Boots and Saddles/Chapter 23
The second winter at Fort Lincoln was very much the same as the first. We had rented a piano at St. Paul in the autumn. It hardly had a respite from morning until late at night. Every day and evening the sound of happy voices went through the house. Old war-songs, college choruses, and negro melodies, that every one knew, were sung, and on Sunday our only church-service most of the time was to meet together and sing hymns. In our little circle of forty, many denominations were represented, but all knew the old-time hymns. The Moody and Sankey book had soon found its way out there, and incited every one that could raise a note to make the attempt. We had forgotten to bring a tuner for the piano, but the blacksmith made a very good one. One of the band, who had been in a piano-house before enlisting, kept the instrument in order. We had hard work to keep it in tune, for not only did the extreme cold affect the sound, but it had to endure the constant drumming of untaught fingers. Even my husband, who was not nervous, used sometimes to beg Colonel Tom to stop "feeling about for that tune!"
The general loved music, and had so correct an ear that he often sang or whistled the airs of an opera after hearing them once. Music so charmed him that when we have been in the States, listening to an oratorio, the Thomas orchestra, or a recital of any kind, he has begged me not to be hurt if he did not speak during the rendering. There was a Swiss soldier in our regiment who had contrived to bring his zither with him. My husband would lie on the bear-skin rug in front of the fire and listen with delight as long as he ventured to tax the man. He played the native Tyrolese airs, which seemed to have caught in them the sound of the Alpine horn, the melody of the cascade, and the echo of the mountain passes. The general often regretted that he had not had the opportunity to learn music. It seemed to me that it was a great solace and diversion to officers if they knew some musical instrument well enough to enjoy practice. They certainly gave great pleasure to those around them.
If the ladies had any accomplishment that gave gratification to others, it was never allowed to grow rusty. Of course, where there was so little to interest, whatever they did was overrated. Some times we heard of one of the officers of the 7th matching the perfections of our ladies against those of another regiment which he might happen to be visiting. His esprit de corps carried him so far that he would insist that no women sang, played, danced, painted, or rode as we did! We could only hope that we would never see the people to whom he had boasted, and so awaken them from his overdrawn story to the reality.
I used to pity the officers from the bottom of my heart because of the tameness and dead calm of their lives in winter. Each year's service with them made me wonder more and more how they could come through the test of so much unemployed time, the really fine men they were. Watts spoke lines that will do for all time, when he told us who it was that found mischief for idle hands. We had no good company libraries, like the infantry, because we had so long been without a place to call our own. Every officer coming from leave, brought what books he could, and they went the rounds until the worn leaves would hardly hold together. We women had many a simple occupation that interested us, but the men could not content themselves with trifles. If the young ladies and I stole away to try to take a nap or change our dress, we were almost invariably called back by the lonely men, who wished to be amused. They were certainly so grateful for the slightest kindness it was no tax. Besides, people cannot go up and down the face of the earth together for nine years of hardships, trials, and deprivation without being as nearly like one family as is possible.
I used to dread the arrival of the young officers who came to the regiment from West Point, fearing that the sameness and inactivity of the garrison life would be a test to which their character would succumb. When they came to pay the first ceremonious call in full uniform, we spoke of commonplace topics. I kept up a running line of comments to myself, usually on one subject: "I wonder if you are likely to go to the bad under temptation; I am sorry for your mother, having to give you up and be anxious for your habits at the same time; I hope you don't drink; I pray that you may have stamina enough to resist evil." Our sister knew that I believed so in matrimony as a savior of young officers that she used to teasingly accuse me of greeting all of them when they arrived with the same welcome: "I am very glad to see you; I hope that you are engaged." I hardly remember being quite so abrupt as that in speaking, but I never failed to wish it to myself. Their frequent difficulty was that they desired to do everything that the old officers did. I have known them rub and try to mar their shining new uniforms to have them look as if they had seen service. One, especially youthful in appearance, wondered how I came to divine that the reason he wore his grandfather's fob and seal, and carried the gold-headed cane when off duty, was that he wished to look old and experienced. I could not help praising them when they went through the first few telling years of service and came off conquerors. I was sure that had I had the misfortune to be a man I could not have borne the tests to which I knew they were subjected.
I am sure that we could not have been so contented as we were under such circumstances had there not been such perfect health among us all. It was a pleasure to live among so many hundred people and scarcely see any one who was not perfectly well. Another relief in that life was that we never saw crippled or maimed people, and there were no suffering poor.
We found our new quarters admirable for the garrison gayety. On Friday nights we all gathered together to dance, or have private theatricals or games. During the early part of the winter, while the supply of eggs we had brought from St. Paul lasted, Mary used to give us cake, frozen custard, or some luxury of which these formed a part. This, in addition to the usual ham-sandwiches, coffee, and venison, made our refreshments. As winter advanced, and the supplies began to give out, we had to be content with crullers, coffee, and sandwiches. There was very little spirit of criticism, and in that climate one is always hungry.
Of course every one relied on cards as the unfailing amusement. Almost without exception they played well and with great enthusiasm. Every one struggled over me, and I really worked faithfully to become an adept. For though I did not enjoy it ever, it seemed very ungracious in me not to be able to take a hand when I was needed. There must have been something lacking in my mental organization, for I could not learn. I had one friend who was equally stupid. He certainly was a comfort to me. We became perfectly hardened to the gibes of our friends when they called to him, "Come, Smith, and try this new game; it is easy. Why, even Mrs. Custer learned it!" I labored on, until at the end of twelve years of effort I trumped my partner's ace, and was formally excused from ever trying again.
A fancy-dress party was always amusing out there, for it was necessary to exercise great ingenuity in getting up costumes. We were masked carefully, and often the dress was such a complete disguise that a husband and wife were kept in ignorance of each other until the signal for unmasking was given at supper.
It was impossible to conceal our eccentricities living in such close daily association. As there was continual chaffing and innumerable practical jokes, it was difficult to know at what moment one's peculiarities were to be served up for the amusement of others. At all events, when one's personal traits and singularities were openly joked about, it was something of a consolation to know that the worst to be said was directed to the face and not behind the back, as is the general rule. There was one of our number towards whom we could not fire the shot and shell of ridicule. He was far older than any one at the post, and there was too much reverence for his hoary head to permit extreme raillery. I confess to laughing over some of his strange aberrations when his young lieutenant gave us an imitation of their company drill. The old officer, mounted on a horse as toned down as himself, stood in front of his troops and addressed them as he would have done his supporters in the old political days. They appreciated the stump eloquence, but more keenly the fact that while he talked they would escape the tedious evolutions of their work. Sometimes while going through the directions of the tactics, the captain lost his suavity and called a halt. Then, with all the inflections and emphasis placed as carefully as if he were flinging the Constitution at a crowd of citizens on the 4th of July, he harangued in slightly heated tones, "Men, do you suppose you are men? If so, act like men. If you are geese, act like geese." This would finish the self-control of even the oldest soldier, and a great guffaw would burst out. For nothing can be more ridiculous than a regular officer pausing to address his men in such a place. The drill is conducted usually without another word than a repetition of the exact language of the book of tactics. The young lieutenant in his position at the rear would nearly choke with laughter. He told us how he rode along the line, and prodded the soldiers in the back, without the captain seeing him, to try and make them more deferential. His short burlesque repetitions of the aphorisms, philosophy, and theories on all subjects, that the old captain delivered daily on the drill-ground, were convulsing. If the speeches themselves were half as funny as the imitations, the men would have been stolidity itself if they had not forgotten their discipline and laughed. My husband was truly attached to this officer, and spared him from hardships and trying campaigns when he could. In a measure he felt himself responsible for the incongruous position the elderly man occupied in a cavalry regiment full of young, active men. After the war, when the old officer was mustered out of the Volunteer service, he found that in his native State the waves had closed over him, and his place was lost in public life. The general went personally to the War Department, and solicited an appointment for him in the Regular Army. Some time after, he was surprised to find him assigned to his own regiment, doubtless because a personal application gave the impression that it would be a special favor to place him there. Had he only asked for an infantry appointment for the already tired out man, it would have been a far easier life for him, but it had not occurred to the general.
Many of us had been laughingly rechristened, and called a name that was in some way suggested by trifling incidents in our history. The names were absurd. One of the most delicate and refined of our women was a superb rider and had shot buffalo, so her intimates spoke of her, when trying to provoke repartee, as "Buffalo Ann." My sobriquet of "the old lady" dated back to the first days of my married life. When the general and his merry young staff returned from a raid in the Shenandoah Valley, they descried an old Dutchman, who did not care which side in the war succeeded, so long as he and his property were left alone. His house had been their head-quarters in a former raid, and they all rode up there to halt again. The old Hans stood on his steps as they approached and wafted them away, at the same time reiterating, by way of emphasis, "Gentlemens, I have no objections to your coming in, but the old lady she kicks agin it." After that I could not raise the mildest protest against any plan but that those mischievous brothers would exclaim pathetically, and in a most tormenting tone, "What a good time we might have if the old lady didn't kick agin it." Sometimes the mildest and quietest one of us all would be called by some appellation so suggestive of ruffianism and bloodshed that it was the extreme of the ridiculous to associate the person and the name together. For instance, the best regulated and least sensational one would find himself addressed as "Shacknasty Bill, or the Sinewy Slayer of the Ghostly Gulch." Another, always inclined to gloom, was given a rousing slap on the back as his good-morning, and a hearty "How are you, Old Skull and Cross-bones?" No one escaped. I used to think the joking was carried too far sometimes, but it was easy to go to extremes when the resources were so limited for a variety in our life. My own blood rose to lava heat when I found people twitting one another on unpleasant facts, and a smile of ridicule circulating. It was too great a triumph for the teaser to stir up wrath though, and the life was a lesson of constant self-control. Certainly it was excellent discipline, and calculated to keep one's self-confidence within bounds. It was the same sort of training that members of a large family have, and they profit by the friction, for they are rarely so selfish and exacting as only children usually are.