Harper's Weekly 10/29/1864
It was soon after the first of those terrible Wil-
derness battles of last spring that Little Starlight
made his first appearance among us.
Now have you any idea who Little Starlight was?
Very probably, from his romantic name, you picture
him to yourself as a pretty boy—a beau-ideal Young
America, with clustering curls, and the relevant
blooming precocity of face and form. Nothing of
the kind. Our Little Starlight was a negro urchin,
extremely small for his age—which might have
been fifteen could we have had a date to reckon
from—and as black as the ace of spades, when the
ace of spades is excessively black and shiny.
Where he came from, who he belonged to, how
he came among us, we never exactly knew. He
was a sort of masculine Topsy, and probably mere-
ly “growed” somewhere in the vicinity of our biv-
ouac. On the morning after the battle he had
been found in our lines, strutting about the camp
in a very nonchalant way, with a quick, observing
eye for every thing he saw. His appearance was
comical in the extreme. Upon his ebon head, and
entirely concealing his crisp wool, was jauntily
placed a span-new artillery cap, which he had prob-
ably picked up from the field. He had fastened to
the right shoulder of his ragged coat—a swallow-
tailed blue of unknown antiquity—an immense ep-
anlet, probably plundered from the baggage of some
rebel officer; while a silken sash of flaring crimson
was twined round his waist in a manner at once
striking and barbaric, with a long end that trailed
behind like the gaudy tail of some variegated tropic
bird. His trowsers—we will skip them; let it suf-
fice to say that they were unmentionables to the
No one could tell how the little fellow got into
the camp, and he wouldn't tell himself. The pick-
ets and sentries swore prodigiously that he had not
passed them. So we were compelled to let the
mystery of his appearance remain unsolved.
It was shortly after sunrise when the corporal
of the guard brought him before me, with
“Here's a prisoner, or contraband, or something
of the kind, chaplain. I just picked him up, and
don't know what to do with him.”
I almost exploded with laughter at seeing the
individual in question, but immediately sat down
on a stump and proceeded to investigate. Captain
Allen came along at the same time, and presently
the Major also dropped in. So we formed ourselves
into an informal court-martial around the object of
our attention, with the view of having some amuse-
ment for the hungry half hour that would elapse
before breakfast. The “brass” of the lad was sur-
prising; for he never changed countenance during
the whole of this ceremony, which we made as im-
posing as we could by word and look. All eyes
were turned on me expectantly, so I opened the
“What is your name, my boy?”
“Dun'no, mass'r. 'Spect I isn't got none,” was
the reply, accompanied by a sparkling grin of ex-
traordinary breadth, as though his anonymous con-
dition was a matter of much self-satisfaction.
“Oh, you must have some name,” I said. “What
did they call you at home?”
“I allers came wi'out callin'. But wen I shinned
along kinder slow, sometime dey'd sing out, `Nig!'
sometime `Little Nig!' an' den agin, `Hyar, you
d—d Nig!' I'll bet dey did, mass'r! Yah! yah!
I'se a awful cuss, I is!” he continued, swinging his
arms gleefully about and shuffling his bare feet, as
if contemplating a breakdown.
“Silence!” roared the Major, who acted as pre-
siding officer, at the same time knicting his brows
furiously to conceal the laughter which almost
choked him. “Silence, or I'll commit you for
Somewhat startled by the vehemence of this in-
junction the little fellow remained silent, and, tak-
ing off his cap, commenced stroking his mat of a
head in a serious manner, which was more comical
than his mirth.
“Well, my friend,” I resumed, “where do you
“No whar ob late, mass'r. I'se been sleepin'
out recen'ly. Yer see I'se a awful cuss, I is. Yah!
“Silence!” exclaimed the judge.
“Sartin, sartin, mass'r! Yah! yah!”
“Who do you belong to?” I resumed.
“Yah! yah! I ain't got none. Yer see he's
gwine away, he is.”
“But what was your master's name?”
“Dun'no. Yer see dis chicken were left behin'
wid ole missus an'de gals, wile Mass'r Billy gwine
to de war way up to Richmon'. An'yer see, de ole
missus she dun gib dis nig a lickin', so I jis slips
out in de night time, climbs inter de barn, steals all
de pigeons, an' clars de track for Ole Virginny.
Yah! yah! I'se a awful cuss, I is!”
“Pigeons! What did you do with the pigeons?”
I asked, my curiosity carrying me away from the
subject in hand.
“Libs on 'em to be shore, mass'r! Dey'se bully
fodder, nicer dan de hard tack. Yah! yah! I'se
got jis one lef'.”
And sure enough, as he spoke, he drew from one
of the capacious pockets of his tattered coat a sorry
looking pigeon, still alive, which, before we could
guess his intention, he proceeded to put to death in
a very summary manner. Nipping the head of the
bird between his finger and thumb, he twirled the
body around in the air till it fell to the ground, com-
pletely twisted from the head, which remained in
“What are you doing that for?” I exclaimed,
somewhat horrified at what I saw, as were the rest
of the “Court.”
The little fellow threw away the pigeon's head
without answering, picked up the body, and laid it
at my feet with a “Yah! yah!” from which I judged
that it was meant as a present for my breakfast.
“Well, what is the decision of the Court?” said
I laughing, and turning to the Major.
“I really do not know,” was the reply. “Ask the
monkey if he will fight, and which side he favors.”
I put the question.
“De Union all de time, shore!” was the enthu-
“What can you do?” I asked.
The little fellow cast a comprehensive glance
around him in every direction, as if he could do any
and every thing under the sun, and was merely
puzzled upon which to try his hand for an outset.
At length his eye caught sight of a kettle-drum
which was taking an airing a short distance off, and
with a guffaw of delight he ran toward it. Quick as
thought the strap was over his shoulder, the sticks
were in his hand, and throwing back his head with
a gesture of pride, he rolled off the reveille with the
flourish and accuracy of a master.
“Bravo!” cried Captain Allen. “You're the man
we want. Why not have him drum for our com-
pany?” he added, turning to me. “Johnny went
into the hospital day before yesterday, and we have
had but little music since.”
“An excellent idea!” said I.
The Major also agreed, and Starlight, to his in-
finite satisfaction, was forth with installed as sec-
ond drummer-boy, Company C,—the New York In-
His name—by which he was altogether known
among us—originated, at the suggestion of one of
the officers, in the wonderfully starry aspect of the
heavens on the night preceding the early morning
of his “capture.”
He was a favorite in the company, and a stand-
ing joke with the regiment, in a single day. No
one could surpass him on the drum, and he never
complained of too much work. We made him wash
himself thoroughly in the river, and then presented
him with a genuine uniform, of which he appeared
as proud as a young peacock of her sprouting tail.
Little Starlight was not one of us long, but if I
should undertake to describe one-half of his whim-
sical characteristics “the sun would go down on
the unfinished tale.”
He never got out of humor, was never excessive-
ly hungry, and his slender frame was of iron mould.
He endured, without a murmur or any marks of
fatigue, marches which tried to the utmost the stal-
wart frames of hardened veterans, and would, after
the march, execute with gusto a dozen breakdowns,
Jim Crows, and Bob Ridleys for the diversion of
the weary regiment. I never saw him flinch when
under fire, and I have seen him under the hottest.
He had a penchant for obtaining trophies on the
field of battle; and carried so many knives and pis-
tols upon his person that he was quite a walking
arsenal. More than once he was seen to use his
fire-arms, and if at long range, it was, nevertheless,
with the best of intentions.
It is true he had his foibles, and grave ones. He
was a natural-born thief, and my most impressive
sermonizing totally failed to convince him of the
gravity of his fault. He seemed to consider him-
self naturally depraved, and was therefore philoso-
phically complacent with his sin, meeting my ad-
monitions with his usual “I'se a awful cuss, mass'r,
I is.” In my heart, search as I would, I could find
less of blame than pity for him when I thought of
the criminal neglect which must have attended his
bringing up, with that of the rest of his wronged
and unfortunate race. Besides, the material effects
of his thieving were not considerable. There was
not much to steal in the first place, and when any
one did miss any thing worth retaining, a tight
clutch upon Starlight's windpipe and a few prepos-
terous threats would generally cause him to “shell
out” the missing article, if it was really in his pos-
session. And it seemed generally conceded that
his virtues more than counterbalanced his foibles.
For his hand was as ready to support a wounded
man to an ambulance as it was at rifling the pockets
of a fallen foe.
There was one thing alone which almost redeemed
him in my eyes; and that was his passionate desire
for freedom—his enthusiastic devotion to the cause
under whose banner he served.
My duties as chaplain were in sad demand in those
bloody battle-days, when ministrations to the dying
and prayers for the dead were so frequently required,
but I found some time, nevertheless, to devote to
Starlight. The little heathen always listened with
the profoundest gravity to every thing I said, but
with a perceptible stolidity which often discouraged
me, except when I spoke of the future of his race,
of their prospects for freedom and improvement.
His eyes would light up at this, his expressive feat-
ures would fairly glow with enthusiasm.
“Yes, mass'r,” he one day exclaimed, “I feels it
in my bones. It'll come roun' one day or 'nother.
I knows I'll be free!”
“You are so already,” said I. “The President's
Proclamation has made you so. You have nothing
“Jis' so, mass'r,” he replied. “De Presiden' he
am a nice man, he am. But I doesn't feel it in de
bones yit; I nebber will till I git on to him, yer
know. Jis' lemme git on to him—only once!”
“On to whom?” I asked.
“On to de Ole Man—Cunnel Billy. Jis' lemme
git on to him, den I'll be free!”
“You surely would not kill your old master?”
“Wouldn't I? Yah! yah!” And thereat Star-
light began to fumble among the various knives
and pistols which adorned his person in a manner
that was any thing but conciliatory. “Trus' dis
chicken,” he continued. “I keeps on de look-out
in ebery fight. I seed him lick my ole mudder till
de blood flew. Jis' lemme on to him, mass'r, and
you'll see de blood fly yourse'f. Yah! yah! I'se
a awful cuss, I is.”
Upon a briefer acquaintance with Starlight I
should have smiled at the serio-comic manner in
which these sentiments were enunciated; but, as
it was, I shuddered at the intensity of passion which
lurked in his tones.
And through all those terrible battles, and rapid
marches and counter-marches, with which General
Grant terrified and confused the rebel foe, from the
Rapidan to the walls of Richmond, Little Starlight
conducted himself with sterling credit, winning
golden opinions from all, and, upon one occasion, a
hearty hand-shake from the General of our divi-
It was, however, at the severe skirmish on our
left, immediately following our general repulse from
the rebel works, and shortly before the transfer of
our army to the south bank of the James, that the
part which Starlight played in the great drama was
to assume a truly tragic phase.
The enemy's skirmishers and ours were hotly en-
gaged, and the fight bade fair to be bloody, if brief.
I was immediately in the rear of a portion of our
regiment, which was in reserve, busy with the
wounded; and Starlight was hopping about me,
doing what he could to assist, but now and then
looking up, and throwing curious glances toward
the fight, which was not distant.
Suddenly an exclamation from him caused me
to turn, when I saw him gazing intently, with his
hand pointing toward the ground where the skirm-
ish was progressing.
“Hooray! hooray! Dere he is! dere he is!”
He succeeded in directing my attention to a fine-
looking rebel officer, who was cheering on his men
in a charge they were making upon our position.
“Dat's him! dat's him!” cried Starlight, at the
same time freeing himself from his drum and cast-
ing it on one side, while his voice was wild and
strange with a fierce joy.
And before I could arrest him, or exactly under-
stand his intention, he snatched a musket and bay-
onet from the ground, and ran like a deer after our
column, which was advancing to repel the threat-
From my position I could see the whole affair.
The smoke of the musketry fire was thick, but a
western gale was blowing, and the opposing col-
umns were pretty plainly discernible. Then the
firing ceased, and I saw them meet in the shock of
steel to steel. The ranks of the rebels were bro-
ken, and they scattered back toward their abatis
and the thick woods on their right; but the officers
retained their ground, endeavoring to inspirit their
men by their own examples, and fighting bravely.
I saw Little Starlight rush headlong at the man to
whom he had directed my attention, and I could
hear his shrill cheer come floating to me on the
wind. He seemed to be but half the size of his an-
tagonist, yet they met with a shock which seemed
equal on both sides. The officer evaded the bayo-
net of his puny foe, and struck out sharply with his
sword; and I saw the blood spring up high from the
negro's neck. But the next instant they closed;
the rushing bayonet gored the breast of the officer,
and he rolled to the plain. Twice—thrice I saw the
flashing bayonet leap into the air, and flash down
again upon the prostrate man; and then, with a
louder whoop than before, Starlight sprang on fur-
ther into the fight; and the whole scene was shut
from my view by the gathering smoke, for the
breeze had died away.
The fight was soon over. The rebels were driv-
en far back into the woods, their abatis captured and
held, and we in possession of the field. My inter-
est in what I had witnessed was so intense that I
immediately hastened to the ground.
Our loss had been inconsiderable, but that of the
enemy was large. Their dead and wounded lay in
all directions. I found the officer with whom I had
seen Starlight engaged. He wore the insignia of a
rebel captain, and was stone-dead, with his breast
pierced many times by bayonet thrusts. As I was
standing beside the body, Sergeant K— of Com-
pany C came up to me with a troubled look.
“Little Starlight is dying, Sir,” was his greet-
ing, “and he wishes to see you very much.”
“Starlight dying! Impossible!” I ejaculated, at
the same time hurrying to the point indicated.
It was but too true.
Little Starlight lay at the edge of the enemy's
works, with a frightful gun-shot wound in the back
part of his head, and as many as twenty brave fel-
lows were clustering around him with sympathizing
looks and tearful eyes. You may not believe me,
but nevertheless I speak the truth when I say that
the brave boy grinned joyously when he saw me.
“Yah! yah! Mass'r Chaplain,” he cried, as I
knelt by his side and took his hand; “dis nig's
done for, he is. But did yer see me in de fight,
mass'r? Did yer see me tackle dat ole coon, Cun-
nel Billy? Yah! yah! I'se got it at last, mass'r!
I'se a awful cuss; but I'se got it at last!”
“Got what, my poor boy?” I whispered, with
a trembling voice.
“Freedom!” cried Starlight, springing to his
I saw that wild, strange gleam of passion leap
into his rude features, and then he fell back into
“It am a lubly day, mass'r,” he continued,
speaking with great difficulty. “It am ebening
now, an' de sun am setting, mass'r. But I hears
de big drum ob de sky rollin' de rebellie ob de Lord.
De day am breakin' for dis chile, mass'r; for I'se
got it at last!”
His voice failed him here. He moved his lips;
but in a moment they were stilled forever. He
I laid him down gently on the grass.
The Major had also been standing by.
“Come,” said he, taking me by the arm—“come,
let us go.”
And as we went away I saw his mustache trem-
There were three regular members of Company
C who died the death in that skirmish, but I think
not one of them was mourned with a deeper, sin-
cerer sorrow than was Little Starlight. One of the
sergeants, who was a rude rhymster in his way,
composed a brief epitaph for him. Others of the
company performed what little offices they could;
and the Colonel inquired particularly into the cir-
cumstances of his death. The Union slain were
buried separately—they were so few. Starlight
also had a little grave of his own. He was free at
last, and he thus came into the ownership of about
five feet of that earth which had not been a very
affectionate mother to him.
I said that he had an epitaph. It was scrawled
upon the rude head-board by the author; and, as
there is something epigrammatic about it, it may
not be out of place to conclude our story with.
Here lieth Little Starlight,
Whose ill-starred spirit won
Its right to blessed Freedom through
The foeman's deadly gun.
But he will, doubtless, somewhere
Shine brightly after all,
As the Stars are in their glory
When the shades of evening fall.