by Rev. Henry Hedges Prout
Originally published in the Windham Journal from February 18, 1869 to March 31, 1870. Article 30 published on March 31, 1870. Extracted from the microfilm copies of the Windham Journal located at the Vedder Research Library.
Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin
"General training" was one of the grand annual festivals of Old Times. Every people having a history and characteristic life, must, as of course, have festivals. It would be in the power of persons older than the writer, to give a better outline of this yearly gathering. The militia of a considerable part of this County, and probably a part of Delaware, were assembled for annual review, either in Windham or in Lexington. It is early autumn. The hay and grain are harvested. Only the fruits and vegetables are ungathered. Summer heat is yielding to the cool mornings of September and October, and the foliage of the forests is changing to a fainter green, or here and there putting on its autumn glory. Early cider is in process of making, and the pastures yield fat mutton and beef.
You must suppose a bright morning, for one’s recollection of such days clothes them in sunshine. Very early, before the sun has fairly dried the dew from the grass and the flowers, the roads begin to be thronged. From a large circuit the concourse of people—men, women and children—soldiers bearing guns, young men full of gaiety, and young women animated by innocent curiosity, old men and patriarchs of the country, pensioners of the War of Independence, farmers and peddlers, boys their hearts beating high with anticipation, and twenty-five cents each in pocket, wherewith to regale themselves; all hasten toward the training ground, arrayed in holiday trim, and impelled by a common enthusiasm.
There is a kind of contagious feeling in a large gathering of people, and perhaps it may be said that much of the true constructive power in societies is shown in the wise use and direction of popular enthusiasm. The citizen soldiery were considered the guardians of our liberty, and had fairly shown their patriotic power in winning independence. The fife and drums thrilled all hearts, and each man felt what was his high place in a free country’s polity. When he looked on neighbors and friends standing in military array, shoulder to shoulder, or moving at the word of command. A Battalion, and much more an army in disciplined order is, perhaps the most striking illustration of power ever seen under human control. It is will in the shape of machinery. And these men whom you see marching in ranks have left their plows and tools because they are freemen, and have a country, and because their country leans on them. The staff of officers uniformed, the band (and these valleys and mountains are unrivaled in echoing the strains of martial music, especially the bugle’s vocal note), and the staid ranks of honest men, make all hearts glow, and a tear sometimes steals down the cheeks furrowed with age, or rosy with youthfulness. And let not him who is ashamed of a tear meet his countrymen, his citizen brothers and citizen defenders, marching to the music of Hail Columbia, in firm, willing drill for country’s sake.
Said a noble-hearted young woman, "Father didn’t go to general muster for several years before he died." Why? She did not exactly say. But the truth was, he had been a soldier, and the fife and drum waked up old recollections, and made a child of him, and he would rather that the people whom his bravery had helped to become a great nation, should not see his overwhelming emotion. The blind old widow remarked in a tone of affectionate veneration for her departed husband,--"Neddy was at Charlestown, he fought under General DeKalb and General Greene. "
We are boys, however, just now—eager lookers—ona mid the jostling crowd. The Colonel of the regiment is about to mount his horse. One after another the several companies have marched to the field and are awaiting the commandment. You see led to the piazza a marked and shapely steed. His trappings are military, and his eye is inclined to blaze, and his muscular limb quivers gently, as if he had caught the spirit of the hour, and longed to bear his part in the patriotic ceremony. Shall I say who steps to his side and springs into the saddle? Perhaps should we follow the report of tradition, it is Col. Becker. Perhaps it is Col. James Robertson. It may be Col. Pratt, or it may be Col. Laraway. Whoever it may be, for the present, he is our hero and representative. To our boy imagination, the genius of young Freedom, appears embodied, and his steed bears him proudly along the line, while our brethren in arms salute him, and fife and drum give courteous respect. Then the evolutions of the field proceed.
Soon, however, there are tokens of something unusual. A hollow square is formed, the men standing in close order on four sides of a space which is thus enclosed. Perhaps you do not see within the enclosed space, that quiet, rather jaded brown horse, with lavender colored nose. Perhaps you do not know his rider, a man of strong frame, of countenance slightly oval, the expression, on which is one of much gentleness and sincerity. A black cockade tipped with red is the only token that he is part of the patriotic pageant, and this is worn to please the commander, for his is not a martial office. It is, in fine, Rev. Mr. Stimson, acting as Chaplain. Officers dismount, all heads are bared, and God, the King of Kings, the righteous-governor of nations is invoked, and our country is commended to his care and blessing.
When the men have again formed into line what is to be seen on one of the wings of the battalion? It is a cavalry company of stout men under Col. Steele, their uniform consisting of red coats and yellow breeches. They maneuver rather grandly, and seem on the whole, slightly conscious of their elevation above the foot soldiery. And what else appears? A fine company of rifle-men in gray uniform, from Hunter, under Captain Edwards. This company occupies the opposite wing of the brigade; the red coats on the left, the militia in the center, the rifles of the right.
Another ceremony. The showy cockade approaching the line is that of the Brigadier General. He and his staff are very well dressed, and well mounted. Their dress, and military hats with rich plumes nodding as they move, and their dignified bearing arrest attention. They dismount, and march slowly along the line, the Adjutant meanwhile examining the arms and equipments, until that duty done, officers remount, and the usual evolutions begin again, and the day wears on.
Leaving the military display, shall we wander for a moment among the crowd? Here and there, in corners and on sides of the way, shanties have been extemporized, and you behold a rather tempting display of good things with which to regale the appetite of the young America of Old Times. Gingerbread carts are places of much resort. "Here’s you fine gingerbread!" says the crier, "Six pence a card!" walkup!; so (being boys) we must try the gingerbread. "Here’s your fine honey cake!" this is rather a novelty, and we find that it is as much like the gingerbread, only sweetened with honey. The pockets of many a boy are now full of gingerbread, besides what he has eaten. Sometimes a haphazard fight comes off. A bony flaxen-headed boy meets another stout lad. The banter between them is not the most respectful; and half in fun, half in fight, they clench. The grapple is earnest, the struggle close. But Flaxy throws his antagonist, and that ends it, for they are parted by the crowd, "I didn’t want to fight." Exclaims good natured Bone-Flaxy; "But I thought if I must I must." But parade is now over; the crowd thickens around the shanties; and ginger-bread, cider, pies and other good things are dispersed abroad. And now the waning day warns heads of families, and those who have children to care for, to drive homeward. But for the unmarried gentlemen and ladies, a dance at night is the finale of general training. Supper is provided at a tavern, and thither the gentlemen escort each his lady, and the evening passes in dancing to the music of the violin. Such, or something like it was general training in Old Times. Tempoa mutanur et mutamur in illis.
The writer of these sketches herewith concludes them. Such as they are, they are before the reader. The writer fancies that he might make quite a long story in the way of apology for their defects, but he forbears. On one point he has some anxiety. Perhaps it does not need excuse, but he has sometimes found that the light airy tone of some of these sketches might seem inconsistent with the writer’s serious profession. But he has followed tradition in what he has written, and that, in leading him over the period of nearly a hundred years has always unfolded what was gay as well as was sad. From the nature of his undertaking, the writer had to take what came to hand. He earnestly hopes he had not offended, or caused to stumble, one of the little one's of Christ's flock. Those who have lived and passed away from amongst us are a great company in comparison with us who are now alive. The writer has felt as if in these sketches, he has been holding intercourse with that great company, and he had been holding intercourse with that great company, and he has tried to report, as he might, what he has learned. Could we at once see what these valleys and hills have seen; could we have at once revealed to us what the last hundred years have known of the grand army of our predecessors, it would fill us doubtless with awe and admiration. Human experience is a wonderful book to read in. May we so consult its records as to grow wise by what we learn. May the memory of the long past sober the enjoyment of the brief present. And when the voyage across the troublesome waves is ended, may this reader and writer stand with the Fathers on the Firm Bright Shore beyond.
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