Black Sheep

Black Sheep
A Fiction

Black SheepWell boy, you and me will sit here a bit. We need to keep out of Ma’s way. If she gets to talking about the Orange Irish, the potatoes will boil over, and so will she. The Orange Irish are still Irish, and so’s she, but she hates them worse than a dog hates fleas. I don’t understand it, myself. But no matter.

The War of the Rebellion
Hand me that picture book over there, will you boy? I have something to show you.

This picture is my infantry regiment. The 14th Wisconsin. Volunteers, mostly.

We served under Colonel Wood. He was a circuit court judge, and no more a colonel than I am a bugle boy. You give me a bugle, and I can make noise. Give Wood a group of boys, and he’ll get ‘em lined up straight. Most of the officers knew nothing about fighting, which was a problem because none of the soldiers knew anything about it either.

I will tell you this, boy. It’s mostly luck that separates the living from the dead in battle. Ma doesn’t like me talking about these things, but I think you should hear them. I’ve been running next to men who were blown to bits by grapeshot or Minie balls. Their flesh and blood splattered on me. Yet I never was hit. And my mind was strong enough to put it all aside when the war ended. More than a few boys survived the war, but lost their minds.

And make no mistake, we were boys. Lumberjacks, plow boys, milkers, a few fishermen, factory workers, and whatnot. Anyone who could walk and shoot was fit enough for Lincoln’s war. There were boys in the 14th who were missing fingers, or had mangled hands. Wood made one boy a drummer because he walked with a limp, which the drum hid. Not much use for drummers when the fighting starts. That boy picked up a gun and held his own. Droopy LeFebevre got his face kicked by a cow when he was younger. One side didn’t work, and he was blind in that eye. He survived Shiloh and Corinth, but he took a bad hit at Iuka, and died of infection.

You stay here while I help Ma. I hear the potato pot rattling. Ma might let it boil over.

Now, as I was saying, we were boys, and most of us probably thought the war would be an adventure. We assembled in December and January. Wood had us living in tents, which were mighty cold at night. Come to think of it, they weren’t all that warm during the day. We spent a few months learning drill and such. Most of us kept our own shoes or boots. The ones they gave us were not up to the task of a Wisconsin winter.

In mid-March we went by wagon to Green Bay. Then we got on trains headed south.

The trains were a little warmer than the tents.

There was no snow on the ground south of Milwaukee. When we got off the train in Cairo – that’s in Illinois, boy – it felt like summer in Kaukauna. We marched and marched, and marched some more until we got to Shiloh. We were pretty tired of marching, and some of the boys said they signed up to fight, not walk. They changed their minds on the sixth of April. When the shooting started, I don’t think there was one of us who wouldn’t rather have been marching toward Chicago. On the seventh we got shot up bad. There wasn’t a boy in the 14th who didn’t have blood on him.

Us Wisconsin boys could shoot. Most of us were hunters. Some of the city-bred boys from places like Chicago were more dangerous to us than they were to the Rebs. But even the hunters . . . well, deer don’t shoot back.

Now Shiloh was peculiar. The Rebs killed more of us, than we killed of them, but we beat them anyway. It was a bloody mess, but we were bound for more bloody messes in the future.

My neighbor down the way was in the 20th. They were in only a few battles. Still, over a hundred of ‘em were killed in battle. As bad as that was, over 140 of those boys died of disease. Dysentery, pneumonia, influenza. Those boys were mustered out way down in Galveston, Texas. That’s a long way to go to get back home.

I don’t understand how God passes out luck. Many a man, better than Rosecrans died in the war. But it’s Rosecrans they named a town for. I think the only good thing he did in the war was draw fire away from the rest of us.

Grant was nothing special either. At least not early on. He spent an awful lot of time thinking about what he wanted to do, and not enough time looking at what the Rebs were actually doing. Teaching your boys close-order drills when they should be preparing revetments is not good leadership. Grant was better when they took him off the front.

Many, many Wisconsin boys suffered and died at Gettysburg, but the 14th was never sent there. Boys from places like Fond du Lac, who might have been in the 14th, ended up in the 2nd, or the 7th, and died at Gettysburg. They had fancy hats and coats. Maybe their fancy get up impressed the high officers.

Now the Belgians around Kewaunee were dumb. Couldn’t read or write English, and they didn’t want to fight in any war. They were getting ready to riot about the draft until some fellow named Brice told them how the draft worked. Brice was probably a Frenchman. He most likely told the Belgians that Frenchmen, Germans, and even Indians were going off to fight. I imagine he told them if they weren’t happy enough with America to fight for it, they could always go back to Belgium.

They spoke French, and I spoke French, so we didn’t have trouble getting along, but the ones who came into the army weren’t especially good soldiers. They weren’t cowards, or such. They just didn’t seem organized. Maybe that was the officers’ fault.

Well, at least the Belgians knew Droopy’s last name was pronounced ‘le fave’.

Most of us had seen Indians, and thought they smelled. We served alongside them, and they were good soldiers once they took a bath. We’d never seen a colored man or woman. That changed when we fought at Atlanta. We were next to a company of colored men. They didn’t smell any different than us. Their leaders were white men, and just as useless as ours. The colored boys weren’t especially good shooters, but they fought hard. I can’t recall any of them retreating while they were fighting alongside us. During that part of the war, the officers often had colored people tending them at camp. Us boys didn’t rate. We did our own cooking and washing. Old Besaw, an Indian in Company F was a pretty good cook. He said he learned cooking in lumber camps.

Boy, I tell you, if the Union had been better led, a lot fewer of us would’ve died. We had a few good officers, but most were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Even some of the West Point officers were fools. They’d issue orders and counter-orders. One would say one thing, and another would say something else. They’d sit when they should advance, and advance when they should let the rest of the army catch up.

But the biggest mistake, in my mind, was how idle we were during the winter. Us Wisconsin boys were used to living in tents with three feet of snow packed against the sides for insulation. Boys from Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and maybe upstate New York stopped for long stretches of what passed for ‘winter’ in Tennessee. No snow, no floods, no particular cold, no frozen ground. Then we started moving again in spring when rain turned everything to mud. Personally, I’d rather march in cold than heat.

It seemed to us, the high officers on both sides were mostly from the South. It was like they had a gentleman’s agreement to stop for a couple of months.

I’ll tell you something else that seemed ridiculous. Flags.

We had a colors sergeant who was shot four times carrying a flag. Smart soldiers learned early to stay away from flags. They were sure targets for Minie balls. The fellow carrying the flag was almost sure to be shot. Why, I can’t imagine. He wasn’t carrying a rifle. What was he going to do? Stab somebody with the flagstaff?

The Violin
Have I ever told you how I came by the violin I gave you?

The war was winding down by then. It was the middle of December in ’64. That was one of the few times we fought in the winter.

We were pushing at the Rebs in Tennessee, south of Nashville. We were pushing up some hill, and you could hear the cannon balls whistling overhead. Some of us were coming up on an empty house, and the Rebs laid up a round short. They hit the back of that house, and blew it pretty much to smithereens. From where I was, I could see all kinds of stuff thrown in the air by that shot. Dishes, lamps, pieces of paper, furniture and whatnot. It’s amazing how much detail you can see when someone is trying to blow you up.

Well, anyway, among all that flying stuff, I saw a violin case, and some books. We pushed the Rebs back, and the officers called a halt to the advance. They told some of us to fall back and take up positions near that house. I remembered the flying violin case, and sure enough, there it was in the yard. Not a scratch on it. One of the boys next to me picked up a bible which had some dirt on it, but otherwise it was in one piece. I opened the violin case, and there was the violin, in perfect condition. The bow was there, and the rosin sack too. There was sheets of music under the violin. Well, I rigged up a sling, and carried that violin all the way to Mobile, Alabama. From there I carried it all the way back here. I guess I had that violin sixty years before I gave it to you. Your Pa said you could get lessons at school, so maybe toting that violin all over the country turned out to be a good thing.

Those of us who survived the war came home, and tried to get back to our old lives. Some of the boys I knew had a hard time with that. For some it was physical – they lost arms or legs, maybe had bad wounds on their face. For many it was mental. When we had reunions, some of the boys would tell of bad dreams, and waking up shaking with fear. A few of the boys, it was clear they’d taken to drink. Those reunions were not much fun, and I stopped going after a while

My Pa managed to keep the farm up, though he didn’t prosper.

When I got home from the war, I set back to farming with him. I thought maybe I could try my hand at raising sheep on a patch of land too rough to plow. It took me two years to figure out I wasn’t going to make anything from the sheep, so I sold most of them. The only one I kept was Blacky. She always followed me around like a dog. We sheared Blacky many times before there was enough yarn for Ma to make herself a decent sweater. I thought when Blacky died, we’d eat her, but Ma said no, so we buried her out past the edge of the mowed yard. It’s funny. I didn’t think Ma cared for that black sheep, but she cried when I put Blacky in the ground.

The Next Generation
Now, that Teddy Roosevelt is a different sort of man. He’s brave and smart, but kind of foolhardy too. Leading charges up hills is all well and fine, but I often wonder how much of what he did was trying to make a name for himself. Seems to me he always had to prove himself, and show everyone he was the toughest man around.

And that fool Volstead thought he was going to save the world by getting rid of liquor. Not much chance of that. Might as well tax it, and get some money off the stuff. All the Germans in Wisconsin weren’t likely to give up drinking beer. Boy, I can’t understand why all those senators and such have so little common sense.

The papers say we’re in the middle of a great depression. That may be, but it doesn’t matter much around here. Folks around here had nothing before the depression, and they don’t have much less now. I suppose some of the dairy farms are hurting because milk prices are low, but most of the farms around here are small, and the farmers know how to feed themselves regardless of milk prices. It’s been hard on your Ma and Pa, though. When we quit farming, your Pa had to scramble some to find work. I give him credit for being willing to move all the way to Minneapolis looking for a job. Sounds like he found something in Milwaukee yesterday.

Milwaukee is closer than Minneapolis, but it’s still a good drive. Maybe your Pa will be able to afford a better car.

I’m glad you’re here boy. It’s good to talk to you. Ma doesn’t like to hear my stories about the war, but I need to tell them to somebody. I’m an old man, and I don’t expect to be around much longer. Your Ma and Pa will be going back to Minneapolis tomorrow, I imagine. You be a good boy, and mind them.

Hand me my cup, will you boy? Well darn, I dropped it. No matter. Ma will come and make it right. I hear her calling now, asking who I’m talking to. Now go talk to Ma, boy, but remember, don’t get her to talking about the Orange Irish. It won’t do you any good to hear her cussing. Maybe ask her how we met. It’s quite a story. Well now I’ve gone and dropped the photo book too.

I’m going to close my eyes here for a bit.


My Great Grandfather, Pvt. John Bacon, Co F, 20th Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers served in the Civil War – or as it was known then, The War of the Rebellion.