One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith
XV With the Cavalry in Arkansas
The question of slavery had not yet been settled, and no one knew how long the struggle would continue. Kansas' contribution to the Northern cause was eighteen regiments, three of them Indian, and two Negro. In August, 1862, I enlisted as a private in Company One of the Second Kansas Cavalry under Colonel William F. Cloud, the idol of the cavalry regiments. Like other officers and scouts of that period, he had very long hair that fell to his shoulders.
A week after my enlistment, word came of the death of my father. It was a loss I felt deeply, for I depended much on his keen judgment, his superior mental faculties, and his high moral sense. Integrity, diligence, and sobriety may be old-fashioned virtues, but they were his rule of life and the cornerstone of his blameless and upright character.
My first assignment upon entering the service was to carry dispatches from our post in Arkansas, called "Muddy Camp," to the colonel of the First Arkansas Cavalry at Elkhorn Tavern, near Cross Hollows, about fifty miles northeast. Three others accompanied me, our guide being a sergeant thoroughly acquainted with the region. The country through which we passed was heavily timbered and full of Rebel bushwhackers, the kind that took no prisoners. We had orders to avoid roads as much as possible.
After traveling all night on horseback, we noticed in the dim morning light, near a deep hollow, a fallen tree
and a fine chestnut horse half concealed in the branches. Close by was the rider in civilian clothes. Our sergeant immediately recognized him as a notorious Rebel soldier and declared that the only safe thing was to shoot him.
"No," I protested, "let's take him along."
I promised the prisoner he would not be hurt unless he tried to escape.
Emerging from the forest soon after that, we struck a lane leading into the town of Bentonville, half a mile away. Scores of horsemen were in plain view.
"Shout as loud as you can," our guide directed, "and ride towards them with all speed!"
It was sound advice, for the horsemen quickly dispersed, and when we reached the town, no one was in sight. Not a man came into the village while we remained. After breakfasting there we took to the woods again and arrived safely at Elkhorn. When our prisoner learned that we purposed turning him over to the colonel, he implored us to keep him, saying they would kill him immediately. His pleas were so affecting that even the sergeant gave in and we took him to a large empty barn, where we all rested a day or two until another dispatch was ready to be taken back.
We again had to travel all night. At daybreak, within ten miles of "Muddy Camp," our prisoner said, "My home is near here. Let me call and see my wife and baby."
It meant going a mile or two out of our way, but I consented. His wife fried bacon and made corn pone and make-believe coffee. She gave us the best she had.
Upon reaching camp we turned our prisoner in at the guardhouse. A few nights later, shots rang out near company headquarters. While attempting to run the guards,
the fellow had been killed. He was considered a "very bad man." I was not sorry, however, that we had made it possible for him to say a last farewell to those dear to him.
When we moved on to Fort Smith, where the Poteau River empties into the Arkansas, I bought a horse that had come originally from the staked plains of Texas and was later used by the Rebels as a dispatch carrier. The Union forces had captured him and put him up for sale, but nobody wanted the lean, rawboned creature. He had only a few straggling hairs for a tail and a mane scarcely five inches long. In spite of his run-down condition, I was impressed by his magnificent carriage and splendidly bowed neck. He was dun-colored, with a cross on his shoulders, a black streak down his back from crest to tail, and black rings around his legs. A friend, who knew his record as a war horse, said he had changed hands for as much as eight hundred dollars in gold, and advised my buying him.
It proved a good investment. The animal was a natural pacer and very fast, high-spirited, and defiant of danger. Throughout the war he was a gallant comrade, and but for him, I might not be alive today.
Most of the army horses were dog-poor. It was well nigh impossible to find enough to feed them. Some subsisted entirely on split peas. Since his horse is a cavalry-man's first concern, we were always on the lookout for fodder.
One day two other boys and I found a cornfield a half mile away from camp and were filling our sacks with the fine ripe ears when a volley of shots came from adjoining timber. We were not armed, so we dashed back to camp, snatched our guns, and started towards the field again.
As we passed Colonel Cloud's tent, he called, "What's the trouble, boys?"
We told him.
"Hold a moment," he said, "I'll go with you."
"Wild Bill" Hickok was with him in the tent and rushed out, his keen eyes searching the landscape. This handsome six-footer was destined to become the most celebrated gunman of the West. Our little company of five scouted around the edge of the woods, but heard nothing.
It was now nearly sunset. The Colonel proposed our going a short distance down a well-traveled road into the timber. Tall trees threw heavy shadows on either side of the path. It was soon blacker than darkness itself. After advancing about half a mile, we were surprised by a burst of shots from a company of infantry, and we answered in the orthodox manner.
"Forward, boys," shouted Colonel Cloud.
The enemy ran and we pursued. A quarter of a mile farther, they formed in the darkness and awaited our advance. Our only way of judging their position was from the flash, the hiss of bullets, and the report. They had all the advantage, knew their ground, and were retreating to the main command. We moved blindly, not knowing where, and unable to see or hear anything until they fired. We had chanced death in the open many times, but this was different. How often we stopped and met their assault I do not know, but we followed until the Rebels opened up on us with artillery.
Colonel Cloud then ordered, "Surround them, boys!"
About seventy-five yards behind us we heard some poor fellow shout, "I surrender!" One of our group worked his way back and took him prisoner.
Strange to say, not one of our little group of five was touched. We learned later that we had been driving a full company back four miles to where their regiment was encamped. They broke camp immediately, and the next day our cavalry followed, overtaking them at Backbone Ridge and forcing them to fight.
Late in November, 1862, Confederate forces were preparing for an invasion of Missouri. General John S. Marmaduke had stationed seven thousand cavalry and some artillery on Cane Hill in northwestern Arkansas, a vantage point from which to guard mountain passes and also near fine farming land. In a brief sharp contest the Federal leader, General James G. Blunt, succeeded in wresting this position from Confederate hands, driving Marmaduke south towards Van Buren.
I was one of a squad of a hundred men from the Second Kansas Cavalry sent from Cane Hill on December 4, to scout around and forestall any enemy maneuvers. After crossing Reed's Mountain, we struck the head of Cove Creek, a crooked stream, winding for many miles through a narrow valley bordered by heavy timber and with mountains on either side. The road zigzagged back and forth, necessitating our crossing the stream every quarter of a mile or so. In a distance of twenty miles through the gorge the road crossed the stream about thirty-five times.
Before long we came upon Rebel pickets, and a tree-to-tree fight ensued. A Confederate officer, Lieutenant Vivian, rode a white horse. He would dismount and fire from behind a tree, then make an open run for another, always under the hiss of bullets. In spite of his reckless
movements, repeated scores of times, he was never hit. He seemed to bear a charmed life.
By mutual consent, apparently, the firing ceased when darkness fell. Both parties kept campfires burning during the night. The next day we drove the Rebels back slowly until we struck their main army. We then retreated through the narrow valley to our own camp at the foot of Reed's Mountain.
That same nightit was Saturday, December 6Lew Graham and I took it upon ourselves to do a little more scouting, and heard what we concluded were enemy wagons, cavalry, and artillery, passing up the "Line Road," a traveled highway about two miles east, running north and south. We told the other men about it the next morning while sitting at mess, which consisted of coffee, crackers, and sow belly. Colonel Cloud, who had ridden up, overheard our remarks.
"Boys, you are mistaken," he declared.
Just then cannons commenced booming in the distance.
"You are right!" exclaimed the Colonel.
It seems that the Confederate General, Thomas C. Hindman, had determined to move his entire army north and strike our position at Cane Hill, but changed his plans suddenly during the night. Instead, he decided to attack a column of Federal reinforcements at Rhea's Mills, some eight miles from us. General Francis J. Herron, with his Second and Third Divisions, had been making forced marches from Springfield, Missouri, to come to our assistance, and Hindman hoped to turn him back. The roar of artillery and the crackling of guns in the distance informed us that Herron, who had only eight
thousand men, was now engaged with Hindman's army of from ten to twelve thousand. Some estimates of Hindman's strength were far higher than that.
No bloodhound on a fresh trail was ever more anxious to find his quarry than were we of the Third Brigadethe Second Kansas Cavalry, Eleventh Infantry, and First Indian Regiment. The cavalry approached Rhea's Mills at full gallop, while the infantry followed at double-quick. Our arrival put fresh courage into Herron's exhausted troops.
The Indians attacked the Rebels as they were swinging on Herron's left flank, but were driven back with heavy loss. The cavalry, which fought dismounted, met the enemy as they came on a charge, preceded by the regular Rebel yell. Words cannot describe that blood-curdling sound. The Indian's yell cannot compare with it.
The Federal stand was made on the open prairie behind a heavy rail fence and a group of large haystacks, about a hundred yards from the edge of the timber where the enemy met our advance with a galling fire of musketry. General Blunt ordered the twelve-pound howitzers attached to the Second Cavalry to be moved into the timber on the right of our infantry. Since there was no water, these cannon had to be "thumbed," and became badly burned, but the shot and shell we delivered succeeded in checking the Confederates and in driving them back beyond the crest of a hill. Whenever we attempted to reach the summit of that hill, however, we encountered such terrific fire that we were forced to fall back to a less exposed position.
I had a Whitney rifle, a muzzle loader. We used paper cartridges. You had to bite the paper, put the cartridge
in the muzzle of the gun, seize the gun by the barrel, and stamp it hard on the ground. Your gun was then loaded, ready for action when capped, an operation done by hand. It carried a "minnie ball," hollow at the butt and expanded, making a forced bullet and a deadly weapon. I fired ninety times.
It was a desperate struggle. There were few occasions during the Civil War when bullets flew thicker than on that Sunday, December 7, 1862, at Prairie Grove. The fighting did not cease until after dark, when every gun flashed as it discharged. All of our howitzer horses were killed; so we hauled the cannon back by hand. Rebels were in front and on both sides of us at the time, hardly sixty feet distant.
The contest apparently was still undecided. The Confederates bivouacked in the woods where they had formed in the morning, and the Federal troops remained on the open prairie. Although the night was frosty, neither side ventured for several hours to build any fires. A group of Negro cabins half a mile from our field of battle was equipped with huge fireplaces and offered welcome refuge. All of the wounded that we could reach were brought in, though some of our men had, of course, fallen within Confederate lines.
About nine o'clock, Si Everettgood old Si of Wakarusaand little Sylvanus Heberling came to me and proposed going back to look for Joe Henderson, our quartermaster sergeant. We had seem him fall. The three of us took a stretcher and crept cautiously through a field of standing corn. On the edge of it, near an orchard, we could plainly see a chain guard, placed there by the enemy. Soldiers, stationed a few rods apart, would walk
a beat in one direction or the other, then retrace their steps and repeat. Joe had fallen some fifty yards beyond this line. We decided to take a chance and crawl between the guards. Nobody saw us and we moved stealthily forward but did not find Joe. A little farther on was a house. We made for that. On the porch, with many others, lay Joedead, stripped of his outer clothes, boots, and socks.
Things were stirring in the Rebel camp, so we hastily withdrew, returning as quietly as possible to the line where the chain guard had been. It was no longer there. Anxious to discover what was going on, we did a little reconnoitering and learned that their artillery was moving, the wheels muffled with torn blankets to minimize the sound. Our guess was that they were getting into position for tomorrow's battle. Instead, they were slipping away under the cover of night. They left numerous fires burning in the hope of deceiving our men.
On the way back to the cabins we came upon a soldier lying in the cornfield. He was breathing, and we rolled him gently onto our stretcher. When we reached camp, a surgeon removed the grape and he recovered. After the war, I received a nice letter from him. He lived near Emporia and his name was Butner.
We learned later that Hindman, being far from his base of supplies, had orders from his superior, General Holmes, to retreat. In a truce drawn up between Blunt and Hindman the next morning was an agreement as to exchange of prisoners. Hindman, who was given six hours in which to bury his dead, used this as an excuse to get his army over the mountains, too far for Federal troops to attempt pursuit. There had been a report, later
proved false, which probably had something to do with Hindman's hasty withdrawal. This was to the effect that General John M. Schofield had arrived in Fayetteville with reinforcements and was coming to Blunt's assistance. General Schofield, who had relinquished command of the Army of the Frontier in November, did not resume command until late in December. The withdrawal of Hindman's army after the Battle of Prairie Grove left virtually all of northwestern Arkansas in Federal hands.
Although, by some miracle, I came through this battle without a scratch, I was less fortunate at Dardanelle, a spot halfway between Fort Smith and Little Rock. There, during a scouting expedition, I was shot twicethrough the left side, arm, and hand.
When I fell, "Wild Bill" ran to help me, but concluded I was about gone. Taking a heavy woolen scarf, he folded it quickly and placed it under my head, saying, "Goodbye, Frank. This will help you die easy."
"Wild Bill" Hickok was a loyal friend, as I had many opportunities to prove. He came to Kansas in 1855 and became a stage driver on the Santa Fe Trail. As sharpshooter, scout, and spy for the Union army, he had many narrow escapes. He was captured several times and sentenced to be shot.
Once, when we were breaking camp south of Little Rock, a sergeant of Company G got into a quarrel with "Wild Bill" and shot him through the body. He fell and was carried into a tent. My thought was, "That ends Wild Bill'." We were leaving for Fort Smith and I never expected to see him again. Our route lay up the north side of the Arkansas River. Since I had followed
this road before, I was ordered to go in advance as guide with a few companions. On a second day's march, while still in the lead, we found ourselves quite close to the river. A steamboat was pulling upstream. When the pilot saw soldiers in Federal uniforms, he headed for the shore. A gangplank was thrown out, and who should walk down it but "Wild Bill" Hickok! He was tough in more ways than one!
After the war was over, he took part in Indian campaigns under Generals Custer, Hancock, and Sheridan. His name was later linked with Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and other fearless marshals who helped to tame the rough "cow towns" of the frontier. He upheld the law so effectively that he was appointed marshal at Hays City and Abilene, where he recovered hundreds of stolen horses and mules. In 1876 he joined the gold rush to the Black Hills of South Dakota. While playing in a friendly poker game at Deadwood, he was mortally wounded by a drunken gambler.
Soon after Dardanelle I was ordered to the hospital for convalescents at the old Rector Farm near Fort Smith, because of the bullet wound in my side. The Rector House was a square two-story building with four rooms on each floor and four patients to a room. The Arsenal itself was surrounded by a stone wall on the east and south sides, and on the west and north was defended by the Arkansas and Poteau rivers. The stone commissary building was located on the northeast corner of the garrison, built up against the wall, which was about twelve feet high.
The Poteau at this point was deep enough for ordinary steamboats. In the bed of the river lay several
wrecked craft that the Rebels had destroyed in order to prevent their falling into Federal hands. The water was deep and placid for a couple of miles from the mouth. The only way for commissary stores to reach us was by boats down the river or by wagon train. Food was scarce and we often went hungry.
Each of the thirty-two patients put all his money into a general fund to pay for the meals, prepared by a Negro womanthat is, all the patients but one. Somebody discovered that a man whom I shall call Butcher had twenty-two dollars on hand, but had not contributed anything to the "pot." He always had a good appetite when meals were served; so we worked out a scheme to get his money.
I arranged a "three-card monte" game with some decks that had been given me. This is an absolute steal. The man that "bucks" the game has no possible chance of winning unless it suits the dealer. The other boys were onto the game. They made several small bets and won before Butcher would venture. Meanwhile, the winning card had been marked with a pencil for his benefit, while the dealer was not looking.
Finally Butcher hesitatingly bet a dollar, and won it. The boys urged him to go his all; but no, he bet another dollar and won. He was greatly excited, and after a short consultation, placed his all on the game and turned his card; it was a deuce instead of a trey. Poor Butcher was dumbfounded.
We had crimped the cards beforehand, fastening a third spot on the deuce card with white wax. This was removed by drawing the fingernail under the card.
Butcher ran from the room and returned in a few
minutes with a new army overcoat. Meanwhile the deuce had changed back to a trey.
The boys whispered to him, "Are you blind? Didn't you see the marked card?"
He examined the cards, felt of them, and requested me to throw again, betting his overcoat against seven dollars. Of course, he lost. We then explained our trick and why we played it on him. The money went into the "pot," Butcher getting his share. He broke down and cried. He admitted he had it coming to him. The coat was one he had bought for only three dollars from a helpless young fellow with a stiff knee. I tossed the overcoat back to its rightful owner, and felt we had accomplished a good days work.
After three months in the convalescent hospital, I rejoined my regiment at Clarksville, Arkansas, where I was put on detached service in the commissary department, my main task being to furnish beef. It was not a question of buying, but of finding cattle. They were very scarce, but could occasionally be seen running wild throughout the country, mostly in the canebrakes. Although my side still had a running sore, and my left arm was tied to a board, I could do very well in the saddle.
Five of us started off one day to look for cattle. We came to a large plantation adjoining the Arkansas River. The owner was Mrs. Howell, whose family before the War had been wealthy members of the Southern aristocracy. Her most valuable slaves she had recently sent south. Mrs. Howell was a widow and the mother of seven children.
To our amazement, we found a large detail of Union
soldiers loading two wagons with food they had found withinmeal, bacon, canned fruits, and preserves. We jumped our horses over the low rail fence surrounding the house and accosted the men.
"What's going on here?" I demanded. Receiving no reply, I went into the house. Here were more soldiers, smashing furniture and pictures. Mrs. Howell was pleading with them, while her daughter, a girl of sixteen or so, and a real firebrand, was bursting with rage.
Although the men claimed to be acting under the command of Captain Harris, I remonstrated with them and ordered them out of the house. Protesting at my interference, they grudgingly complied.
Mrs. Howell came to me and said, her voice full of emotion, "You acted like you might be a gentleman. The soldiers have taken everything. We have nothing left in the way of food but five hundred pounds of cornmeal in a loft over a Negro cabin. If they take this, my children will starve, as well as the few old slaves that are with us. They say the men have already found the meal."
My four companions hurried with me to the cabin. A ladder was set up against an opening in the ceiling. Some soldiers, jubilant over their discovery, were starting to bring down the heavy sacks.
Fate Arnold, one of the boys who came with me, was a slender, quiet-spoken lad of twenty. He coolly seated himself on a rung halfway up and drew his revolver.
"I'll kill the first man that puts his foot on this ladder," he declared.
No one doubted that he would carry out his threat. He was said to have twenty notches cut in the stock of
his pistol. There were rumors that Fate had once been active in the Rebel army, but when I knew him he was a trusted and able scout in the Army of the Frontier.
Just then Captain Harris stamped into the cabin. He was a large brutish sort of person.
"Who in thunder are you?" he demanded.
"Sergeant Stahl of Company One, Second Kansas Cavalry," I replied.
"You are under arrest!" he shouted.
I held out my gun, saying, "Do you want it?"
"No," he flung back scornfully. "Report to Colonel Waugh under arrest."
Captain Harris and his men then departed without the cornmeal and went on down the river, while my boys returned with me to Clarksville without any cattle.
Colonel Waugh listened to our story. He had respect for the sanctity of personal property even in wartime, and was shocked by our report.
"Go down to the blacksmith shop," he ordered, "and have a pair of leg shackles riveted to a heavy piece of cast iron. When Harris returns, arrest him and place the shackles on his legs."
Some time later, when Captain Harris was tried at Little Rock, Colonel Waugh, Mrs. Howell, and I were called as witnesses. Other atrocities he had committed down the river entered into the picture. He was sent to the penitentiary for eight years and threatened to make Colonel Waugh and me pay for it when he got out. That was long ago, and I am still waiting. Taps have sounded for Colonel Waugh.
A short time before the trial, Mrs. Howell had sent her daughter Helen to our post to ask for help in moving
their furniture to a large house, north of Clarksville, where she might be with relatives. I got hold of a wagon and a yoke of oxen and went down alone, although there was always danger away from the post.
To show her gratitude, Mrs. Howell invited me up to the house several times, but I always refused. One day Helen came again, insisting that her mother wanted to see me, and that I must go with her. I demurred as usualwhether from bashfulness or stubbornness, I cannot say. Helen would not take no for an answer. I simply had to go.
We started walking up the sidewalk through town. Suddenly she ran down to the ditch alongside the street below us and picked up a large hoop.
"Here," she exclaimed, throwing it over my head, and getting inside it herself. "You won't get away from me now!"
Their house was filled with finely dressed ladies. Helen was a typical Southern belle, I suppose, and she and her mother tried to make it pleasant for me in every way they could. It was of no use. I felt out of place, rough and uncouth. In fact, I had more fear of women at that time than I had of a grizzly or a buffalo.
A noted Rebel leader was paying court to Helen, and after the War was over, married her. He rode a fine spotted horse, coveted by every soldier in our Clarksville group. Knowing the virtues of my mount, he once sent word that he would like to exchange his horse for mine, but I refused.
There was some criticism in camp concerning my action in helping the Howells, but my association with them leaves only pleasant memories. I had joined the
Army as a matter of conscientious duty, out of devotion to the Union cause, not to fight women or to live off their land.
During my wartime service, I was assigned to take some mules from Springfield, Missouri, to Fort Scott, Kansas. An old Auburn pal, James Dickson, who was stationed at Springfield, asked me to carry a letter to his sister, Jennie, since my trip included a short furlough home. There was little means of communication between soldiers and their families, and any message was precious.
As I rode along towards Auburn, after transferring the mules, I remembered something Mr. Dickson, Jim's father, had said to me when I first came to Kansas and was living on the Simmerwell place.
"Frank," he had said, "I have a little Scotch lassie for you."
He referred to his twelve-year old daughter Jennie, who had sparkling black eyes and dark curly hair. At the time his words went in one ear and out the other. Jennie must be quite a young lady now, I thoughtabout eighteen. I doubted if she would recognize me with my reddish-brown beard and skin tanned by wind and sun. Here was I, a strapping fellow of twenty-two, still afraid of girls, and fast becoming an "old batch."
I knocked at the Dickson door to deliver Jim's letter. Mrs. Dickson greeted me cordially and asked me to come in, but I was anxious to see my own mother as soon as possible. Just then my eye caught a quick movement behind the door leading into the kitchen, and I heard the swish of an apron. Someone was peeking
through the crack. It was Jennie! Of that I was certain. I felt the color mounting under the bronze of my cheeks.
As I rode on towards home, I thought to myself, "There's a shy little miss. She is even more bashful than I!"
After the week-end visit with Mother on the farm, I returned to Fort Smith, where I met some Federal soldiers who had escaped from prison at Tyler, Texas. They were old San Juan prospectors. In comparing our experiences in the mountains, we mentioned the unfortunate ones left to die in unmarked graves.
"Up in Gray Gulch near the San Luis Valley," one soldier observed, "I remember seeing where some poor fellow had been buried near a tree carved with this epitaph: Sacred to the memory of Tom.'"
Why disillusion him by explaining that Tom was merely an ox?
Shortly before the end of the War I received the rank
of sergeant major. I had participated in twenty-seven engagements where artillery was used, the two most important battles being those of Cane Hill and Prairie Grove. With the declaration of peace in 1865, I was given an honorable discharge at old Fort Gibson in Indian Territory.