Chapters From an Autobiography
A KENTUCKY BOYHOOD
RECOLLECTIONS OF CHILDHOOD
I TURN now to the story of my own life, my own motives, and the environment of nature and men that shaped them. I foresee that the account wall have to be somewhat jumbled and confused, for the reason that every life is a compound of what is within and what is without, of the personal quality, and of the surroundings which shaped impulses and gave them chance of action.
Although my ancestors were wholesome in body and mind, I was at birth and through my youth rather weakly. The trouble seems to have been with the nervous system, leading to imperfect digestion, so that in childhood I was what is called delicate. The pictures of me and the descriptions from my elders show up to twelve years of age a slender, retarded shape, with a pale face and rather frightened look. After that came a rapid growth, which led to a fair measure of bodily strength and reactive forces. The main point is that in the years that mould the man I was, because of innate weakness, left almost without schooling and with no other education than what came from contact with ray surroundings. Up to that age I could barely read and write. In a dame school, kept by an ancient spinster, ... to which I was sent from time to time when I was well enough, I learned nothing and was regarded as a dunce. The fact seems to have been that in the bad air of the crowded little room my life wilted at once. Various tokens, especially the rough talk of the slaves of the household, led me to understand that I was not expected to live beyond childhood. I recall that this impression was not at all painful to me, for my weakness and the consequent isolation from other children made me a rather intense pessimist for one of my small size.
My first memories are of a negro woman who was my nurse; the image of her is clear, though I could not have been more than three years old when it was formed; for I remember being much carried about in her strong arms. She was a large, well-shaped negress; something of her good face and dear soul are now before me. There are three other black faces which were printed on my memory before I find that of my mother. It is probably on this account that the African face has always been dear to me. It still seems, as it surely is, the more normal human face, that of our own kind appearing in a way exceptional. My father’s face, though it was very striking, does not appear in my recollections until later, — until the time when I was five years old, — and none others seen before I was seven or eight abide with me.
Because I came just after the first-born died, and because I was frail, I was very tenderly cared for. Until I was five or six years old I had no playmates whom I remember. It is evident that I was for a time somewhat coddled, but there was probably need of unusual care to bring me through a troubled childhood. What scraps of memory I have of that time curiously do not relate to the house in which we dwelt, but to the open country whereto I went often on horseback with my father, to the Ohio River, a dear mystery, fearful yet enchanting, and to the government post a few hundred feet from my father’s door, where with my nurse I spent the most of my days. The first recollection I have except of the few persons mentioned, is of the parade ground and the soldiers, above all of the music and the bugle-calls. Those notes are so embedded in me that they seem a part of my substance and strangely move me to this faroff day. The earliest trace of any kind of activity that I recall is an adventure with the musician who beat the great drum of the barracks band. It was my delight to see the band march around the parade ground, and my cherished ambition to have a whack at the drum. So, craftily, stick in hand, I hid behind a boxed tree and managed to get in a stroke, only to be bowled over by the irate drummer. I could not have been more than four years old at the time, yet the delight of that deed stays by me.
When I was about five, the musterings for the Mexican War were going on, and the barracks were over-filled, so that considerable hordes of troops were encamped in the open fields which adjoined it. On those fields, then pastures, one of the horse-batteries, I believe Ringold’s, was for some time drilled. I was then exempt from the care of a nurse, and could run about afoot or on a pony. The movements of this command filled my little soul with wonder; there I gained my first sense of the power of men in action, that primitive might of war which impresses the primitive child and childish man as nothing else does. I well remember my longing for the unapproachable splendor of the commander of that battery, who seemed to me a supernatural being. Oddly enough, fifteen years thereafter I was in his place drilling a horse-battery on the same field, to find it tedious drudgery, with moments of high life when by chance the work went well.
The newspaper reports of the battles in Mexico, read aloud by my mother to the household, made a great and enlarging impression on me. Though I could not read, I had the ability to understand a map, and I made a poor stagger at a description of the country over which the troops passed on their way to Mexico and of their movements in that country. As I had seen many of the officers and sundry of the commands on their way to the front, I had food for imagination, and of it I built a host of pictures of imaginary events. For two or three years about all the thoughts of my waking hours and all my dreams were of war or fighting of some kind. The interest was aroused at an even earlier time, for I remember my eagerness on court days to see from nearby the brutal contests between the tipsy countrymen in the court-house yard. So too, I recall when about five years old being in the midst of a riot on a race-track half a mile from my home — people in the judge’s stand shooting down at a mob which was assailing them. While in the delight of the situation, for my dream of war was realized, I was caught up on the shoulders of a sturdy slave and carried home. This treatment remains the humiliation of my life.
As I had no playmates who satisfied my fancy of what a playmate should be, my time was passed in playing alone. As war was in my heart, it expressed itself in endlessly building fortifications of clay and arming them with guns laboriously made of keys, the wheels cut from spools, and the rest of the carriages whittled as best I could do. The old-fashioned large hollow key, with the hole a third of an inch in diameter, properly managed with a file, can be concocted into a miniature cannon which will “go off.” My ambition not satisfied with these small affairs, I filched a pair of horse-pistols from my father’s office, razied them with the file, and with no end of well-concealed labor done in my hiding-place in a barn, converted them into rather pretty diminutive field-pieces which were able to do real damage. My father, who had a fancy for developing new varieties of melons, had a new patch with sundry fine specimens nearly ripe. On these I turned my guns with such effect that they were all shattered.
Although I had no constant playmates in these years of imaginary war, I did not feel the need of them because my imaginary companions were numerous, and much more to my taste than the lads with whom I might have associated. They were all much older than myself, all for a time soldiers, great heroes who admitted me most graciously to share their mighty deeds, with the implicit understanding that I should not tell any one about it all. To have an ordinary, commonplace boy, even if he were years older than myself, imposed on this heroic society was revolting. So I played in company with an unseen host, as many children do, and got thereby much enjoyment.
It must not be supposed that because I lived in imaginary war I was naturally a brave lad; far from it. Up to my twelfth year I was absurdly timid. Alongside of this dream of war there dwelt a world of fear of the dark, of all beyond the field of view of men and beasts, even of lads no bigger than myself. I doubt if a child ever suffered from immediate senseless fear as I did, while my whole soul was given to warlike projects. What I have seen in later life leads me to believe that this is a common human condition, and that the grown men who glory in the images of war are led thereto by their sense of their own timidity. This seems the likelier from an incident which ended my youthful dreams of battle. It has a certain psychologic interest, and it is the first distinct turning-point in my mental state. So, though in itself a trifle, it must needs be told.
Until I was about twelve years old, I was so far possessed by fear that I was much put upon by the lads of my own age. This cowardice seems to have related only to contacts with people, for as a treeclimber I was daring and successful. I remember the pleasure it gave me to scale a lofty beech and allow myself to fall through the boughs, trusting to make good my hold before I came to the ground. This I was accustomed to do alone, so that there was no vaunting in the performance. The sense of this childish pleasure was so fixed in memory that to this day I never see a tree well-shaped for the hazard without desiring to try it once again. Whatever was the basis of the state of mind, it possessed me sorely until a crisis came. A negro servant, a mulatto belonging to a kinsman who dwelt near my home, amused himself by bullying me in a brutal manner so that my life became unsupportable. So with a newly awakened spirit I determined to end with him, fully expecting to be killed; be it said that my fear was not of death, a fear from which I have never suffered. I lay in wait for the fellow on the street on a moonlight night. When the bully, who was a sturdy fellow of twice my size and about twenty years old, tried to seize me, I managed with a quick unexpected rush to bring him down and to beat him on the head with a stone, so that he had to be carried off and was for some time in a bad state. It was thought that he would die, but he fortunately recovered. In this combat, for the first and only time in my life I felt that strange blood-thirstiness, that demoniac fury, which is in all men. I had afterwards, in my boyhood and later, a number of fights, but in no other instance has the slaying motive been aroused; so far as I can discern, the situations have provoked a rather intense sense of merriment, and the desire to do the antagonist no unnecessary harm. Another effect of this crisis was to make an end of all my fear of men and beasts. When in danger of assault there has always been a keen reckoning of the situation, with a singular assurance that my wits would see me through.
My preposterous contest with “Bill Button” appears to have made an end of my fancy for war. As above noted, I am inclined to believe that this devotion of some years’ duration was a natural device to support my spirit in its fears, an ideal of brave doing set over against the mastering sense of cowardice. In place of the old fear of external enemies there came to me a new terror lest the newly discovered fury should break out again. This secondary fear made no permanent impression, though its moral value to a growing lad was considerable. I am inclined to think that this trifling incident marks my passage from childhood to the youth in which the mind begins to feel the wider realm. So far as I can see, I thereafter began to look upon the world with a man’s eyes, though it was with scanty intelligence. This seems therefore a fit place to set forth the conditions of the place and people where I was to take something like adult shape.
The village of Newport, Kentucky, at the time when I was born, was a place of perhaps a thousand inhabitants. To a casual observer it would have seemed as a mere outskirt of the large and prosperous town of Cincinnati on the northern side of the Ohio River, with which it was connected by a ferry. Its only title to distinction was that it was the seat of a government military post, which occupied a few acres at the angle where the Licking River enters the larger stream. Although the measurable distance between the two places is not more than a third of a mile, they were in the old days much more widely separated in all the essentials of society than New York and New Orleans now are. There are sundry places in the world wbere bounds of no more geographic value separate people somewhat diverse in speech and tradition, but none known to me where neighboring folk are so absolutely parted as were these people during the first six decades of the last century. They had nothing in common but their joint share in the English blood and speech, and a certain theoretical likeness of religion. Institutionally, they were widely parted. The one represented the motives of the nineteenth century, the other of the sixteenth. For there is essentially all that difference between the motives of free communities, where in the one all are of equal rights before the law, and in the other slavery holds.
The separation of the two communities on either side of the Ohio was intensified by certain accidents of the settlement of this part of the country, in the eighteenth century. The northern section had been mainly sold by the United States to settlers coming from a wide range of country, mostly from the northeastern states. Although in some part owned by the government of Virginia and sold to settlers in its patent system, most of the territory had been laid out, in the usual manner, into townships, so that there were no large connected holdings; while in Kentucky the Virginia system of land-grants or patents, without the preliminary sectionizing process, was adopted, except for the small district to the west of the Tennessee River known as the Jackson purchase, which was secured after the colony acquired its character and never had any influence on its social system.
The result of this difference in the way in which the territory passed into private ownership was, that while in the district north of the Ohio River there were few holdings exceeding a square mile, or 640 acres, and the normal size of farms was much less, being more commonly a half or a quarter of that amount, in Kentucky the larger part of the field had been distributed in tracts averaging several thousand acres. Under this patent system there grew up a form of proprietorship where the land was held by relatively few men, who let it to tenants. Even when the poorer class of original settlers acquired land, it was likely to pass to the richer holders by purchase or through law-suits based upon the claims of older patents. Boone became landless and emigrated to Missouri, complaining that at the end of his adventures he had no place in which to be buried. Kentucky inherited from Virginia the mediæval theory of a landed aristocracy resting upon a tenantry. North of the river, though there were here and there landowners, the conception of the relation of the people to the land was that of the free man working acres which he owned.
Another influence which tended to establish the Virginia method of proprietorship in Kentucky, and thus to fasten the feudal system, was the peculiar division in the quality of the settlers. These colonists were from the three very distinct classes into which the people of Virginia had from the beginning of its history been divided, namely: the upper class of proprietors, their slaves, and the group of poor whites who were well accustomed to the station of tenants. They accepted the lot of the landless, and were content to get what they could out of their station without striving for a higher. So it came about that in the first half of the nineteenth century relatively few of the landowners labored with their hands : they either let their holdings to their tenants, or, where they were themselves engaged in the business of farming, the labor was done by the slaves. If the holding was large these slaves were generally controlled by an overseer; if so small that only a few negroes were employed, the owner would do the overseeing himself. Thus, while manual labor was not considered as in itself degrading, — for so far as I have seen, any landowner of that time would, without thought of his station, take hold with his slaves in any farming work, — there grew up, or rather was perpetuated, the tradition of the three distinct estates, the proprietor, the tenant, and the slave.
In the county of Campbell, where I was born, by far the greater part of the land came by patents or by purchases from smaller holders into the possession of two families of common blood who migrated together from Virginia in the colonization period. These families, bearing the names of Southgate and Taylor, were, from the first, considerable slaveholders; they both aspired to form landed families. Unto them, as soon as they were established, there came, as usual, numbers of their poor kindred, those swarms of the unsuccessful — the landless of the Virginia families, who were ever fighting to save themselves from falling to the level of the “poor white trash,” whom the slaves of the rich accounted as beneath their own station. These tenant whites came not to any extent in the first movement into Kentucky; that was made up of men of a higher social grade, and of the frontier class, generally shiftless people who had the habits of the frontier, living by hunting and trapping. They drifted out in search of new land to rent, or were imported by the large proprietors, so that their farms might be rented. In my boyhood, I knew this group of small farmers well. There were perhaps a hundred families of the class on the lands of my kindred. They were then mostly of the second generation, though many of the elder were born in Virginia or North Carolina — an excellent folk, curiously resembling the English cotter of the better class as I came to know him in my walks in central England in the years 1867 to 1873. Vigorous, honest, kindly, with good farming instincts, sexually wholesome, with no other vice than drunkenness, which was rarely continuous, but took the form of sprees on the quarterly pay-days or other festive occasions. They were, it is true, addicted to fighting and were nursers of feuds, but never murdered for money. Their feuds then, as now in the less advanced eastern section of the state, seem to have been due to the large share of the class motive among them. In this regard they did not differ from the higher placed group of great land-owners.
The most conspicuous feature of the cotter class, as I knew them, was their shiftlessness; it was not mere indolence, though they were characteristically lazy; but rather an entire lack of all traditions as to the relation of labor to life. Thus they usually dwelt in commonplace small log cabins, when fifty days of labor would have given them good dwellings of the same easy construction. They put up with “stick chimneys,” built of small round timbers daubed with clay, which were always taking fire or tumbling down, when a trifle of labor would build them of stone which could be had by lifting it from the gullies of the worn fields. In many cases they were too shiftless to clear the dung from the log horse-stables; they would let it lie until it was no longer possible to get the animals out of the doors, then pull the logs apart and build the stable elsewhere. In my youth, I never knew of manure being put upon the land. When, about 1855, my father began the use of it, he was much laughed at. The plan was to till a field until it was worn out, and then let it go to grass or bushes of a kindly nature, helped by chance sowing; commonly the soil washed away until the lava rock was exposed. The crops were mainly tobacco and grains, and as there was no system of rotation, the fields rapidly became exhausted. The more careful landlords required that their tenants should plant tobacco, a most exhausting crop, only for three or four years, and then set the land in grass; but generally there was no adequate enforcement of the rules, so that the cleared land rapidly became worthless. In the first sixty years of this atrocious process nearly one-half of the arable soil of the northern counties of Kentucky, where most of the surface steeply inclined, became unremunerative to plough-tillage.
My grandfather did what he could to contend against the evils of bad tillage; he knew of the métayer system and copied it, taking his rents in kind, that is, in a share of the crops. I well remember the times when the payments were made, including not only tobacco and grains, but bags of wool, feathers, and even beeswax. To dispose of these goods, he had a store where other things were sold as well, the place giving occupation to the everpresent “poor kin.”
The body of the people with whom I came into contact were the poor whites. The slaves were not numerous, and were owned by not more than a score of families in the county. They were mostly house-servants; probably not as many as two hundred were regular field-hands. Probably not five hundred in all were owned in the county, partly for the reason that the table-land of the region, being all near the Ohio and the Licking rivers, was so deeply indented by the drainage channels that it was not suited for large plantations; but mainly for the reason that slaves readily escaped to the free country. What negroes there were belonged to a good class. The greater number of them were from families which had been owned by the ancestors of their masters in Virginia. In my grandfather’s household and those of his children, who were grouped about him, there were some two dozen of these blacks, mostly pretty decent and fairly industrious people. They were well cared for; none of them were ever sold, though there was the common threat, “If you don’t behave, you will be sold south.” One of the commonest bits of instruction my grandfather gave me was to remember “that my people had in a century never bought or sold a slave except to keep families together.” By that he meant that a gentleman of his station should not run any risk of appearing as a “negro trader,” the last word of opprobrium to be slung at a man. So far as I can remember, this rule was well kept, and social ostracism was likely to be visited on any one who was fairly suspected of buying or selling slaves for profit. This state of opinion was, I believe, very general among the better class of slaveowners in Kentucky. When negroes were sold, it was because they were vicious and intractable. Yet there were exceptions to this high-minded humor.
There is a common opinion that the slaves of the Southern households were subjected in various ways to brutal treatment. Such, in my experience, was not the case. Though the custom of using the whip on white children was common enough, I never saw a negro deliberately punished in that way until 1862, when, in military service, I stayed a night at the house of a friend. This old man, long a widower, had recently married a woman from the state of Maine, who had been the governess of his children. In the early morning, I heard a tumult in the backyard, and on looking out saw a negro man, his arms tied up to a limb of a tree, while the vigorous matron was administering on his back with a cowhide whip. At breakfast I learned that the man had well deserved the flogging, but it struck me as curious that in the only instance of the kind I had known, the punishment was from the hands of a Northern woman.
In the households where I was intimate the slaves were on about the same social footing as the other members of the family; they were subjected to sudden explosions of the master’s temper, much as were his children. I well remember a frequent scene in my grandfather’s house, whereto it was the custom that I should go every Sunday afternoon for counsel and instruction. These were at first somewhat fearsome occasions for a little lad thus to be alone with an aged and stately grandfather. I soon won his interest in some measure by my fears, and came greatly to enjoy the intercourse, for he knew how to talk to a boy, and we became, in a way, boys together in our sense of the funny side of things. It was the custom, too, for him to divide the session of three or four hours with a brief nap taken in his chair. Meanwhile I had a picture-book, or — after I was about ten years old, when I could read — some work he deemed profitable; very often verses to commit, most commonly from Pope, while he slept.
As his rooms were near the negro quarter, he would make ready for his siesta by sending forth the servantman who waited on him, bidding him tell the people that they were to keep quiet during the performance. I can see him now with his pig-tail hanging down behind the back of the easy-chair and a handkerchief over his face, as he courted slumber. For a minute or two it would be still, then the hidden varlets would be as noisy as before. Then the pig-tail would begin to twitch, and he would mutter, “Jim, tell those people they must be still.” Again a minute of quiet, and once more the jabbering and shouting. Now, with a leap he would clutch his long walking-staff and charge the crowd in the quarter, laying about him with amazing nimbleness, until all the offenders were run to their holes. Back he would come from his excursion and settle himself again to sleep. I could see that his rage was merely on the surface and that he used it for a corrective, for he evidently took care not to hurt any one.
There was one man in the community at the time, of some fortune, who had an evil reputation on account of his cruelty to his slaves. One of them, it was said with horror which evidently moved his neighbors greatly, owed his lamed state to his master’s rage. With this slaveholder the others had little to do. They evidently regarded him as an outcast, and told stories of how he had been a “negro trader.”
Among the negroes whom I remember there were sundry who were very old, who lived together in a building in the quarter and were well cared for. They were troublesome, because one of them, named Bristoe, had an ineradicable fancy for harboring low-down whites, who would be found from time to time hidden away in his quarters, where they shared food with the blacks. Among these unhappy dependents was a certain aged drunken vagabond bearing the aristocratic name of Lee Sutherland. He was an ancient Virginian, with a gentleman’s face and manner still showing through his debauched misery. He had no known kindred, and many efforts to keep him above utter degradation had failed. In that day there were no retreats where such folk could be stored away. Each time Sutherland turned up under Bristoe’s bed there was a hubbub in the household, Bristoe was soundly rated, but he was too old for punishment or for the threat of “selling south” to have any effect on him. He enjoyed the situation, especially the peculiar dignity that came to him from protecting a man of quality. On one occasion when his quarters were watched, he harbored the man in the ice-house, where the wretch, in striving to crawl beneath the straw, had got over near the ice and was found nearly frozen to death, but recovered and lived to vex decent folk for long afterwards.
My grandfather’s defense against the recurrent shame of having Sutherland among his negroes was ingenious. Each time he was found, after being cleaned up a bit he was put into a wagon and hauled away for a day or two of driving, then left with a little money in his pocket. The creature would slowly work his way back, to be found again hidden under Bristoe’s bed or in some nearby barn, where the old black cared for him. At length, after a distant deportation, he did not return, and no one knew whether he had died on his way back or had gone to fresh fields and pastures new.
The vagabond element in the life of the place was far more important than in a town of modern days. The idiots and the insane, as well as the ne’er-do-wells of all classes and both sexes, played their part in the comedy of life. The open markethouse was the resort of all this loose life. There the houseless were wont to sleep until disturbed by the holders of the stalls. As a boy I liked to rummage among the lot with an inquiring interest in the odds and ends of folk. I remember one morning cottoning to an old man I had awakened, to get bis story. It seemed that he was a revolutionary soldier who had been wounded in the battle of Cowpens (“ Cuppens” as he called it) ; he had come in from the up-country to draw his pension and had spent it on a spree. There was criticism when I brought the ancient home for breakfast, but when he was cleaned up and verified he had a welcome.
Of all the folk who were about me, the survivors of the Indian wars were the most interesting. There were several of these old clapper-clawed fellows still living, with their more or less apocryphal tales of adventures they had heard of or shared. There was current a tradition — I have seen it in print — that there had been a fight between the Indians and whites where the government barracks stood, and that the wounded whites had been left upon the ground, where they were not found by the savages. One of these had both arms broken, the other was similarly disabled as to his legs. It was told that they managed to subsist by combining their limited resources. The man with sound legs drove game up within range of the other cripple’s gun, and as the turkeys or rabbits fell, he kicked them within reach of his hands, and in like manner provided him with sticks for their fire. This legend, much elaborated in the telling, gave me, I believe at about my eighth year, my first sense of a historic past, and it led to much in the way of fanciful invention of like tales.
Among those men who in their youth, and even their boyhood, had been in tussles with the savages in the wars with the Illinois Indians, was a certain ancient of the name of Harris, who kept a small hardware shop which, because of his stories, I much inhabited. His exploits, more or less true, were summed up in certain rules as to how to “manage an Injun,” which he used to exemplify, to my grinning delight, on my little body. Much as in the preparation for rabbit pie, you were first to catch your “Injun.” The clutch was well prescribed with preliminary dissertation on the folly of “ standing off and monkeying with him.” Then he was to be laid face to the ground; your knees were to be planted in the small of his back; with the left hand you were to seize his scalp-lock and pull up his head, and with the right holding the knife, taken from its sheath in your belt, you cut his throat. You were not to scalp him, as some uncultivated persons were wont to do, — Harris considered that to be bad form, “real Injun manners,” — but proceed smartly to the next. I have never had occasion to “manage an Injun,” but if such had come to me I am quite sure that I should instinctively have essayed the task in the manner presented by my veteran instructor.
I recall that several of these old fighters, who had worked at the theory of battle with their savage enemies, held to the notion that any white man could “lay down” in the manner above described any Indian he could manage to clutch. I have found the same notion among the frontiersmen of the Far West in later days. It seems likely that there is truth in it; for such men are in the position of teachers, the handers-on of traditions of life and death, and do not speak as boasters. May it not be that in the white man, as a part of the predominance of his more highly organized nervous system, there is a greater capacity for yielding in a few seconds a larger amount of energy for use in the muscles? It may be that it all depends upon the intensity of the more highly trained will of the white.
When I was ten years old, and began to be attentive to the deeds and stories of men, there was still the chance to see many who had taken part in the War of 1812-15. It was less remote than the Civil War is from our time. St. Clair’s defeat was only a little over half a century in the past, sundry fights with Indians were less remote, and just at hand were the tales from Mexico told by the returning troops, so that I breathed an air of combat, and of it moulded my day-dreams of valor.
The people with whom I first shaped my notions of life were, by their history and inevitably somewhat bloodthirsty. Their ancestors came, largely from folk who had fought in England and Scotland, to fight Indians in Virginia and North Carolina; then the British in the Revolution; then more Indians and more British in the Mississippi Valley. As they had never been at peace for a generation, their ideal was naturally the warrior and his battles. This led to the feeling that combat was the fittest occupation of a man.
Among the poor whites, the fighting in that day was commonly without the use of fire-arms and usually of a goodnatured brutality. At the county fairs, or the barbecues, a chap with the devil in him would throw up his cap and shout out that he was the best man on the ground. His nearest neighbor would dissent from that proposition; whereupon there would be a rough-and-tumble struggle even more unlimited in its conditions than a dog-fight. Sometimes the kinsmen or clansmen of the combatants would join in, but the ideal was that the two should be left to settle it in a ring of watching bystanders. To my father’s office the wounded in these battles were often brought for treatment, and as even in childhood I often acted as his helper, it sometimes fell to me when he was absent to do what I could to mend their hurts. This gave me a sense of what to do in the way of surgical aid which afterwards served me well. It also brought me near to human nature in the rough. Many of the incidents of this experience stay by me. Especially lasting are the memories showing the endurance and rude good-nature of these primitive men. At the moment, I recall a certain Sam McLaughlin, who was frequently brought for repairs; finally, he was lugged in on a shutter, with a knife-slash across his abdomen which effectively disemboweled him. My father being away, I was washing his protruding entrails, which fortu nately were not wounded, and returning them to the cavity, while he with his head propped up was scrutinizing the work. I said to him, “Sam, you ought to quit fighting — you ar’n’t good at it.” “My boy,” said he, “I am the best fighter in this here county, but I ain’t good at judging men.”
With the people of the better class, fist fights were not uncommon; they were looked upon as amusing though perhaps somewhat undignified. These fist fights left no rancor: they seemed to be mere modes of expression. I remember one between an old kinsman, a man over seventy years of age, and his steward of like age, both of them needing spectacles to see at all. The rounds were ended on one side or the other with the cry, “Stop, I’ve lost my spectacles! ” whereupon the man still provided with sight would help right neighborly to find and restore the glasses, and then they would battle again.
Serious matters between those who esteemed themselves gentlemen were supposed in all cases to be settled by the duel. For this social need much preparation was made in the way of training with arms and careful introduction into the laws and regulations of honor. My father, who thoroughly disbelieved in the business and privately ridiculed it, held, as I found, that it was inevitable that a man should accept a challenge in order to keep his station. He had me very carefully trained, saying that if you were a well-known expert with the pistol, rifle, and sword, ordinary decent behavior would keep you out of such trouble. I cannot remember when I began to shoot, but I recall when not more than seven years old, a weekly exercise of some hours, partly because the light rifle used by its recoil made my shoulder very sore. By the time I was fifteen I was an expert rifle-shot, including the varieties of “snap shooting” at bottles thrown in the air, flying birds, and the like. There were many who could beat me at the ancient tests of “candle-snuffing,” “nail-driving,” or other deliberate work, but I led in all such exercises when quickness was needed.
Fencing was not a common exercise among the youths of that time and place, but my father had me begin in Cincinnati with a fencing-master by the name of Scherer, a Frenchman, when I was about twelve years of age. Scherer, who claimed to be an exiled officer, but was most likely of the drill-master grade, was a great master; and, having much aptitude for the work, I was in five years reckoned very good in smalland broadsword, sword and dagger, and French cane exercises, and I became passionately fond of them. The master claimed that I was the best amateur rapier fencer in this country, and could hold my own with any one in France or Italy. I kept up this training assiduously until I went to Harvard; somewhat later indeed, until the Civil War completed my distaste for arms and all that related thereto.
To keep together the story of Scherer, a character who deserves record, because he was most noteworthy of his kind, I shall here tell more of my relations with him, which were in a way intimate until my eighteenth year and continued until the beginning of the Civil War. He was a small man of the most intense Gallic quality, the human equivalent of a gamecock even to his tread. His eager little soul had but one idea, that of combat, an idea which shone from his livid face which had a beautiful animal quality. All his talk was of fighting. His only treasures were half-a-dozen dueling swords with bloodstains on them, and of each he had the most precise traditions as to the place of entry, the nature of the stroke, and the result. These he showed to those only whom he esteemed as successful pupils; they were to him sacred relics not to be looked at by unworshipful eyes. He was, indeed, the most perfect man of a trade I have ever known, in that he was absolutely nothing else.
To Scherer’s salle d’armes came a good many well-bred lovers of fencing, including Milton Sayles, afterwards known as a politician and jurist, a young man of much quality and of a large nature. Among them there were some reprobates, including a dissolute Britisher with the preposterous appellation of Captain Mars, who was a good hand with the broadsword. It was the custom of the well-trained habitués of the place sometimes to fence with naked broadswords, marking the strokes, as the phrase is, not sending them home. One day, while I thus engaged with that son of Mars, he was attacked with a sudden visitation of mania and began a real assault on me. One of his strokes was effective enough to sting me so that it became a real duel, though my purpose was limited to disabling his sword-arm, which was not easy, because his madness made him insensible to the nips he received. Scherer, at the time in another room, quickly detected by the sound of the steel that there was business needing his attention, looked in quickly, grasped the situation, and with a leap pinioned the wight and flung him on the floor. As a bit of stout daring of a little man dealing with one twice his size, I have never seen the like.
While I was in Cambridge I saw Scherer only from time to time. When I returned home in vacation in the winter of 1860-61, I found him awaiting me with trouble upon him. It seemed that a rival had set up a competing school of fencing and had challenged him to a trial, which should include a contest between pupils selected and trained by each teacher. The contest was to take place in a hall or theatre in the part of Cincinnati known as “ over the Rhine.” Scherer insisted that I should be his pupil; this I at first refused to do, but his tearful woe and imprecations led me in the end to overcome my reluctance to take part in such performances. There was a throng of spectators; for some reason the contest had aroused attention. Scherer’s bout with his antagonist was only slightly to his advantage, for he was then about seventy years of age and no longer at his best.
When it came my turn, I found myself opposed by another six-footer, most elegantly clad in white buckskin jacket with an embroidered red heart covering the place where his own was supposed to lie. After the ancient, grand salute, we set about it. My plan was always to take the defensive and hold it with no returns until the quality of the antagonist was clear, his tactics evident, and his guard dropped — as it almost inevitably will drop, if there is no occasion to parry; then to take the offensive swiftly and with determination. I managed to protect myself for perhaps thirty passes, and had as I felt nearly used up my limit of retreat. I recall the white teeth of my vis-à-vis as he smiled in his amusement at a fencer who could only parry, however well he might do that part of his task.
At length, his guard was low enough and I “stopped true” on him, that is, lunged out the instant he did, for the embroidered heart. To my horror, the blade entered to the hilt, and the fellow fell forward and sideways to the floor, pulling the foil out of my hand as he came down, and lay as if dead. Happily, it turned out when his clothes were cut open that the button on the foil had not broken off, but bent sideways; it had then ripped through the leather, padding, and inner clothes, then torn the skin, and passed out beneath the arm. The hard blow had for the moment stopped the action of the heart. In a few moments the man was himself again. It is an ugly thing even in mere appearance to slay a fellow against whom you have no ill-will, so I had a very bad minute or so before the situation was evident; but the real horror of it was the demoniacal screech of joy and triumph from that old sinner Scherer as the wight went down. It had in it a bit of hell. I managed to get away without a word with him. From that day I have never held a foil or seen a fencing bout, except some of the preposterous things on the stage.
In 1865, after the Civil War was over. I met Scherer on the street. He had been an officer in a cavalry regiment, and the trials of service had brought him to the decrepitude of old age. To my greetings and inquiries as to his service, he said, “ O Shaler, that was a coup! — that was a coup! ” All that had happened since seemed to have passed from his crapulous mind. I could not bring him back to his deeds as a soldier; the triumph of his pupil pursued him altogether. He was a real master.
From my curiously elaborate training in arms I had certain advantages, in that it exempted me, as my father judged it would, from being put upon or bothered with challenges. I was but once thus troubled, and then most unreasonably. It happened that the person who supposed he was offended chose a sensible fellow for his second, who, as he explained to me, soon convinced his principal that he was playing the fool. On two occasions, before I was twenty years old, — boys took men’s parts in those days, — I served as second to friends, and in both instances easily adjusted the troubles without much parley.
The first occasion was when a silly cousin of mine, with too much wine in him, challenged a well-known duelist, James Jackson, who, as a general, fell at Perryville. Fortunately, I knew Jackson as well as a boy of eighteen may know a man of twice his years. I made my plea to him to give my kinsman an easy way out. At first he was obdurate, saying that he would have his life, — he had, indeed, reason to be vexed, — but in the end he told his second to “fix it up” with me. My good. I may say indeed affectionate relations with Jackson had begun a year before, in a like absurd business in a ball-room in Frankfort. I had accidentally stepped into the mess made on the floor by the breaking of a bottle of champagne, which he as manager was trying to have cleaned up. With a sharp word, he pushed me aside; my new-found manly dignity was offended; so therefore, as usual in such cases, I asked him for his card. His answer was, “I beg pardon, my dear sir, I took you for a boy.” We both saw the fun of the situation and became friends. He was one of the glories of this world; he lifted my sense of what it was to be a man — the ancient type of gentleman.
The other instance when I had to compose trouble between men was more serious. In 1859 I went with a party of young people to the Mammoth Cave. With me went Courtland Prentice, son of the once well-known George D. Prentice, editor of a Louisville paper, who, though some years my senior, was then my nearest friend. As the railway was not completed, we journeyed in stage-coaches privately hired. At a relay place a gentleman, a stranger to us all, mounted the stage and sat beside my friend, who was in an excited state and resented the intrusion in an improper manner. It quickly came to the point where he had to challenge the stranger, which he did on the spot. There being no one more fit, I had to serve Prentice as second. Fortunately, as the other principal knew no one in the throng at the Mammoth Cave, I had to help him to find a second, and so had a very reasonable person to deal with. The stranger, who turned out to be a well-known duelist from Mississippi, accepted the invitation to battle, choosing as weapons shotguns with buckshot at twenty paces distant — which meant certain death to a novice. But once again the difficulty was easily arranged; in fact, they were with rare exceptions mere fooling.
The only good side of the system was certain features of the code which required that the antagonists should not dispute with one another, and that as soon as there was a grievance it should be put into the hands of disinterested people; and the further theory that the seconds, with an arbiter if need were, should try to compose the matter, their decision being quite beyond appeal. One of the maxims — one often impressed on me by my grandfather and other elders — was that gentlemen sometimes fought, but they never quarreled in the manner of the vulgar. There was an interesting old fellow in my town who instructed the younger generation in the code. This Major H. had been an officer in the regular army, and was then crippled as to his right leg. He had received his wound because of his strict adherence to one of the many peculiar rules which determined the process of dueling. Being second to a man who did not promptly meet his engagement, he took his principal’s place at the appointed moment, and the bullet lamed him for life. This, to our modern sense, is something at once for laughter and for tears, but in that vanished time it was otherwise. The incident dignified the man, and made him an authority in an important side of life.
I am glad to say that, even as a youth, the absurdity of the duel was plain enough to my mind; but it was an institution like slavery: when born in it, whatever your views of the matter, it is not easy to get out without being disclassed.
The religious people of Kentucky, there, as elsewhere among our folk, the controlling element, shaped laws to make an end of dueling. All who took part in such affairs were disfranchised, unable to hold office, and liable to punishment, as if they were engaged in a conspiracy to commit murder. The result of this drastic legislation was to make an end of dueling and to bring in its place the more serious evil of “street fights,” which were far more brutal than the ancient practice of regulated battles, when the friends of the disputants could almost always avoid serious results. In the time of my youth I recall but two deaths in duels; but since that custom was abolished more than thirty of my kindred and friends have been slain in these brutal encounters. It is all miserable business, but as a choice of evils, so long as men are bloodthirsty animals, the duel was the least.