Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Part 7

by R.M. Peck
National Tribune, 1 September, 1904
pg. 8, cols. 1-5

At the time the attack on the train began I was at my camp in Fort Gibson, and on hearing the first rattle of musketry I knew what it meant, as we were expecting that the train would be attacked; so, quickly saddling up my mule, I mounted and struck out for the fight. After crossing Grand River I overtook Hugh Poland, Assistant Wagon Master of the 2d Indian train, and we rode on together. We had not got too far from the bank of the river when we met the 3rd Wisconsin troops, with the corpulent Major Stout in the lead, coming in on a brisk trot, a long way ahead of the leading teams of the train. The brave Major looked scared, and I believe he was.

We soon began to meet the teams. The teamsters probably taking the fright contagion from the cavalry, seemed greatly excited as they popped their whips and yelled at their mules to hurry them along as fast as possible.

They seemed astonished to think any one should want to go in the direction we were heading, one volunteering the advice to us.

“You fellers must be crazy! Better go back! There’s the very devil out there! Train’s all captured but a few of us! Prairie an’ woods is swarmin’ with rebels!” And as he trotted his team on toward town others behind him offered us similar kind warnings.

It was plain that these skinners were badly scared, and so Hugh and I laughingly thanked them for their good advice, but concluded to go on and see the circus. As the teams went trotting by us, I noticed one teamster whose throat had been cut by a bullet, but not seriously, as he went jogging along, popping his whip vigorously, holding his head well up, and looking mighty serious, but unable to “cuss,” as the hole across his windpipe let the air out before it reached the “cussing” point. I think I understand how much mental anguish that fellow must have suffered to find himself unable to say a word at such a time; and what a relief to him it would have been to be able to do a little scientific swearing just then.

As we galloped on through the timber, meeting excited and frightened teamsters hurrying their teams along down the road, some warned us to go back to Fort Gibson; others asked anxiously, “How far is it to Fort Gibson,” but many had nothing to say, but kept looking back over their shoulders as if to see if the rebels were coming after them.

We heard the discharges of artillery and concluded that Kauffman’s howitzers were introducing themselves to the enemy. As we neared the edge of the prairie the firing began to slacken, and as we were still meeting teams coming hurrying along the road, it seemed evident that the rebels had not made a complete success of this job, any way.

The first dead man we came to was a 3d Wisconsin cavalryman, lying in the edge of the road just where he had fallen, with his legs sticking out into the track of the wagons, so that the wheels had been running over his limbs and had nearly worn them off up to the knees. Thinking that he might still be alive, Hugh and I dismounted, and lifting up we carried him back from the road a few steps and laid him behind a tree, but on examination found he was dead. After this we saw but a few dead, and not many wounded, as the fight had been scattered over a large extent of ground.

Just as we reached the prairie we met Colonel “Shorty,” mounted on a mule, surrounded by a lot of soldiers. Seeing me, he called out:

“See here, Peck, my riding mule’s played out. Won’t you swap with me, and let me have the one you’re riding?”

I agreed to exchange with him, but when he came to notice that I was riding “that blankety ‘Jim Lane’ mule,” he declined my proffered kindness. He was directing the firing of one of Kauffman’s howitzers nearby. A cluster of rebels who had crossed the road and cut off part of the train, and then been driven off to the old military road farther east by “Shorty’s” men, were now seen to be gathering near a little house in the edge of the timber about a half mile away, and “Shorty” had directed Kauffman to drop a shell among them. Zeke Proctor, a long-haired half-breed Sergeant of the battery, sighted the piece and succeeded in dropping the shell right in the midst of the rebel crowd. We found several badly-torn dead rebels lying near that cabin afterward, but the living wounded, if any there were, had succeeded in getting away.

After cutting off a portion of the train the rebels had rushed a number of the wagons toward the Verdigris, but had been finally whipped away from them by “Shorty’s” men.

Finding themselves defeated in every direction, the now discouraged enemy became panic-stricken, broke and fled in the wildest confusion across the Verdigris, and then on through the timber in scattered parties to the Arkansas and across it. We followed them to the Arkansas, occasionally getting near enough to a party to pepper them enough to accelerate their speed, now and then finding a dead rebel along the route.

I don’t remember to have seen a living wounded rebel or prisoner taken during the whole affair, and don’t think our ambulances brought in any such after the fight. I think that probably, as the fight was much scattered, out Indians, in retaliation for the brutal murdering of our herders and pickets shortly before this, when our herds were captured by the rebels, had killed all the prisoners they took and all the wounded they found.

One of our ambulances, while looking up our wounded- carrying a red flag as a signal of hospital service- was seized by a party of rebels, with its driver and attendants, and carried off. This was a gross breach of the rules of war, but our enemies in this part of the country pay but little regard to the war usages of civilized nations.

It was not a retreat that the rebels made after the failure of their effort to capture our train- they did not withdraw from the field in any orderly or organized shape- but on finding that their plans had miscarried they seemed to become so badly frightened and utterly demoralized as to lose all semblance of organization, and breaking up into small parties made a panicky rush to get back to their camp across the Arkansas- every fellow for himself. Splitting up thus they had availed themselves of every road and cowpath leading through the timber in the direction of their camp; and at every narrow place or mudhole in the roads signs of the mad scramble to escape were visible, such as hats, muskets, belts, cartridge boxes, haversacks, blankets, and even saddles thrown away by the badly-frightened rebels in their wild efforts to lighten themselves and outrun each other to escape their pursuers.

In returning to the train through the timbered bottom between the Arkansas and Verdigris, I rode over several different trails that the rebels had followed in their flight, and the same signs of the frightened enemy’s mad rush were to be seen on all. On reaching the road again where the train had been attacked we found that nearly all of the teams had gone into Fort Gibson. A few of them had been run into ravines and disabled or upset by the “Johnnies” during the short time they realized they had held possession, or when they realized that they would have to give up the briefly-held prizes.

In some instances the rebels had broken open boxes in the wagons they had captured, and tried to do a little plundering, but did not seem to have got away with much. In connection with this attempt at “looting” I saw a singular spectacle.

By the side of one wagon, the tongue of which was broken, lay a bursted box of hard bread; next to it a box of soldiers’ boots had been broken open, and alongside the box of boots lay a dead rebel, with a bullet hole through his head from one temple to the other. The fatal bullet had left him in the exact posture it had found him- with his fingers in the straps of the boot which he had drawn half-way on one foot, with the leg bent, arms reaching and fingers tightly clasping the boot straps. He had tumbled backward with the half-booted foot sticking up in the air, and as he lay thus with staring eyes and open mouth, some grim joker had given the ghastly tableau a ludicrous aspect by sticking the corner of a hard-tack in the dead rebel’s open mouth.

Truley the poor fellow had needed a new set of foot gear, for alongside of him lay a badly worn-out pair of old shoes that he had just cast off in order to fit himself out with a new pair of boots; but just as he had got one about half way on, one of our Indians, Jim Rattlingourd (who was setting there on the box of hardtack, unconcernedly crunching a cracker as he told me about it), suddenly came around the hind end of the wagon, and without even saying, “Drop that boot!” up with his rifle and let the rebel have it.

As the tongue had been broken out of this wagon, the teamster had ridden away on his saddle-mule to get help, after tying the other mules to the wagon wheels, and had left Jim Rattlingourd in charge of the outfit until he could bring back the necessary assistance to repair the wagon and bring it on to Gibson.

When Jim finished telling me about killing the rebel, he looked at his late enemy and remarked indifferently,

“Ain’t he got a terrapin grip on that boot, though? Recon he thought he’d take it to the devil with him. But I ‘spect he’ll find it warm ‘nough to go barefooted down thar.”

It is a singular fact, that I noticed other instances of during the war, that men who are killed instantly will often retain, after death, the exact position in which the grim messenger found them.

By-and-by the skinner got back, accompanied by his boss, with another team bringing an extra wagon tongue, with which we soon replaced the broken one, and the team was again strung out as good as ever.

As we reloaded the broken boxes and old tongue into the wagon, I asked Jim Rattlingourd if he if he wanted to take his rebel friend along?

“Naw!” he answered, with a disgusted look at the corpse. “Hain’t got no further use fer him. That’s good ‘nough place for a d____d  rebel. Kiotes’ll take him in purty soon. But he can’t have that boot.” So saying he wrenched it away from the dead man and tossed it into the wagon.[1]

We soon had all the disabled wagons righted and repaired, and moved on into Fort Gibson, reaching there about noon.

Writers of war articles sometimes throw the undeserved slurs at teamsters for showing a tendency to get to the rear when their outfits were attacked or threatened.

When the different status of the soldier and teamster is compared it will be readily seen how unjust these reflections on the skinners are.

A soldier, on going into action, is prepared to either fight or run; a teamster, encumbered by a wagon and six mules, can not well do either. If he had all the arms and cartridges he could carry he could not well make use of them at such a time, for the team demands his whole attention. Moreover, fighting is the soldier’s business, but not the teamster’s. He generally does what he is there for- takes care of his team, and takes it to a place of safety, or tries to, when danger threatens.

My experience in these matters convinces me that the mule skinner will average as well in pluck as the soldier. Having myself served five years as a soldier and several years as teamster and wagon master, I think I ought to be a fairly competent judge of the relative merits and faults of each class. The two men are generally made of about the same material, but the difference in their duties and responsibilities renders necessary a different course of action in the face of danger. I have known a number of them to meet death or captivity by clinging to their teams and trying to steer them out of danger rather than abandon their outfits and seek their own personal safety in flight, when they could have probably saved themselves by doing so. They seldom hesitate to go where ordered, although danger may be apparent and they may realize their helplessness or inability to make a safe retreat in case of a reverse.

As I said before, the soldier goes into action with little or no encumbrance, and can either fight or run, according to circumstances, and in case he is defeated, having nothing but himself to take away, he has a reasonable prospect of escape. This condition should make him more prompt to encounter danger than the teamster, who, occupying, as he does, the position of a non-combatant, is not in a condition to either fight, run, or even defend himself.

I never knew a scare or stampede among teamsters during the war but was what originated or was caused by a panic among the soldiers. As long as the soldiers held their ground the teamsters never thought of turning back; but as their dependence for protection- and it often proved a mighty poor dependence, too- was in the soldier, when the skinner saw the fighting man “skedaddling” to “save his bacon,” of course the mulewhacker became demoralized and easily persuaded himself that there was a healthier locality elsewhere.

It is a particularity if the service that each branch usually arrogates to itself the credit of being the mainstay of the Government. The infantryman will slur and belittle the cavalry; the cavalryman will tell you that the “dough boys” are no good; and the artilleryman will inform you with a swagger that he is the fellow that decides battles; where the mule skinner declares that they are all a lot of cowardly blowhards, and modestly asks, “Where would they get off, if it wasn’t for us?” And no doubt the sutler thinks that the prosecution of war without him would be a dismal failure.

Such good-natured “joshing” does no harm, if it does no good; but when a professed chronicler of war history, who may have been a soldier or officer in one branch of service, makes such charges seriously against some other branch it looks as though said writer overestimates his own importance as a factor in putting down the rebellion, and is trying to build himself up by tearing someone else down.

Shortly after the attempt and failure of the enemy to capture our supply train the rebels broke up their camp at Fort Davis, across the Arkansas, and fell back southward on the Texas Road to a creek called Honey Springs, about 22 miles south of Fort Gibson.

Captain Thomas, our Quartermaster, having let a contract for cutting hay for the post, and the retiring of the enemy making it comparatively safe to do so, I moved my train out to the prairie north of Fort Gibson, which was to be our hay field, and established my camp at an abandoned house called the “Mosely Place,” on the bank of Grand River, about seven miles from the Fort, and adjacent to the hay makers’ camp, directly east of the place where the rebels had recently attacked our train. I made hay frames for my wagon out of poles from the timber, and set the teams to hauling the hay into the Fort and stacking it, as fast as it was cut and cured. The Military Road, where the supply train had been attacked by the rebels, was two or three miles west of the Mosley Place, and between the road and camp lay our hay ground.

While engaged in hauling hay we got word that another large supply train from Fort Scott was coming to us. As it was desirable to keep these large outfits from camping and feeding up the grass on our hay field, I procured a written order from Colonel Phillips to the commanding officer of the escort of the approaching train, directing him to turn off the road that leads to the bank of the Verdigris at the falls (the same road that the former train was traveling when attacked), and camp the outfit near the falls, so as to keep them off our hay ground.

The written order was placed in an envelope, after being read to me, and addressed, “Captain Conkey, 3d Wisconsin Cavalry, Commanding Supply Train,” and given to me to carry out to the train.

I took the message with me to my camp that night, near the hay field, and next morning rode across the prairie in time to meet the head of the train at the point for turning them off; but when I came to feel in my pocket for Colonel Phillips’ letter to hand to Captain Conkey’s, I had lost it. As I was familiar with the contents of the documents, however, I told the Captain what its purpose was, and as this was the place to turn off, requested him to have the train take the right hand road and camp near the falls of the Verdigris, in compliance with Colonel Phillips’ wishes.

This seemed satisfactory to Conkey, and he turned the lead of the train into the new road as desired and proceeded on, while I waited on the roadside, as the teams passed, to look up some old acquaintances among the Wagon Masters and teamsters.

I found my old friend, Jeff Anthony was Brigade Wagon Boss of the whole outfit, and as he came along shortly after I parted with Conkey he stopped to shake hands and talk with me. I told him I had turned his outfit off of the road to the falls, and mentioned the circumstance of my cutting across the prairie from my camp on Grand River and losing the letter.

Jeff was always fond of a joke, and now he thought he saw a chance to have some fun at my expense, so pretending to be in a hurry to get to the head of the train he left me and galloped up till he overtook Captain Conkey, at the head of his advanced guard. In that brief time Jeff had planned to have me arrested as a rebel spy.

Shakespeare, I believe it is, who says, “Trifles light as air are, to the suspicious, confirmations strong as proofs of Holy Writ.”

Approaching Conkey, Jeff called out, “Hello, Captain! You’re taking the wrong road!”

“No,” Conkey explained, “This is the right road to the Verdigris Falls, and Colonel Phillips sent a messenger out to direct us to camp there.” And went on to tell Jeff about my having had a written order from Phillips, but had lost it, and happening to know the contents of the letter, had told him of the Colonel’s wishes that the train should camp near the falls; all of which Jeff listened to very seriously, and when Conkey was though he said in apparent deep concern.

“What? Was it that bushwhacking looking fellow dressed in buckskin and riding a mule who brought you the message?”

“Yes,” answered the Captain. “Do you know him?”

“Never saw him before, but he’s a hard-looking cuss,” declared Jeff. Then after seeming to ponder deeply, “Captain, this whole affair looks mighty suspicious. This is the road that the rebels waylay trains on, the falls of the Verdigris is the very place to do such a job. If that young fellow in the buckskins had been bringing a message from Colonel Phillips, it seems to me he would have come right along the road from Gibson, but we all saw him coming across the prairie from toward Grand River. And then his telling you that he had lost Phillips’ letter is another suspicious circumstance. I just glanced at the fellow as I passed him, and it seemed to me that he had  a bad, hangdog-looking countenance. The more I think about it the more suspicious the whole affair looks. By George, Captain, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find that he’s a rebel spy sent out here by old Stand Watie himself to steer us right into their clutches.”

“Since you mention it,” pit in the Captain, “everything does look like its a put-up job.” And the fellow seemed so confused, too, when he pretended he had lost that letter.”

“I’d certainly arrest him, if I were you,” added Jeff, “and keep a close watch on him till we find out more about this business.”

“I’ll do it,” said Conkey, excitedly. “Here, Sergeant, take four men and go back along the train and arrest that young fellow in the buckskin clothes who said he had brought me a message from Colonel Phillips. Be sure you disarm him, first thing, and then bring him to me. Watch him closely, and see that he don’t drop or swallow any papers he may have about him. Keep a sharp lookout for him- he may be slipping away at this time.”

Jeff himself afterward gave me the foregoing particulars of his and Conkey’s conversation. Meanwhile, all unconscious of the joke he was getting off on me, I was sitting on my mule alongside the road, occasionally shaking hands and chattering with some old friends among the Wagon Bosses as the teams rolled by, among others meeting Bill Rickey, Bob Jenkins, George Anderson and Frank Underwood- all intimate friends, and the last named, Underwood, a brother-in-law of mine.

While thus occupied I was rudely interrupted but the aforesaid Sergeant and his four cavalrymen surrounded me suddenly, and notifying me that he had been sent to arrest me. I tried to persuade him that there was some mistake, but he would listen to no argument and demanded roughly, holding his carbine in a threatening position.

“Unbuckle your belt and hand over that pistol.”

With which request I promptly complied, and then asked him the cause of my arrest.

“The Captain’ll tell you. We’ll go see him.” And we rode up to the head of the column. Just as we neared the head of the train Jeff Anthony went galloping back along the road, but on the opposite side of the wagons from me. I thought of calling him to vouch for me, but he seemed to be in such a hurry  that I concluded to wait a while. I didn’t yet suspect him of putting up such a joke on me. On reaching Captain Conkey’s presence I said to him, a little indignantly.

“Captain, I’ve been arrested by your order, it seems. Will you please to inform me why?”

“Young man,” he replied, rather loftily, “the circumstances surrounding your professed errand to me seem very suspicious, on reflection, and until you can give a more satisfactory explanation of your movements I shall have to hold you as a prisoner.”

“Why, Captain, my errand is just what I told you- to bring you an order from Colonel Phillips to take the road and camp near the Verdigris Falls, in order to save the grass where our men are making hay.”

“But,” he interrupted, “Why did you come across the prairie instead of coming by the direct road from Fort Gibson? and how came you to lose the letter you claim to have been bringing me? and why is Colonel Phillips so particular to want me to go to the falls? It all looks very strange, sir; very strange!”

“What object do you suppose I could have in misdirecting you?” I asked. “What do you take me for?”

“A rebel spy, sir,” he replied, looking at me very sternly.

I laughed outright in the ridiculous idea of being mistaken for a rebel spy, when there were a number of men in the outfit who had known me for some time.

“O, that can be easily settled,” I said. “There are several Wagon Masters here you know me to be what I say I am- Captain Thomas’ Wagon master from Fort Gibson.”

“Whom do you know here in this train?” he asked.

“Why, Jeff Anthony, Bob Jenkins, Bill Rickey, and several other Wagon Bosses,” I replied with confidence.

“You seemed to have learned the names of some of our Wagon Masters, but Jeff Anthony just told me that he don’t know you, and advised me to place you under arrest as a suspicious character.”

I began to see Jeff’s hand in the whole affair now, and laughingly tried to convince the Captain that it was a practical joke Anthony was playing on me; but hr could not be made to believe it- the circumstantial evidence was too strong  against me. I then proposed to him to send back  in the train for some of the Wagon Bosses that I was acquainted with, to get them to vouch for me. he agreed to this and sent a man to request the presence of Anthony, Rickey and Jenkins at my suggestion.

Jeff failed to come. The other two, however, soon put in an appearance. But they had been posted by Jeff and gave me a stony stare and shook their heads when I asked them if they knew me- each lying rascal declaring solemnly that they never saw me before.

Just then George Anderson and Frank Underwood came up, and although both were old acquaintances and good friends of mine they, too, “gave me the marble heart” and in reply to my question Anderson answered rather coldly.

“Yes, I know you.” And when asked by Conkey,

“What do you know about him?”

George replied hesitantly, as though reluctant to tell all the evil he knew of me,

“Well, he used to be a scout, or something of the sort for Uncle Sam, but about a year ago he disappeared from Fort Scott, and we heard he had gone over to the rebels. And that’s the  last I know anything about him till now.”

Frank Underwood, my brother-in-law, looked at me sourly and said in a jeering tone,

“Guess you’ve run your head into a halter this time, young fellow. I always thought you’d be hung some day, and now I guess you’ve got to the end of your rope. You know the old saying about the pitcher that goes too often to the well.” And then turning to Conkey  he went on, “He’s one of the worst rascals in the rebel army. You’ve done a good job to take him in. Caution your men  to not ride too close to him. He’s liable to grab a pistol or carbine from some of them and hurt somebody. It would be a good idea to tie his hands behind him, and tie his feet under his mule. He tries to laugh this matter off, but don’t let him fool you. You can call a drum-head court-martial  when we get into camp, and I’ll rustle up the evidence to hang him. There’s several men here that knows all about his deviltry. ‘Taint best to try to keep him a prisoner, for he’ll get away sure. Better fix him while you’ve got a sure thing on him.”

No one could possibly have suspected from Frank’s earnest looks and speech that he was a relative and also a good friend of mine. He and Anderson both had evidently been “seen” by Jeff, and rehearsed in their respective parts. I was astonished to see what lies these fellows could tell and look so serious about it.

Conkey was convinced that he had a clear case against me, and as we were nearing the falls he began making his preparations to meet an attack, halting for the trains to throw out skirmishers, sending runners back to bring up most of the Indian contingent from the rear; and in particular giving orders to the Sergeant and men who were guarding me that at the first shot or appearance of rebels they were going to kill me instantly.

The joke was getting serious. Although I tried to ridicule Conkey and his men, and laughed at them for being scared at nothing, I had the laugh all to myself- no one else seemed to see anything funny about it, unless it was Jeff and his gang of conspirators.

About that time if some man had fired a shot from the bushes along the little branch just ahead of us- which would be a likely occurrence, as our Indians from the fort were frequently out that way hunting- it is more than probably that the men who were guarding me would have carried out their orders and shot me before any further explanations could have been made.

Realizing that the situation was getting serious the Wagon Bosses who had assisted Jeff to place me in such an embarrassing position now rode rapidly back along the train to tell Anthony that it was about time to call the joke off.

Pretty soon the whole gang came galloping up again , with Jeff in the lead, who was rushing up to me, laughing heartily, shaking my hand and apologizing for having “scared me so bad,” as he said. I had felt no uneasiness, however, except the thought that a chance shot from some straggling hunter might precipitate the execution of my guard’s orders.

Jeff and the other boys seemed to enjoy the joke hugely, and I joined in with them  in having a hearty laugh over it, assuring the boys that I had never known before that they were such infernal liars.

It was Captain Conkey’s turn now to get mad. The affair had placed him in rather a ridiculous light, he thought, and he did not like it; but he promptly released me from arrest, restored my belt and pistol, and advised me to turn my battery on Jeff and his fellow conspirators, apologizing for his harsh treatment of me, and throwing the blame where it rightly belonged, on Anthony, who had to send back to his mess wagon and bring out several black bottles to pacify the crowd.

I never thought of entertaining any animosity toward Jeff for the trick he had played me, for I knew him to be a whole-souled good fellow, and one of my best friends.

By this train my wife’s brother, Al. Collins, had come along with Frank Underwood, and joined my train as an extra hand remained with me.

[1]Editor, National Tribune: I have been very much interested in the “Wagon Boss” … Referring to Comrade Peck’s account in the National Tribune of September 1, 1904; would say that the man killed while sitting on a cracker box putting on a boot was John Smoot. He was a Union man and had been conscripted into the rebel army. He left a wife and two children living at Whitesboro, Texas. His father, the Honorable John R. Smoot, was a prominent Union man of Sebastian County, Arkansas, and held the office of County Surveyor from 1868 to 1874, and previously- 1864 and 1865- was Representative from that county.- W.L. Taylor, Van Buren, Arkansas.” National Tribune, 9 February 1905.

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