Sunday, December 26, 2010

Letter From Orpheus C. Kerr

Triumph of Naval Architecture --- capture of Paris, &c., &c.

Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.

I have just returned, my boy, from witnessing one of the most tremendous battles of modern times, and shall see star-spangled banners in every sunset for six months to come.

Hearing that the Southern Confederacy had evacuated Yorktown, for the reason that the Last Ditch had moved on the first of May to a place where there would be less rent from our cannon, I started early in the week for the quarters of the valorous and sanguinary Mackerel Brigade, expecting that it had gone toward Richmond for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On reaching the Peninsula, however, I learned that the Mackerel “corps damms” had been left behind to capture the city of Paris in co-operation with a squadron.

Reaching the stomping ground, my boy, I beheld a scene at once unique and impressive. – Each individual Mackerel was seated on the ground with a sheet of paper across his knees and an ink bottle beside him, writing like an inspired poet.

I approached Captain Villiam Brown, who was covering some bare spots on his geometrical steed Euclid with pieces scissored out of an old hair-trunk, and says I:

“Tell me, my noble Hector, what means this literary scene which mine eyes behold?”

“Ha!” says Villiam, setting down his glue pot, “we are about to engage in a scrimmage from which not one may come out alive.  These heroic beings,” says Villiam, “are ready to die for their country at sight, and you now behold them making their wills.  We shall march upon Paris,” says Villiam, “so soon as I hear from Sergeant O’Pake, who has been sent to destroy a mill dam belonging to the Southern Confederacy.  Come with me my nice little boy, and look at the squadron to take part in the attack.”

This squadron, my boy, consisted of one 28-inch row-boat, mounting a 12 inch swivel, and commanded by Com. Head, late of the canal-boat service.  It is iron-plated after a peculiar manner.  When the ingenious chap who was to iron-plate it commenced his work, Com. Head ordered him to put the iron plates on the inside of the boat, instead of the Outside, as in the case of the Monitor and Galena.

“What do you mean?” says the contractor.

“Why,” says the commodore, “ain’t them iron plates intended to protect the crew?”

“Yes,” says the contractor.

“Well, then, you poor ignorant cuss,” says the commodore, in a great passion, “what do you want to put the plates on the outside for?  The crew won’t be on the outside – will it?  The crew will be on the inside – won’t it?  And how are you going to protect the crew on the inside by putting iron plates on the outside?

Such reasoning, my boy, was convincing and the Mackerel Squadron is plated inside.

While I was contemplating this new triumph of American naval architecture, and wondering what they would say about it in Europe, an orderly rode up and handed a scrap of paper to Villiam.

“Ha!” says Villiam, perusing the message then passing it to me, “the veteran O’Pake has not deceived the United States of America.”

The message was directed to the General of the Mackerel Brigade, by boy, and read as follows:

“GENERAL: – In accordance with your orders, I have destroyed the mil d---m.  O’PAKE.”

“And now,” says Villiam, returning his canteen to his bosom and pulling out his ruffles, “the United States of America will proceed to capture Paris with great slaughter.  Let the Brigade form in marching order, while the fleet proceeds around by water, after the manner of Lord Nelson.

The Mackerel Brigade was quickly on the march, headed by the band, who played an entirely new version of “Hail Columbia” on his key-bugle.  Tramp, tramp, tramp! and we found ourselves in position before Paris.

Paris, my boy, was a city of two houses previous to the recent great fire, which destroyed half of it, and we found it fortified with a strong picket fence and counterscarp earthworks, from the top of which frowned guns of great compass.

The Mackerel Brigade was at once formed in line-of-battle order – the line being not quite as straight as an ordinary Pennsyvania railroad – while the fleet menaced the water-front of the city from Duck Lake on the maps, my boy, as it is only visible after a heavy rain.

Previous to the attack, a balloon, containing a Mackerel chap, and a telescope shaped like a bottle, were sent up to reconnoiter.

“Well,” says Villiam to the chap when he came down, “what is the force of the Confederacy?”

“I could only see one Confederacy, which is an old woman.”

“Scorpion!” says Villiam, his eyes flashing like the bottoms of two reversed tumblers, “I believe you to be an accursed abolitionist.  Go instantly to the rear,” says Villiam, Fiercely, “and read the Report of the Van Wyck Investigating committee.”

It was a terrible punishment, my boy, but the example was needed for the good of the service.

The Orange County Howitzers now advanced to the front, and poured a terrible fire in the direction of a point about half way between the nearest steeple and the meridian, working horrible carnage in a flock of pigeons that happened to be passing at the time.

“Splendid, my glorious Prooshians!” says Villiam, just escaping a fall from his saddle by the concussive start of Euclid, that noble war hose having been suddenly roused from a pleasant doze by the firing – “splendid, my artillery darlings.  Only,” says Villiam, thoughtfully, “as the sun is a friendly power, don’t aim at him so accurately next time.”

Mean time, Company 3, Regiment 5, had advanced from the right, and were just about to make a splendid bayonet charge by the oblique, over the picket fence and earthwork, when the concealed Confederacy suddenly opened a deadly fire of old shoes, throwing the Mackerels into great confusion.

Almost simultaneously, a large potato struck the fleet on Duck Lake, on the nose, so intensely exciting him, that he incontinently touched off his swivel, to the great detriment of surrounding country.

This was a critical moment, my boy: the least trifle on either side would have turned the scale and given the victory to either party.  Villiam Brown had just assumed the attitude in which he desired Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Artist to draw him, when a familiar domestic utensil came hissing through the lurid air from the rebel works, and exploding in two pieces at his feet.

“Ha!” says Villiam, eyeing the fragments with great pallor, “they have commenced to throw shells.”

In another moment that incomparable officer was at the head of a storming party; and as the fleet opened fire on the cabbage patch in the rear of the enemy’s position, an impetuous charge was precipitated in front.

Though met by a perfect hail of turnips, stove covers and kindling wood, the Mackerels went over the fence like a fourth proof avalanche and hemmed in the rebel garrison with walls of bayonets.

“Surrender to the Union Anaconda and the United States of America,” thundered Villiam.

“You’re a nasty, dirty creature,” responded the garrison, who was an old lady of venerable aspect.

“Surrender, or you’re a dead man, my F. F. Venus,” says Villiam majestically.

The old lady replied with a look of scorn, my boy, walked deliberately toward the road, and when last seen was proceeding in the direction of Richmond under a green silk umbrella and a heavy press of snuff.

Now it happened, just after we had formally taken possession of the city, while the band was playing partial airs and the fleet winding up his chronometer, that the General of the Mackerel Brigade made his appearance on the field, and was received with loud cheers by those who believed that he had brought their back pay with him.

“My children,” says the General, with a paternal smile, “don’t praise me for the achievement in which all have won such imperishable laurels.  I have only done me jooty.”

This speech, my boy, made a great impression upon me on account of its touching modesty. – War, my boy, is calculated to promote an amount of bashful modesty never equaled except in Congress, and I have known brigadiers so self-deprecatory that they lived in a state of perpetual blush – especially at the ends of their noses.

Yours, inadequately,


– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, May 24, 1862, p. 1

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