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Old Reb's Lament


Back in 1877, there was a “creative” story in a Bismarck newspaper about an unnamed man in New York with a deep scar running from the hairline of his left temple, down through his nose and ending at the right-hand corner of his mouth. The story read, “The man with the scar sang two or three songs, and then passed his cap around for pennies.”

“Did a blow of an Injun’s tomahawk do that?” he asked his audience. “No sir; I got that cut down in Old Virginia during the war, ‘bout the time it looked as if Jeff Davis was the biggest patriot in the country... I smashed up so many horses that I was owing the Confederate government $499,000 when it collapsed. If she hadn’t collapsed, I’d been forced into bankruptcy.”

The man raised his hat to reveal his scar, chuckled and said, “I don’t believe a tomahawk could leave a scar like this. It takes a good sharp sabre (sic) to spoil a man’s face so that he darn’t look in the glass or have his photograph taken. A Yank slashed me, of course, but who do you suppose it was? You couldn’t guess to save your neck, and soon I’ll tell – it was Custer, that long-haired dare-devil Yankee General, who used to ride around with blood in his eyes and an extra sabre in his teeth. He thought he’d done for me when he gave me this lick, but he didn’t know our family.”

Someone in the crowd asked him to explain. “It was down at Travillian station,” he said. “He was raiding around with a lot of cavalry, and our folks got him in a box. Somehow we got around him on all sides, and we had cavalry, infantry and artillery. We were two to one, had him fairly coppered, and by all decent rules of warfare, he ought to have hung out the white flag, handed over his sabre, and politely said: ‘boys, you’ve got the grapevine twist on me, and I cave.’ We expected it, but blast him! He didn’t do any such thing. No, sir. He massed his troopers, gave ‘em to understand that it was ‘hell or home,’ and the whole caboodle of ‘em came for us on the gallop, bands playing, flags flying, and troopers yelling like wild (men). Our batteries played on ‘em from a dozen hills; our infantry fusilladed ‘em good and strong, and our troopers got the word to charge.

“Darn my buttons,” the man said, “but wasn’t it a hot fight! We were all mixed up, bullets flying, sabres hacking, men yelling, horses neighing, everybody shouting, and it was a devil’s dance all around. I heard a Yank shouting orders, as if he was some big gun or other, and I worked up to him through the smoke. It was Custer. I had seen him before, and I knew what a fighter he was. I pushed right up to him, gave my old sabre a twist and a cut, and off went his head!”

The man looked at his listeners with a wicked smile said, “In a horn! (Meaning I wish!) I rose up in my stirrups and struck at him with force enough to cut clean down to the saddle, but he parried the blow, leaned over, I saw a flash, and the next thing I knew I had been in the hospital for two weeks, and the surgeons were trying to look into my boots through this sabre cut across my face. I was a whole year getting over it, and then I looked so handsome that I was turned over to the home guards for the rest of the war.”

The old soldier looked at his audience and said, “Sometimes I feel like suicide, and agin (sic) I don’t care. I didn’t bear no grudge agin Custer for the slash, but he might just as well have put his cheese-knife through me as to have given me this ‘X his mark’ to lug around. And that’s what ails this old reb, and that’s how I feel.”

This was a story – colorful and unsubstantiated as it is – that as published in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune on this date in 1877.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm