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A Grim Joke by Maj.-Gen. William Booth Taliaferro

A Grim Joke
by 
Maj.-Gen. William Booth Taliaferro

In the early winter of 1861 I commanded, as senior general, a few regiments of the general command of General Loring, who had charge of the Confederate troops occupying Northwest Virginia.

My command was stationed at the little town of Monterey in Highland county, Va., and was composed mostly of troops who had participated in the unfortunate campaign of General Robert Garnett, and were with him at the battle of Carrick's Ford, where he was killed.

The miseries of the retreat of our little army before McClellan, from Laurel Hill in Barbour county, West Virginia, to Monterey, had, to that time, been unsurpassed by Confederate soldiers. Our route lay over chain after chain of mountains as wild and rugged, except for ungraded and badly defined country roads, as they were in their primeval state. The country was covered with dense forest, and the few clearings were peopled by a rude and unsympathetic population. The enemy was pressing in the rear, and a large force menacing us in front; we had to escape the one, and overcome and intimidate the other, or, otherwise, either surrender or take the chance of straggling through mountain fastnesses in detached and disorderly parties. Our condition was deplorable. Our ammunition wagon had to be lightened; our baggage wagons were all abandoned or captured in the Cheat river; there was not a garment in the entire command except such as we had on our backs; and there was no food except such as we could gather from the few houses we passed, and which was grudgingly bestowed, or seized, in our extremity.

We had to pass through the edge of the state of Maryland, where was the Federal column, which awaited us. Thanks to the bold front we rather assumed than presented, and the gallantry and pluck the men had displayed at Carrick's Ford, the rumor of which had preceded us, and more perhaps to the exaggerated stories which we circulated of our great strength, and which could easily be believed from the length of the line of our straggling army, and which we knew would be carried across country to the enemy in front, with additions as they went, it so turned out that when we reached the turning point in Maryland the curious spectacle was presented of two armies retreating, one from the other.

When Monterey was reached, after some days of toil, and hunger, and exposure, it is not to be wondered at that such hard ships had produced demoralization and disease, and that the troops required all the ease and absence from labor the exigencies of war could possibly permit.

But drills, as far as practicable, and police routine, the burial of the dead, guard and picket duty, with the erection of such defensive works as were thought to be important, had to be looked after and performed. To work at all was disheartening to the worn-out soldier, and details for any kind of labor, or even exercise, were distasteful and aggravating to him. 

At the time I speak of the weather was cold, the ground hard-frozen, the soil filled with loose rock, and the use of trenching tools almost impossible. Sitting in front of my tent one morning, I observed an officer approaching me, under the influence of most extraordinary excitement, gesticulating and raising his voice in loud tones of denunciation, directed, apparently in the abstract, toward some unknown parties. I recognized the approaching officer to be the colonel of the Thirty-seventh Virginia regiment, the gallant S. V. Fulkerson, who within a few months afterward was killed leading his brigade in the battles around Richmond. To witness the
intensity of his indignation, and to hear the angry and violent words that were flying from his lips, surprised and startled me; for he was known to be a cool and collected man, as well as a brave one, and was at that very time holding a high judicial position in the state. I begged him to be quiet and let me know his grievance. "I have come to you," he said, "for justice—for punishment of the most atrocious crime I ever knew committed. I will have vengeance on them somehow—they must be punished." "What do you mean? What is the crime and who are the culprits?" He could hardly answer for excitement. The d — d Regiment, the most infernal thieves on earth, they take everything they can lay their hands upon; nothing is too good or too sacred to escape them. I must have revenge and punishment."

"Colonel, you are a judge—you know I can not arrest a regiment and punish it for theft or other crime. We must act on individuals; quiet yourself and name the crime, and then mention the men who were the perpetrators."

"The d—d Regiment, I don't know the men, but I do know the regiment, and they are all bad." "Well, tell me of the horrid crime, if you can contain yourself long enough to detail it, and I will help you to find the perpetrators, if I can, of the crime, as you say, without parallel. Was it never committed before?" "Never! never!! nor could it have been in any civilized country." " Well, tell me what it was, and relieve my mind." He raised his voice and said: "Well, what do you think, colonel? The d — d Regiment, they stole a grave!" My amazement at the suggestion got the better of me and I laughed out, "Stole a grave? What an absurdity. How could it be done? Did they take it off, sell it, or how could they dispose of it? Where is it?" "I will tell you," somewhat calming his excitement, as he experienced the difficulty of producing the corpus delicti. "One of my best men died last night, and one of the men of the Regiment about the same time. We went to work to dig the grave through these rocks and frozen ground in the hard weather till we used up our pickaxes, shovels and our selves, but we made a deep and proper resting place for our poor fellow and returned to camp to turn out our men and give our dead comrade the honor due to a gallant soldier. Would you believe it, we had been watched while digging the grave, and when we returned for its occupant these rascally fellows of the Regiment had quietly carried their dead man to our grave, buried him and heaped the ground above him, and as quietly retired as they came. When we reached the grave we found it occupied, marked by headboards, and all traces of the burial party gone. We had to dig another grave, watch it and then use it; if we had left it these wretches would have found another dead man to fill it. Now, I want redress, punishment for this atrocity."

"My dear colonel," I said, as soon as I could recover my own equanimity, "compose yourself and take my advice. Let this thing alone right here. What you have told me was all wrong, but it is, although a grim joke, a good one ; an old soldier trick which will be told all through the army, and you will be laughed at as the victim. Keep it quiet, and say no more about it, and it will soon die out and there will he an end of it."

It is due to the Regiment, which came from a state far south of Virginia, to say that it was composed mostly of young men who had seen little of hard times or physical labor, who had gone into the army without an idea of the hardship it would entail, but who would have hastened to the front if they had known. That they became demoralized is true, but they were afterward reorganized and became one of the best organizations in the Confederate service.

Ben LaBree, Camp Fires of the Confederacy: A Volume of Humorous Anecdotes, Reminiscences, Deeds of Heroism (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1898), 79-83.

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