Neither Winsor B. Smith nor Bludgeon the Horse ever forgot that dark Virginia night when the Confederate spooks came calling.
Born in Bridgton in 1842, Smith joined the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment’s Co. K as a private in August 1862. He developed an impressive wartime resume, including a six-month stint as a Confederate prisoner.
That detention occurred almost a year after Southern ghosts visited Smith and Bludgeon the Horse.
After spending eight months on detached duty, Corp. Smith rejoined the 1st Maine and Co. K at Sulphur Spring, Va. in mid-autumn 1863. He learned that his comrades often deployed on picket duty, deploying singly or in small numbers beyond Union lines day and night to watch for Confederate patrols.
The Maine cavalrymen considered picket duty a dangerous assignment. “The boys told me the rebs had a habit … of stealing men off their [picket] posts in the night … which made me rather nervous,” Smith wrote 14 years later.
“Soon the order came for Co. K to go on picket,” he remembered. A noncommissioned officer usually prowled between the static picket posts to see how his nervous men fared; then the Co. K troopers rode out before dark the day, the sergeant counted noses, and “we found our numbers were so small that for night duty the corporal would have to stand post,” Smith said.
Gazing at the corporal’s two stripes sewn on his sleeves, Smith “dreaded for the night to come” because “I had not been on picket for months.”
After Smith had lost his mount at Gettysburg, an infantry quartermaster had assigned him another horse. “His name was Bludgeon,” an appropriate moniker as Smith quickly learned: “I never could go near him without his stepping on my feet.”
Soon the sergeant led the Co. K troopers into the autumn dark and left each trooper at an assigned picket post. Stationary men and mounts faded into the moonlit fields and forests as the dwindling band of Maine boys rode farther from their lines.
Then “with a wicked look,” the sergeant “left me on what he said was the most dangerous post, and that I was put there because I was a corporal,” Smith described the moment. The sergeant vanished into the night, leaving the nervous Smith and Bludgeon beneath a towering tree to picket a rural crossroad in the middle of nowhere, “a long way from the reserve, and a good half mile from the next picket.”
Smith held his loaded carbine while waiting “to meet what might come” toward him in the Virginia night, and silence reigned until “Bludgeon threw up his head, and gave a yell, and started on the run” toward the Union lines.
Smith battled Bludgeon until he “got back under the roadside tree again,” but the game was up; Bludgeon’s strident neighs had alerted everyone within a few miles where to find horse and rider, and “it was no use to hide now,” Smith admitted.
Confederate cavalrymen and guerrillas — and ghosts — knew where to find him. Someone or something just might come prowling tonight for human prey or a soul … or maybe a horse …
“It was one of those still, moonlight, cloudy nights, when with a good imagination such as I had, the shadows would form whatever object you were most dreading to see,” Smith remembered.
On such nights, many superstitious rural Southerners — black and white — believed that ghosts or “haints” roamed the countryside to frighten or harm the living. The spirits wandered restlessly over hill and dale, and woe betide the doomed person they encountered — especially if he wore Union blue.
Smith assessed his surroundings: “Thick oak woods” lay to his left, a cornfield spread “next to me” on the right, and Bludgeon trembled beneath the saddle. Then while looking at the woods “to get my bearings, I heard a rustle in the dry leaves as of a cautious step from tree to tree,” he recalled.
Had a Confederate spook come seeking Yankee blood? Did a ghoul stalk the hapless cavalryman and his frightened mount? More leaves rustled in the evidently windless darkness; suddenly “the horse heard it too, and again bolted for the rear,” Smith remembered.
Forcefully convincing Bludgeon to return to the picket post, he repeatedly tapped the horse with “the barrel of my carbine, not gently, between his ears, every time he threw up his head to yell.” Bludgeon knelt after every thumping, “and while he was recovering his senses, I would look at the woods and listen,” Smith wrote.
The spook crept closer; “I could hear the steps coming nearer and nearer; the horse also heard, and we both trembled,” Smith remembered. Closer came the footsteps, the louder pounded the human and equine hearts …
“Then just as I was about to call out ‘Halt!’ there walked out into the moonlight, with a grunt of astonishment, one of those slab-sided Virginia hogs!” Smith exclaimed. He dropped his carbine, and Bludgeon “ran half way to the reserve before I could get strength to stop him.”
Horse and rider returned to the picket post, where with “my carbine … now in the socket … with both hands and feet I tried to keep that horse there and keep him still,” Smith remembered.
After Bludgeon finally calmed down, Smith studied the cornfield. “Looking over the corn, I could see the top of a chimney of a house that stood in the valley beyond,” he recalled. Moments later “several dogs” started barking, “and there was a rush through the corn as if several persons and dogs were running toward me.”
Did Southern haints or flesh-eating zombies advance through the wildly rustling corn? Struggling to control the dancing Bludgeon, Smith wanted to “discharge my carbine and run for the reserve” like a private might do, “but being a corporal, I must stick to my post or die.”
The approaching spook might accommodate that latter alternative. Realizing that he “was a good mark (target) on that horse,” Smith dismounted, took “the bridle on my arm, crept up to the fence,” and peered between the fence rails.
Yikes! His hair likely stood on end as “I saw coming slowly up towards me, between the rows of corn, a man with a gun on his shoulder,” Smith described his terror. “I let him come a little nearer, and taking good aim, I called, ‘Halt! who goes there!’” — as if such a warning or a Yankee bullet could spook a Confederate ghost.
The farm dogs had quieted. “Everything was still” except for Bludgeon tugging frantically against the looped reins, and the intruder or specter or whatever it was gave no reply. “I called again, ‘Speak, or I fire!’” Smith exclaimed.
The silent phantom stood watching Smith and Bludgeon in the darkness. One sudden move, and the ghoul could be upon its victims before they could scream …
“I was making sure of my aim and pressing the trigger, when the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and I saw an old butternut suit of clothes stuck up on stakes and stuffed with straw, to keep the crows out of the corn,” Smith mopped his brow in relief.
“I realized that even a corporal will sometimes get excited and act foolish,” he admitted.
Sometime the next day, Smith swapped Bludgeon for the horse ridden by Peter Como, another Co. K trooper. Both men deployed on picket duty that night, Smith with a battle-experienced mount, Como with Bludgeon the Scaredy Horse.
Confederate spooks evidently visited Bludgeon again that night, for “as I sat on my post, I could hear the familiarvoice of Bludgeon, as Pete tried to keep him on that hill, under a tree, at the corner of that lonesome old graveyard” so well remembered by many 1st Maine troopers.
Anyone who’s ever whistled in the dark while walking past a rural Southern graveyard at night can sympathize with Bludgeon the Horse, posted next to an “old” cemetery occupied by restless spirits …
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.