L i f e   S t o r i e s   o f   C i v i l   W a r   H e r o e s

January 16, 1864
somewhere in Tenn.

Dear D,

It was but a few weeks after Christmas that the final and surprising conclusion to a long and woeful personal tale of mine finally took place. I shall now recount it to you. I have given it the title of "The Tale of the Prodigal Pistol." As you may now know from the letters I've written you, the worst enemy of every soldier is not the lead ball or exploding shell fired in anger by the enemy. It is not the feverish hand of disease that stalks and kills without respect to station or character, nor is it the total collapse of the body and mind caused by the anguish of broken hearts and spirits. No, it is none of these; indeed, the worst enemy of the common soldier is BOREDOM! Our remedy to relieve this boredom takes many forms. In spite of the strict moral upbringing of many of the men, including myself, I am sad to say that it is not uncommon to find individuals involved in various forms of gambling to pass the time and stave off boredom.

Betting on races is one of our favorite forms of gambling. The question is what kind of race shall we have? A footrace between soldiers would require strenuous exertion on our part, a situation generally frowned upon unless found to be absolutely necessary. A horse race? I doubt that there is a piece of horseflesh within a ten mile radius fit to be called a "race horse." But we do have some very large, robust and active animals that have proven themselves hardy and capable of great tenacity and strength. They are called lice, or "graybacks" by those of us intimately acquainted with them. The less attractive features of these creatures have inspired us to recite this prayer each night:

"Now I lay me down to sleep.
While the graybacks o'er me creep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord their jaws to break."

But this unpleasantness aside, the graybacks are abundant in number, easy to care for, and very affordable as sporting animals. We have found great entertainment in racing these creatures, and that is how I first came to own the prodigal pistol.

Many months ago I extracted a magnificent specimen of the louse variety from my own personal pasture. This particular creature proved to have superb racing skills. In honor of his athletic achievements I dubbed him "Champion." Lice racing events are usually organized by two "owners" who challenge each other. In observance of standard practice, bets are exchanged by interested spectators regarding the prowess of the individual "runners." The two lice are placed in the center of a tin plate and released at the command "Go!" With no urging other than the verbal encouragement of their masters, the two competitors run for the edge of the plate, and the first one to cross over or under the edge of the plate is declared the winner. I envisioned myself as a potentially wealthy man because my louse seemed to be unbeatable. I had never resorted to the cheating techniques of heating my louse or the plate in advance of a race to encourage a more lively performance from my animal. By playing fair and square I had managed to amass a small fortune in tobacco, whiskey, soap and edibles as I defeated one challenger after another.

One particular competitor was so sure of victory that he wagered a new Colt's revolver against my entire winnings—claiming confidently that his louse could outrun mine. Even though he did not have the pistol with him at the time, I accepted his chit in good faith. The spectators made their respective bets, and the race began. The two plump graybacks met in the middle of the plate and rubbed each other's front legs together for a few moments as if in conversation, or perhaps they were trading insults before beginning the race in earnest. My louse eventually struck out for the edge of the plate at an angle a little too obtuse for my liking, while his opponent made straight for the edge. Much to my relief, before getting halfway across the plate, my foe's louse paused to investigate some food particle of unknown origin clinging to the racetrack. My louse finally reached the rim of the plate, but instead of stepping over the line, he began circling the edge of the plate without completing the race. The shouts, curses and pitiful exhortations of the spectators as well as myself urged him to take the final steps that would make us all rich, but he seemed to have his own agenda and paid no attention to our supplications. The other louse then abruptly lost interest in the spot he had halted at and resumed his journey—heading rapidly in a straight line for the edge of the plate. The pressure was unbearable as my louse continued his maddening circular journey along the rim of the plate, apparently completely unaware that he was about to relegate me to the standing of a mere pauper. Just before the opposing louse reached the finish line, mine seemed to pause, give the other a sidelong glance, and then deftly side step over the edge of the plate and underneath it as casually as a rich planter strolling down the promenade in Charleston Harbor. I figured he had aimed to win the race all along, and just wanted to make everyone feel that they had gotten their money's worth.

The ensuing frenzy of the crowd lasted several minutes as some fell to their knees in the dust and raised their arms in praise and thanks, while others snatched their hats from their heads stamping and grinding them into the dirt with their heels in disgust. At last, everyone calmed down and settled up their bets and the exciting event was officially over. My challenger, disappointed but still proud, shook hands and promised to fetch the Colt from his camp and bring it to me within a few days. As my luck would have it, his regiment received orders to break camp that very night and I expected to never see the Colt or him again. During the next several months, I took some pains to obtain my prize by making inquiries of any soldier I crossed who was in this man's regiment. In each case they were either not familiar with him, or they enthusiastically agreed to give him my message and location, but to no avail, as he never made his appearance.

One day, several months later, I was at the hospital to visit Pvt. Tietel who had a bad case of the grip. I sat with him a while and wrote a letter to his folks on his behalf, but after a time, we ran short of conversation and I couldn't stand the smell of the place so I made my excuse to leave. On my way out a weak voice called out "Hey, Champion." When I turned, I was surprised to see the very fellow who had bet me the Colt pistol against the running skills of my prize louse. I would have never recognized him at a casual glance because his face was in a terrible state, with a portion of his cheek torn away, and the balance of his wounds hidden by dirty, stiff yellow bandages that wound around his head. It is much to his credit that he hailed me when he could have easily let me pass without me being any the wiser. He politely inquired about the status of Champion. I told him I was sorry to report Champion's demise shortly after the famous race. One morning, I found Champion dead in the little medicine bottle I kept him stoppered up in. Apparently the poor fellow had died of malnutrition. I had suspected he would fall prey to this malady all along, but I was unwilling to return him to the location of his sustenance, namely, my hide. The wounded man said he was sorry to hear about Champion, but he was glad to see me because he intended to pay off his bet. He asked me to hand him the haversack hanging at the foot of the bed. Out of it he withdrew an oily cloth that was tightly wrapped around the Colt. He told me to take it, as it was rightly mine, and he had never intended to withhold it from me and simply had not had the opportunity to give it to me until now. I took it from him, thanked him, and finding we had nothing more to say, wished him good luck and left the place.

I was well satisfied to add the pistol to the Remington and small Colt that I already carried. I proudly carried it in my belt for about a month, because a Ranger's wealth is counted by how many pistols he possesses and I felt like a rich man with that gun. But alas, this happy situation was not to last for long. I owned a small wooden chest given to me by my cousin Goodberg. It was kept with our regiment's wagons, which we would sometimes not see for weeks at a time. Whenever we were out of the immediate action and our baggage wagons were in camp, I kept some of my personal items in that chest by my bedroll. After a night of card playing in a neighboring camp, I returned to find the box had been broken into and all the goods within stolen, including the Colt. Someone had taken an axe and hewn off the clasp and lock. Now, you might as well send a Ranger into battle without clothes as to send him without an appropriate array of pistols. I felt positively naked without that revolver by my side. Unable to solve the crime after a short investigation, I resigned myself to the theory that in view of all the trouble I had in obtaining and keeping that gun, I was never truly meant to own it.

After a few weeks I had recovered from the anger and grief of the robbery and found my mind occupied with more pressing matters, and I didn't give the incident much further thought. I did not expect to see the gun again. Then, last Saturday evening, the 9th of Jan., I received an intriguing message from Cpl. Glover. He said that two men in Co. B had found something that they believed belonged to me. He told me that after supper they would bring it to our camp. Pvt. Bass and Pvt. Markum from Co. B arrived shortly after dark carrying a damp and dirty canvas bag. They emptied it out on a blanket and there in the light from our fire I saw the Colt, my razor, and some letters I had received and saved earlier in the year. My amazement was only overcome by my delight at having the Colt back again. They said they had found the bag buried under a tree outside of the camp, and they guessed it belonged to me based on the fact that my name was on the letters. I thanked them and told them I was obliged to them for their honesty and kindness. The Colt was rusty and pitted from its temporary interment, but a few days of work with steel wool and elbow grease returned it to working order and its former splendor. So after being won, then detained, then delivered, then lost, and at last returned, the Prodigal Pistol had finally returned home. I deemed it a miracle.

I believe I should close out my story telling for now and save some paper for a letter to my mother at home. I hope you and Miss C and your family have been well and you will continue to write to me. I look forward to your letters and to seeing you again. Until that time, I am,

Your obedient servant,

Dutch Hoffmann


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