War and the Muses - “The Militia Company Drill”
Remembered today, if at all, as the uncle and sometime mentor
to Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, in his day Augustus Baldwin
Longstreet (1790-1870), known as “Judge Longstreet,” was a prominent political
figure in Georgia and a nationally known humorist, his dialect tales of Southern
life being widely circulated. In his
most famous work, Georgia Scenes, Characters,
Incidents, Etc., in the First Half-century of the Republic (New York: 1842), Longstreet
provided an eyewitness account of a militia company at drill from about twenty
years’ earlier. Although Longstreet said
the piece was “from the pen of a friend” named Timothy Crabshaw, it had actually
been written by Oliver Hillhouse Prince (1787-1837),
who was for a time U.S. Senator from Georgia. Though a mite long, and characterized by some
very funny spelling, intended to convey the local accent, it provides an
amusing picture of a militia muster during the early Republic, and may also
strike a cord with anyone who’s had to do his bit of weekend duty.
The Militia Company Drill
I HAPPENED, not long since, to be
present at the muster of a captain's company in a remote part of one of the
counties; and as no general description could convey an accurate idea of the
achievements of that day, I must be permitted to go a little into detail, as
well as my recollection will serve me.
The men had been notified to meet at
nine o'clock, “armed and equipped as the law directs;" that is to say,
with a gun and catridge box at least, but, as directed by the law of the United
States, "with a good firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, and a pouch
with a box to contain no less than twenty-four sufficient catridges of powder
At twelve, about one third, perhaps one
half, of the men had collected, and an inspector's return of the number
present, and of their arms, would have stood nearly thus: 1 captain, 1
lieutenant; ensign, none; fifers, none; privates, present, 24; ditto, absent,
40; guns, 14; gunlocks, 12; ramrods, 10; rifle pouches, 3; bayonets, none;
belts, none; spare flints, none; catridges, none; horse-whips, walking canes,
and umbrellas, 10. A little before one,
the captain, whom I shall distinguish by the name of Clodpole, gave directions
for forming the line of parade. In
obedience to this order, one of the sergeants, whose lungs had long supplied
the place of a drum and fife, placed himself in front of the house, and began
to bawl with great vehemence, " All Captain Clodpole's company parade here!
Come, GENTLEMEN, parade here !"
says he; "all you that hasn't got guns fall into the lower eend." He might have bawled till this time, with as
little success as the sirens sung to Ulysses, had he not changed his post to a
neighbouring shade. There he was
immediately joined by all who were then at leisure; the others were at that
time engaged as parties or spectators at a game of fives, and could not just
then attend. However, in less than half
an hour the game was finished, and the captain enabled to form his company, and
proceed in the duties of the day.
to the right and dress!"
They were soon, by the help of the non-commissioned
officers, placed in a straight line; but, as every man was anxious to see how
the rest stood, those on the wings pressed forward for that purpose, till the
whole line assumed nearly the form of a crescent.
"Why, look at 'em," says the
captain; "why, gentlemen, you are all a crooking in at both eends, so that you will get on to me
by-and-by! Come, gentlemen, dress, dress!"
This was accordingly done; but,
impelled by the same motives as before, they soon resumed their former figure,
and so they were permitted to remain.
"Now, gentlemen," says the
captain, "I am going to carry you through the revolutions of the manual exercise; and I want you, gentlemen, if
you please, to pay particular attention to the word of command, just exactly as
I give it out to you. I hope you will
have a little patience, gentlemen, if you please; and if I should be agoing
wrong, I will be much obliged to any of you, gentlemen, to put me right again,
for I mean all for the best, and I hope you will excuse me if you please. And one thing, gentlemen, I caution you
against, in particular, and that is this: not to make
any mistakes if you can possibly help
it; and the best way to do this will be to do all the motions right at first;
and that will help us to get along so much the faster; and I will try to have
it over as soon as possible. Come, boys, come to a shoulder.
"Poise, foolk !” [firelock]
foolk ! Very handsomely done.
down, catridge! No! No! Fire! I recollect now that firing comes next
after taking aim, according to Steuben; but, with your permission, gentlemen,
I'll read the words of command just
exactly as they are printed in the book, and then I shall be sure
to be right."
"Oh, yes! read it, captain, read
it!" exclaimed twenty voices at once; "that will save time."
" ‘Tention the whole! Please
to observe, gentlemen, that at the word 'fire!' you must fire; that is, if any
of your guns are loaden'd, you must
not shoot in yearnest, but only make
pretence like; and you, gentlemen fellow-soldiers, who's armed with nothing but
sticks, riding-switches, and corn-stalks, needn't go through the firings, but
stand as you are, and keep yourselves
cock foolk! Very well done
. . . Shet, pan! That too would have been handsomely done, if
you hadn't handled catridge instead of shetting 'pan; but I suppose you wasn't
noticing. Now 'tention one and all, gentlemen, and do that motion again.
pan! Very good, very well indeed;
you did that motion equal to any old soldier; you improve astonishingly.
"Handle, catridge! Pretty
well, considering you done it wrong end foremost, as if you took the catridge
out of your mouth, and bit off the twist with the catridge-box.
"Draw, rammer! Those who have
no rammers to their guns need not draw, but only make the motion; it will do
just as well, and save a great deal of time.
"Return, rammer! Very well again. But that would have been done, I
think, with greater expertness if you had performed the motion with a little
"S-h-o-u-l—Shoulder, foolk! Very
handsomely done indeed! Put your guns on
the other shoulder gentlemen.
foolk! Not quite so well, gentlemen;
not quite altogether; but perhaps I did not speak loud enough for you to hear
me all at once. Try once more, if you
please. I hope you will be patient, gentlemen; we will soon be through . . .
foolk! Handsomely done, gentlemen! Very handsomely done! and all together too,
except that one half of you were a leetle
too soon, and the other half a leetle
"In laying down your guns,
gentlemen, take care to
lay the locks up and the other side down.
" ‘Tention the whole! Ground, foolk! Very well.
(Some of the men) — "That can't
be, captain: pray look again; for how can we charge bayonet without our guns
(Captain) — "I don't know as to
that, but I know I'm right, for here 'tis printed in the book; c-h-a-r—yes, charge, bayonet, that's right, that's the word, if I know how to
read. Come, gentlemen, do pray charge bayonet! Charge, I say! Why don't you charge! Do you think it aint so? Do you think I have lived to this time o' day,
and don't know what charge bayonet is? Here, come here, you may see for
yourselves; it's as plain as the nose on your fa—stop—stay—no—halt! no! Faith, I'm wrong! I turned over two leaves at once. I beg your pardon, we will not stay out long;
and we'll have something to drink as soon as we have done. Come, boys, get off the stumps and logs, and
take up your guns; we'll soon be done: excuse me if you please.
arms! Very well done: turn the
stocks of your guns in front, gentlemen, and that will bring the barrels
behind; hold them straight up and down, if you please; let go with your left, and
take hold with your right hand below the guard. Steuben says the gun should be held p-e-r—pertic'lar; yes, you must always mind
and hold your guns very pertic'lar. Now
boys 'tention the whole!
arms! Very handsomely done! only
hold your gun over t'other knee — t'other hand up — turn your hands round a
little, and raise them up higher — draw t'other foot back — now you are nearly
right — very well done.
"Gentlemen, we come now to the revolutions. Men, you have all got into a sort of snarl, as
I may say; how did you all get into such a higglety pigglety?"
The fact was, the shade had moved
considerably to the eastward, and had exposed the right wing of these hardy
veterans to a galling fire of the sun.
Being poorly provided with umbrellas at this end of the line, they found
it convenient to follow the shade; and in huddling to the left for this
purpose, they changed the figure of their line from that of a crescent to one
which more nearly resembled a pair of pothooks.
"Come, gentlemen," says the
captain, "spread yourselves out again into a straight line; and let us get
into the wheelings and other matters as soon as possible."
But this was strenuously opposed by the
soldiers. They objected to going into
the revolutions at all, inasmuch as
the weather was extremely hot, and they had already been kept in the field upward
of three quarters of an hour. They
reminded the captain of his repeated promise to be as short as he possibly
could, and it was clear he could dispense with all this wheeling and
flourishing if he chose. They were
already very thirsty, and if he would not dismiss them, they declared they
would go off without dismission, and get something to drink, and he might fine
them if that would do him any good; they were able to pay their fine, but would
not go without drink to please anybody; and they swore they would never vote
for another captain who wished to be so unreasonably strict.
The captain behaved with great spirit
upon the occasion, and a smart colloquy ensued ; when at length becoming
exasperated to the last degree, he roundly asserted that no soldier ought ever
to think hard of the orders of his
officer; and, finally he went so far as to say, that he did not think any
gentleman on this ground had any just cause to be offended with him. The dispute vas finally settled by the
captain sending for some grog for their present accommodation, and agreeing to
omit reading the military law, and the performance of all the manoeuvres,
except two or three
such easy and simple ones as could be performed within the compass of the
shade. After they had drank their grog and had spread " themselves,"
they were divided into platoons.
" ‘Tention the whole ! To the right wheel!"
Each man faced to the right about.
"Why, gentlemen, I did not mean
for every man to stand still and turn himself na'trally right round; but when I
told you to wheel to the right, I intended you to wheel round to the right, as
it were. Please to try again, gentlemen;
every right-hand man must stand
fast, and only the others turn round."
In the previous part of the exercise,
it had, for the purpose of sizing, been necessary to denominate every second
person a "right-hand man." A
very natural consequence was, that, on the present occasion, these right-hand
men maintained their position, all the intermediate ones facing about as
" Why, look at 'em, now !’
exclaimed the captain, in extreme vexation ; "I'll be d—d if you
understand a word I say. Excuse me,
gentlemen, it rayly seems as if you could not come at it exactly. In wheeling
to the right, the right-hand eend of
the platoon stands fast, and the other eend
comes round like a swingle-tree. Those
on the outside must march faster than
those on the inside. You certainly must
understand me now, gentlemen ; and please to try it once more." In this they were a little more successful.
‘Tention the whole! To the left—left, no—right—that is, the left—I mean the
right—left, wheel, march!"
In this he was strictly obeyed; some
wheeling to the right, some to the left, and some to the right-left, or both
"Stop! halt! Let us try it
again! I could not just tell my right
hand from my left! You must excuse me,
if you please; experience makes perfect, as the saying is. Long as I have
served, I find something new to learn every day; but all's one for that. Now, gentlemen, do that motion once
By the help of a non-commissioned
officer in front of each platoon, they wheeled this time with considerable
"Now, boys, you must try to wheel
by divisions; and there is one thing in particular which I have to request of
you, gentlemen, and that is, not to make any blunder in your wheeling. You must
mind and keep at a wheeling distance, and not talk in the ranks, nor get out of
fix again; for I want you to do this motion well, and not to make any blunder
‘Tention the whole! By divisions, to the right wheel, march!"
In doing this it seemed as if Bedlam
had broke loose: every man took the command. Not so fast on the right! Slow now! Haul down those umbrellas! Faster on the left! Keep back a little there! Don't scrouge so! Hold up your gun, Sam! Go faster
there! faster! Who trod on my ____ ? D___ n your huffs! Keep back! Stop us, captain, do stop us! Go faster there! I've lost my shoe! Get up again, Ned! Halt! halt! halt! Stop, gentlemen! stop! stop!
By this time they had got into utter
and inextricable, confusion, and so I left them.