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Chapter 9: a change of base.

  • The Pensacola army
  • -- review by President Davis -- orders for Virginia -- breaking camp on the Gulf -- the start of the Zouaves -- they capture a train and a city -- pursuit and recapture -- the riot and its lesson -- early ideas of discipline.
    Whatever activity and energetic preparation there may have been elsewhere, Pensacola was the first organized camp in the South. General Bragg and his adjutant-general were both old officers, and in the face of the enemy the utmost rigor of discipline prevailed. There had been no active operations on this line, yet; but the Alabama and Louisiana troops collected — to the number of about nine thousand-had already become soldiers, in all the details of camp life; and went through it in as cheerful a spirit as if they had been born there.

    In popular view, both Bragg and Beauregard were on probation as yet; and it was thought that upon the management of their respective operations depended their status in the regular army. All was activity, drill and practice in this camp; and if the army of Pensacola was not a perfectly-disciplined one, the fault certainly was not with its general.

    The day we reached camp the President and Secretary of the Navy came down from Montgomery on a special train for an inspection. They were accompanied only by one or two officers, and had a long and earnest conference with General Bragg at his headquarters. After that there was a review of the army; and the then novel sight was made peculiarly effective by surroundings.

    On the level, white beach, glistening in the afternoon sun, were drawn up the best volunteer organizations of the South-line upon line, as far as eye could reach-their bright uniforms, glancing muskets and waving banners giving color to the view. Far in the rear the fringed woods made dim background; while between, regular rows of white tents-laid out in regiments and company streetsdotted the plain.

    Out in the foreground stretched the blue waters of Pensacola harbor — the sun lighting up the occasional foam-crests into evanescent diamonds — the grim fortress frowning darkly on the rebellious display, [70] while a full band on the parapet played the “Star Spangled banner.” Over to the left, half hidden under the rolling sand hills, stood Pensacola, with — the navy yard and hospitals; and yellow little Fort McRea, saucy and rebellious, balanced it on the extreme right.

    As the President, with the general and his staff, galloped down the line, the band of each regiment struck up; and the wildest huzzas — not even restrained by the presence of their “incarnate discipline” --told how firm a hold Mr. Davis had taken upon the hearts of the army.

    By the time the review was over twilight had fallen; and a thousand camp-fires sprang up among the tents, with flickering, uncertain light. In it sat groups preparing their suppers and discussing what the visit and review might mean. Some said it was for the secretary to inspect the navy yard; some to examine into the defenses of the fort; and some said that it meant scaling ladders and a midnight assault.

    That night we had a jolly time of it in an Alabama captain's tentwith songs, cards and whisky punch, such as only “Mac” could brew. Even “the colonel” confessed himself beaten at his great trick; and in compliment drank tumbler after tumbler. As we walked over to our tent in the early mist before dawn, he said:

    Egad! there's mischief brewing-mischief, sir! The seat of war's to be removed to Virginia and the capital to Richmond!

    I stopped and looked at the colonel. Was it the punch?

    “That's what the council this evening meant?”

    “Just so. Bragg remains, but part of his garrison goes to Beauregard, in Virginia. Trains to Montgomery will be jammed now, so we'd better be off. And, egad, sir! I'm to get ready for the field. Yes, sir, for the field!”

    Next morning the information that had filtered to me through the colonel's punch was announced in orders, and enthusiastic cheers greeted the news that some of the troops were to go to a field promising active service and speedily at that.

    The routine of camp life had already begun to pall upon the better class of men, and all were equally anxious to go where they could prove more clearly how ready they were to do their devoir.

    Some Alabamians, two Georgia regiments, the Chasseurs-d-pied, the “Tigers” and the Zouaves were to go to Virginia; and through [71] the courtesy of the officers of the latter corps, we got seats to Montgomery in their car; two days later.

    Meantime, all was hum and bustle through the whole camp, and as the limited rolling stock on the still unfinished railroad could only accommodate a regiment at a time, they left at all hours of the day, or night, that the trains arrived. Constantly at midnight the dull tramp of marching men and the slow tap of the drum, passing our quarters, roused us from sleep; and whatever the hour, the departing troops were escorted to the station by crowds of half-envious comrades, who “were left out in the cold.” And as the trains startedbox cars, flats and tenders all crowded, inside and out-yell after yell went up in stentorian chorus, echoing through the still woods, in place of

    That sweet old word, good-bye!

    One gray dawn, six hundred Zouaves filed out of the pines and got aboard our train. They were a splendid set of animals' medium sized, sunburnt, muscular and wiry as Arabs; and a long, swingy gait told of drill and endurance. But the faces were dull and brutish, generally; and some of them would vie, for cunning villainy, with the features of the prettiest Turcos that Algeria could produce.

    The uniform was very picturesque and very-dirty. Full, baggy, scarlet trowsers, confined round the waist by the broad, blue band or sash, bearing the bowie-knife and meeting, at mid-leg, the white gaiter; blue shirt cut very low and exhibiting the brawny, sunburnt throat; jacket heavily braided and embroidered, flying loosely off the shoulders, and the jaunty fez, surmounting the whole, made a bright ensemble that contrasted prettily with the gray and silver of the South Carolinians, or the rusty brown of the Georgians, who came in crowds to see them off.

    But the use of these uniforms about the grease and dust of Pefisacola camp-fires had left marks that these soldiers considered badges of honor, not to be removed.

    Nor were they purer morally. Graduates of the slums of New Orleans, their education in villainy was naturally perfect. They had the vaguest ideas of meum and tuum; and small personal difficulties were usually settled by the convincing argument of a bowie-knife, or brass knuckle.

    Yet they had been brought to a very perfect state of drill and efficiency. [72] All commands were given in French--the native tongue of nearly all the officers and most of the men; and, in cases of insubordination, the former had no hesitancy in a free use of the revolver. A wonderful peacemaker is your six-shooter.

    They might be splendid fellows for a charge on the “Pet Lambs,” or on a-pocket; but, on the whole, were hardly the men one would choose for partners in any business but a garroting firm, or would desire to have sleep in the company bedroom.

    Their officers we found of a class entirely above them; active, bright, enthusiastic Frenchmen, with a frank courtesy and soldierly bearing that were very taking. They occupied the rear car of the train, while the men filled the forward ones, making the woods ring with their wild yells, and the roaring chorus of the song of the Zou-Zou.

    We had crossed the gap at Garland, where the road was yet unfinished, and were soon at the breakfast house, where we mounted the hill in a body; leaving our car perfectly empty, save a couple of buglers who stood on the platform. As I looked back, the elder musician was a most perfect picture of the Turco. He had served in Algiers, and after the war in Italy brought a bullet in his leg to New Orleans. He was long past fifty-spare, broad-shouldered and hard as a log of oak. His sharp features were bronzed to the richest mahogany color, and garnished with a moustache and peak of grizzled hair “a cubit and a span” --or nearly — in length. And the short, grizzled hair had been shaved far back from his prominent temples, giving a sinister and grotesque effect to his naturally hard face. Turc was a favorite with the officers, and his dress was rather cleaner than that of the others; a difference that was hardly an improvement.

    We were just seated at breakfast-and having a special train we took our time-when a wild scream of the whistle, succeeded immediately by the heavy rumble of cars, came up the hill. We rushed to the windows, just in time to see a column of smoke disappearing round the curve and the officers' car standing solitary and empty on the road.

    The Zouaves had run away with the train!

    The language the officers used, as we surrounded the “sole survivors” --the two buglers-was, at least, strong; and short, hard words not in the church service dropped frequently from their lips.

    It was no use; the train had gone and the men with it, and the [73] best we could do was to speculate on the intention of the runaways, while we waited the result of the telegrams sent to both ends of the line for another engine. At last it came puffing up, and we whirled at its full speed into Montgomery.

    Meanwhile the Zou-Zous had several hours' start. Led by one ardent spirit-whose motto had been similia similibus, until he lost his balance of mind — they had uncoupled the officers' car and forced the engineers to take them on. On arriving at Montgomery, they wandered over the town, “going through” drinking-houses until they became wild with liquor; then bursting open the groceries to get whisky, threatening the citizens and even entering private houses. The alarm became so great, as the Zouaves became more maddened, that the first Georgia regiment was ordered out and stationed by platoons, with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets, across the streets where the rioters were. Serious trouble was beginning, when the car with their officers dashed into the depot.

    The charge of the Light Brigade was surpassed by those irate Creoles. With the cars still in rapid motion, they leaped off, revolver in hand; and charged into the quarter where their drunken men were still engaged in every sort of excess. The old bugler still trotted at their head, his black eyes gleaming at the prospect of the row, and his bugle occasionally raised to sound the “rally.” Into the midst of the drunken and yelling crowd dashed the officers; crackling French oaths rolling over their tongues with a snapping intonation, and their pistols whirling right and left like slung-shot, and dropping a mutineer at every blow. Habit and the rough usage overcame even the drunken frenzy of the men, and they dropped the plunder from their arms, snatched muskets from the corners they had been whirled into, and rapidly dressed into line in the street.

    I saw one beardless boy, slight and small, rush to a huge sergeant and order him into ranks. The soldier, a perfect giant, hesitated to drop the handful of shoes he had seized, only for a second. But that was enough. The youth had to jump from the ground to seize his throat; but, at the same moment, the stock of the heavy revolver crashed over his temple, and he fell like a stricken ox.

    “ Roll that carrion into the street!” said the lieutenant to another soldier near; and before his order was obeyed the store was empty.

    In a half hour from the officers' arrival the battalion was mustered [74] on Main street, and only nine absentees were reported at roll-call; but many a fez was drawn far down over a bleeding forehead, and many a villainous countenance was lighted by one eye, while the other was closed and swollen.

    The colonel and I had jumped from the car and run on with our French friends; but the colonel was not the son of Atalanta, and by reason of a soupcon of gout his feet were not beautiful upon Zion or any other place. Neither could he make them “swift to shed blood.”

    As we entered the street where the rioters were, I turned and saw him, perfectly breathless, bear his two hundred and fifty pounds avoirdupois against a door. It was not closed, but had only been slammed by the score of Zou-Zous enjoying the whisky within; and as I looked I saw a dignified colonel in the C. S. army turn a complete somersault into a group of red-legged devils, who immediately closed around him.

    Gabriel Ravel, though a lighter man, never made a cleaner leap through the third story in the side-scene; but there was no time to waste and I went back at speed. I had scarcely turned when I saw the colonel's huge form tower among the red-legs. By the time I reached the door my apparition, revolver in hand, completed what he had begun; and they slipped by and vanished.

    Luckily the bar of the door had fallen with him, and the old gymnastics of other days coming back like a flash, he had seized it, made two rapid blows and laid as many of his assailants at his feet; roaring, meanwhile, oaths as thunderous as they were unintelligible. “Sacre--é nom!” he shouted as he saw me; “shoot 'em, me boy! Poltrons, egad! Laugh at me! D — n their eyes! Can-n-naille!”

    There was a wicked light in my fat friend's eye, and he had recovered his second wind; so we sallied out, the colonel still clinging to his weapon of chance.

    “Good enough for these dogs!” he roared, wrathfully shaking the bar. “Saves the pistol.”

    That night at “the Ranche,” as later about many a camp-fire, our French visitors declared that the colonel's bar had done more effective service than their revolvers; and, as it stood dented and bloodsmeared in the corner of that vine-clad porch, it did not belie their praise.

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