The Battle of Woolly FieldA Story of “Old Mutton” Cross

by George Allan EnglandWith Drawings By Lynn Bogue Hunt

England’s second professional sale is more a vignette than an actual story and relates a little known Civil War episode that involved the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers and their colorful commander, Edward E. Cross. According to England’s telling of the tale, the events took place in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, while the Fifth was heading for Gettysburg after the battle of Fair Oaks. What few historical accounts exist, however, suggest that the “sheep incident” occurred in the Fall of 1862, when the Fifth was marching through the Loudoun Valley. England’s chronology is also slightly off; the next military action involving the Fifth following Fair Oaks would have been the Battle of Fredericksburg with Gettysburg still some seven to eight months away. Other than these inconsistencies, historical records seem to agree fairly closely with England’s account. On an unknown date, Cross’s men went foraging and found a herd of sheep on a nearby farm, which they appropriated for their evening meal. The farmer, noticing the sheep were missing complained to Cross, who refused to allow the farmer to inspect his camp. The farmer then complained to General Hancock (or General McClellan depending on the account), who had specifically ordered that there was to be no pilfering of local animals or crops. An officer arrived to inspect the Fifth, Cross stalled him, nothing was found and Hancock (or McClellan) eventually paid the farmer for the sheep.

Colonel Edward E. Cross
Colonel Edward E. Cross

Exactly where England would have heard about Colonel Cross and the sheep is a bit of a mystery. Contrary to some biographical references, England’s father did not become a Chaplain in the US Army until 1876, had no prior military service and died in 1883. England, born in 1877, was only five or six years of age when his father passed--a bit too young to have heard, and remembered, the tale of Cross and the sheep. What is not known, however, is how long England’s mother would have been allowed to live on the post once she was widowed. Circumstantial evidence places England in Boston around 1893 (see the “Underneath the Bough” section of George Allan England: The Harvard Years for more on this), so there is a ten year span where the family’s whereabouts are unknown. If the family were allowed to remain on the base for a time, it is not unreasonable to suppose that England may have heard the story from a Civil War veteran stationed at the fort when he was older. Another possible scenario might be that he heard the tale from a family friend after the move to Boston.

Equally mysterious is England’s reference to Cross as “Old Mutton.” While the title adds a bit of ”insider“ military authenticity to the story, research has failed to uncover any references to Cross with this nick-name, nor are there any sources that use the story’s title in describing the ovine buffet. A more likely scenario is that England was just having a bit of fun with the tale’s subject matter. Obviously, England enjoyed telling the tale and he demonstrates, once again, his love of dialects in his use of heavy New England phrasing in the narration.

Before you proceed onto the story, a quick word about Colonel Edward E. Cross. A former newspaperman, Cross was an outspoken commander, who was, according to all accounts, well liked and respected by his men. He was known for his heroism in battle and for also turning a blind eye towards some of the antics of the members of his command, such as the events outlined in “The Battle of Woolly Field.” Cross was also known for wearing a red bandana rather than a hat during battles, in order to allow his troops to more readily find him on the field. On the day he was mortally wounded (July 3 or July 2, 1863-accounts vary) during the battle of Gettysburg, he wore a black bandana, claiming that he had had a vision that he would die that day.

“The Battle of Woolly Field” originally appeared in the April, 1905 of Leslie’s Monthly Magazine and this is appears to be the first reprinting since that time.

Bob Gay
April, 2015
Introduction © 2015 by Bob Gay

Original title for The Battle of Woolly Field I

EAT raw mutton wunst,” said Purrington Sessions contemplatively, crossing his lean legs and swallowing a mouthful of tobacco juice that impeded his utterance. “D’ I ever tell you ’bout that? No? Huh, that’s cur’ous!” and then he told me.

Ridin' like the devil an' Tom Walker.
Ridin’ like the devil an’ Tom Walker.

I never shall fergit it in the world. We was in the Shennondoah Valley, ’62, Fifth New Ham'shire Volunteers, marchin’ up the Peninsula to’ards Gettysburg. ’Twas right after Fair Oaks, where the Rebils shot them blacksmith tools, chains an’ railroad irons at us, same’s I tol’ you last week. We got sep’rated from our comm’sary train some way er ’nother, an’ fer two days, sir, we hadn’t not so much to eat’s a chickadee. Forage? Shucks! The kentry was peeled cleaner ’n an onion! Two blessed swelterin’ days we marched, an’ two nights we camped, an’ all ’t I got, speakin’ fer myself, was one hard tack an’ half a plug of mouldy “Soldier’s Pride.” I had ta swap my socks fer that, too!

’Bout noon of the third day we couldn’t drag no further, so old Colonel Cross he halted sech of us as was still a-crawlin’.

“Rest at ease!” he c’mmanded, ridin’ up an’ down along the line, but it didn’t have much effect, ’cause we was already restin’.

Then he cantered off, ’cross country.

’Twan’t more’n ten minutes ’fore he come gallopin’ back, ridin’ like the devil an’ Tom Walker, an’ wavin’ his old saber. On he come, lickety split on that long, slim, dark red hoss o’ his’n, his stern old voice flarin’ out on the wind:—

“ ’Tenshun Batallion!

We all scrambled up like the Johnny Rebs was after him, an’ jostled inta our ranks. Some had guns an’ some hadn’t. Down old Cross come a-runnin’, saber glitterin’ in the sun:—

“Rear rank open order!

Six paces back the ragged rear rank wavered.

“Boys!” he hollered, pullin’ up sudden, “ther’s the damndest, biggest flock o’ sheep 'ever I see over yender, an’ I can’t see a damn one of ’em! Break ranks march!——”

Jeems Rice! You ever see yaller jackets jostled outa their nest? Well, we was yaller jackets, that’s all. One yell an’ the reg’ment was off, puttin’ fer them sheep as tight as they c’d put, over rough land, ploughed fields, hedges an’ ditches, fifteen hundred men, three thousan’ blue legs twinklin’ like blazes, eager fer mutton.

One yell an' the reg'ment was off, puttin' fer them sheep.
One yell an’ the reg’ment was off, puttin’ fer them sheep.

We found it, too, in a hill side pastchure half a mile from the road, hundurd an’ a half o’ the han’somest, fattest, longest wooled critters ever I laid my eyes onto. My land, how the wool did fly! In ten minutes the hull field was lined with sheepskin, an’ they was wool even a-hangin’ from the red haw bushes. One slick ram got away—a big black cuss that bounded over our heads an’ made off inta a piece o’ woods—but every other livin’ critter we stuck with our jack knives, an’ jerked the hide off’n right then an’ thar. You never see such a lookin’ lan’scape in this mortial world, now I’m a-goin’ ta tell ye! Woolly Field we called it. Looked like a meat market had exploded all over the scenery.

We cut ’em up an ’et ’em right thar in that field, squattin’ round the carcasses jes’ as they laid. In less ’n five minutes hundurds o’ bresh fires was sendin’ their little colyumes of smoke up inta the still aft’noon air; an’ ’round each fire a bunch o’ soldiers was jostlin’ fer room ta poke their mutton inta the flame. We whittled sticks down peekid, jabbed ’em inta the hunks o’ meat an’ tried ta roast it so, but ’twan’t no use; nubbody c’d wait fer the stuff ta cook, an’ ’twan’t more’n scorched on the outside an’ half warmed through, all smoky an’ singed blacker’n charcoal an’ without a grain o’ salt, when we went at it, tearin’ an’ gnawin’ with our teeth, an’ the grease a-runnin’—hunks o’ fat as big’s yer fist—an’ oh! the smell o’ that thar scorched raw meat!

WE et purt’ nigh all them Southdowns right on the spot, an’ what we didn’t eat we lugged back ta camp. By night they wan’t a thing ta show fer that thousan’ dollars’ wuth o’ blue ribbon critters but a fringe o’ bones along our line an’ fifteen hundred bulgin’ bellies. Praps we didn’t sleep some that night! I know I fer one was poundin’ my ear fit ta kill when Alph Coffin kicked me in the ribs an’ told me ta git up quick. Alph was my bunkie.

“What’s up?” I whispered.

“ ’Spection, fer them sheep!” he whispered back. “Don’t you hear old Cross jawin’ along the line ?”

Sure enough, old Cross was comin’ along, with a couple lieutenants, routin’ out the orderlies.

“Fer Heaven’s sake, you fellers,” says he to ourn, when he reached ’em, “git your men up jes’ as soon’s God ’ll let ye! You’ll all be ’spected in the mornin’,” says he, “an’ it’s past three o’clock already. Have your men put these bones out a sight at wunst, immejiate, an’ bury what meat there is left, also have ’em clean up pers’nally. Th' owner of them sheep has reported to McClellan, an’ they’ll be the devil ta pay if they’s a speck er spot ta be seen! Rustle 'em out in a hurry, an’ don’t let ’em make any noise, nuther!”

The orderlies understood, all right enough, an’ don’t ye doubt it; an’ ’twan’t more’n a quarter of an hour ’fore the darndest clean-up was a-goin’ on that ever you hear tell of. Meat was buried, haversacks scrubbed, linin’s ripped out an’ burnt, an’ everything in camp gone over inch by inch. As fer the bones, we took an’ carried them (bushels of ’em!) down the road quite a piece ta the camp o' the Seventh New York Zouaves—them critters that wore big pants. The Seventh was a crack reg’ment an’ allus looked down on us fellers from New Hampshire—called us hay-seeders, bummers an’ the biggest darn pack o’ thieves that ever came out-a the States. We never said nothin’ in return, but that time I’m thinkin’ we made ’em take their back-tracks mighty lively.

WHEN it come mornin’, sure enough we was all turned out fer inspection an’ stood up in a row like so many ten-pins. Th' owner come pikin’ down the line, madder’n hops, an’ with him some little Jack o' Diamonds of an off'cer. Sech an inspection I never hope ta see agin! It's a wonder they didn’t prospec’ down our throats with a telescope.

When they came ta me, after a ’tarnal long time, old Jack o’ Diamonds stopped short and said:—

“This man here looks like he’s had some fresh meat lately. Open yer haversack!”

This man looks like he'd had some fresh meat
“This man looks like he’d had some fresh meat.”

I opened it, an’ they wa’n’t nothin’ in it but my dishes an’ sugar sack.

“Where’s the linin’, you?” snaps the little Jack.

“Jeems Rice! I chawed that up an’ swallowed it years ago!” says I.

Well, sir, they never convicted us after all, hunt as much as they’d a mind to. But, say! You’d just ought-a ben thar when they come ’long ta the Seventh New York! Don't say a word! .... At peep o’ day they was routed out, the most s’prised lot-a men ever you see, an’ mad? Now you cert’nly are talkin’! Their reg’-mental front looked like that thar Valley o’ Bones it tells about in the Scriptur, som’-eres. I cal’late that’s whar I learned some o’ my fanciest cuss-words, that thar summer mornin’ in the Shannondoah.

WELL, that’s most all. We was all lookin’ fer another inspection, but it never come, an’ peace descended on us like a snappin’-turtle-dove. We had all kinds-a sympathy an’ ta spare fer them Zouaves, you bet; they had ta pay some ten hundred odd dollars fer our little meat-lunch, an’ we c’d afford ta be gen’rous with sympathy. Old Cross he come along nex’ day.

“Lord, boys!” he said to our mess, “I wisht I’d-a had salt ta give ye, but I done my best! Nex’ time, praps, I kin put ye onta better forage. Mum, boys, mum!”

They wa’n’t never a better off’cer in this vale o’ tears than old Mutton Cross, now I’m a-goin’ ta tell ye.

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