Across Country with a Cavalry Column, 1885
by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum
illustrated by the author

The Herd, R. F. Zogbaum

This article appeared in Harper's new monthly magazine, Volume 71, Issue 424, September 1885

The day's march has been just long enough to make one comfortably tired, and the bountiful dinner which the Emperor--the skillful soldier cook to the head-quarters mess--had set before us an hour ago having been duly discussed, we feel a quiet satisfaction with everything and everybody as we lie stretched on the soft grass or lounge in camp-stools before our tents, lazily puffing at our cigars and pipes, and enjoying the calm of the evening. Before us run the rows of roomy Sibley tents of the different troops of cavalry that compose our command, relieved against the bushes of wild roses and willows lining the banks of the dancing, singing, merry little stream by which the camp is pitched, while, rolling in soft undulations on all sides, the prairie stretches far away to the distant foot-hills, rising in gently rounded forms to the snowcapped mountains that bound the horizon.

The horses, munching their evening allowance of grain, stand in long lines tethered to ropes stretched along and pinned at intervals to the ground by huge iron pegs, or run from wagon to wagon, as the fancy or habit of the company commander directs, while the soldiers are busied with curry-comb and brush grooming them under the watchful eyes of the sergeants. Huge mess chests, bags of grain, cooking utensils black with the smoke of many a fire, lie about, and some of the men are engaged in arranging the saddles and equipment. Through the open flaps of one of the tents the bedding of the soldiers can be seen spread in a circle on the ground, the gray blankets neatly folded, while around the pole in the center hang carbines and cartridge-filled prairie belts, surmounted by a lantern swinging by a cord, and as yet unlighted. Back of the tents huge fires are crackling and blazing merrily, the smoke from them rising straight upward in the still air, the company cooks busied about them, clearing away after the evening meal, or relishing some tidbit reserved from the general fare for their own private benefit, as, being cooks, they no doubt feel to be one of the privileges of their position.

Coming toward the camp, and moving in a cloud of dust, yellow as the purest gold in the last long rays of the setting sun, the wagon mules are being driven in from pasture, and their discordant braying and the shouts of the teamsters mingle harshly with the clanging notes of the trumpets, which now begin to sound the "assembly." We watch the companies "fall in" in front of their respective quarters, and the details for the new guard assemble, for, being in the field and on the march and an early start being the order of the day, the guard is mounted in the evening instead of in the morning, as is the custom in garrison. Guard-mounting does not take long in this case, although it is thorough enough in all its detail under the vigilance of the experienced and soldierly adjutant, and when the last notes of retreat die away the various officers come forward from their places in front of their commands, and, hands raised to hat in salute, give the short official report of, such and such company present and accounted for. Turning to the commanding officer, who with the rest of us has been enjoying his cigar in front of his quarters, the old and new officers of the day make their reports and receive their instructions, the guard is marched off, the adjutant unbuckles his heavy sabre, and, lighting his pipe, joins our little group, and the camp settles down to the quiet repose so well earned by the day's work.

Gradually our party around the fire is increased by the arrival of other officers from their quarters down the line, until a large and merry circle surrounds the cheerful blaze. The conversation becomes general, and the great flames, lighting up the animated countenances of the speakers, and reflected a hundred times in the bright buttons of their uniforms, cast great shadows back from the dark figures up to the walls of the tents in our rear, that are glowing in the warm light, the more in- tensely so from the blackness of the gloom behind them. And strong and manly faces they are that gleam in the fire-light; from our chief, seated in his camp-chair, wrapped in his cape, and the snows of forty years of active service in field and garrison crowning his head, from the merry-hearted junior major, with his twinkling eyes and laughter - provoking jokes and yarns, the stalwart adjutant, stretching his great frame on the grass, puffing at his cigar and chuckling at the sallies of his senior, down to the young subaltern fresh from the discipline of West Point, and on his first service in the field. The good-humored, weather-beaten face of the trusty scout and guide beams out from under the great flapping brim of his felt hat as he tells with modest and homely eloquence of many a brave deed and stirring adventure in the Virginia mountains and on the Western frontier under his gallant leader Sheridan; and the grim, quiet humor of the senior major, our second in command, a brave and unassuming soldier, whose bloody encounters with the savage foe of the pioneer form part of the history of the great Northwest, calls forth an occasional hearty laugh from the circle about the fire. He will be long and kindly remembered by his comrades. He has made his report to the Great Captain since then, and has joined the grand army of the dead. "Requiescat in pace."

Taps, R. F. Zogbaum

Taps by R. F. Zogbaum

With the sad sweet strains of taps rising in the night air, our party begins to disperse. The lights in the men's tents go out, the hum of their voices ceases. One or two of us still linger a moment by the glowing embers, loath to leave, and taking the last puffs at our cigars; but soon we too seek the shelter of our canvas houses, and quiet reigns in the little command.

Trata, tarata! I can't get 'em up, I can't get 'em up, I can't get 'em up in the mo-or-ning! The trumpets are ringing out in a lively manner, tata-taraing and clamoring away fit to wake the seven sleepers, and we spring up, broad awake at once. How brightly the sun is shining as we unloosen the cords that hold the flaps of our tent together, and step out in front! Whew! but it is cold too, the morning air, and the water in the tin basin, perched on three stakes driven upright into the ground on one side of our temporary abode, is just as near being ice as it can be and yet remain in a fluid state. Two or three tents down the line the cheery junior major is polishing his face with a rough towel till it shines again, and his jolly, hearty Good-morning! greets us cordially as soon as we make our appearance.

All is life and bustle over among the men as they go trooping off, some, tin cup and platter in hand, for breakfast and the steaming hot coffee that the cooks are already preparing, some to look after the horses or to make a hasty toilet by the stream, the dogs, of which we have several in the command, barking and jumping up to their masters with morning greetings, or foraging around the mess tents in search of a stray bone or other such luxury. The horses and mules, refreshed by the night's rest, are neighing and stamping, awaiting the coming meal, stable call having been sounded immediately after reveille, and the men are attending to the wants of their trusty four-footed friends. It does not take us long to make our toilet and to pack our valises, ready for our strikers to take away to the baggage wagons. The Emperor announces, "Sheneral, preakvast is retty, sir," and each of us bringing whatever we can lay our hands on in the way of a seat, from a camp-chair to a cracker-box, we are soon assembled around the little table in the mess tent, which is groaning under the weight of the bountiful breakfast the Emperor has laid upon it. An antelope steak, some frizzled beef, trout (fresh caught), fried potatoes, coffee fit for the gods, with condensed milk in lieu of cream--everything smoking hot and in lavish profusion.

Breakfast over, we make ready for the day's march. The camp presents a most animated scene. The tents are already down, and the details are busy rolling them up ready for transportation; our bedding, neatly rolled and strapped, lies alongside our valises, and is being rapidly transferred to the wagon, which, drawn by its six sturdy mules, has been driven up while we were at breakfast. Our saddles are packed and placed upon our horses, the orderlies standing at their heads with their own mounts alongside of them. Our young quartermaster is already on horseback. He has received his orders for the march, and under his directions the wagon-master is attending to the last details, and getting the wagons into line.

Breaking Camp by R. F. Zogbaum

Breaking Camp by R. F. Zogbaum

The soldiers of the guard, who form the escort to the train, are standing by their horses, ready to mount. "Boots and saddles" has been sounded, and the troops stand near their fluttering guidons, officers in their front, awaiting the command to march. It must be confessed they look a rather motley assemblage for regular troops, as they lounge there in picturesque groups, and their uniforms certainly are rather shabby in appearance. The majority wear the ungraceful slouched felt hat; there are some with the more jaunty for- aging cap, and one man wears a civilian's straw hat perched on the back of his head. We can not help smiling as we think of what the astonishment of some of our European friends--the natty English artilleryman, the dashing French chasseur, or closely buttoned, precise German dragoon--would be, could they be dropped down here in front of this command, and how they would inwardly comment in no very favorable terms on the appearance of Uncle Sam's troopers in the field.

The trumpet sounds, and the scattered groups quickly form in serried ranks. Another trumpet blast. Like one man they rise into their saddles and sit motionless. Still another signal, and like a machine started by some invisible power the column moves. Let us, too, mount and ride across the prairie, till we reach the head of the column, swinging out now and following the course of the little stream; we can stop a moment and let it pass. In spite of the guerrilla-like and careless look of the men, one can not help but admire the soldierly ease and grace with which they sit in their saddles, ranks well aligned, shoulders squared, heads erect, eyes to the front, their harness and equipment shining in the sunlight, not a buckle or strap out of place, carbines clean and swinging at their sides ready for immediate use, brass-shelled cartridges peeping from the well-filled prairie-belts, horses and riders moving with the quiet and orderly precision that long training and constant habits of discipline alone can create.

And the horses! Did you ever see better mounts? See that troop of sorrels that is just now passing! They have been in the field for weeks, and have passed through stream and canyon, over plain and desert, through thick alkali dust and sticky mud, yet how their coats glisten, and how proudly they arch their necks and clamp their bits, moving along at a rapid walk, guided by the firm pressure of the practiced hands of their well-drilled riders! Though the uniforms are dim and weather-beaten, though the harness and saddlery are of the simplest description, with little or no attempt at ornamentation, do not men and horses look ready for instant work, and work, too, of the most serious kind? And well have they proved by many a hard ride, by many a wakeful night, with hunger and thirst, and the exposure to the pitiless blasts of many a Northern winter, harder to contend against than their savage adversaries of the wilderness, their readiness at all times, for this is a famous regiment, and their motto of Toujours prete, which they proudly bear, is no idle boast.

The sun rises higher and higher in the heavens, beating down upon us with pitiless rays and dazzling our eyes with its brilliant light. The alkali dust, stirred up by the beat of the horses' hoofs, hangs over the column in thick, stifling clouds, making eyes and nostrils tingle, and al most shutting out from view the squadrons ahead of us; now and then we can see the silken folds of their guidons wave languidly, and make out the forms of the rearmost riders.

Prairie again all around us, but more rolling, and covered with long waving grass; in the distance clumps of bright green cottonwoods. We halt for a moment on the brow of a high butte to rest our heated horses and throw ourselves down in the soft grass. Some one has been provident enough to save a canteenful of coffee, and from this we have a refreshing draught, and with cigarettes lighted enjoy our short rest to the utmost. Ahead of us, on the top of the next butte, we can see the staff reclining on the grass. The major has evidently been at it again, for we can hear the hearty laugh of the adjutant as he rises, and the staff trumpeter sounds the order to mount again, and away we go brushing through the high grass. We are comparatively free from dust now, and although the sun shoots down its fiercest heat as the hour of noon passes, we can bear it more easily. The eye, too, is refreshed by the wonderful color of the rolling hills far in our front, where the millions of wild flowers covering their smoothly rounded sides blend their bright hues harmoniously in strong contrast with the deep blue shadows of the mountains. As we near the cottonwoods the rushing of a stream is heard, and we are soon standing on its high banks, looking down upon the swift-flowing torrent. The signal to let our horses drink is given, and we scramble down the steep sides, and ford the rapid current, rising almost up to our knees as we sit in our saddles; the thirsty brutes suck in the sweet water, cooled by the melting snows in the distant mountains.

The Ford, by R.F. Zogbaum

The Ford by R. F. Zogbaum

The day wears on in this manner. Now we traverse tracts of cactus desert; now dip down through some sudden break in the plain, and ford streams more or less deep and rapid; now we climb over mound-shaped buttes until we enter a little grassy valley in the foothills, and halt there to await the arrival of the wagon train, and to make our camp for the night.

Days pass in this way. We cross the great plains, almost imperceptibly reaching a higher altitude day by day; we march over the divides, and move up through the foot-hills, higher and higher into the mountains.


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