Wettstein

IT is a pleasant thing to be a colonel of cavalry in active field-service. There are circumstances of authority and of responsibility that fan the latent spark of barbarism which, however dull, glows in all our breasts, and which generations of republican civilization can never fully quench. We may not have confessed it even to ourselves ; but on looking back to the years of the war, we must recognize many things that patted our vanity greatly on the back, — things so different from all the dull routine of equality and fraternity of home, that those four years seem to belong to a dream-land, over which the haze of the life before them and the life after them draws a misty veil. Equality and Fraternity ! a pretty sentiment, yes, and full of sensible and kindly regard for all mankind, and full of hope for the men who are to come after us; but Superiority and Fraternity ! who shall tell all the secret emotions this implies ? To be the head of the brotherhood, with the unremitted clank of a guard’s empty scabbard trailing before one’s tent-door day and night, with the standard of the regiment proclaiming the house of chief authority, with the respectful salute of all passers, and the natural obedience of all members of the command, with the shade of deference that even comrades show to superior rank, and with that just sufficient check upon coarseness during the jovial bouts of the head-quarters’ mess, making them not less genial, but void of all offence, — living in this atmosphere, one almost feels the breath of feudal days coming modified through the long tempestuous ages to touch his cheek, whispering to him that the savage instinct of the sires has not been, and never will be, quite civilized out of the sons. And then the thousand men, and the yearly million that they cost, while they fill the cup of the colonel’s responsibility (sometimes to overflowing), and give him many heavy trials, — they are his own men ; their usefulness is almost of his own creation; and their renown is his highest glory.

I may not depict the feelings of others ; but I find in the recollection of my own service — as succeeding years dull its details and cast the nimbus of distance about it — the source of emotions which differ widely from those to which our modern life has schooled us.

One of the colonel’s constant attendants is the chief bugler, or, as he is called in hussar Dutch, the “Stabstrompaytr” : mine was the prince of Trompaytrs, and his name was Wettstein. He was a Swiss, whose native language was a mixture of guttural French and mincing German. English was an impossible field to him. He had learned to say “yes ” and “ matches ” ; but not one other of our words could he ever lay his tongue to, except the universal “damn.” But for his bugle and his little gray mare, I should never have had occasion to know his worth. Music filled every pore of his Alpine soul, and his wonderful Swiss “ Retreat ” must ring to this day in the memory of every man of the regiment whose thoughts turn again to the romantic campaign of South Missouri. What with other buglers was a matter of routine training was with him an inspiration. All knew well enough the meaning of the commands that the company trumpets stammered or blared forth ; but when they rang from Wettstein’s horn, they carried with them a vim and energy that secured their prompt execution ; and his note in the wild Ozark Hills would mark the head-quarters of the “ Vierte Missouri” for miles around. From a hill-top, half a mile in advance of my marching command, I have turned the regiment into its camping-ground and dismounted it in perfect order by the melodious telegraphy of Wettstein’s brazen lips alone.

That other chief attribute of his, Klitschka, his little beast, stayed longer with me than his bugle did, and is hardly less identified with the varied reminiscences of my army life. I bought her, as a prize, with the original mount of the regiment, in Frémont’s time, and was mildly informed by that officer that I must be careful how I accepted many such animals from the contractor, though a few for the smaller men might answer. Asboth, Frémont’s chief of staff, with a scornful rolling up of his cataract of a mustache, and a shrug of his broad, thin shoulders, said : “ Whyfor you buy such horses ? What your bugler ride, it is not a horse, it is a cat.” His remark was not intended as a question, and it ended the conversation. Months after that, he eagerly begged for the nine-lived Klitschka for one of his orderlies ; being refused him. she remained good to the end. She was an animal that defied every rule by which casual observers test the merit of a horse ; but analytically considered she was nearly perfect. Better legs, a better body, and a better head, it is rare to see, than she had. But she lacked the arched neck and the proud step that she needed all the more because of her small size. By no means showy in figure or in action, it took a second look to see her perfect fitness for her work. Her color was iron-gray, and no iron could be tougher than she was; while her full, prominent eye and ample brain-room, and her quick little ear, told of courage and intelligence that made her invaluable throughout four years of hard and often dangerous service. Like many other ill-favored little people, she was very lovable, and Wettstein loved her like a woman. He would never hesitate to relax those strict rules of conduct, by which German cavalry-men are supposed to govern themselves, if it was a question of stealing forage for Klitschka ; and he was (amiable fellow !) never so happy as when, from a scanty supply in the country, he had taken enough oat-sheaves to bed her in and almost cover her up, while other horses of the command must go hungry; and was never so shaken in his regard for me as when I made him give up all but double rations for her.

Double rations she often earned, for Wettstein was a heavy youth, with a constitutional passion for baggage out of all proportion to his means of transportation. Mounted for the march, he was an odd sight. Little Klitschka’s back, with his immense rolls of blankets and clothing before and behindlooked like a dromedary’s. Planted between the humps, straight as a gun-barrel, the brightest of bugles suspended across his back by its tasselled yellow braid, slashed like a harlequin over the breast, his arms chevroned with gorgeous gold, — Wettstein. with his capfront turned up so as to let the sun fall full on his frank blue eye and his resolute blond mustache, was the very picture of a cavalry bugler in active campaign.

Smoking, gabbling, singing, rollicking, from morning until night, and still on until morning again if need be, he never lost spirit nor temper. He seemed to absorb sunshine enough during the day to keep every one bright around him all night. When at last his bugle had been stilled forever, we long missed the cheer of his indomitable gayety; wearying service became more irksome than while his bubbling mirth had tempered its dullness ; and even little Klitschka, although she remained an example of steady pluck, had never so potent an influence as while he had put his own unfailing mettle into her heels. After she was bequeathed to me, she was always most useful, but never so gay and frisky as while she carried her own devoted groom. No day was too long for her and no road too heavy; her brisk trot knew no failing, but she refused ever again to form the personal attachment that had sealed her and Wettstein to one another.

The two of them together, like the fabled Centaur, made the complete creature. He with the hardened frame and bright nature of his Alpine race, and she with her veins full of the Mustang blood of the Rocky Mountains, were fitted to each other as almost never were horse and rider before. Their performances were astonishing. In addition to a constant attendance on his commander (who, riding without baggage, and of no heavier person than Wettstein himself, sometimes fagged out three good horses between one morning and the next), the Trompaytr yet volunteered for all sorts of extra service, — carried messages over miles of bad road to the general’s camp, gave riding-lessons and music-lessons to the company buglers, and then — fear of the guard-house and fear of capture always unheeded — he never missed an opportunity for the most hazardous and most laborious foraging.

He was a thorough soldier, — always " for duty,” always cleanly, always handsome and cheery, and heedlessly brave. If detected in a fault (and he was, as I have hinted, an incorrigible forager), he took his punishment like a man, and stole milk for himself or fodder for Klitschka at the next convenient (or inconvenient) opportunity, with an imperturbability that no punishment could reach.

Once, when supplies were short, he sent me, from the guard-house where he had been confined for getting them, a dozen bundles of corn-blades for my horses ; not as a bribe, but because he would not allow the incidents of discipline to disturb our friendly relations : and in the matter of fodder in scarce times he held me as a helpless pensioner, dependent on his bounty. When in arrest by my order, his " Pon chour, Herr Oberist,” was as cordial and happy as when he strolled free past my tent. Altogether I never saw his like before or since. The good fortune to get such a bugle, such a soldier, and such a mount combined, comes but once in the lifetime of the luckiest officer. It was only his uncouth tongue that kept him from being pilfered from me by every general who had the power to “ detail ” him to his own head-quarters.

So universal, by the way, was this petty vice of commanding officers, that I was never safe until I adopted the plan, in selecting a staff officer, of securing his promise to resign from the service point-blank if ordered to other duty, and more than one offended general was indignant at my policy. With Wettstein, I felt perfectly easy, for the average capacity of brigadier-generals stopped far short of the analysis of his dual jargon. Several tried him for a day, but they found that his comprehension was no better than his speech, and that his manifest ability was a sealed book to them. He always came home by nightfall with a chuckle and, “ Le général versteht mich nicht. Je blase ' marrrsch ’ für ' halt' ”

So it was that, for a couple of years, this trusty fellow trotted at my heels through rain and shine, by day and by night, with his face full of glee, and his well-filled canteen at the service of our little staff. Mud and mire, ditches and fences, were all one to him and Klitschka ; and in Vix’s day they followed her lead over many a spot that the others had to take by flank movement.

Our work in Missouri was but little more than the work of subsistence. We were a part of an army too large for any Rebel force in that region to attack, and too unwieldy to pursue guerillas with much effect. But now and then we made a little scout that varied our otherwise dull lives ; and at such times Wettstein always attached himself to the most dangerous patrolling party, and Klitschka was usually the first to bring back news of the trifling encounters.

At last, in February, 1863, when we had lain for a month in delicious idleness in the heart of a rich country, literally flowing with poultry and cornfodder, I, being then in command of a division of cavalry, received an order from Davidson to select six hundred of the best-mounted of my men, and to attack Marmaduke, who was recruiting, ninety miles away, at Batesville on the White River in Arkansas. His main body, three thousand five hundred strong, lay in the “ Oil-Trough Bottom, ” on the other side of the river. A brigade of Western infantry was to march as far as Salem (thirty miles), and to support me if necessary ; though I afterward found that at the only moment when I might have had grave occasion to depend on them, they were, with an inconsistency that was not the least attribute of my commanding officer, withdrawn without notice to me.

We were to go in light marching order, carrying only the necessary clothing, and rations of salt and coffee. Wettstein’s ideas of lightness differing from mine, I had to use some authority to rid poor Klitschka of saucepans, extra boots, and such trash ; and after all, the rascal had, under the plea of a cold, requiring extra blankets, smuggled a neatly sewn sausage of corn, weighing some fifteen pounds, into one of his rolls. Eager men, too, whose horses were out of trim, had to be discarded, and the whole detail to be thoroughly overhauled. But the jovial anticipation of seeing Batesville once more — a New England village planted on a charming hill-side in Arkansas, where we had sojourned with Curtis the summer before, and where we all had the pleasant acquaintance that even an enemy makes in a town from which the native men have long been gone, and only the women remain —made the work of preparation go smoothly, and long before dawn Wettstein’s bugle summoned the details from the several camps. There was a ringing joyousness in his call, that spoke of the cosey. roaring fire of a certain Batesville kitchen to which his bright face and his well-filled haversack had long ago made him welcome, and prospective feasting gave an added trill to his blast.

The little detachments trotted gayly into line, officers were assigned for special duty, temporary divisions were told off, and a working organization was soon completed. Before the sun was up, such a Ra, t’t’ta, t’t’ta, t't'ta ! as South Missouri had never heard before, broke the line by twos from the right, and we were off for a promising trip. Marmaduke we knew of old, and personal cowardice would have deterred no one from joining our party, for he could be reached from our stronger army only by a complete surprise ; and in a country where every woman and child (white, I mean) was his friend and our enemy, a surprise, over ninety miles of bad roads, seemed out of the question. Indeed, before we had made a half of the distance, one of his flying scouts told a negro woman by the road-side, as he checked his run to water his horse, “There’s a hell’s-mint o’ Yanks a comin’ over the mountain, and I must git to Marmyjuke"; and to Marmaduke he “got,” half a day ahead of us, only to be laughed at for a coward who had been frightened by a foraging-party.

The second night brought us to Evening Shade, a little village, where one Captain Smith was raising a company. They had all gone, hours ahead of us, but had left their supplies and their fires behind them, and these, with the aid of a grist-mill (for which an Illinois regiment furnished a miller), gave us a bountiful supper. At daybreak we set out for our last day’s march, still supposing that Marmaduke’s men would put the river between themselves and us before night, but confident of comfortable quarters at Batesville. A few miles out, we began to pick up Rebel stragglers, and Wettstein soon came rattling through the woods, from a house to which he had been allowed to go for milk, with the story of a sick officer lodged there. Following his lead with a surgeon and a small escort, I found the captain of the Evening Shade company lying in a raging fever, with which he had found it impossible to ride, and nearly dead with terror lest we should hang him at once. His really beautiful young wife, who had gone to enliven his recruiting labors, was in tears over his impending fate. While we were talking with him concerning his parole, she bribed Wettstein with a royal pair of Mexican spurs to save his life, evidently thinking from his display of finery that he was a major-general at the very least. The kind fellow buckled the spurs on my heels, and they evidently gave me new consequence in his eyes as we rode on our way.

Presently we struck a party of about twenty-five, under a Captain Mosby, who had been making a circuit after conscripts and had had no news of us. After a running fight, during which there occurred some casualties on the other side, we captured the survivors of the party and sent them to the rear.

From midday on, we heard rumors of a sally in strong force from Batesville, and were compelled to move cautiously, — straggling parties of Rebel scouts serving to give credibility to the story. At sunset we were within six miles of the town ; and, halting in the deep snow of a large farm-yard, I sent a picked party of thirty, under Rosa, to secure the ferry if possible, — Wettstein and Klitschka accompanying to bring back word of the result. After two anxious hours, he came into camp with a note from Rosa: “ Marmaduke is over the river and has the ferry-boat with him; three of his men killed. Wettstein did bravely.” The poor fellow had a bad cut on his arm and was in pain, but not a moment would he give himself until brave little Klitschka, smothered in bright straw, was filling herself from the smuggled bag of corn. At last he came to the surgeon and had his wounded arm duly dressed. Although evidently suffering and weak from loss of blood, he gave us a cheering account of Rosa’s fight, and dwelt fondly on the supper he had

bespoken for us at good Mrs. —’s house, where we had quartered in the summer. At nine o’clock, after Klitschka had fed and the patrols had come in, we set out on our march. It was still snowing hard, and even the dead men that marked Rosa’s recent ride were fast being shrouded in purest white. One of them Wettstein pointed out as the man with whom he had crossed sabres, and he asked permission to stay with the party detailed to bury him, for he had been a “ braff homme.” With his tender sympathy for friend or foe, he was a truer mourner than a dead soldier often gets from the ranks of his enemy. Even this sad ride came to an end, as all things must, and at the edge of the town soldierly Rosa stood, to report that the pickets were posted and our quarters ready. Giving him a fresh detail to relieve his pickets, and asking his company at our midnight supper, we pushed on to our chosen house. Here we found all in order, save that the young lady of the family had so hastily put on the jacket bearing the U. S. buttons of her last summer’s conquests, that she failed quite to conceal the C. S. buttons on a prettier one under it. She and her mother scolded us for driving the Rebel beaux from town, when there was to have been a grand farewell ball only the next night; but they seemed in no wise impressed with regret for the friends who had been killed and wounded in the chase. It turned out that Marmaduke had grown tired of reports that we were marching on him in force, and would not believe it now until his own men rode into town at nightfall, with the marks of Rosa’s sabres on their heads. The place had been filled with the officers of his command, and he with them, come for their parting flirtations before the ball. They were to march to Little Rock, and their men were nearly all collected in the “ Bottom,” over the river. On this sudden proof of the attack, they made a stampede for the flat-boat of the rope-ferry and nearly sunk it by over-crowding, the hindmost men cutting the rope and swimming their horses across the wintry torrent.

We had full possession of the town and were little disturbed by the dropping shots from the Rebel side. We visited on our unfaithful friends such punishment as enforced hospitality could compass, and on the whole we had n’t a bad time. The morning after our arrival we levied such contributions of supplies as were necessary for our return march, and, in order that the return might not look like a retreat, we loaded two wagons with hogsheads of sugar (which would be welcome in Davidson’s commissariat), and made every arrangement for the establishment of the camp of the whole army in the country back of the town ; for our force was so small that, with our tired horses, it would have been imprudent to turn our backs to Marmaduke’s little army, if he supposed us to be alone.

Keeping the town well picketed and making much Show of laying out an encampment, I started the teams and the main body of the command at nightfall, holding back a hundred men for a cover until a later hour.

During the evening the Rebels on the south side of the river became suspiciously quiet, and there was apparently some new movement on foot. The only possible chance for an attack was by Magnus’s ferry, ten miles below, where the boat was so small and the river so wide that not more than twenty horses could be crossed in an hour, and my sharpshooters were sufficient to prevent the removal of the Batesville boat to that point. Still it was important to know what was going on, and especially important to prevent even a scouting party of the enemy from harassing the rear of my tired column by the shorter road from Magnus’s to Evening Shade ; and I started at nine o’clock (when the moon rose), with twenty men, to go round that way, directing the remainder of the rear-guard to follow the main body at midnight.

The ride to Magnus’s was without other adventure than bad roads and almost impassable bayous always entail, and in a few hours we reached the plantation, where T had a former ally in an old negro, who had done us good service during Curtis’s campaign. He said that the Rebels had left the Bottom, and were going to Little Rock, but as a precaution he took a canoe and crossed over to the house of another negro on the south bank, and returned with a confirmation of his opinion. As it was very important to know whether the only enemy of Davidson’s army had really withdrawn from his front, and as this might be definitely learned through the assistance of an old scout who lived in the edge of the Bottom, it seemed best to cross the river to give him instructions for his work.

I took Roubie, my best horse. He was a sure reliance under all circumstances, and he and I knew each other perfectly. We were at home in every foot-path in the country, having had many a summer’s swim in this very river ; and now, accompanied only by Wettstein and Klitschka, I went on to the ferry-boat. It was what is known as a “swing” ferry. A stout rope is stretched between trees on the opposite shores, and the boat is attached to a couple of pulleys arranged to traverse the length of this rope. The attaching cords — one at each end of the upstream side of the boat—are long enough to allow it to swing some rods down the stream ; by shortening one of the ropes and lengthening the other, the boat is placed at an angle with the swift current, which propels it toward one shore or the other, the pulleys keeping pace in their course on the main rope.

The main rope was rough from long use, and often the pulleys would halt in their course, until the pull of the advancing boat dragged them free. Then the rickety craft, shivering from end to end, would make a rapid shoot, until another defective place in the rope brought her to again. At each vibration, the horses nearly lost their feet, and the surging stream almost sent its muddy water over the gunwale. It was a long and anxious trip, — the rotten guy-rope hardly serving to hold us to our course. At last we reached the shore and rode on to Craikill’s house in the Bottom. He had been “conscripted,” and forced to go with the army, so his wife told us, and she had seen him march with the rest on the Fairview Road for Little Rock. The last bird had flown, and we could safely march back at our leisure.

Wettstein filled his pipe, emptied his haversack for the benefit of Craikill’s hungry children, and, cheery as ever. followed me to the ferry. On the way over he had been as still as a mouse, for he was too old a soldier to give an enemy any sign of our approach. But, as we set out on the return trip, in the cold moonlight, he sang the “ Ranz, des Vaches,” fondled his little mare, and, unmindful of his wounded arm, gave way to the flow of spirits that the past few days’ duty had checked. I never knew him more gay and delightful ; and, as we stood leaning on our saddles and chatting together. I congratulated myself upon the possession of such a perpetual sunbeam.

We were barely half-way across, when suddenly, coming out of the darkness, riding half hidden in the boiling, whirling tide, a huge floating tree struck the boat with a thud that parted the rotten guy-rope, and carried us floating down the stream. For a moment there seemed no danger, but a branch of the tree had caught the corner of the boat, and the pulleys had become entangled in the rope. When this had been drawn to its full length, and the tree felt the strain, the boat dipped to the current, filled, and sank under our feet. I called to Wettstein to take Klitschka by the tail, but it was too late : he had grasped the saddle with the desperation of a drowning man, and made her fairly helpless. The boat soon passed from under us, and, relieved of our weight, came to the surface at our side, but, bringing the rope against poor Wettstein’s wounded arm, tore loose his hold, and soon went down again in the eddy, and Klitschka was free.

“ Adieu, Herr Oberist, tenez Klitschka pour vous ! Adieu ! ” And that happy, honest face sank almost within reach of me. The weight of his arms prevented his rising again, and only an angry eddy, glistening in the moonlight, marked his turbid grave.

Roubie, snorting, and struggling hard with the current, pulled me safely to the shore, and little Klitschka followed as well as her loaded saddle would permit. For the moment, with my own life and the lives of two tried companions to care for, I thought of nothing else; but as I sat drying at Magnus’s roaring hearth the direst desolation overwhelmed me. Very far from home,— far even from the home-like surroundings of my own camp,— I had clung to this devoted fellow as a part of myself. He was a proven friend ; with him I never lacked the sympathy that, in the army at least, is born of constant companionship, and he filled a place in my life that dearer friends at home might not find. He was the one comrade whose heart, I was sure, was filled only with unquestioning love for me. Henceforth I must look for support to companions who saw me as I was, who knew my faults and my weaknesses, and whose kind regard was tempered with criticism. The one love that was blind, that took me for better or for worse, had been, in an instant, torn from my life, and I was more sad than I can tell.

But Duty knows no sentiment. A saddened party, we mounted, to join the main command ; and, as we rode on through the rest of that desolate night, no word passed to tell the gloom that each man felt.

The petty distinctions of earthly rank were swallowed up in a feeling of true brotherhood, and Wettstein — promoted now — rode at our head as a worthy leader, showing the way to a faithful performance of all duty and a kindly and cheerful bearing of all life’s burdens ; and, through the long and trying campaigns that followed, more than one of us was the better soldier for the lesson, his soldierly life had taught.