A Sampler of Civil War Literature

back to the Civil War Sampler Home Page
back to the intro to this section

"Little Starlight"

go to the next article in this section

Text from Harper’s Weekly

October 29, 1864, page 702 (1-4)

It was soon after the first of those terrible Wilderness battles of last spring that Little Starlight made his first appearance among us.

Now have you any idea who Little Starlight was? Very probably, from his romantic name, you picture him to yourself as a pretty boy—a beau-ideal Young America, with clustering curls, and the relevant blooming precocity of face and form. Nothing of the kind. Our Little Starlight was a negro urchin, extremely small for his age—which might have been fifteen could we have had a date to reckon from—and as black as the ace of spades, when the ace of spades is excessively black and shiny.

Where he came from, who he belonged to, how he came among us, we never exactly knew. He was a sort of masculine Topsy, and probably merely "growed" somewhere in the vicinity of our bivouac. On the morning after the battle he had been found in our lines, strutting about the camp in a very nonchalant way, with a quick, observing eye for every thing he saw. His appearance was comical in the extreme. Upon his ebon head, and entirely concealing his crisp wool, was jauntily placed a span-new artillery cap, which he had probably picked up from the field. He had fastened to the right shoulder of his ragged coat—a swallow-tailed blue of unknown antiquity—an immense epaulet, probably plundered from the baggage of some rebel officer; while a silken sash of flaring crimson was twined round his waist in a manner at once striking and barbaric, with a long end that trailed behind like the gaudy tail of some variegated tropic bird. His trowsers—we will skip them; let it suffice to say that they were unmentionables to the last degree.

No one could tell how the little fellow got into the camp, and he wouldn’t tell himself. The pickets and sentries swore prodigiously that he had not passed them. So we were compelled to let the mystery of his appearance remain unsolved.

It was shortly after sunrise when the corporal of the guard brought him before me, with

"Here’s a prisoner, or contraband, or something of the kind, chaplain. I just picked him up, and don’t know what to do with him."

I almost exploded with laughter at seeing the individual in question, but immediately sat down on a stump and proceeded to investigate. Captain Allen came along at the same time, and presently the Major also dropped in. So we formed ourselves into an informal court-martial around the object of our attention, with the view of having some amusement for the hungry half hour that would elapse before breakfast. The "brass" of the lad was surprising; for he never changed countenance during the whole of this ceremony, which we made as imposing as we could by word and look. All eyes were turned to me expectantly, so I opened the proceedings.

"What is your name, my boy?"

"Dun’no, mass’r. ‘Spect I isn’t got none," was the reply, accompanied by a sparkling grin of extraordinary breadth, as though his anonymous condition was a matter of much self-satisfaction.

"Oh, you must have some name." I said. "What did they call you at home?"

"I allers came wi’out callin’. But wen I shinned along kinder slow, sometime dey’d sing out, ‘Nig!’ sometime ‘Little Nig!’ an’ den agin, ‘Hyar, you d__d Nig!’ I’ll bet dey did, mass’r! Yah! Yah! I’se a awful cuss, I is!" he continued, swinging his arms gleefully about and shuffling his bare feet, as if contemplating a breakdown.

"Silence!" roared the Major, who acted as presiding officer, at the same time knitting his brows furiously to conceal the laughter which almost choked him. "Silence, or I’ll commit you for contempt!"

Somewhat startled by the vehemence of this injunction the little fellow remained silent, and, taking off his cap, commenced stroking his mat of a head in a serious manner, which was more comical than his mirth.

"Well, my friend," I resumed, "where do you come from?"

"No whar ob late, mass’r. I’se been sleepin’ out recen’ly. Yer see I’se a awful cuss, I is. Yah! Yah! I’se—"

"Silence!" claimed the judge.

"Sartin, sartin, mass’r! Yah! Yah!"

"Who do you belong to?" I resumed.

"Yah! Yah! I ain’t got none. Yer see he’s gwine away, he is."

"But what was your master’s name?"

"Cunnel Billy."

"Billy what?"

"Dun’no. Yer see dis chicken were left behin’ wid ole missus an’de gals, wile Mass’r Billy gwine to de war way up to Richmon’. An’ yer see, de ole missus she dun gib dis nig a lickin’, so I jis slips out in de night time, climbs inter de barn, steals all de pigeons, an’ clars de track for Ole Virginny. Yah! Yah! I’se a awful cuss, I is!"

And sure enough, as he spoke he drew from one of the capacious pockets of his tattered coat a sorry looking pigeon, still alive, which, before we could guess his intention, he proceed to put to death in a very summary manner. Nipping the head of the bird between his finger and thumb, he twirled the body around in the air till it fell to the ground, completely twisted from the head, which remained in his hand.

"What are you doing that for?" I exclaimed, somewhat horrified at what I saw, as were the rest of the "Court."

The little fellow threw away the pigeon’s head without answering, picked up the body, and laid it at my feet with a "Yah! Yah!" from which I judged that it was meant as a present for my breakfast.

"Well, what is the decision of the Court?" said I laughing, and turning to the Major.

"I really do not know," was the reply. "Ask the monkey if he will fight, and which side he favors."

I put the question.

"De Union all de time, shore!" was the enthusiastic reply.

The little fellow cast a comprehensive glance around him in every direction, as if he could do any and every thing under the sun, and was merely puzzled upon which to try his hand for an outset.

At length his eye caught sight of a kettle-drum which was taking an airing a short distance off, and with a guffaw of delight he ran toward it. Quick as thought the strap was over his shoulder, the sticks were in his hand, and throwing back his head with a gesture of pride, he rolled off the reveille with the flourish and accuracy of a master.

"Bravo!" cried Captain Allen. "You’re the man we want. Why not have him drum for our company?" he added, turning to me. "Johnny went into the hospital day before yesterday, and we have had but little music since."

"An excellent idea!" said I.

The Major also agreed; and Starlight, to his infinite satisfaction, was forthwith installed as second drummer-boy, Company C, __th New York Infantry.

His name—by which he was altogether known among us—originated, at the suggestion of one of the officers, in the wonderfully starry aspect of the heavens on the night preceding the early morning of his "capture."

He was a favorite in the company, and a standing joke with the regiment, in a single day. No one could surpass him on the drum, and he never complained of too much work. We made hi m wash himself thoroughly in the river, and then presented him with a genuine uniform, of which he appeared as proud as a young peacock of her sprouting tail.

Little Starlight was not one of us long, but if I should undertake to describe one-half of his whimsical characteristics "the sun would go down on the unfinished tale."

He never got out of humor, was never excessively hungry, and his slender frame was of iron mould. He endured, without a murmur or any marks of fatigue, marches which tried to the utmost the stalwart frames of hardened veterans, and would, after the march, execute with gusto a dozen breakdowns, Jim Crows, and Bob Ridleys for the diversion of the weary regiment. I never saw him flinch when under fire, and I have seen him under the hottest. He had a penchant for obtaining trophies on the field of battle; and carried so many knives and pistols on his person that he was quite a walking arsenal. More than once he was seen to use his fire-arms, and if at long range, it was, nevertheless, with the best of intentions.

It is true he had his foibles, and grave ones. He was a natural-born thief, and my most impressive sermonizing totally failed to convince him of the gravity of his fault. He seemed to consider himself naturally depraved, and was therefore philosophically complacent with his sin, meeting my admonitions with his usual "I’se a awful cuss, mass’r, I is." In my heart, search as I would, I could find less of blame than pity for him when I thought of the criminal neglect which must have attended his bringing up, with that of the rest of his wronged and unfortunate race. Besides, the material effects of his thieving were not considerable. There was not much to steal in the first place; and when any one did miss any thing worth retaining, a tight clutch upon Starlight’s windpipe and a few preposterous threats would generally cause him to "shell out" the missing article, if it was really in his possession. And it seemed generally conceded that his virtues more than counterbalanced his foibles. For his hand was as ready to support a wounded man to an ambulance as it was at rifling the pockets of a fallen foe.

There was one thing alone which almost redeemed him in my eyes; and that was his passionate desire for freedom—his enthusiastic devotion to the cause under whose banner he served.

My duties as chaplain were in sad demand in those bloody battle-days, when ministrations to the dying and prayers for the dead were so frequently required; but I found some time, nevertheless, to devote to Starlight. The little heathen always listened with the profoundest gravity to every thing I said, but with a perceptible stolidity which often discouraged me, except when I spoke of the future of his race, of their prospects for freedom and improvement. His eyes would light up at this, his expressive features would fairly glow with enthusiasm.

"Yes, Mass’r," he one day exclaimed, "I feels it in my bones. It’ll come roun’ one day or ‘nother. I knows I’ll be free!"

"You are so already," said I. "The President’s Proclamation has made you so. You have nothing to fear."

"Jis’ so, mass’r," he replied. "De Presiden’ he am a nice man, he am. But I doesn’t feel it in de bones yit; I nebber will till I git on to him, yer know. Jis’ lemme git on to him—only once!"

"On to whom?" I asked.

"On to de Ole Man—Cunnel Billy. Jis’ lemme git on to him, den I’ll be free!"

"You surely would not kill your old master?"

"Wouldn’t I? Yah! Yah! And thereat Starlight began to fumble among the various knives and pistols which adorned his person in a manner that was any thing but conciliatory. "Trus’ dis chicken," he continued. "I keeps on d look-out in ebery fight. I seed him lick my ole mudder till de blood flew. Jis’ lemme on to him, mass’r, and you’ll see de blood fly yourse’f. Yah! Yah! I’se a awful cuss, I is."

Upon a briefer acquaintance with Starlight I should have smiled at the serio-comic manner in which these sentiments were enunciated; but, as it was, I shuddered at the intensity of passion which lurked in his tones.

And through all those terrible battles, and rapid marches and counter-marches, with which General Grant terrified and confused the rebel foe, from the Rapidan to the wall of Richmond, Little Starlight conducted himself with sterling credit, winning golden opinions from all, and, upon one occasion, a hearty hand-shake from the General of our division.

It was, however, at the severe skirmish on our left, immediately following our general repulse from the rebel works, and shortly before the transfer of our army to the south bank of the James, that the part which Starlight played in the great drama was to assume a truly tragic phase.

The enemy’s skirmishers and ours were hotly engaged, and the fight bade fair to be bloody, if brief. I was immediately in the rear of a portion of our regiment, which was in reserve, busy with the wounded; and Starlight was hopping about me, doing what he could to assist, but now and then looking up, and throwing curious glances toward the fight, which was not distant.

Suddenly an exclamation from him caused me to turn, when I saw him gazing intently, with his hand pointing toward the ground where the skirmish was progressing.

"Hooray! Hooray! Dere he is! Dere he is!" he shouted.

He succeeded in directing my attention to a fine-looking rebel officer, who was cheering on his men in a charge they were making upon our position.

"Dat’s him! Dat’s him!" cried Starlight, at the same time freeing himself from his drum and casting it on one side, while his voice was wild and strange with a fierce joy.

And before I could arrest him, or exactly understand his intention, he snatched a musket and bayonet from the ground, and ran like a deer after our column, which was advancing to repel the threatened assault.

From my position I could see the whole affair. The smoke of the musketry fire was thick, but a western gale was blowing, and the opposing columns were pretty plainly discernible. Then the firing ceased, and I saw them meet in the shock of steel to steel. The ranks of the rebels were broken, and they scattered back toward their abatis and the thick woods on their right; but the officers retained their ground, endeavoring to inspirit their men by their own examples, and fighting bravely. I saw Little Starlight rush headlong at the man to whom he had directed my attention, and I could hear his shrill cheer come floating to me on the wind. He seemed to be but half the size of his antagonist, yet they met with a shock which seemed equal on both sides. The officer evaded the bayonet of his puny foe, and struck out sharply with his sword; and I saw the blood spring up high from the negro’s neck. But the next instant they closed; the rushing bayonet gored the breast of the officer, and he rolled to the plain. Twice—thrice I saw the flashing bayonet leap into the air, and flash down again upon the prostrate man; and then, with a louder whoop than before, Starlight sprang on further into the fight; and the whole scene was shut from my view by the gathering smoke, for the breeze had died away.

The fight was soon over. The rebels were driven far back into the woods, their abatis captured and held, and we in possession of the field. My interest in what I had witnessed was so intense that I immediately hastened to the ground.

Our loss had been inconsiderable, but that of the enemy was large. Their dead and wounded lay in all directions. I found the officer with whom I had seen Starlight engaged. He wore the insignia of a rebel captain, and was stone-dead, with his breast pierced many times by bayonet thrusts. As I was standing beside the body, Sergeant K____ of Company C came up to me with a troubled look.

"Little Starlight is dying, Sir," was his greeting, "and he wishes to see you very much."

"Starlight dying! Impossible!" I ejaculated, at the same time hurrying to the point indicated.

It was but too true.

Little Starlight lay at the edge of the enemy’s works, with a frightful gun-shot wound in the back part of his head, and as many as twenty brave fellows were clustering around him with sympathizing looks and tearful eyes. You may not believe me, but nevertheless I speak the truth when I say that the brave boy grinned joyously when he saw me.

"Yah! Yah! Mass’r Chaplain," he cried, as I knelt by his side and took his hand; "dis nig’s done for, he is. But did yer see me in de fight, mass’r? Did yer see me tackle dat ole coon, Cunnel Billy? Yah1 yah! I’se got it at last mass’r! I’se a awful cuss; but I’se got it at last!"

"Got what, my poor boy?" I whispered, with a trembling voice.

"FREEDOM!" cried Starlight, springing to his feet.

I saw that wild, strange gleam of passion leap into his rude features, and the he fell back into my arms.

"It am a lubly day, mass’r," he continued, speaking with great difficulty. "It am ebening now, an’ de sun am setting, mass’r. But I hears de bid grum ob de sky rollin’ de rebellie ob de Lord. De day am breakin’ for dis chile, mass’r; for I’se got it at last!"

His voice failed him here. He moved his lips; but in a moment they were stilled forever. He was dead.

I laid him down gently on the grass.

The Major had also been standing by.

"Come," said he, taking me by the arm—"come, let us go."

And as we went away I saw his mustache tremble perceptibly.

There were three regular members of Company C who died the death in that skirmish, but I think not one of them was mourned with a deeper, sincerer sorrow than was Little Starlight. One of the sergeants, who was a rude rhymster in his way, composed a brief epitaph for him. Others of the company performed what little offices they could; and the Colonel inquired particularly into the circumstances of his death. The Union slain were buried separately—they were so few. Starlight also had a little grave of his own. He was free at last, and he thus came into the ownership of about five feet of the earth which had not been a very affectionate mother to him.

I said that he had an epitaph. It was scrawled upon the rude head-board by the author; and, as there is something epigrammatic about it, it may not be out of place to conclude our story with...

Here Lieth Little Starlight

Whose Ill-Starred Spirit Won

Its Right To Blessed Freedom Through

The Foeman’s Deadly Gun.

But He Will, Doubtless, Somewhere

Shine Brightly After All,

As The Stars Are In Their Glory

When The Shades Of Evening Fall.


Website design © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC
Images, logos, and all other content © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC., unless otherwise noted.
Please report problems to webmaster@harpweek.com