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July 18, 2019

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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 and ball."

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.

"Look 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]

“Cock, foolk ! Very handsomely done.

“Take, aim'  

“Ram 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
to yourselves.

Half cock foolk!  Very well done

S-h-e-t . . . 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.

Shet, 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 more dexterity.

"S-h-o-u-l—Shoulder, foolk!  Very handsomely done indeed!  Put your guns on the other shoulder gentlemen.

Order, 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 . . . ."

Order, 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 too late.

"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.

Charge bayonet!”

(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.

"Fix, bayonet!"

Advance, 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!

“Present, 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 before.

" 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 ways.

"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 more."

By the help of a non-commissioned officer in front of each platoon, they wheeled this time with considerable regularity.

"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 now.

" ‘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.

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