Autobiography of an English soldier in the United States army, By George Ballentine
CHAPTER IX. Tampa Bay—Indian Paradise—Beautiful Squaws—Forest Life—The Hummocks—Snakes—Humours of War—Lost in the Wood.
It was therefore with a great deal of satisfaction that the company to which I belonged, after having been about a month at Fort Pickens, received the order to proceed to Tampa Bay. We embarked in a brig called the Isabella on the 2nd of November, and bidding adieu to those of our comrades whom we were leaving behind at Fort Pickens, after a pleasant voyage of two days we anchored about seven or eight miles from the village and garrison in Tampa Bay, that being as near as vessels above the size of a light schooner can approach, on account of the extreme shallowness of the bay. It was evening when we arrived, and early next morning a small government sloop called the "Star," arrived from the garrison for the purpose of taking us ashore. About one-half of us contrived to stow ourselves into it, along with our muskets and knapsacks, though rather crowded. She was to go back for the remainder after we were landed.
After tacking about in the bay until near evening, the wind being nearly ahead, we finally succeeded in reaching the wharf. The appearance of the land, when viewed from the deck of a vessel in the bay, is like most of the views along the coast of Florida, of a rather tame and circumscribed character; as, owing to the perfectly dead level of the country, a green belt of vegetation covering a sandy beach is all that the eye can discover. On a nearer approach, however, as its distinctive features become more easily - defined, they arrange themselves into something more nearly akin to the beautiful and the picturesque.
Tampa Bay is a neat little village of wooden houses, situated at the mouth of the river Hillsboro, and close to the garrison. There is a small traffic carried on between it and the few scattered settlers of the neighbourhood, who bring in their surplus produce and exchange it here for goods or money. Its situation is reckoned to be one of the most healthy and salubrious in Florida; but as the land in the vicinity is mostly of a poor quality, and as the bay is difficult of approach for shipping, it does not seem destined to rise very rapidly in importance.
The barracks, which may almost be said to be part of the village, are a long range of log buildings erected by the troops during the Florida Indian war in 1837. They have a covered gallery all round, and are well adapted to the climate of Florida, being raised about three feet from the ground, high in the roof and well ventilated. They are also built on the highest part of the garrison, about fifteen feet above the level of the sea, an unusually great elevation on the coast of Florida. We were all delighted, on landing, with the appearance of the garrison, its neat white-washed buildings, and its grassy parade; while round the neat cottages in which the officers and their families lived, grew rows of orange and lime trees thickly covered with their golden fruit, then nearly ripe. In front of the barracks there stood a noble grove of live oak trees, which afforded a delicious shade from the scorching heat of the sun, and gave an air of quiet, and an expression of sylvan beauty to the scene.
The long greybeard and wierdlike Spanish moss, that droops in huge masses from the rough brawny arms of these giants of the primeval forest, gives them a venerable and druidical appearance which is exceedingly picturesque. This moss, which takes root in the bark, grows on many of the trees in Florida, though I never saw any on the pine. But above all it seems to love the live oak, to whose strong arm it clings with devoted affection; depending in long flexile drapes that swing most gracefully in the breeze. The proper name of this plant is tillandsea; it is of a grey colour, and not unlike long rough beards of a gigantic size in appearance. It has a very small yellow blossom, and pod containing seed, and is very valuable when properly cured, being commonly applied to all those purposes for which curled hair is used, such as stuffing mattresses, sofas, and chairs. To prepare it for this purpose it is gathered from the trees with long hooks, and afterwards put into water for a few days to rot the outer part, and then dried. The substance obtained by this process is a fine black fibre resembling horse hair. A mattress stuffed with this substance may serve for a year if not wetted; it then becomes dirty, and requires that the moss should be taken out and well beaten; by which means it becomes more elastic than ever. I had a mattress filled with it thus prepared, when I was at Tampa Bay, and I thought it one of the most comfortable beds I ever slept on.
On arriving at Tampa Bay we found another company of our regiment stationed there, two companies being considered requisite for the protection of the inhabitants against any sudden outbreak of the Indians. These, to the amount of several hundred warriors, besides squaws and children, still occupy a large tract of Florida called the Everglades; where they live in the same state of rude savage life to which they were accustomed ere the first of the pale faces left a footprint on their sandy shores.
They have game in abundance, herds of deer roam through the plains and glades, and crop their luxuriant herbage; numerous flocks of wild turkeys roost in the hummocks at night, and feed in the openings and pine barrens by day; and in the creeks and bays of the sea coast, or in the large fresh water lakes of the interior, incredible quantities of delicious fish are easily caught. Round their villages, in the selection of a site for which they display excellent taste and judgment, they usually cultivate a small portion of the soil in raising maize, or edible roots; and the little labour which this requires is performed by the women and children.
In this delicious climate, where there is perpetual verdure, and where the existence of cold or winter is scarcely known or felt, the mode of living of these savages seems not so very disagreeable, and with their ideas of comfort they must find Florida a complete Indian paradise. It is not much to be wondered at, therefore, to find them so reluctant to leave for a new home among the tribes of the Indian Territory. Sooner than submit to this, about fifteen years ago they waged an unequal war with the United States; which lasted several years, and cost America nearly as much, it is said, as the late war in Mexico. At the present time there are not in Florida more than a fourth, it is supposed, of the number who were there at the commencement of the war; as a great many of them at various times accepted the terms offered by the government of the United States, and were transported to a tract of land called the Indian Territory, lying between Arkansas and the Rocky Mountains. Those who refused to leave, and who were finally permitted to remain in a portion of Florida defined by certain boundaries, have been variously estimated at from three to five hundred warriors. But as they have almost no intercourse with the inhabitants, white men not being suffered to approach their villages, it is very difficult to form anything like a correct estimate of their numbers. The government agent, stationed at Fort Charlotte, a small settlement near their boundary line, for the purpose of trading with them, and who has been desired by the government to endeavour without exciting their suspicions to ascertain their numbers, reckons them at five hundred, exclusive of women and children.
Those who remain are part of the tribe or nation of Seminoles; they were as tall on an average as the men of our regiment, and though not near so athletic or muscular, generally more graceful in personal appearance. They have more yellow than copper in their complexion, and have the high prominent cheek bones, and that quick, furtive, and suspicious glance of the Indian race, which seems watching every moment to make a sudden spring in the event of any appearance of treachery. Some of their young squaws have a very pleasing expression of countenance, and I have seen one or two of these who I believe would be pronounced beautiful if compared with the prouder belles of European cities. The men, or warriors, walk with a most dignified and majestic carriage, and an air of stoic composure highly imposing. They wear moccasins made of deer-skin, and of their own manufacture; and go bare-legged in a short-sleeved sort of tunic, confined at the waist and falling down nearly to the knees in the manner of a Highlander's kilt, to whose ancient costume that of the Florida Indians of the present day bears a considerable resemblance, especially when seen at a short distance. Some of them ornament their dress with beads and shells, which they sometimes wear in their hair also, and both men and women are fond of wearing large silver rings in their ears and through their nostrils.
Parties of twenty or thirty of these strange-looking visitors frequently came into the village of Tampa Bay while we lay there. They were always accompanied by a sub-chief, a sort of lieutenant, who had charge of the party, and their object was to exchange deer-skins for powder and other necessary articles. They frequently brought a few turkeys or a few pieces of venison, part of the game they had shot as they came along; these they sold cheap enough, a turkey fetching a quarter, and a piece of venison of fifteen or twenty pounds weight, half a dollar. They always visited the barracks when they came to the village, walking through the rooms and shaking hands with the soldiers in a perfectly friendly manner. None of them, however, understood English, and we were all equally ignorant of the Seminole, so that our discourse was necessarily limited to the language of pantomime, at which they seemed a vast deal more apt than our men.
They showed us marks of gunshot wounds they had received in the Florida war on various parts of their bodies, pointing to our muskets at the same time and shaking their heads; and they seemed highly delighted when one or two of our soldiers, who had been in the Florida war, showed them similar marks, making signs that they had received them from the Indians. They laughed and talked to one another with great animation and glee at this circumstance. But the great attraction for them was two six-pounder pieces, which stood in front of the quarters; they always approached these with looks of the greatest curiosity, and apparent awe, cautiously patting them as if to propitiate them. They have the most exaggerated ideas of the destructive effects of artillery, of which they stand in horrible dread; and some of our men who were in the Florida war asserted that a chief cause of so many Indians having surrendered towards the close of the war, was owing to the Americans having procured two or three light field-pieces, though, owing to the swampy nature of the country, they could not have used them. As they always behaved quietly in the garrison, they were never hindered from strolling round any part of it, strict orders being given to the soldiers not to molest them. They used no more ceremony with the officers than with the men, frequently walking up to them on the parade, or into their quarters, and offering to shake hands with them with the most perfect nonchalance.
On paying one of these visits to the village it was customary for them to have a bout of drinking and dancing; a sort of Indian ball, which they held in a yard behind a house in the village appropriated exclusively to their use. The entertainments of the evening, on these occasions, usually consisted in smoking and drinking whiskey until pretty late, a few of them dancing at intervals in the most ungraceful and even ludicrous attitudes imaginable. They wound up the evening generally with a war dance, in which all who were not too drunk joined. This dance commences slow at first to a low monotonous chant, and increases in rapidity of time and movement until, like the witches' dance in Tam o' Shanter, " the mirth and fun grow fast and furious, and they yell and whoop like a set of demons or incarnate fiends. On these occasions, they sometimes quarreled among themselves, and ended the night with a general squabble; yet as care was always taken, on their arrival, to have their arm taken from them and locked up, until they were ready to return home, there was no danger of any serious accident occurring.
Florida received its name from Juan Ponce de Leon, from his having discovered it on Palm Sunday (in Spanish Pasqua Florida), in 1512; and not, as many of its inhabitants believe, on account of the beauty of the wild flowers and the shrubs which it produces, and of which it certainly exhibits a splendid profusion. It is natural, however, to suppose, that the charm of the scenery, and especially the singular beauty and luxuriance of many of the strange shrubs and trees, which would seem so wonderful to the Spaniards on their first landing, may have confirmed the adoption of the idea originally suggested by its striking appropriateness.
A great portion of the peninsula of Florida is sandy, and not much adapted to cultivation; but there are rich tracts here and there composed of hummock and swamp, which may yet, when cleared and drained, yield a rich reward to the cultivator. There are some pretty- extensive cotton plantations on some parts of it, and sugar-cane, tobacco, rice, Indian corn, and every other variety of tropical produce or fruits, may be successfully cultivated where the soil is good. Still, as long as the Indians remain in its borders, its resources will never have a fair chance of development, as the distant settler can have no security for life or property while they are in the vicinity.
During the winter the weather in Florida is delightful, the ground being quite dry and the atmosphere clear, and of that exquisite medium with regard to heat, neither too hot nor too cold, which one feels to give a bracing and invigorating tone to the constitution, and a pleasant buoyancy to the spirits. In summer the ground is wet and swampy, a large part of the surface resembling a complete marsh, owing to the frequent and heavy rains which fall during that season, the level nature of the surface, and bad natural drainage. It was purchased from Spain by the United States in 1821, and was constituted a state in 1845.
Our duties were very light while we lay at Tampa Bay; we mounted guard about once every fourth day on an average, and when off guard we had two parades each day, succeeded by an hour's drill. On the morning after that on which we came off guard we had to work a few hours in policing the garrison, and in cutting the usual allowance of wood for general consumption; the rest of our time, except that required for cleaning our clothes, arms, and accoutrements, was at our own disposal. Our commanding officer, while we lay at this post, adopted an excellent method for teaching young soldiers how to use their muskets with effect. As we always loaded with ball cartridge when we mounted guard, in place of drawing the cartridge when we were relieved on the succeeding morning, we were marched down in front of a target, which stood with its back to the sea; and being placed at a distance of about a hundred and twenty yards from it, each of the guard discharged his musket at it in succession. The sergeant of the guard accurately marked each shot, and he whose ball went nearest the centre of the target was excused from mounting guard the next time it came to his turn. This produced a great deal of emulation amongst all hands, and the result was, that most of them soon became excellent shots.
Having so much spare time on hand, our men frequently took long rambles into the woods, especially during the fine dry weather; and on these occasions, for some time after our arrival in Tampa Bay, there was a danger of getting so utterly lost in the woods, as not to be able to find the way home; thus incurring a serious risk of dying of starvation. An occurrence of this description happened shortly after our arrival, showing the necessity of caution in making these excursions, at least until we were a little better acquainted with the surrounding country. A young man belonging to our company had gone out shooting one day, by himself, and in his eagerness for the sport he had gone a considerable distance away from the path, without having paid sufficient attention to the direction in which it lay, to be able to find it again. When he began to think of returning, he found himself completely bewildered by the resemblance which one part of the flat, monotonous pine forest bore to another, and wandered about until evening, trying to find the footpath, but without success. As he had not returned next morning, his absence caused much speculation, and our lieutenant, thinking it probable that he might be starved in the woods if not soon discovered and assisted, sent a party of twelve men out to search for him. They were to go in parties of two or three, and to fire their muskets occasionally, at some distance from the road, taking care not to lose their way back to it themselves. After a few hours' search, he was discovered about six miles from the garrison, and within a mile from the footpath. He was very nearly exhausted when found by the party, and but for the measures taken by the lieutenant, it is probable that he would soon have died of sheer hunger and fatigue, as he had not the slightest idea of being able to find his way home, and was so nearly worn out, that he could not have walked much further. He had been without food for about thirty hours, during which time he supposed he had walked between thirty and forty miles, in the hope of arriving at some habitation or road that would lead to one, but without success; and he was beginning to lose all hope, when he heard the firing of the party.
In this portion of Florida, it is impossible to travel above a few miles without having to make a circuit to avoid an impassable swamp, or impenetrable thicket called a hummock; and being diverted from pursuing a straight course by these obstacles, he had probably been describing a series of circles within a short distance of where he was discovered. All his ammunition had been expended before he knew that he had lost his way, so that he had not the means of killing game or kindling a fire; but at night he had pulled a quantity of long grass which grew there, and covering himself up with it, he managed to sleep a few hours. One of the party, at the suggestion of the lieutenant, who furnished it himself for the purpose, had brought a flask of brandy along with him, and having given him a portion of it mixed with water, and a sandwich, he was soon so far recovered, as to be able to walk home to the Fort along with the party.
The hummocks of Florida are a peculiar feature of the country. The uncleared lands, consisting of what is called pine barrens, are wholly composed of large pine trees open to air and light, and between which there thrives a luxuriant undergrowth of palmettoes, and a great variety of richly scented and gorgeously-coloured flowering shrubs. A savannah of tall strong grass, five or six feet in length, which occurs here and there, and an occasional swamp, are the only relieving features, besides the hummocks, which diversify the dreary monotony of these interminable pine barrens, covering nearly the whole surface of the state, of which there is, comparatively speaking, but a small portion under cultivation. At intervals of a few miles, dense forest thickets, containing magnificent trees of every description common in Florida, except the pine, occur in travelling through these pine barrens. Oak, liquid amber, hickory, chestnut, cotton-wood, and magnolia, are among the varieties found in the hummocks, which vary in size from about one mile to two or three in circumference. The bottoms of many parts of them are usually swampy, and there is a thick undergrowth of thorny shrubs and vines, which makes it exceedingly difficult to penetrate into their dark recesses.
During the Florida war, the constant places of refuge for the Indians were the hummocks, and woe to the soldiers who followed them too rashly: Uncle Sam's troops being no match for the red men in those natural and almost impregnable fortresses. Wounded deer frequently fly to them for shelter, and when one of them succeeds in reaching the skirts of a hummock, after having been wounded at some distance, without the assistance of a good dog, there is small chance of discovering its dying place. I have sometimes been seduced into their dark and sombre shades, in following a flock of turkeys which had taken shelter in the branches of some of the gigantic trees; on such occasions I have generally been compelled to emerge from their treacherous recesses with torn clothes, face and hands scratched, and bemired up to the middle with the mud of the swamp.
In going through these hummocks, one sees the fallen trunks of large decayed trees lying scattered on the ground in all directions; these are very inviting to step on, when one imagines he is in danger of sinking up to the armpits in a swamp hole. Beware, however, I would say to the inexperienced and incautious stranger, how you tread on these fallen trunks; try them with your foot gently, and see if they are sound; many of them are rotten and hollow, and some of them contain dry lodging for a numerous and thriving colony of moccasins or rattlesnakes, a single puncture from the venomous tooth of one of which would make you grievously rue your reckless intrusion on their domestic privacy.
Snakes of a great many different varieties are very numerous in Florida. During the winter they remain in their holes in a torpid state, seldom making their appearance for two or three months during that season; but in spring and summer I never went out to take a walk without seeing a number of them. The rattlesnake, adder, and moccasin, are three different species found there, whose bite is exceedingly dangerous, and, in many cases, fatal; but they all luckily possess a very quick sense of hearing, and generally contrive to get out of the way before they are trod upon. I never heard of a single person being bitten while we lay there, though in summer we seldom went into the woods without wearing a pair of very strong boots, as a protection against a chance bite. These boots came up to the knees, and were worn over the pantaloons.
Alligators are numerous in the ponds and rivers of Florida, and may often be seen floating with the stream like the trunk of a tree, while watching for their prey, on the surface of the Hillsbro' river, close to the garrison at Tampa Bay. One of the soldiers who caught a young one, brought it to the garrison, designing to rear it as a pet, but as it gave no signs of profiting by the opportunities of improvement afforded it, utterly despising the soothing system, and exhibiting in the most undisguised manner the natural depravity and apparently incorrigibly vicious propensities of the alligator family, by snapping at dogs, children, and all who came near it, he was forced to destroy it as a nuisance. Opossums, racoons, squirrels, and rabbits, were found in the woods round the garrison, and a great variety of the feathered tribes frequented its vicinity, among which were pelicans, cranes, ducks, didappers, partridges, pigeons, parroquets, vultures, and a host of others.
Among the small birds I observed several species of the humming-bird, the blue-jay, the scarlet oriole, the redbreast, the woodpecker, the whip-poor-will, with that glorious bird of inimitable bird, the mocking-bird. It commences to sing about the beginning of the month of March, and continues to the month of June. The celebrated ornithologist, Wilson, has given a description of this bird, which I had read, and could scarcely help thinking must have been rather too highly coloured and laudatory, until I had heard a few of its extraordinary performances, when I freely admitted its truth. Its song, to which I have often listened on a still and clear moonlight night, for that is the time in which it warbles its most melodious strains, is indescribably sweet. It is the only real good singing bird in America; but I would prefer it to all the linnets, larks, thrushes, and blackbirds of the old world.
The lagoon-like bays and creeks on the coast of Florida abound with many excellent varieties of fish, and turtle are very numerous and easily caught. We often had turtle soup at Tampa Bay, as turtle could be bought at two or three cents a pound. A species of land tortoise called a gopher, which burrows in the sand, is obtained in the woods by digging them out of their burrows with a spade; this made a very delicious soup, which some preferred to turtle.
There is an excellent oyster-bed on a sand bank in the bay, about six miles from the garrison; and occasionally a few of the men, having obtained the permission of the Quartermaster, would take the barge and go down for a supply of oysters. Going down at low water, it was no hard task to collect as many oysters as the whole of the two companies could consume; nearly all parts of the coast of Florida furnish these excellent shell-fish in inexhaustible quantities.
I had been about six months in Tampa Bay, when a vacancy happening to occur, through the discharge of a corporal, I was appointed in his place. I could easily perceive, before I had been long in the service, that a corporal or sergeant held no very enviable position; that his duties were ill-defined, and the system of discipline loose and unsatisfactory. On this account I felt no satisfaction at my promotion; besides I had no adequate motive for submitting to the increased trouble and responsibility, as I had no intention of remaining long in the service. There were many things transacted of which I strongly disapproved, and I did not like the idea of sacrificing my individuality and conscientious opposition to these, by accepting this office. Owing to these rather peculiar views of mine, I would most decidedly have declined the distinction, had the opportunity occurred; but I was not aware of the circumstance of my having been recommended for the office until after I had been appointed, so that I had not even the chance of refusal. Not considering myself, therefore, bound to a subservient silence, seeing that I had not been a voluntary acceptant of the office, I continued to disburden myself occasionally by strictures and remarks, which I have no doubt must have appeared excessively ungrateful to several of my superiors. I have always been rather partial to opposition.
The expected war with Mexico became a very engrossing topic while we lay at Tampa Bay, in the summer of 1846, especially after the news arrived of General Taylor's first battle on the Rio Grande. The mail, which was carried through by a man on horseback from Augustine, a town on the seacoast, about a hundred miles distant, arrived only once a fortnight. Sometimes, on account of the flooded state of the rivers, which had all to be forded, as there are no bridges in Florida, it did not arrive until several days after its time; on such occasions its arrival, an event at any time, caused the most intense excitement and eager expectation, our officers on those occasions frequently walking down to the post-office, and waiting for their own letters and papers. On the day on which the news of General Taylor's victory at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma arrived, one of our officers having torn the envelope of a newspaper and read a paragraph or two, suddenly took off his cap, threw it up in the air, and began to huzza and caper, in the height of his exultation, much to the astonishment of the spectators, until he explained that General Taylor had gained a victory. As for the soldiers, I believe they were all very glad that, as there had been a battle fought, General Taylor had won it; but there was very little enthusiasm, I must say, at the reception of the news. All seemed to feel a presentiment of those "coming events" that "cast their shadows before;" the Rubicon was passed, and the present victory we felt to be the precursor of a campaign that would leave the bones of many a gallant fellow rotting in the soil of Mexico. As for the officer here alluded to, he was shot dead in the vicinity of the city of Mexico; had he seen the fate that awaited him, it would probably have moderated his transports at the news of the first battle.
As a means of passing the time which hung rather heavily on our hands at Tampa Bay, a debating society was formed in the company to which I belonged. The orderly sergeant of the company, a young man named Beebe, belonging to the State of New York, gave his aid in its formation by becoming an active member himself, and procuring the use of a large room for the purpose of holding the meetings. The rules adopted for the government of the society were few and simple, and any soldier, by paying a small stated sum as a subscription for the current expenses, and reading and subscribing to the regulations of the society, kept by the secretary, might become a member. Out of one hundred and twenty men in the two companies stationed here, only about a dozen joined the society. The meetings were held once a week, the hours being from seven until nine o'clock on Friday evening: they were open to all who chose to attend, the room being always well filled; and if they added no great amount to the valuable, though rather unwieldy and unclassified, stock of materials called useful knowledge, they at all events contributed considerably to the stock of amusement.
These meetings were conducted with the customary decorum of similar societies in civil life; a president, a treasurer, and a secretary, were elected for a month at a time; these formed a committee, and regulated the affairs of the society. The president gave out the subject for the ensuing week's discussion, and appointed the member whose turn it was to open the discussion by a short essay on the question to be discussed, at the close of each night's proceedings. The essay was either read or spoken, at the option of the party delivering it.
When it was first proposed, believing that it could do no harm if it did no good, at the solicitations of several of its projectors, I agreed to join it. Among them were several rather clever young men, possessing a good deal of general information, mingled a little too much, perhaps, with that sort of consequential air of self-conceit, too often engendered, by the debating society system. They had all belonged to debating societies in various parts of the Union. Amongst these, Benthall, an American, had belonged to one in his native city, Philadelphia; Williams and Vanduzer, Americans, to one in Boston; and Beebe, to one in some town in the State of New York. These four were Americans, possessed of a good deal of natural acuteness, along with a good education, and considerable information. Davis and Nutt were Englishmen; Donahoe, Lonergan, Madden, and one or two more, were from the green isle; while I was the sole representative of the land o'cakes.
The question proposed, as the subject of the first night's discussion, was as follows: "Whether is love or anger the more powerful passion?" I had been appointed by the president to open the discussion by the introductory essay, which I had been at considerable pains in arranging, as I wished to deliver it without the assistance of notes, calculating of course on producing an effect by this studied carelessness of manner. The vanity of wishing to be considered wise, is not wholly confined to young men of learning; and the ambition of being thought a distinguished orator, or a clever chopper of logic, may sometimes be found lurking beneath the worsted epaulette of the soldier, as well as under the dignified and patrician toga of the bar or the pulpit.
In the meantime, a trifling misadventure came very near turning my anticipated triumph into a complete disgrace. That no lack of exertion on my part should be the cause of failure, if the fates had decreed adversely to my success, I resolved on practising a recitation of my essay in the woods. Accordingly, on the afternoon of the day appointed for the debate, sallying out with a rifle on my shoulder, I soon reached a convenient spot, and thoroughly repeated my exercise, having done which I pursued my way still farther into the woods, until warned by the lengthening shades of the tall pines that evening was rapidly approaching. It only wanted about an hour of sunset when I began to plod my way homeward to the Fort. While walking leisurely along, I observed a small blue bird, about the size of a sparrow, sitting on a twig that overhung the path. In a moment of thoughtlessness I stopped and took aim at it with my rifle; I was about seventy or eighty yards from it, the point blank range of my piece, which carried one hundred and twenty to the pound. As I had not practised much with the rifle then, I could not have expected to hit at that distance; I drew the trigger, however, and the bird dropped from the branch. I looked with remorse on its mangled and torn corpse, and felt that I had committed an unhallowed violation of the quiet sanctity of the wilderness, that seemed to call out for vengeance. Angry at myself for doing that which I had frequently reprobated in others, and desirous of leaving those frowning pines, which one might also fancy were accusing, though silent, witnesses of this needless slaughter, I turned into another path, which I thought led by a shorter way into the Fort.
After walking about two miles, I found that I had overrated my knowledge of that part of the country, and that I was completely at fault. To go back to where I had left the main road would have been the most certain way to correct my error; but it would have delayed me considerably, and I should have nearly seven miles to walk if I retraced my steps. Besides, by so doing, I might be too late for the meeting, and I felt that if I failed to make my appearance, my absence might be construed into a want of confidence in my own ability. I therefore resolved upon taking a straight line for the highway through the bushes, by which I hoped to reduce the distance to about two miles. I started on this resolution, and for the first mile or so I got on very well, the ground being firm, and the bushes not too thick. But at last difficulties began to multiply, in the shape of thorny vines, that sometimes tripped my feet, and at others, enveloped my whole body in their meshes, tearing my clothes and skin. At other times I got up to the middle in a swamp, when I was forced to go back and make a circuit to avoid it. At last I was nearly losing both hope and patience, night was fast closing around, and I was beginning to think I should have to pass the night in the woods. I am not very superstitious, I believe; but the recollection of the bird so wantonly killed, haunted my memory just at that moment; like Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," I had done "a hellish thing," in slaying that innocent bird. Was this entanglement the penance inflicted by the spirit of the woods?
The certain ridicule of my comrades if I should not be at the meeting, again occurring to my mind, I was prompted to make another vigorous effort; and after toiling for about half an hour, I reached the highway, about half a mile from the Fort, with no more injury than torn and soiled clothes, and a few deep scratches from the prickly vines, across my face and hands. Glad to find it was no worse, I resumed my journey, and was home in time enough to be able to change my clothes, wash, and take some refreshment before making my appearance at the meeting, where I managed to acquit myself tolerably well to my own satisfaction, as well as that of my friends.
Our society existed about three months, a longer period than I had calculated on its continuance at its first commencement, and I believe that but for the choice of a subject for discussion of a rather injudicious nature, at least considering that the society merely existed by sufferance, it might have continued to flourish while we remained in that garrison. With a good deal of the absurd and ridiculous, there was occasionally a very fair display of talent and ability at these debates. The lawyer and the schoolmaster of the village, who attended one evening, attracted by curiosity and the fame of the discussions, were heard to express their astonishment and gratification at the skill which some of the members displayed in handling the topic of the evening. I am much mistaken if I have not seen more indifferent specimens of eloquence in the newspaper columns, as emanations of the legislative wisdom of the greatest nation in existence, than some of the speeches I have heard delivered in that society; and no mighty encomium either, the reader will perhaps think, if he has been in the habit of perusing one of the Washington daily or tri-weekly papers.
The question which was commonly supposed to have extinguished our society was to the following effect, "Whether does the civil or military life offer the highest rewards and incentives to an honourable ambition?" This question was propounded by Theoretical Davis, as Nutt called, him, who was anxious to produce several very important facts bearing on the subject, which I am afraid are now lost to the world for ever. Whether the commanding officer had heard the subject proposed for discussion, and considered that it trenched on rather dangerous ground, we never correctly ascertained, though such was the current opinion. This much is certain, that a few days before our next meeting, he issued an order signifying his disapproval of these societies, as being contrary to the spirit of the regulations of the service; so, of course, there was no more to be said on the subject.
A meeting of the members was called one evening for the purpose of deciding upon the best means of disposing of the surplus funds in the hands of the treasurer, when it was proposed, and carried without a dissenting voice, that as much whiskey as the money would procure, should be furnished and produced on the table forthwith. This was done accordingly, and an exceedingly convivial evening was the result of this spirited motion.
General Scott—The Coast of Mexico—A jolly Captain—A Gale of Wind—The River—Tampico".
About the beginning of October, 1846, we received a large draft of recruits from Governor's Island, who were distributed between the two companies lying at Tampa Bay, increasing each to about eighty-six men ; this we considered very like a hint to prepare for a move to Mexico.
General Scott, at the commencement of the war with Mexico, had been accused of a want of skill, courage, and patriotism, by a large portion of the captain Bobadil editors of the "great nation." This abuse he had received principally, I believe, in consequence of declining to adopt the very simple and cheap method recommended by the said Bobadils; which was to march through every town in Mexico with a regiment of five hundred men, and wind up with taking deliberate possession of the halls of the Montczumas, where he should remain until the Mexicans were inclined to come to terms.
General Scott, who knew how to "bide his time," had waited patiently, quietly digesting the hasty plate of soup, the bare mention of which had caused so much commotion among people of weak stomachs throughout the country generally. At last the President and his advisers, seeing no prospect of a speedy and successful issue to the war without putting his military talents into requisition, which they were quite willing to discover, or acknowledge, as long as they stood in need of them, began to think of employing him. The plan of marching through the country with five hundred men was now rarely spoken of, and the expedition preparing at the suggestion of General Scott, was being fitted out on a scale somewhat commensurate with the importance of the undertaking contemplated; which was generally understood to be the reduction of Vera Cruz, and a subsequent march to the gates of the city of Mexico.
On the 10th of December arrived the order which we had been long expecting; we were to be in readiness for immediate embarkation, being required to join the present expedition fitting out for the reduction of Vera Cruz. Our place at Tampa Bay, which, on account of the Indians in its neighbourhood, could not be left wholly defenceless, was to be supplied by a body of Volunteers raised in Florida for the purpose, until the war in Mexico should cease.
So desirous were we of escaping from the dull monotony of this place, of which we were exceedingly tired, that I believe many heard the orders to prepare for leaving it with much satisfaction. But the married men, whose wives and families were all to be left behind, were looking very dull; and as for the wife of our Lieutenant, who had four small children, she cried for a whole day, it was said, when the order came. Poor woman! if she could have foreseen that her husband was to fall mortally wounded, pierced in the body with three musket-balls, at the battle of Churubusco, about nine months after receiving that order, she would have cried still more bitterly. The wives and families of officers and soldiers were allowed by government to remain in the quarters they occupied when their husbands left; they were also furnished with rations until the conclusion of the war, when they were to be forwarded to those garrisons to which their husbands were sent.
About a fortnight after we had received the order to be in readiness, a merchant brig, called the John Potter, arrived to take us to Tampico, a port about two hundred miles east of Vera Cruz, where the forces destined for General Scott's expedition were to be concentrated. We embarked on the 1st January, 1847, and on the morning of the 2nd we set sail, and having a fair wind, soon lost sight of the low-lying, sandy coast of Florida.
We found our accommodation in the John Potter rather limited, there being nearly two hundred men on board a vessel not quite three hundred tons burden; but one comfort was that we were spared the annoyance which is usually caused in a crowded vessel by women and children, "there not being a single stick of a petticoat on board,'' as some one remarked. My comrade, Nutt, and two or three more of the soldiers, who had been sailors at a former period of their lives, were engaged, with the permission of our commanding officer, to help to work the vessel, which had left Charleston short of hands.
One of the crew had also become partially insane since he had been shipped there, and they could not trust him to do much work. He had just been discharged from hospital at Charleston when he came on board, and his health had not 'been firmly established, it was supposed, as he had a pallid and dejected sort of look. His insanity was of a mild form, and he was perfectly quiet; but he insisted that the ship swarmed with a crew of horrible-looking old witches, numbers of whom he saw perched upon the rigging, and who he constantly affirmed would lead the vessel into difficulty. Nothing could persuade him that the John Potter was not a doomed craft, that would never leave the gulf; and though he sometimes took a turn at the wheel, steering as well as the others, yet he kept always eyeing the rigging with a troubled and suspicious glance.
One of our recruits who had joined with the late draft in Tampa Bay, had also become insane a few weeks after he joined; he was named Hogg, and belonged to the north of Ireland. He had been in hospital for some time previous to our embarkation, but the surgeon was of opinion that he was only acting the character for the purpose of procuring his discharge, and he was placed in charge of a sentry when we went on board. One day, when the sentry having him in charge had his attention attracted elsewhere, Hogg, having climbed over the ship's side, got into the forechains, and stripping off his clothes, jumped into the water. The vessel was going at the rate of three or four knots at the time, and before we could get her hove-to, and a boat lowered, he had gone nearly a mile astern, and had he not been a very good swimmer, he must have been drowned. As sharks were numerous in those seas, and as there had-been one reported alongside several times since we sailed, few questioned the fact of the poor fellow's insanity after that occurrence, and shortly after our arrival at Tampico he was discharged.
On the morning of the twelfth, after a pleasant voyage of only ten days' duration, the coast of Mexico was distinctly in view. We had the cable all on deck, and considering the voyage ended, we were congratulating each other upon the short-and withal pleasant trip we ]^ad made. But we were rather premature, as it fell out, and our voyage was not to be over so soon as we anticipated. It is a very good old saw, the truth of which we fully experienced on this occasion, that "We should not halloo till we are out of the wood."
We had the clear bold outline of the lofty inland range of mountains, which the coast of Mexico there presents, in view for the remainder of the day; and at sunset we were said to be within twenty miles or so of anchorage.