Telegraph and Telegraphers - Indians and the Wire - March 1, 1864 - Commanding the Company - Skirmish Drill - The Confederate - Newspapers - Jimmie Cannon - Nostalgia - Accidental Suicide - John Ryan - Robert McFarland - A Confederate Deserter - Recruits - Casualties
TWICE before March 1, 1864, I went to Fort Kearney on business connected with the supply of the post and made quick trips; always rode fifty miles a day on these trips, and took two days going, and two days coming, Generally stopped at the ranch of Thomas Mullally, who was not quite half way. One of the celebrities along the line of the road was a telegrapher who was called Sloat. He was known to everybody, and went up and down the road looking after the telegraph line, which had not been long in operation. As the telegraph line was of immense importance, it was looked after most diligently. This man Sloat told many marvelous anecdotes connected with his adventures; I traveled with him more than once, and was much interested in his stories and exploits. There was afterwards another telegraph operator whom I may refer to, whose name was Holcomb, and both of them were men who were exceedingly expert, considering the then condition of the art. It may be thought strange that the Indians did not secretly destroy the telegraph line. There were a number of strange stories connected with it, and with Indian experience. In order to give the Indians a profound respect for the wire, chiefs had formerly been called in and had been told to make up a story and then separate. When afterwards the story was told to one operator where one chief was present, it was told at another station to the other chief in such a way as to produce the most stupendous dread. No effort was made to explain it to the Indians upon any scientific principle, but it was given the appearance of a black and diabolical art. The Indians were given some electric shocks; and every conceivable plan, to make them afraid of the wire, was indulged in by the officers and employees of the company, it being much to their financial advantage to make the Indian dread the wire.
About a year before we were there, a party of Indian braves crossed the line up by O'Fallon's Bluffs, and one Indian who had been down in "The States," as it was called, and thought he understood it, volunteered to show his gang that they must not be afraid of it, and that it was a good thing to have the wire up in their village to lariat ponies to. So he chopped down a pole, severed the wire and began ripping it off from the poles. They concluded to take north with them, up to their village on the Blue Water River, about as much as they could easily drag. It was during the hot summer weather. They cut off nearly a half-mile of wire, and all of the Indians in single file on horseback catching hold of the wire, proceeded to ride and pull the wire across the prairie towards their village. After they had gone several miles and were going over the ridge, they were overtaken by an electric storm, and as they were rapidly traveling, dragging the wire, by some means or other a bolt of lightning, so the story goes, knocked almost all of them off their horses and hurt some of them considerably. Thereupon they dropped the wire, and coming to the conclusion that it was punishment for their acts and that it was "bad medicine," they afterwards let it alone. The story of it, being quite wonderful, circulated with great rapidity among the Indians, and none of them could ever afterwards be found who would tamper with the wire. They would cut down a pole and use the wood for cooking, but they stayed clear of the wire, and the operation of the telegraph was thus very rarely obstructed.
Shortly after the first day of March, 1864, Major O'Brien, our Post Commander, was ordered down to Fort Kearney on some command, and my Captain O'Brien was made Post Commander. Our First Lieutenant and our Company Sergeant were both sent for, to come to Fort Kearney, and that left me in command of the company, and I was relieved from all duties of Quartermaster, Commissary and Ordnance Officer. My duties had been exceedingly onerous because there was so much company duty to do in addition to the general duties referred to, and I got but little time for leisure, although the scouting of the country around south of our post was indulged in upon all opportunities. Captain O'Brien took turns with me in that, and he generally went alone, as I did myself. We became thoroughly acquainted with every feature of the ground within fifteen miles of the post, south of the river, and we knew whereabouts Indians might hide, or might be found, should they want to come near us from the south.
When I went into command of the company, Captain O'Brien suggested that it was about time for earnest drilling of the company to begin, although we were constantly engaged in finishing and improving our post. I started in by his order to drill twenty-five different men every day with the bugle skirmish drill, and to have the company adopt it for Indian warfare. We had heard a great deal about the Indian manner of fighting and the various engagements which the regular army had had with them for ten and fifteen years back, and what was necessary to be done to successfully meet the manner of fighting which the Indians adopted. We drilled entirely by skirmish drill. We deployed at from twenty to fifty yards intervals. We raced over the prairie, wheeling, deploying and rallying on the right, left and center, all by the bugle. We also adopted a drill on foot, in which the ranks would count off one, two, three, and four. The number "four" would hold horses, and numbers "one," "two" and "three" would deploy to the front as skirmishers, in which case the command was, "At ten paces take interval -- march." Then we would drill in firing and loading on the ground. Then, on a bugle-call, each number "one" would rise and rush forward twenty to fifty paces according to order, and lie down. Then number "two" would rise and make a dash, and pass number "one" fifty paces, and lie down, firing and loading. And then number "three" would go forward to the front in the same manner, everything being done on the double-quick, the men going to earth on the call of the bugle, while the number fours would follow from behind at considerable distance with the horses. We practiced this drilling day after day, generally with twenty-four men and a sergeant. And the men ran for miles all over the Platte valley in every direction, practicing their skirmish drill by the bugle. They got so that they rather liked it, and it was good exercise. The horses got used to the firing, for we expended much ammunition; and they got hardened up for a campaign.
One day Mr. Gilman and a nice-looking stranger came out and rode around with me on the drill. Our bugle-calls were from the army regulations, and had probably been handed down from Revolutionary days. The bugler, mistaking one of my orders, gave the wrong call, and this stranger spoke up and called my attention to it. This very much surprised me, and I said to him, "How do you know?" And he said, "Well, I have a good ear for music." Afterwards Mr. Gilman told me that the man stated, after we had separated, that for some time he had been in the Confederate cavalry and was familiar with the calls. As he was a fine-looking man and was going west, I always imagined he was a refugee from the Confederate army; the war was then going on. Most probably he was a Confederate officer, who had some sense and was willing to quit.
It is of some interest to know how we managed to keep from being lonesome. As a matter of fact, the men all seemed to be very proud of the new nice cedar encampment they had built, and proud of the condition of the company. We got lots of newspapers. In fact, every stage that went by threw us a bundle of newspapers, and in the barracks after supper, men were reading the war news aloud, and we kept up with the movements, battles and skirmishes of the war. But of all amusements in the company, the greatest amusement was the man Cannon, of whom I have spoken heretofore. It turned out that Cannon had been in the regular army for a number of years before the war, and had been all over the great Southwest, from the Indian Territory and Texas, clear through to the Pacific Coast. He was, perhaps, the most talented and monumental liar that had ever been in the Government service. His stories were inexhaustible. He put in all of his time when at work or drill, thinking up something that he would give the boys when it came night. Night after night and month after month he was telling stories of wonderful adventures. Once in a while he came around to headquarters and started in at night to practice on the Captain and me. For a patient, interesting, and versatile prevaricator I had never seen his equal. According to his story he had been confidentially detailed by every officer in the regular army whose name had appeared so far during the war. He knew the secrets, the history, the private life and the capabilities of everybody that had ever graduated from West Point. He was not of very great benefit to the company as a soldier. He was inclined to shirk his duty, and once in a while liquor would get away with him, and he would have to be put in the guard-house. But when he went into the guard-house he always had the guard, and the corporal of the guard, hanging with breathless interest on his stories of flood and field, of Indian warfare, and of adventures with wild beasts, wild birds, Mexico, and everything else. He finally went by the name of "Jimmie," and he is one of the last ones that the company would ever forget. He was not fit for promotion of any kind. He was good-natured, but in all respects he was absolutely unreliable. But next to the newspapers which came to the camp, he was the chief means of relieving the men from a feeling of lonesomeness or discontent. His stories were ninety-nine per cent pure fiction, at least, and sometimes about one hundred and ten.
There is in all military bodies a feeling of homesickness, much more aggravated in some than in others, but which once in a while breaks out and becomes contagious. We had several spells in our company in which the men became homesick. In fact, almost as soon as we reached Cottonwood Springs, in October, 1863, and camped upon the bleak and desolate land, some of the boys nearly broke down. One of them I remember particularly, and I felt very sorry for him. He was a German named Hakel, over twenty-one years of age. He had a sweetheart in Dubuque, Iowa. Something must have gone wrong, because he got a case called in military medicine "nostalgia," and he drooped around and seemed to take no interest in much of anything. He wouldn't even interest himself in the taste of the fine old whisky which I got from Fort Kearney. One day he said that he believed he would go down to the bank of the river and clean his revolver. There was no need of his going to that place, but he did go to the place, and shortly after we heard the sound of a firing, and on investigation he had killed himself. It was impossible to tell whether he had done it accidentally or not. But I made up my mind that the proper thing to do was to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it being my duty to report the fact to headquarters, I did so, and the way I reported it was quite brief. I gave his name and full description, and I stated the cause of death to be "accidental suicide." I thought the term "accidental suicide" was about as brief as I could make it. The Colonel of our regiment was an aged lawyer from an Iowa village. He immediately directed the regimental Adjutant to return the report to me for correction, saying there was no such thing as "accidental suicide." This illustrates the littleness of so many officers. The great affairs of the regiment, their supplies, drill and efficiency were taken little or no notice of. Except for the meddling at long intervals, we hardly knew we had a colonel. In this case this was the first time I had heard from the Colonel for a long while. But he claimed to be a lawyer, and he claimed that there was no such thing as "accidental suicide." So in my second report I described the death with a circumlocution that I think must have given him a pain. I described the death in about the words of a legal indictment, and stated that Hakel had come to his death from the impact of a leaden bullet, calibre .44, propelled by a charge of powder contained in the chamber of a Colt's revolver, calibre .44, number 602,890, which pistol was held, at 3:45 p. m. of said day, in the right hand of the said Hakel. I also set forth that the discharge of the said revolver was not intentional, but was an involuntary action on the part of the said Hakel, etc., etc. I managed to describe accurately and with considerable minuteness the portions of his shape through which the bullet went, and the result. The Colonel down at Fort Kearney, where he was then located, had made considerable fun of my statement of "accidental suicide," and I had received privately some letters containing his wise and oracular disquisitions upon the English language. So, when I afterwards sent a copy of my second report to some of the officers, it tickled them very much, but it produced a bad feeling between the Colonel and me; I had more friends in the regiment than he had. Some time afterwards, the strength of the regiment having been reduced by casualties to a number slightly below the minimum, concerning which no notice would have been taken except for the general opinion in which the Colonel was held, he was ordered to be mustered out. We shed no tears. He afterwards went back to Iowa, and was killed in a runaway while he was out driving a buggy. This death of Hakel took place on October 14, 1863. Four of our men had already died of disease, but they were men whom we had left behind us, and four others had deserted before we had reached Omaha. During the entire history of the company we had nine desertions, and here I wish to speak of two men particularly.
We had a man in our company by the name of John Ryan. He was a young Irishman from Dubuque. He was not inclined to get drunk, although he drank somewhat, but he was seized with the most intractable spells as to his disposition. He had wanted as a young man to be a prizefighter, and had taken lessons in pugilism. He would get along all right for two or three weeks, and then he would sort of get on the war-path, and he wanted to fight. Before he got through he had a dozen of them, and although he may have knocked over and whipped ten out of the dozen, he generally wound up by somebody pounding him up good and hard. I determined to see if I couldn't bring about a change, and I had a talk with him. The difficulty about it was that he was about as old as I was, and seemed to think that he understood, as well as I did, what ought to be done. I finally had a personal collision with him, and put him in the guard-house. Then he talked out openly that he proposed to shoot me before my term of service was over. I sent for him, and told him that he had committed a crime, and that I could have him court-martialed, and sent to the penitentiary; but, if I should have him court-martialed for threats, he might vainly form an opinion that I was afraid of him, and wanted to get away from him; that I did not propose to humor him by anything that would give him the opinion that I wanted to separate from him. I told him that it cost the United States a thousand dollars to get a soldier drilled up to efficiency, and it was my duty to see that he performed the work that the Government had paid him for; and that whenever he wanted to try determinations with me we would take a couple of revolvers and go up the canyon. He made no reply, and the interview ended. Ryan kept a-going from bad to worse. He seemed to have got an idea that he wanted to whip every soldier in the company. He wanted to have it understood that he was the best man in the company; once in a while, there being a good many men in the company of fine capability, some good man in the company who would get a cross word from Ryan would make a pretext of jumping onto Ryan, and, getting in the first blow, beat him up. I will have occasion to refer to Ryan further on, and the circumstances under which he finally deserted.
This brings me to the description of a man who came into our company after we had been at Cottonwood Springs for a couple of months, and desired to enlist. His name was Robert McFarland. He came to me and told me that he wanted to enlist, and said that he was a Scotchman, and that he concluded that he would like to learn to be a soldier. I didn't like his looks very well, and referred him to Captain O'Brien. Captain O'Brien had him sign up enlistment papers, and swore him in, and he was assigned to one of the barracks in the company. He appeared to be a very dumb, ignorant sort of fellow for a while, say for three or four weeks. He claimed to be a farmer boy, although his record showed him to be twenty-five years of age. My opinion is that he was, in fact, about twenty-eight at that time. He was always writing lots of letters. One day the Orderly Sergeant came to me and said that there must be something wrong about McFarland because he was writing so many letters. I told the Corporal of his squad to keep an eye on him, and see what he could make out of his actions. McFarland was a man who was inclined to shirk his duties, but he seemed to learn soldiering with wonderful speed, for after he had drilled a couple of days he seemed to drill as well as anybody. One day he was sent on a detail to go down to Fort Kearney and back. And while he was down at Fort Kearney McFarland fortunately got drunk, and he confided to one of his new friends in the company that he, McFarland, was an Irishman, and that he lived in New Orleans, and that he belonged to a military company there before the war. And when the war broke out he joined the Louisiana Tigers, and that he had been sent up to Virginia and was with Stonewall Jackson and in the battles of the army of the North Virginia until after Gettysburg, and until after Lee had returned to Virginia. And that he, McFarland, had made up his mind that the Confederacy was whipped, and that there was no use in fighting any more, and that he and several others had deserted with the intention of going out to the mountains and entering the gold-fields. He said that when he was coming along and saw a company of soldiers, he sort of made up his mind that he wanted to be a soldier again. As he was not fighting against his brothers in the South, he thought it wouldn't make any difference; that he wouldn't be captured by the Southern Confederacy and punished for deserting. And he also said that his name was not Robert McFarland, and that he had assumed that name for the purpose of enlistment. This was the brief of a long drunken story that lasted about all night, and was told to and listened to with great interest by one of our Iowa farm boys, who immediately came to me and gave it to me in detail; and I recognized the fact that the story was so coherent that it was without doubt true. So, one day while I was in command of the company, I sent for him and had a talk with him, and he with great reluctance admitted the facts. I told him then that he must brace up and be a better soldier, and do more work; that he was shirking a great deal; that the boys would notice it, and as he had been in the Confederate army they wouldn't like it. I had some writing which I wanted to do in some of the reports and returns, and I asked him how well he could write, and found out he was a most excellent penman, and I put him to work on writing. But he was a man who had a bad face, a bad disposition, and made a bad impression. He was not only a deserter, but he was evidently a great deal of a rogue. I will speak of him again further on.
Along the latter part of January, 1864, two men who were driving on a train passed the Fort; came in and said that they had had a row with the wagon-master and wanted to enlist. One of them was named Joseph Cooper and the other John Jackson. Jackson was about thirty, and Cooper was somewhere between forty-five and fifty, but gave his age forty-five, because that was the age limit. We were about to reject Cooper, but he said that he was a practical veterinary surgeon, so we took them both into the company. As they were both absolutely worthless and had probably been thrashed out of their train by the wagon-master because they were worthless, the boys soon got down on them, caught them in little, petty thievery, and we dumped them both into the guard-house and kept them in there off and on for quite a while, making them work under the supervision of a corporal when they were out. We found them stealing rations and selling rations from their comrades to the pilgrims. And upon the suggestion of the Captain I made life such a burden for them that, having given them an opportunity to desert, they embraced the opportunity and we heard of them no more.
We also lost two men by the fact that one of them was a minor and his mother took him out of the service with a writ of habeas corpus. This was before we got to Omaha. Another was a deserter from the Eleventh Iowa Infantry, then in the field; having been detected, he was placed under guard and sent to his regiment to be court-martialed.
In March, 1864, we received a consignment of twelve recruits, which brought our company up again to a good standing. These men were Iowa farm boys, and twelve as good men as could be found in the army. Three of them had already been in the service, been honestly discharged from wounds received, recovered fully, and reenlisted. Four of them were discharged as sergeants and corporals when our company was mustered out in 1866, one being Milo Lacey as First Sergeant.
The way that recruits came to a company during the Civil War was something like this: The boys at home were growing up, and wanted to get into the service, or for some reason obstacles to their enlistment had vanished, and when they got ready to enlist it became a question with them where they wanted to go. Each of them had several boy acquaintances or relatives who were already in existing regiments. Each one may have had two or three chums in some certain regiment, so when he made up his mind to enlist, he would enlist in a regiment in which he had friends or relatives. As the newspapers were full of the exploits of the regiments at the front, it often happened that some exploit would determine the recruit to go to that regiment if he had a friend or relative in it, in preference to some other regiment where he had a friend or relative. It so happened that the boys of our regiment had a great many friends and relatives in eastern Iowa, and these recruits would be brought together at some point and drilled preliminarily, and taught soldiering say for two or three or four months, and then they would be forwarded in squads to the regiment. If a regiment was not receiving the recruits that it wanted or thought it ought to have, it was common for the Colonel to pick out some good recruiting lieutenant and get him a recruiting furlough and then send him back where the bulk of the regiment had been recruited, and let him go to work. Many regiments were kept up to the maximum in that manner. Our company received subsequent batches of recruits, of which I will speak hereafter. Our company had first and last one hundred and fifty-one members. The casualties of the service were always heavy. For instance, we lost by death twenty-seven men, by desertion nine, and by transfer to other regiments and by other causes, nine. Then again while the majority of the company had enlisted for three years or during the war, there were a few who had enlisted for only one year. Nevertheless, many of these stayed in, and were either killed in battle or died of disease.