Wild Bill - 1867 Harper's
George Ward Nichols,
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February,
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article, written by George Ward Nichols, was excerpted, in part, from an
article that appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine,
in February, 1867, now in the public domain. The article is not verbatim,
as glaring errors, such as Nichols referring to
as William Hitchcock, and other grammatical and spelling
corrections have been made. In addition,
it was widely criticized as exaggerating Bill Hickok's
deeds, defaming the people of Springfield,
Missouri, and included numerous downright inaccuracies. You can read
about the criticisms on page 5 of this article.
Several months after the ending of the Civil
War I visited the city of
is not a burgh of extensive dimensions, yet it is the largest in that part
of the State, and all roads lend to it -- which is one reason why it was
the point of support, as well as the base of operations
for all military movements during the war.
On a warm summer day I sat watching from the
shadow of a broad awning the coming and goings of the strange,
half-civilized people who, from all the country round, make this a place
for barter and trade. Men and women dressed in queer costumes; men with
coats and trousers made of skin, but so thickly covered with dirt and
grease as to have defied the identity of the animal when walking in the
flesh. Others wore homespun gear, which oftentimes appeared to have seen
lengthy service. Many of those people were mounted on horse-hack or
mule-back, while others urged forward the unwilling cattle attached to
creaking, heavily-laden wagons, their drivers snapping their long whips
with a report like that of a pistol-shot.
In front of the shops
which lined both sides of the main business street, and about the
public square, were groups of men lolling against posts, lying upon
the wooden sidewalks, or sitting in chairs. These men were temporary
or permanent denizens of the city, and were lazily occupied in doing
nothing. The most marked characteristic of the inhabitants seemed to
be an indisposition to move, and their highest ambition to let their
hair and beards grow.
Here and there upon
the street the appearance of the army blue betokened the presence of a
returned Union soldier, and the jaunty, confident air with which they
carried themselves was all the more striking in its contrast with the
indolence which appeared to belong to the place. The only indication
of action was the inevitable revolver which every body, excepting,
perhaps, the women, wore about their persons. When people moved in
this lazy city they did so slowly and without method. No one seemed in
baste. A huge hog wallowed in luxurious ease in a nice bed of mud on
the other side of the way, giving vent to gentle grunts of
satisfaction. On the platform at my feet lay a large wolf-dog
literally asleep with one eye open. He, too, seemed contented to let
the world wag idly on.
The loose, lazy spirit of the occasion
finally took possession of me, and I sat and gazed and smoked, and it
is possible that I might have fallen into a Rip Van Winkle sleep to
have been aroused ten years hence by the cry, "Passengers for the
flying machine to New York, all aboard!” when I and the drowsing city
were roused into life by the clatter and crash of the hoofs of a horse
which dashed furiously across the square and down the street. The
rider sat perfectly erect, yet following with a grace of motion, seen
only in the horsemen of the plains, the rise and fall of the galloping
steed. There was only a moment to observe this, for they halted
suddenly, while the rider springing to the ground approached the party
which the noise had gathered near me.
"This yere is Wild Bill,
Colonel," said Captain Honesty, an army officer, addressing me.
"How are yer, Bill? This yere is Colonel N____, who wants ter know yer.”
me at once describe the personal appearance of the famous Scout of the
William Hickok, called "Wild Bill,” who now advanced toward me, fixing his clear gray eyes on mine
in a quick, interrogative way, as if to take my measure.
result seemed favorable, for he held forth a small, muscular hand in a
frank, open manner. As I looked at him I thought his the handsomest
physique I had ever seen. In its exquisite manly proportions it recalled
the antique. It was a figure Ward would delight to model as a companion to
Street east of the Public Square in the 1870's,
Bill stood six feet and an inch in his bright yellow moccasins. A
deer-skin shirt, or frock it might be called, hung jauntily over his
shoulders, and revealed a chest whose breadth and depth were remarkable.
These lungs had had growth in some twenty years of the free air of the
Rocky Mountains. His small, round waist was girthed by a belt which held
two of Colt’s Navy revolvers.
His legs sloped gradually
from the compact thigh to the feet, which were small, and turned inward as
he walked. There was a singular grace and dignity of carriage about that
figure which would have called your attention meet it where you would. The
head which crowned it was now covered by a large sombrero, underneath
which there shone out a quiet, manly face; so gentle is its expression as
he greets you as utterly to belie the history of its owner, yet it is not
a face to be trifled with.
The lips thin and sensitive, the jaw not too
square, the cheek bones slightly prominent, a mass of fine dark hair falls
below the neck to the shoulders. The eyes, now that you are in friendly
intercourse, are as gentle as a woman’s.
In truth, the woman nature seems
prominent throughout, and you would not believe that you were looking into
eyes that have pointed the way to death to hundreds of men. Yes, Wild Bill
with his own hands has killed hundreds of men. Of that I have not a doubt.
He shoots to kill, as they say on the border.
In vain did I examine the
scout’s face for some evidence of murderous propensity. It was a gentle
face, and singular only in the sharp angle of the eye, and without any
physical reason for the opinion, I have thought his wonderful
accuracy of aim was indicated by this peculiarity. He told me, however, to
use his own words:
"I allers shot well; but
I come ter be perfeck in the mountains by shootin at a dime for a mark, at
bets of half a dollar a shot. And then until the war I never drank liquor
nor smoked,” he continued, with a melancholy expression; "war is
demoralizing, it is.”
Captain Honesty was
right. I was very curious to see "Wild Bill, the Scout,” who, a few days before my arrival in
in a duel at noonday in the public square, at fifty paces, had sent one of
Colt’s pistol-balls through the heart of a returned Confederate soldier.
Whenever I had met an officer or soldier who had served in the Southwest I
heard of Wild Bill and his exploits, until these stories became so frequent and of
such an extraordinary character as quite to outstrip personal knowledge of
adventure by camp and field; and the hero of these strange tales took
shape in my mind as did Jack the Giant Killer or Sinbad the Sailor in
childhoods days. As then, I now had the most implicit faith in the
existence of the individual; but how one man could accomplish such
prodigies of strength and feats of daring was a continued wonder.
In order to give the
reader a clearer understanding of the condition of this neighborhood,
which could have permitted the duel mentioned above, and whose history
will be given hereafter in detail, I will describe the situation at the
time of which I am writing, which was late in the summer of 1865,
premising that this section of country would not today be selected as a
model example of modern civilization.
Hickok illustration from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February, 1867.
At that time peace and
comparative quiet had succeeded the perils and tumult of war in all the
more Southern States. The people of Georgia and the Carolinas were glad to
enforce order in their midst; and it would have been safe for a Union
officer to have ridden unattended through the land.
there were old scores to be settled up. During the three days occupied by
General Smith, who commanded the Department and was on a tour of
inspection in crossing the country between
a distance of 120 miles, five men were killed or wounded on the public
road. Two were murdered a short distance from
Rolla -- by
whom we could not ascertain. Another was instantly killed and two were
wounded at a meeting of a band of Regulators, who were in the service of
the State, but were paid by the United States Government. It should be
said here that their method of "regulation” was slightly informal, their
war-cry was, "A swift bullet and a short rope for returned rebels!”
I was informed by General
Smith that during the six months preceding not less than 4,000 returned
Confederates had been summarily disposed of by shooting or hanging. This
statement seems incredible; but there is the record, and I have no doubt
of its truth. History shows few parallels to this relentless destruction
of human life in time of peace. It can’t be explained only upon the ground
that, before the war, this region was inhabited by lawless people. In the
outset of the rebellion the merest suspicion of loyalty to the Union cost
the patriot his life; and thus large numbers fled the land, giving up home
and every material interest. As soon as the Federal armies occupied the
country these refugees returned.
Once securely fixed in
their old homes they resolved that their former persecutors should not
live in their midst. Revenge for the past and security for the future
knotted many a nerve and sped many a deadly bullet.
did not belong to the Regulators. Indeed, he was one of the law and order
party. He said:
"When the war closed I
buried the hatchet, and I won’t fight now unless I’m put upon.”
Bill was born of Northern parents in the State of
He ran away from home when a boy, and wandered out upon the plains and
into the mountains. For fifteen years he lived with the trappers, hunting
and fishing. When the war broke out he returned to the States and entered
the Union service. No man probably was ever better fitted for scouting
than he. Joined to his tremendous strength he was an unequaled horseman;
he was a perfect marksman; he had a keen sight, and a constitution which
had no limit of endurance. He was cool to audacity, brave to rashness,
always possessed of himself under the most critical circumstances; and,
above all, was such a master in the knowledge of woodcraft that it might
have been termed a science with him -- a knowledge which, with the
soldier, is priceless beyond description. Some of Bill's adventures during the war will be related hereafter.
The main features of the
story of the duel was told me by Captain Honesty, who was unprejudiced, if
it is possible to find an unbiased mind in a town of 3,000 people after a
fight has taken place. I will give the story in his words:
"They say Bill's wild. Now he isn’t any sich thing. I’ve known him goin on ter
ten year, and he’s as civil a disposed person as you’ll find he-e-arabouts.
But he won’t be put upon."
"I’ll tell yer how it happened. But come inter
the office; thar’s a good many round hy’ar as sides with
Dave Tutt-- the man
that’s shot. But I tell yer 'twas a ‘far fight. Take some whisky? No!
Well, I will, if yer’l excuse me.”
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