Chasing Smallwood — 13. So There You Are, I Was in the Army!

[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and

the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

.13. So There You Are, I Was in the Army!

[December 24, 2005] Nearly 7 a.m. Now comes the need for divine intervention! I’m scared stiff to start writing about Joseph’s wartime experiences – because I do not have a clue what they were except a sense that he was at Gettysburg, injured by being clubbed in the lower spine – and the sure knowledge that he was federal and not rebel.

What if I get it wrong “in his voice” and find out not that there are no records, but that records exist and they prove he wasn’t where I have him saying he was? (What if he doesn’t exist, and all this is made up?) Nothing to do but find out, I guess, but I’d almost rather go into battle myself!

7:30 a.m. All right, Joseph.

If I’m really here, you mean. Well, that kind of caution does you credit, up to a point. But at some point you have got to jump, you know, and there ain’t any one last jump until you decide you’re done jumping. Maybe for a while, maybe for a lifetime. Doesn’t matter the length of the pause, it is always a pause, waiting on you – because there’s always another jump waiting. And wouldn’t it be dull if there wasn’t!

Now, in May, June, of ’61 they didn’t want me. Too old, too many young men itching to fight. Well, they thought they was. They was going to avenge the flag! I don’t mean to make fun of them, and I wasn’t any different and I was old enough to know better. But it is funny what will get a man fighting, ain’t it? Two hundred fifty years of unrequited toil, as Mr. Lincoln said, and that didn’t stir anybody much to fight it – and the few that did, we called ’em fanatics, or at least we called ’em dreamers, like John Brown. And the funny thing is, we weren’t wrong to do that! You can’t go killing people over every thing you see wrong with the world, or your killing people becomes one of the things wrong.

But my point was, here we’d been living all these years under the slaveholders’ heels, and we hadn’t got it in mind to fight. We saw Senator Sumner half killed in his chair in the Senate – by a congressman – and we didn’t rise up. They set us to catching [runaway] slaves for them – at least, that is what the law said, but we wouldn’t do it – and we didn’t fire at ’em. But they fired cannon at an old fort in a harbor and we all roused up and shook our fists and talked to each other with fire in our eyes and said “they fired on the flag” and off we went. I do believe some of those poor farmboys met their death with no clearer idea of what they were fighting about than that the rebels had shot at a physical flag, a few square feet of cloth! You might not think so, but I lived among those boys, and I know them.

Well, I’d volunteered and they didn’t want me, so I did what there was to do, which is take care of my life as usual. Bought some more trading goods, went back into the back country, trading. By the next time I hit town, though, things was a little different. Now they weren’t talking 75,000 men for a fast campaign that would be a turkey shoot. Now they needed 300,000 men, and they wanted them for three years. The number was sort of amazing to us.

You figure it out. We had 30 million people all told, 20 million in the north. 300,000 was one and a half percent of the whole population of the northern states! One and a half percent! You’ve got 300 million in what you call “now” – so it would be like bringing up an army of four and a half million, out of nothing! You are used to having a lot of boys in arms, but we were not. We had maybe 17,000 all told, and them most all on the frontiers, and mostly fighting Indians at that, because Canada and Mexico wasn’t any threat, and England was quiet.

So now they wasn’t quite so particular about who they would take and who they wouldn’t. Each state had a quota to fill, you see, and each part of a state had a quota, and if the quotas weren’t filled with volunteers – well, I don’t know that we were talking about a national draft, that early in the war, but it wasn’t hard to see the men had to come from somewhere.

This was fall, ’61, now. They’d had Bull Run while I was out up-country, and I didn’t hear anybody yelling about “on to Richmond” any more. The only thing that seemed like it might be more or less settled in that summer was that Missouri didn’t go out, and neither did Kentucky. And like I say, it was the Germans helped save St. Louis and what saved Kentucky I never did know, except they were on the Ohio, and maybe there was too many of their businessmen knew they had too many ties north, and it would be a catastrophe if they threw in with the south. But I don’t say it was so, and it may not have been. Businessmen didn’t run the south, slaveowners did. But Kentucky was a little of each, that’s what made it a border state.

Now I couldn’t see spending three years walking, so I joined the cavalry. The boys ragged me a little about keeping up with them – told me they’d stop so I could have a nap in midday – but in fact I was better fit for it than most of them was. I had lived in the saddle for years. I camped with my family, winters; I moved around the country as I pleased. Wasn’t much these dirt-busters could show me about riding and taking care of horses and reading trail.

So there you are, I was in the army! Thirty-nine years old, and way old enough to know better, and I was in the army. Third Iowa cavalry, just as you looked [via google]. So now you can get your blood pressure up, checking my story, or you can just take it as something you’re making up behind your own back, and if it turns out not to be so, well, you’ve had an interesting experience.

Wasn’t long before I was an officer! Wasn’t any of us knew what we were doing anyway, and I was an old man next to these farm kids, and I had been to Harvard college, though it was so long ago it didn’t seem to belong to me – “another lifetime” as you would say – and I knew horses, and there you are, I was a private, and [then] a sergeant, and [then] a lieutenant about as soon as you can sew on stripes. So then it was time to learn army!

We didn’t even have the books, at first. Didn’t have the forms, didn’t know the bugle calls, didn’t have much of anything at all but a bunch of squirts off the farm and a few old men like me, and a couple of senior “officers” who’d caught a glimpse of an army regulations manual one day twenty years before, from two city blocks away. Didn’t even have enough horses, they hadn’t been bought yet.

Well, we figured we’d get all the rest of that sooner or later, but we had the men – most of ’em, more than half, anyway – now. So we might as well make a start. I say “we” but it ain’t like I was sitting down with the colonel giving him pointers. He was a politician, and a businessman, and he was younger than me, and he sort of worried along without me, as you like to say.

No, the word came down, we got to get these boys organized, so we’re going to drill! My that caused a stir! They felt just about how I felt, or would have if I hadn’t got a horse. They didn’t join the cavalry to drill like foot soldiers! They wanted to ride!

Well, I don’t know just how the other officers dealt with it, but I called my company together and reasoned it out with ’em. I said we didn’t have the horses, we didn’t have the equipment, we didn’t have the drill instructions and it wasn’t anybody’s fault particularly, we were just moving too fast, but if we wanted to whip the rebels we was going to have to learn to act like a unit, not like a bunch of damned independent clod-hoppers, and it just made sense to get a jump on it. And besides, this was the army and it wasn’t like they had a whole lot of choice about it. So they could work at it with me and we could learn as much as we could or they could fight me and get broke and wind up sitting on the horse – the wooden punishment horse, I meant.

Well, they were good boys, and they listened, and we didn’t have no more trouble than was caused by us not knowing what we were doing or supposed to do. And after a while it got sorted out. A bit at a time, we got our equipment, we got our horses, we got used to working with each other, and we got used to the dam fool Army way of doing things, which I swear to God was invented for morons. Maybe by morons. And yet it worked, more or less, if you went around it the right way when you had to.

I think I had good luck with the boys because I never pretended to know any more than I did. I figured, they had to know I was learning just like them, and what harm would it do to admit it? They could see me studying all the time, trying to work out what to do, how to do it, and why to do it. That was the thing they got to know, after a while, my knowing why we were doing this or that would sometimes save us work, and sometime might save our skins. Any dam fool can obey an order, but it takes an educated dam fool to figure out why so he can do it right or do what makes sense instead.

Now that may not seem right to you, but ask some old soldier – particularly, ask some old officer, if he’s been in a war, I mean. In the army we say you just obey orders, and sometimes you do even if you can see it’s a dam fool mistake that’s going to get you killed, because you don’t know that, and you can’t tell but that it’s necessary. But at the same time, day in and day out, you don’t do it that way. You do enough to cover yourself and what you don’t do – what you don’t make your men do, I mean – is maybe as important as what you do. If your men are going to follow you into hell – and they might have to – it helps if they think you have got good judgement, or if they can even hope! And you show them that day by day, so what may look to outsiders like shirking, your men will see as protecting them from annoyances, and they’ll appreciate it not as a favor but as a sign that you have got good sense and can be trusted. There ain’t anything the men were more afraid of than bad officers, because they knew a bad officer was the most likely to get them killed for no good reason. A good officer is likely to get them killed anyway, that’s just war, but at least maybe there’ll be something come of it. A man just naturally hates to lay down his life for nothing.

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