How a Yankee Musket Fell Into Rebel Hands
By coincidence, and not by prearrangement, our only great-granddaughter observed her first birthday on Easter. We haven't viewed the young lady yet be-cause she is a Rebel and her mother thinks she should not be told about her Yankee relatives until she is older and more resistant to shock. Courtney, the youngster's plantation name, is the principal production to date of our No. 2 grandson, Tom, who was named for his great-great-grandsire, a hero of the first day at Gettysburg.
That Tom, my grandfather, gave me his Civil War Springfield rifle, which he carried all during that disturbance. I gave it to my grandson Tom, and we can shiver to think it has fallen into enemy hands. At the moment, the gun stands maybe 15 hands higher than Courtney, who is walking and skips up and down stairs in Greensboro, North something-or-other.
I wrote a chummy letter to great-granddaughter Courtney on Easter, pointing out that Easter is a movable date while her birthday is not. It will be something like 830,000 years before the two dates coincide again. Meantime, she will have her birthday to herself. Courtney doesn't read yet, so her mother will tell her what I said.
My first recollection of that gun has it on the pegs over the wide kitchen fireplace, where Grandfather Tom put it after he was mustered out and came home from war. He was 18 the day he enlisted, for the duration. He used the gun as a varmint dissuader mostly on crows in the corn, woodchucks in the peas, and an occasional fox in the poultry yard. It was not a simple matter to get the gun to the scene and load it to surprise his quarry.
In the army, it took some time to load with prepared powder and shot. It was, and still is, a muzzle-loader with a ramrod that fits under the barrel. In the field, the soldier had a paper cartridge that he broke in half and found his powder in one part and his ball in the other. The pasteboard part was his wadding. When his charge was rammed home, he fitted a percussion cap over the touchhole, and advanced to the firing lane. After discharge, he fell back and reloaded.
Grandfather told me he fired 16 times that first day at Gettysburg. But back on the farm he didn't have army-issued help. He used powder from a powder horn, shingle nails instead of a ball, and a page from the Lewiston Evening Journal for wadding.
If Grandfather spied a marauding woodchuck in his sass, he'd be obliged to walk up from the field, get his gun down, assemble the needs for a salute, then load. By this time, the woodchuck might be in Saskatchewan or Alberta.
Grampie let me fire the gun, once. It flattened me in the dooryard dust, and I couldn't hear anything for two weeks. I think I was 10. Grampie told me in the heat of battle a soldier would now and then aim and fire with his ramrod still in the barrel, and this made a frivolous noise as the ramrod went by. Soldiers on both sides laughed at the silly lad who would do such a thing.
It was not customary by my time for the Grand Army of the Republic veterans to carry their guns when they turned out for Memorial Day exercises. The army had let the veterans keep their muskets, the importance of a well-ordered militia being highly regarded. But the Springfields were too heavy to carry in peacetime, and there was no place in the exercises to use them. Except for my shooting Gramp's gun, it hadn't been used in years.
Somewhere along the line, my grandfather picked up a single-shot 12-gauge Remington shotgun for $2, and that took care of the pests. It was also helpful if Gramp wanted a pa'tridge pie, which he sometimes did in the fall or when I was there to help him pluck the birds.
One time a slick salesman came around, and Grandfather Tom fell victim, as did many of the GAR vets. A history of the Civil War was available at a sturdy fee, and in it was a photograph of Grandfather in his uniform. Sure enough, when the book came, already paid for, it was a history of war. The picture of Grandfather was a studio portrait made at the war's end, similar to photos made of every mustered-out veteran. Grandfather already had one of them in a frame on the parlor wall. Now he had two, the expensive one pasted on the history's flyleaf.
THE GAR veterans had campaign hats with a gold cord, which amounted to a Memorial-Day dress worn with any suit of clothes. It was then called Decoration Day, and was strictly for memorial decorations on the graves of fallen comrades and sedate patriotic exercises. Somebody would always read the Gettysburg Address, and there was always a baked-bean dinner at the Relief Corps Hall.
After the official Decoration Day exercises were over, Gramp and I would go back to the farmhouse, put the horse away, take care of evening chores, and make supper. The souvenir Civil War gun was on its pegs over the kitchen hearth. He didn't talk much about the gun. He did, one year, bring it into our evening talk.
He said he meant to take it with him when he drove up by Caesar's Pond on an errand, and surmised he might catch a goose thereabouts. A goose did fly over, but he'd forgotten the gun. So he grabbed the buggy whip, stood up, and whacked the leather seat cushions twice so it made a noise like gunfire. Thinking he'd been shot, the gander fell to the road, and Grandfather took him home to supper.
And I wonder what the old soldier might have to say about a Dixie multi-granddaughter who now looks up in her time at his musket....