Home  

Chapter XII
Working For Uncle Sam

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

John Buttoughs was in his twenty-seventh year when he went to Washington to live. Country born and bred, and country dweller as we have seen him to be, he entered with zest upon this first real taste of city life. He had cast off the drudgery of school-teaching, and freed for a time from domestic cares, found in this new untried life strong contrasts which interested and stimulated him. And yet the very day after his arrival he fled to the woods, and during his ten years of city life fled to the woods whenever he could, which was pretty often; for in those days the dweller in Washington could get into the country and primitive woods in ten minutes-Nature came up to the very threshold of the city, sometimes even crossed it.

His first natural history novelty in the new environment was a prodigious grasshopper which flew from the ground in front of him to a tree. Immediately giving chase, he was surprised to find the great insect nearly as wild and as fleet as a bird. The grey spotted creature was about three inches long, with a white stripe on its back, and with something the look of a reptile. But he did not go to Washington to pursue natural history objects; he went there as we have learned, to be nearer the stirring scenes then taking place in and around the nation's capital.

On reaching the city he made his headquarters in the rubber store of Allen, Clapp & Co., his friend Allen immediately helping him look for work. While waiting for investigations and applications to unroll in true red-tape fashion, he kept occupied, studying the birds and writing about them. Though living on borrowed money, he put on a brave face and strove to reduce his expenses to the lowest figure. His chief expense was for board. He slept in the store on a camp-cot with army blankets. When his pillow-case was soiled, he turned it other side up, and when that was soiled, washed it, and also some of his clothing, at the sink in the store, drying them at the stove. He wore the paper collars and cuffs then in vogue. One night on finding that the laundry to which he had sent his clothing was burning up, he had a pretty anxious time until he learned that his clothes were among those that were saved.

Years later, when, an honoured guest at the White House, he was driven along Pennsylvania Avenue with President Roosevelt, on their way to Yellowstone Park, those days of poverty and early struggle came vividly to mind. It seemed incredible to him that he and that obscure, aspiring youth were one and the same.

During that early period of waiting he wrote his first bird article, which he had started on coming out of the Adirondacks. When too distracting in the store to write, he hunted up some other place. He remembers once or twice writing at a little table in a reception room of Willard's hotel. No wonder the article dragged! When at last it was done and sent to the Atlantic, there was a long wait, during which time be wrote a friend that although he had sent his " Birds forth, he was expecting they would soon come home to roost. But they did not. The Atlantic accepted the essay, "With the Birds," publishing it as the leading article in the spring of 1865, the first of a long list of bird articles not ended yet. Fifty-five years of writing about the birds, and he is still finding out new things concerning them!

In submitting the article he had unwisely offered to sell it for ten or fifteen dollars, so it was accepted at those terms. Thus early he demonstrated what has always been true of him: if left to himself he will cheat himself in every bargain. A more shrewd and canny author, with one-tenth of his popularity, would have reaped a tidy fortune from his writings, but his unworldliness has stood in the way of that; the lion's share of profits has always gone elsewhere; but the lion's share of affection and appreciation has steadily flowed into the coffers of the unbusinesslike author.

After some weeks of waiting he secured work in the Quartermaster General's Department at Geesboro Point. His first job was to superintend the burial of some negroes who had died in the camps. Then he looked after supplies for the Cavalry, kept tally on the hayloads, and gave out drugs.

Later they put him in the office, but as there was seldom work enough to keep the office force busy, loafing was common. Preferring to put such slack time to use, he spent it in reading. One day while absorbed in a philosophical article in the Westminster Review, a " high-brow " magazine with a yellow paper cover, one of the assistant quartermasters came in. Bustling about, the other idlers made a great show of working, but the "green hand" from the country kept on reading. "I wasn't going to make believe I was busy when I wasn't," he said to his associates when they told him he should have "got busy" when the "boss" came in. In a few days he received his dismissal, the reason, as given later to Allen, being: "About all Burroughs seemed to do was to sit around and read yellow-covered literature!"

It was while he was still at work in the Quartermaster's Department that Grant, Sherman, and Thomas were getting ready to attack Bragg and Johnston around Chattanooga, and just after his dismissal that the threedays' battle took, place (November 22-25) with the splendid victory. Hooker's "Battle above the Clouds" and Thomas's brilliant achievements at Missionary Ridge were excitedly discussed in the evening by the young men congregating in Allen's store. The fortunes of the Union were indeed brightening, even if those of our hero were still under a cloud.

Some dreary weeks followed that dismissal, weeks in which he wished himself back at his teacher's desk at Buttermilk Falls with his meagre pay; for he had left debts behind and was daily incurring more. He enumerated those he had left: three dollars for wood, ten for groceries, small bills at the butcher's and the washer woman's, and one for filing his saw; but he wrote his wife to see his creditors and assure them he would pay every farthing, though the outlook for paying them soon, he had to confess, was not bright. In fact, he was so discouraged be declared his life a failure; that he wasn't as valuable as his old shoes; that he had nothing but ideas, and did not seem able to bring them to bear.

Despondent, he wandered about the city, went to the Capitol, traversed its marble halls and long colonnades, listened to senators and representatives, and wondered when the turn in the long road would be reached.

And yet in this dreary time a steady light was shining along his path:

As he was sitting in the back part of Allen's store one evening shortly after arriving in Washington, there had come in at the door a tall figure in grey, wearing a broadbrimmed, grey felt hat.

"There he is! there's Walt!" cried Allen, going forward to meet the Poet, followed by his quiet companion who, though outwardly calm, was in a state of seething emotion.

"Walt, here is the young man from the country I told you about-Burroughs."

And Walt Whitman and John Burroughs, in that first glance into each other's eyes, and first handclasp, became friends.

"I shall never forget Walt's kindly glance, his big soft hand, and his friendly grasp when we first met."

Whitman's comment to Allen after that meeting was, "His [Burroughs's] face is like a field of wheat." The comment that Burroughs made in a letter to Myron Benton was, "I love him [Walt] very much. . . . He is as vast as the earth, and as loving and noble."

Very soon in their acquaintance Whitman began calling his young friend "Jack," and often so addressed him.

It needed Whitman's friendliness, and steady optimism, to tide the younger man over those dark days of officeseeking which followed. His letters written at this time show a disheartened, even bitter, mood. The recommendations he had applied for were unaccountably delayed. Having no wires to pull, he saw others getting places while he had none. He was lonely and homesick; his funds were sinking lower and lower.

Early in January, after receiving his letters of recommendation, and the endorsement from his Members of Congress, he hastened to the War Department and presented them. The messenger asked him to have a seat and wait. Three solid hours he sat in that waitingroom without further attention. Then, quitting the room angrily, in desperation he sought the office of Hugh McCulloch, Comptroller of the Currency. Almost immediately he was ushered into the presence of the genial, kindly Comptroller who, on asking him what recommendations he had, received the reply, "I must be my own recommendation." In his Men and Measures of Half a Century Mr. McCulloch tells of this interview; of how attracted he was to the youth with the sturdy form, the honest face, and modest demeanour. As a result, the applicant was told to come around the next day and go to work. So on the 4th of January, 1864, John Burroughs was installed as a first-class clerk in the new Currency Bureau of the Treasury Department.

That night he wrote home that he hardly expected to sleep for a week, so glad was he to have secured his job. And he did not sleep for at least one night: he and his young friends went out and made a night of it-that and one other occasion being the extent of such celebrations throughout his life. He wrote his wife that the piles of greenbacks he had seen that first day were enough to make a miser run mad. Here at last was work and the means to cancel his debts and get on in the world! No wonder he expected to be sleepless for joy!

Hope, promise, and fulfillment followed in quick succession at the very dawn of the new year. The period of waiting was at an end; that of work was begun. It is interesting to remember in connection with his employment in the Currency Bureau, though in the humble capacity of a clerk for the Comptroller, that Stephen Burroughs, a brother of his great-grandfather, had in 1790 been conspicuously connected with the financial system of the nation, having, as has been related, invented the system of Federal money adopted under the secretaryship of Alexander Hamilton. Now his descendant was being initiated into the new banking system (the present system of National Banks) which went into use in 1863 under Secretary Chase.

But the glitter of gold, and the fresh hue of crisp green bank notes did not make the country dweller blind to the green and gold of the common things he had always loved. In April (1864) he writes to his friend Benton of finding a magnificent dandelion in front of the Treasury Building: "I first thought some one had dropped a gold eagle there -Secretary Chase perhaps-but on examination found it to be much finer than gold, and probably dropped by a much greater than Secretary Chase." Many years after, in one of his spring poems, we find a poetic line reminiscent of that gold in Nature's Treasury:

    When dandelion's coin of gold is freshly minted on the lawn,

At the start the new clerk was sent to the basement with another to keep tab on the workmen who carried the dies and plates for the bank bills back and forth to the engraver's. Each piece had to be checked off and registered when taken away. As there were opportunities for unprincipled persons to abstract the dies and use them in the making of counterfeit money, strict watchfulness was necessary. It was the duty of those two clerks to keep a sharp eye on the men to whom those pieces were entrusted. "But I couldn't spy on anything but a chipmunk," said our incorrigible countryman a little apologetically, "and finally went to Mr. McCulloch, asking him if he couldn't set me to some other work. I thought I would die from the dreariness and confinement and inactivity down there, so he moved me upstairs."

Thereafter he had a desk on the second floor of the west side of the Treasury Building. Much time was spent in making briefs of letters, after which he registered and filed them. Some months later he was made keeper of the iron vault where the new, unsigned bank bills were kept. Starting with a salary of twelve hundred a year, he gradually advanced to more and more responsible, better paid clerkships, advancing, oddly enough, to second, third, and fourth-class clerkships, the first-class being the lowest grade. On leaving Washington, ten years later, he was chief of the Organization Division in the Bureau of National Banks, at a salary of eighteen hundred a year, with a bonus bringing it up to twenty-one hundred.

As the new banking system was just organized, work was not brisk at the start. Very little money, compared to later times, was issued, and none of the worn out currency was as yet being returned from the banks. Hence the work required of the new clerk during those first years was not exacting.

Many years later I visited that office with the one-time Treasury clerk, saw the high mahogany desk at which he had written much of Wake Robin and Winter Sunshine, and even saw some of his former associates. One of those elderly women told me that although Mr. Burroughs was "always scribbling in his spare time," she had no idea then that he was writing a book. But as no captious quartermaster was there to object to this use of his slack time, he there recalled the memories of former saunterings in woods and fields, weaving them into his early nature essays. Seated at his high desk in front of the iron wall of the vault, he guarded its door. No one was allowed to enter without him. He was responsible for the millions of bank notes it contained.

Office hours were from nine to four with a pause at noon long enough to eat two apples; then dinner at four-thirty, and in the evening calls, lectures, and an occasional play, or loitering in Allen's store. For a time he spent two hours of an evening addressing envelopes for his Member of Congress -- a voluntary service in return for his letters of recommendation. Midnight usually found him in bed. Thus passed his days.

In January we find him revelling in the soft, smoky air of the Capital. The streets were dry and dusty, it was often so warm he would lie on the grass of the Smithsonian grounds for an hour or two; there were no signs of frost; the air was still and hazy; a brooding calm like that of October enveloped the city and the Virginian hills.

Looking forward in mid-February to the coming of his wife, he sent on specific directions for the boxing of his books and magazines; for the berries he had dried, and the cherries he had preserved while at the home farm. He forewarned the exacting housewife that when she came she must not peep sharply into holes and corners, as the houses were much neglected, the work being done by darkies; but assured her that the food was clean and well cooked. He warned her also that as he had no new clothes, he was looking pretty seedy; he had had his suit cleaned and trousers dyed, which greatly improved their appearance, even if they did "crock off " on his hands. She must look in his face, he suggested, not on his back; and added gaily that his salary of eighty-two dollars and fifty cents for three weeks' work was " almost as much as he could earn raising onions in old Delaware."

At that time Washington was like a country village, the population was only 60,000. The water of the Potomac was vile. The streets were poor, most of them unpaved; the mud and dirt were frightful.

"I've seen whirlwinds there bring a cloud of dust that blotted out the Capitol," I've often heard him say. It was a great event after the War when they began to pave the streets, beginning with Pennsylvania Avenue.

But whatever Washington lacked, the soft brooding days and the enchanting nights were a delight, and he revelled in the dazzling sunlight which he celebrated in Winter Sunshine, declaring he had never seen anything but second grade sunlight and moonlight until he went to Washington.

In the spring the drying roads, the clear skies, the, fresh earthy smell, lured him forth every Sunday for gleesome saunters. He used to hunt snipe where now are solid blocks of buildings and rolling cars; and great apartments now loom in his old wildwood haunts.

On his walks even the crows and buzzards were hailed with delight. The calls of the flickers sounded the same to him as they had in the North. The shrill calls of the spring peepers, the early wild flowers, and the familiar birds-what joy they gave him, cooped up in that office all the week!

Sometimes he would hear the mellow flute of the veery around the White House, sounding as wild and sweet as it used to sound in the Deacon woods. On the Smithsonian grounds the whistle of the fox sparrow greeted him in early spring, and in the fine large trees near the Capitol, and on the ground, robins, catbirds, blackbirds, and whitethroats made as free as though there were no signs to keep off the grass. One May morning while walking through the Smithsonian grounds, he was surprised to hear the rollicking music of bobolinks high above him, pushing northward.

He hunted the woods in May to see the thrushes and warblers; to greet old friends and to make new ones. In fact, he says in selfcondemnation: "I was pursuing the birds that May and June when our soldiers were dying in the Battle of the Wilderness."

He remembers that spring of '64 standing with Whitman on the corner of Newspaper Row, opposite Willard's Hotel, and watching Burnside's army as it flowed through the streets all day on its way to the Battle of the Wilderness. Many of the soldiers who had been nursed by Walt in the hospitals, recognizing him, would wave a greeting, and once in a while one would break from the ranks, rush up and kiss him, and pull him along. Walt would go with them a ways, then rejoin his friend on the sidewalk, only to be hailed anew and pulled along again and again.

How the Treasury clerk revelled in his Sunday walks, sometimes with companions, but oftener alone! Three of them would sometimes start off of a bright, dry Sunday and tramp twelve or fifteen miles, coming in at night feeling like wild colts.

In his essay, "The Exhilaration of the Road," one can follow him along the red roads and almost feel the tingling of feet that he felt on starting out on those long "hikes," sometimes along the Tenallytown road to Cabin John Bridge, or up Good Hope Hill, or across the East Branch on the old Marlborough Road that led to Pumpkintown and beyond.

Doubtless the essay just mentioned has had a good deal to do with making "hikes" fashionable. It is a chart and compass for the Independent Order of Walkers, and one who likes to take long tramps finds great joy in reading it. It sets forth one rule for those planning a "hike " which it is well to observe: Always plan ahead for as much as you intend to walk, for, if loaded to carry only one mile, and compelled to walk three, you will feel more tired than if you had walked six, knowing ahead of time that that was to be the length of the "hike. " In short, if one knows the stunt to be done, he can distribute his powers accordingly. The real joyous tramp, he tells us, is the one where your heart makes the music to which your feet keep time-then you can walk around the globe without knowing it.

John Burroughs swimming in a mountain stream

John Burroughs swimming in a mountain stream

The Dome of the Capitol was not completed when John Burroughs went to Washington to live. For a long time it was a familiar sight to see that enormous swinging arm of the derrick near the top. He saw the huge bronze lady lifted into place. After the Dome was finished it figured in all his walks. It could be seen from all points of the landscape, rising above the hills.

We must confess that those holidays which our Treasury Clerk spent in the woods studying the birds were sometimes spent in shooting them, although the shooting was not for sport, but for identification. We have to remember that in those days comparatively little had been written about birds, and there were few collections of mounted specimens accessible for study; and it is really necessary to have a bird at close range, preferably in the hand, to know it thoroughly. To hunt birds with an opera glass had not yet occurred to students; so, in order to learn the birds, the ardent student justified himself in occasionally shooting a specimen, even though it was against the law.

 
He stuffed and mounted those thus secured; some of that early work is still a credit to his skill. But, bird lover that he is, and always has been, he has never had pleasure in a stuffed and labelled specimen for its own sake. His readers well know that it is the live bird, soaring and singing in its haunts, or brooding the young in its nest, that has ever appealed to him; and it is the bird on the bough that he has made his readers love. Wilson, Audubon, and all the early students of the birds, found it necessary to take life while in the pursuit of their study, but happily that time has passed. We who study the birds to-day can, because of those early ornithologists, name the birds without a gun. In those early years of bird study Mr. Burroughs carried an innocent-looking cane with him which was the case to a gun. The mounted policeman would go tearing along, on hearing a shot in the woods, while he strolled by with that cane. Once one halted, asking, "Where was that shot?" "I heard it over there," replied the culprit, pointing toward where he had been when he had shot at the bird.

Although John Burroughs had met Walt Whitman often in the store of his friend Allen, it was not until he met him one Sunday afternoon along a footpath under the trees that they really found each other. Whitman was on his way to one of the army hospitals with haversack slung over shoulder and pockets stuffed full of things for the sick boys. He asked "Jack" to go along with him. Washington was one huge hospital in those days, and Whitman made daily rounds in all those wards, carrying comfort and cheer and countless necessities to the boys. That Sunday was an unforgettable day to the younger man. Unused to sickness and suffering, the sight of those crowded barracks and improvised wards full of wounded men nearly floored him. But the vigour, cheer, and sympathy that Whitman carried and scattered at every step were so invigorating and inspiring that "Jack" soon forgot all else. Whitman moved from cot to cot with a hearty word an and a warm handclasp, and usually with some little gift -- a sheet of paper and an envelope here, a postage stamp there; an orange, which he would stop and peel and tenderly feed to some fevered lad; tobacco, pipes, newspapers, magazines. Such a medley of things as he drew from that big haversack, always seeming to know just the right thing for each! And how the faces lighted up as they caught sight of him! He was, in fact, a self-constituted Red Cross in the days before that beneficent organization had carried its ministrations to all parts of the earth.

Some days he would go with baskets of oranges or of apples, sometimes he would gather quantities of daisies, clovers, and dandelions, scattering these on the cots while pausing for a word of comfort, or to make note of needs to be supplied at subsequent visits. He would do errands for the boys, write their letters, read to them, urge them to write home, and talk with them about the home folks.

He helped them to bear their pain, braced them for their operations; and sat by the dying till the end. He was home, father, mother, sister, and sweetheart to those sick and homesick boys. If he had never written a line, if his deathless poems in Drum Taps, written, as it were, with his heart's blood, had never seen the light, still America's debt to Walt Whitman for his devotion to the boys of the North and the South, during and long after the Civil War, would be beyond expression.

As his young friend saw him pass from cot to cot on his errands of mercy during that first visit and at many a later one, he was impressed with the divinely-human quality of the man-an impression which deepened and strengthened in the more than thirty years' friendship that followed.

"Good-bye, Walt, good-bye!" "Come again, come again, Walt!" the boys would call after him, while many, unable to call, would follow him with eloquent eyes and touching smiles, their looks saying more than any words could say. Some would embrace him. Some of the homesick lads he would bend over and kiss with a woman's tenderness. Whitman wrote his mother that he believed no men ever loved each other as he and some of those poor, wounded, sick and dying men loved each other. He told her he thought he was able to help them so much because he was so large and well, "like a great wild buffalo with much hair"; that many of the boys were from the Far West and liked a man who had not the bleached and shaved look of the cities.

His letters of scenes in city and hospital during the War brought him in money from time to time. Living frugally, chiefly on bread and coffee, he used all he could scrape together to supply the soldiers' needs. After a time, Emerson and other benevolent persons in Massachusetts and around Washington made contributions, so that he had larger sums to expend in his deeds of mercy. On special days, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, he would go to Mrs. Burroughs and get her to make him pies, cookies, doughnuts, and the like. Then he and Mr. Burroughs would make the rounds of the hospitals distributing the goodies.

During the summer of 1864 while General Early was threatening the nation's capital, our Treasury Clerk made up his mind to take a hand in the fray. Early's army was only seven miles away, and the apprehension in Washington was hourly growing more grave. One evening John Burroughs made his way out Seventh Street, eluding the pickets by skulking about through the fields and woods till he reached the rifle-pits in front of Fort Stephen where the Sixth Corps, which had been hurried up from Petersburg to defend Washington, was stationed. He was halted once or twice as a spy, but finally convinced the sentinels that he was not one-only intent on seeing how it felt to be a soldier:

    It shows how lax their methods were. The road was picketed, but all I had to do was to get over the fences and circle about through the fields and flank the pickets. I almost persuaded a sentry to let me into the Fort itself.

He was unarmed, but the soldiers assured him they could quickly supply him with a gun if the enemy appeared. As he lay there in the darkness fraternizing with the soldiers, the Confederates began firing in front of them on a hill about a mile away. When he heard the ping of an occasional bullet overhead, and the thud as one would strike the ground, he thought them the ugliest sounds he had ever heard! The war-worn veterans of Grant's Army lay on the ground, some sleeping, others apparently as unconcerned as though on a picnic. How they laughed to see him dodge the bullets! And when the bullets began coming over thicker, and he sought the shelter of the rifle-pits, it was much to the amusement of the seasoned soldiers.

A few hours later a company of soldiers was hurried off into the darkness toward the line of rifle flashes along the horizon. The sickening feeling which came over the would-be recruit, as he watched them march away, proved to him that the stuff of a good soldier was not in him:

    If I had been ordered to join them as they went out into the night to face that unknown danger, I fear my legs would have crumpled under me. What a coward I was! Granther Kelly would have disowned me. Darkness always did hold terrors for me from childhood onward, and that night my imagination ran away with me.

But as the night wore on and no attack seemed imminent, he wandered toward the rear, restless and out of conceit with himself. Passing a long, low building which was being used as a hospital, he said to himself, "I can at least be of help here," and going in, offered his services to the busy surgeons. The operating tables were full. The wounded lay in long lines on the floor, or sat crouched by the wall waiting their turns, some groaning, some joking, some in apathetic silence.

He had always had a feeling of faintness at the sight of human blood, but now, much to his surprise, found himself standing at the surgeon's side holding vessels and passing instruments, as composed as the surgeons themselves. But after a half hour or more a deathly faintness overtook him. The surgeon, noticing his pallor, roughly called, "Get out of here!" almost shoving him into the open air.

The air quickly restored him, but the sight of hands and feet piled there in mounds, the odours, and the groans unnerved him, and wretchedly conscious that here, too, he was weighed in the balance and found wanting, he crept in among some bales of hay where, trying to sleep, he waited for the morning. All through the hours he heard the clatter of hoofs and sabres as regiments of cavalry filed by. As soon as it was light he made his way back to the city.

Sheridan's Ride saved Washington from the raid of Early's cavalry, and our Treasury clerk's rejoicing at the removal of that menace had a fervour that was considerably heightened by that one-night bivouac with Grant's men around Fort Stephen.

He often says it was probably the greatest miss of his life-to miss that chance of being a soldier. Nowadays he never sees a soldier boy in khaki without wanting to hug him, just as, after the Civil War, he envied every veteran his experience-an experience be might perhaps have had, had not Granther Kelly, in his soldiering with Washington, so nearly emptied the family powder-horn.

There were times during that summer and fall of 1865 when, seated at his high desk, he and his fellow-clerks would be conscious of a distant muffled sound far down the great corridors, a sound which grew rapidly louder till it became a mighty roar: it was the news of some big Union victory being carried along through the whole Department. Out from their offices he and the other clerks would rush and join the crowd, adding their voices to the rejoicing throng. In August when Farragut sailed into the harbour at Mobile, in September when Sherman's long campaign was crowned with triumph at Atlanta, after which he started on his long march to the sea, in October when the news of Sheridan's mad ride reached there -- at such times the sleepy old offices were emptied and the great corridors were a scene of wild rejoicing.

There were anxious times all over the country that summer lest Lincoln should not be renominated and reelected; but the Union victories in the fall were powerful campaign arguments, and Lincoln's reelection with a popular majority of more than 400,000 showed how the North really felt about him and his policy.

The new Treasury clerk had succumbed to malaria in the fall of '64, and obtaining a furlough, had gone home to recuperate, and to vote. He could hardly drag himself to the railway station, and on the journey to New York, and up the river to Kingston was very wretched; but as soon as he turned toward his native hills, his strength returned as if by magic. After leaving the stage-line he struck out for home, walking easily and growing stronger at every step. Overtaken by a farmer living near Roxbury, he was given a lift. As they rode along, the War, of course, became the topic of conversation; but the farmer's comments about it, and about Lincoln, so enraged his passenger that the latter jumped from the wagon and, shaking his first at the astonished man, declared he would be d----d if he would ride any further with such a d---d Copperhead! The " Copperhead " tried to coax him back into the wagon, but he wouldn't be coaxed, and angrily trudged along the eight or ten miles further.

What a home-going that was! He had never known what freedom was before. He kicked up his heels like a colt in a pasture; roamed the woods with his nephew, Channy; hunted squirrel and ruffed grouse, passing a joyous time in the old haunts of his boyhood; then, after casting his vote for Lincoln, he returned reluctantly to Washington, his high desk, and the big vault.

The spring of '65 found the young couple keeping house on Capitol Hill, exactly where the Senate offices now stand. There by their simple, economical living, and the wife's thrift and industry, they managed to save fifty dollars a month out of his salary, to pay up their debts, and to make provisions for a home of their own.

Mr. Burroughs urged his friend Benton to come on and see Lincoln inaugurated:

    Walt is here; Spring is here; the bluebird and robin are here. The Spirit says Come; the Flesh says Come; wife says Come; Abe says Come, so Come! . . . I am spoiling for a talk.

But Benton did not come then, and, what is more, Mr. Burroughs himself did not go to the Inauguration:

    I went to the woods instead-think of it! when I might have heard that Second Inaugural Address! Mrs. Burroughs heard it. It was a dark day, but just as Lincoln was taking the oath of office she said a burst of sunshine came out, illuminating his face and almost making a halo above his head.

    How many times since I have chided myself for going to the woods that day! and about all I can remember of that trip is of finding some wild puppies in a hollow tree. I could go to the very spot now in those woods where that tulip tree stood; a man was there chopping wood; he didn't go to the Inauguration either. I saw the mother of those puppies the other side of Rock Creek, running up and down, crying and yelping, and looking wistfully across, but afraid to venture in the swollen stream.

Richmond fell on April 3rd, the day that John Burroughs was twenty-eight years old. Washington was a wild scene of rejoicing. No ordinary demonstration could suffice: for the second and last time in his life John Burroughs went out with the boys and celebrated.

Lee's surrender on April 9th followed close on Richmond's fall. The Confederacy had at last collapsed; the long and cruel war was at an end. The difficult period of reconstruction was at hand, and deeds of mercy were henceforth to take the place of strife and warfare. Lincoln in Richmond, with kind and conciliatory words, and Grant at Appomattox, with generous terms of surrender, sounded the keynote of the spirit of reconciliation that was in time to unite the North and the South.

But how short was the period of the nation's rejoicing! While Lincoln, weary with the burdens borne so long, sought relaxation at the theatre, on the evening of April 14th, on the fourth anniversary of the surrender of Fort Sumter; while the voice of William Lloyd Garrison was ringing out in Charlestown, and liberated slaves were strewing his path with flowers; while General Anderson was raising above Fort Sumter the tattered flag which he had hauled down after Beauregard's bombardment four years before; there, in Ford's Theatre, as our weary President sat in his box, the fanatic, Booth, leader of a band of plotters, who had planned to take the life of Grant, and other patriots also, assassinated the beloved Lincoln!

The gloom that enveloped Washington on the morning of April 15th when Lincoln died was typical of the sorrow that overspread the nation like a pall. Flags were at half mast. Every city and village in the land was draped in black. Men with pale, tense faces, and women with tears were sorrowing over the loss of the great soul that was gone. And the Poet whose tender heart and helping hand had so long ministered to the boys in blue, and the boys in grey (for it was he who so significantly said, "Was one side so brave? the other was equally brave") now spoke for the sorrowing nation. The storm-tossed Ship of State was safe in port, but in that glad hour its gallant Captain's cautious hand was stilled, his just and resolute voice forever hushed:

    The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
    From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won.
      Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
      But I with mournful tread
      Walk the deck, my Captain lies
      Fallen, cold, and dead.

In their little home on Capitol Hill the morning of the 15th of April, Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs were impatiently waiting breakfast. It was long past the hour when the old Irish woman usually brought their milk, and annoyance at her failure to appear was fast reaching the danger point when, much flustered, she arrived, stilling any reprimands by the bald announcement:

" The Prizident is shot! They do say he is dead!"

Incredulous, they told her she must be crazy; but quickly becoming voluble, she told of the crowds encountered everywhere, blocking her way, as the people surged here and there inquiring for news.

Rushing out for a paper, Mr. Burroughs soon returned with the terrible confirmation. The breakfast went untouched that morning.

Work was suspended in the government buildings for the day. Andrew Johnson took the oath of office amid the tolling of bells and the fast-gathering gloom that overspread the land.

That afternoon as Mr. Burroughs started to drive out beyond Fourteenth Street to a nurseryman's after strawberry plants, he was held up at the boundary line by a sentry. No one was allowed to pass. Martial law was established. Every exit from the city was guarded. Already a vigilance was on foot that in time apprehended the band among which the foul crime was hatched.

To return to the home on Capitol Hill and follow the for-tunes of its inmates: There on an acre of ground they lived in a quaint brick house almost within shadow of the Dome of the Capitol; and there, after office hours, the Treasury clerk worked on his miniature farm, pottering about contentedly among his potatoes and pumpkins and chickens, going reluctantly to his daily work, and returning eagerly to his garden in the late afternoon.

He says he could look up from his hoeing and cast a potato almost in the midst of that cataract of marble steps on the north wing of the Capitol. This was the antidote he had to have, farmer that he was, for the noxious influence of life indoors. Once in his garden, he could hoe under the blue devils in short order, and while getting rid of dock and red-root, could also rid himself of many a troublesome growth in his mental acres. But he was not content until he had a cow. So sending to his native state for one, when the time for her arrival came, he went excitedly to the dock at Georgetown to meet the boat.

The clerk, reading from the bill of lading, said, " One cask for you, sir," to which he answered, " I hope it's a cask of milk. I'm expecting a cow."

"It says here, 'One cask."'

"Well, let's see it -- I'll wager it has horns, and is tied with a rope." And on investigation there she stood on the forward deck contentedly chewing her cud - Chloe, the curly-pated, golden-skinned Devonshire, from the Northern hills.

It was a frisky cow that her master led from the dock to his home on Capitol Hill. As he piloted her along Pennsylvania Avenue she kicked up her heels under the very walls of the Capitol, and cut capers in front of the White House. It was in the days when cows had the freedom of the city; when goats cropped the rose-bushes through the pickets; and pigs dreamed dreams under his garden fence. In fact, the cows of his neighbours were given altogether too much freedom in that Arcadian city. One old muley cow was deeply concerned as to how she could get into his garden, of which she had had alluring glimpses over his high fence. One day he had caught her peeping at his cabbages through a knot-hole, and shortly after saw her lift the gate-latch with her nose and calmly enter the sacred precinct, though she scampered off precipitately enough when he appeared.

After Chloe was duly welcomed by the housewife, and admired by Old Drewer, the coloured factotum, she was put in the stable for the night; but so enamoured of her was her master that twice during the evening he had to light his lantern and visit his treasure before going to bed. And in the morning -- "Ah! in the morning," he feelingly observes, "the coffee had experienced a change of heart."

Chloe was soon initiated into the mysteries of city life. Her master conducted her a few times to the nearest common, then left her to shift for herself. When he would let her out of a morning, she would pause and consider whether to wend her way toward Kendall Green, or over by the Big Spring, or out around Lincoln Hospital; and after stretching out her neck and blowing a blast on her trumpet would placidly go forth. Pretty punctually, between four and five in the afternoon, he would see her white horns above the gate, and hear her impatient lowthe countersign which gained her admittance.

After two summers, Chloe's returns not measuring up to the required amount, her master reluctantly decided to part with her. One can hardly forgive him, nor did he forgive himself, for exposing the gentle creature in the market-place. There he and Chloe stood submitting to the scrutiny of the white-aproned butchers who flocked around. An old Irish woman came along and stationed herself and her charges -- a sow and five pigsnext to them; and the man with the cow, and the woman with the pigs, compared notes, condoling with each other over the impending fate of their "darlints." A friendly reciprocity showed itself: when she went away for a few minutes, he minded her pigs, and when he strolled about, she minded his cow.

Poor Chloe! how she shrank from the hands of those market-men! How entreatingly she lowed whenever her master left her side! And when the money for her was counted out, and he surrendered the rope to her purchaser, her master, turning for a parting glance, caught a look of alarm and incredulity that would have melted a far harder heart than his. But it had to be. Other cows came and went after that, but none ever filled the place that Chloe held.

Whitman often took breakfasts of a Sunday in the Burroughs household. He was very fond of the good coffee and pancakes that Mrs. Burroughs made, but was rarely on time, which was a sore trial to the most punctual of women. They always allowed him a margin of an hour, but it was often long after nine before he appeared. On the mornings when he had not come by nine, some of those cakes went on the griddle, Walt or no Walt. Finally they would spy Whitman coming slowly along with his hands in his pockets, with that rolling sailor's gait, and as if he had the leisure of all eternity. By that time Mrs. Burroughs's cakes were cold and she was hot, but Walt's morning smile warmed up the cakes, and cooled the temper, and soon she had a plate of steaming fresh cakes in front of him, and he and "Jack" were discussing them with praiseworthy dispatch.

And then they would go somewhere for a stroll, or sit on the steps of the Capitol and have long, long talks.

When they had rented the place on Capitol Hill, they inherited as a part of its equipment, Old Drewer, the darky man-of-all-work, an old white horse, and a ramshackle wagon. With Old Drewer, as with most of the coloured folk of those days, "What's Massa's is mine." One day Drewer just naturally took some apricots from his mistress and sold them. Having proof of his guilt, she accused him. Denying the charge at first, as the inexorable accusations were pushed, Drewer dropped his woolly head and owned up.

One day, on begging for an afternoon off, his mistress, having some whitewashing for him to do, objected. At his crestfallen look she inquired why he wanted to go.

"Laws, Missus, they's going to be a hanging!"

"A hanging! But why do you want to see that?"

"Why, you see, Missus, he's a membah of ouah church, an' ah wants to see him hung."

On his little city farm Mr. Burroughs kept chickens and took great joy in their care. There were fifteen of them and a specially fine lot they were. He knew them individually and was greatly attached to them; used to talk to them; and held and nursed them when they were sick. Faithfully had they laid eggs for him, and followed him about; they were almost like members of the family. Among them was a turkey which he was fattening for Thanksgiving.

One morning on going very early to the little barn he noticed that the door-strap as it hung down in the uncertain light was slit through. On opening the door, behold! every chicken was gone, and the turkey also! It was a bitter moment. Not only were many a breakfast and dinner gone, but his pets were gone!

When their coloured handmaiden came that morning and learned of the theft, she "reckoned" she could tell him where to find his chickens: she had heard a great cackling and an unusual commotion the night before in a place not far from where she lived, and declared that "them no 'count... thar had sholy toted off Massa's chickens."

Convinced that Mandy had heard the distressed cries of his beloved fowl, and following her explicit directions (as explicit as a darky can give), the chicken owner started out in quest of his pets.

Sure enough! there in the basement of a little house which Mandy had indicated, he found two mulattos with fifteen chickens and a gobbler, the fowl having been killed and picked, but their heads left on:

    No one could fool me about those chickens. I knew them by their heads. I could have wept as I saw them spread out there. When I went in, the denies had looked surprised and uneasy, but as I coolly asked if those chickens were for sale, their concern was somewhat allayed. One said he wasn't sure, he would have to wait till the "boss" came in; or, should he go and fetch the "boss"? Yes, I told him to go, but to be quick about it. He was gone so long that the other darky said he better go and hurry him up, and off he went, too; and neither of them came back! But I was in possession of my chickens! Hailing a police officer, I told him the story, and having convinced him that those were my property, he told me to take them. The room was empty save for the fowl and a horse blanket. The officer asked if that blanket was mine, too. I told him it was not. Reasoning that that was stolen also, he said he would take the blanket, and I might take the chickens.

    Well, we had chickens to eat till we were heartily sick of them; we gave chickens to our friends, and sold some-fifteen chickens and a turkey go a good ways in a small family.

     

Footnotes:
  1. Probably the American locust (Schistocerca americana) - (Return)
 

Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

 


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery