|We were soon embarked on a steamboat heading for St. Louis, on our way to Pilot Knob, in the Iron Mountains, where we expected to engage in action. From St. Louis we road to Pilot Knob by rail on flat cars. When we came upon the enemy, we found they outnumbered us greatly, and we decided very quickly to withdraw, the sooner the better. We were immediately ordered aboard the train and started off, but the load was too much for the engine, the wheels slipped, and there we stood.
If it hadnt been for Lieutenant George Childs of Nevada, we would undoubtedly all have been taken prisoners. Mr. Childs assumed command, ordered us all off the train, and made us push, thus giving the train momentum, whereupon we jumped aboard a few at a time, and finally rolled merrily on. But our danger was not yet past, since this all happened in a timber country, with but few openings, so we could not know what was preparing in advance of us.
We feared the enemy might have played mischief with the road bed, concentrating somewhere to receive us, or be lying in ambush along the track. Their force was three times as large as ours. At no time during the whole war, was I as nervous as on the ride through this forest, where at any moment, I expected to be the target for gunners of every description situated behind trees or other hiding places. Huddled up as we were on the flat cars, we were an easy mark for the most unskilled marksman. But to our great joy and relief nothing occurred, and we were soon safe in St. Louis.
We were not destined to remain quiet very long, but were soon ordered out to chase some ubiquitous rebels. And chase, we surely did! They managed to retain a two days march ahead of us all the while till we reached a point in Kansas where we gave up the chase. Our cavalry had skirmishes with them at times, and would occasionally find bodies of dead soldiers. We had to wade the Osage River and the Gasconade River in ice water, and there was snow on the ground. This was far from pleasant, considering that we had no opportunity to change clothes, or had no chance to sleep indoors, or dry ourselves before warm stoves. After we had pursued the rebels into Kansas, hopes of overtaking them was abandoned, and we started dolefully back on the long march for St.Louis with nothing accomplished.
At no time during the war did we go through such a campaign of starvation and disappointment as on this ill-fated expedition, which, we may say, was mostly the fault of General A. J. Smith. He was ambitious and wanted to make quick successful headway, also a rise for himself and his boys, and he figured that, by giving us very limited rations, our lightened burden would enable us to make more rapid progress. Since Missouri was not considered a rebel state, we were not permitted to forage, so we were in a quandary as to what to subsist on. However, hunger made us forget our orders . . . but we never stole anything, just took it! The officers read a portion of the law to us nearly every morning, in which we learned that whoever was caught taking anything that did not belong to him would be punished by having a certain amount deducted from his wages. Each captain was under orders to watch his company and report to the higher authorities any transgression of this law. Under threats we soon made it clear to our captain that if he did really try to fulfill the letter of the law in this respect, it wouldnt be quite good for him. So he never reported anything! By the way, it isnt all fun and pleasure to be a captain either!
The rule among us was to butcher in the evening and do our cooking at night. Meat was not always scarce, but often we had to eat it unsalted. We had no bread or butter. We never stayed long enough in one place to bake bread; hence, we had to substitute meat for bread, meat for butter, and for almost everything else in the food line. Our appetites, not to say stomachs, strenuously opposed this one-sided fare, and sometimes to such an extent that the food was promptly returned after taking.
As the pilfering along the road continued in spite of the numerous law proclamations, one regiment was detailed to guard the rest of the soldiers in the army from over-reaching themselves. One day when our regiment was entrusted with this duty, it so happened that just ahead of me marched a sergeant who had about as long fingers as anyone when it came to picking up things calculated to satisfy the cravings of the inner man. We had marched from early morning until about 1 P.M. without any dinner, having also had but very little breakfast. We then came to a large, fine farm house set right near the road, with a nice path leading up to the front door, and a nice little gate inviting as could be, and, oh my! The smell of hot biscuits being served for dinner . . . who could withstand it? Not only were we not invited in, nor might we take anything, oh no. We were to guard the army from doing that very thing, but the attractive place and those ravishing smells proved too much for the sergeant, and he slipped inside the gate and made for the house. Noting his action, I instantly plied my legs, and by the time the sergeant had reached the house, I was there too. The family had just eaten dinner, but there were yet many goodly remnants left on the table, and we reached over, apologetically but firmly, and filled our haversacks with hot biscuits, hot potatoes, and many other good things to eat. But lo and behold, when we came up with another farm house along the road and dutifully tried to guard them, there were others before us who had as keen a sense of smell as we, and guard or no guard, the food on hand was unhesitatingly appropriated. And the guards began it!
After this we were supplied a little more liberally with "grub", as we generally termed it, and had less occasion to enter peoples homes so rudely. When we finally came back to St. Louis, we found we had marched 700 miles, starving most of the time, and as we said before, accomplished nothing.
We were thoroughly glad to get back to St. Louis, as we hoped to obtain a much needed rest and clean clothes. We were a highly disreputable looking bunch as we marched up the street, our shoes being without soles and full of holes. Some were entirely shoeless and swung along barefooted. Our clothing hung in tatters, and several had to wrap these about them to avoid shame; nor had any of us washed since the last time we were in St. Louis. We now had a glorious clean-up. We were given clean, new clothes. The old ones were too far gone to salvage, so they were consigned to the flames together with all the inhabitants they contained.
Copyright © 1996 by John Ritland. All rights reserved. For permission requests, contact email@example.com.