Fiction May 1999

Combinations of Jacksons

But was it likely that I would have a rattail file handy? Or—with a pack of killers at my heels, led by a tall man who ran with his monocle in place—the necessary five minutes, undisturbed, for all that reaming and poking of pith? Making every allowance for that, would my bamboo breathing tube, standing stark upright in the shallows of Smackover Creek, really fool anyone? It looked just like a breathing tube.

The war was much on my mind in those days, and it was almost entirely the one being fought on movie screens and in the pulp pages of "funny books," known as comic books in other parts of the country. Both names were misleading for the kind I liked, the ones featuring costumed vigilantes who made violent swoops on spy rings and gang hideouts, with no Miranda palaver. Along with Superman and Batman, there were many others, now largely forgotten, such as Bulletman, Plastic Man, The Sandman, Doll Man (a fighting homunculus about six inches tall, in a red cape), The Human Torch, Daredevil, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, and Captain America. Under any name the books were quite a bargain early on, at sixty-four pages in color for a dime. Or a kind of color. The palette was limited; Superman had blue hair. I never tired of the repetitive stories or the familiar scenes that were enacted over and over again.

LOIS: But wait, Superman! What about my scoop?

SUPERMAN: (Bounding skyward) No time for that now,
Lois! I'm off to scramble some—YEGGS!!

LOIS: (Tiny fists on hips) Well, of all th—!!??

THE COURSE OF events in the early part of the war, the real war, was much too confusing for me to follow. My picture of the fighting in Europe, vivid if false, was of two great armies, and only two, facing each other at some one fixed place. Like many generals, I was fighting the last war. The armies were locked in constant battle, night and day, winter and summer. The din never ceased, and there was a lot of smoke. I may have picked up the smoke from a popular country song of the time, which still chimes out in my head every two or three years, as though from a long tape loop.

There'll be smoke on the water
On the land and the sea
When our armee and navee
Overtake the enemee.

The only movement was a certain ponderous wavering of the battle line. One side would at last falter and give way altogether, and that would be the end. I knew we would win. A great-uncle by the name of Satterfield Fielding had assured me of that.

I was only eight years old but I remember the day well, early in 1942, when he told me the war would be over in ninety days—that we would sink the Japanese fleet in no time, just as we had taken care of the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in 1898, the work of a few hours. He also told me that if I would dip a brand of snuff called Garrett Scotch, I would never get TB, but that Garrett Sweet was no good and I would do well to leave it alone.

Uncle Sat shot deer the year round, like Robin Hood, in season and out, as the whim or the need moved him, and he may well have been the last man in America who without being facetious called food "vittles" ("victuals," a perfectly good word, and correctly pronounced "vittles," but for some reason thought to be countrified and comical). He was a strong and fluent talker with far-ranging opinions. Attention wandered in the family as he ran on, except when he spoke from experience. There would be bits of hunting lore ("A real turkey could never win a turkey-calling contest") and tips on growing unfashionable corn (nonhybrid) and bumblebee cotton (hill cotton—stunted, unfluffy bolls) and on the best ways of dynamiting fish ("dinnamite," he called it) in the Saline River and Hurricane Creek.

There was some sort of family gathering on that day at his farm, small but his own, in the backwoods of Grant County, Arkansas, and everyone was scoffing and laughing at his notions about the war. Always impatient with him, groaning and rolling her eyes, his sister Emma (my grandmother) could be counted on to check him in his longer flights with "Oh, why don't you just hush, Sat. All you know is what you read in The Sheridan Headlight." Wounding indeed, if true.

He came out onto the back porch alone, already angry, and caught me dropping feathers into his water well. I was hanging over the upper framework of the well, dropping chicken feathers and guinea feathers one by one, to watch how they floated about on the surface of the still round pool down there. He gave me a shaking for feathering his drinking water, and then took me into his kitchen and showed me some blurred newspaper maps, perhaps from the Headlight.

They were scale maps of Japan and the United States, comparison maps, side by side. Here were the Japanese home islands, a little ragged chain of fragments, mere bits of flotsam. Over here, all of a piece, was the great continental mass that was the United States of America. A revelation. No one had told me about this. Uncle Sat watched me closely to see if I alone out of all these dense Fieldings, Waddells, and Portises could grasp his strategic point. It was clear enough to me: a small country had foolishly attacked a big one. It was fangs of doom. There was nothing more to worry about.

And yet I did worry. The war went on and on. Enemy agents with the faces of rats and hogs appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the funny books I read so greedily. These busy men were all around us, wrecking trains, scattering tacks on our highways, stealing the plans for our Boeing P-26 and our Brewster Buffalo, pouring deadly poisons into our city reservoirs, always from a "vial" or some curiously small bottle. They tempted us to waste gasoline and whispered that we need not save cooking fats for the munitions industry if we didn't feel like it. They changed some of our most brilliant scientists into morons with a colorless and odorless moron gas, pumped into the scientists' laboratories by way of a hand-bellows rig and a piece of rubber tubing.

It was possible to lose, as I was reminded whenever I saw my great-grandfather, Alexander Waddell, usually at family reunions, where he would be seated on display in the parlor of a great-aunt in Pine Bluff, holding a walking stick between his knees with his purplish hands. "Uncle Alec," as he was known generally, in and out of the family, was born in 1847, the same year as Jesse James, and, like Jesse, had fought for the Confederate States of America as a boy soldier, though not as a regular.

I don't know how zealous he was for the cause—enough, at least, to take up arms in defense of Jefferson County and the rest of southern Arkansas. The blood was up, at varying degrees of heat, out of a vast agricultural tedium from East Texas to Virginia, and the (white) boys walking behind mules and middlebuster ploughs rallied to repel what they saw as the invader of their new sovereign nation. President Lincoln had called out his troops to put down what he saw as an insurrection, "by combinations of Jacksons too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." I think he wrote "combinations of Jacksons" in that momentous proclamation, but I quote from memory.

The southern boys responded to such recruiting notices as this one, placed in a Memphis newspaper, The Appeal, by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the rich slave trader and legendary cavalry commander, who was to have twenty-nine horses shot from under him:

200 Recruits Wanted!
I will receive 200 able-bodied men if they will present themselves at my headquarters by the first of June with good horse and gun. I wish none but those who desire to be actively engaged. My headquarters for the present is at Corinth, Miss. Come on, boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.

                                                  N. B. Forrest
                                                  Colonel, Commanding
                                                  Forrest's Regiment

I suspect that the first part of that was written or edited by a meddlesome young staff officer, chewing on a pencil. ("Can't have wish here twice in a row, so I'll make it, what—desire, yes—the second time around.") The last sentence, shifting into the imperative mood, is Forrest himself, forthright as a pirate.

Uncle Alec had been a county and probate judge, and he still had his wits about him in 1943—no mismated shoes, no long hesitations in speech, groping for a name or some common noun. But his memories of the Civil War, or the ones he saw fit to recall in mixed company, ran mostly to jocular anecdotes, at least in my hearing. I didn't have sense enough or interest enough to ask him questions, and I was further impaired by lockjaw in the presence of very old people. Apart from the comic stories, three things that he said about the war have stuck in my head.

1. That his duties as a young private, and a small one at that, were, for the most part, watering and saddling the horses, and riding off here and there at a gallop on a partly blooded horse, a fast horse, with messages. (A great drama must have a young messenger appearing briefly onstage, to bring some piece of devastating news and move the story along.)

2. How a heavy bank of fog settled low over the battleground at Jenkins' Ferry on April 30, 1864, and how the steady Yankees from Wisconsin and Iowa, backed up there against the flooding Saline River but not lacking for ammunition, stopped one frontal assault after another by firing blindly but effectively in volleys, through the fog and under it. The Arkansas troops made a try, and then the Missouri and Texas troops, 6,000 men all told. All were cut down or sent reeling back. In a matter of hours they took a thousand casualties. (Missouri, a slave state, didn't secede, despite the efforts of the governor, a Democrat named Claiborne Jackson. Nor did Kentucky, another slave state. But they did provide the southern armies with many fine soldiers—many more wore blue—and the eleven-state Confederacy did claim them as part of the new federation. Thus the auspicious—it was vainly hoped—thirteen stars on the battle flag, in this "second war for independence.")

3. How, after that fight, and after the Union soldiers had made their escape across the river on a shaky "India-rubber" pontoon bridge, hundreds of abandoned mules were running loose in the canebrakes, big 1,200-pound U.S. Army mules—which is to say free tractors for the destitute local farmers, or such few as were left, and them mostly old men, women, and children.

That Federal army of 12,000 men, commanded by Major General Frederick Steele, had set out from occupied Little Rock on March 23 for Shreveport, where it was to meet another Union Army column, escorted by a naval armada of sixty-two gunboats and transports with a brigade of U.S. Marines aboard, coming up the Red River in Louisiana. Neither force made it to Shreveport. The trans-Mississippi South, much neglected by Richmond, still had a few kicks left.

Steele was stopped in southern Arkansas at Camden, eighteen miles from Mount Holly. In a series of battles, culminating with the one at Jenkins' Ferry, the Federals were driven all the way back to Little Rock, on short rations and in cold rain and mud. Steele lost 2,750 men on the expedition, along with 635 wagons, 2,500 mules, and "enough horses to mount a brigade of cavalry," and counted himself fortunate. A fast-moving Stonewall Jackson, had one been present, would have cut him off in the rear and bagged the entire lot.

Steele almost had one more casualty in Wild Bill Hickok, a Union scout, who rode into Camden ahead of the army, put on a gray uniform, and did some spying. Something of a regional celebrity even then, he was soon recognized and had to make a run for it, "a bold dash" across the battle lines at Prairie d'Ane, on his horse, Black Nell. One account has him shooting two pursuing Confederate officers as Nell made "a mighty leap" over "an obstruction" (log? rail fence? ditch?). That is, Hickok twisted about in the saddle or stood in the stirrups and turned, cocked and fired his single-action revolver at least twice, and picked off two closing riders on the fly, all this while Nell was airborne. Well, maybe. In any case, it was a bold escape, and "a shout of triumph from the ten thousand troops in line greeted him, and he was the hero of the day."

In the fight at Poison Spring there were some scalpings, when a C.S.A. brigade of Choctaw cavalry clashed with a Federal regiment of black troops, the 1st Kansas (Colored), which had been operating, and plundering, on Choctaw lands in the Indian Territory, later to become Oklahoma. (The "poison spring," now in a state park, was misnamed through a misunderstanding. It still flows and still bears that name, but the unremarkable water isn't toxic or even bad-tasting.)

A white cavalry regiment, the 29th Texas, also carried a grudge against the 1st Kansas troops, who had driven it from the field in an earlier fight at Honey Springs, in the Territory. When the two met again, here at Poison Spring, in Arkansas, the Texans shouted across the lines that they would give no quarter. This time they won, and they gave no quarter. The Texans, the Arkansans, the Choctaws, and the Missourians shot some prisoners and finished off some of the wounded with bayonets and scalping knives. Not for the faint of heart, these late, bitter engagements. Murder and brutalities on both sides were common enough in this remote corner of the war, where it was waged, as the military historian Edwin C. Bearss writes, "with a savagery unheard of in the East." Little was made of it. To those eastern gentlemen in Richmond and Washington, the trans-Mississippi theater of operations wasn't so much a theater as some dim thunder offstage.

Presented by

Charles Portis, a novelist and journalist who lives in Arkansas, is the author of the book True Grit.

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