The Banjo String
‘YESSUH,’ said Captain Bob Pennybacker, ‘at the time this little skirmish was fought, it rated more newspaper space than Gettysburg. Believe it or not, right here was the end of the most darin’ invasion ever attempted in North America.’
Captain Bob and I had known each other scarcely five minutes. From different directions we had come to Portland, Ohio, to look at the new monument commemorating the Battle of Buffington’s Island, and had begun to talk, as strangers will at such times, about the battle. The captain was a very aged man, — past ninety, — but he was a spry, hearty old fellow, and had made a long automobile trip to get there. When he mentioned that he believed himself to be the only surviving member of Morgan’s Raiders, and perhaps the only man still living who had taken part in the Battle of Buffington’s Island, I gave him my undivided journalistic attention.
‘This is news,’ thought I to myself. ‘Why, it ’s nearly seventy years since this battle was fought — the whole allotted span of life. What a yarn this would be for Harry Gill and the News!’
‘Yessuh,’ the captain went on, ‘the place looks about like it did then, except for the lock and the dam. It ain’t changed much that I can see. It was early mornin’, you know. We was asleep over there by the schoolhouse. Judah come up that road, and Hobson this. There was a whoop and a volley. We knowed then that hell had busted for sure, and started to run. And just then, when I needed it the most, I found that the banjo string was gone.’
‘That,’ I remarked, ‘sounds like a story.’
‘Does it?’ the captain replied. ‘Well, I won’t be surprised if it is. I ain’t got nothin’ to do till the boy gets back. You ain’t neither? All right; listen.’
In the spring of ’63 (said Captain Bob), the armies in Tennessee set there on the Duck River for months and months just lookin’ at each other. It got so the front-line pickets would stop on their rounds and talk to each other. You’d likely hear a Confederate holler across the river and say, ‘Well, Yank, how’s the rats over there? Are they nice and fat like they ought to be?’ And the Yank maybe would reply, ‘They ain’t done so well lately, Reb, but from all I can hear, business is apt to pick up in a year or two.’ Then they’d both laugh, and go on about their business. It begun to look like the war would end in a general handshakin’.
I was only twenty-one then, but I had the bars of a captain on my shoulder straps — a captain in a brigade that before we set down to play tiddledywinks on the Duck River was noted for bein’ the hardest-ridin’, most hellfor-leather cavalry outfit in the world. And that ain’t rhetoric, mistuh. The men you hear about these days are Lee and Grant, and Johnston and Sherman, and suchlike, but in 1863 the one Southern general that sent chills up and down the spines of every blasted Yankee from here to Portland, Maine, was nobody but Morgan. Ask the old-timers. When Lee invaded Pennsylvania that was a matter of military strategy, but when Morgan crossed the Ohio it was God save our souls and the Devil take the hindmost. Yessuh.
Morgan was in his thirty-eighth year then. I can see him yet, spick-andspan in his new gray uniform, with his long hair hangin’ over his shoulders and a little feather stuck in his cavalry hat. Most people think of Morgan as he was on his raids, when dirt and dust and sweat was part of the day’s work, but behind the lines he was your finest example of the dashin’ stage soldier. He even used perfume on his hair, and the women he had — well, the less said of Morgan’s women, the better.
Morgan was a man that could make fun of you to your face and make you like it. I remember when he promoted me to captain — a striplin’ of twenty I was then — he said: ‘Pennybacker, from now on you’re captain of Troop C. Don’t fall off a horse and break your neck this summer, Captain. If things keep on this way, I may have to make you a general.’
That was Morgan for you! Rough, and sharp-tongued as an old woman. Yet his men knowed his bark was worse than his bite. They’d follow him to hell and back again, and I guess some of ’em did.
All those months while we set there twiddlin’ our thumbs on the Duck River, Morgan was tryin’ to put over a project with the commandin’ general. That was Bragg. It was noised around that Lee was gettin’ ready to invade Pennsylvania. Everybody knowed that. The Yanks knowed it; every farmer, housewife, and private soldier in the South knowed it. What Morgan wanted was an army of his own.
‘Give me ten thousand horses and men,’ he told Bragg, ‘and I ’ll cut a swath from here to Harrisburg, right through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio.’
To understand what that meant you got to know your geography. From the Duck River to Louisville on the Ohio was three hundred miles. From Louisville to Harrisburg over the windin’ roads was at least twelve hundred more. All Morgan asked was to advance fifteen hundred miles through the enemy’s territory. He was goin’ to do it, you understand, in spite of the Union Army in Tennessee and Kentucky, the organized militia of four states, his own ignorance of the country, and all the gunboats in the Ohio Valley!
Bragg said he was crazy, and I don’t know but what he was. Bragg would n’t give him the horses or the men he asked for. Instead, Bragg said, ‘General, here’s your old brigade of two thousand men. We don’t want Judah’s cavalry around here when the big push starts, so run up to Louisville, like a good boy, and get him out of the way. And remember, General, whatever you do, don’t stick your head out of Kentucky.’
So that was that.
Morgan kept his mouth shut for the time bein’, though his actions showed the rest of us plain enough what he thought of Bragg. After that order come through to strike north for Louisville, I know for a fact that he never slept night or day for a week. He sent out orders so fast that forty brigades could n’t keep up with ’em. We had to polish all the equipment, and shoe the horses, and clean the guns; and when that was finished, we had to do it all over again. When he was n’t prowlin’ around at night, tryin to catch somebody off guard, he’d amuse himself firin’ off pistols in his tent. Yessuh. You could hear him all night long firin’ his pistols, and when you went there you never knowed but what he’d stick a bullet in you. At other times he would n’t say a word to nobody, just sit silent for hours outside his tent, starin’ off at the sky line. Then, finally, when every horse was properly shod, and every piece of equipment shinin’ like an Indian, and every soldier on the place rarin’ to go, it was the first of July and Morgan said this is the night we dash north to Louisville.
I often think afterward, though it don’t mean much at the time, how queer it was that the very day we ’re to leave I got a letter from my mammy over in the hills of North Carolina. It was just a short letter, wrote in pencil on a piece of packin’ paper, and it read, ‘Bob, your Grandpappy has broke the A string on his banjo. He can’t find none at the stores here. You know how Grandpappy likes to play the banjo, so the first chance you get, send him a string. Be sure it ’s an A string, for that ’s the one that’s broke.’
Now you may think a little thing like that don’t amount to much in the face of a campaign, but that’s when little things often mean the most. I was a poor boy when I joined the army as a private. I ’d been away two years without seein’ my folks. That banjo string made me homesick. It brought back memories of the hill farm where I spent my boyhood, of the cabin with the honeysuckle in the yard, of such things as new hay and fresh eggs and creamy milk, and, most of all, of Grandpappy sittin’ in front of the fire with his banjo. All my life I ’d listened to that banjo. It had a place in my life I can’t hardly explain, for music, you know, is like God and religion, and life and death. It ’s the thing that makes the day’s work a little less hard, the year’s sufferin’ a little less painful, God Himself a little less remote.
Here, have a cigar.
That afternoon I went up and down the line of tents one way, and sent my orderly, Tom Barnes, the other, huntin’ for that string. We tried every commissary and canteen in the district, and every banjo player we could hear of, but we could n’t find an A string that was loose nowheres. So, towards night, the last thing before we struck out on the long trail to Louisville, I set down and wrote my mammy that I could n’t send the string then, but I would as soon as I got one.
You been a soldier yourself? In the last war? I thought so. Well, styles of fightin’ change. I don’t know how it is with you, but I always think they took the fun out of soldierin’ when they broke up the cavalry. I remember that last night on the Duck River like it was yesterday. I can see the long ranks drawn up in formation — the horses sniffin’ excitement and prancin’ in the lines, the men stiff and tense in their saddles. And out in front was Morgan, ridin’ up and down, up and down, with the feather in his hat showin’ against the sky.
Then, all of a sudden, the ranks broke and wheeled. We was off with no other sound at first than the patter of the horseshoes on the dirt road. The word come down the line to ‘cross the river at Ford Nineteen, and then ride like hell for Kentucky’ — and that’s what we done.
The Duck River is in rollin’ country, and the Yankees had outposts on all the hills. We could hear ’em as we splashed through the river, shoutin’ the warnin’ from hill to hill that Rebs was breakin’ through; and a little later we heard the splash of Judah’s cavalry beneath us. The next mornin’ in Kentucky, there he was at Marrowbone ready to greet us.
That brush with Judah’s men at Marrowbone, I may say, went off exactly like Morgan figured it would. The poor Yankee horsemen, you see, had been up all night, and had to rest. So Morgan called in all his commissioned officers, and said, ‘You see them Yankee bluecoats in the road yonder? Well, I call you in here for a purpose. I want to see what county they’ll be in two hours from now.’
As it turned out, they was in the next county. We followed ’em till we got tired and quit. Then we stripped such prisoners as we had of their shirts and shoes, shootin’ a few for good measure, took the horses we needed in place of them that was killed, and called the roll for the next dash to the Green River.
After this little skirmish at Marrowbone we was still close to the Duck River and the army in Tennessee, so Morgan halted to send back dispatches. That’s when I found the banjo string.
I don’t know what to say about that except it was unexpected and unusual, and yet the most natural thing in the world. Yessuh, in spite of everything, it was perfectly natural. It come about this way.
The place where we stopped to rest and write the dispatches was a little valley with a patch of woods on one side of the road. Tom Barnes — that’s my orderly — and me lay down at the foot of a tree to catch a few winks, for we’d been in the saddle all night and day. But I never got to sleep. There’d been fightin’ along that road a little while before. I could hear somebody cryin’ back there in the woods. He’d cry awhile, then he’d groan, and then he’d pray.
There was n’t nothin’ specially remarkable in that, — not in 1863, — but somethin’ in his voice sounded familiar. It was n’t so much what he said as the way he said it. I got to listenin’, and pretty soon it come to me what it was. I said to myself, ‘That ain’t a white man. That’s a nigger, and if I ’m any judge of voices, he’s got North Carolina wrote all over him.’
Now we was n’t fightin’ any niggers that I know of, but just the same,when I went back there and found him, he was black as the ace of spades. I said to him, ‘What’s the matter, nigger? ’ — and he said, ‘I’se knifed, massa, an’ de Lawd’s a-comin’ for me.’
One look showed he was right about that. He had a bayonet stickin’ right through his middle. I asked how it happened, but he never answered. He must’ve knowed it was all over, for he quit prayin’, and groanin’, and cryin’, and just looked at me with pain in his eyes, like a dumb animal. He grabbed my hand and hung on to it, like people will when they’re dyin’, and I sat there maybe fifteen minutes — maybe half an hour — without sayin’ a word till he died.
Now, suh, it ’s funny about that nigger. There I was in enemy country, with white men dyin’ all around me, and liable to be killed any minute myself. And a dead nigger was just another dead nigger — specially a nigger I never seen before, and did n’t even know how he got there. But somehow or other he was on my mind. I remember I thought to myself, ‘Maybe he belongs to somebody that don’t know what’s happened to him. Maybe he’ll lie out here in these woods and rot before anybody finds him. Maybe I ought to take him down to the road, so he’ll have an even chance of bein’ buried.’
I mention these things to show you how natural it was. He had on blue cotton overalls and a jacket, and I thought maybe he’d have somethin’ on him to show who he was. I went through his pockets, and found three copper cents and some sixpenny nails. No papers, nothin’ at all to identify him. Then I noticed I ’d missed the watch pocket of his overalls. That’s a crooked pocket. I stuck in my forefinger like a hook — and pulled out a brand-new A string for a banjo.
I thought afterward there was somethin’ more than coincidence back of that, but not then. All I thought then was how lucky it was for Grandpappy. It could n’t have worked out better if I ’d planned it all from the beginnin’. So I dragged the nigger by his feet down to the roadway, put the banjo string in an envelope addressed to my mammy, and handed it to Morgan’s dispatch rider, to mail in Tennessee. Five minutes later the rider was headed south, while the rest of us was ridin’ hell-bent for the Green River.
Somehow when I think of the Green River and Kentucky, the most of what I think of is Morgan. There was so few of us, you see, that pretty near all the time on the road and in the rest camps he was in sight and hearin’. I remember that after the long rest on the Duck River Morgan was bubblin’ over with energy and the joy of livin’. He had a mockin’ light in his eyes and pride in his smile. You would see him at the head of his column, with his cavalry cloak flyin’ in the wind and his big gray hat cocked on the side of his head, and somehow you felt that here was a man worth followin’ and fightin’ for.
He made you feel that you did n’t need the things that other armies carried with ’em. You did n’t need doctors and hospitals and nurses because Morgan’s men rode their horses as long as they could, and when they could n’t they rolled off and died. You did n’t need rations, or horse feed, or reënforcements, or even siege guns, for four little cannon carried on horseback was all our artillery for the capture of Louisville.
Impossible, you say? Listen, mistuh, you forget Morgan. In them days the very name of Morgan was worth half an army. It was a name spoken of along with Hell, and the Devil and his angels, for Morgan was like the Scourge of God, the one that they said where his horse trod the grass never grew. Yes, suh. If Morgan had wanted to, Louisville would’ve come down.
We fought five battles in eight days, and at Tebb’s Bridge alone we lost ninety men killed. We outrun Judah’s three cavalry brigades for three hundred miles. We thrashed the militia right and left, burned ammunition and supply trains, impressed enlistments and shot them that would n’t, took what we wanted wherever we found it, and in general put the fear of God and the Southern republic into the people of Kentucky.
It took iron men to stand it. Day after day and night after night we spent fourteen, sixteen, eighteen hours in the saddle. We slept, when we did sleep, with our heads pillowed on our horses’ sides, and woke with our knives clutched in one hand and our muskets in the other.
It was late at night when we got close to Louisville. We slept in some woods. The next mornin’ we could see what was happenin’ in the city. The militia and the Home Guards was mountin’ the fortifications, but the river in back was filled with ferryboats transportin’ the citizens to the other side. It was plain they was plumb scared to death. There was gunboats steamin’ up the river and down, and every now and then they’d fire a broadside just to show us they was warlike.
Morgan laughed at that till he almost fell off his horse. He said, ‘Do you know how many men can take that place? Ten men and a boy. I guess I ’ll send a company over to try it.’
We thought that was a bluff, and it was, but we did n’t know then why he was bluffin’. He did n’t send ten men and a boy, though. He sent a hundred and thirty, and they had orders just to scare the garrison. Then, with the rest of us, he tore down the river to Brandenburg, where two steamboats manned by Confederate soldiers was tied up at the dock.
We seen Morgan fling himself off his horse, and walk along the bank. He was all smiles as he studied the Indiana shore through his field glasses. Then he come back to one of his colonels and said, ‘There ain’t nothin’ but a handful of militia over there, Duke. Start ’em over.’
Somebody said, ‘ What ’re you goin’ to do, General? Take Cincinnati?’ And Morgan said, ‘Hell, no. I ain’t goin’ to take Cincinnati. I ’m goin’ to take Harrisburg.’
Yessuh, that’s what he said. With one little brigade he was goin’ to march twelve hundred miles through the enemy’s country to Harrisburg. You say you know he was crazy? You ’re right, but if you remember your geography, this little monument is nine hundred miles from the Duck River in Tennessee. He belonged to that crazy breed of Pizarro, and Cortez, and William Walker, and maybe Alexander and Napoleon. He had dreams of conquest, and when he started to ferry his troops to Indiana he looked it.
Now, suh, right then was when I seen the dispatch rider. I mean the one I give the banjo string to at Marrowbone. He ought n’t to be in Brandenburg at all, so far as I could see, so I walked up to him and said, ‘Well, brothah, how about the banjo string? Did you mail it?’
He said, ‘No, I did n’t have no luck. I never got there. The Yanks almost picked me up outside of Marrowbone, but I caught up with the Brigade at Tebb’s Bridge. Here’s your letter.’
I put the letter in my left breast pocket. We was busy just then because some Indiana militia on the other side had set up a cannon and was beginnin’ to fire both the cannon and muskets across the river. To deal with their cannon Morgan was layin’ out his four pieces of artillery. I started to move in Morgan’s direction just as Tom Barnes, my orderly, come up beside me. And just then I felt somethin’ snap in the front of my blouse and a sharp little stab of pain in my left side.
I said, ‘Tom, I guess I picked up a Minié ball.’ Tom reached inside my shirt to locate the blood, but he did n’t find none. Nothin’ there but a red spot that was goin’ to be blue over the heart. He felt of the breast pocket, and pulled out the banjo string. The string had been shot in two.
‘Too bad,’ I said. ‘Grandpappy’s lost a banjo string.’
I started to toss it away, but Tom caught my arm. ‘Don’t do that,’ he said. ‘That string’s still long enough for a banjo. Just one end was shot off.
Anyhow, it ’s your luck string. It saved your life. Keep it.’
So I kept it. I put it back in my breast pocket and left it there till we got here to Buffington’s Island. I got so I believed it was a luck piece too, and I do yet. All the way across Indiana and Ohio, when misfortune followed misfortune, I kept that banjo string next to my heart, and as long as I kept it there, there was hope.
That was an excitin’ day at Brandenburg. Morgan silenced the Indiana cannon the first round. Then he sent over two steamboat loads of men without their horses, and what they done to the remainin’ militiamen was a plenty. To serve as a warnin’ in the future, they strung some of ’em on grapevines, and draped them from convenient trees near the highway. Afterwards we all had a set-to with a Federal gunboat, but late that afternoon our little army — swelled to about twenty-five hundred men by Kentucky enlistments — was in Indiana.
Well, suh, I don’t know what kind of a country Indiana is now, but in ’63 it was fine. Maybe you know how it was in the South then — the fields lyin’ idle, the stores empty, the spirit of the people beginnin’ to break. But Indiana was different. Why, you’d never know they was havin’ a war in Indiana. The fields was ploughed and tended, the barns loaded with hay and grain, the whole country filled with peace and plenty. We got things to eat in Indiana that we had n’t tasted for months, like fried chicken and blackberry pie, and the stores was full of things you could n’t buy in the South for love or money.
Morgan got rich in Indiana. That’s a thing most people don’t know about. The very day we crossed the river he said to me, ‘I got news that the banks along the river are sendin’ deposits to Chicago by messenger. It seems like they was n’t expectin’ us, and the trains are tied up. Now here’s a guide to take you up above Salem to-night — you and your men. Stop everybody that comes along, and look at their saddlebags. But don’t take nothin’ but money. Understand?’
I said, ‘Yessuh,’ and went to work. I remember I kept thinkin’ of my luck piece that night, and, whether it helped or not, we made a real haul. We got over $90,000 in gold, currency, and greenbacks. I never knowed there was so much money in the world. I turned it all over to Morgan, and he said, ‘Pennybacker, I '1l remember you. One of these days I ’ll make you a general.’
That’s the way he was in them days — tall, straight, proud, and dignified. It seemed like he growed up a little in Indiana. There was still the same eager look in his eyes and the same mockin’ smile on his lips, but he seemed older, like a man with heavy responsibilities. From the day we crossed the Ohio he was Kingfish of the countryside and master of Indiana.
Yessuh, them first days in Indiana was fine. We had fine things to eat, and all kinds of goods out of the stores we looted, and it seemed like the Indiana women was right glad to have us, for they baked cakes and pies, and put ’em out where we could find ’em. There was n’t even no bushwhackers around, for all the men had gone north to join the militia.
Maybe we’d a stayed in Indiana for some time gettin’ fat and lazy if it was n’t for that newspaper Morgan picked up in Corydon. It don’t hardly seem possible now, but this was a week after Gettysburg, and none of us knowed it. We’d been cut off that long from the rest of the army. That newspaper showed Morgan that these rumors about Lee in Pennsylvania was right. It made him mad as a wet hen.
‘Do you know what that jackass Lee has gone and done?’ he said. ‘The old fool is givin’ up the campaign. That’s what he’s doin’. He’s fallin’ back to Virginia.’
Now, suh, that was sure bad news for us. If Lee got back to Virginia before we got to Pennsylvania, we’d have to fight through the whole Yankee army of the Potomac to reach him. We was still over a thousand miles from Harrisburg, and the people of Indiana was n’t joinin’ up with us like we thought they would. As a matter of fact, we learned from that same paper that the Governor of Indiana was sendin’ sixty thousand more men against us.
You’ll say that the sensible thing then was to pull up stakes and get back to Kentucky while the gettin’ was good. There ain’t no doubt about that, but if you notice it, this campaign was n’t based much on sober judgment. It was one of them unsensible things that almost succeed anyhow, and when they do they are miracles.
Takin’ to cover was n’t the kind of fightin’ Morgan was used to. He said, ‘Men, we got to get to Pennsylvania and pull that old blockhead out of a hole. He ought to see then what an army can do when it gets the lead out of its tail.’
So, instead of hustlin’ back to Brandenburg and makin’ tracks for the Duck River in Tennessee, we hoisted the war flag and marched eastward.
You was n’t in the cavalry, of course. You don’t know what it means to sit on a horse twenty-two hours out of twenty-four. What it takes to face a hundred thousand militiamen, three brigades of Federal cavalry, — Judah again, — and so many bushwhackers that God Himself could n’t stop to count them. Them was the days when we done what we did n’t think human bein’s could, for we slept on our horses six nights in succession. Compared to Ohio, Kentucky was baby play. We used up our last ounce of energy, and wore ourselves down to skin and bones. But it was Ohio that finally broke us.
Give me a match.
One thing about Ohio that we could n’t believe was the number of able-bodied men that joined the militia. The South had already called up its reserves, and, till we run into these new armies, we supposed it was the same way in the North. But the Governor of Ohio raised fifty-five thousand new volunteers in one day. They gathered at Hamilton while we was still in Indiana, and sent Morgan word not to cross the state line.
You know what Morgan done about that? The first thing he done was to burn all the bridges behind him so he could n’t retreat, and he moved on Hamilton. He gathered up all the horses in the district, shot the live stock, burned the crops, and then, when the militia was ready to crush him, he run off and left ’em. He struck south to Cincinnati so fast that people actually drowned themselves in the river tryin’ to swim to Kentucky. He passed through the outskirts of Cincinnati, looted some stores, blew up some more bridges, and dashed north and east on the highway to Columbus. From then on it was less a campaign than a foot race. Morgan was on his way to Pennsylvania.
We was at Piketon, Ohio, when the news come that Lee had retreated out of Pennsylvania. That was a real piece of hard luck. We’d come so far then it was too late to turn back, and, with Lee out of Pennsylvania, it was useless to go on. I wish you could’ve heard Morgan swear at Lee. He said, among other things, that Lee as a, general would make a good horse doctor, and that he really had less sense than that other half-wit, Jefferson Davis.
He took out his maps. ‘What we have to do,’ he said, ‘is get out of Ohio in a hurry. There’s too many soldiers here, and too many bushwhackers. If Lee’d done what he ought to, it would n’t be so bad, but now we got to fight all the bloomin’ Yankees in the North. Here’s a ford across the Ohio at Buffington’s Island. West Virginia’s mountain country. If we cross there, we can keep to the hills and catch up with Lee in the Valley of Virginia.’
It was still five hundred miles across the Allegheny Mountains to the Valley of Virginia, but when you come right down to it, there was n’t much else he could do. He’d disobeyed Bragg’s orders, and could n’t go back to Tennessee nohow; and it was n’t no use goin’ on to Pennsylvania; and with the cavalry and militia pressin’ him from behind, he could n’t sit down and wait. So he put away his maps and set the course to Buffington’s Island.
It was after we left Piketon that I come to have faith in the A string, and, believe me, faith in somethin’ was necessary. It started to rain. Not occasional summer showers, mind you, but a steady drizzlin’ downpour that lasted for days and bogged the roads with mud. Besides the weather, we had to contend with a plague of the orn’riest bushwhackers we ever run into. They was worse than forty armies. Always poppin’ away at us from the underbrush, every day cuttin’ us down little by little. Firin’ back at ’em wasted our ammunition, so that when we got here to Buffington’s Island, in addition to everything else, we was short of cartridges.
But all the way across Ohio I wore that banjo string over my heart, and I never got a scratch. No, suh, not even a close call. I seen men shot down all around me. I seen ’em fall off their horses from exhaustion and get themselves crushed by the hoofs of other horses behind ’em, but I done my twenty-two hours a day in safety, and got here feelin’ as well as a man could expect to under the circumstances.
We stopped to rest, as I say, over by that schoolhouse. The river was flooded and it was late, but we figured Judah and the cavalry was a hundred miles back. We did n’t know about him helpin’ himself upriver with the gunboats. I remember Tom Barnes and me lay down side by side. I took off my shoes — the first time in ten days — and Tom took off his shoes. We placed ’em on the ground beside us. I was already half asleep, I guess, for I remember takin’ the banjo string out of my pocket, lookin’ at it, and then droppin’ it in one of the shoes.
The next thing I knowed it was daylight. We’d slept there in the mud all night. I was cold and cramped, but for a while I did n’t move at all. I just lay there on my back lookin’ off to the east where the fog was raisin’. I seen some of the other soldiers beginnin’ to stir, and rolled over to wake Tom. That’s when it happened.
There was n’t a guard on duty nowheres. They was all sound asleep. Judah’s men had come up to the shelter of that knoll there durin’ the night. Hobson, with a detachment we did n’t know about before, come to about here. While I lay there lookin’ at the sky they was crouched ready to charge. When they come it was yellin’ and shootin’, and there we was stretched out on our backs, and part of us not even dressed.
You see what the monument says — seven hundred Confederate prisoners. That tells part of the story. The rest of it is about them that got away. There was about a thousand of us, I guess, that put on our clothes as we ran, and took to flight in our shirttails. I remember stickin’ my feet in my shoes, and jumpin’ on the horse without tightenin’ the saddle girth. The saddle slipped, and I come down on my head. I thought, ‘Where’s the A string?’ It was n’t in my shoes. Not havin’ time to hunt for it then, I yanked up the girth and started up the valley without it. The first thing I knowed, there we was, — what was left of us, — ridin’ hell-bent for Long Bottom with Morgan himself leadin’ the pack.
We stopped at Long Bottom, because the Yankees was busy herdin’ the prisoners here. The river there was brown and muddy, and runnin’ saw logs at the flood crest. Morgan took one look at it and said, ‘Men, flood or no flood, we got to swim it,’ and he proceeded then and there to do it. He divided the survivors into four companies, and led the first company into the water himself. I was in that company too, and I remember the feather on Morgan’s hat was a little drooped as he rode his horse into the river.
My horse got scared, and throwed me out of the saddle. When I finally got him quieted, I seen a picture of the river ahead that’s stayed with me all these years. It was a picture of swirlin’ brown waters carryin’ brush and saw logs, of white foam and bubbles and eddies, and whirlpools. And straight out ahead of me was a line of black dots on the surface of the water — always two dots together — that was the heads of horses and men.
You’ve seen the Ohio at flood time when the river rages and swells and a man on its surface looks as puny and helpless as a skipper bug. What I wonder most about now is how any of us ever got through. I remember watchin’ the dots ahead as they neared the swell of the brush and the saw logs. I seen two big logs push a man off his horse, and I had a glimpse of the man’s white face turned up to heaven before he sunk out of sight. Then I was there in the midst of it myself, fightin’ for life in a whirlpool of white foam and crashin’ timbers weighin’ hundreds of tons.
I thought to myself, ‘I lost the A string, and I ’ll never make it,’ but I kept tryin’ just the same. That’s when I first realized the value of brains in a battle against the forces of nature. The big logs was destructive, but they was blind, and the river that carried ’em was blind too. I could meet ’em in a certain way, and push ’em off me with my hand. They was dangerous only when they come in pairs, or in threes or fours, and I found I could miss those by divin’. I made the horse dive too, but that drowned him. I felt the bridle pullin’ me down, and let him go. When I come up there was another horse without a rider splashin’ at my side, and I took charge of him.
I suppose it was n’t really so long, but it seemed like I was there for hours. I remember all of a sudden I come out of the brush and the logs to a place where the water was calmer. There was still a line of dots ahead of me, but fewer than before. In the distance I could see a green shore line that I knowed was West Virginia. And just then a face come out of the water at my side, a face that was death-white under the mud streaks.
I looked at it and stretched out my hand. It was the face of my orderly, Tom Barnes.
I grabbed him by the hair, and hung on to the pommel of my saddle with the other hand. I thought he was n’t dead yet; if I got him to shore I might revive him. I kept his head out of the water while the horse pulled us on to the bank. The first man I saw when we got there was Morgan, but his hat with the feather was gone.
Tom was dead. I found that out first thing, and left him. Morgan was walkin’ up and down the shore. As I come up to him, I noticed that he looked old and tired. His shoulders was drooped, and the old mockin’ smile was gone. There was a cannon shot just then down the river. Morgan stopped to listen. I saw his jaw shoot out with some of his old fire and determination.
He turned to me and said, ‘Pennybacker, those are gunboats. The others can’t make it. You’re the rankin’ officer here, so take these men and disappear in the hills.’
I said, ‘What’re you goin’ to do, General? Ain’t you comin’ with us?’
He said, ‘No. My men on the other side need me most. I ’m goin’ back.’
Then he held out a hand that was white from exposure in the water, said, ‘Good luck,’ and turned to the river to swim back again to Ohio. We had to cheer him, suh. Whatever else you say of Morgan, he was a soldier and a man. Nothin’ but death could stop him. We heard later he got across, too — swum the Ohio twice at flood time, and the second time he swum it alone. He went on toward Pennsylvania two hundred miles more till they finally got him, and put him in the penitentiary at Columbus. You know the rest of that. They never built the penitentiary that’d hold Morgan. He escaped back to Tennessee, raised a new brigade, and was finally shot and killed at Greenville in 1864.
We was safer in West Virginia than in Ohio, for the pursuit followed Morgan’s main band. I buried poor Tom there on the bank of the river with my own hands. Before I dropped him in his grave I said a little service, and I took off his shoes, because shoes was a thing we did n’t bury with no man. It was what I found in one of them shoes that made me cry, suh. Pressed down in the toe of his left shoe — the shoe that was next to mine at Portland the night before — was the A string.
Yessuh. I never got over that. All the way up that valley with the Yankees shootin’ up the turf behind us, and across that ragin’ river, old Tom carried the A string.
We got away, suh. Averell’s men chased us all the way across West Virginia, but we outran ’em. We reached the Kanawha, struck south through the mountains, and then we broke up and went home.
It was a proud day for me, suh, when I rode up the old trail to my mammy’s cabin. I was a boy when I went away, but when I come back I was a man. I could see the hills idle and wasted with the blight of the war, but the sun shone just as bright as it did before, and the birds sung just as sweet. When I got to the last bend in the road, there was the cabin with the honeysuckle around it, and old Grandpappy himself at the gate.
I had the A string in my hand. Grandpappy unrolled it without sayin’ a word, flicked it with his finger nail, and went back in the house. When my mammy come out to me there was music in the air, for Grandpappy was playin’ the old tunes that seemed somehow to wipe out the bitterness.