previous next

VI. Jonahs and Beats.

“Good people, I'll sing you a ditty,
So bear with me all ye who can;
I make an appeal to your pity,
For I'm a most unlucky man.
'Twas under an unlucky planet
That I a poor mortal was born;
My existence since first I began it
Has been very sad and forlorn.
Then do not make sport of my troubles,
But pity me all ye who can,
For I'm an uncomfortable, horrible, terrible, inconsolable, unlucky man.

old song.
In a former chapter I made the statement that Sibley tents furnished quarters capacious enough for twelve men. That statement is to be taken with some qualifications. If those men were all lying down asleep, there did not seem much of a crowd. But if one man of the twelve happened to be on guard at night, and, furthermore, was on what we used to know as the Third Relief guard, which in my company was posted at 12, midnight, and came off post at 2 A. M., when all were soundly sleeping, and, moreover, if this man chanced to quarter in that part of the tent opposite the entrance, and if, in seeking his blanket and board in the darkness, it was his luck to step on the stockinged foot of a recumbent form having a large voice, a large temper, but a small though forcible selection of English defiled, straightway that selection was hurled at the head of the offending even though well-meaning guard. And if, [91] under the excitement of his mishap, the luckless guard makes a spring thinking to clear all other intervening slumberers and score a home run, but alights instead amidships of the comrade who sleeps next him, expelling from him a groan that by all known comparisons should have been his last, the poor guard has only involved himself the more inextricably in trouble; for as soon as his latest victim recovers consciousness sufficiently to know that it was not a twelvepound cannon ball that has doubled him up, and that stretcher bearers are not needed to take him to the rear, he strikes up in the same strain and pitch and force as that of the first victim, and together they make the midnight air vocal with choice invective against their representative of the Third Relief. By this time the rest of the tent's crew have been waked up, cross enough, too, at being thus rudely disturbed, and they all come in heavily on the chorus. As the wordy assault continues the inmates of adjoining tents who have also been aroused take a hand in it, and “Shut up!” --“Sergeant of the guard!” --“Go lie down!” --“Shoot him on the spot!” --“Put him in the guard-house!” are a few of the many impromptu orders issued within and without the tent in question.

At last the tempest in a teapot expends itself and by the time that the sergeant of the guard has arrived to seek out the cause of the tumult and enforce the instructions of the officer of the day by putting the offenders against the rules and discipline of camp under arrest, for talking and disturbance after Taps, all are quiet, for no one would make a complaint against the culprits. Their temporary excitement has cooled, and the discreet sergeant is even in doubt as to which tent contains the offenders.

Now, accidents will happen to the most careful and the best of men, but the soldier whom I have been describing could be found in every squad in camp — that is, a man of his kind. Such men were called “Jonahs” on account of their ill luck. Perhaps this particular Jonah after getting [92] his tin plate level full of hot pea-soup was sure, on entering the tent, to spill a part of it down somebody's back. The higher he could hold it the better it seemed to please him as he made his way to his accustomed place in the tent, and in bringing it down into a latitude where he proposed to eat it

The Jonah spilling pea-soup.

he usually managed to dispose of much of the remainder, either on his own or somebody else's blankets. When peasoup failed him for a diversion, he was a dead shot on kicking over his neighbor's pot of coffee, which the owner had put down for a moment while he adjusted his lap-table to receive his supper. The profuseness of the Jonah's apologies-and they always were profuse, and undoubtedly sincere — was utterly inadequate as a balm for the wounds he made. Anybody else in the tent might have kicked the coffee to the remotest bounds of camp with malice aforethought, and it would not have produced a tithe of the aggravation which it did to have this constitutional blunderer do it by accident. It may be that he wished to borrow [93] your ink. Of course you could not refuse him. It may have been made by you with some ink powders sent from home — perhaps the last you had and which you should want yourself that very day. It mattered not. He took it with complacency and fair promises, put it on a box by his side and tipped the box over five minutes afterward by the watch.

Cooking was the forte of this Jonah. He could be found most any time of day-or night, if he was a guardsmanaround the camp-fire with his little mess of something in his tomato can or tin dipper, which he would throw an air of

The camp-fire before the Jonah appears.

mystery around every now and then by drawing a small package from the depths of his pocket or haversack and scattering some of its contents into the brew. But there was a time in the history of his culinary pursuits when he rose to a supreme height as a blunderer. It was when he appeared at the camp-fire which, by the way, he never kindled himself, ready to occupy the choice places with his dishes; and after the two rails, between which fires were usually built, had been well burdened by the coffee-pots of his comrades it presented an opportunity which his evil genius was likely to take advantage of; for then he was suddenly seized with a thought of something else that he had forgotten to borrow. Turning in his haste to go to the [94] tent for this purpose he was sure to stumble over the end of one or both of the rails, when the downfall of the coffeepots and the quenching of the fire followed as a matter of course. At just this point in his career it would be to the credit of his associates to drop the curtain on the picture; but the sequel must be told. The average soldier was not an especially devout man, and while in times of imminent danger he had serious thoughts, yet at other times his many trials, his privations, and the rigors of a necessary discipline

The camp-fire after the Jonah appears.

all conduced to make him a highly explosive creature on demand. Moreover, coffee and sugar were staple articles with the soldier, and the least waste of them was not to be tolerated under ordinary circumstances; but to have a whole line of coffee-pots with their precious contents upset by the Jonah of the tent in his recklessness was the last ounce of pressure removed from the safety valve of his tent-mates' wrath; and such a discharge of hard names and oaths, “long, loud, and deep,” as many of these sufferers would deliver themselves of, if it could have been utilized against the enemy, might have demolished a regiment. And the others who did not give vent to their passions by blows [95] or the use of strong language seemed to sympathize very keenly with those who did. Two chaplains apiece to some of the men would have been none too many to hold them in check.

I remember one man who seemed always to have hard luck in spite of himself. He was a good soldier and meant well, but would blunder badly now and then. His last act in the service was to plunge an axe through his boot while he was cutting wood. Unfortunately for him as it happened his foot was in it at the time. On pulling it out

The unlucky man.

of the boot and looking it over he found that several of his toes had “got left” ; so he took up his boot, turned it upside down, and shook out a shower of toes as complacently as if that was what he enlisted for. This casualty closed his career in active service.

There were divers other directions in which the Jonah distinguished himself; but I must leave him for the present to direct attention to the other class of men of whom I wish to say something. These were the beats of the servicea name given them by their comrades-in-arms. There were all grades of beats. The original idea of beat was that of a lazy man or a shirk, who would by hook or by crook get rid of all military or fatigue duty that he could; but the term grew to have a broader significance.

One of the milder forms of beat was the man who sat over the fire in the tent piling on wood all the time, and roasting out the rest of the tent's crew, who seemed to have no rights that this fireman felt bound to respect. He [96] was always cold. He wore overcoat, dress-coat, blouse, and flannels the full government allowance all at once, but never complained of being too warm. He never took off any of these garments night or day unless compelled to on inspection. He was most at home on fatigue duty, for he seemed fatigued from the start and moved like real estate. A sprinkling of this class seemed necessary to the success of the Union arms, for they were certainly to be found in every organization.

Another and more positive type of beat were the men who never had any water in their canteens. Even when the army was in settled camp, water was not always to be had without going some distance for it; but these men were never known to go after any. They always managed to hang their canteen on some one else who was bound for the spring. If, when the army was on the move, a rush was made during a temporary halt, for a spring or stream some distance away, these men never rushed. They were satisfied to lie down and drink a supply which

Going after water.

they took their chances of begging, from some recruit, perhaps, who did not know their propensities. If it happened to any man to be so straitened in his cooking operations as to be under the necessity of borrowing from one of these, he was sure of being called upon to requite the favor fully as many times as his temper would endure it.

Then, as to rations, their hardtack never held out, and they were ever on the alert to borrow. It mattered not how great the scarcity, real or anticipated, they could not provide for a contingency, and their neighbors in the same squad were mean and avaricious — so the beats said — if they would not give of their husbanded resources to these profligate, improvident comrades. But this class did not [97] stop at borrowing hardtack. They were not all of them particular, and when hardtack could not be spared they would get along with coffee or sugar or salt pork; or, if they could borrow a dollar, “just for a day or two,” they would then repay it surely, because several letters from their friends at home, each one containing money, were already overdue. People in civil life think they know all about the imperfections of the United States postal service, and tell of their letters and papers lost, miscarried, or in some way delayed, with much pedantry; but they have yet to learn the A B C of its imperfections, and no one that I know of is so competent to teach them as certain of the Union soldiers. I could have produced men in 1862-5, yes — I can now — who lost more letters in one year, three out of every four of which contained considerable sums of money, than any postmaster-general yet appointed is willing to admit have been lost since the establishment of a mail service. This, remember, the loss of one man; and when it is multiplied by the number of men just like him that were to be found, not in one army alone but in all the armies of the Union, a special reason is obvious why the government should be liberal in its dealings with the old soldier.

In this connection I am reminded of another interesting feature of army experience, which is of some historical value. It was this: whenever the troops were paid off a very large majority of them wished to send the most of their pay home to their families or their friends for safe keeping. Of course there was some risk attending the sending of it in the mails. To obviate this risk an “allotment” plan was adopted by means of which when the troops were visited by the paymaster, on signing a roll prepared for that purpose, so much of their pay as they wished was allotted or assigned by the soldiers to whomsoever they designated at the North. To illustrate: John Smith had four months pay due him at the rate of $13 a month. He decided to allot $10 per month of [98] this to his wife at Plymouth, Mass.; so the paymaster pays him $12, and the remaining $40 is paid to his wife by check in Plymouth, without any further action on the part of John.

This plan was a great convenience to both the soldiers and their families. In this division of his income the calculation of the soldier was to save out enough for himself to pay all incidental expenses of camp life, such as washing, tobacco, newspapers, pies and biscuits, bought of “Aunty,” and cheese and cakes of the sutler. But in spite of his nice calculations the rule was that the larger part of the money allotted home was returned, by request of the sender, in small amounts of a dollar or the fraction of a dollar. I have previously stated that at that time silver had gone out of use, it being only to be had by paying the premium on it, just as on gold, and so to take its place the government issued what was generally known as scrip, being paper currency of the denominations of fifty, twenty-five, ten, five, and, later, fifteen and three-cent pieces, some of which are still in circulation. They were a great convenience to the soldiers and their friends. But to resume:

If the statements made by these beats as to the amount of money they had sent for and were expecting were to be believed they must not only have sent for their full allotment, but have drawn liberally on their home credit or the charity of their friends besides. In truth, however, the genuine beat never intended to return borrowed money. It is currently believed by outsiders that the soldiers who stood shoulder to shoulder battling for the Union, sharing the same exposures, the same shelter, the same mess would ever afterwards be likely to stand steadfastly by one another. The organization of the Grand Army of the Republic seems to strengthen such an opinion, yet human nature remains pretty much the same in all situations. If a man was a shirk or a thief or a beat or a coward or a worthless scoundrel generally in the army, it was because he had been educated to it before he enlisted. The leopard cannot [99] change his spots nor the Ethiopian his skin. It will therefore create no great surprise when I remark that a large amount of money borrowed by one soldier of another has never been repaid; and such is the lack of honesty and manliness on the part of these men that they can meet the old comrades of whom in those trying war days they borrowed one, two, five, or ten dollars, and in some cases more, without so much as a blush or betraying in any manner the slightest recognition of their long standing obligation. Some are so worthless and brazen-faced even as to ask the same victims for more at this late day.

One favorite dodge of the beat was to have the corporal arouse him twice or three times before he would finally get out of his bunk; and then he would prepare to go out at a snail's pace. Once on his beat, his next dodge was to manoeuvre so as to have the corporal of his relief do the most of his duty for him; for hardly would he have been posted before the corporal must be summoned, the beat having been seized with a desire to go to the company sink. That is good for half an hour out of the corporal at least. At last the dodger reappears moving at a slow pace, and wearing the appearance of a man suffering for his discharge from service. He retails his woes to the corporal, as he resumes his equipments, in a most doleful strain. But the corporal is in no mood to listen after his long wait, and hastily directs his steps towards the guard-tent.

He is not allowed to remain there long, however, ere a summons reaches him from the same post, to which lie responds with excusable ill-humor and mutterings at the duplicity of the guardsman in question. This time the patient has happened to think of some medicine at his tent which will be of benefit to him. Of course the corporal is anxious enough to have him healed, and so he again assumes the duties of the post for the shirk, who does not reappear until his last hour of duty is well on its second quarter, feigning in excuse that he could not find his own panacea [100] and so was obliged to go elsewhere. Thus in one way and another, by using the kind offices of his messmates together with those of the corporal, he would manage to get out of at least two-thirds of his guard duty.

After the battle of Fredericksburg a soldier belonging to a gallant regiment in Burnside's corps, whose courage had evidently been put to a sore test in the above engagement, resorted to the rheumatic dodge to secure his discharge. He responded daily to sick call, pitifully warped out of shape, was prescribed for, but all to no avail. One leg was drawn up so that, apparently, he could not use it, and groans indicative of excruciating agony escaped him at studied intervals and on suitable occasions. So his case went on for six weeks, till at

The Rheumatic Dodgfr.

last the surgeon recommended his discharge. It was approved at regimental, brigade, and division headquarters, and had reached corps headquarters when the corps was ordered to Kentucky. At Covington the party having the supposed invalid in charge gained access in some manner to a barrel of whiskey. Not being a temperance man, the dodger was thrown off his guard by this spiritual bonanza, and, taking his turn at the straw, for which entry had been made into the barrel, he was soon as sprightly on both legs as ever. In this condition his colonel found him. Of course his discharge was recalled from corps headquarters, and the way of this transgressor was made hard for months afterwards.

There was another field in which the beat played an interesting part. I use played with a double significance, for he never worked if he could avoid it. It was when a detail of men was made to do some line of fatigue duty, by which is [101] meant all the labors of the service distinct from strict military duty, such as the “policing” or clearing up of camp, procuring wood and water for the company, digging and fitting up of sinks (the water-closets of the army), and, in addition to these duties, in cavalry and artillery, procuring grain and forage for the horses. It was a sad fate to befall

Water for the cook-house.

a good duty soldier to get on to a detail to procure wood where every second or third man was a shirk or beat; for while they must needs bear the appearance of doing something, they were really in the way of those who could work and were willing to. Many of these shirkers would waste a great deal of time and breath maligning the government or their officers for requiring them to do such work, indignantly declaring that “they enlisted to fight and not to chop wood or dig sinks.” But it was noticeable that when the fight came on, if any of these heroes got into it, they then appeared just as willing to bind themselves by contract to cut all the wood in Virginia, if they could only be let go just that once. These were the men who were “invincible in peace and invisible in war,” as the late Senator Hill, of Georgia, once said. I may add here that, coming as the [102] soldiers did from all avocations and stations in life, these details for fatigue often brought together men few of whom had any practical knowledge of the work in hand; so that aside from the shirks, who could work but would not, there were others who would but could not, at least intelligently. Still, the army was a great educator in many ways to men who cared to learn, and some of the most ignorant became by force of circumstances quite expert, in time, in channels hitherto untraversed by them.

But there was one detail upon which our shirks, beats, and men unskilled in manual labor, such as the handling of the spade and pickaxe, appeared in all the glory of their artful dodging and ignorance. If a man did not take hold of the work lively, whether because he preferred to shirk it or because he did not understand it, the worse for him. The detail in question was one made to administer the last rites to a batch of deceased horses. It happened to the artillery and cavalry to lose a large number of these animals in winter, which, owing to the freezing of the ground, could not be buried until the disappearance of the frost in spring; but by that time, through the action of rain and sun and the frequent depredations of dogs, buzzards, and crows, the remains were not always in the most inviting condition for the administrations of the sexton. Then, again, during the summer season, when the army made a halt for rest and recruiting, another sacrifice of glanders-infected and generally used — up horses was made to the god of war. But as they were not always promptly committed to mother earth, either from a desire to show a decent respect for the memory of the deceased or for some other reason best known to the red-tape of military rule, the odors that were wafted from them on the breezes were wont to become far more “spicy” than agreeable, so that a speedy interment was generally ordered by the military Board of Health.

As soon as the nature of the business for which such a detail was ordered became generally known, the fun began, [103] for a lively protest was wont to go up from the men against being selected to participate in the impending equine obsequies. Perhaps the first objection heard from a victim who has drawn a prize in the business is that “he was on guard the day before, and is not yet physically competent for such a detail.” The sergeant is charged with unfairness, and with having pets that he gives all the “soft jobs” to, etc. But the warrior of the triple chevron is inexorable, and his muttering, much injured subordinate finally reports to the corporal in charge of the detail in front of the camp, betraying in his every word and movement a heart-felt desire for his term of service or this cruel war to be over.

Another one whom his sergeant has booked for the enterprise has got wind of what is to be done, so that when found he is tucked up in his bunk. He stoutly insists that he isan invalid, and is only waiting for the next sounding of “Sick call” to respond to it. But his attack is so sudden, and his language and lungs so strong for a sick man, that he finds it difficult to establish his claim. He calls on his tentmates to swear that he is telling the truth, but finds them strangely devout and totally ignorant of his ailments, for they are chuckling internally at their own good fortune in not being selected, which, if he proves his case, one of them may be; so, unless his plea is a pitiful and deserving one, they keep mum.

A third victim does not claim to have been selected out of turn, but nevertheless alleges that “the deal is unfair, because he was on the last detail but one made for this horse-burying business, and he does not think that he ought to be the chief mourner for his detachment, for a paltry thirteen dollars a month. Besides, there may be others who would like to go on this detail.” But as he is unable to name or find the man or men having this highly refined ambition he finally goes off grumbling and joins the squad.

A fourth victim is the constitutionally high-tempered and profane man. He finds no fault with the justice of the sergeant [104] in assigning to him a participation in the ceremonies of the hour; but he had got comfortably seated to write a letter when the summons came, and, pausing only long enough to inquire the nature of the detail, he pitches his halfwrit-ten letter and materials in one direction, his lap-board in another, gets up, kicks over the box or stool on which he was sitting, pulls on his cap with a vehement jerk, and then opens his battery. He directs none of his unmilitary English at the sergeant — that would hardly do ; but he lays his furious lash upon the poor innocent back of

The high-tempered man.

the government, though just what branch of it is responsible he does not pause between his oaths long enough to state. He pursues it with the most terrible of curses uphill, and then with like violent language follows it down. He blank blanks the whole blank blank war, and hopes that the South may win. He wishes that all the blank horses were in blank, and adds by way of self-reproach that it serves any one, who is such a blank blank fool as to enlist, right to have this blank, filthy, disgusting work to do. And he leaves the stockade shutting the door behind him “with a wooden damn,” as Holmes says, and goes off to report, making the air blue with his cursing. Let me say for this man, before leaving him, that he is not so hardened and bad at heart as he makes himself appear; and in the shock of battle he will be found standing manfully at his post minus his temper and profanity.

There is one more man whom I will describe here, representing another class than either mentioned, whose unlucky star has fated him to take a part in these obsequies; but he [105] is not a shirk nor a beat. He is the paper-collar young man, just from the recruiting station, with enamelled long-legged boots and custom-made clothes, who yet looks with some measure of disdain on government clothing, and yet eats in a most gingerly way of the stern, unpoetical government rations. He is an only son, and was a dry-goods clerk in the city at home, where no reasonable want went ungratified; and now, when he is summoned forth to join the burial party, he responds at once. True, his heart and stomach both revolt at the work ahead, but he wants to be — not an angel — but a veteran among veterans, and his

The paper-collar young man.

pride prevents his entering any remonstrance in the presence of the older soldiers. As he clutches the spade pointed out to him with one hand he shoves the other vacantly to the bottom of his breeches pocket, his mouth drawn down codfish-like at the corners. He attempts to appear indifferent as he approaches the detail, and as they congratulate him on his good-fortune a sickly smile plays over his countenance; but it is Mark Tapley feigning a jollity which he does not feel and which soon subsides into a pale melancholy. His fellow-victims feel their ill-luck made more endurable by seeing him also drafted for the loathsome task ; but their glow of satisfaction is only superficial and speedily wanes as the officer of the day, who is to superintend the job, appears and orders them forward.

And now the fitness of the selection becomes apparent as the squad moves off, for a more genuine body of mourners, to the eye, could not have been chosen. Their faces, with, it may be, a hardened or indifferent exception, wear the most solemn of expressions, and their step is as slow as if [106] they were following a muffled drum beating the requiem of a deceased comrade.

Having arrived at the place of sepulture, the first business is to dig a grave close to each body, so that it may be easily rolled in. But if there has been no fun before, it commences when the rolling in begins. Tile Hardened Exception, who

The mourners.

has occupied much of his time while digging in sketching distasteful pictures for the Profane Man to swear at, now makes a change of base, and calls upon the Paper-Collar Young Man to “take hold and help roll in,” which the young man reluctantly and gingerly does; but when the noxious gases begin to make their presence manifest, and the Hardened Wretch hands him an axe to break the legs that would otherwise protrude from the grave, it is the last straw to an already overburdened sentimental soul; his emotions overpower him, and, turning his back on the deceased, he utters something which sounds like “hurrah! without the h,” as Mark Twain puts it, repeating it with increasing emphasis. But he is not to express his enthusiasm on this question alone a great while. There are more sympathizers in the [107] party than he had anticipated, and not recruits either; and in less time than I have taken to relate it more than half the detail, gallantly led off by the officer of the day, are standing about, leaning over at various angles like the tombstones in an old cemetery, disposing of their hardtack and coffee, and looking as if ready to throw up even the contract. The profane man is among them, and just as often as he can catch his breath long enough he blank blanks the government and then dives again. The rest of the detail stand not far away holding on to their sides and roaring with laughter. But I must drop the curtain on this picture. It has been said that one touch of nature makes the whole world kin. Be that as it may, certain it is that the officer, the good duty soldier, the recruit, and the beat, after an occasion of this kind, had a common bond of sympathy, which went far towards levelling military distinctions between them.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Tapley (1)
John Smith (1)
Henry Sibley (1)
Mark Twain (1)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1)
Hill (1)
Ambrose E. Burnside (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1865 AD (1)
1862 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: