Boots and Saddles/Chapter 4

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV.

CAVALRY ON THE MARCH.

When the day came for us to begin our march, the sun shone and the towns-people wished us good-luck with their good-bye.

The length of each day's march varied according to the streams on which we relied for water, or the arrival of the boat. The steamer that carried the forage for the horses and the supplies for the command was tied up to the river-bank every night, as near to us as was possible. The laundresses and ladies of the regiment were on board, except the general's sister, Margaret, who made her first march with her husband, riding all the way on horseback. As usual, I rode beside the general. Our first few days were pleasant, and we began at once to enjoy the plover. The land was so covered with them that the hunters shot them with all sorts of arms. We counted eighty birds in the gunny-sack that three of the soldiers brought in. Fortunately there were several shot-guns in the possession of our family, and the little things, therefore, were not torn to pieces, but could be broiled over the coals of the camp-fire. They were so plump that their legs were like tiny points coming from beneath the rounded outline that swept the grass as they walked. No butter was needed in cooking them, for they were very fat. Some of the officers had not left behind them all of their epicurean tastes, add preferred to have the birds cooked when they were decidedly "gamy." In this way they secured the privilege of tailing their odoriferous luncheon quite apart from the others. The general had invited two officers besides his brother Tom, and his brother-in-law, Mr. Calhoun, to mess with him. We had a tableful, and very merry we were, even in the early morning. To joke before daylight seems impossible, but even at breakfast peals of laughter went up from the dining-tent.

One of the officers was envied, and we declared he got more to eat than the rest, because he insisted upon "carving the hash;" while to cut meat for all our hungry circle, as the general did at the other end of the table, took many precious moments. One of our number called us the "Great Grab Mess," and some one slyly printed the words in large black letters on the canvas that covered the luncheon-hamper, which was usually strapped at the back of our travelling-carriage. How gladly we gathered about that hamper when the command halted at noon! How good the plover and sandwiches tasted, while we quenched our thirst with cold coffee or tea! Since we were named as we were, we all dared to reach over and help ourselves, and the one most agile and with the longest arms was the best fed.

No great ceremony is to be expected when one rises before four, and takes a hurried breakfast by the light of a tallow-candle; the soldiers waiting outside to take down the tent, the servants hastily and suggestively rattling the kettles and gridiron as they packed them, made it an irresistible temptation for one hungry to "grab."

We had a very satisfactory little cook-stove. It began its career with legs, but the wind used to lift it up from the ground with such violence it was finally dismembered, and afterwards placed flat on the ground. Being of sheet-iron it cooled quickly, was very light, and could be put in the wagon in a few moments after the morning meal was cooked. When we came out from breakfast the wagon stood near, partly packed, and bristling with kitchen utensils; buckets and baskets tied outside the cover, axe and spade lashed to the side, while the little stove looked out from the end. The mess-chest stood open on the ground to receive the dishes we had used. At a given signal the dining-tent went down with all those along the line, and they were stowed away in the wagons in an incredibly short time. The wagon-train then drew out and formed in order at the rear of the column.

At the bugle-call, "boots and saddles," each soldier mounted and took his place in line, all riding two abreast. First came the general and his staff, with whom sister Margaret and I were permitted to ride; the private orderlies and headquarters detail rode in our rear; and then came the companies according to the places assigned them for the day; finally the wagon-train, with the rear-guard. We made a long drawn-out cavalcade that stretched over a great distance. When we reached some high bluff, we never tired of watching the command advancing, with the long line of supply wagons, with their white covers, winding around bends in the road and climbing over the hills. Every day the breaking of camp went more smoothly and quickly, until, as the days advanced, the general used to call me to his side to notice by his watch how few moments it took after the tents were ordered down to set the whole machinery for the march in motion; and I remember the regiment grew so skilful in preparation that in one campaign the hour for starting never varied five minutes during the whole summer.

The column was always halted once during the day's march to water the horses, then the luncheons were brought forth. They varied decidedly; sometimes an officer took from his pocket a hard biscuit wrapped in his handkerchief; the faithful orderly of another took his chief's sandwiches from his own haversack and brought them to him, wherever he was. Often a provident officer, as he seated himself to his little "spread" on the grass, was instantly surrounded by interested visitors, who, heedless ever of any future, believed that the world owed them a living and they were resolved to have it.

When the stream was narrow, and the hundreds of horses had to be ranged along its banks to be watered, there was time for a nap. I soon acquired the general's habit of sleeping readily. He would throw himself down anywhere and fall asleep instantly, even with the sun beating on his head. It only takes a little training to learn to sleep without a pillow on uneven ground and without shade. I learned, the moment I was helped out of the saddle, to drop upon the grass and lose myself in a twinkling. No one knows what a privilege it is to be stretched out after being cramped over the horn of a lady’s saddle for hours, until she has experienced it. I think I never got quite over wishing for the shade of a tree; but there was often a little strip of shadow on one side of the travelling wagon, which was always near us on the journey. I was not above selfishly appropriating the space under the wagon, if it had not been taken by somebody else. Even then I had to dislodge a whole collection of dogs, who soon find the best places for their comfort.

We had a citizen-guide with us, who, having been long in the country, knew the streams, and the general and I, following his instructions, often rode in advance as we neared the night’s camp. It was always a mild excitement and new pleasure to select camp. The men who carried the guidons for each company were sent for, and places assigned them. The general delighted to unsaddle his favorite horse. Dandy, and turn him loose, for his attachment was so strong he never grazed far from us. He was not even tethered, and after giving himself the luxury of a roll in the grass, he ate his dinner of oats, and browsed about the tent, as tame as a kitten. He whinnied when my husband patted his sleek neck, and looked jealously at the dogs when they all followed us into the tent afterwards.

After tramping down the grass, to prevent the fire from spreading, my husband would carry dry sticks and underbrush, and place them against a fallen tree. That made an admirable back-log, and in a little while we had a glorious fire, the general having a peculiar gift of starting a flame on the wildest day. The next thing was to throw himself down on the sod, cover his eyes with his white felt hat, and be sound asleep in no time. No matter if the sun beat down in a perfect blaze, it never disturbed him. The dogs came at once to lie beside him. I have seen them stretched at his back and curled around his head, while the nose and paws of one rested on his breast. And yet he was quite unconscious of their crowding. They growled and scrambled for the best place, but ho slept placidly through it all.

When the command arrived, the guidons pointed out the location for each company; the horses were unsaddled and picketed out; the wagons unloaded and the tents pitched. The hewing of wood and the hauling of water came next, and after the cook-fires were lighted, the air was full of savory odors of the soldiers’ dinner. Sometimes the ground admitted of pitching the tents of the whole regiment in two long lines facing each other; the wagons were drawn up at either end, and also at the rear of the two rows of tents; they were placed diagonally, one end overlapping the other, so as to form a barricade against the attack of Indians. Down the centre of the company street large ropes were stretched, to which the horses were tied at night; our tents were usually a little apart from the rest, at one end of the company street, and it never grew to be an old story to watch the camp before us. After I had changed my riding-habit for my one other gown, I came out to join the general under the tent-fly, where he lay alternately watching the scene and reading one of the well-thumbed books that he was never without. I always had sewing—either a bit of needle-work that was destined to make our garrison quarters more attractive, or more often some necessary stitches to take in our hard-worn clothes. As we sat there it would have been difficult for a stranger seeing us to believe that it was merely the home of a day.

Our camps along the river were much alike, and each day when we entered the tent our few things were placed exactly as they were the day before. The only articles of furniture we had with us were two folding-chairs, a bed, a wash-bowl, with bucket and tin dipper, and a little mirror. This last, fastened to the tent-pole, swayed to and fro with the never-ceasing wind, and made it a superfluous luxury, for we learned to dress without it. The camp-chairs were a great comfort; they were made by a soldier out of oak, with leather back, seat and arms, the latter so arranged with straps and buckles that one could recline or sit upright at will. I once made a long march and only took a camp-stool for a seat; I knew therefore what an untold blessing it was to have a chair in which to lean, after having been sitting in the saddle for hours.

We had tried many inventions for cot-beds that folded, but nothing stood the wear and tear of travel like the simple contrivance of two carpenter’s horses placed at the right distance apart, with three boards laid upon them. Such a bed was most easily transported, for the supports could be tied to the outside of the wagon, while the boards slipped inside before the rest of the camp equipage was packed.

An ineffaceable picture remains with me even now of those lovely camps, as we dreamily watched them by the fading light of the afternoon. The general and I used to think there was no hit of color equal to the delicate blue line of smoke which rose from the camp-fire, where the soldiers' suppers were being cooked. The effect of light and shade, and the varying tints of that perfect sky, were a great delight to him. The mellow air brought us sounds that had become dear by long and happy association—the low notes of the bugle in the hands of the musician practising the calls; the click of the currycomb as the soldiers groomed their horses; the whistle or song of a happy trooper. And even the irrepressible accordeon at that distance made a melody. It used to amuse us to find with what persistent ingenuity the soldiers smuggled that melancholy instrument. No matter how limited the transportation, after a few days' march it was brought out from a roll of blankets, or the teamster who had been bribed to keep it under the seat, produced the prized possession. The bay of the hounds was always music to the general. The bray of the mules could not be included under that head but it was one of those "sounds from home" to which we had become attached. Mingling with the melodies of the negro servants, as they swung the blacking-brushes at the rear of the tents, were the buoyant voices of the officers lying under the tent-flies, smoking the consoling pipe.

The twilight almost always found many of us gathered together, some idling on the grass in front of the camp-fire, or lounging on the buffalo robes. The one with the best voice sang, while all joined in the chorus.

We all had much patience in listening to what must necessarily be "twice-told tales," for it would have taken the author of "The Arabian Nights" to supply fresh anecdotes for people who had been so many years together. These stories usually varied somewhat from time to time, and the more Munchausen-like they became the more attentive was the audience.

The territories are settled by people who live an intense, exaggerated sort of existence, and nothing tame attracts them. In order to compel a listener, I myself fell into the habit of adding a cipher or two to stories that had been first told in the States with moderate numbers. If the family overheard me, their unquenchable spirit of mischief invariably put a quietus on my eloquence. In fact I was soon cured of temptation to amplify, by the repeated asides of my deriding family, "Oh, I say, old lady, won't you come down a hundred or two?" Sometimes, when we were all gathered together at evening, we improved the privilege which belongs to long-established friendships of keeping silent. The men yielded to the soporific influence of tobacco, in quiet content, knowing that nothing was expected of them if they chose not to talk. My husband and I sometimes strolled through the camp at twilight, and even went among the citizen teamsters that are employed for the march, when they were preparing their evening meal.

These teamsters mess together on the march as the officers do, with rarely more than four or five in the circle. One of the number buys the supplies, takes charge of the rations, and keeps the accounts. The sum of expenses is divided at the end of the month, and each pays his portion. They take turns in doing the cooking, which, being necessarily simple, each can bear a share of the labor. Sometimes we found a more ambitious member of the mess endeavoring to rise superior to the tiresome hard-tack; he had bared his brawny arms and was mixing biscuit on the tail-board of the wagon, let down for the purpose. He whistled away as he moulded the dough with his horny hands, and it would have seemed that he had a Delmonico supper to anticipate.

We had not left Yankton far behind us before we were surprised to see one of its most hospitable citizens drive up; he acknowledged that he had missed us, and described the tameness of life after the departure of the cavalry as something quite past endurance. We were so stupid as not to discover, until after he had said the second good-bye, that he really wanted to join us on the march; still, had he kept on, I am sure his endurance would have been tested, for while I do not remember ever to have been discouraged before in all our campaigning, I was so during the storm that followed. The weather suddenly changed, and we began our march with a dull, gray morning and stinging cold, The general wound me up in all the outside wraps I had until I was a shapeless mass of fur and wool as I sat in the saddle. We could talk but little to each other, for the wind cut our faces and stiffened the flesh until it ached. My hands became too numb to hold my horse, so I gave him his own way. As we rode along like automatons, I was keeping my spirits up with the thought of the camp we would make in the underbrush of a sheltered valley by some stream, and the coming camp-fire rose brightly in my imagination. We wont slowly as the usual time a cavalry command makes is barely four miles an hour. It was a discouraging spot where we finally halted; it was on a stream, but the ice was thick along the edges, and all we could see was the opposite bank, about thirty feet high, so frozen over that it looked like a wall of solid ice. It was difficult to pitch the tent, for the wind twisted and tore the canvas; the ground was already so frozen that it took a long time to drive in the iron pins by which the ropes holding the tents are secured. All the tying and pinning of the opening was of little avail, for the wind twisted off the tapes and flung the great brass pins I had brought on purpose for canvas far and wide.

No camp-fire would burn, of course, in such a gale, but I remembered thankfully the Sibley stove that we always carried. The saddler had cut a hole in the roof of the tent for the pipe, and fastened zinc around it to make it safe from fire. I shall never think about a Sibley stove without gratitude, nor cease to wonder how so simple an invention can be the means of such comfort. It is only a cone of sheet-iron, open at the top and bottom; the broader part rests on the ground, while the little pipe fits on the top. The wood is put through a door cut in the side; only billets can be used, for the aperture is of course small. It requires almost constant attention to keep the insatiable little thing filled, but it never occurs to one, where half a dozen are huddled together, to ask who shall be the fireman, and there is equal division of labor. The stove is so light that, in marching, the pipe is removed and a rope run through the openings, which enables it to be tied underneath the wagon, beside the bucket which is always suspended there to be used to water the horses.

The general was busy in the adjutant’s tent, so I sent for the sergeant, who was our factotum, and asked him to hunt up the Sibley stove. I felt disheartened when I he told me it had been forgotten.[1] I could have gone to the next tent where a provident officer had put his up, but I felt in too disagreeable a humor to inflict myself on any one, and so crept into bed to keep warm. It was an unmistakable fit of sulks, and I was in the valley of humiliation next morning, for I knew well how difficult it is to have ladies on the march, and how many obstacles the general had surmounted to arrange for my coming. My part consisted in drilling myself to be as little trouble as I could. I had really learned, by many a self-inflicted lesson, never to be too cold or too hot, and rarely allowed a thought of hunger if we were where no supplies could be had. It was a long struggle, but I finally learned never to drink between meals, as it is always difficult to get water on a march. I can remember being even mortified at dropping my whip, for I wished to be so little trouble that every one would be unconscious of my presence, so far as being an inconvenience was concerned. The cold of Dakota overcame me on that one day, but it was the last time I succumbed to it.

  1. It was afterwards recovered.