Story of the 55th and 59th US Colored Regiments.
General Sturgis read the dispatch for the third time. It was very important that he got the wording properly. General Washburn was a man who wanted things neat and concise and not one to read trivial details.
Upon reaching Ripley I found that the rear of Forrest's command had passed through that place nearly two days before, he read. It was here that I hoped against hope to intercept him; (General Forrest), but he was abundantly supplied with forage, and enabled to travel by day and night. Still, I should have continued the pursuit had it not been for the utter destitution of the country from Bolivar to Ripley, a distance of forty miles. My horses had scarcely anything to eat, and my artillery horses absolutely nothing. Had I penetrated one day's march farther, and found the forage equally scarce, I should not only have failed to overtake Forrest, but have been compelled to abandon my artillery and a great many cavalry horses. I need hardly assure you that it was with the greatest reluctance and after mature deliberation with myself and my principal officers, that I resolved to abandon the chase as hopeless. Though we could not catch the scoundrel, we are at least rid of him, and that is something.
"Sounds good," General Sturgis muttered to himself. "Concise, yet detailed." Folding the letter carefully, he placed it into the dispatch pouch. As soon as he got to Salem, he would dispatch a rider to General Washburn's headquarters. The General may be disappointed that he hadn't caught that devil Forrest, but surely he would have to agree with the logic of his reasons. Animals could only endure so much privation and humans also, he thought, standing and heading for the front of his tent.
As he pushed open the flap, the bright sunlight made him wince and shade his eyes with his hand. It looked like it was going to be a perfectly nice day. It was already late in the morning because he had slept beyond his normal waking time, and the several drafts of the dispatch he had made to General Washburn had taken somewhat longer than he had anticipated.
Upon seeing him emerge from the tent, his escort commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hess, commanding about a hundred men of the 19th Pennsylvania Cavalry, strode up and threw him a sloppy salute. In his left hand he carried a bottle and two small tin cups.
"I pray you slept well, Sir?" Colonel Hess asked. "Can I have the Commissary Sergeant prepare you some breakfast?"
General Sturgis, remembering the superb meal he had eaten the past evening and the poor excuse for food the mess normally had to offer replied, "No thank you, Colonel. I believe I will forego breakfast this morning."
"In that case, Sir," Colonel Hess smiled, "can I offer you a small dollop of this very fine Tennessee whiskey?"
Smiling in return, General Sturgis nodded his agreement. "I want to be gone of this place within the hour," he finally replied, holding forth his cup for another generous libation. "Please see to it that Colonel Waring has his command in order."
"Yes, Sir. Should I pass the word to the infantry as well?"
"By all means," replied General Sturgis, "and Colonel Hess," he continued, "please send a detail to the Tyree farm to retrieve the Rebel prisoner we left there last night."
As Colonel Hess hurriedly left to see to his orders, the disturbing memory of the incident the previous evening flooded into Sturgis' mind. He didn't, as a usual course of action, acquiesce to the requests or demands of Confederate civilians or sympathizers, but the look the pretty young girl had given him was very bewitching. Plus, the arrogant stand of the colored sergeant was inexcusable. He was satisfied that he was morally, if not overtly, just in his decision. "The incident is moot now," he said to himself, feeling the warmth of the strong liquor as it spread throughout his empty stomach. "Maybe I'll have some breakfast after all," he muttered, signaling to get the attention of one of his aides.
"They're coming!" yelled George Tyree, rounding the corner of the chicken house as fast as his ten-year-old legs would carry him. "The Yankees are coming!" He tripped and went sprawling in the dusty yard as the rest of the family quickly poured out of the house.
Soon, a troop of around twenty Union cavalrymen entered the yard and turned towards the house. The young lieutenant in charge of the detail halted them smartly then saluted.
"Sir," he stated his young voice almost cracking. "General Sturgis' compliments. We are here to retrieve the Rebel captive."
Reverend Tyree looked steadily at the young officer who could be no more than a teenager. He was a lanky blond-headed boy with big ears and slightly buck toothed, and resembled more a farm boy than a Union officer. Reverend Tyree's voice was deep and very authoritative when he responded. "I'm sorry to say, young man, the Rebel prisoner as you call him, is no longer with us. Sometime during the night he absconded with my daughter's horse. No doubt he is some good distance away by now."
His gaze moved towards his wife, Margaret, standing behind and to his right side. "Why don't you and your men join us for a good home-cooked country breakfast? I'm certain we can find enough ham and eggs and hot gravy and biscuits for everyone."
His offer, combined with the wonderful smells emanating from the house, was more than tempting to most of the cavalrymen, but the young lieutenant smashed their hopes with his curt reply. "Sorry sir, we cannot do that. We must make our report to the General with prompt haste."
Turning in his saddle he addressed one of the men near the end of the column. "Sergeant Bruckner, you will remain here with the troops until I return. You will not go into the Rebel house, nor will you accept anything from these secessionists. Is that clear?"
As the sergeant grunted his reply and rode to the front of the column, the young lieutenant gave the command for two men to follow him, and then rode off without looking back.
Reverend Tyree did not like the looks of the sergeant. The man was dirty and unshaven and continued to stare at his daughter, Elizabeth Jane, with a drooling mouth and lustful look. He had seen the type too many times. He had hoped that the General himself would return. It was much easier to talk with a man of intelligence and proper bearing. To barter with a snot-nosed kid or ignorant perverted sergeant would be difficult.
"Breakfast is waiting," he reminded his family, ordering them into the house. He intentionally did not extend the invitation to the drooling sergeant who looked as if he would quickly disobey his officer's command if given the slightest chance or opportunity.
"What's a sesh-na-sist?" asked Sara Beth, her young face screwed up in a questioning frown.
"Secessionist dear," Margaret Tyree replied. "A person who secedes or breaks away from someone or something. The Yankees call us that because we broke away from the Union to form our own country."
"That Yankee man was awful mean-looking when he said it," continued Sara Beth. "You'd think we done something wrong or such."
"They're just a bunch of dirty ol’ Yankees," George Robert stated, his young voice full of spite and challenge.
"Watch your tongue young man," Reverend Tyree chastised, "They are still God's children even if they are heathen Yankees." He was standing by the rear kitchen door closely watching the Yankee cavalrymen who had dismounted and were lounging around in the front yard. The offensive sergeant was standing against the well, staring wantonly back at the house.
"The General has left for Salem, Lieutenant," Colonel Hess replied, "and I have orders to join him immediately."
"But what about the Reb prisoner," the big-eared lieutenant questioned?"
"What about him?" Colonel Hess replied in an annoyed manner. "According to the Tyree's he escaped hours ago. You'd never catch him now. Not only that, Forrest's army is down that way somewhere, and I, for one, have no desire to meet up with a bunch of angry Rebs."
"But they just let him escape," the lieutenant persisted. "No doubt they even assisted him in his escape."
"I am leaving now. You are aware of the standing orders concerning secessionist who harbor or aid the enemy, are you not, Lieutenant?" His tone of voice was like that of a father scolding an unruly child. The young officer answered with a hasty, "Yes, Sir."
"Then I strongly suggest you do your duty and catch up with the main column before Mister Forrest and his men catch up with you." Turning his horse abruptly, Colonel Hess spurred its flanks and rushed to catch up with his retreating men.
Reverend Tyree watched in nervous anticipation as the young officer approached the house. Without climbing down from his mount, the officer yelled, "Reverend Tyree, sir!" James pushed open the screen door and slowly stepped down to the dry ground.
"You have ten minutes, sir," the big-eared kid stated, obviously disliking what thoughts were forming in his mind. "You have ten minutes to remove your family to safety from the house. I will then instruct my men to burn it to the ground."
Shocked, Reverend Tyree could hardly form a reply. "I demand to speak with General Sturgis, young man," he requested. "He will set this entire matter straight."
"The General is probably near Salem by now, sir. I have my orders. You will please remove your family from the house."
"You're not burning my home!" Margaret Tyree yelled, pushing open the kitchen door and joining her husband in the yard. "You're not burning my home! It took us thirty years to build this home, thirty years of sweat, toil and blood. And my husband is a man of God, you Yankee heathen. Surely you will not vent your barbarism on innocent women and children and a man of God?"
"Sergeant!" the young officer commanded. "You will take half the troops and prepare torches." The slovenly sergeant gave Margaret Tyree a grin of anticipated delight then hurried to obey his commander's orders.
"In the name of God!" Margaret yelled again, going to her knees in the dirt “Must we beg you on our knees, young sir? Have you no Christian forgiveness nor morals left in your Yankee heart?"
Suddenly, bringing everyone to a shocked stand still, a loud gun shot rang out, the ground near the young lieutenant's horse erupting in a shower of dirt and rocks. Instinctively, the cavalrymen pulled their Spencer rifles from the scabbards on their saddles and returned fire, directing their shots at an upper bedroom window.
"No!" screamed Mrs. Tyree. "In the name of Almighty God, No!"
"That Rebel prisoner is shooting at us," yelled the frightened lieutenant, as his men continued to pour round after round into the house.
"He is not here!" roared Reverend Tyree. "I swear by all that is holy he left hours ago."
"Noticing that no return fire was coming from the house, the officer ordered his men to stop firing. With a quick motion of his hand he gave a signal for several cavalrymen to check the house.
However, before they even reached the door, Elizabeth Jane pushed open the screen and stepped out into the yard. Her face was tear-streaked and in an agony of grief. In her arms she carried the body of young George Tyree, a gaping hole in his chest, an old, rusty Colt pistol dangling from his limp hand. All they could do was to stare in horror at the body of young George, held tightly in her vice-like grip.
With a look of sudden terror mixed with uncertainty, the young lieutenant quickly turned his mount and signaled for his men to follow him. As he passed the sergeant and men who had already dismounted, he yelled in a cracked voice, "Burn it!" then spurred his mount into a fast gallop in his shameful haste to leave the scene.
"Gimme a few minutes to look for licker and possibles," the Sergeant ordered as his men advanced on the house. "They might be some valuables in there worth a pickin'."
The family had all gathered around the body of young George, sitting together in silent tears on the hard packed ground. Even old Skeeter, the family dog, had joined them with his sad eyes and whimpering whine.
In no time at all, the house became a blazing inferno as a lifetime of dreams and hopes went up in flames.
"My God! My God!" Reverend Tyree suddenly cried out in anguish. "Why has thou forsaken us?"
But it wasn't God that Elizabeth Jane was thinking of as she looked with venomous hatred at the laughing Yankee sergeant.