The Short Life of a Galvanized Yankee: A Tale of Desertion

Hark! Call to Arms. Amnesty for Former Rebels now incarcerated who are Qualified and Approved for Service and who Swear the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. One Year Enlistment in the Union Army. Full Pardon Granted upon Acceptance! Serve the Union!

Could anything be worse than this? It was his eighteenth birthday and Sandy Immelman sat on a bench outside the Provost’s office waiting to be interviewed by the recruiting sergeant. What was there to lose? There was nothing back home. Hell, he didn’t give a shit about the damned war. He’d volunteered to escape the drudgery of his father’s savage temper and misery of working for the old man at his sawmill.

And now there was the matter of desertion. The men who were the shit heel officers now would be the shit heel judges and lawmen back home once the war was over and he would have to bear the stigma of desertion. He had not had a decent meal in over a year. Days spent popping lice between his thumb nails, waiting for thin rations of watery soup and weevily hard tack while he stood guard over his blanket made signing up for one year in the Yankee army out West as welcome as a band of angels.

The recruiting sergeant relit his cigar, then continued the interview. “Mr. Immelman, after you enlisted in the Arkansas Volunteers you were at the siege of Vicksburg and the surrender. The Union granted amnesty to everyone at Vicksburg. So how did you come to end up here at Rock Island prison?

Immelman spoke slow and quiet. “That’s right, sir. The whole bunch of us started marching down to Vicksburg day after we enlisted. See, it wasn’t that we was beat down, not from fighting, no. Fact of the matter is, sir, I’ve yet to see a fight, just the siege. No sir, it was lack of rations whipped us. By the time of the surrender all of us was just skin and bones; wasn’t a dog nor cat left in Vicksburg and I dare say nary a rat nor mouse. Then instead of feeding and transporting 30,000 prisoners of war, General Grant reckoned the smartest thing was to have each rebel soldier sign a pledge guaranteeing not to fight no more against the Union. You’re right, sir, it was a general amnesty for all of us.

“Our officers told us, ‘Sign the damn papers and let us be gone out of here.’ Took two weeks to get all them signatures and for them two weeks we ate good Yankee rations, hard tack, salt pork and real coffee. Then when the papers was finally signed and collected we was ordered to stack arms. The Yanks give each man a half loaf and one ration of salt pork and sent us on our way as merry as can be. Maybe a feller had to be there to believe it. It was almost friendly.

“Our old units formed up and our officers began marching us east. We was headed some to Mobile, some to Biloxi. But then, like fleas hoppin’ off a dead cat, fellers commenced to fall out and I mean right off. We hadn’t marched three miles when one of my mess mates, Jonas Switt from Ireland, he breaks off to relieve hisself in the bushes, never to be seen no more, then another boy named Billy Dew did the same thing, and that very same idea, it come upon the ranks like a thick fog, it did.

“Pretty soon our captain halts us and he give it to us straight that any attempt to desert would be fatal. General Grant had allowed the officers to keep their side arms and horses. Holding up his pistol he says, ‘Don’t make me bloody my saber should I run short of bullets!’ Maybe all the piss and vinegar was gone out of us troops but the officers was still very much for the cause and hell bent to get us back into the fray, to hell with the pledge papers. However, they had scarce means of halting the columns to pursue the hundreds – maybe thousands – of deserters.

“Me, I took French Leave the second night, as soon as dark fell, walking west most of the night. I was gonna work my way back to the river, find a way downstream to the Gulf and then Mexico or maybe crew on some foreign ship. I slept under a blanket of sweet smelling red cedar shavings at a sawmill. In the morning a negro seen me crossing a cotton patch to get to a thicket of cypress and he commenced to hollerin’ his fool head off. I figured he was yellin’ for the Home Guard but within an hour of leaving that sawmill I was took prisoner by the Yanks.

“I don’t mind telling you, sir, there was a bevy of us, hundreds and hundreds of us from Vicksburg who had deserted only to be captured and throwed in the Yank stockade and kept there the rest of the year. Then in the middle of winter they trundled us up river here to Rock Island. God awful place it is too. I reckon you know.”

The recruiter came to the point. “Well soldier, you’ve read the bulletin and you know that President Lincoln has extended this offer of complete amnesty in exchange for a one year enlistment in the Union Army. You former rebs will be assigned to Western units . You will not fight in the South. Sign up, soldier, and you could be dressed in blue in the barracks tomorrow night with a full tobacco pouch and beer in your belly. You’ve read the bulletin. Swearing in will be in the morning.”

The next afternoon with 126 other volunteers Immelman became a Galvanized Yankee and swore allegiance to the Union and to the President and the officers appointed over him, enlisting for a term of one year in Company B, Third U.S. Volunteer Infantry.

Immelman’s friend Ben McGrath said, “I was so damned low I could reach up and touch bottom. Hell, I’d have signed up for a bar of soap and a plug of ‘baccy.”

Their clothes were burned and their heads shaved as part of the delousing regimen before they were issued new woolen uniforms and boots.

A week later their captain spoke to the officers and sergeants of Company B, Third U.S. Volunteer Infantry. “We board the train in the morning. At Saint Louis we’ll take on commissary stores, weapons, and ammunition. We’ll be drawing 150 percent rations with a wagon with two teams of mules. The Rock has left these men puny, and I want some meat on their bones, so quartermaster, you’ll issue one and a half rations per man, per day until otherwise instructed.

“We’ll detrain at St. Joseph. The overland march to Fort. Kearny will be off the trail so as to season up these reb troops. Our mission in the Nebraska Territory will be to protect the mail routes and keep those routes and telegraph lines open. The Cheyenne are tough – mighty tough – so you will drill, drill, drill your troops.

“Now you know and I know that these rebs have enlisted to get the hell off Rock Island. Can’t say as I blame ’em. Try to understand their situation. I don’t know how many are going to try to make a run for it, but sure as shit it is going to happen and when it does we’ve got to make an example of every deserter. That means you are to use any force available to halt a deserter. Tell your sergeants and corporals to shoot if they have to. We’ll court-martial any bastard brought in. It’s war time. Punishment will be swift and severe. Let’s hope it doesn’t become a problem.”

In the cattle cars, it remained quiet, save for the rhythm of the wheels against the rails. Each man mulled over his situation. Tobacco smoke and sweat permeated an air filled with guilt. Enlisting in the Union Army was an anathema back home in a land that was being crushed. Atlanta and Richmond were lost, and still Lee would not give in. The Union had tried to negotiate prisoner exchanges but every time the talks had ended with the Confederates walking away from the table while tens of thousands languished in the hell holes like Saint Albans and Rock Island, not to mention the poor blue-bellies starving to death in the Southern camps.

So stupid, so insane. Just about every rebel prisoner at Rock Island now regarded the war as a miserable and tragic folly. Only a very small clutch of die-hards held on to the initial fervor of the seccession. Lee had even turned down a three-hour truce for both sides to recover their wounded, leaving hundreds dying just yards away from relief. And rumors held that the Yanks would make the South pay dearly for the massacre of negro soldiers at Fort Pillow and would be in no hurry to release prisoners come the end of the war. It might be years before their release. The North would use prisoners as pawns to squeeze the South and exact further punishment. Loyalty to the South? Over half the men in the new B Company had deserted their units. Therefore home was not an option for most. And Lincoln’s amnesty offer came ever so welcome. Could anything be worse than the hell that was Rock Island prison camp with the gangs, the lice, the filth and hunger? Amnesty after the war, full rations, boots, a clean uniform, order and service in the West – the idea was like manna from heaven. Even before the war the West had held wonder and allure for men all over the world. Vast tracts of land were there for the asking and fortunes waiting to be made. This was the West. There was nothing in the South. The West offered a new start, and hope.

At Saint Joe the troops detrained and made camp beside the depot for one night to begin the 200-mile overland march to Fort Kearny the next morning. Marching off the trail, the captain’s mind was to coalesce and harden his company. Full rations and constant discipline on the march could lift the dreariness of defeat, capture, and imprisonment and could hopefully restore his men. How the shift in allegiance affected them he had no notion as yet, but was mindful and would observe. He had instructed the lieutenant and the sergeants that he wanted every man treated as a soldier – firm and fair but also to be mindful that these men had been weakened by imprisonment and, aside from any attempted desertions, to be judicious in punishments on the trek. “We’re leaving St. Joe with prisoners. When we get to Fort Kearny I want soldiers.”

The first deserter was a Choctaw from Mississippi named Long Charley. Long Charley was gone ere Company B heard reveille at Saint Joe. Vanished. The Captain filed a Report of Desertion with the U. S. Marshal before the march began. A returned deserter earned a fifty dollar bounty. Each of the three privates who had shared the tent with Long Charley got three lashes in front of the Company “for complicity.”

Somewhere near Marysville Trading Post two men slipped out of ranks as the company forded a stream. When they failed to show up for muster, a search party was dispatched, but was unable to pick up their tracks. The column continued without them the next day. That afternoon two Kiowa scouts rode alongside the column, the captured deserters in tow. One had been bound by the ankles and was dragged along, the other bound by his wrists ran until he fell. From the saddle the scout snapped a bullwhip until he was on his feet to repeat the run and stumble. The man who had been dragged died before sundown, and the other faced court martial by lantern light, lying on a cot before the captain’s tent. Next morning the troops were formed up to witness his execution. The poor man was too weak from the dragging ordeal to stand and had to be carried and set on a camp stool to be shot. The color sergeant read the article and stepped aside then signaled the drummer who began a tattoo. The man, Willoughby, hung his head, chin touching his chest. He wept and then puked into his lap as the color sergeant slipped a feed sack over his head. The impact of the ball knocked him backwards where he lay twitching and moaning for less than a minute.

Immelman recoiled. The circumstances of his enlistment in the Union army with its full rations and good boots had softened his opinion of the former enemy. The captain seemed decent enough and no one had mistreated Immelman as yet. However the execution weighed heavily. He saw the captain’s predicament, but Immelman knew desertion.

Halfway to Fort Kearny the company encamped for a week of drills – close order drills, marching, lines of skirmish drills, bayonet drills and weapons training. Everything Yankee was better, their gear, their food, their discipline. Ammunition seemed unlimited and the sergeants pushed and pushed not only marksmanship but care of weapons down to the minutest detail. Immelman wondered how the South had held on as long as it had.

On the Sunday before the last leg of the march to Fort Kearny resumed, two beef critters were slaughtered and the men given an afternoon of rest.

That afternoon B Company had its first contact with the Cheyenne. Three braves rode into the camp at a slow trot, halting where Immelman was turning beef on spits. The Kiowa scouts were sent for to parlay with the Cheyenne who asked for beef and coffee. Immelman watched. There were no smiles or gestures of gratitude. The three mounted braves scanned the camp, sneering quietly. The corporal came and passed a sack, the same sack that had covered Willoughby’s head, now with a pound of coffee and some flour, to a brave who handed it to the Indian on his right and dismounted pointing at a spit of roasting beef.

“It ain’t even cooked yet. Tell ’em that, it ain’t ready,” Immelman said.

Even before the Kiowa had translated, the brave snatched the spit with ten pounds of dripping roast, mounted his pony, and the three trotted slowly out of camp.

“Hey you, come back here with my spit, damn you!”

Later Immelman described the event to his mess mates hunkered down around joints of the beef. “Just as proud as peacocks they was. That iInjun slipped down off his pony smooth as silk he did, walked over, looked me right in the eye then lifted the spit, the one holdin’ the biggest roast, and before you knowed it he was back on that little mount with the three of ’em ridin’ real slow, not a fare-thee-well or a kiss my ass, or fuck you. Proud ain’t the word for it, no sir.”

“What kind of rifles did they have?”

“Nothin’ bad, just one old-timey muzzle loader, stock was held together with cord. Others had bows and mean lookin’ clubs.”

“Well,” said McGrath, “if that’s what they got to fight us with, we might be in good stead and them little horses wasn’t nothin’, jist ponies. Piss poor horseflesh if you ask me. Jeb Stuart, he’d eat ponies like them for breakfast.”

The opinion of Cheyenne horses abruptly changed two days later when a war party of thirty attacked a detail of twelve men assigned to cut wood as the company made camp by a stream. The mounted attack was superbly coordinated with a center line of ten flanked by right and left echelons of ten each swooping down on the work detail armed only with axes and hatchets. Two axe-wielding soldiers were taken down with nine-foot lances, and three more downed by arrows and war clubs, the Cheyenne archers in motion shooting from under their horses’ necks. The killing and crippling of the initial attack panicked the others who made a run for camp about 200 yards away across a small stream.

The attackers’ left and right flanks joined the center line of skirmish between the stream and the soldiers who were cut off though in full view of the camp. The braves pressed the attack again with lances and arrows. The screams of the men had alarmed the camp and men soldiers rushed in every direction in a confusion to get to their stacked arms and ammunition pouches.

Only the captain, the lieutenant, and the Kiowa scouts had horses and while the officers mounted quickly, the superior number of the attackers forestalled any counterattack. From their mounts they called orders to the sergeants to form a line of battle and to advance. But the minutes it took to organize the attack defeated its purpose and six of their own lay dead and six wounded without a shot fired. Before retreating the warriors wheeled into two perfect circles, the outer rotating clockwise, the inner circle counterclockwise around the fallen soldiers as smooth as a wagon wheels, the warriors waving their weapons and whooping war cries. The circles then broke into three units which fanned northward across the plain at a gallop, issuing an occasional war whoop and completely ignoring the firing of rifles from camp. No soldier there had ever seen such dazzling horsemanship.

That night pickets were doubled. Immelman, with mess-mates McGrath and Warton, watched the burial detail. None of fallen had less than three arrows, with seven in poor Horton, the corporal in charge of the detail. The graves were dug shallow then covered with stones from the stream bed. No ceremony, no words, no wooden crosses, no Bible readings, just sweat and dirt and fear to attend the leaving of this world. By morning two of the wounded had died and another two graves were hastily dug. The two Kiowa scouts were gone.

“Them Cheyenne rode like they was part of them ponies. Jumpin’ Jesus, I never seen nothing like it,” McGrath said. “There was this mighty big exhibition at the Jackson camp just before we marched down to Vicksburg. Stuart’s cavalry was ridin’ high. They’d captured a shit load of Yankee horses and everything was roses. They was 300 of Jeb’s finest mounted on the very best horseflesh. I mean the best. They drug artillery pieces and did fence jumpin’ and charges and half a dozen quick change formations but nuthin’ they did touched what them savages did on those little horses yesterday. My God, how are we supposed to fight that? How come they’re sending infantry out here when it’s clear as crystal what they need is cavalry? Sergeant says them Cheyenne is the finest horsemen ever there was and they have thousands of ponies. Thousands! Do you hear me?”

Immelman replied that the Union army wouldn’t have sent them if there wasn’t a good plan. “Look what they’re doin’ to the South. You think these savages stand a chance, McGrath? Your Injun pony gonna leap over palisade? Huh? And if must needs be they just might send Sherman or Sheridan out here. Then what? Huh?”

“All’s I’m sayin’ is anyone gits stuck out on the prairie like those poor darlins, and get rode down on like they was, they’re done for. Done for, damnit! Maybe if we had Henrys or Navy Colts we’d stand a chance, but shit, the time you take to reload . . . .”

“You worry too much, Ben.”

“And you love your damned blue-bellies too much, Sandy. They’re assholes, you ain’t learned that yet? Just ’cause they got vittles don’t mean you gotta love ’em, boy. They sure as shit ain’t gonna shower no love on us. You forget what they did to Willoghby? And you like bein’ called ‘Galvanized Yankee?’ Huh? That fall sweet on your ears?”

That night a full moon shone over the thirty-two tents. No one slept easy. The doubled-up pickets stayed alert. Immelman dreamed. He and McGrath had the last picket duty on the stream side of camp and stayed together, pacing the perimeter, watching and listening for sign, and in this dream they met by a willow thicket to share a smoke an hour before sunup. Before the match used to light the cheroot hit the ground, each man had been grabbed from behind. A blade plunged deep into Immelman’s kidney as McGrath’s throat was slashed clean through to his backbone. Immelman’s attacker finished him off by plunging the spit taken with the haunch of beef the day before into his eye. This dream put him in a state of fear he could not shake.

Daily, the men of the Company saw mounted Indians on the horizon, always at a slow trot. The soldiers marched, shouldered arms with fixed bayonets. Pickets were kept doubled and the men slept with their rifles. One day’s march from Fort Kearny, an escort sent from the fort met the Company company with the news of Lee’s surrender. A buzz went through the ranks immediately. Any disappointment with the news of the surrender among the former Confederates was mitigated by the sight of the Fort and the assurance of safety.

The men of Company B remained in tents. At the post, Galvanized Yankees faced strong resentment from the post cadre, many of whom had transferred West after Gettysburg and The Wilderness. Out of ranks they were snubbed by the regulars and called “Johnny Reb” or “Galavanizers.”

Once settled into post life, the captain had pitched in with the regulars, allowing Company B to live in tents and to pull the worst duties: digging latrines, hauling water, and standing night watches while the regulars lived in barracks and escorted wagon trains and mail coaches to Dodge or Fort Pierre. Immelman’s single thread of consolation was McGrath. Now, like him, Immelman had come to despise Yankees.

In the spring, the company was assigned to cut wood to construct barracks before winter. The trees to be felled were on an island in the Platte. Immelman and McGrath worked a drag chain hauling trimmed logs to a saw mill which had been set up on the island. With the two mules, it was tough work in the heat. One afternoon the left mule stepped on a blind rattler stretched across the path shedding its skin. The snake, pinned to the ground by the mule’s hoof, struck several times putting the mule out of commission. This invoked the wrath of the corporal, a regular, in charge of the detail.

“If you was leadin’ them mules proper instead of stragglin’ behind, Jenny wouldn’t never have stepped on that damned snake. It’s your fault McGrath, and yours too Immelman, you goddamned worthless Galvanizers.”

McGrath and Immelman were charged with dereliction, fined two months pay, and transferred to the trimming crew working from morning to sunset with axes and hatchets. During a lunch break on a particularly hot day McGrath allowed how he didn’t know if he could take much more of this shit. Immelman agreed and soon the cork popped from the bottle of the idea that had played upon both men’s minds for weeks.

“I am ever so ready to say my farewells to this shit hole, Immelman. Might just as well be a pair of mules ourselves the way a man gets treated here. Why they ain’t a spark of kindness within a hunnert miles of this place.”

“I think that’s the worse part, Ben, all the sweet has run out of life. Ain’t nuthin left but the sours. I can’t remember the last time I seen a feller smile. And don’t anybody laugh lessen’ he’s drunk. I want to see a pretty woman. I want to see children playin’ and I’d give a half dollar to hear a baby cry. I wanna hear ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘howdy-do.’ I wanna hear a piano or a banjo with people singing of an evening. I swear I hate it, hate it near as bad as The Rock and a damned site more than Vicksburg. A man needs some kindness in his world, dammit. That’s all I want, a little kindess. Let’s cut, Ben, you and me, let’s cut. I been thinkin’ about it ever since the punishment. Let’s cut, cut out of this hell hole. I say cut Ben, do you hear?”

“I’d be lyin if I told you I hadn’t been thinking the same, probably longer than you. But I tell you what’s got me flummoxed is the goddamn Cheyenne. Immelman, I am scairt to death of them devils. And there ain’t no way out of Nebraska Territory that don’t cross a hundred hunnert miles of Cheyenne.”

“Ben, I been thinking that we could latch ourselves to one of these wagon trains headin’ to Oregon or California. You got any idea how we could git in with one of them wagon masters?”

An excitement infused McGrath’s speech. “Lemme think it over. Lemme think. We can cipher this out, boy. I know we can.”

Dozens of wagon trains stopped at Fort Kearny each month. Some were trains that had formed up in Missouri or Kentucky or Indiana and others were lone wagons that had collected together on the trail for protection that numbers afforded. Approaching wagon masters at the fort was too risky. Wagoneers could peach on them, and once the two failed to show up at muster, patrols would be sent to search for them and they knew from past desertions that the search of wagons for deserters was the first evolution of the patrols. So the two planned to trek overland twenty-five or thirty miles west before approaching the wagon trail.

“We’ll only move at night; I reckon we can do at least ten miles a night, don’t you? Them injuns sleep at nighttime just like us. As long as we stay off the trail and are careful about our tracks we can do it, Sandy, I know we can.”

On the dark of the moon the two slipped from their tent with bed rolls, a compass, canteens, their haversacks crammed with food and forty-four dollars between the two. Leaving the post was effortless. They stayed on the main trail where their tracks would be mingled with the daily traffic. At Three Mile Creek they departed the road and headed midstream to the north for a mile. Leaving the stream around midnight they carefully brushed away their prints and continued north across the plain. They knew the patrol would push west to intercept and search wagons. Just before dawn broke they bedded down in a coulee. At dusk the next day they went over the plan.

“We’ll keep northwest for a couple of hours, then about midnight we’ll swing back southwest and pick up the wagon trail in a couple of days.”

An hour into the trek, thunder sounded to the north, the wind picked up and soon the two were facing into sheets of cold rain and hail.

“If we left any tracks at all they’s gone by now, partner. This’ll draw the patrols back to the post.”

“McGrath, this is crazy,” Immelman shouted, “we got to find us somewheres to hole up till this storm passes.”

Flashes of lightning lit the prairie every few seconds. Now the men felt very small and miserable and the natural urge for shelter dominated, but there was no safe refuge. Soon the pair crouched beneath a dead Osage orange tree under their wet blankets. Before sunup, the storm eased into a steady rain and they rose and slogged west hoping to find shelter. Trying to ford a rain-swollen ravine, McGrath lost his footing and was swept fifty yards downstream, his bedroll, canteen, and compass lost. Their rations were soaked, the hard tack now a white mush at the bottom of the haversacks. By noon the rain ceased and the exhausted pair slept naked on the wet ground, their clothes and the one remaining blanket spread out to dry.

McGrath woke Immelman just before dark. “We gotta git goin’, boy. I figure we can start south now.” However no north star shone through the cloud cover and the pair’s third night trek became aimless. Immelman had taken a chill from the drenching and now was plagued every few minutes by a fit of shaking.

“I can’t get warm. We gonna have to build us a fire, else I’m afraid I ain’t gonna make it.”

“No, damnit, Sandy. No fire. Them red devils can smell smoke for fifty miles. Here, wrap the blanket ’round you. Come on boy, you can do this, soldier.”

“Please, Ben, just a little fire,” he begged.

“I couldn’t make a fire noways. There ain’t tinder, not a dry twig on this whole damned prarie.”

An hour before dawn Immelman sunk to his knees. “I can’t go on no more, McGrath. I just can’t.” A fit of shivers hit him and he went into a coughing fit.

“All right, all right, Sandy. We’ll bunk down here but no fire.” The two huddled under the army blanket.

“Stop yer coughing, Sandy. Shush. I heard somethin’.”

“What? Is it a coyote? Some critter?”

“Hush! It’s a horse. I heard a horse nicker.”

It was Six Rabbits’s turn to watch the horses that night. The first coughs he heard he thought had come from one of the teepees. But when the ponies became nervous and began shifting he sprang to his feet and sniffed the air. Then he heard the soft whispers somewhere to the left of the hobbled ponies. He eased around the horses and made the outline of the soldiers’ blanket.

Two minutes later half a dozen heavy war clubs pounded down upon the pair over and over again breaking arms, hands, ribs, and heads. The moaning bodies were dragged thirty yards to the center of the Cheyenne encampment and bound.

In the morning Immelman awoke. He forced his swollen eyes open. He lay facing McGrath’s hands. All the fingers had been cut off and only thumbs remained. Now a fat squaw cleaved McGrath’s face in two with a tomahawk. Six Rabbits was awarded the privilege of scalping Immelman. Only thirteen years old, he’d never scalped before and lacked the finesse of a warrior. Immelman’s short hair from the delousing at Rock Island gave poor purchase to the boy. With his father’s black obsidian knife he began the cut too far forward and allowed the razor sharp knife to find its own path. Soon the left upper half of Immelman’s face and forehead were peeled back and taken with the scalp. Immelman screamed. When Horse With Wings commented that the exposed eyeball in its socket along with the screeching put him in mind of a great white owl everyone laughed then left to break camp. Immelman was an hour dying.

© Gary Ives

First published in August 2012, “Frontier Tales”, Issue №35

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