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Robert Beck's Story

Back on Land, Buffalo Hunt, With the Jay Hawkers


Robert Beck

Back on Land

July 4, 1899. Home on my summer vacation and in my 62nd year of age,
[I] will resume my history and will commence where I left off.

My good old ship was towed to New Orleans, made fast to the dock and the crew discharged, and Jack once more was as good as his master. Myself and two others of the crew went to the sailors' home to board which was a very good place for weary and tired-out seafaring men. And in the course of a few days we were paid off. We each received about 80 dollars in gold. Of course we did not know whether that was the correct amount due us or not, as a poor sailor must take what is offered him as he has no chance of looking over his account and his own statement amounts to nothing, so he takes what is shoved out to him and says nothing or questions the correctness of the acount.

Well, myself, William Wallace of Boston and Hugh Jewett, also of Boston, my shipmates and right good fellows, concluded to go up the river to St. Louis and go to work at our trades. So after a few more days' rest we bought ourselves some clothes and white shirts, took off our sailor clothes and once more looked like civilized men. But the tar still stuck to us and we were dreadfully tanned up and felt rather green, for after a man has lived in a ship's forecastle for a long time he loses his civilization and has to commence over again.

We took deck passage on a river steamer which cost 3 dollars a ticket but we had to board ourselves which did not cost much and after a pleasant passage of five days we landed at St. Louis, Mo. We immediately proceeded to hunt up a boarding house and as our means were limited of course we were not so particular as to quality, so we got enough to eat and a place to sleep. So after a short hunt we struck a place which was not very good but we made it do until we found something better.

The next move was to hunt a job. My two companions were both very lucky as they both struck work the very next day. But I was not so fortunate for it took me about a week before I struck luck which was at Belleville, 111., 14 miles from St. Louis, but it was not as good as I wished it was, for it was coarse and heavy framing for coal mines, but the pay was good and I intended to stick to it until I found something better.

Sometime in November I began to feel bad and could not work more than half the time but I was not sick enough to go to bed and did not get better so I consulted a doctor who told me 1 had the malarial fever. He prescribed for me but I kept getting worse and had to give up work as I had no strength. The doctor advised me to get out of that part of the world as the climate did not agree with me. So I concluded to go back to Kansas as 1 had money enough to take me there and I also had some personal property there and also some friends. So I packed up my traps, called on my shipmates at St. Louis, bid them goodbye and started for Kansas by boat up the Missouri River to Kansas City, then by stage to Osowatamie. Then I walked to Garnett, Anderson Co., Kansas. But the journey was a hard job, for 1 was very weak, and when 1 arrived at Garnett 1 was not fit to work and my money was nearly gone but I found some good friends.

Winter was coming on and how to get through was a puzzle to me unless I regained my health so I could earn something. I tried to work but it was uphill business as my strength was not equal to my will, and worse, there [were] all the night sweats, which rotted my shirts so I did not even have a whole shirt to my back. I boarded with a family by the name of Campbell and Mrs. Campbell discovered my poor condition. She made me two shirts and told me I could pay her when I got able. But 1 began to think I would never be able to pay her for her kindness as I kept getting weaker and finally developed into fever and ague. Well, I was too sick to live and not sick enough to die.

There was a man by the name of Henry Neal who seemed to understand my conditon and also knew that I was about dead broke. He invited me to come to his house and board through the winter and he thought by spring I would be on my toes again and be able to work. I accepted his kind offer, went to his house which was a log house and not very large, but still we were not crowded as his two children were yet small and slept in a trundle bed which occupied no floor space except nights.

This log house contained but one room. There were two beds. One was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Neal and the other by myself. The cooking was done at a fireplace as they had no stove. In place of chairs we used empty soap boxes and the table was homemade. The bedstead was built in the angle of the log wall with one post at the outside corner. The floor was made of straight-grained logs split in two with the ends flattened to rest in the first log above the ground. The fireplace and chimney was made of sticks well plastered with clay. The door was made of packing- box boards and swung on wooden hinges and [was] furnished with a wooden latch and latch string. When we went to bed at night we pulled in the latch string and the catch was closed, and in the morning we shoved the leather latch string through a little gimlet hole and the house was open for guests and callers.

Our food consisted of cornbread, buckwheat cakes, lots of fresh beef, and coffee made of roasted wheat, no sugar or milk, and wild rabbits cooked in all styles, no potatoes or vegetables of any kind nor fruit of any kind. We all lived in one room but had plenty to eat and kept warm.

About the middle of December I began to improve in health and my appetite was first class, so in January I was able to do some work and do some hunting when I had nothing else to do, and by spring I was as fat as a pig and must say it was one of the pleasantest winters I ever spent.

In the spring, work commenced in earnest and I had plenty to do and good wages. But about September the Kansas grasshoppers made us a call and ate up everything that grew, and at the same time there was a dreadful drought. The creeks and wells dried up and matters began to look very gloomy to the young settlement.

There was one well in the little town that furnished a small quantity of water but that was reserved for the sick. For about two months water for common use had to be hauled 16 miles and all cattle were driven to where water could be had. Food and water became so scarce that it was a hard struggle for many to get through the season and those that could left the country. I will never forget the summer of 1860 in Kansas. Work at my trade began to get slack towards fall and I joined a party to go on a buffalo hunt.

Buffalo Hunt

There were three in my party, one by the name of S. J. Crawford and the other by the name of Matthew Alvey of Louisville, Kentucky, a wealthy bachelor who came to Kansas for his health, but the poor fellow did not live many years as he died in 1862. He was a fine type of a southern gentleman. S. J. Crawford was a lawyer by profession and a prominent politician of the state. He was elected governor and served two terms. He was from Springfield, Illinois, and had studied law in A. Lincoln's office. He was a fine fellow and a good friend of mine. I almost loved the man for he had noble qualities. He had a good deal of western dash and sprightliness about him.

My buffalo hunt was a great experience. Our outfit consisted of a wagon drawn by a pair of gray mules, a few cooking utensils, flour, sugar, coffee, bacon, potatoes, tea, salt, and plenty of ammunition, and some corn for the mules. We started out with enough of all these things as we supposed to last six weeks, for that was about the time we expected to be gone.

We struck due west about two hundred miles, when we struck the buffalo country and pitched our tent, or rather our wagon, for we had no tent but lived in the wagon like gypsies. Our first halt was on the Cimarron River where buffalo, antelope, wolves, jack rabbits, and wild ducks and wild turkeys were very plentiful, also some deer. Now remember, we were nearly two hundred miles from any white inhabitants. It was a perfect home for all kinds of wild game as the animals were not yet used to the crack of the white man's rifle. I shall never forget my first experience at hunting the buffalo.

There were five old buffalo bulls slowly making their way towards the river near where our camp was, and I was keeping camp that day. I knew by their movements that they were coming to the water to drink. That was my opportunity to kill the first buffalo as none had yet been killed by our party and we had been guessing as to who would kill the first one. Well, I took my rifle out of the wagon determined to slaughter at least one of them and surprise my companions.

I skulked along the low banks of the river to about the spot where I expected they would come down to drink and by stooping down I could keep out of their sight. I laid low and waited for the beasts to come a little closer so I could get a first class shot at one. I did not wait long when I heard a great rumbling as if there were more than a thousand of them coming towards me. I raised up to look over the bank and behold they were right on to me and nearly sprang on to me. They looked like great railroad locomotives under full headway and I was on the track and could not get away. Their eyes looked like locomotive head lights. Well I thought my days were numbered for I confess I was badly frightened.

Yes, I was paralyzed for I could not shoot. I was ready to make any kind of terms with them if they would only spare my life and, oh, how glad I was when they were out of shooting distance. Well, I went smack back to camp very much disappointed, and concluded I was not the hero I thought I was, but learned better later on how to approach a buffalo and be on the safe side.

A wild buffalo is a very innocent looking beast at a distance but a very ugly animal when wounded, which we learned by experience. But after we learned their tricks it was no trouble to kill one. One man alone has no business to attack an old bull alone, for they will fight for dear life. We had many adventures with wounded bulls, as we did all our hunting on foot. As there are no trees in all that vast country, we were in danger of being run down by a wounded beast as there were no trees to climb for safety, so when we did shoot we had to shoot to kill, so we always went in pairs and both shot at the same buffalo.

We also shot other game but our main hunting was buffalo, of which we killed a good many. I shot one large gray wolf. I wounded him badly but did not capture him as he could still run faster than I could. We fell in with a party of Indians who were there to kill buffalo for their winter meat. It was very interesting to see them kill the beasts as they would kill twenty to our one and they did all their shooting with bows and arrows and mounted on their little fleet Indian ponies. When they once got alongside of the buffalo it did not take long to bring him down and as soon as he was down the Indian would dismount from his pony, pull out the arrow, mount and go for another. Of course, the pony understood his business as well as the Indian, as he was trained to it. We had no trouble with the redskins whatever. But they did us a good turn for we got out of bacon and had no fat of any kind so we swapped coffee with them for buffalo tallow as our stomachs yearned for some kind of grease.

Now it may seem strange to you that we should have no tallow when we were killing buffalo. But remember we only killed old bulls that had no fat on them. It is only the buffalo cows that have any fat on them, and cows we could not shoot as they are very shy and [we] could not get near them. But the Indians on their fleet ponies, and who understood the business better than we did, killed nothing but cows as they are the best meat and their skins make good robes. We stayed in that Indian country a little longer than we expected and the weather began to get quite cold, especially nights, for remember we had no wood. We used dried buffalo dung to burn and cook by, but it did not make a very hot fire to warm us up on a cold night. We learned that the best place to sleep was outdoors, not in the wagon, as one is less liable to catch cold. So when we got ready to go to bed we would spread out a raw green buffalo skin on the ground, take off our boots and use them for a pillow, spread a blanket over us, look up at the stars a little while, then go to sleep and forget all our troubles.

But some nights the wolves would keep up such a howling that it would disturb our rest. But before we got back home we had some awfully cold nights. I remember one night a small-sized blizzard struck us and I thought we would freeze to death before morning. It snowed all night and the wind blew a perfect gale and no fire. And what made matters still worse was we had nothing to eat but raw buffalo bull meat and some corn meal. We could not start a fire that morning so we had our choice, eat the meat raw or go without breakfast. We chose the latter.

About December 1st we landed in our dear little town, Garnett, and glad to get back and sit down to a table and eat off a clean plate and live like civilized men once more.

On our return to the settlement we heard that Abe Lincoln had been elected president of the U. S. and also heard rumors of war, that the South was getting ready to secede and there was no end of trouble ahead, that both North and South were getting ready for a deadly conflict and the young men were forming military companies. It all sounded like a dream to us as we had not seen a newspaper in two months and knew nothing that was going on in the outside world.

As winter was coming on and having nothing to do, as [I] was a little forehanded, I concluded to go to school through the winter term.

Sometime in January, 1861, we organized a home guard military company and drilled nearly every evening and Saturday afternoon. I joined the company. About February 1st I got a position in a store with C. P. Alvey, who kept a general store and also the post office. It was the largest store in town. He paid me 55 dollars a month and board. I was considered a fairly good salesman for a new beginner. The war rumors kept growing louder and as we [were] near the borders of Missouri we kept hearing that they were also getting ready for a deadly conflict on the Confederate side and matters began to get quite hot. Missouri was strong for secession and Kansas was strong for union. Both sides were getting ready for war and of course nothing short of war would settle the question and it was only a question of time when the bloody strife would begin.

Well, it began very quickly and it was a dreadful war as both sides were determined, and both sides believed they were right and fighting for a just cause. I was young and knew but little of politics but I thought the matter over and concluded the right side was the side of the Union and became a strong believer that the Union must and should hold together and believe so now and hope that there will never be a separation, but I also hope that one section will not oppress or in any way attempt to encroach on the rights of a weaker section of the Union. So I took a firm stand on the side of the Union. S. J. Crawford was captain of our company and he also was our member of the legislature.

With the Jay Hawkers

In the afternoon of Saturday, May 14th, 1861, while we were drilling, our captain came riding in[to] town on horseback just from Topeka, the capital, where the legislature was in session. We formed in line and received him with proper honors, and while sitting on his horse he read to us the commission from the governor to come home and raise a company for the U. S. service. He asked all that would volunteer for the army to step three paces to the front. Every man stepped to the front except three. One of them was too old. The other was a young man who went home that evening and told his father he did not care to enlist in the war as he had so much to do at home. The old gent told him if he was afraid to go he must stay and work the farm, and he would go himself, and he did go and joined us that very evening. The old fellow was a good soldier but he was too old and he died of hardship and hard marching. The next morning at 10 A.M. we all bid goodbye to our friends and started for the war, but some never returned.

It was a lovely Sunday morning in May; I shall never forget it. We went without script or purse as we expected to be mustered in the U. S. service at once. We had two citizens' wagons to carry some provisions but we had no tents or other camp equipage, but the weather was fine so we slept out on the grass.

After a march of 120 miles we landed in Lawrence, Kansas, and were quartered in some empty stores waiting to be mustered in, and after a long and impatient wait of a month we were marched to Kansas City, a distance of 130 miles where we were regularly mustered into the U. S. Service to serve three years unless sooner discharged. Soon some of the men kicked on being mustered in for so long a time, as they did not expect to stay more than three months. But we had the promise of the governor of the state and the commissioned officers that we would be mustered out in three months, or sooner if the war was brought to an end sooner.

So on these conditions we were mustered in and put on Uncle Sam's clothes and were presented with a musket and cartridge box and some ammunition and were drilled a few times by a regular U. S. officer, just to show us how a soldier feels in the hands of a regular officer. Well, some of the boys felt it all right for they were knocked about like beasts, but it intensified the fighting propensity. Well, after we got into Uncle Sam's clothes we were ready to fight somebody. In fact we were quite a formidable looking lot. We were called the 2nd Kansas regiment, but were better known as Kansas Jay Hawkers.

Still, we were not so bad as we were represented for we never took anything out of our reach, but the boys could fight like tigers, in fact we were just spoiling for a brush with the rebels but the conceit was knocked out of us after a while for we found the rebs could fight, also, which we learned to our sorrow, and I really believe the rebels had to knock brains into our officers' heads, for they did much better after we had been soundly thrashed a few times. Our men were good fighters but our officers did not understand their business.

After a few days' halt at Kansas City we were put under march in good earnest and it meant business. We soon learned it was not a picnic but real war as we were in the enemy's country. The rebels were on the alert and so were we, and what made matters worse for us, we had to pick our living as we went along and the heat was dreadful and some of the time we suffered for drinking water. Marching in ranks is not like walking singly, when one can go as he pleases and stop when he pleases, but in the army you must keep up dead or alive, and no hanging back especially when in the enemy's country. We were connected with some regular U. S. troops and under the command of a regular U.S. officer who was very severe in discipline. Of course, we were yet raw recruits, and the way we were put through was a caution and a surprise to us green horns. We were run in the guardhouse for every little irregularity. We were a lot of wild west fellows that had to be tamed down. We wanted to clean out the rebels and end the war and not fool away all summer. We could not understand why we should be kept marching and drilling all the time, and began to get quite angry at our officers because they would not let us go at the rebs and clean them out.

We marched to Springfield, southwestern Missouri. There we were kept in camp a few days and came under General Nathaniel Lyon's command. We were in camp but a few days when we were put under march again in a due south direction. Of course, us privates did not know where we were going and did not care, if it was only into the battlefield as we were just spoiling for a fight.

After a few days' marching through a mountainous country and past the southwest slope of the Ozark mountains and into Arkansas, we struck a fairly good country. But what pleased us most was when we were told that we were about to trap a whole lot of rebels. Yes, we had them almost completely surrounded and if we could only hold out a little longer we would have them all bagged. You see, we were nearly brok[en] down with hard marching. But the promise of a possible battle and a sure victory and to be all covered with glory revived our spirits, but not our stomachs which were empty. So we pressed on and a little before sundown we heard the booming of cannons and a few musket shots.

My, how our ears pricked up and how we did chafe, for we wanted to be in the front and in the very thickest of the battle. The fence was let down and my regiment was rushed through a corn field and across a little river, through some more fields and into a town, through one or two streets to the center of the town where we met the other part of our command. I did not see a rebel dead or alive and the only blood letting I saw was when we began to slaughter pigs and chickens for our supper.

There was not a soul to be seen in the whole town except our troops. The cannon firing I heard was [when] they threw a few shots at the court house and the musket shooting was only to frighten the citizens. I could not hear of a single person being hurt. The town is called Fordyce and is the county seat. It was a confederate recruiting station and there were some raw recruits in town but they all scampered when they heard us coming.

Now this is called and put down in history as the battle of Fordyce. But oh, what a disappointment war [is], if that is war, and if that is a battle, what a farce. What cowards the rebels are for they will not fight.

We had a good supper that night and had the freedom of the town as there was not a soul in it but us, so we helped ourselves to what ever we wanted except whiskey which had to be destroyed. We slept in fine houses that night and dreamed of the glories of the great victory. Our stomachs were full and not a rebel in sight, why should we worry.

Just before the break of day the long roll was beat and the bugle sounded, and the cry of "Fall in, fall in." We were very much surprised to be called out at that hour of night for it seemed as if we had just got to sleep. But when we got out in the streets, we understood the meaning of it all. The town is nearly surrounded by high hills and we could see signal lights all along the top of the hills and were told that we would have to hustle out [as] soon as possible or we would all be taken prisoners for the rebels had us nearly surrounded. Of course we marched out and were kept marching until night without a mouthful to eat and the rebel's close after us. Our rear guard had several brushes with the rebs and four of our men were wounded. The next day we got back to Springfield and were received with high honors. So ended the first battle that I took part in.

About a week before this battle my eyes began to get sore and very much inflamed. I reported to our regimental surgeon for treatment and he first commenced by swabbing them out with sugar of lead. The hospital steward would hold my head between his legs and the old doctor would go at me with a swab on a stick. The operation was very painful and instead of getting better my eyes kept getting worse so he changed the treatment by blistering the back of my neck and down the back. Well, it was no fun marching in the blazing hot sun with a big blister on my back but it had to be done. The blister racket did not work as my eyes kept getting worse under his treatment and the old doctor did not seem to care whether I had eyes at all or not. I firmly believe he injured eyes by his rough treatment as my eyes were very good until I fell into his hands. If I had received proper treatment at that time my eyes might be good yet. I have no faith in volunteer army doctors as they have political jobs and care nothing about the health of a private soldier but they are sure to draw their pay. We did not rest long at Springfield after our first march. Now remember, there were no railroads in that part of the country so all our traveling was done on foot.

Our next tramp was southwest of Springfield to [a] place called Longspring where we encountered the rebels and fought quite a battle but not a general engagement, as we fell back to Springfield again. Now Springfield was the objective point and the key to Missouri and both sides were struggling for its possession. On our return to Springfield our troops began to throw up earth works and rifle pits and it looked as if we were on the defensive.

When we were mustered in the service all we got by the way of clothing was a blouse, one shirt, a cap, and one pair of drawers. No shoes or pants or socks, so we had no clothes to change and when they gave out we had to go without unless we could pick up some citizens' clothes along the way, which we did when ever we got a chance. So by the latter part of the summer we were a ragged looking lot of fellows, but the weather was hot so it made no difference whether we were dressed or not, yet we had our regular dress parade but oh, what a speckled looking lot: some without shoes, some without coats, and those that had on coats only wore them because they had no shirt on, some had on army caps and some had old straw hats and some no hats at all. And still we did not kick because we knew clothes were not to be had.

Some of the time we had more than we could eat, then at other times we had nothing, but we made up our minds that a soldier's life was not a picnic and so made the best of it and were content and hoped for better things later on. I had begun to get quite impatient to see a real battle, a regular slaughter such as I had read about. I wanted to see the two armies face each other and fight it out to a finish. I had been a sailor and a buffalo hunter and now if I could only see a real hard battle my education would be complete. Of course I did not want to be killed or have my hide punched full of holes from bullets but was perfectly willing to see some other fellows shot to pieces, especially the rebels.

Index to Robert Beck's Story
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