself to death.
Legends of what had happened to army women who had disregarded the injunctions for safety were handed down from elder to subaltern, and a plebe fell heir to these stories as much as to the tactics imparted by his superiors, or the campaigning lore. I hardly know when I first heard of the unfortunate woman who lingered too far behind the cavalcade, in riding for pleasure or marching, and was captured by the Indians, but for ten years her story was related to me by officers of all ages and all branches of the service as a warning. In Texas, the lady who had been frightfully stung by a centipede pointed every moral. The sting was inflicted before the war, and in the far back days of “angel sleeves,” which fell away from the arm to the shoulder. Though this misfortune dated back from such a distant period, the young officers, in citing her as a warning to us to be careful, described the red marks all the way up the arm, with as much fidelity as if they had seen them. No one would have dreamed that the story had filtered through so many channels. But surely one needed little warning of the centipede. Once seen, it made as red stains on the memory as on the beautiful historic arm that was used to frighten us. The Arabs call it the mother of forty-four, alluding to the legs; and the swift manner in which it propels itself over the ground, aided by eight or nine times as many feet as are allotted to ordinary reptiles, makes one habitually place himself in a position for a quick jump or flight while campaigning in Texas. We had to be watchful all the time we were in the South. Even in winter, when wood was brought in and laid down beside the fireplace, the scorpions, torpid with cold at first, crawled out of knots and crevices, and made a scattering till they were captured. One of my friends was stationed at a post where the quarters were old and of adobe, and had been used during the war for stables by the Confederates. It was of no use to try to exterminate these reptiles; they run so swiftly it takes a deft hand and a sure stroke to finish them up. Our officers grew expert in devising means to protect themselves, and, in this instance, a box of moist mud, with a shingle all ready, was kept in the quarters. When a tarantula showed himself, he was plastered on the wall. It is impossible to describe how loathsome that great spider is. The round body and long, far-reaching legs are covered with hairs, each particular hair visible; and the satanic eyes bulge out as they come on in your direction, making a feature of every nightmare for a long time after they are first seen. The wife of an officer, to keep these horrors from dropping on her bed as they ran over the ceiling, had a sheet fastened at the four corners and let down from the rough rafters to catch all invaders, and thus insured herself undisturbed sleep.
Officers all watch and guard the women who share their hardships. Even the young, unmarried men — the bachelor officers, as they are called — patterning after their elders, soon fall into a sort of fatherly fashion of looking out for the comfort and safety of the women they are with, whether old or young, pretty or ugly. It often happens that a comrade, going on a scout, gives his wife into their charge. I think of a hundred kindly deeds shown to all of us on the frontier; and I have known of acts so delicate that I can hardly refer to them with sufficient tact, and wish I might write with a tuft of thistle-down. In the instance of some very young women — with hearts so pure and souls so spotless they could not for one moment imagine there lived on earth people depraved enough to question all acts, no matter how harmless in themselves — I have known a little word of caution to be spoken regarding some exuberance of conduct that arose from the excess of a thoughtless, joyous heart. The husband who returned to his wife could thank the friend who had watched over his interests no more deeply than the wife who owed her escape from criticism to his timely word. And sometimes, when we went into the States, or were at a post with strange officers, it would not occur to us, gay and thoughtless as we were, that we must consider that we were not among those with whom we had “summered and wintered;” and the freedom and absolute naturalness of manner that arose from our long and intimate relationship in isolated posts, ought perhaps to give way to more formal conduct. If the women said to the men, “Now we are among strangers, do you not think they would misunderstand our dancing or driving or walking together just as fearlessly as at home?” That was sufficient. The men said, “Sure enough! It never occurred to me. By Jove! I wish we were back where a fellow need not be hampered by having every act questioned;” and then no one sought harder or more carefully so to act that we might satisfy the exactions of that censorious group of elderly women who sat in hotel parlors, looking on and remarking, “We did not do so when we were girls,” or even some old frump in a garrison we visited, who, having squeezed dry her orange of life, was determined that others should get no good out of theirs if she could insert one drop of gall.
Occasionally the young officers, perhaps too timid to venture on a personal suggestion, sent us word by roundabout ways that they did not want us to continue to cultivate someone of whom we knew nothing save that he was agreeable. How my husband thanked them! He walked the floor with his hands behind him, moved so that his voice was unsteady, and said his say about what he owed to men who would not let a woman they valued be even associated with anyone who might reflect on them. He was a home-lover, and not being with those who daily congregated at the sutler’s store, the real “gossip-mill” of a garrison, he heard but little of what was going on. A man is supposed to be the custodian of his own household in civil life; but it must be remembered that in our life a husband had often to leave a young and inexperienced bride to the care of his comrades while he went off for months of field duty. The grateful tears rise now in my eyes at the recollection of men who guarded us from the very semblance of evil as if we had been their sisters.
Custer, Elizabeth B. Tenting on the Plains; Or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895. Internet Archive. 23 Jan. 2009. Web. 27 June 2014. <https:// archive.org/ details/ tenting onplains o01cust>.