May 17, 1864 - The Inspector - The Report - The Iron-gray Horse - The Runaway - The Hospital - The Horse Sale - Fairness of Captain O'Brien - Private Murphy - Army as a School - John Smith - Gray, the Hunter - The Otter Slide - Game in the Moonlight - The Bull Elk - Animal Language
ON MAY 17, 1864, traveling with an escort, there came to our Post the Chief Inspector of the Department, to give us and the Post an inspection, from which we afterwards heard as follows from the Chief of Cavalry, from whose report I make the following quotation:
"HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF KANSAS.
OFFICE CHIEF OF CAVALRY,
FORT LEAVENWORTH, July 7, 1864.
Captain N. J. O'Brien
Co. 'F' Seventh Iowa Cavalry,
Fort Cottonwood, Nebr. Ter.
"CAPTAIN: The cavalry inspection report of Chief of Cavalry, District of Nebraska, shows ... your company is reported as having no ammunition on hand, and this is the second month that it is so reported. In all other respects the report is perfect, and the District Chief of Cavalry in his remarks adds:
'COTTONWOOD SPRINGS, May 19, 1864.'Inspected Companies G and F, 7th Iowa Cavalry, this day. COMPANY F, before reported, is in good condition, well drilled, and well disciplined, horses in good order; twelve men are reported sick; some of them are confined to quarters by reason of very sore eyes. I report the companies without ammunition because the Post Commander takes charge of the ammunition, and only issues to the companies as needed for immediate use.'
"Respectfully forwarded through headquarters, District of Nebraska.
B. S. Henning, Major,
Chief of Cavalry."
This report of the eyes is a fact of which I have spoken before. The incessant wind which blew upon the plains, and kept the sand and alkali in circulation, affected the eyes of the men, and there were constantly some of the men who were unable to do much until their eyes were well; and this was so general a matter that all of the ranches kept large spectacles or goggles to sell to the "pilgrims" and we had a lot in our company to be used by the men when they felt that they were beginning to suffer.
I have spoken briefly of the arrival of Company C, May 19, 1864, which came to take the place of Company G. A circumstance happened on the arrival of Company C which it always made me sorry to recollect, and it was in this wise: My big iron-gray horse didn't get exercise enough, and was always hungering and thirsting for a run. We knew of the coming of Company C, and I saw them when they got within two miles of the Post. For my horse I had had the blacksmith make an iron band as a curb to go under his jaw. I imagined I could stop him any time with such a curb bit, or else break his jaw. I whistled up the two dogs, Fannie and Kearney, and started down to meet Company C. After I had got about a half-mile below the Post, a jack-rabbit jumped up, and the two dogs started yelping after it towards the bluffs. In my effort to turn the horse away from the dogs and rabbit, and get him towards the company, I pulled heavily upon the reins, so much so that the curb broke, and it left me with nothing but a straight pull on the bridle-bit. The horse, full of vim and vigor, kept on after the dogs. While chasing one rabbit, another would jump up in front of him, and the dogs would go off after the second rabbit. In about ten minutes I had passed Company C, and was going down the valley, my horse following the dogs as if he were a greyhound himself, and enjoying the sport as much as they. I endeavored to turn him around, back onto the road. He kept going like the wind, and I pulled and tugged on him until I was weak as a kitten. I always thought I could ride a horse (having been in the cavalry service for over two years) wherever I wanted to go, but this horse and the dogs just seemed to play over the prairie and there was no stopping it. By throwing all my weight upon one side of the bridle, and pulling and sawing, I happened to get him turned a little, and away from the dogs. But soon they passed me on a fresh trail, and I found myself floundering among the banks of the river. The horse and dogs plunged and ran, and I stayed on the back of the horse, absolutely powerless to check him. The horse ran around with me as hard as he could go for nearly two hours, and when the rabbits got away the dogs would ran alongside the horse, and jump and bark at his bridle-bit. Finally the horse and dogs got started back towards the Post, and I went with them. I was just riding, just staying on the back of the horse. I had pulled and pulled until I was so tired I couldn't pull a pound weight. I had a sort of gone feeling, was covered with perspiration, and had lost my hat. Company C had come to the Post and gone to their quarters, when finally the horse made up his mind to go to the Post, and with every effort which muscle and speed could show, the horse came up the road to the Post. Seeing that I must be in the presence of my soldiers, I made an effort and took hold of the reins and appeared to pull. Just as the horse was going through the parade-ground one of the soldiers ran and jumped in front of him. The horse stopped stiff-legged, and I went on over his head, over his ears, and onto the top of my head and back of my neck, and I just remember the appearance of the soldier and the beginning of my flight. Several hours after, I woke up in the hospital, and the doctor was rubbing me with alcohol and a soldier was letting wellwater fall from a canteen held high above my head, and dropping upon my forehead. There were several hours of a thought vacuum in my memory. The doctor still kept at work after I came to, and a lot of the soldiers stood around to see whether I was going to make it or not, because the doctor could not tell the extent of my injuries. As a matter of fact, I was not injured much. I was just entirely used up, and I struck on my head just hard enough for it to thoroughly stun. I wanted to show that I was not injured, and the doctor said he couldn't find any fractures or apparent injury; so in the morning I got them to help me up and dress, and at roll-call which we had at half-past five, I got out, with very great effort, and stood in front of the company, and attended the performances and disbanded the company, and sent them back to the barracks, and then went back to the hospital and collapsed for a couple of days. Then I got up, and was as well as ever.
The question then arose with me, what I should do with my iron-gray horse. If I had been in a fight with the Indians, I should have certainly lost my life. I had the blacksmith put in another bar on the bridle-bit, but I made up my mind that I would not keep the horse. An Iowa Colonel bad been shot off from him at the celebrated battle of Pittsburg Landing, and I thought I would not take any chances. I will anticipate my story somewhat by saying that I put up a sign at MacDonald's ranch, reading "Horse for Sale." A little while after that I was up the river from the Post, drilling the company and riding this horse, when a wagon train went by. A man came up to me and asked me if I was the man who had the horse for sale. I told him "Yes," and that the price was $150. He felt the horse all over, looked in his mouth, held up his feet, and finally said, "I'll take him." He said, "I promised to get my wife a horse," and I said, "You don't want this horse. This is no horse for a woman to ride." In the mean time the woman had come up, and she said that she could ride as fast as any horse could run, and they thought I was trying to back out from the sale. Thereupon I had them wait until I finished my drilling, then I took my company back to the Post, and the man walked back, paid me the money, and took the horse. I told Sergeant Howe to go back with the man and see the woman and to tell her that the horse was very swift, might run away, and that she would have to be careful. Howe delivered the message, and the woman scoffed at it, and said that a horse couldn't run any too fast to suit her. She got on board of the horse and the train started on. Howe stated that in about five minutes the woman was scudding across the prairie and away from the road on the horse, lightning speed. He said he watched her until she went clear to the bluffs, and disappeared. Then he came down to the Post as fast as possible, and said that we might have to send somebody up there to help them. But to all that I was quite indifferent, and thought that I would not act until I was requested. I am glad to say that I never heard of the matter after. I was now left with only one horse.
According to army regulations, a cavalry officer should have two horses -- one for himself, and one for his orderly; the army regulations allowed issue of rations both to the orderly and the two horses. I had one good horse, and although I had no particular use for another at that time, I immediately began looking around for one. I finally succeeded, as will hereinafterwards appear.
The inspection which we had got from Major Armstrong was a very full and thorough one. Our drill captured the Major entirely, and the condition of our horses pleased him very much; he told Captain O'Brien that our company was the best drilled and disciplined company along the Platte river or in the entire command. The Captain told the Major that he was very pleased to hear it, and for the Major to give me half of the credit for it, which was very courteous on the part of Captain O'Brien. The Captain was not only one of the best officers in the United States service, but he was very fair-minded, and didn't try to steal all the glory there was afloat. He never shirked any duty himself, and he never hesitated to give credit where credit was due to any of his subordinates. For that reason my recollection of my service with him remained most delightful; and was entirely different, I think, from that of any other junior officer in the regiment. There was no other company in which there was not bickering and quarreling and disputes between the officers. In fact, it is almost incredible that there were so many quarrels as there were, although I know from experience in my former regiments that the same conditions elsewhere prevailed. Superior officers were always trying to unhorse some subordinate, and get him out of the service so as to get some friend or relative in his place, and subordinates were keeping black marks upon their superiors so as to get them court-martialed and dismissed from the service. There was never any of that feeling in our company. The officers of our company all stood together, and the men appreciated it, and did their part towards making the company an exceptionally good one.
In our company was a little young Irishman by the name of Murphy. Murphy was ambitious, and talkative. He enlisted at the age of nineteen. He had a fine, rich brogue, and it was a pleasure to listen to him. He was fond of drink, and began to get bad after we got to Cottonwood Springs, but he still did a lot of work. He was very handy with the ax, and could do about two men's work in chopping. Murphy wanted to be promoted. He was anxious for distinction, and when he couldn't be corporal, he thought the next thing was to get drunk. He was a fascinating little fellow, and where he got his whisky was always a great puzzle to us. Finally we got to putting Murphy in the guard-house, and by the first of November, 1863, he had developed a great thirst for liquor. In addition to that, he was a great politician, and was always shouting for Gen. George B. McClellan, who he said was the greatest Irishman in America. A large portion of our soldiers didn't like McClellan, and he had long since been relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac; had been relegated to the rear, and was being talked of by the Democratic party as President of the United States. Murphy was everlastingly shouting for McClellan, whether drunk or sober, -- generally the former, in the guard-house. The result was that the guard-house was a sort of Democratic headquarters for Murphy and McClellan. Along in the latter part of May, 1864, Murphy had been much drunk and had made a lot of trouble. I determined to set out a row of trees, principally box-elders, around the parade-ground, and I took Murphy out of the guard-house, gave him a spade, and detailed a corporal to keep him going. I got a corporal that did not believe in political democracy, and he kept Murphy digging day after day in good shape. But in spite of everything we could do, although Murphy was taken back to the guard-house, and was carefully watched, and kept digging day after day, he kept half drunk all of the time. How that man managed to get whisky was one of the greatest of puzzles. It seemed that he could absorb it from the air, or suck it up from the sandy and arid plain. Murphy, from being one of the most active and capable young men, became just the opposite. He went to pieces, and finally died in the hospital a total wreck, about eight months after the last date named.
And so it was in the army. The army was a most wonderful school. Many of the men improved from the moment they got into the company; they kept improving, educating one another, and building up right along in physique and in mind. Others who were good men seemed to go wrong, and from bad to worse, until they were of no account whatever. I never could understand it. The army is a great school and builds men up, and gives them benefits which they could nowhere else obtain; but to obtain these benefits they have to take unknown chances, and assume the risk of becoming utterly worthless.
About the middle of May, 1864, there came into our camp a strange person. I made no memorandum of it at the time. He was a fellow with hardly any clothes, and was sunburned, tanned, covered with mud and scratches, and made a bad appearance at the Post. Several soldiers gathered around him, and he said his name was John Smith. As everybody who was a fugitive from justice called himself "John Smith," we paid but little attention to him. He did not tell his story, but he looked like a man who had been a tramp, and had slept in all kinds of gutters, had been kicked around, and had just awakened from a prolonged spree. My suggestion to him was that he should get out of camp, and move on. He disappeared, but soon thereafter returned and cut much of a figure; further on he will be heard of.
There also came into camp a man who said his true name was Gray, and that he had made hunting an occupation; they called him "the hunter," which had been abbreviated finally to the name, "Hunter." In a short time he appeared in company with John Smith, who had got washed up, dressed up, and shaved; he was now quite a presentable looking fellow. We told him and Hunter that if they would bring in buffalo, deer-meat or wild turkeys, we would pay for it by the pound, just the same as for beef. They went off hunting, I don't know where, and came in with several horseback-loads of meat, amounting to about $30.
About the time of the full moon in May, 1864, (20th,) it was suggested that we ought to go over to the other side of the island and find the best ford across the North arm of the river. Sam Fitchie, one of the trappers around the Post, and "Hunter" proffered to guide us, but thought we had better not go until evening, because, as the trapper said, "We will probably go up towards the head of the island, and there s a lot of beaver and otter up there, and if you never saw them playing it would be a sight which you would enjoy." We started late in the afternoon, about sundown, and found the river running pretty high. Going up towards the head of the island, there was an old arm of the river which had been obstructed, and we found a great number of places where the beaver had cut down cottonwood trees and made a marsh.
As the hour grew later and the moon was up brightly, the guide took us into a clump of short cottonwoods and willow brush, further up toward the head of the island, where a little thread of the river was running rapidly between banks that were about ten feet high. He cautioned us to be quiet and to get off our horses, tie them, and walk a short distance until we would come to where he said we would find the wild animals playing; and sure enough, there they were. On the bank, down into the river, had been cut sliding-places, and the beaver and otter were crawling up out of the water onto the bank in one place, and, all wet with the water, were sliding down a gap in the bank in another place. The otter were sort of snarling all the time, and the beaver were sputtering away at each other. There were three of the slides running down to the water, and when these animals were coming up out of the water and sliding down as fast as they could make it, they were like a lot of little boys sliding down a hill. They came up at one place through an accessible gap in the bank, and then slid down through the other. The otter would slide down and go under the water and not come up again for twenty or fifty feet, then they would head again for the bank and take another slide. The beavers, as they slid down the bank, kept patting it with their broad, trowel-like tails and as they came down into the water they would sniff, but not go under. Other little animals were soon around, but they were not on the slide. The guide said that they were mink and muskrat. One time a little flock of them all went down in a company in the stream, sporting and playing about. It was a most interesting sight, and we watched it for an hour. We had no desire to interfere with their play, nor did we dare to fire a gun, not knowing but what Indians might be secreted in the neighborhood. The moon shone very brightly, and lit up the stream so that everything could be plainly seen. The sliding was all done on the north bank of the stream across from us. We kept back in the shade of the willow brush, and were not seen. However, all at once, through some cause or other, every animal quickly disappeared, and not a thing of life was visible, although we waited for nearly half an hour. They had evidently gotten acquainted with our presence and had communicated it to one another. "Hunter" declared that he could see the outline of a big bull elk in the willow brush across the stream opposite us, and tried to point it out to me, but I could not see it. "Hunter" had many of the Indian superstitions; among others was one that wild animals understood the language and signs of all of the other wild animals, and that if one wild animal or bird gave a note of fear, surprise or warning, all of the others understood it, took notice and acted upon it. "Hunter" said the bull elk gave us away; at any rate, every living thing suddenly disappeared.
The only result of our ride was that we found that just at that time the north bank of the river at that point was difficult to cross. It seemed that the coming warm spring had melted the snow on the mountains on the North Platte, and the river was running high and full and cold, on the north side of the island.