Nothing But a Bluebelly
When the wind dies, mid-September nights in south Texas are hot and humid to the point of suffocation, even a mere 150 yards from the cooling ocean. My shirt and the leather stock binding my neck were sweat-slick and stinking beneath my heavy blue wool serge uniform blouse as I marched post, musket primed, shouldered, and bayonet fixed, guarding the bivouac of the Fourth Infantry Regiment against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Forty paces north and forty paces south along the 150-foot-high crest of the soft, sandy dune that formed the backbone of St. Joseph’s Island. In daylight, the dune was a remarkable creation of nature, sloping steeply to the ocean on one side in brilliant yellow-white sand covered with patches of thorny vegetation and rather more gently on the other to a pretty and lightly treed plain that stretched to Aransas Bay. On nights such as this, black as sin itself under the low-lying clouds that presaged the heat and humidity, the top of the dune seemed as far removed from the dull glow of the regiment’s campfires on the bayside plain as it was from the bustle of the Five Points two thousand miles away.
Falling asleep on my feet or otherwise tripping in the dark and dirtying my musket were sins that could earn me a dozen lashes and a day bucked and gagged and left to broil in the merciless Texas sun. To pass the time, I concentrated on counting my steps up and down the soft sand, taking care to plant my brogans in the very same footprints I had been making since I had begun tracing my predecessor’s steps. Inevitably, my mind wandered, turning gloomy in darkness as I contemplated for the thousandth time in the past few weeks the unalterable fact that Mary, poor sweet Mary Skiddy, my boon companion during the dark days of our passage over the Western Ocean (and the elder sister I’d never had), was dead and buried in Potter’s Field. Lúcás Dineen and my black-coated Fenian nemesis, MacGowan, had murdered her, just as the very same MacGowan had murdered my cousin Seamus O’Creagh in his bed by burning his house down, leaving cousin Evelyn all alone in the world. Only God knew where Evelyn was, for I surely did not. I would have made a pact with Old Nick himself at any price he asked, just to trade places with Mary, if only to allow her to reunite with her poor, orphaned daughter, Fíona. And given half the chance I would have made the same pact with Old Nick to trade places with Seamus, if only to know that Evelyn were safe and sound. As I marched across the soft and shifting sand, I thought that the ache in my heart would kill me and the guilt of it all would bury me in eternal damnation. But such damnation is no more than mere child’s talk, and the long dreamless sleep of death would not have been punishment enough for me.
By and by, my mind wandered once more to contemplate this new life of mine as just another bluebelly in C Company of the Fourth Infantry. I spent my days keeping my skirts clear of Hoggs, the company First Sergeant, and otherwise doing as little else as possible. The transport ship Suviah which had brought us here was gone now, presumably back to New Orleans for yet another regiment of doughboys or battalion of redlegs to follow the Fourth on the journey twenty miles south to the little town of Corpus Christi, nestled at the conjunction of the mouth of the Nueces River and the head of Aransas Bay, where Old Zach’s tiny little Army of Observation was slowly being assembled. I call Corpus Christi a town, but the “despatch by grapevine telegraph” stoutly maintained that the word was too grand by half. Apparently it was a mere frontier trading post hardly able to fend off even the most dilatory Comanche raid, were those heathen inclined to foray so far east as the Gulf of Mexico. Proper ships could not reach Corpus Christi on account of the barrier islands blocking the way and protecting the bay—St. Joseph’s Island, which stretched north, and Mustang and Padre Islands, which stretched 100 miles south of us to the Rio Grande. Even if the ships could have found a way in between St. Joseph’s and Padre Islands (a sand bar blocked the way), the bay was so shallow that boats couldn’t transit from the St. Joseph’s depot to the main camp without getting stuck in the mud at least once or twice. The army was using the southern tip of St. Joseph’s Island as a jumping-off spot to debark supply and transport ships for transshipment to Corpus Christi.
We’d spent two days unloading everything but the fixtures from Suviah onto lighters, which we dragged through the surf onto the beach where we unloaded them. There were no horses or mules, aside from the officers’ mounts, nor were there carts or wagons to be had. We had to drag or carry everything by hand up the steep, seaward side of the dune through the soft, yellow sand and the dense and thorny vegetation that tore at your clothes and shredded your skin, and down the other side to where the regiment was now sleeping.
It was backbreaking labor and entirely unnoteworthy. That is, until I heard a brief cry and a splash as I was loafing on the fo’csle of the lighter that I had just helped load, and which was tied up alongside Suviah. A man surfaced several feet from the lighter. He seemed to be laboring a bit in the water, weighed down by his boots and clothes. Without thinking, I kicked off my brogans, shrugged off my blouse and dove into the water. I hadn’t been swimming in such a long time that I wondered briefly whether I was now going to drown along with the man who had fallen in. I reached him in a couple of strokes, tapped him on the shoulder as he laboriously trod water, and helped him to the lighter, where we were unceremoniously dragged on board.
He was a youngish man. A pumpkin rind. Likely still pissing West Point water, I liverishly thought to myself.
He reached his hand out to shake mine. “Wanted to thank you, soldier. Mighty charitable, getting yourself wet like that on my account. What’s your name?”
“Gogan—Billy Gogan, sir.”
“Nice to meet you, Private. Sam Grant’s the name. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.
Dripping wet and half-naked, I caught Hoggs giving me the cut eye as I saluted Grant. He made off from the lighter back onboard Suviah, presumably to change his clothes and his rather fine looking boots—an opportunity that I would not have, particularly as the wet clothes I wore were the only ones I still had to my name.
* * * * *
But that had been many hours ago, and I had been immediately turned to some task or another. I had not stopped laboring until I began marching post, guarding against … what? An attack by Mexican cavalry? Not likely. We’d heard that there were no Mexican soldiers anywhere near us. But it wouldn’t have taken much to destroy Old Zach’s little army just then. There were hardly a thousand men in camp at Corpus Christi, no artillery to speak of, and only one regiment of cavalry—the Second Dragoons. Here at St. Joseph’s Island, twenty miles north, was only the Fourth Infantry Regiment, with little ammunition and food and not a single breastwork with which to defend itself. So, if the Mexican army did arrive, everybody reckoned that we would be in a very poor way, indeed.
But it didn’t matter whether I was here, on top of a deserted sand dune on St. Joseph’s Island, down at Corpus Christi, or back at Governors Island, standing guard along the pier. I was on sentry duty, pacing forty paces north and forty paces south with a 10-lb. flintlock musket on my shoulder—an exercise that will make your arm and neck muscles scream with pain after even a few minutes, if you are not used to it. But I was used to it now after a month or two of soldiering, and I hardly felt the pain anymore. It was the least of my worries.
Right now, stupefaction was my worst worry, and despite my best efforts, I was in a dreamy state after a couple of hours of pacing, hardly aware of anything. Then a twig broke and a low bush just in front of me rustled oddly.
As I unshipped my musket from my shoulder, I cried in as plangent a tone as I could muster, “Halt, who goes there?”
“Halt, who goes there?”
There was more rustling. I checked the charge on the flash pan of my musket.
“Corporal of the guard! Corporal of the guard!”
“Halt or I must shoot.” I raised my musket to fire and squinted down the barrel in the direction of the rustling. “Corporal …”
I saw a shadow just in front of me, and I began to squeeze the trigger. Then I saw what the shadow was—a little boy, not much above seven years old, barefoot and carrying a line from which several fish dangled.
I did not have trouble staying awake after that. The corporal of the guard, Rónán Finnegan, was a good old sort hailing from County Monaghan, and he complimented me on having been alert. He also told me that, notwithstanding the grapevine, St. Joseph’s was apparently not entirely uninhabited, as there were a couple of families living in small wooden huts on the bay about a mile north of us, supporting themselves by fishing and providing transport across the bay to whomever needed it. The boy had come from there. He apparently had gotten lost in the dark, and so was to be returned to his family in the morning.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes after I had damn near killed the little boy that yet another figure materialized in front of me out of the gloom. It was a most extraordinary coincidence, for a sentry could spend a year marching post and not ever have to challenge a soul, and here I was challenging two different people within an hour of each other.
“Halt,” I said. “Or I will shoot.”
Like the little boy an hour earlier, the figure did not stop moving, nor did he reply with the countersign.
“Corporal of the guard!” I brought my musket to “charge bayonet”—in other words, I was pointing my bayonet at the figure walking towards me. “Halt. Or I will shoot.”
Still the figure did not stop moving. Nor did he reply with the countersign. I could hear Finnegan beginning to rustle down at the base of the dune, a hard running climb of a minute or more. I muttered a foul oath under my breath. Then I saw the face of the figure, hardly more than an inch or two away from my bayonet.
“Lieutenant, the countersign.” I could not let him proceed without the countersign—on pain of a dozen lashes or worse.
LeFort ignored me and made to walk past me.
“My apologies, sir.” I barred his way with my musket. “But unless you give me the countersign, you are my prisoner until the corporal of the guard arrives.”
That seemed to snap LeFort out of his reverie. “You impudent bastard. Stand aside or I’ll have your guts for garters.”
LeFort drew his sword and raised it as if to strike me with the flat of it. I should have parried him and disarmed him, but I did not. In those days, many an officer thought nothing of savagely beating a hapless bluebelly with the flat of his sword merely for having displeased him. So I did not want to think of the consequences of striking an officer, even in the line of duty.
“Lieutenant, Lieutenant …” It was Corporal Finnegan, panting hard from his uphill run.
LeFort said, maintaining his glare at me, “This man is insubordinate.”
“Sir, did you give the countersign?”
LeFort lowered his sword, but he did not reply to Finnegan.
“Sir, Private Gogan was just doing his duty.”
LeFort considered Finnegan for a moment, and then acknowledged, “I see.”
* * * * *
I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I had weathered the storm. Indeed, I was relieved as sentry not long afterwards, and I found my blanket for a couple of hours of sleep before reveille.
“Wake up, you filthy bog trotter.” Deep in my dreams, I heard a scream of agony and only slowly realized that it was me. A hobnailed boot had connected with my ribs, and I was doubled over in pain. I was then jerked to my feet by main force.
“You insubordinate, filthy, little bog rat.”
I snapped to attention. “Sergeant!”
“Corporal Finnegan tells me you insulted Lieutenant LeFort on guard duty last night.”
“You filthy, insubordinate …” A fist crashed into the side of my head and I tumbled to the ground. I was pulled back up onto my feet. I snapped to attention, my head swimming.
I had been entirely wrong about having weathered the storm. At morning muster, just as the sun peeked over the dune, Hoggs personally paraded me in front of C Company to be bucked and gagged for my insolence to the shavetail. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lieutenant LeFort standing at attention in front of the company, with a look of stony indifference on his face … the bastard. I was neither the first man nor the last to be bucked and gagged for seemingly nothing. So I did not feel any shame in the punishment, particularly as Sergeant Hoggs, like so many native Americans, seemed to take pleasure in punishing the Irish and Dutchies who, everyone said, made up half of the army.
That said, I did resent the injustice of it. I had done my duty, and now this. As the drum rolled, I was forced to sit in the sand with my legs bent, my knees crushed against my chest, and my arms clasped around my legs. My hands were tied tight, cinching my legs even tighter to my chest. The drum continued to roll, and I was bucked—a splintery pole was shoved over my left elbow, under the crook of my knees, and over my right elbow, driving a splinter deep into the flesh above my left elbow. The splinter felt like a dagger probing my arm every time the pole moved even infinitesimally, and my shoulders felt as though the downward pressure of the pole would tear them from their sockets. Within a minute or two, my lower back began to spasm with the effort of staying upright and not falling over onto the end of the pole—which would have earned hard kicks from the corporal of the guard. I was in instant agony. But I could not move a muscle.
Grinning sadistically, Sergeant Hoggs looked me in the eye as he bent over and dropped a filthy rag into the sand. With a grunt of satisfaction, he picked the rag up and shoved it in my mouth to gag me. The dust and sand from the rag exploded into my nose, my throat, and my lungs. I began coughing uncontrollably, which caused the gag to slip further into my throat, making matters that much worse.
Gradually, I was able to calm myself and resign myself to sitting until night fell, hatless and shirtless and motionless in the broiling sun, sand tickling my trachea all the while. As I sat there, not a single soldier in the company, nor in the entire army, for that matter, even deigned to notice my existence. Except for the corporal of the guard (Finnegan, as it happened), who periodically walked around me to check that the ropes binding my wrists were still tight and the rag still firmly in place in my mouth. (But not too firmly. Finnegan was a decent sort, and he didn’t want to me to asphyxiate. Not on his watch, anyway.) If any other soldier were to have consoled me (let alone to have given me a sip of water to relieve my suffering), he would have simply undergone the same punishment the very next day.
I’m nothing but a fucking bluebelly, I thought. What the newspapers and the cavalry call a doughboy. The newspapers said that we called ourselves doughboys on account of our using pipeclay to whiten our belts. But the newspapers were wrong. The cavalry called us infantry doughboys on account of the “adobe” soil dust that covers us whenever we march. The cavalry rode, and they felt much the superior for it. But they were nothing more than bowlegs, on account of all the riding that they do. But what we called ourselves—or each other—or what the scribblers called us did not signify in the least, and it didn’t matter whether we were doughboys, bowlegs, or redlegs, we were all naught but mere chattel of the United States Army by virtue of voluntary servitude. How had I gotten to such a sorry place so far from the heroic dream I had for myself of finding Hawkeye in the far wilderness of the limes americanus?
Roger Higgins and his wife are traveling this great country of ours and meeting all sorts of very interesting people. They remain immensely proud of their four children, their children’s spouses, and their grandchildren. As Mrs. Higgins patiently observed to her husband when he ruminates about the trials and tribulations of raising children, it was together that they went four-for-four with their children, hitting safely at every at-bat. Not a bad day in the batter’s box.
Roger was born in England, in the County Cheshire, where he learned early of the orange-striped Cheshire cat, which disappears, leaving only its grin, full of teeth and gums. Roger emigrated with his parents and younger brother to the United States when he was 6 and 3/4. When his mother registered him at the local elementary school, he saw fit to wear his English grammar school uniform, which looked a lot like Harry Potter’s, except his cap was gray with purple piping and topped by a purple button, and he wore gray short trousers, gray knee socks and a purple clip-on tie with his dark gray blazer. After his mother finished registering him for school, the principal gently asked whether he would like to leave the tie and cap with her for the day and pick them up after school. Roger demurred. He was fortunate enough to retain both tie and cap (which were never worn again) on the walk home from school.
At the advanced age of ten, Roger taught himself the art of swearing, a skill he found useful in his thirty-odd years of playing rugby, where he was noted for his stone hands, his lack of size for certain positions and lack of speed for all the rest. As a young United States naval officer serving on a guided-missile destroyer many years ago with the lucky number “13” as her hull number (where he met some of the best friends a man can be lucky enough to have), he also learned, as did Captain Horatio Hornblower two centuries earlier, that sometimes having fifty-five oaths at your command can be entirely inadequate to the occasion.
Roger learned the art of leadership from his ship’s commanding officer and executive officer, who together led the tired, old ship, which was a bit of a laughing-stock along the waterfront, to win the Arleigh Burke award as the best destroyer in all of the Pacific Fleet. Roger served another fifteen years after that, having had during that time the privilege of being the fire control officer for the U.S.S. Missouri’s 16-inch guns, and thus the only naval officer in the world (at that time) under the age of thirty proficient in the ancient—and wonderfully obsolescent—art of major caliber naval gunnery.
Roger became a lawyer after retiring from the Navy with a small pension fit to pay the property taxes. After clerking for a Tax Court judge, who taught him the value of telling your story so as to win your reader to your side, Roger worked for a number of very large law firms, eventually becoming a partner at a firm with the grandest bankruptcy practice of them all. Roger greatly admires the practice group leader’s philosophy of practicing law, which is to get the best outcome possible for your client, never re-trade on a deal, and if you must stab someone, don’t stab him (her) in the back; look the person in the eye and then stab her. You’ll be treated the same way, when the time comes. Oh, and never sell your reputation. Once sold, you can never buy it back again.
Roger continues to practice law at a much smaller and less grand law firm and to write novels to his own taste. He is having a wonderful time doing so.