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 boya 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
agewhich might have been fifteen could we have had a date to reckon fromand 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
coata swallow-tailed blue of unknown antiquityan 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 trowserswe
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 wouldnt 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
"Heres a prisoner, or contraband, or something of the kind, chaplain. I just
picked him up, and dont 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
expectantly, so I opened the proceedings.
"What is your name, my boy?"
"Dunno, massr. Spect I isnt 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
"I allers came wiout callin. But wen I shinned along kinder slow,
sometime deyd sing out, Nig! sometime Little Nig! an
den agin, Hyar, you d__d Nig! Ill bet dey did, massr! Yah! Yah!
Ise 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 Ill 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, massr. Ise been sleepin out recenly. Yer
see Ise a awful cuss, I is. Yah! Yah! Ise"
"Silence!" claimed the judge.
"Sartin, sartin, massr! Yah! Yah!"
"Who do you belong to?" I resumed.
"Yah! Yah! I aint got none. Yer see hes gwine away, he is."
"But what was your masters name?"
"Dunno. Yer see dis chicken were left behin wid ole missus ande
gals, wile Massr 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!
Ise 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 pigeons 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
"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. "Youre 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 nameby which he was altogether known among usoriginated, 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 "Ise a awful
cuss, massr, 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
Starlights 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 freedomhis 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, Massr," he one day exclaimed, "I feels it in my bones.
Itll come roun one day or nother. I knows Ill be free!"
"You are so already," said I. "The Presidents Proclamation has
made you so. You have nothing to fear."
"Jis so, massr," he replied. "De Presiden he am a nice
man, he am. But I doesnt feel it in de bones yit; I nebber will till I
git on to him, yer know. Jis lemme git on to himonly once!"
"On to whom?" I asked.
"On to de Ole ManCunnel Billy. Jis lemme git on to him, den
Ill be free!"
"You surely would not kill your old master?"
"Wouldnt 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, massr, and youll see de blood fly yoursef. Yah! Yah!
Ise 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 enemys 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.
"Dats him! Dats 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 negros neck. But the next instant they closed; the rushing
bayonet gored the breast of the officer, and he rolled to the plain. Twicethrice 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
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
It was but too true.
Little Starlight lay at the edge of the enemys 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
"Yah! Yah! Massr Chaplain," he cried, as I knelt by his side and took
his hand; "dis nigs done for, he is. But did yer see me in de fight,
massr? Did yer see me tackle dat ole coon, Cunnel Billy? Yah1 yah! Ise got it
at last massr! Ise a awful cuss; but Ise 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, massr," he continued, speaking with great
difficulty. "It am ebening now, an de sun am setting, massr. But I hears
de bid grum ob de sky rollin de rebellie ob de Lord. De day am breakin for dis
chile, massr; for Ise 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 separatelythey 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...