Harper's Weekly 10/08/1864


COLONEL CHARLEY'S WIFE.

Yes, they are a splendid pair! There's no dis-
count on that. There ain't a braver man in the
Army of the Potomac than Colonel Charley; and
as for `Mother Jane,' as the boys call her (because
you see she's like a mother to us although she's only
a chick in age compared to some of us), she de-
serves a fighting man for a husband, for she's just
the gamest woman that ever I see. Tell you what,
if you fellows had seen what she done one day when
she pulled a party of us Forty-ninth boys out of the
tightest place ever I was in (and that's saying some-
thing, too), you'd take your oath that she'd ought
to be a soldier's wife.”


Sergeant Blake was convoying a squad of new re-
cruits for the Forty-ninth. They had got within
the lines of the Army of the Potomac, and were
making their last halt before joining the regiment
at Falmouth. The Sergeant had just been greeted
warmly by a noble-looking officer, who rode up while
they were boiling their coffee, accompanied by a
handsome woman with a pleasant brown face and
short, thick, black curls, which made a glossy fringe
for a bewitching little jockey-hat, whose jaunty
scarlet feather, held in place by a silver eagle, gave
her a military air charmingly in keeping with the
martial surroundings. The lady had also greeted
the Sergeant with great cordiality, while the officer,
whose shoulder-straps marked him as a Colonel,
addressed a hearty “Glad to see you, my lads!” to
the admiring squad.


“Sergeant,” said one of the men, as the subjects
of the former's eulogy cantered off, the lady sitting
her spirited bay mare with the greatest ease and
grace, “would you mind telling us the story?”


“Well, I don't care if I do. It'll show you fel-
lows what you may have to come to some day your-
selves; and it'll teach you the value of keeping a
stiff upper lip when you are hard pushed.” And, as
the Sergeant took up an easy position against the
trunk of a huge pine-tree, the men lit their pipes
and gathered around him to hear his story.


“Well, you see, Colonel Charley was only a Cap-
tain then; that day's work sewed a Major's straps
upon his shoulders. Little Williams (`Matches,'
the boys used to call him, because his legs looked
like a couple o'lucifers), who was appointed Major
because he was first cousin or something to some-
body that had influence, although he didn't know a
ramrod from a cartridge-box when he joined, got a
hint shortly after the circumstance I am going to
tell you about that he had better resign, and Captain
Charley got the place, and then the Lieutenant-Col-
onel took sick and resigned, and when poor Clark
got his finish at Chancellorsville Captain Charley
got to be Colonel. But he was only a Captain then,
as I told ye.


“You see, the Captain had been ordered to take
two companies of the old Forty-ninth and make a
reconnoissance down the railroad (I didn't tell you
that we were guarding one of the Potomac fords);
for it was said that a gang of Mosby's men had been
seen in the neighborhood, and it was thought they
were trying to cut the road. We scouted for about
six miles down without seeing a sign of a grayback,
and had about made up our minds it was a false
alarm. About three o'clock in the afternoon we
turned and started for camp. We had just halted
to rest a bit at a spring that ran out of the side-hill,
where the railroad makes a deep cut through a long,
narrow ledge, when we heard half a dozen shots in
our rear, followed by a loud yell, and then Gus
Lynch, one of our fellows who had lagged a little
behind, came kiting 'round the point of the hill as
if the old boy had kicked him. Gas sung out as he
came up, 'Look out boys, Mosby is after us full
chisel!'


“We had barely time to obey Captain Charley's
order to fix bayonets and form when the first of the
ragamuffins hove in sight around the curve. There
were about three hundred of 'em in all; and mean,
dirty, sheep-stealin' looking rascals they were.
They didn't charge on us right away, as we expect-
ed, but pulled up when they got in sight, probably
not knowing how strong we were.


“Now in numbers they greatly overmatched us,
for we had only about forty muskets all told. But
we had much the best of them in our position. If
we had expected them we couldn't have picked out
a stronger place to make a stiff fight. Captain
Charley saw this at a glance. It was, of course,
impossible for us to retreat, for they, being mount-
ed, could have ridden us down in a minute. But
we could hold the cut easy enough.


“You see the cut was narrow—just wide enough
for the track—and as luck would have it there was
a pretty deep drain-way running across the line be-
tween us and the rebs, which was uncovered, and
about fifteen feet over. It was easy enough to cross
it on the trussels, but it was a stumper for a horse.
Our rear was open, but we knew well enough that
they couldn't get at us there without dismounting
or riding several miles around, for the side of the
ledge they were on was like a wall almost. But it
was an ugly trap, after all; for if they couldn't get
in, we couldn't get out; and if they could hold us
there until night it would be pretty easy for them
to swarm up the bank and pop us over from the top,
while we couldn't get a sight at them at all. But
we stood and made ready for 'em, and made up our
minds to trust in Providence, and to charge them
five graybacks for every blue-jacket they knocked
over.


“And let me tell you, boys,” said the Sergeant,
knocking the ashes out of his pipe, “that this trust
in Providence that the dominies tell about is no
humbug, as you'll find out when you get under fire.
A soldier may get kind of reckless and devil-may-care
sometimes, from often looking death in the eye and
escaping; but you may be sure that few men go in
where the bullets fly, and the shells howl like
blood-thirsty devils, and their comrades are struck
down right and left, without feeling that they are
in the hands of a merciful God. I tell you, com-
rades, there are no truer prayers spoken than those
which go out from soldiers' hearts, though you may
not see a movement of the close-shut lips along the
lines of battle.”


The Sergeant here paused to fill and light his
pipe, while a solemn look fell upon the rough faces
around him, and more than one emphatic “That's
so!” and “Thrue for you!” went up from the vet-
erans of the circle.


“Well,” resumed the Sergeant, “as I was say-
ing, Mosby's men had a bad job before 'em; worse,
a good deal, than they were aware of. It was a
good half-hour before they undertook to disturb us,
although a couple of the dirty critters did ride to-
ward the mouth of the cut as if to reconnoitre; but
a shot or two sent them to the right-about in quick
time. It was policy in us not to waste any pow-
der, for we only had ten rounds apiece, so, although
we might have picked off some of 'em as they stood,
we just held our fire and kept our eyes peeled.


“By-and-by we could see that they were getting
ready for a charge; so it was certain they didn't
know any thing of the gully in the road, as it would
have been madness to have charged with that in
front of 'em. They came on first at a slow trot in
single file, which was the best they could do, on ac-
count of the narrow track. Captain Charley had,
before this, picked out ten of his best shots, boys
that could take the spark out of a squirrel's eye at
a hundred yards. This detail he now moved to the
front, and on the further side of the gully. As they
stood close the rebs couldn't see the ditch. Then
says the Cap, `Men, count from right to left, one,
two, three
, and so on.' They counted up to ten.
`Now when these fellows yonder get on the curve
they will be out of line, and I want every one of
you to cover his man. Number one take the first,
number two the second, and so on; and when I give
the word pelt the scoundrels.' So there our fellows
stood, ten men to stop three hundred.


“Well, when they got within about three hun-
dred yards of us they set up one of their devilish
yells, and came on at hot jump. They thought
they could stampede us; but we belonged to the
Army of the Potomac,” said the Sergeant, with a
gleam of pride in his honest gray eye.


“As soon as they got well strung out around the
curve Captain Charley sung out, `Fire!' and those
ten pieces cracked pretty much together, and, as
I'm a living sinner, six of the Johnnies were tum-
bled off their horses dead, and two more were badly
hurt. That charge was done for. They brought
up all standing, and were in a panic in no time,
turning tail without stopping to pick up their
killed.


“We hoped this would put a finish to their op-
erations; but it seems they were determined to
have one more crack at us; and this time they
showed us a trick that I never saw before, although
I've read of something like it in accounts of Injun
fights. It was a pretty 'cute dodge, and if it hadn't
been for the ditch in front of us it would have fetch-
ed us, sure pop. They came on in the same way
as they did before, but, just as they got fairly on
the wind around the turn, we heard their officer
sing out some order, and quick as a flash down went
every man's head and the best part of his body be-
hind his horse, so that they were pretty well cov-
ered by the necks of the animals. The thing was
done so sudden and unexpected that it threw our
fellows off their sight; and, although two or three
horses were badly hurt, not a man, so far as we
could judge, was hit.


“Of course there was no time to pick out another
detail. The men had been formed four front, and
the orders were to fire at the word, the front rank to
fire and kneel, the second rank the same, and so on.
Captain Charley kept the men in front of the ditch
as long as it was safe, and then gave them the order
to fall back, the ranks opening to let them pass to
the rear. They all came off safe but one, Reuben
Banks, who was shot dead by the rebel Captain.
Well, of course as soon as our fellows jumped back
the rebs saw the ditch, and the foremost of 'em
pulled up sharp with a loud yell. But those in the
rear came tearing on, and in a second the cut was
jammed full of plunging horses and cursing men—
and such cursing I never heard before nor since. It
seemed to make the very air thick and blue. Now
was our chance, and the way we pelted 'em with
cold lead was a caution. 'Twasn't five minutes be-
fore the whole pack was running like hounds. Our
fellows gave three rousing cheers as they went off;
and felt good just then for any number of graybacks
Mosby could send along.


“We now thought, most of us, that we had
whipped them off for good and all, and wondered
why Captain Charley didn't give us the order to fall
in and march to camp, for we were by this time
about used up and as hungry as wolves. But he
was wiser than we were. He knew very well that
they had got their mad up, and that they would
hang on to us now for revenge. The moment we
marched out of that cut we were doomed; our only
safety was in that gully, and we must by all means
cover that with our pieces.


“But it was certain that something must be done
and very quickly. Our camp was only three miles
off by the road. Some of us were sure that our
firing must have been heard, and would bring out
a rescue party; but Captain Charley thought that
most likely the sound being pent up in the cut
would prevent its reaching any distance, and the
result proved that he was right. A man might be
sent round by the road, and it was probable he could
slip off without being seen by the Johnnies. But
the best he could do he couldn't get to camp and a
party get out to us in less than two hours, and it
was now five o'clock. By seven it would be dark,
and our flints would be fixed. Captain Charley
was familiar with the ground, for he had often scout-
ed over it, and he knew that a short cut along the
crest of the ridge would carry a man to our lines in
half an hour. The mischief of it was that a fellow
couldn't get away without the rebs sighting him,
and he would have to run for it sure, and trust to
luck and his legs for his life. It was a risky thing
for any man to attempt, but Cap determined to try
it on. He first sent off a man by the road to take
advantage of the chances of help coming in time
that way; and then, says he to the boys, `Men,'
says he, `I want a volunteer to go to camp along
the top of that ridge. It'll be a dangerous job;
for the man that does it will have to dodge bul-
lets and to race with some of those rascals yonder:
afoot though, for they can't ride up yon bank, and
it'll be a pretty long start. If he gets off safe this
command is saved, and if I can get him made a
lieutenant I pledge my word to do it!


“Now, boys, there were just as brave fellows in
that party as ever bit a cartridge, and yet for a
minute there wasn't a foot budged. I tell you
what, it's one thing to face death in company with
other good men—the touch of the elbow is a wonder-
ful thing to brace a man's heart—but when you are
asked to cut loose from your comrades and make a
target of yourself for you don't know how many
bullets, it's no use talking; not many men would
jump to do it. You'll read a good deal in the news-
papers about `gallant actions' and `daring deeds'
of individuals; but I tell you, boys—and it's no
disgrace in an old soldier like me to own it—life is
just as precious to a soldier as to any man, and he
is no more eager to expose himself in cool blood to
the danger of death than if he had never smelt gun-
powder. I've seen things done in action that you
would talk about as long as you live; but in a fight
I hold that a man isn't himself. There is a kind
of intoxication in the smell of burnt powder, the
banging of the guns, the shout and tumult around,
and, more than all else, a sense of power that comes
over a man in the mere handling and sighting of
that cold, hard, bright thing that can kill—that carry
men on to do great things in spite almost of them-
selves.


“But I must get on with my story. As I was
a saying, at first not a man budged; but just as
we all began to feel so cruelly ashamed of ourselves
that, I think, in another minute we should have
been ready to fight for the honor of going, out steps
a young fellow belonging to Company H, and said
he was ready to go.


“This lad was called Mark Wilson. He was a
slim, good-looking chap, who had never been con-
sidered of much account in the regiment. The
truth was that the boys suspected that he consid-
ered himself too genteel to be a soldier. Camp is
a poor place to put on airs or play gentility, and
Mark wasn't popular in his company. But he
rather seemed to like to be avoided, and was in the
habit of keeping to himself as much as possible,
and never joining in the sports of the boys. We
all noticed that he never got any letters nor wrote
any; never spoke of home or friends; in fact, didn't
seem to have any, or any body to care for him.
Sometimes the boys would be curious, and try to
pump him; but they never got any satisfaction;
and once or twice, when they pressed him pretty
hard, he actually burst out crying. The theory
about him was that he was some rich man's son
who had run away from home, and was too proud
to let his folks know where he was.


“Well, when Mark stepped out, I suppose at
least a score of vets jumped to the front and wanted
to go; but, to every body's surprise, Mark wouldn't
back down. He insisted that, as he was first to
volunteer, it was his right to go. The Cap says to
him: `Well, Mark, you're a plucky boy, and you
certainly shall go if you wish it; but it seems to me
you had better let me pick out a stronger and tough-
er man.' But the little chap wouldn't yield. He
said, `No, Captain. If I am killed I have nobody
to grieve for me; and I suppose I am the only one
in the regiment who hasn't got some friend.' The
poor little fellow looked as if he was going to cry,
and some of us felt like crying too.


“`Well, Mark,' said Captain Charley, `go you
shall; but you mustn't say you haven't got any
friends. A brave boy like you will make friends
every where, and if we come out of this safe you
shall never want a friend as long as Charley Hem-
ing is alive.'


“There was a tree growing out of the side of the
cut just a little ways back, and its top reached above
the top of the bank. Captain Charley gave Mark a
few directions, and handed him his revolver, and
told him to be off as quick as he could. We all of
us stared to see Mark, as the Captain put out his
hand to shake hands, seize it, and press it to his
heart, and kiss it, turning as red at the same time
as a ripe strawberry. Then the little fellow ran to
the tree, climbed it like a monkey, and jumped off
on to the bank. Captain Charley, after a couple
of minutes, couldn't keep quiet any longer, so he
shinned up the tree too to take observations. `They
haven't seen him yet,' he sung out to us below.
`Ah! there come three of the scoundrels up the
bank, and put after him. By George! the boy
runs like a deer. He has got a fine start too; but
one of the graybacked villains has got the longest
legs, and gains on him. There, the leading man
halts and fires his carbine. Curse it, he's hit; he's
down. No, he only tripped, or fell on purpose.
He's up and off again. But Long Legs is coming
to close quarters. Ha! Mark wheels and gives
Mr. Reb a barrel of his revolver; another. By
Jove, he has tumbled him! And he don't get up.
I guess he's done for, thank God! The other two
have come up and stopped. The Captain now
said nothing for another minute, and then he flung
down his cap with a yell of delight, which was an-
swered right heartily by us fellows below, for we
knew before he said it that Mark had got off safe.
The two graybacks didn't chase him any further,
and soon returned to their command carrying the
dead man with them.


“Well, the rebs stuck to us as long as they
dared; but about six o'clock a rattle of musketry
and a Union cheer told us that our men had come
up and taken the rascals in the rear. There was a
round or two, and then the cavalry skedaddled in
every direction. Several were killed and wound-
ed, and about forty taken prisoners. We got back
to camp in high spirits about eight o'clock.


“And now, boys, I come to the most curious part
of the story. As soon as we got in Captain Charley
was told that Mark was in the hospital badly wound-
ed. He had really been hit when the Captain saw
him fall, the ball breaking his left arm badly; but
the plucky chap had kept right on, although he
fainted dead away the minute he had given Cap-
tain Charley's message to the Colonel. And when
they came to dress his arm they found that they had
a woman on their hands!”


“Sho!”“You don't say so!”“Holy Mother!”
“Soh!”“Bully gal!” A chorus of ejaculations
of astonishment arose from the many-blooded group
as the Sergeant came to this dénouement.


“Yes, a woman; and, what's more, dead in love
with Captain Charley. You see I heard the rest of
the story from Jake Downing, who was nursing in
the hospital at the time. It seems that when she
came to, and saw she was found out, she cried fit to
break any one's heart, and begged them not to ex-
pose her, and, above all, not to tell Captain Hem-
ing. They comforted the poor thing as well as
they could, and promised to keep her secret for her.
Before we got in she was delirious from the pain
and excitement. It was while she was out of her
head this way that they found out that she thought
so much of the Captain. When he came in the
surgeon thought best under all the circumstances to
give him a hint of how matters stood, and he had
the girl taken to a private house in the neighbor-
hood, and nursed until she got well. It came out
that she was the daughter of a farmer in Erie Coun-
ty, New York, and had a step-mother who was a
perfect she-devil. Jane—for that was her name—
and a brother, a little younger than herself, led the
life of niggers. Finally, the boy ran away, enlist-
ed, and was shot at Pea Ridge. The girl then had
nobody left to care for, but she stood her step-mo-
ther's bad treatment as long as she could, until one
night the old termagant beat her like a dog for
what she called her `impudence,' and actually shut
her up in an outhouse, and kept her there all night.
The next night Jane dressed herself in a suit of her
brother's clothes, cut off her hair, and slipping out
of the house, ran away. How she got into the
Forty-ninth I never heard, but I know she did serve
with us two years, and we never suspected her.
Well, the upshot was that when Captain Charley
found the plucky little girl had taken a fancy to
him, and no blame to her—you saw him a bit ago—
and when he found, too, that she was, when her
natural self, a right pretty girl, and a good girl, too,
it was natural enough that he should fall in love
with her, and he did. I tell you, boys, we had a
bully time when they got married, which they did
in camp as soon as Jane got about again. We fixed
up a bower of evergreens, and made it gay with
flags; then we took the drums of the regimental
corps, and built up an altar for the chaplain; and
every body said they never saw a handsomer couple
than our chaplain tied that day. Old General
H— gave away the bride, and he gave her a
buss when it was over that the boys swore was like
the crack of a 6-pounder rifle. Then we had the
brigade band for music, and the jolliest spread and
dance that ever you saw. We had lots of ladies
down from Washington, and several officers' wives
and daughters, and our Jane was just as much of a
lady as any of 'em.


“That was the Colonel and his wife you saw a
bit ago. They've got a nice place near Alexan-
dria, and it's a regular soldiers' hotel. No fellow in
the Union blue ever passes there without being
hailed to stop in; and if one of the Forty-ninth
gets astray in that neighborhood his own mother
couldn't use him better than does Mother Jane.
She can't keep away from camp long, though; and
her boy, the pet of the regiment, has learned to
sleep under fire. The boys would rather see her
pretty face than the paymaster's any day. Fall in!
March!”



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