By WILLIAM MEADE DAME, D. D.
Private, First CompanyRichmond Howitzers
There was only one man in the Battery who could cut hair—Sergeant Van McCreery—and he had the only pair of scissors that could cut hair. So every aspirant to this fashionable cut tried to make interest with Van to fix him up; and Van, who was very good natured, would, as he had time and opportunity, accommodate the applicant, and trim him close. Several of us had gone under the transforming hands of this tonsorial artist, when Bob McIntosh got his turn. Bob was a handsome boy with a luxuriant growth of hair. He had raven black, kinky hair that stuck up from his head in a bushy mass, and he hadn’t had his hair cut for a good while, and it was very long and seemed longer than it was because it stuck out so from his head. Now, it was all to go, and a crowd of the boys gathered ’round to see the fun.
The modus operandi was simple, but sufficient. The candidate sat on a stump with a towel tied ’round his neck, and he held up the corners making a receptacle to catch the hair as it was cut. Why this—I don’t know; force of habit I reckon. When we were boys and our mothers cut our hair, we had to hold up a towel so. We were told it was to keep the hair from getting on the floor and to stuff pincushions with. Here was the whole County of Orange to throw the hair on, and we were not making any pincushions—still Bob had to hold the towel that way. Van stood behind Bob and began over his right ear. He took the hair off clean, as he went, working from right to left over his head; the crowd around—jeering the victim and making comments on his ever-changing appearance as the scissors progressed, making a clean sweep at every cut.
We were thus making much noise with our fun at Bob’s expense, until the shears had moved up to the top of his head, leaving the whole right half of the head as clean of hair as the palm of your hand, while the other half was still covered with this long, kinky, jet black hair, which in the absence of the departed locks looked twice as long as before—and Bob did present a spectacle that would make a dog laugh. It was just as funny as it could be.
A Surprise Attack
Just at that moment, in the midst of all this hilarity, suddenly we heard a man yell out something as he came running down the hill from the guns. We could not hear what he said. The next moment, he burst excitedly into our midst, and shouted out, “For God’s sake, men, get your guns. The Yankees are across the river and making for the guns. They will capture them before you get there, if you don’t hurry up.”
This was a bolt out of a clear sky—but we jumped to the call. Everybody instantly forgot everything else and raced for the guns. I saw McCreery running with the scissors in his hand; he forgot that he had them—but it was funny to see a soldier going to war with a pair of scissors! I found myself running beside Bob McIntosh, with his hat off, his head half shaved and that towel, still tied round his neck, streaming out behind him in the wind.
Just before we got to the guns, Bob suddenly halted and said, “Good Heavens, Billy, it has just come to me what a devil of a fix I am in with my head in this condition. I tell you now that if the Yankees get too close to the guns, I am going to run. If they got me, or found me dead, they would say that General Lee was bringing up the convicts from the Penitentiary in Richmond to fight them. I wouldn’t be caught dead with my head looking like this.”
We got to the guns on the hill top and looked to the front. Things were not as bad as that excited messenger had said, but they were bad enough. One brigade of the enemy was across the river and moving on us; another brigade was fording the river; and we could see another brigade moving down to the river bank on the other side. Things were serious, because the situation was this: an Infantry Brigade from Ewell’s Corps, lying in winter quarters in the country behind us, was kept posted at the front, whose duty it was to picket the river bank. It was relieved at regular times by another Brigade which took over that duty.
It so chanced that this was the morning for that relieving Brigade to come. Expecting them to arrive any minute, the Brigade on duty, by way of saving time, gathered in its pickets and moved off back toward camp. The other Brigade had not come up—careless work, perhaps, but here in the dead of winter nobody dreamed of the enemy starting anything.
So it was, that, with one brigade gone; the other not up; the pickets withdrawn, at this moment there was nobody whatsoever on the front except our Battery—and, here was the enemy across the river, moving on us and no supports.
In the meantime, the enemy guns across the river opened on us and the shells were flying about us in lively fashion. It was rather a sudden transition from peace to war, but we had been at this business before; the sound of the shells was not unfamiliar—so we were not unduly disturbed. We quickly got the guns loaded, and opened on that Infantry, advancing up the hill. We worked rapidly, for the case was urgent, and we made it as lively for those fellows as we possibly could. In a few minutes a pretty neat little battle was making the welkin ring. The sound of our guns crashing over the country behind us made our people, in the camp back there, sit up and take notice. In a few minutes we heard the sound of a horse’s feet running at full speed, and Gen. Dick Ewell, commanding the Second Corps, came dashing up much excited. As he drew near the guns he yelled out, “What on earth is the matter here?” When he got far enough up the hill to look over the crest, he saw the enemy advancing from the river, “Aha, I see,” he exclaimed. Then he galloped up to us and shouted, “Boys, keep them back ten minutes and I’ll have men enough here to eat them up—without salt!” So saying, he whirled his horse, and tore off back down the road.
In a few minutes we heard the tap of a drum and the relieving Brigade, which had been delayed, came up at a rapid double quick, and deployed to the right of our guns; they had heard the sound of our firing and struck a trot. A few minutes more, and the Brigade that had left, that morning, came rushing up and deployed to our left. They had heard our guns and halted and came back to see what was up.
With a whoop and a yell, those two Brigades went at the enemy who had been halted by our fire. In a short time said enemy changed their minds about wanting to stay on our side, and went back over the river a good deal faster than they came. They left some prisoners and about 300 dead and wounded—for us to remember them by.
The battle ceased, the picket line was restored along the river bank, and all was quiet again. Bob McIntosh was more put out by all this business than anybody else—it had interrupted his hair cut. When we first got the guns into action, everybody was too busy to notice Bob’s head. After we got settled down to work, I caught sight of that half-shaved head and it was the funniest object you ever saw. Bob was No. 1 at his gun, which was next to mine, and had to swab and ram the gun. This necessitated his constantly turning from side to side, displaying first this, and then the other side of his head. One side was perfectly white and bare; the other side covered by a mop of kinky, jet black hair; but when you caught sight of his front elevation, the effect was indescribable. While Bob was unconsciously making this absurd exhibition, it was too much to stand, even in a fight. I said to the boys around my gun, “Look at Bob.” They looked and they could hardly work the gun for laughing.
Of course, when the fight was over McCreery lost that pair of scissors, or said he did. There was not another pair in camp, so Bob had to go about with his head in that condition for about a week—and he wearied of life. One day in his desperation, he said he wanted to get some of that hair off his head so much that he would resort to any means. He had tried to cut some off with his knife. One of the boys, Hunter Dupuy, was standing by chopping on the level top of a stump with a hatchet. Hunter said, “All right, Bob, put your head on this stump and I’ll chop off some of your hair.” The blade was dull, and it only forced a quantity of the hair down into the wood, where it stuck, and held Bob’s hair fast to the stump, besides pulling out a lot by the roots, and hurting Bob very much. He tried to pull loose and couldn’t. Then he began to call Hunter all the names he could think of, and threatened what he was going to do to him when he got loose. Hunter, much hurt by such ungracious return for what he had done at Bob’s request, said, “Why, Bob, you couldn’t expect me to cut your hair with a hatchet without hurting some”—which seemed reasonable. We made Bob promise to keep the peace, on pain of leaving him tied to the stump—then we cut him loose with our knives.
After some days, when we had had our fun, Van found the scissors and trimmed off the other side of his head to match—Bob was happy.