Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/America militant - Part 2

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After crossing the Red River at the little village of Preston, twenty-five miles south of the fort—at which point the settlements finally ceased, and a quasi-civilisation was succeeded by utter barbarism—the route of the expedition took a south-west direction over a vast undulating plain covered with a rank herbage of coarse stubble-like grass, interspersed with mimosas and various brilliant but scentless flowers peculiar to the prairies. In the occasional hollows, which had uniformly a southern determination towards the Trinity River, thickets of vines heavy with grapes, wild-plum, and cotton-trees, fringed the beds of trivial streams, generally dried up by the fierce heat of summer, or existent only in pools, stagnant or trampled into loathsome mire by preceding detachments. Two remarkable tracts, twenty miles wide, but extending hundreds of miles in a meridional direction, were successively traversed. These, which are known to trappers, hunters, and frontier-folk, as the Cross-Timbers, being characterised by a singular regularity of outline, have originated a theory that, at some remote period, they were planted by the hand of man. Beyond, the country rose continuously, its monotonous aspect being varied toward the Brazos River by occasional copses of stunted oaks and thickets of the musquit, a thorny acacia, perhaps identical with that which yields the arabic gum of commerce. The only visible dwellers in the wilderness were a few shy grouse, or prairie-fowl, and wary deer, that foiled all the craft of the inexperienced hunter; innumerable rattlesnakes, whose friendliness to man was evinced by a disagreeable habit of insinuating themselves into the folds of the blanket in which he slumbered and by clustering around his watch-fire; and legions of famished prairie-wolves that, though absolutely undiscoverable by day, rushed forth at dark from mysterious retreats to prowl around the camp, and startle the weary traveller with fiendish cries.

The transit of this inhospitable region was effected with as much consideration for the convenience of the soldiery as was consistent with military discipline, and with that discreet caution suggested by the undoubted proximity of savage enemies. For various incidents apparently trivial—smouldering embers, an incautious footstep, a discarded moccassin, the morning dew brushed from the grass—assumed a strange significance to experienced eyes, as indicative of continuous observation by vigilant and ubiquitous foes, eager to profit by any inadvertence or intermission of watchfulness, but far too wary rashly to expose themselves to the grape and canister wherewith the brass howitzers were prudentially loaded.

Réveillée beat ordinarily at three, ere yet the stars had paled. Within five minutes after that, the soldiers thus abruptly startled from repose had assumed their attire, buckled on their accoutrements, and stacked arms by companies between the lines of tents in the temporary encampment. Ten minutes later, the knapsacks had been packed and the tents rolled up. A quarter of an hour sufficed to arrange these and the scanty baggage of the officers in the waggons of the respective companies. This having been effected, the force sat down on the dewy grass, and, by the light of a few candle-ends stuck here and there amid the wild-flowers, drank their hot coffee and ate their biscuit in moody or sleepy silence. Meanwhile, amid a tempest of whip-crackings and polyglot vituperation of refractory mules, the loaded waggons successively passed away from the careless eyes of the reclining soldiery into the vague obscurity of the prairie, over which the train extended in a continuous line two miles in length. Then, faint streaks of grey on the horizon heralding the advancing dawn, the drums beat the Assembly, the companies fell in, assumed their arms, and, marching in succession by the flank, pressed onward in a dark column to take the advance of the expectant train, leaving beside the expiring watchfires of the abandoned camp empty whiskey-bottles and greasy playing-cards strayed from their packs as indices of the advance of civilisation.

The brisk motion quickening their blood, the cool morning air exhilarating their sense, and the advent of daylight imparting confidence to their steps, the soldiers soon shook off the languor which had oppressed them at starting, and, dismissing from their thoughts all other anxieties but that as to the character of the next evening’s camp, lighted their short pipes, and, cheered by the fragrant fumes and interested by the rapid changes of scene consequent upon their advance, jogged easily on, whiling away the hours as they best might with uncouth jests and naive speculations on what was strange around them. But in this, as in the journey of life, those most gay and confident at morn become grave and sad enough ere even. Those seemingly best qualified for effort evinced in general least endurance; for not thews and sinews, but constancy and tenacity of purpose, render man truly strong. Hour succeeded hour, and when the sun was in the zenith, and the canteens were exhausted one by one, the weaker and less resolute strayed from the ranks amid the jeers of their firmer comrades, and either limped dejectedly after the column, or, intentionally lingering in the rear until overtaken by the advancing train, crawled furtively into the waggon of some friendly teamster, soon, however, to be ignominiously ejected by inflexible authorities; for none were allowed the privilege of entering the train but the sick and the cooks of companies whose culinary avocations occupy most of the night. On reaching a stream the column was invariably halted a few minutes that the canteens might be refilled; but streams were rare, and sometimes, rendered half delirious by heat and thirst, the men drank greedily from

Gilded puddles which beasts might cough at.

Excepting on such occasions, the column steadily pursued its march at an even pace until it arrived at a spot, adapted by the possession of wood and water for an encampment; the length of the day’s march depending entirely on this. When the existence of these conditions was satisfactorily ascertained, the line halted, broke into columns of companies, and stacked arms. On the arrival of the baggage-waggons, which were always in the van of the train, the tents were pitched in ranges parallel to and between these lines of arms. After providing the cooks with wood and water, the weary men reposed while awaiting dinner, with the exception of those unhappy ones who had been selected for guard, and were destined, notwithstanding their fatigue, to be on duty and awake most of the coming night. Dinner was usually ready about four, when the rear-guard was coming with the slower waggons into camp. Guard-mount and doctor’s-call then rapidly succeeded; tattoo was beaten invariably at eight, that the men might retire early to slumber; and, five minutes later, all lights within the tents were extinguished, and all noise or talking that might have interfered with the general repose strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, after a short nap, certain dissipated fellows would assemble, according to previous appointment, among the further waggons; and there, screened from observation, and indifferent to the plunging and kicking of the vicious mules around them, would carouse and gamble until early réveillée abruptly terminated their enjoyment, and recalled them, haggard, heavy-eyed, and jaded, to the duties of another day.

A fortnight thus elapsed, and finally, without having encountered other annoyances than those arising from the heat of the season and the general deficiency of water, the goal was attained, and the regiment was reunited towards the end of August on the left bank of the Brazos.

The two main branches of that great river, at this point a hundred miles apart, are termed the Clear and Red Forks of Brazos respectively; the waters of the first being sweet and pellucid, but those of the second, whereon the camp stood, and of all its affluents, being turbid and nauseously saline. The only spring as yet discovered in the vicinity was several miles distant, and the supply it afforded was so scanty and precarious that it was necessary to put the force on allowance.

After some days’ suffering on this account, it was considered advisable to divide the command; and the left wing of the regiment in consequence took a new position to the west on the Clear Fork, leaving the right wing to waste the autumn in excavating useless wells on the elevated plains, where water could not possibly have existed. The prairie here terminated abruptly in bold bluffs, leaving a fertile flat at their base, from 1000 to 5000 feet in width. Through this flat flowed the Brazos, with an average width of 500 or 600 feet, alternately approximating and receding from the cliffs which restrained its course, and though generally shallow, subject to such capricious variations of level, that the adventurer who had found it but knee-deep in crossing two or three hours before, might discover to his dismay that return was intercepted by a furious torrent. Gradually, exploring parties ascertained the existence of a large pine forest at a distance of forty miles; the scrub-oaks of the vicinity were found to furnish timber of better quality than had been anticipated; gypsum, lime, and stone admirably adapted for building were plentiful; the plain was strewn in one direction with immense boulders of almost virgin iron; excellent coal cropped out from the cliffs on either side of the river; and from these coal measures fresh water flowed out in tiny rills so abundantly that only cisterns at the base of the cliffs were lacking to secure as ample a supply as could possibly be required. Thus, ere the Indian summer, or last days of autumn, had passed away, every one was satisfied that the region was by no means so bad as had at first been conceived.

Terrific thunderstorms, accompanied by the first rain that had been known in that country for years, preceded an exceptionally rigorous winter. Snow lay heavy on the ground for a month, during which the troops, intermitting their labours in dismay, gazed mournfully from their tents at the inclement skies and whitened ground, uncheered by grog, while masticating their lenten fare sighing after the fleshpots of Egypt,—“the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, and the onions,”—and bitterly exclaiming that they had been led out into the wilderness to die!

Then became apparent the excellence of the organisation of the American army. The thoughts of the despondent soldiery were withdrawn from contemplation of inconveniences unavoidably incidental to an exceptional position to those active exertions whereby it might be improved. An area 1000 feet square was cleared of brush on an eligible slope, sheltered from the wintry northern blasts by a dense coppice, for the purpose of erecting temporary quarters. The position of the designed buildings being then marked out thereon according to the usual quadrangular arrangement, and trenches two feet deep cut on the lines of walls, the scrub-oaks of the adjacent prairies were felled by hundreds, and cut into twenty-feet pickets, which, being planted in the trenches side by side, and connected above by battens and cross-ties, the excavated earth was then filled in, and trodden down, so as to retain them in position. These palisades were then chinked and daubed with clay, so as to form walls impervious to the weather; rough stone chimneys were built at either end of each tenement; rude doors were made and hung; and the older tents, now to be discarded, were formed into coverings, which, after being extended over the roof-trees, were drawn down tight, and securely fastened at the eaves. Within those buildings to be occupied as barracks double tiers of berths were erected along the walls, formed of packing cases and such other impromptu material as could be furnished by the quarter-master, imparting to the interior somewhat the semblance of an emigrant-vessel’s steerage; while floors having been formed of tempered clay well beaten down, the rude aspect of these domiciles was amply compensated by the reality of comfort.

Within seven weeks the quadrangle was completed in this style, including quarters for five companies, or 400 men,—guard-house, magazine, quarter-master’s and adjutant’s offices, and officers’ quarters; and, without the quadrangle, a hospital, and a commissariat store, 400 feet by 40 feet, to protect the public property. The succeeding fortnight was devoted to erecting, further down the slope, a stable capable of sheltering 250 horses and mules,—hitherto picketted on the prairie, and exposed to savage greed and ingenuity,—forming one side of a yard elsewhere enclosed by a line of pickets. Such was the willingness of the men, and the judgment wherewith their labours were directed by the officers, that about Christmas the object of such strenuous exertion was attained in the completion of Fort Belknap, as the post was named in honour of the gallant lieutenant-colonel of the corps, then unhappily expiring at the post, of disease contracted during arduous services; and the force was now almost as comfortable, and the usual military duties were as punctiliously observed, as though the scene had been New York.

Towards the close of winter the continued use of salt provisions generated scurvy, and carried off two or three whose constitution had been weakened by previous years of reckless dissipation; but the issue of fresh meat on the arrival of herds of commissariat cattle from the frontier, and the establishment of a public bakery, quickly re-established the conditions of health. Here it may be necessary to observe that the American army ration being of flour and not of bread, biscuit being issued in its stead only under exceptional circumstances, and as the greatest inconvenience and discontent would ensue were its formation into bread to devolve on the individual soldier—a special arrangement is made to effect it. The flour, drawn from the commissariat every ten days by the respective companies, being delivered at the fort bakery, an equivalent weight of bread is issued, as it is required, day by day, at the rate of 1¼ lb. per ration. But the difference between the respective weights of flour and the bread made therefrom is such, that an approximate saving of one-fifth of the flour is effected to the benefit of the establishment, which sells the flour gained by the operation in the form of bread to the officers and their families, to those hungry soldiers whom their ration does not satiate, and lastly to civilians of the vicinity, at the rate of 2d. per ration to the enlisted man, and of 4d. to all others. The bread is almost invariably excellent, and in every way preferable to that sold by professional bakers on the frontiers. The funds thence accruing,—which vary with circumstances, such as the locality, strength of the garrison, populousness of the vicinity, &c.,—after deducting the expenses, including the extra pay of the bakers (who are invariably soldiers specially selected for the duty), are partly expended on the Post library, and partly on the regimental band, whereto the State contributes only by authorising the enlistment of a certain number of musicians as privates, whose extra pay, music, instruments, &c., must be provided for by the corps. Similar economies may be and are effected by companies on their other rations, the commissariat being always ready to commute undrawn rations for money; and this fund is employed by companies, under the supervision of their immediate commanders, in extending the company library, in purchasing garden seeds, liquor for festive occasions, and other little comforts. The rations furnished by the State are so liberal, that with ordinary economy the funds of a company or regiment may be very large.

At this time a few Indians ventured occasionally to enter the post, carrying as a pretext for their presence a quarter of venison, or a couple of wild turkeys on the pommel of their saddles. These first visitors, being always kindly received, protected from insult, and furnished according to custom with a few rations, after satisfying their secret curiosity and apprehension, must, on returning to their dusky brethren of the wilderness, have spoken most eulogistically of what they had seen; for, henceforward, whatever of interest might be going on coram publico, a few slouching Indians were always among the spectators; and whatever scanty game the prairie afforded the troops were provided with by these vagrant gentry.

The only occurrence which in any respect disquieted the force during its stay at Brazos took place during this first winter, on one tempestuous night of which an entrance was effected into the corral, or stable-yard, by the removal of a ricketty picket; when about fifty horses and mules loose in the enclosure were abstracted so dexterously that, owing to the war of the elements, the loss was not discovered till the sentries were relieved an hour afterwards. The alarm being then given, the long-roll beat tumultuously, and the troops were immediately got under arms in anticipation of a possible onslaught of savages. At dawn an efficient party was organised and equipped, which, mounting in fiery haste, eager for a fray, departed in pursuit under the direction of a guide versed in all Indian wiles. But, after following the trail northward for 300 miles, as far as the Canadian river, without encountering the thievish fugitives, or other result than the recovery of a lame mule abandoned by them in their flight, the exhaustion of both horses and riders, and the lack of provisions, enforced the soldiers to return. Suspicion fell at first upon the poor Ishmaelites prowling round the post, and for some time the soldiery looked somewhat askant at them. Circumstances however subsequently exonerated them, and fixed the guilt on a band of unscrupulous knaves from the settlements. Certain disreputable villains of this description frequently on the frontier disguise themselves as Indians, for the purpose of committing the most atrocious outrages on their own people, in comparative security, and these crimes are hastily attributed to the poor children of the desert, who are far less deserving of the name of savages.

With spring arrived the long expected colonel, with those reinforcements for the regiment annually dispatched at that season from the recruiting depôt; and the presence of this dignitary was the signal for renewed activity, whereof the object was the erection of more permanent and commodious quarters. Here it is requisite to apprise the non-professional reader that the efficiency of troops depending as much on that of their commissariat and quarter-master’s departments as upon the bravery or discipline of the men, it is primarily necessary that they should be clothed, fed, and housed, and that there should be distinct organisations to effect those ends. Not only in every regiment, but in every detachment of the United States’ Army, officers are detailed for these special purposes, with a staff of subordinates selected from the ranks, and directly responsible to the head-quarters of their respective departments. The commissary receives from thence and issues to the troops clothing and subsistence stores. The quarter-master similarly provides, by indents on the quarter-master general, or in certain cases by private contract with civilians on behalf of government, means of transportation and tents, with all the variety of implements and materials required in the erection or repair of buildings used for military purposes. When their services can be made available all the employés in these departments are soldiers; and a considerable proportion of the enlisted men are thus continuously engaged as clerks, mechanics, and teamsters; receiving for their services a liberal consideration, which is a premium on good conduct and diligence. On this account, at recruiting offices, mechanics are preferred to ordinary labourers, and the first enquiry made of an aspirant to glory is as to his particular craft.

This having been premised, it will be easily understood that, when extensive and permanent works were contemplated, the first preliminary was to ascertain, by reference to the regimental descriptive book, what and how many mechanics were available for the public service; while the next was to assign all masons, bricklayers, plasterers, smiths, sawyers, carpenters, joiners, &c., to extra duty in the quartermaster’s department. The remainder of the force was destined for that ruder labour wherein “muscle” is demanded rather than any special intelligence or skill, and which accordingly receives no additional payment.

The force suddenly recovered its wonted activity, rising at réveillée to pursue the daily labours in various directions, and returning at retreat, i. e., sunset, to repose. According to their several qualifications, men were assigned to the offices as clerks or storekeepers; to the yard as drivers or stable-men; and to the workshops as mechanics. A large party, well armed, was permanently detached for the purpose of cutting pine-timber in the distant forests; and other parties were constantly in the coal-pits and stone-quarries of the immediate vicinity. A saw-mill of forty horse-power was erected, the engineer being a soldier, and thereat the lumber daily arriving rapidly assumed the form required by the carpenters and builders. A certain number of veterans was reserved for military duties, furnishing guards for the post and escorts for the trains continually passing to and fro.

When off duty, the leisure of these last was employed in forming staff and company gardens on the fertile flats along the river; and the horticultural labours of these amateurs were so successful that the wild shortly became luxuriant with all the vegetation required for culinary purposes, and their melon, strawberry, and cucumber patches might have challenged comparison with the long-lamented ones of Forts Washita, Smith, Gibson, and Towson. Roads radiated from the fort in various directions over the prairies, and they were easily formed, for it was sufficient that a line of loaded waggons should once pass over the soft ground to leave thereon a clearly defined track. Constant as public labour was, it was never excessive, ample time being allowed for refreshment and repose. It was, in fact, precisely the amount of exercise demanded by health, it was liberally recompensed, and its ultimate object was the personal comfort of those engaged therein. A single afternoon was weekly set apart for battalion-drills, with especial view to the improvement of the younger soldiers.

With this exception, only on Sundays had the place a military aspect. Then, all labour having been thrown aside, the soldiery rose Antæus-like, reinvigorated by contact with mother-earth, and resumed joyously the garb and functions of their proper profession. The customary inspection at morn, and the parade at even, were inflexibly enforced; but, as yet, to the general delight, no chaplain had been appointed by the kind and paternal solicitude of the government; and consequently the intervening hours were devoted to amusement, reading, repose, or cheerful conversation on what had been effected during the previous week, and other little local matters personally affecting the interlocutors, who thought little of the world without their immediate circle.

At the expiration of two years from the exodus, a stranger would have been astonished by that which had been done by so small a force. To the south of the first quadrangle, the buildings of which had now a very ricketty and dilapidated appearance,—though they had been thatched with prairie grass, and occasionally otherwise repaired,—five ranges of company quarters had been erected in order of echellon, each 120 feet in length and 40 feet in width, and with a detached building corresponding to it 40 feet by 30 feet, for a kitchen and mess-room. Parallel to this series of quarters, there had also arisen a granary 150 feet by 40; a commissariat, 120 feet by 40, and three stories high; and a magazine 40 feet square. These were all built of cut sandstone, roofed with shingles in default of slate,—with the exception of the magazine, which had an elliptical stone roof,—and all with numerous well-glazed windows. The quarters were fitted up with that number of massive oaken bedsteads required by the organisation of the company, i. e., 84 in each. On a gentle rise of the ground, commanding these buildings, a line of officers’ houses had been built—ten in number—all constructed of wood, six-roomed, plastered within and without, and thatched with prairie-grass, having precisely the appearance, with their pretty verandahs, of our officers’ bungalows in India. Each was surrounded by a large and neatly trimmed garden, forming as pleasant a rural retirement for a gentleman as could be conceived of. A large store had been erected on the plateau in a convenient position by the suttler at his own expense, whereat all the little luxuries, except liquors, that a soldier might require, were obtainable at very moderate cost. The entire slope or plateau whereon these various buildings stood was kept by assiduous mowing and grubbing as smooth and trim as any gentleman’s lawn, and the gardens at the base of the cliffs, notwithstanding the depredations of the locusts, were all that could be desired, forming a strange contrast to the wilderness amid which they stood. Availing themselves of the military protection, several settlers, crossing the intervening wilds, had arrived from the adjacent frontier, and squatting in eligible positions without troubling themselves about title-deeds, had built for themselves little log shanties on the verge of the military reserve, cultivated little patches of maize, raised poultry, and drove a thriving business with the garrison in dairy and farm produce.

On the completion of the new quarters, the progress of which had been regarded with great interest, the troops joyously took up their abode therein, abandoning their former dwellings to a slow decay with military insouciance; as few being disposed to remember the happy hours once passed within those now dilapidated walls, as to meditate on the transitoriness of all material things and of the joys dependent thereon, that their decay might have suggested.

The popular transport on attaining a comfort previously unknown to many, and in the pleasing anticipation of indefinite repose, was disagreeably checked by the ominous remarks of the more thoughtful and experienced soldiers.

“Yes, yes,” would croak one of these veterans with a grim smile and wise wag of his head, “it’s very snug indeed, as you say, Jenkins, or O’Flaherty,” as the case might be, “very pleasant indeed, if—it would only last. But that’s exactly where it is, d’ye see; our comfort’s too great to last long. It’s not our luck, by —— That old ass of a colonel of ours is so proud of his work, that, like the foolish hen that must go clucking about to let all the neighbourhood know that she has laid an egg,—he’ll be writing in his own praise to Washington, and the Secretary of War will come to the conclusion that Brazos is a great deal too good for the dirty old ——th. Mark these here words, lads, that’ll be the end of the matter.”

Men very readily turn from the contemplation of a disagreeable future to the enjoyment of the present; and of course the auditors of these sinister prognostications soon recovered from their temporary discomposure, and resolved not to believe in the possibility of what they secretly apprehended. But their confidence was precipitate, for within two months from the first occupation of the new quarters, the contemned predictions were justified by the event. A general order arrived, commanding the immediate advance of the regiment to the Rio Grande, and the occupation of the vacated posts on the Brazos by the very corps which had previously played the part of the cuckoo. Sic vos, non vobis, nidificatis, aves!

Though many of these soldiers were recruits, who, having recently joined, had not personally felt the grief of leaving the pleasant posts in Arkansas; yet each man, associating himself with the part of the corps whereto he now belonged, and claiming a share in its glory, felt as if he had been individually wronged in the former instance. It may be imagined with what wrath the regiment again turned its face to the wilderness; certainly, were curses operative, the gentleman then at the head of the War Department has a very unpleasant prospect before him.

The merits, in an economical point of view, of the military system that it has been the object of the writer to describe, can only be distinctly apprehended by ascertaining approximately the expense incurred by the State in the erection of the post in question;—which the reader may be assured is not ideal, but really existent, having very recently been taken possession of by the revolutionary authorities of Texas.

Assuming that on a average 130 men, or a third of the force present, which is an excessive estimate, had been receiving extra pay for two years at the rate of twenty cents daily, or six dollars monthly (about twenty-five shillings), in addition to their military pay proper; the total sum paid to troops for labour would not have exceeded 18,000 dollars. The entertainment at the post of means of transportation,—already, however, existent, and which would have been present there whether there had been work of this description or not,—the cost of forage, artificers’ tools, iron and iron ware, and other material, amounted to perhaps as much more. Thus these works cost about 36,000 dollars; or only 7,200l. beyond the sum which would necessarily have been expended in supporting in mischievous and unprofitable idleness the troops thus usefully, economically, and even with reference only to themselves, beneficially employed in the public service. Had artificers been engaged from civil life, in addition to the enormous expense of transporting them many hundred miles to the scene of their labours, not one would have accepted less than forty dollars monthly, with his rations, quarters, and liquor. Supposing that only 100 private artificers had been employed, and estimating the rations at ten dollars per mensem, the cost for artificers’ labour alone would in a year have been 60,000 dollars, or 12,000l. What would have been the cost of similar buildings here, and how incalculably it would have exceeded 7,200l. it would be superfluous to say.

The analogy between the military discipline of republican America and republican Rome deserves consideration. The Roman soldiery, in place of being an aggregation of worthless drones, supported in vicious indolence by the laborious industry of their fellow citizens, contributed as much to the commercial prosperity of the Republic by their toil, as to its aggrandisement and renown by their swords. The pioneers of civilisation, the legions, to establish the supremacy of Rome, made roads, erected bridges and aqueducts, built cities, and diffused a knowledge of the useful arts throughout previously barbaric Europe. The American soldiery are similarly engaged.

From these considerations, the thoughtful reader may naturally be induced to inquire, at this day of immense armaments during profound peace, whether the men thus withdrawn from industrial pursuits, and thus, both directly and indirectly, subtracting from the wealth of the nation, might not most legitimately be expected to contribute in some slight degree by their labour toward the cost of their entertainment? Whether also the health, moral and physical, no less than the efficiency of troops, might not be incalculably advanced thereby?

To any idle assertions to the effect that a soldiery would be demoralised by such toils as have been described in the preceding pages, apart from the undeniable refutation afforded by Roman history, and by the less known American army; it may be replied, that all the great public works in Algeria, the forts, quays, barracks, roads, and bridges, erected within the last thirty years, are due to the genius of the officers and the energy of the men of the army of occupation; and it remains yet to be shown that the French army has in any respect deteriorated in consequence.