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Chapter XI
Student And Teacher

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

In the spring of 1862, the young teacher heard of the brilliant feats of Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson; he well remembers the first pictures of him in Harper's Weekly. As no one then knew how Grant looked, and as a picture of him must be had, evidently reasoning that to have achieved what he had, he must be a giant, they represented him as over six feet tall -- a fierce-looking, black-bearded hero.

John Burroughs was out in the fields at the Old Home boiling sap those early April days of 1862 when he saw a neighbour, John Smith, coming rapidly across the fields through the deep snow. Jumping his horse over the fences, Smith rushed up and announced the news of the Battle of Shiloh, the terrific losses of the Confederates, and the death of their gallant General Johnston. The sap-boiling and other farm work continued, but an undercurrent of unrest, to which letters from Allen (in Washington) contributed, was bearing our young' friend on toward more eventful times and scenes.

Allen urged Burroughs to come on there and make his fortune; all it needed, he declared, was that one should be active, shrewd, and impudent. He suggested that until something better offered, he come and, with carpet-bag full of necessary articles for the soldiers, make frequent journeys to the nearby camps, supplying the boys withthings not carried by the sutlers.

To the would-be writer this huckstering did not appeal, and so he wrote his friend, who lectured him mildly for his pride, pointing out that many men he knew in exalted social positions were condescending to do that very thing. Though not impressed with this, Burroughs did have a longing to get near the scene of action, even to take a hand at soldiering; his wife's dependency upon him, however, gave him pause.

Allen wrote of hearing Emerson lecture, and Artemus Ward; of the interesting people he was meeting; of the stirring scenes in the streets, the marching men, the officers in their splendid uniforms, the lines of white-covered baggage wagons, and an occasional band of rebel soldiers being marched through the busy streets. He expatiated on the high cost of living -- "You cannot get board for less than six dollars a week! " [sic!] But assuring his friend that, even at that, he was prospering for the first time in years, he urged him to bestir himself, to hasten there and look for work, and stay no longer in the country to vegetate:

    You must have active life; that keeps the channels of the brain unclogged. You'll get to be a cabbage if you stop long in the rural districts. You ought to be here where you can see Art and human nature....

And he urged John to come for his [Allen's] sake also:

    I need you to be my intellectual poker, to stir up my mental grate, create a draught, and make the sparks fly. The fire is smouldering. I am afraid it will go out.

The letters from Washington came frequently to the worker on that dairy farm in the Catskills, grubbing away at seventy-five cents a day, besides making some agricultural ventures on his own account. If not in danger of turning into a cabbage, as his friend feared, he was at least turning to onions for a season: he tried to raise some on a little patch of ground allotted him, to reap only regrets and disappointment. The crop proved a failure, not one in a hundred coming up, and the seed had cost him a sum he could ill afford. The venture was a severe blow to him, and brought down severer criticism on his head.

Here are some extracts from Allen's letters of that period:

February 28, 1862

    I dash you off another hasty note to let you know of the Army movements here ... the papers are forbidden to publish anything with regard to military movements under pain of suppression....

    Great events hover, and soon you will hear of a decisive conflict. The Great Advance is commencing, in fact, has already commenced.

    Night before last and yesterday thousands of troops marched quietly through the streets to the depot on their way to the upper Potomac. Gen'l. McClellan has already gone up to Banks's column with ten of his aides. Yesterday one of his staff was in the store and bought rubber and wool blankets and other camp equipments.

    The whole army is under marching orders and expects to move at any hour.... An officer in the Regular Army told me to-day that he and the other officers would have to carry their own baggage, an unusual thing for officers. Every man is to carry three days' ration in his haversack. Some of them think they will move toward Occoquan and attack the right wing of the rebels, while Banks hammers away on their left. The officers don't know themselves, only surmise. Banks crossed the river three days ago, and I have no doubt is fighting now. This morning about fifty ambulances went down the avenue on a run. They were terribly suggestive of mangled men, and blood, and dying groans.

    There are two hundred thousand armed men here on the banks of the Potomac, exclusive of Banks's and Wool's divisions. It is one of the finest armies the world ever saw, composed of men, hardy, true, and brave, well drilled and well equipped. They have been longing for action for some time and now are jubilant at the prospect of a battle. They will strike blows that will make the traitors quail. The rebel rascals will be unearthed at Manassas, and if our boys get them in the open field, God help them!

    I hear this afternoon that about a hundred secessionists have been arrested at Alexandria, and now are in the old Capitol prison. They are all spotted in that city and will be summarily dealt with. . . .

March 6, 1862

    I am sorry I have no place ready for you yet. . . . About two months ago we started a store in Alexandria, and if you had been on the spot you might have had a chance to conduct it, but it was necessary to have a man immediately. . . .

    As for the Army, John, don 't think of it. It is a miserable life. Officer's life is bad enough, but a private's life is terrible. Mud, slush, hunger, cold, toil, typhoid fever, measles, small pox, is what he has to go through with. But worse than that is the ennui superimposed by inactivity and confinement in camp. A private has got to herd with all sorts of men, sixteen in a tent. He loses all individuality, and becomes a mere machine to be ordered hither and thither at the will of some upstart to whom, often, he is far superior in intellect and social position. A position on some General's staff is about the only active military position I would like, but first seats in the kingdom of heaven are about as easy to get as that. Every government position comes through favouritism. As for an office in the regular army, that is equally hard to obtain. I have a number of friends in the army of all ranks, from lieutenants to Brigade Officers, and although they look very fine on the streets in their uniforms, they lead a rough life. So give up the idea of soldiering. I'll keep my eyes open for you here. . . .

    While I write I hear the sound of music. It is the funeral of the brave old General Lander passing down the avenue. I drop my pen to see the procession. . . . It was a beautiful sight. The procession was not long, some two or three thousand men, but they looked fine. First came a regiment of infantry marching with their arms reversed and treading slowly to the mournful music, the platoons reaching across the breadth of the avenue. The men looked finely in their dark blue suits. Then came an artillery company, the men mounted and gay with scarlet braid and plumes; then a squadron of lancers with gay pennons flaunting from their lances. Then a caisson with the coffin upon it shrouded in the Stars and Stripes. The dead warrior's horse, a beautiful creature, was led behind the caisson, the whole surrounded by a number of stalwart sharp-shooters, with their telescopic rifles on their shoulders. Then came carriages with McClellan, McDowell, and other distinguished militaires. Lastly another regiment of infantry. These are no Sunday soldiers, but fighting men who have seen battles and expect before another week is gone to see them again. . . .

    You should see some of the regiments marching in a storm just at nightfall, the men shuffling along with great knapsacks on their backs, their trousers tucked in their boots, covered with mud and soaked with rain. It would take all the romance out of you. Sometimes they have to lie down in the mud after a day's march, and sleep in the rain. Their tents are often pitched where the mud is six inches deep-worse than our Beaverkill experience.

    The preparations for an advance are still going on. . . .

    I wish you were here, you would get some good ideas and might write some telling things about war and philosophy. . . .

May 1, 1862

    MY DEAR JOHN,

    If you were here now I should be happy, for you are my twin-spirit. We are like two lovers, are we not? Do you remember how we used to lie on the rock by the brook in the twilight? You ought to be a woman, John, or I. In this soft, sweet air of spring, when the bloom of the peach tree, and the white blossoms of the other trees are snowed down on the grass, and the golden stars of the dandelions shine out in green nooks, and sweet earthy scents fill the air, I seem to see your spirit in all these things. You are so associated in memory with the spring and summer, your nice observation of the phenomena of nature, and your fine appreciation of the Beautiful as it is gradually unfolded over the hills and valleys, has so identified you in my mind with these sweet seasons, that I cannot help thinking of you when I feel the dreamy influences of spring, and long to be with you. I imagine you exclaiming to yourself at this point, "Why Allen has made a mistake in directing this to me-it is a love letter to some fair friend of his!"

    Even if I had not got your letter the other day I should have written just the same, for I know, my dear boy, that you are out of the world of men, and I am among the busy things, hearing and seeing much that would interest you. . . .

    . . . I'll have to knock down your theory of McClellan going to Fredericksburg. . . . There are no signs of our forces leaving the Peninsula. Our intrenchments are thrown up within six hundred yards of the enemy's works. A new regiment of French Zouaves, called Les Enfants Pardus, marched through the avenue to-day on their way to Yorktown. They looked finely in their picturesque uniforms with their Enfield rifles and bright sabre-bayonets.

    I was talking this afternoon with a chaplain who came to-day from Fredericksburg. He says our force there is thirty thousand. We do not occupy the town but are encamped on the heights opposite. Pontoon bridges are being built so the whole force can be thrown over at once. Our soldiers are not allowed to go over, for if they did, they would certainly pillage, as for the past few weeks they have had a hard time of it, and are deprived of many comforts and even necessities. There seems to be a desire on the part of the commanders to conduct the War in such a manner that no charges of outrageous conduct may be laid to our soldiers.

    The holding of the town is of little consequence, so long as we command it . . . if the Stars and Stripes were raised there, the rebels who are in sight of the hills opposite would shell the place and cause a fearful waste of life and property, so it is out of mercy to the inhabitants that the town is let alone, but when we are ready, down comes their flag!

    General McDowell occupies the fine mansion of a Mrs. L-, who went across the river to get away from the detested "Hessians." She sent her coloured woman over to the General with the request that the playing of Yankee Doodle be discontinued as it was very distasteful to her ear. It is needless to say that the melody was more prevalent than ever.

    I met Gen. McDowell with three of his aides on the avenue Sunday afternoon, taking terrific strides, their sabres clanking loudly on the sidewalk. They looked somewhat dilapidated, evidently just from the field. The General is a noble-looking fellow, tall and broad-chested, with a bronzed face and a nose that looks as if it had been struck across the bridge with a club. He has a square forehead, and a very pleasing expression. I am told he is a very courtly gentleman. I saw him catch his spurs in a lady's dress one day and come near falling, but he recovered himself very gracefully and begged the lady's pardon.

    The other Mae, the "little George," is a very different-looking person. He looks like a well-to-do butcher-boy, the kind that "kills for Keyser, and can whip his weight in bull-dogs." He is short and thickset, with a beefy face and bull neck. His pictures give an impression of dark eyes, eyebrows, and moustache; on the contrary, they are all light. I stood beside him at the President's reception one evening and observed him well. He seemed very diffident and wished to avoid the gaze of the many eager eyes fixed upon him. It was with difficulty his lady friends induced him to take a promenade through the East Room, and he got away as soon as possible. I saw him a short time after in the little Reception room talking with some friends near the President, who was pumping the hands of his visitors in a very jovial manner. The President, seeing the people hurrying by him, turned to seethe cause. "Ah! General," said he, "are you here?" And the tall, good-natured Abe put his arm around the short, quiet George, saying, "Come, General, step up in line, they all want to see you." "George" shook hands for a short time, but soon retired and I saw him afterward in a remote corner talking with Cameron.

    Our good President is the homeliest and the best-natured looking man I ever saw. There is something so kindly about his face that I like to look at him. He looks awkward in white gloves and a dress coat, and you would laugh to see him do the "extensive" with the ladies. He was missed a short time, and while walking through one of the halls, I saw him emerge from a door and make his way back to the Reception room with a peculiar sliding step, keeping close to the wall. He looked very funny. A short time after a lady friend was talking to him and I heard the word "boots" mentioned. I looked down and saw that he had on slippers. The poor man had been suffering the pangs of purgatory in tight boots. . . .

    Mrs. Lincoln is as round as a dumpling and dresses gorgeously, in low-necked dresses, showing very plump shoulders.... She looks as if she made the excellent Abe stand around....

    I saw John Hay, the author of "Ellsworth" in the Atlantic, on the street the other day; he is the President's private secretary....

    Since I read that poem of Gen'l Lander's I have thought tenderly of the man. Calling at a friend's house the other evening where he often visited, I saw a photograph of him taken on the prairie. There he stood on the trampled grass, the vast prairie stretching away to the horizon behind him. He was dressed in hunting costume, leaning on his rifle. It was a noble form and face, tall and erect, his slouched hat thrown back from his high forehead, his dark eyes beaming large and full, a Grecian nose and Oriental beard. . . . He was brave and true, and, from his poem, full of tenderness. But I am told he seemed rough sometimes, and cursed frequently.... I wish I had known him.... Fltz James O'Brien, his aide, is dead, too. I am sorry, for he was a poet. If it were not for my mother and sister I think I should throw my little life in the breach against our country's foes. I think sometimes that I would like to slip out of this life . . . to free the spirit which is chafing this body. It is unmanly, I know, but you feel so sometimes, do you not, my dear friend?

Then, commenting on his friend's clouded skies, he concludes:

    . . . Forward, my dear friend! you will yet be heard in the land! Slow and sure, like Emerson, Hawthorne, and all true geniuses, you will reach the heights. . . .

Little wonder that young Burroughs's war fever ran high that summer and fall, with such letters as these, together with the delays and disappointments connected with the Army on the Potomac, and the talk of drafting to take place. After Pope's defeat at the second battle of Bull Run, John Burroughs wrote his wife, away on a visit, that it was time every man, married or single, shouldered a musket; that unless she returned home soon, she was likely to find him gone to join the Delaware Blues; that he would wait and earn what he could in the oats, so as to leave her as much money as possible; that she could stay with his people untill he returned, and have a pension if he never came back.

How often it happens in real life that prosaic circumstances intervene to block one's worthiest endeavours, and mock his most heroic moods! An enemy in ambush, shortly after that, prevented the translation of our hero's martial feelings into action: A series of carbuncles attacked him in relays, not only preventing him from working effectually in the oats, as planned, but also from joining the Delaware Blues.

Among a series of articles "From the Back Country," which our essayist wrote that summer for the New York Leader, was one, "Harvest Time," for which the editors could give no money, but for which they sent him, in payment, a pass for three years on the Ulster and Delaware Railway. But that article brought him something far more precious than money or fame-the friendship of Myron B. Benton, a young man a few years his senior, a rural philosopher and poet, an advanced farmer, a man of ripe and refined literary taste. Attracted by these articles of the Back Countryman, that summer Mr. Benton wrote John Burroughs the first letter of appreciation he ever received from a stranger concerning his writings. Thence there developed a helpful friendship which terminated only at his death, thirty years later.

When Mr. Benton had praised the country sketches for their charm and fidelity, the essayist in reply said he only undertook them to limber up his style, adding that if Benton had chanced to see his essay, "Expression," in the Atlantic he had doubtless perceived that it travelled a little stiff, like a ring-boned horse, a fault which he found this writing on homely country things was enabling him to overcome.

A brisk correspondence ensuing, personal data were exchanged, literary likes and dislikes compared, and the conduct of the war was freely commented upon. By this time the Countryman in the Catskills was disinclined to enlist under generals in whom he had so little confidence. On September 12, 1862, a few days before McClellan stopped Lee's invasion at the bloody battle of Antietam Creek, he writes:

 

    The war feeling runs very high with me, but I have not enlisted and probably shall not. I have lost all confidence in our generals; there is not one whom I would serve under without compulsion. McClellan I implicitly believed in once, but now consider a failure, fully as much as Pope, the Gasconade, is. "Mac" is a very proper general, a very mathematical gentleman, but, me judice, has not a spark of genius. And mark this, so long as there is only engineering skill and mathematical precision on our side, and dash and bravery and rapidity of movement on the part of the Rebels, so long the battle will be against us. No great war can be successfully carried on purely on mathematical principles (organizing Victory beforehand) any more than a great poem can be written solely by mastering "Parker's Aids." Forego spades and picks and the idea of digging or engineering an active, vigilant enemy out of a place, rely upon pure bravery, and the ability to deal quick, hard blows, and something may be done. Halleck engineered the enemy out of Corinth, and we now seethe fruits of it! "Mae" ditto out of Yorktown, and see the harvest he gathered! Obliging an enemy to retreat without fighting him is disastrous; it is winding the spring up, and you know what effect that has-narrows its compass and in the same measure intensifies its power.

    I have not read the Tribune this summer, nor the Post, so these views are not those of any newspapers. I have arrived at them solely from studying our own movements and those of the Rebels. Look at the contrast! I know it is very naughty of them to "cutup" as they have! They ought to have come up in front of Washington, or Pope's army, and gone to digging. But enough of this. You will excuse me for talking thus, for I feel deeply upon the subject.

In the light of later knowledge, and the perspective of time, this opinion of the young man of twenty-five concerning the conduct of some of the Union generals, shows that he was something more than a "cabbage head," or even a budding essayist. McClellan's failure to follow up his Antietam victory, his second removal, Burnside's reckless assault of Fredericksburg, with his awful repulse, and, in the spring (May '63), General Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville, were causing a general disheartening, as well as a critical attitude, among loyal hearts everywhere.

Benton, in reply to the criticism concerning the conduct of the war, said, in part:

    I fear that you are too nearly correct in your opinion of our officers, though I am not quite so devoid of confidence in them. We have, indeed, been out-officered from the beginning, but however bad they are, they axe, of course, better than none, for in the latter case we could not fight at all, and fighting is our only hope now. We must stick by our officers until we, the people, compel the government to put better in their places.

    It is a pity, indeed, that the Southern bull would pitch in, instead of raving at a distance, according to the policy of the Northern one, pawing and "digging entrenchments," as we often see such belligerents do on the farm. I have still confidence in Lincoln's honesty, but, O, how far behind the day he is! A handful of half-loyal men in the border states outweigh all the rest. It is a pity that he who once thought that no method of dealing with slavery was fit which did not contemplate it as wrong, should now hold back. Only a day or two since I heard a speaker, one of the hard old sort, who scarcely thinks the negro equal to a baboon, plead strongly for immediate emancipation.

In October, the correspondents are planning for a meeting in Poughkeepsie, Benton to visit his soldier brother in training there. The younger man, warning his friend that he is likely to be disenchanted at nearness and contact, and confessing that he is habitually stupid, his occasional bright spells almost never occurring with strangers, writes:

    If I should find that I have always known you, though I have never happened to meet you before, why, we will get along first rate together.

He names a certain hotel for the place of meeting, telling his friend that if he sees a middling short, thick fellow with a mere shadow of side whiskers, dressed in a dark suit, and a light felt hat, with a newspaper clutched in his hand, coming along the street in front of the hotel, there's a chance of its being he.

And so the friends met, and got along "first rate" together. Soon after this, the "middling short, thick fellow" went to the town of Olive and speculated in a consignment of honey, but the honey got crashed in transportation turning, as it were, to gall.

Just what directed his thoughts to medicine he does not remember, but without abandoning in the least his intention of becoming a writer, he decided to combine with this the study of medicine. Accordingly, he began reading anatomy in the office of his old friend, Dr. Hull, at Olive, and teaching the little school there, at seventeen dollars a month, his wife remaining in his father's home at Roxbury, there being no rooms for rent available there, and little of the wherewithal to rent them, had such been found.

The future looked pretty dubious but, in spite of gloomy misgivings, he must subconsciously have been sustained by a conviction of selfdependence, and a trust that the long time following the sowing would be crowned by joyous reaping; that some day his Own-whatever his soul craved and deserved-would come to him. One gloomy evening in November, as he sat in the Doctor's dingy little office with Gray's Anatomy, he suddenly pushed aside the book and began scribbling. What he wrote was the now well-known poem, "Waiting," which has probably brought him more friends than anything else that has ever come from his pen. He thought little of it himself and the poem made but little stir at the time. It was not printed till two years later, in, Knickerbocker's Magazine. For years it seemed completely forgotten until Whittier, resurrecting it, included it in his Songs of Three Centuries. This seemed to give it vogue and it has travelled on the wings of public print ever since.

The reading of medicine continued, but hearing of a school at Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls) near West Point which needed a teacher and would pay better wages than the Olive school, he resigned in December, took along his medical books, and began teaching in the little river town. Again the couple set up housekeeping, and again the skies brightened for a little. Besides reading medicine, for "side dishes" there were Dickens's Great Expectations, and Prescott's Conquest of Peru.

Before many months had passed, however, he abandoned the thought of becoming a physician, the fine library to which he had access at the West Point Academy probably proving too powerful a rival to the few medical books he had borrowed of Dr. Hull.

On the 18th of December, after Burnside's repulse, Benton writes:

    Oh, this last repulse and slaughter of our army! When are we going to accomplish anything? The only morsel of encouragement there is in it is that we have a general who will attempt something at least. My brother is still in Baltimore-it is quite probable that the regiment will remain there this winter.

Knickerbocker's Magazine accepted a paper that winter on "Analogy," giving the essayist Wilkinson's Human Body in payment. His friend, Henry Abbey, a poet, declared the essay "brilliant," but the Evening Post pronounced it "heavy," and the sane young writer, in a letter to Benton, agreed with the judgment of the Post rather than the poet. He complained to Benton that he had not written much for some time, had "merely cackled without laying an egg."

That school at Buttermilk Falls was a hard one to govern, the boys being very unruly. One day when a certain lad became insolent, the impulsive teacher, losing his temper, "walloped" him severely. In the ensuing struggle the teacher finally got the upper hand; but so heartily ashamed of himself was he for losing his temper that he stood up before the school and, breaking in two the whips, told his pupils that if he could not keep school without such scenes as that, he would quit; he was not there to thrash them, he said, but to help them. Admitting contritely his own weakness, before he had finished he was weeping, and his pupils were weeping with him. Thereafter obedience and harmony reigned.

In January of 1863, and for months following, the tide in the fortunes of the Union cause was at its lowest ebb; the Burroughs-Benton correspondence reflects those anxious times. Benton's remark shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation shows how the immortal Lincoln was criticised and carped at even by men as fair-minded as this level-headed young man. Because the memorable document could not accomplish everything desired, the fact that it liberated three and one half million slaves earned for it only the "faint praise" of these words to his friend Burroughs:

    Thank the Lord we have the long awaited Proclamation at last; though it comes, like Samson, shorn of its locks of strength.

The slaves were freed at last; but, to continue the parallel in the fortunes of our youth and the nation, the schoolteacher of Buttermilk Falls found himself in bondage for the first four months of that momentous year, his writing and meditation being practically suspended, owing to the semiinvalidism of his wife. A wearisome round of household duties, nursing, and teaching was his portion, until her convalescence in May, and the too-long-delayed arrival of a housemaid upon the scene.

An acquaintance with Professor Eddy, a scholarly man and a botanist living at Buttermilk Falls, resulted at this period in long walks in the woods, the botanist initiating him in the study of the early wild flowers. From now on his letters give glimpses of the ardour of these quests; the discussions concerning McClellan and " Fighting Joe " and Burnside are superseded by bloodless conquests of his own in the May woods, the letters breathing the fragrance of arbutus, revealing the tender grace of hepatica, corydalis, and claytonia, and announcing his delight in gathering cypripediums.

It was, in truth, a peaceful life he was living those months in the midst of war's alarms. One day at noon on going home from school and stepping into his bedroom, he was startled to find a quail sitting on his bed, the bird evidently having flown there to escape a hawk. Trivial as is this incident, it stands out in his memory as clearly as much more significant things in that far-away period.

But letters from Allen will not long allow the war to be forgotten. In early May, Allen writes:

    I have seen several officers and others within the last few hours, just up from the front, and they all report that Hooker has crossed the river again. He'll hop on their breast-bones before they know it and be picking the meat off. Now while I write I hear the rattle of ambulances bringing the wounded in, and so they'll rattle all night....

From now on Allen's letters begin to mention Walt Whitman, who saunters into the store occasionally:

    a broad-chested old fellow with grey beard and moustache radiating from a broad, ruddy face. He has the mildest of clear blue eyes, far apart, and one of the most sympathetic voices I ever heard in a man. He wears a broad-brimmed, soft hat well back on his head, and collar well open on the chest. His dress and air are very farmer-like, and he walks the streets with an easy stride, his hands in his pockets, and always seems to be musing. He does not talk much on literature. He lent me some letters from some of his young friends in New York. They call him "Walt," and by reading you would judge him to be a young fellow, and, indeed, he is young, with his perfect health and youthful tastes.

Later in the month:

    Walt was in the other day and I had quite a talk with him. He has a volume coming out soon called Drum Taps. . . .

    June 18, 1863:

    Walt just passed with his arms full of bottles and lemons, going to some hospital, he said, to give the boys a good time. . . .

Still later:

    Walt is much interested in you. I sketched your history some to him. He would like to know you. He is a good fellow, and, although over fifty,* belongs to the present generation. He was much interested in our trip to the Beaverkill, which I detailed to him.

Later still:

    He [Whitman], good man, was just returning from some hospital where he had been doing that sort of good which a kind heart and noble soul can do -- performing those sweet, balmy ministrations which win the sinking spirit from the very borders of the Dark Realm, his large active sympathy reaching down to the homesick soul, shivering within a shattered body, and lifting it into light, and warmth and love.

One June day as John Burroughs was sauntering around West Point when the official visitors were there for the examination of the cadets, he spied a tall, striking-looking person with a much too large silk hat pushed back on his head, and an air of eager curiosity. He wondered who the countryman was who was evidently away from home for the first time, intent on seeing all there was to be seen.

That night Myron Benton came to town, and rushing into the Burroughs home, his usual placidity considerably ruffled, announced that Emerson was over at West Point. Then Burroughs knew who the alert, eager "countryman" was.

The next day the two friends went over to the Military Academy and met their hero, and walked and talked with him. He seemed glad to get away from the older fellows, and they followed him about much as Socrates was followed by the youthful Athenians; only, instead of the master questioning them, they did the most of the questioning. They asked him particularly about Alcott, Thoreau, and David A. Wasson, and he told them many significant things concerning those gifted friends.

That talk of Emerson's to the young men was like water to a thirsty hart. They carried his valise to the boatlanding, they hovered near as he stepped on the little ferryboat, they stood close to the boat listening to him till 11 the last minute, and waved to him as he smiled benignly when the boat moved away.

It was a red-letter day in their lives. They had seen and touched their hero, and virtue seemed to have gone out of him into their very souls. For hours, even days, they moved in a different world. Wisdom had tarried awhile with Youth, and Youth, basking in the light of her countenance, knew itself to be blest.

The library at West Point had, from the first, been a godsend to the student-teacher, but as the books could not be taken from it, and as it was two or more miles distant from his home, and he could seldom get there except of a Saturday, it left much to be desired. But here, in May or June of 1863, he chanced upon Audubon's Birds with its spirited coloured illustrations. It was one of the most momentous happenings of his life. His enthusiasm became inflamed. It was like bringing together fire and powder. In his childhood when he had noted with such curiosity and delight that strange warbler in the Deacon woods, of which we have read, he had said to himself, "I shall know the birds some day," but in all the years that had followed, nothing had come of that thought and wish on his part until now; his observation of the birds and their ways had apparently been aimless; his knowledge of them unsystematized. But hear what he says of the effect which Audubon now had upon him:

    I was ripe for the adventure. I had leisure; I was in a good bird country. . . . How eagerly and joyously I took up the study! It fitted in so well with my country tastes and breeding; it turned my enthusiasm as a sportsman into a new channel; it gave to my walks a new delight; it made me look upon every grove and wood as a new storehouse of possible treasures. I could go fishing or camping or picnicing now with my resources for enjoyment doubled. The first hooded warbler that I discovered and identified in a nearby bushy field one Sunday morningshall I every forget the thrill of delight it gave me?

The ardour with which he pursued this new study deepened throughout that eventful May and June, with the throng of returning birds to quicken it, and the collection of mounted birds for reference at the Military Academy. It increased as the season advanced. A new world opened up to him in the very midst of the old, almost blotting out for him the perilous fortunes of the nation. "While the Battle of Gettysburg was being fought (July 1-3) 1 was in the woods studying the birds-think of it! " and he sighed in deep contrition, reproaching himself for his callousness. Pickett's gallant charge, the withering fire of the Union guns, immortal heroism in both attack and defence, and then the wavering line stopping, slowly bending backward, breaking-the Southern cause virtually lost! -- all this taking place on the heights above Gettysburg, and the next day Lee in sorrow unspeakable retreating to the Potomac with his defeated army, while Grant was entering Vicksburg in triumph-all this, while the bird-student was pursuing warblers in the woods around West Point! How could this young man have been so seemingly un moved by the fate of the Union whose welfare he unques tioningly had at heart? His own words, uttered years later, when from the summit of the years he looked back upon his life, furnish the explanation:

    My life has always been more or less detached from the life about me. I have not been a hermit, but my temperament and love of solitude, and a certain constitutional timidity and shrinking from all kinds of strife, have kept me in the by-paths rather than in the great highways of life.

    ... I have kept apart from the strife and fever of the world, and the maelstrom of business and political life, and have sought the paths by -s, and in the quiet fields, and life has been sweet and whole the still waters some to me. In my tranquil seclusion I am often on the point of upbraiding myself because I keep so aloof from the struggles and contentions ... about me.

    I was never a fighter; I fear that at times I may have been a shirker, but I have shirked one thing or one duty that I might the more heartily give myself to another. He also serves who sometimes runs away.

    I missed being a soldier in the armies of the Union during the Civil War, which was probably the greatest miss of my life. I think I had in me many of the qualities that go to the making of a good soldier -love of adventure, keenness of eye and ear, love of camp-life, ability to shift for myself, skill with the gun, and a sound constitution. But the rigidity of the military system, the iron rules, the mechanical unity and precision, the loss of the one in the many-all would have galled me terribly, though better men than I willingly, joyously, made themselves a part of the great military machine. I would have been a good scout and skirmisher, but a poor fighter in the ranks. I am a poor fighter, anyhow.

And who shall say that the service John Burroughs has rendered his country by living his own sane and contented life, and writing his books, has not been far greater than any he could have rendered by becoming a soldier? He has given to the whole nation a fresh, sane, simple outlook upon life; has stimulated a love for nature that has been a saving grace to young and old. As that great American, Theodore Roosevelt, said to" Dear Oom John:"

    It is a good thing for our people that you have lived, and surely no man can wish to have more said of him.

Early in August of '63, Allen, Benton, and Burroughs, with one Jaspar from Jersey, planned a camping trip in the Adirondacks. Burroughs wrote Benton, burdened with the cares of a large farm in Dutchess County:

    Let not trifles detain you. We will have a glorious time. Write by return mail and say you are with us. The expense will not be much, but the fun boundless.

Of that sojourn in the Adirondack wilds we read in Wake Robin. Allen, coming on from Washington, missed the stage at Poughkeepsie, walked the twenty-eight miles to Benton's home at Leedsville one hot August day, and the four then set out for two weeks of glorious freedom.

Shortly after returning to Buttermilk Falls John Burroughs wrote his first bird article.

The reluctant teacher again took up his irksome task, more irksome than ever after those free days in the forest. The pay was pitifully inadequate to meet the mounting cost of living. He asked the trustees to increase it, promising himself that unless they did, he would, discontinue teaching and volunteer.

Gettysburg and Vicksburg had been the beginning of the end of the long struggle, but the end itself was not yet. Still the war news that now came to the restive teacher was more cheering than heretofore. Real teamwork was taking place. Buell and Rosencrans in Kentucky and Tennessee had compelled Bragg to retire to Chattanooga, Grant and Sherman, free after Vicksburg to move eastward across Mississippi and Alabama, driving Johnston before them, were working to join Rosencrans at Chattanooga and push the Confederate armies into Georgia, while the Army of the Potomac was to press down on Lee from northern Virginia. This "Anaconda" policy promised a speedy end of the Confederacy, when Bragg's sudden turn on Rosencrans at Chickamauga nearly caused a crushing defeat of the Union cause. But the magnificent defence of General Thomas almost turned defeat into victory.

The news that came of the valiant " Rock of Chickamauga " so stirred our quiet school-teacher that we find him, on the 23d of September, writing to Benton that he can no longer be satisfied to go on in that way; that he is seriously contemplating joining the army; that he craves action; and that if he only had someone like him [Benton] to go with him, he would go without delay. Lover of comrades that he was, he could not quite make up his mind to such a step without a "buddy." But already two of the younger Benton boys had gone to the war; the elder son was needed to carry on the work of the farm. Immediately from his farmer-friend comes a protest:

    This matter of your going into the army troubles me not a little. God forbid that I should throw a straw in the way of patriotism now. Our country needs sacrifices which should be offered willingly; but I do not see that the cause requires very much now in the mere matter of numbers, after the means which have been taken. One born with the genius to direct and control the great mass of raw material could do something for his country now; but I cannot see that the demand is such that you are called upon to enlist at this time. I beg of you do not plunge into this thing out of rash uneasiness and craving for excitement. Such feelings ought to be smothered before they lead you to bury all your opportunities of intellectual improvement, as you know you would. I would not have answered to-night except to send my opinion on this subject; for I fear that you are going to be very precipitate. Think of all you would forego to satisfy this craving for the excitement of the "big war." One week would satisfy all that, and then-the long drudgery. If you think it is your duty to your country, I will not open my mouth, though it would be a sacrifice on my part to lose you. What you would sacrifice would be immense. I need not tell you that your after life will depend very much upon the way in which the next three or four years are spent-towards your development.

    . . . Now I wish you in particular to drop me a line by the next mail after receiving this, and tell me your plans, will you not?

In spite of his friend's solicitude, it was not until ten days later that Burroughs wrote his friend Benton that his plans for enlisting had been "knocked prematurely in the head " by the severe illness of his wife, whose condition still prevented his leaving her. He was then again carrying on the threefold work of keeping house, nursing, and teaching school. The draft had come off in the village but he had "not the honour to be a conscript." He begged Benton if he could find a housemaid in his vicinity to kidnap her and send her along. The maid did not materialize, but the wife was soon convalescent.

In late October the school at Buttermilk Falls suddenly found itself without a teacher. On closing school one night, after having given out the lessons as usual for the next day, the teacher put the key in his pocket. He never went back. The undercurrent of protest and unrest suddenly culminated in abandonment of the school. Thus ingloriously ended his career as a teacher. He had never been able to give himself to the work. It was but a means to another end, and almost before he knew it, he had quit it once for all. He had quit his various business ventures; he had abandoned the brief study of medicine; but through all these changes had steadfastly held to his serious reading and writing; and now with his absorbing interest in the birds and the flowers, and the ambition to become a writer, conditions and circumstances seemed to be focussing more clearly on that as a career-and yet, and yetthere was the War beckoning! One decision, the abandonment of teaching, had been made, but what about the other?

In late October, with the birds, he turned his back on the Highlands of the Hudson, and migrated South as far as Washington, in quest of work and adventure.

 

Footnotes:
  1. Charles E. Benton, author of As Seen from the Ranks - (Return)
  2.  Whitman was only forty-four at this time - (Return)

 

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