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

April 4,1862
somewhere north of Corinth, Mississippi

Dear D,

I once again take pen in hand to write you a letter. We have spent much time in the past month trailing behind the army as it passed through Bowling Green, down through Nashville, and on into northern Mississippi without stopping. After spending some time in Corinth, a lot of the boys were getting discouraged. We had traveled many miles with the yankees behind us, and not once did we turn to put up a real fight. Everyone was saying that Johnston had been "out-generaled." But we are now moving north again and the rumor is Genl. Johnston has got a plan to run the yankees out of Tennessee and clear back into Kentucky. We Rangers have been broken up into small detachments and are thrown out on the front and flank of the army, guarding every road, trail and crossing as we advance.

I find myself in good health, in a fine mood, and happy to be advancing instead of retreating. I am so glad winter has gone for good, and that warmer weather is finally here. Oh, glorious springtime! The last cold and frosty traces of Old Man Winter are being melted away by the sweet warm breath of Mother Nature as she whispers the word "Spring." The birds are singing their lilting songs, and the trees are beginning to leaf out in dozens of delicate shades of green. But while we are celebrating all these wonders of nature, let's not forget about the MUD! I think I have experienced every variety it has to offer…brown mud, red mud, gray mud, black mud, wet mud, dry mud, and suck-your-shoe-off-your-foot mud…mud all over my pants and boots, mud in my food, and mud in my water. My blankets are so stiff and caked with dried mud that I can throw them across a streambed and walk across them without even getting wet! I've seen mud so deep that guns sink to their axles, mules completely disappear, and entire columns of men vanish without a trace. Why, just the other day I found a solitary musket stuck straight up in the mud alongside the road and when I tried to pull it out, I found an infantryman attached to it! He wryly informed me that he was just using it to mark his place until his comrades returned with a rope to extract him.

Before we left Corinth, an event took place that I thought you might find amusing. We had seen nothing but rain above us and mud below us for nearly a week, and our spirits were lagging with the dismal weather. Corporal Glover (known to us as "Swede") suggested to me that we find a diversion to distract us from our damp misery. He had been informed by some of the boys that one of the local farmers was considered a distiller of no small stature among his neighbors, and that for the right price this individual could be encouraged to part with a small portion of his handiwork. Now, despite getting paid infrequently, we had plenty of money between us on account of there being nothing much to spend it on out here. Unfortunately, this money was not going to be of any use to us in procuring the liquor we desired, the problem being that this "farmer" with the still would no sooner accept our valueless paper money for payment than he would a handful of sand.

Now Swede rarely makes such a suggestion unless he has already formulated a plan of his own, and this occasion was no exception. He had previously managed to come into possession of several tins of smoked oysters. Originally destined for the mess of some yankee officers, the oysters had somehow fallen into the hands of a Tennessee trooper. Utilizing the age-old barter system and a series of delicate negotiations in which each fellow traded for what he felt was a more desirable object, the oysters eventually wound up in Swede's saddlebags. Our money may have been worthless to the "farmer," but the oysters...now they were something of true value. With this precious currency in hand, we intended to make a trade.

One afternoon, we obtained permission to leave camp and rode to the home of the "farmer" with the still. The ragged condition of his fields indicated that he spent most of his time tending his liquid crops rather than minding the chores around the farm. In the fields around us, the brown stalks of last autumn's weeds stood in scattered clumps among washed out furrows that hadn't felt the blade of a plow for a long time. One rotting wall of his peeling, gray shack sagged so
much that it looked as if his house was melting into the ground. Broken and rusty tools were strewn about the yard, sticking up from the mud like bones from a shallow grave. The thin, sharp-smelling wisps of smoke blowing out of his chimney told me that there was only a small, miserable fire of green, wet wood burning inside.

We stopped at the gate and called out. A gaunt, old man came out of the crooked doorway and asked our business, even though I was sure he already knew why we were there. He looked a little silly to me, for half the brim of his old, brittle black hat was gone, as if a horse had taken a bite out of it. Despite his appearance, I figured him to be a man not to be trifled with. Something in his face told me that his slow exterior disguised a quick and sharp character within. As he stood expressionless, looking at us in the yard, we proposed a trade of the oysters for as much of his corn liquor as he would allow. He asked to see the oysters first, and when Swede handed them down, he inspected them intently, turning the tins over and over as if his gaze could penetrate the cans and reveal the condition of the contents within. Apparently satisfied that our merchandise was genuine and acceptable, he set off for the back of the house without a word.

We dismounted and tied our mules to the fence. We had to take great splashing strides through the mud puddles to keep up with him as he silently disappeared around the corner. In a small shed tacked onto the house, we found him surrounded by his distilling apparatus which was hissing and steaming and dripping out its precious bounty into a deep, copper pan. Several large, earthen jugs were on the dirt floor, and he hefted one to check its weight. We stood there awaiting his verdict. Still holding the jug aloft, he looked at us like we were ignorant little children and finally asked us if we were going to drink it there or take it along. We both instantly reached into our jackets and each pulled out a bottle we had brought along to contain our treasure. He looked at me and dryly told me I could put my bottle back—that he didn't calculate there were enough oysters in those two tins to warrant more than one ration of liquor. That concluded my role in the negotiations.

Swede quickly proffered his bottle, and the old man poured from the large jug with painstaking care so as not to spill a single drop. This ritual was performed in total silence as if we were afraid any small vibration would upset his concentration on the task at hand. The bottle was filled and its cork replaced. Swede carefully tucked it back inside his jacket. Not knowing what else to say, we thanked him and walked out of the shed and to the front of the house where the mules were tied. We looked back to see him leaning against that shack, waiting for us to ride away, no doubt to make sure we didn't return and fill the second bottle ourselves. I remarked to Swede as we rode off that I was certain at the end of the day all those jugs were brought into the house to spend the evening by the old man's side in order to prevent any pilferage.

We decided we would wait for nightfall to test our newly acquired spirits, because it is common knowledge that most evil deeds are done under the cover of darkness. The appearance of the liquid sloshing around in Swede's bottle assured us that we were indeed dealing with pure evil. We were delighted that the deal had gone down so smoothly, and Swede tenderly cradled the bottle under his jacket as if he were gently protecting a newborn babe from the elements as we rode along. We were especially happy to have this bottle of liquor so we could flaunt it in the face of Cpl. Rivas. Rivas had spent the past few days fermenting a concoction that he referred to as "apple pie." In a hollow log in the woods near camp, he kept a collection of nasty looking bottles and jugs. Each was filled with a cloudy, brownish-yellow liquid, with a thick band of dark sediment at the bottom that he called "the spices." He loved to hold a bottle high in the air, and with a flashing smile proudly proclaim that before drinking his apple pie one must shake the bottle to "stir up the spices." Although both Swede and I would admit that his creation was an ingenious way to partake of the fruit of the original sin, this libation simply did not have the euphoric characteristics that we value so much. Plainly speaking…it had no "kick."

That night for supper, we had a thin soup made of water and some chicken pieces that were more string than meat. I can't be too sure, but I think my portion was mainly made up of the south end of a chicken flying north. Nevertheless, it was still a treat to have fresh meat of any kind. As the air turned colder and the night grew darker, Swede gave me the nod and we drifted away from the fire separately to rendezvous a short distance away. Swede fetched the bottle from its hiding place in his jacket, and under the cover of darkness we made our way into a grove of trees nearby. Finding a large tree with a trunk sufficient to conceal both of us, we sat on the ground with our backs against it and reverently observed the contents of the bottle in the moonlight. To the uninitiated, it would have looked like pure water from a spring. However, just our knowledge of what it was gave it a totally different appearance to us. Swede offered me the first drink, but I politely refused in hopes of seeing its impact upon him first before I exposed myself to its unknown effect. He pulled the cork from the bottle and put his nose to the opening. Then he raised his eyebrows in an expression that I could not interpret, but decided to translate as neutral at worst, and considered it no cause for concern. He put his lips around the mouth of the bottle and tipped it back slowly, hesitating as the liquid reached his mouth. The bottle came back down, and he stared at me intently for a moment in the darkness as if he couldn't see me. I could detect the rise and fall of his shoulders beneath his jacket as he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly through pursed lips.

"Well?" I questioned him. In reply, he silently passed the bottle to me. I knew then that I would have to answer the question for myself, as it appeared no information was to be passed on by my partner. Taking the bottle from his hand, I too sniffed the contents. The scent had no discernible features that could be matched by me to any animal, plant or mineral I had ever smelled before. I imagined it could be likened to the sulphurous fumes of hell steaming up through a deep crack in the earth's crust. The smell was harsh and seemed to pour itself into my lungs, clearing everything else out of its path. I lifted the bottle to my mouth and tentatively eased the liquor to my lips. It burned them. I let a small sip trickle down my throat. It was as if I had swallowed a live ember. I could plainly feel the progress of the corn liquor as it slowly moved down my throat and into my chest. It seemed to pause near my heart, as if deciding whether it should consume it in flames at that moment or come back for it later. It felt like it took forever to continue its course down into my stomach, where it sat burning brightly for awhile before dwindling down to a hot smolder. Meanwhile, the fumes coming out of my mouth and nose led me to believe that I was breathing smoke, but in the darkness I wasn't really sure. I turned to Swede and in a shaken voice declared that the stuff was clearly dangerous. He nodded his concurrence and looked at the bottle in my hand as if deciding what we should do with it. One thing was clear; we were not going to drink it. Finally, I said that I believed we should each have at least one more hit on the bottle if only to justify all the trouble we went to in obtaining it. Bracing ourselves, we passed it back and forth a few more times, barely wetting our lips and consuming less than it would probably take to drown a gnat.We had wanted a "kick," but this was more violent than even we could abide.

We knew there could only be one suitable use for this poison. As we looked at each other, it was so very obvious that there was a certain person that deserved to be the recipient of this rare and unique elixir. In the darkness, we both silently mouthed the name at the same time…"Rivas!" We could not contain our laughter as we wheezed and bellowed like lunatics over the thought of introducing Cpl. Rivas to the fiery liquid in the bottle. Perhaps the reason we laughed so much was our relief in the knowledge that we might be able to honorably dispose of the farmer's corn liquor without impugning our own reputations, and at the same time show Rivas what something with a "kick" tasted like.

As we approached camp, we could see that the fire had been built up higher. Black silhouettes edged in red from the glare of the flames stood in a circle around the blaze. We could see the form of Rivas with his hat tipped back, and hear his voice booming above the others, "OH, NO! You've got to shake up the spices first!" Two bottles of the "apple pie" had been withdrawn from their hiding place and were being passed around the group of Rangers. Swede and I looked at each other with pure glee. This was too perfect. We joined the circle and could see that Rivas's eyes were lit up as brightly as the burning fence rails in the fire. With his legs spread wide to maintain his precarious, drunken balance, Rivas held one bottle of "apple pie" in his hand as he eagerly watched the other bottle of "pie" make its progress around the circle. He observed the face of each customer as they drank to make sure the proper display of satisfaction and appreciation was being expressed.

Abruptly, without preface or introduction, Swede thrust the bottle of corn liquor in Rivas's face. He told him that if he really wanted to taste something good, this was it. Feeling a pang of guilt, I blurted out a warning for Rivas to be careful, and only touch it to his lips, that it was bad stuff. I tried to tell him that whatever he did, he shouldn't swallow any. Rivas didn't hear me, and swept the bottle out of Swede's hand. He then held the bottle to the fire and looked through it, perhaps inspecting for "spices." Everyone around the circle stopped whatever they were doing to observe Rivas's imminent reaction to our offering. Without a comment, Rivas spread his feet a little wider as if to compensate for the expected jolt from the bottle on his body. He then swiftly brought the bottle up to his mouth and
tilted his head back until he was looking straight up into the night sky. Imagine our horror as we saw glistening bubbles boiling up into the bottle as he apparently swallowed several large mouthfuls of the liquor. For one long, frozen moment, Rivas paused with his head back, the front side of his body illuminated in the fire, the darkness framing him from behind. There was complete silence.

Suddenly, Rivas swiftly snapped forward as if loosely hinged at the waist. With great, bellowed-out cheeks, he sprayed the contents of his mouth into the fire. In a flash, this resulted in an exploding bluish-white ball of fire almost three feet across that blinded us with its brilliance as it flew up into the air and disappeared above our heads. Its loud roar and intense heat left everyone stunned for a second. Rivas's eyes had followed this conflagration in its flight, and with his chin jutting skyward, his arms at his side, and his body rigid as a board, he slowly tipped backward and fell flat on his back without moving a muscle. We all imagined he had died, but he hadn't. Rivas begin to stir, then realized that the explosion he had just witnessed was caused by the corn liquor he had sent spraying out of his mouth. He began shaking in great heaves and laughing uproariously, while remaining for some time lying on his back in the dirt. Seeing that no permanent damage had been done, the rest of us joined in his mirth, and shed many a tear in laughter around the fire at the site of the look of awe and surprise on Rivas's face when he "breathed fire."

I really can't recall what happened the rest of the evening. What else of note could possibly be reported after such a spectacular display? I do remember that the next morning, I saw one of the Rangers pouring the rest of the corn liquor over some wet wood to provide a combustible fuel to start the fire. When the embers were fanned, the resulting blue flame worked quite well for getting the fire going, and I was then satisfied that at last someone had found the best use for the precious corn liquor we had gotten from the farmer.

We have just received the order to mount up, so I now must close. I hope you and your family are all in good health. Gauging by the direction and intent of our march, I have a premonition that my next letter will have a lot to tell you. Until then, I am…

Yours truly,

Dutch Hoffmann


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