A Divided Duty by M. A. Cassidy
The Magill residence was situated near the highways connecting Knoxville
and Chattanooga. Encamping armies had burned every splinter of fencing,
and so the cleared space was thrown into one great field, encircled by a
gigantic hedge of oak and pine. Near the center of the cleared land, on
a little eminence, was a farm-house. It was a long, one-story building,
running back some distance, its several additions having been
constructed as the family required more room. A little to the right, and
extending the full length of the house, was a row of negro cabins—there
being a passway between the two as wide as an ordinary road. The yard
sloped gently to the roadway and railroad; near the latter, another rise
began, which extended back to the woodland and commanded an extensive
view of the surrounding country.
One afternoon, early in the autumn of 1864, Mrs. Magill and her son
Harry, a comely lad of thirteen, sat on the front veranda, and talked of
what a happy reunion there would be when their loved ones should return
from the war. And on this glorious autumnal afternoon the hearts of the
widow and her son were happy in anticipation.
Mrs. Magill had two sons in the war. One wore the Blue, the other the
Gray. John, the eldest of three boys, had enlisted in Wheeler's
Confederate cavalry, in the second year of the war; and, a year later,
Thomas had joined the Federals under General Burnside at Knoxville. Both
were known as brave and dashing soldiers, and both had been promoted,
for gallantry, to captaincies. This family division was a source of
great grief to Mrs. Magill. Dearer to her than Union or Confederacy were
her children; and from their youth she had trained them in the ways of
peace. And now, in their manhood, two of them, under different flags,
were arrayed against each other in a deadly and unnatural strife. She
often heard from both her soldier boys, and their inquiries after the
welfare of each other were full of tenderness. Harry, as is usual with
younger brothers, fairly worshiped both of them. He was no less troubled
than his mother when they went away to fight on opposite sides. Their
contrary action left him in doubt as to which side he should take. Every
boy of his acquaintance was ardent in espousing one side or the other.
But what could he do, since he had a brother in each army? Should he
become a rebel, Thomas might be displeased; and he loved Tom too well to
willfully incur his displeasure. Should he decide to remain loyal to the
Union, John might resent it; and he could not think of offending one
whom he held in such high esteem. "What shall I do?" he asked himself a
great many times a day. The war spirit in him was becoming rampant, and
must have scope. He at length took the perplexing question to his
mother. She promptly advised him to remain neutral. But somehow Harry
got it into his head that neutrality was something very different from
manliness. So he made up his mind to be one thing or the other,
or—happy thought!—why not be both? And, after puzzling over the
question a long time, he settled on the novel idea of making himself
half "Rebel" and half "Yankee." In pursuance of this plan, he persuaded
his mother to make him a uniform, half of which should be blue, and the
other half gray. She made it of a Federal and a Confederate overcoat;
and Harry was a queer-looking little fellow as he went about the
country, clad in his blue-gray uniform, the U. S. A. buttons on one
side, and the C. S. A. on the other. The boys called him a "mongrel";
and neither the Federal nor Confederate commands of boy soldiery would
allow him in their ranks. This was a source of great mortification to
Harry; but he was seriously in earnest, and fully resolved to carry out
his campaign of impartial affection. His being cut by the other boys,
who could afford to take a decided stand because they did not have a
brother on each side, reduced him to the necessity of playing "war"
(about the only game indulged in by Southern boys at this time) alone.
When he put up his lines of corn-stalk soldiers, to play battle, it was
observed, by his mother, that both sides always won an equal number of
victories. Harry was not sure that the war could ever end at this rate
of even fighting; but arrayed as he was, in the colors of both armies,
his inclination was to be true to both. There were generally tears in
his mother's eyes, when she saw that two of the corn-stalk soldiers, the
tallest and straightest of them all, representing John and Thomas, were
always left standing, even after the most furious of contests, in which
all the others had fallen.
Harry had left off playing quite early, on the afternoon of which I
write, and had joined his mother on the veranda. They had not been long
together when something unusual attracted their attention.
A short distance down the railroad a body of cavalrymen had dismounted,
and soon they were as busy as ants, tearing up the track. One squad
preceded the others and loosened the rails by drawing the spikes; then
came another squad that placed the ties in great heaps; after this came
a third that kindled fires beneath them. The ties were rotten and dry,
and, in a very few moments, there were scores of bright, hot fires. Soon
the rails were at a red heat near the center, the ends being
comparatively cool. While in this state a number of men would take the
rails and bend them around telegraph poles or any solid objects that
were near. The soldiers twisted the rails into fantastic shapes; and
when they were through with their work of destruction, they seemed
perfectly satisfied that none of the old material could be used in
reconstructing the road. Harry and his mother had observed the
operations of these men with much interest for some time, when suddenly
they saw one of them mount his horse, and ride toward the house.
"He is a rebel!" exclaimed Harry, who stood watching the approaching
"Surely you are mistaken, Harry. There can be no Confederates here,"
said Mrs. Magill, "the Federals are too near."
While yet the soldier was some distance from the house, the boy's face
lighted up with joy, as he exclaimed:
"Oh, mother, I do believe it's John!"
"John? Where is he?" asked his mother, running to where the boy stood.
"Why, there, on the horse! He's coming home! He's coming home!" And thus
exclaiming, Harry danced around the veranda like an Indian lad in a
first war-dance. Then he ran to meet his brother in gray. Mrs. Magill
was thrilled with sensations of joy and fear: joy, because she was
about to see again her eldest son, after a painful separation of two
years; fear, because of the nearness of the Federals. When within a
short distance of his brother, Harry stopped and waited there, prepared
to give the military salute due one of his brother's rank. But that
salute was never given; for almost at the same instant that Harry
stopped, Captain John Magill reined up his horse quite suddenly, drew a
pistol from its holster, and looked suspiciously toward a clump of trees
on the hill-top. Harry turned his eyes to learn what had startled his
brother. He beheld a score or more of men in blue uniforms, partly
concealed by the clump of trees; and it was evident that these were the
vanguard of a larger body of Federals. Captain John Magill wheeled as
suddenly as he had halted, and galloped back to the Confederates engaged
in demolishing the railroad. As fast as he could run, Harry followed.
Mrs. Magill comprehended the situation; and, spell-bound, she stood on
the veranda, with arms outstretched, a statue of anguish and expectancy.
When Captain John Magill reached his comrades, he gave the alarm, and
"there was mounting in hot haste." The two hundred raiders had time
only to form an irregular line of battle, when twice as many Federals
appeared on the hill-top. It was evident that there was going to be a
lively skirmish. Harry singled out John, who rode up and down the line
giving commands, and running to him, he clasped him around a leg with
both arms, enthusiastically exclaiming:
"Howdy, John! Don't you know me?"
The young captain looked down at the joy-beaming face of his little
brother, but, as he had never seen the little fellow in his fantastic
uniform, for a moment failed to recognize him.
A shade of disappointment flitted over Harry's face as he said:
"I am your little brother Harry; and I'm just as much Rebel as Yankee."
Captain John Magill laughed as he leaned over and grasped Harry's hand.
"Why, Harry! What on earth are you doing here? Get up behind me, and I
will gallop home with you before the firing begins," said John,
evidently alarmed for the boy's safety. Placing his foot on that of his
brother, Harry clambered up behind. By this time the lines were in range
of each other, and a lively fusillade at once began. Harry behaved
manfully under fire, and entreated his brother to allow him to stay
until the fight was over. But the elder brother was intent on taking him
to a place of safety, so putting spurs to his horse he rode swiftly
toward the house. His plan was to return the boy to his mother, and then
rejoin his comrades. But the Confederates did not know his intentions;
and seeing their Captain making his way rapidly to the rear, with this
strangely-clad boy behind him, they of course thought him retreating,
and they followed pell-mell.
Captain John Magill saw the effect of his movement, and, halting, made
an effort to rally his men. But the Confederates were thoroughly
stampeded, and they dashed madly away. The shouting Federals were now at
close range, and the bee-like song of the bullets could be heard on
every side. Hastily placing Harry in front of him, to shield him as much
as possible from the enemy's fire, he followed his men, now some
distance in advance. When they reached the house, Mrs. Magill stood pale
and motionless, expecting every moment to see her children fall.
Glancing back, Captain John Magill saw that a moment's delay would make
him a prisoner; so as he dashed past his mother he cried out, "Don't be
uneasy. I'll take care of Harry"; and then he was gone like the wind,
his pursuers not a hundred yards behind him. Then a complete change came
over Mrs. Magill. Impelled by the great love of a mother, she ran into
the yard, and stood calmly in the way of the advancing Federals, whose
course lay between the cabins and the house—as if to stop, with her
frail form, the impetuous charge.
On they came like a hurricane. The mother did not move. Her eyes were
closed and her lips compressed. Very near her sounded the hoof-beats. A
moment more and she expected to be trampled to death beneath those
hurrying feet; but she hoped—yea, and prayed—that her death might
somehow delay the Federals until her sons should escape.
"Halt! Halt!" The command was in thunder tones, and was echoed and
re-echoed along the charging line. The soldiers pulled with all their
might on the bits, and many a horse was thrown back on his haunches.
Opening her eyes Mrs. Magill saw that the Federal captain, bending over
her from his saddle, was her son Thomas.
"Oh, Thomas!—would you kill John and Harry!" she exclaimed, and then
fell fainting in his arms. Laying her tenderly on the veranda, he
directed a surgeon to attend her, and mounting his horse, rode rapidly
in the direction taken by his brothers. Soon he saw them a quarter of a
mile ahead. Taking a white handkerchief he held it aloft, and digging
the spurs deep into his horse's flanks, he rode with increased speed,
all the time hallooing at the top of his strong voice. John heard; but,
thinking it a summons to surrender, he urged his horse forward, hoping
to gain the sheltering wood. But the horse, in attempting to jump across
a washout, stumbled and fell; and John found himself rolling on the
ground with Harry in his arms. Rising, he placed Harry behind him, and
drew his sword, determined to sell their lives dearly. Imagine his
surprise when he beheld but one pursuer, and that one holding on high an
emblem of peace. In a moment more, he recognized his brother. Their
meeting was affectionate. Harry was beside himself with joy. He had
really been under fire, with "sure-enough bullets" singing about his
ears! This was something of which none of the boys who had scorned his
blue-gray uniform could boast!
"Our brother is a brave little fellow. He did not once flinch when your
bullets were singing around us," he heard John say to Thomas, and this
praise elated the boy very much.
"Let us return to mother. She is very anxious," said Thomas.
John gazed inquiringly at his brother in blue.
"You need have no fear," said Thomas. "I will be responsible for your
So the two soldier brothers, leading their horses, and each holding one
of Harry's hands, walked up to the house.
"I see you wear the gray, Harry; that's right," said John, with a
malicious glance at Thomas.
"He is true blue on this side," said Thomas, laughing heartily, as the
ludicrousness of Harry's uniform dawned upon him.
An affecting meeting was that between mother and sons; and something on
the cheeks of the brave men who were present "washed off the stains of
When parting time came, the sun rested, like a great ruby, above the
circling wood of crimson and gold; and when the brother in blue stood
hand in hand with the brother in gray, all nature seemed to smile in
anticipation of the time when a fraternal grasp should reunite the North
This day was the turning-point in Harry's life. Thenceforth all his
inclinations were to become a soldier. After the war, he was educated by
John and Thomas; and, passing his examination triumphantly over three of
the boys who had derided him, he was appointed to West Point. He is now
Lieutenant Henry Magill, U. S. A.
His brothers still treasure the little blue-gray uniform as the memento
of a "divided duty."