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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHow Private George W. Peck Put Down The Rebellion - Chapter 19
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How Private George W. Peck Put Down The Rebellion - Chapter 19 Post by :robdawg Category :Long Stories Author :George W. Peck Date :May 2012 Read :2435

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How Private George W. Peck Put Down The Rebellion - Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

I am Detailed to Drive a Six-Mule Team--I am Covered with Red Mud--I am Sent on an Expedition of Cold-Blooded Murder-- I Make a Dozen ex-Confederate Soldiers Happy by Setting Them Up in Business.

After the battle alluded to in my last chapter, it took us a week or more to get brushed up, the dead buried, and everything ready to go to living again. A battle to a regiment in the field is a good deal like a funeral in a family at home. When a member of a family is sick unto death, all looks dark, and when the sick person dies it seems as though the world could never look bright again. Every time the relatives and friends look at any article belonging to a deceased friend, the agony comes back, and it is quite a while before there is any brightness anywhere, but in time the tear-stained faces become smiling, the lost friend is thought of only occasionally, and the world moves along just the same. So in the army. For a few days the thought of comrades being gone forever, was painful, and no man wanted to ride the horse whose owner had been killed, but within a week the feeling was all gone, and if a horse was a good one he didn't stay in the corral very long on account of some good fellow having been shot off his back. The boys who couldn't remember what was trumps on the day of the battle---(and a soldier has got to be greatly interested in something else to forget what is trumps) returned to their card-playing, and no one would know, to look at them, that they had passed through a pretty serious scare, and seen their comrades fall all around. We told stories of our experience in the army and at home, and entertained each other. I couldn't tell much, except what a good shot I was with a shotgun and rifle, and I told some marvelous stories about hitting the bull's eye. It got to be tiresome waiting around for my commission to arrive, and I did not quite enjoy being a commissioned high private. Everybody knew I had been recommended for a commsssion, and they all called me "Lieutenant," but all the same I was doing duty as a private. For two or three clays I was detailed to drive mules for the quartermaster, and that was the worst service I ever did perform. It seemed as though the colonel wanted to prepare me for any service that in the nature of things I was liable to be called upon to perform. I kicked some at being detailed to drive a six-mule team, but the colonel said I might see the time when I could save the government a million dol-lars by being able to jump on to a wheel mule and drive a wagon loaded with ammunition, or paymaster's cash, out of danger of being captured by the enemy. So I went to work and learned to gee-haw a six-mule team of the stubbornest mules in the world, hauling bacon, but there was no romance in taking care of six mules that would kick so you had to put the harness on them with a pitchfork, for fear of having your head kicked off. If I ever get a pension it will be for my loss of character and temper in driving those mules. I have been in some dangerous places, but I was never in so dangerous a place, in battle, as I was one day while driving those mules. One of the lead mules got his forward foot over the bridle some way, and I went to fix it, and the team started and "straddled" me. As soon as I saw that I was between the two lead mules, and that the team had started, I knew my only-safety was in laying down and taking the chances of the three pairs of mules and wagon going straight over me. To attempt to get out would mix them all up, so I fell right down in the mud, which was about a foot deep, and just like soft mortar. As the mules passed on each side of me, every last one of them kicked at me, and I was under the impression that each wheel of the wagon kicked at me, but I escaped everything except the mud, and when I got up on my feet behind the wagon, the quartermaster, who was ahead on horseback, had stopped the team. He called a colored man to drive, and told me I could go back to the regiment. I tried to sneak in the back way, and not see anybody, but when I passed the chaplain's tent a lot of officers, who had been sampling his sanitary stores, come out, and one of them recognized me, and they insisted on my stopping and talking something with them. Honestly, there was not an inch of my clothing but was covered with, red mud, that every soldier remembers who has been through Alabama. They had fun with me for half an hour and then let me go. I have never been able to look at a mule since, without a desire to kill it.

I had said so much about my marksmanship with a rifle, that one day I was sent for by the colonel. He said he had heard I was a crack shot with the rifle, and I admitted that I was a pretty good shot. He asked me if I could hit a man's eye every time at ten paces. I told him I was almost sure I could. He said he had a duty that must be performed by some man that was an excellent shot, and I might report at once with forty rounds of ammunition. I don't know when I had been any more startled than I was at the colonel's questions, and his manner. Could it be that he had some secret expedition of murder that he wanted to send me on. I had never deliberately aimed at a man's eye, and if there was anybody to be killed I would be no hand to do it in cold blood. It seemed as though I had rather give anything than to kill a man, but that was evidently the business the colonel had in his mind. Was it a lot of prisoners that were to be killed in retaliation for some of our men who had been treated badly by the enemy. I reported shortly, with my carbine and forty cartridges, and the colonel told me to go to a certain place on the bank of the river, a mile away, and report to the chaplain, who would be there to see that everything was done properly. Then when I started off I heard the colonel say to the adjutant that there were about forty to be killed, and while it seemed cruel, it had to be done, and he hoped they would suffer as little as possible. If I could have had my way, I wouldn't have gone a step. I reflected on the pained look on the colonel's face, and wondered why I was picked out for all these sad events, but I thought if the chaplain was there everything would be all right. Arriving at the placed I found the chaplain sitting on a stump, on a big bluff overlooking the river. He sighed as I came up and said:

"Death is always a sad thing."

I told him that no one appreciated it more than I did, and I sighed also.

"But," said he, as he took a chew of navy plug tobacco, "when death is necessary, we should make it as painless as possible, I have been studying this matter over a good deal, and trying to figure out how to make the death the least painful to these poor victims, and it has occurred to me that if we place them on the edge of the precipice, and you shoot them through the brain, while at the same time I push them, they will fall down a hundred feet into the river, and if they are not killed instantly by having the brain blown out, they will certainly drown. How does that strike you?"

I thought the chaplain was about the most heartless cuss I ever heard talk about killing people, but I said that seemed to me to be the best way, but a cold chill went over me as I thought of shooting anybody through the head and the chaplain pushing him down the cliff into the water. I was just going to ask him what the men had done, when he said:

"Ah, there they come."

I looked, and a lot of colored men were leading about forty old back-number horses and mules, afflicted with glanders and other diseases.

"Are the niggers to be killed?" I asked.

"Naw," said the chaplain. "The horses and mules."

I was never so relieved in all my life as I was when I found that my excellent marksmanship was to be expended on animals instead of human beings. But I did feel hurt, the idea of a brevet officer, a man qualified to do deeds of daring, being detailed one day to drive mules and the next-to shoot sick horses. But I decided to do whatever I had to do, well, and so preparations were made for the executions. The glandered horses were brought out first, and then the ones with sore backs. Many of them were first-rate horses, their only fault being sores made from the saddles, and as it would take months to cure them up, and as the army was going to move soon, it had been decided to kill them rather than leave them to fall into the enemy's hands, or take them along to be cured on the march. I shot about a dozen glandered horses, that being the largest game I had ever killed, and the bodies fell down into the river. Then there was a mule that was ugly, and it occurred to me I would have some fun with the chaplain.

We were outside the lines, and quite a number of men had gathered from the plantations, on hearing the firing, to see what was up. I suggested to the chaplain that it was a shame to kill so many good horses, when they might be of use to some of the planters, but he said they were all rebels, and it was not the policy of the government to set them up in business, by giving them horses to use tilling crops. I argued that the men had come home from the confederate army--this was in 1864--either discharged for wounds or disability, or paroled prisoners, and they were anxious to go to work, but that they hadn't a dollar, and our army had skinned every horse and mule on their places, and the niggers had gone, so that a horse would be a God-send to them. But the chaplain wouldn't hear to it. The men, who had collected, were mostly too proud to ask for a horse from a Yankee, but I could see that they did not like to see the animals killed. I thought if I could get the chaplain, who had been sent out to the execution as a sort of humane society, to see that the animals were killed easy, to go back to camp and leave me alone with the horses, I could kill them or not, as I chose. They brought out the ugly mule next, and my idea was to shoot the mule through the tip of the ear, while the chaplain stood near with a rail to push it over the bank, and maybe the mule would flax around and kick the chaplain up a tree, or scare him so he would leave. I took deliberate aim at the mule's ear, told the chaplain to push hard with the rail so the corpse would be sure to go over the cliff, and fired. Well, I have never seen such a scene in all my life. The mule seemed to squat down, when the bullet hit the top of his ear, then he brayed so loud that it would raise your hat right off your head, then he jumped into the air and whirled around and kicked in every direction with all four feet at once, fell down and rolled over towards the chaplain, and got up, and seeming to think the chaplain was the author of the misery, started for him, and that good man dodged behind trees until he got a chance to climb up one, which he did, and sat on a limb and shook his fist at the mule and me. He used quite strong language at me for not killing the animal dead. Finally the niggers caught the mule and the chaplain dismounted from the limb, and came to me. I told him my carbine was out of order, and I should have to take it apart and fix it, and that there was no knowing whether it would shoot where I aimed it or not, after it was fixed, and I might have trouble with the rest of the horses. It would take an hour at least to fix the gun. He said he guessed he would go back to camp, and leave me to finish up the slaughter, and that was what I wanted. The colored men were anxious to go back too, so I let them tie the horses to trees, and all go back except one, whom I knew. After they had all gone I went up to the dozen southern men who had been watching the proceedings, and asked one who was called colonel by the rest, if he didn't think it was wrong to kill the horses when by a little care they could be of much use in tilling crops. "Well, sah," said he with dignity. "If it is not disloyalty, sah, for a southern gentleman to criticize anything that a yankee does, I should say, sah, that it was a d----d shame, sah, to steal our horses, and after using them up, sah, kill them in cold blood, sah. Each one of those animals sah, would be a gold mine, sah, at this time, to us who have come from the wah, sah, destitute, with nothing but our bare hands to make a crop, to keep our families from want, sah."

The other gentlemen nodded at what the colonel had said, as though that was about their sentiments. I told him that I felt about that way myself, but there was an objection. If I gave the horses away, for use on the plantations, and the animals should be used hereafter in the confederate army, it would not only be wrong, but I would be liable to be dismissed from the army.

The colonel said he should want to be dismissed from the Yankee army if he was in it, but I might feel different about it. But he said he would pledge me his word as a Southern gentleman, that if the animals could be lent to them, they should never be used for war purposes. He said he was poor, and his friends there were poor, but they would not take a horse as a gift from a stranger, but if I would lend them the horses for a year, they would use them, and return them to the proper officer a year hence, if the army was yet in existence, or they would take them in exchange for horses that had previously been stolen from them by our army. He said there was not a gentleman present but had lost from two to a dozen horses since the army had been in their vicinity. I admired the dignity and honesty of the old gentleman, and I knew mighty well that we had picked up every horse we could find, and I said:

"Colonel, here are about thirty horses I have been ordered to kill. If I do not kill them I take a certain responsibility. I feel under obligations to many Southern people for courtesies, and I feel that the nursing I received during a recent sickness, from one of your Southern ladies, about the same as saved my life. I believe the war is very near over, and that neither you nor our men will have occasion for much more active service. You have come home to your desolate plantations, and found everything gone. This is the fate of war, but it is unpleasant all the same. If you can use these animals for your work, in raising crops, you may take them in welcome, and if there is any cussing, I will stand it. My advice would be to take them to some isolated place on your plantation, and keep them out of sight for a time. Our army will move within a week, and perhaps never come back here. The animals are branded 'U. S.' which will always remain. If the horses are found in your possession, later, you may have to say that they were given to you by an agent of the quartermaster. If they are taken from you, grin and bear it. If you are permitted to keep them, and they do you any good, I shall be very glad. If I get hauled over the coals for giving aid and comfort to the enemy, I will lie out of it some way, or stand my punishment like a little man. The horses are yours, as far as I am concerned."

"Well, sah, you are a perfect gentleman, sah," said the colonel, as he took my hand and shook it cordially. "And I should be proud to entertain you at my place, sah. We have got little left, sah, but you are welcome to our home at any time. I am an old man, with a bullet in my leg. Two of my boys are dead, in Virginia, sah, and I have one boy who is a prisoner at the north. If he comes home alive, we will be able to make a living and have a home again. The war has been a terrible blow to us all, sah. I reckon both sides, sah, have got about enough, and both sides have made cussed, fools of themselves. When this affair is settled, sah, the north and south will be better friends than ever, sah. I wish you a long life, sah."

The other gentlemen expressed thanks, and they picked out two or three horses apiece and led them away, it seemed to me as happy a lot of gentlemen as I ever saw. I called the colored man, and we started for camp. For a five dollar bill, and a promise to always take a deep interest in the colored man's welfare, I got his promise that he would never tell anybody about my giving the horses away, and for nearly a year he kept his promise. I went back to headquarters and reported that the animals had been disposed of, and that evening I was invited to set into a poker game with some of the officers, and when we got up I had won over a hundred dollars. I looked upon the streak of luck as a premium for my kindness to the gentlemen who took the horses, but some of the officers seemed to have a suspicion that I concealed cards up my sleeve. It is thus that the best of us are misunderstood.

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