Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Part 6

Flag of Truce
by R.M. Peck
National Tribune, 25 August, 1904
pg. 8, cols. 1-4

A large extent of the timbered bottoms between Gibson and the Arkansas River, a distance of two miles, at that time, was a dense canebrake. I took a party of my “skinners” down there with a team daily for some time after the raid, and cut and hauled to my mule’s loads of the young cane, which, being tender and green, made very good feed; but it was a big undertaking to feed 150 or more mules in this way.

While procuring cane in the bottoms we frequently had to pass by a picket post of our men, who were stationed on the bank of the Arkansas, at the mouth of Grand River. This picket was composed of men from the 6th Kansas Cavalry, some companies of which regiment had recently joined us again. Profiting by the costly experience of putting ignorant Indians or half-breed Corporals in command of important positions, Colonel Phillips now had our important picket posts commanded by commissioned officers.

On the opposite side of the Arkansas was a picket station of the rebels, and it was amusing to listen to the interchange of civilities between the two parties. As mentioned before, shortly previous to the recent raid on our herds the rebels had intercepted and captured a lot of mail matter for our command while en route from Fort Scott. When the men of these opposing pickets on the river bank got tired of shooting at each other- each safely ensconced behind a tree- some fellow would occasionally hoist a white rag and propose a cessation of hostilities till all hands would go down to the edge of the water to fill up their canteens, and hang them in the shade of the trees to cool off for drinking.

This was mutually agreeable all round, and the truce would be strictly observed until notice was given by one or the other party for the renewal of target practice, when each would scamper to his tree, pick up his gun- which had been laid aside when the white flag was raised- and try his best to kill the fellow on the other side, whom he had probably just been chatting in the most amicable manner. But as the cover was good and the distance long for shooting it was seldom that any one was hit on either side.

One day, while in the vicinity of this picket, cutting cane with a party of my “skinners,” as the weather was very warm and we were quite thirsty, I took one man with me and all the canteens we had, went to our picket post and requested the officer in charge, who happened to be Lieutenant Walker of the 6th Kansas Cavalry, to hoist his flag of truce and ask the rebs on the other side to let us get some water.

He readily agreed to do so, as he said the soldiers were getting dry themselves, and taking out a white handkerchief he fastened it onto a piece of cane that they seemed to keep for that purpose, and waving it before him he walked out on the bank of the river. An answering flag soon appeared on the other side, and Walker called out at the top of his voice:

“Hello! Johnny! We’re getting mighty dry! Ain’t you?”

“Yes! We’d like to fill our canteens!” came the answer back, each shouting at the top of his voice, so as to be heard.

“All right!” shouted our man. “Stack your arms and stick up your flag on the bank, and we’ll do the same! Then we’ll come down to the edge of the water and take a drink with you!”

Each party stuck up its little white flag on the bank, put away their arms, and walked down to the water. As there was quite a shelving bar of sand from the bank out to the water, on each side, when we reached the water it brought the two parties close enough together to easily hold conversation in a moderate tone. After filing our canteens and wetting the covers in the water to facilitate the cooling we sat there “joshing” and chaffing each other good-naturedly. One of the rebs called over to Lieutenant Walker.

“When you mentioned bein’ dry, I was just thinkin’ of that immortal historical remark of the Governor of North Car’lina to the Governor of South Car’lina to the effect that ‘It’s a d----d long time between drinks.’ But this river water is a horrible poor imitation of drinkin’ material. Ain’t you Yanks got somethin’ better- some good ol’ commissary whisky, for instance- that you could pass us over a canteen full to drink to your everlastin’ confusion an’ damnation?”

“Well, no,” replied Walker, “we just don’t happen to have any with us; and I don’t know how we’d get it to you if we had. We’ve got some stuff up to town that we captured from some of your sort up in Arkansas, that’s warranted to kill at 100 yards, off-hand. If we could make that up into cartridges and shoot it into you we’d do it with pleasure. But as we can’t accommodate you that way, I’ll tell you what I’ll do- it’s the next best thing- when I get back to camp I’ll take a drink of good old commissary, looking over your way, and say, “Here’s to Jeff. Davis and the Southern Confederacy, G-d D—n them both!”

The rebs rather had the joke on our men on account of having captured both our mail and herds recently, while we had gained nothing off them to crow over for some time. I was amused at one rebel- evidently a Missouri “Puke,” or Arkansas “Haw-eater,” who whined out:

“Say, Yanks, what’s we-ens done to you-ens that you-ens is all the time shooting at we-ens?”

This provoked a big laugh from our fellows, one of whom called out:

“”I’ll bet that’s a confounded “Haw-eater!”

Then from a rebel: “Yanks, why don’t you come over an’ git yer mules?”

And from our side: “O you fellers thought you’d played the devil when you gobbled up them ol’ scrubs what we’d turned out to die. We’ve got plenty of good mules and hosses. We don’t want them ol’ things. Glad you took ‘em off our hands.”

“What regiment you b’long to?” was asked by a Johnny, and when answered “6th Kansas” one of them called back,

“We’ve got lots of letters an’ papers for you fellers. Why n’t you come over to our post office an’ git yer mail. Yer know if tain’t called fer purty soon we’ll have to send it to the dead-letter office. Come over, Yanks, and git yer truck. Would you like to hear the news from Kansas?”

On being assured that we would the fellow went on:

“Ef you’ll promise not to git mad, I’ll read you a few extracts from some of your folks’ letters from back home. You’ll please excuse us fer openin’ ‘em- you see, they was missent, somehow, an’ come to us instead of to you-all- so we couldn’t return ‘em very well, on account of ol’ Abe a-cuttin’ off our mail communications, an’ the next best thing was to open an’ read ‘em, so’s we could tell you the news. We allers like to be neighborly, you know. There’s lots of letters fer you 6th Kansas fellers, an’ if some of you only know’d what’s goin’ on at home you’d want to git back there purty quick. Now, Yanks, keep still an’ lis’en.”

Then the fellow produced several letters, which were probably genuine, as he give the names and companies of several men whom our picket party acknowledged to be members of the 6th Kansas. I cannot remember any of the names he gave except that of Captain M_____, of the 6th Kansas, with whom, as a soldier, I had served five years in the old 1st U.S. Cavalry of the Regular Army, before the war.

M_____, who was a fine-looking and gallant soldier, had got a commission as Captain in the 6th Kansas at the breaking out of the war; but had unfortunately married a woman who turned out badly, and brought on herself and him considerable unpleasant notoriety. He subsequently got a divorce from her.

The letter that this rebel read was written to M_____ by some friend in Fort Scott, informing him of the disgraceful conduct of his wife, which proved to be true. But the other letters that the fellow read, or pretended to read- although he gave names, dates and places in Kansas correct- the stuff he gave out as coming from letters was evidently made up by him as he went along, or so garbled as to make it appear that a scandalous state of domestic affairs existed in the families of the Kansas soldiers. It was all to the effect that Kansas was being filled up with the runaway niggers from the South, and that young ladies mentioned as sisters or sweethearts of soldiers were having nigger beaux, etc., etc.

At this point in the entertainment our men could stand such insulting slanders on their women no longer. Lieutenant Walker suddenly sprang to his feet and sung out to the rebs:

“Truce is Off! Hunt your holes, you D----d S—s of B-----s!”

We all grabbed up our canteens and broke for the timber; as soon as they could get hold of their guns the two parties were popping away at each other whenever one of them could see any part of a man to shoot at. But, as I said before, there was small chance of hitting anyone as the distance was long; and when they got tired of this harmless amusement they stopped firing to hurl curses and insulting epithets at each other.

About these times there was a meaningless exclamation or shout frequently indulged in by soldiers and teamsters about our camps, concerning which I never heard any explanation as to its origin or significance- if it had any. It just seemed that whenever a boisterous fellow- and we had lots of them- wanted to make a noise, and could think of no other way, he would suddenly sing out, at the top of his voice, as though calling to someone a long ways off:

“O-o-o-h! Joe! Here’s your mule!”

Those who could imitate the braying of a mule- and some could so nearly duplicate that sound that it would make a mule ashamed of his own voice- would supplement this call to Joseph with that delectable mimicry.

At the rebel picket post above mentioned the “Johnnies” had caught onto this shout, and were constantly informing our “Joes” where their long-eared friends could be found.

Colonel Phillips, however, on hearing of these pleasant little amenities of the pickets, became alarmed lest our men should incautiously give away some military secrets, and issued one of his “imperative orders,” putting a stop to all intercourse with the rebel pickets.

While traveling a party of our soldiers near Webber’s Falls, between Forts Gibson and Smith, Dr. Kilpatrick, one of our surgeons, was murdered by some rebel bushwhackers in a treacherous and cowardly manner. He had been called into a neighboring farmhouse on the pretense that a sick person was seriously in need of his services, and while responding to this appeal to his humanity he was shot and killed by the bushwhackers. Our men recovered the body of Dr. Kilpatrick and brought it to Fort Gibson for burial, but the rebels who committed the base deed escaped.

Encouraged no doubt by the ease and success with which they had captured and got away with our herds, the rebels shortly afterward planned to intercept and take in a large supply train of about 150 six-mule teams, and probably half as many more of two and four-horse teams hauling goods for our sutlers, that was coming to us from Fort Scott on the old military road.

This train had the usual cavalry escort of several companies of the 3d Wisconsin Cavalry from Fort Scott, in addition to which it had been met at Cabin Creek, 50 miles north of Fort Gibson, by a reinforcement of about 200 Indian Infantry from Fort Gibson, and all were coming along without any suspicion that the rebels across the Arkansas had made all arrangements to divert the outfit from Fort Gibson to Fort Davis by cutting them off at a point about four or five miles our from Fort Gibson, on the road, and running them across the Verdigris (pronounced Verdigree) and Arkansas Rivers, right into the rebel camp.

One of our Indian scouts had been playing the spy among the rebels at Fort Davis, and had found out their whole plan for the capture of this train, but not until it was almost on the eve of execution. This left very little time to prepare to defeat their attempt. A messenger had just arrived at Colonel Phillips’ headquarters from the supply train, stating that the outfit would camp that night at Flat Rock Creek, about 12 miles north of us, and expected to reach Fort Gibson about noon the next day. About the same time the aforesaid scout came in with information of the rebels’ intentions and plans.

Colonel Phillips was much excited, but at last listened to Colonel “Shorty” who said:

“From the information we have, the rebels intend to cross the Arkansas tomorrow morning at daylight or before, so as to reach the Verdigris and cross it at the falls, coming our onto the military road about the time that the train reaches that point on the route, which would be about 10 o’clock in the forenoon. They probably have no idea that we have discovered their intentions, and will carry out this plan- or try to. They have their scouts out as well as we, and probably know what progress the train is making, what its escort consists of, what force we have sent up to reinforce them, and they will send out what they consider an ample force to take the outfit in. It will never do to let them throw that force in between us and the train, or the train is gone. That train must be brought in here before daylight tomorrow morning or it will never get here. I would respectfully suggest that an additional force of 500 men be sent out immediately- there is not a moment to be lost- to the camp of the train at Flat Rock; have the outfit hitch up tonight, and by making a night drive get in here by daylight tomorrow morning. In that way we can steal a march on the rebels, and when they come onto the road they will find that the train has slipped by them.”

“The very idea I was I was just going to suggest,” chipped in Colonel Phillips- but no one believed that he had ever thought of it till “Shorty” put the idea into his muddled head- “and I will order the men immediately, and will esteem it a favor, Colonel “Shorty,” if you will take command of the expedition.”

Smothering his indignation at Phillips’ appropriation of his plan, Colonel “Shorty,” who was always ready to do anything “for the good of the service,” promptly replied:

“I’ll do it, Colonel, if you will give me, in addition to the 500 men, Captain Kauffman’s light battery. And please rush the details from the different regiments- I want to be leaving here in an hour. I will go and hurry up the detail from my regiment. Give the orders, please, for the men to be in light marching trim- no blankets, no grub- I’ll give them no time to rest or eat until we’re back here with that train safe.”

It was then near sundown, and before dark “Shorty,” with his 500 Indians and Kauffman’s 3d Indiana Battery of howitzers, had crossed Grand River at Gibson and was hurrying along the road going through the timber on the way to Flat Rock. Giving orders to his officers to have the men cautioned to silence, “Shorty” shoved his command along and succeeded in reaching the train before midnight.

After the usual amount of grumbling and cursing by the sleepy soldiers, teamsters, and others of the train who had been aroused out of their beds, and could not realize the necessity of a night drive, the big outfit was finally got in motion for the run to Fort Gibson. The road from Flat Rock to Fort Gibson is in open prairie till it reaches a point nearly opposite the falls of the Verdigris, where it enters and continues in timber till it reaches the fort, making about four miles of timbered road. The main or proper road runs about three quarters of a mile east of the falls of Verdigris, but in the darkness the train by mistake had taken a right hand road, before reaching the timber, which forms an elbow here bearing away to the falls, touching the bank of the Verdigris there, just where the road that the rebels were coming on enters ours. From the falls this road inclines to the left again, entering the military road at a short distance in the timber.

The train had been delayed somewhat by taking this wrong turn, and daylight was beginning to appear in the east as the advance guard and head of the outfit entered the timber near the falls. The rebels were just them crossing the Verdigris at the falls, and hearing our wagons rumbling along the road began to realize that their prey was about to escape them, and so made a sudden charge across the road, cutting off some of the Government teams and all of the sutler’s wagons. The train would have succeeded in dodging by them nicely but for the delay in taking the wrong road, which had led them right to the enemy.

Part of the 3d Wisconsin Cavalry constituted the advance guard. The rest of them, under command of Major Stout, 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, were riding alongside the train near the point where the rebels cut across the road. At the first charge and fire of the rebs the valiant Major and his cavalry bolted fro Gibson at good speed, and never stopped until they were safe in town. Major Stout afterwards gave as an excuse for running away from the fight that he had “brought the train safely inside of Colonel Phillips’ pickets (which was not true, as we had no pickets so far out) and he thought the Indian Brigade ought to take care of it then.”

Lieutenant Colonel F.W. Schuarte’s Indians and battery, however, rallied to the point of attack, and after a scattering fight succeeded in driving the rebs off and recovering every wagon; the rebels didn’t get away with a single team; the nearest they came to it was to get one four-horse sutler’s team as far as the crossing of the Verdigris, just above the falls, but finding our men were overtaking them they forced the teamster to drive over the bank into the river below the falls, and then abandon the team in this predicament.

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