Blacksmith made tools

A traveling blacksmith recently stopped by the inn.  He was a skilled and imaginative craftsman.  When he discovered i appreciated tools and had a bit of coin to spend as I felt the urge he opted to trot out some merchandise.  Do not ask me why but I found myself with a new square, scribe and a turnscrew I have no real need of.  But it was pleasing to the eye and I liked it.  So now it is mine.

Traveling craftsman are the way of the world.  Tinsmiths are the more common though there are blacksmiths as well as carpenters peddling everything from tools to kitchen wares and furniture.  Over the years I have acquire tin and copper dippers, coffee pots and the occasional tool.  the traveling craftsman is a service to any community he touches.  Without him bringing his skills and product to the buyer many things would never reach those who could use them.  Drygoods stores in towns carry many things that are needed but a craftsman can produce what the customer needs and wants on the spot.

The wife acquired the new scribe as a cake tester, that was certainly not what it was built for but I do not argue with the wife.  She tells me what she wants and I do my best to provide it regardless of the legality.  Though as a good God fearing woman she rarely asks for anything that might make the law raise an eyebrow.  I have imbued in her my philosophy that if it looks illegal it likely is.  I have little regard for the law, I have a preference for the strength of my blade or rifle in settling disputes.  Mina believes that people are generally good, I don’t know about that.  Perhaps I have seen too much evil in the world.  I have seen too much of the devil in this world and too little of her God.  But she firmly believes even I might be saved on the way to hell.  I have told her that the good lord knows where I am and can have me when ever he chooses.

M1816 Percussion Conversion

Early in the war the shortage of modern arms required both armies to scour their armories for any available military arm.  I saw quite the variety of arms in the hands of volunteers with many being considerably older than the men they were issued to.  The M1816 conversion from flintlock was rather common.  It was not a bad weapon but many had seen hard service before they were ever converted from flintlock to percussion.   While firing buck and ball they were a valid weapon at ranges of under one hundred yards and as lethal as they ever had been.  But like their counterparts from the Continent of similar vintage all predated the American manufacturing revolution that led to machine made small arms of the American System.  They were hand made instead though I never found the quality to be wanting.

In the 1850’s the US Army took their more modern flintlock arms and converted them to percussion by simply removing the flintlock hardware and replacing the hammer then plugging the flint touch hole and drilling and tapping the barrel for a percussion cone.  It was simple and most importantly cheaply done.  There were some who worried that the cone in barrel conversion weakened the barrel and made it prone to burst.  Though I know of no incident where such happened.  Other methods of altering arms from flintlock to percussion were attempted but the US Army chose to use the cone in barrel conversion due to cost.

Muskets such as those above were turned in at the first opportunity for rifled arms of the Springfield pattern or for arms from the Continent such as the P53 Enfield of M1854 Lorenz.  By late 1863 most M1816 muskets were back in the armories or in the hands of rear echelon troops such as those assigned to guard prisoners of war or in some cases in the hands of those facing the Dakota during the Dakota War.  I know of no incident where soldiers given the opportunity to exchange their M1816 percussion conversions for more modern arms.  Though to be brutally honest at close range with buck and ball they were far more destructive than rifled arms.  But at longer range men with muskets would be cut to pieces by those with rifled arms.

After the war many were quickly cut down to shotguns and sold for a pittance.  I prefer them in their original configuration.  That was how they were designed and that is how they should remain.

British Sergeant’s Musket Tool

The British have a well earned reputation for quality hand tools. This extends to the musket tools they issue to their soldiers. When we took Vicksburg large numbers of British made P53 Enfields were absorbed into Grant’s Army. A few made it into our regiment for a while but we opted to keep our M1841 rifles as most thought them as good if not superior to the English offering.

I had the opportunity to see some of these musket tools and thought them a quality tool. The one I was handed was of superb quality with tools that were quite useful when dealing with any Enfield pattern arm. Though experience with the hand made nature of most of the Enfield pattern arms showed me that the threads on ramrods were not always consistent and the worm and ball puller did not fit every ramrod.

During the course of the I handled at least four different version of this tool. The two versions of the Sergeant’s tool were the more complete and generally of better quality. The Sergeant’s tool had a removable handle that when paired with the ramrod gave considerable leverage on a ramrod, an oiler, oil bottle, worm, turn screw, ball puller, mainspring vise and nipple wrench as well as a nipple pick. The various privates tools lacked several aspects of the Sergeant’s tool but were serviceable.

I found the US M1855 musket tool with it’s three turn screws, nipple wrench and mainspring vise to be every bit as useful and considerably lighter and simpler to use. But it required me to also carry a ball puller, worm and oiler as well in a small leather bag. They weren’t all contained in one tool. The advantage was that they seemed more robust and had to have cost considerably less to manufacture.

I am a simple man and generally prefer simple things to the more complicated. That said the British Sergeant’s tool had almost everything needed to service and repair a rifle in the field in one compact package. I saw a good number of them during the war and as they were good quality tools I expect many made their way home with soldiers of each army as a small keepsake that was also useful with their own civilian arms.

Letters and packages from home

During the majority of the war I was functionally illiterate. I knew how to figure the maths rather well and knew how to identify my name on a roster. I even learned how to record inventory in my own way though I doubt greatly anyone else could have deciphered my scratches. Several of my men and my wife spent the best part of 1863-64 teaching me my letters. By the summer of 1864 I could read rather well. Though I was careful to have my Mrs. Mina check any of my writing. Through the entire war I received but one letter and that had to be read to me.

But others received letters regularly and cherished what they received. Mail call was a popular formation and rarely would a man shirk from that formation. Though letters of tragedy and sadness happened frequently any news from home was welcome. I will admit I rarely attended the mail call as I expected no letters or packages but I was a rarity.

Those letters and packages from home were welcome all out of proportion to their size. News from home was priceless and packages that might contain food or new socks and shirts along with other sundry luxuries were greatly prized. It was not uncommon for a box to have been pilfered by dishonest hands along the way. But the mail was actually rather good in that those who worked it were rather honest in their dealings.

Recently, while thumbing through a well used copy of Kant lent me by my young friend Seth I found a letter tucked within the pages. I believe that I recall Seth reading this letter out loud to us during the Siege of Vicksburg, he did not need to share his tidings from home but he did and it was appreciated by the men around him. After the war Seth returned home and made a name for himself in the raising of horses but has never married. His lovely sister has also done well raising a fine family. I almost felt guilty reading the letter, almost. But it brought old memories to the front of my mind and I daresay I thought of young men and women I had not thought of for quite some time. I carefully refolded the letter as I had found it and placed it back book where Seth had left it.

Brother Seth,

I am pleased to have received your letter; you are well and only injured in a minor way. Of that I am heart fully glad. The papers say the most terrible things of our fortunes in the war as of yet; your letters revealing the truth of matters are most welcome and I make a point to show them to the men who are too old and too young to serve their country. The waste abouts who are too cowardly or have decided that they are too important to serve the Union I shun. Cousin Celia snubbed the bankers son, I’m certain you remember him as he was the first to call for the crushing of the Rebellion but was noticeably absent when it came time to join the call to arms.

You must tell us more stories of Sergeant Steele and his antics as they amuse us immensely. Is it true that all of the families of the South own slaves? I doubt it can be so, but Aunt Rosemary insists it is so.

As you know we are hard set at home to make all of the bills since father died of the palsy. The monies that we receive from you are a gift as if from god. Your cousins have all left for the War in the last month and their wives and daughters have come from the city to our home in the country. They have helped much with the work about the farm. One of the oxen stepped into a gopher hole and broke a leg, we had no choice but to butcher it. I think I can say without boasting that cousin Celia and I did a good job butchering it ourselves. The butcher has joined the cavalry and his wife is a poor substitute so we did the work ourselves. Alicia and Sarah are quite helpful about the farm. Young Alicia has more enthusiasm around the stock, but she makes every effort to earn her keep. Sarah has been sewing and knitting nearly the day long, she insists that we sell her labor to the drygoods store so that she may earn her keep. It is a pity that her husband died of the fever at Island Number Ten, she mourns constantly. But she is making do for her children; I have told her she can stay with her boys as long as she wishes, the children take great joy in feeding the cattle and helping about the farm. They are to young to understand that they will not again see their father.

However, Aunt Rosemary is another matter entirely. She is not suitably attired for the farm and all but refuses to do anything but act ladylike, she insists on wearing hoops around the house and believes the latest New York fashion must be worn in the country; the mud and manure have done a splendid job of conspiring against her. She refuses to help in the kitchen as she believes such work is beneath her. Mother and her have twice had terrible rows, I believe she will drive mother mad before the month ends.

On Saturday we sit about the stove rolling bandages and knitting socks. We do what we can for the cause and the men in the field who are suffering so; but I fear that working the farm and attempting to keep the farm from the debtors has prevented us from doing all that we might like.

Your sister and mother depend upon the monies you send to us. Despite this we unanimously entreat you to do your duty, do not shirk danger on our account. I know some of the local Copperheads have been writing poisoned letters to the men who are braver than they, trust that letters you receive from me are true and question the honesty of any that bring sad tidings. Your family is healthy and loves you for your sacrifice.

I shall close this short letter with hope and a prayer.

God bless you and keep you safe.

Your sister Carlie.

Special Model 1861

At the beginning of the War the US found itself quite short of small arms. They initially solved this by purchasing anything and everything they could from the Continent. England, France, Austria and Belgium were all quick to sell off their old surplus arms. There were many a complaint to the quality and effectiveness of those arms. Some were valid complaints as most had seen hard use; though the reality is that most had served the premier armies of Europe less than twenty years prior. If men were honest then they would admit that they wanted the latest US made Springfields. While the Springfield was as good as they came there were just not enough of them.

The US resorted to contracting out the manufacture of the M1861 and by the middle of 1863 they were pouring into the US Army in sufficient numbers. One of the contractors for the M1861 was Colt. In an way to make a little extra coin Colt arranged to use existing machinery to make rifle muskets. They had bought machinery from Windsor Arms. Windsor had made excellent P53 Enfields for the British but when the Crimea War ended the British cancelled the contract leaving Windsor in a lurch. Bankruptcy followed.

The resulting Colt Special Model M1861 was a very good arm in which I had only one complaint; it lacked barrel band springs. While it may have been slightly less expensive I don’t consider it quite the equal of the Springfield. I did consider it the equal to the P53.

The demand was so great that Colt worked with LG&Y and later Amoskeag Mfg. Amoskeag Mfg was better known for making fire fighting equipment than firearms but they pitched in and provided 27,000 rifle muskets in about a year and a half. Between Colt, LG&Y and Amoskeag something less than 175,000 Special model M1861 were sold to the US Army. They would see hard use and gave good service. Generally they were thought as good as the Springfield by those who were issued them, there was certainly nothing wrong with those I dealt with. The fit and finish was excellent and they were interchangeable with other Special Model but not with the M1861.

This one was left in the corner of my tavern. I have no idea who left it or why but I have no complaint. The ramrod was broken and the nipple badly worn but those were easily repaired.

The Falls

A few years ago a land speculator stopped into my tavern and asked me if I would accompany him on a trip to Ft Dakota in the Dakota territory. He wished to study the land between here and there and see if it was suitable to propose a railroad. He felt it was wise to hire a fighting man as an escort and I was his first choice.

I admit I thought him a bit mad as it would be a better than 500 mile round trip. I was surprised at how knowledgeable he was of the route and discovered he had served in the 1st Minnesota Cavalry during the Dakota War. He was not really worried about conflict with the Dakota or Lakota but wished to be prepared in case he had poor luck or met with some dishonest whites. When he showed me his coin and said he would pay half now and half upon our return I was sold on the idea. I will admit my Mina was less than enthusiastic at the proposition of being without me for up to a couple months. The inn was only recently opened and business was going well enough I could pay a man to stand in at the tavern and the winter was far enough away that I believed the trip would be a profitable one.

Mr Wendall was well prepared for the trip with two horse and two pack mules. We did not want for coffee or rations on the trek and while we had a small tent we never felt the need to set it. He carried a brace of Remington pistols and a new Winchester rifle. I brought along my Sharps rifle and a good fighting knife. That was enough for me and there were no complaints about it when I added an antelope to our rations with that Sharps.

It was a long windy trip but I thought it well worth it. We saw no Indians at all though there were plenty of shifty white men along the way as well as more than a few honest farmers trying to make a home for themselves on the plains. Farming is a hard life and combined with the struggle of living on the plains it would be a life I would want no part of.

I admit an admiration for the plains, a place where the horizon touches the sky in a way the like I have only seen in the desert of North Africa and the Crimea. The wind never stops whispering to you in a constant fashion. The tall grass never sits still always dancing in the breeze.

When we arrived at Ft Dakota we found a decent sized settlement called Sioux Falls taking shape. The city was named for the falls near it. Those falls were something to see. Water had cut channels through the rocks and it moved as only water can cutting through rock and earth and making quite a noise as it did so. We camped near the falls for three days. We returned via a slightly different route and I left Mr. Wendall at Ft Abercrombie. I don’t know that his railroad proposal ever garnered enough investors to make a go at it but it was a pleasant trip that garnered me enough coin to purchase a few things for the Inn and my Mrs. Mina so it was time well spent.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

I recently received a strange and interesting package. Within a crate addressed to me was this mirror purchased from a firm in New York. It is splendidly etched and beautiful to look upon. Such a thing seems out of place in my simple tavern but beauty is always welcome. When I received the mirror I had some question as to how and where it should be displayed. I had some thought of placing it upon the wall in our common room for my Mrs. Mina and her friends to admire but she insisted it had been a gift to me and my tavern and that was where it belonged.

A carpenter who was staying with us created the frame in exchange for a month of room and board. I am quite happy with the work he did as I believe it complements the mirror in a splendid fashion. The craftsmanship is of the kind I can fully appreciate and admire.

In with the crate was a well written thank you from a young man, Timothy Walker. I only vaguely remember him and likely would not recognize him in a crowd of one. I do remember the incident he spoke of. He was a freshly captured Rebel cavalryman and I was in charge of a detail escorting this young man and some of his fellow prisoners to the rear where he and others would be placed on a train bound for Rock Island. Upon arrival in Chattanooga members of the quartermasters department heaped abuse upon the prisoners. I have no doubt the verbal abuse would have rapidly escalated to physical had I not put a stop to it. I have never had time for those who avoid the sharp end mistreating those who have looked upon the work of the Angel of Death. This group of prisoners were the enemy but they were men who had the courage to face the enemy across the field of battle. The mirror was his thanks for my doing the honorable thing of protecting prisoner.

Young Timothy did not long suffer the POW camp at Rock Island. He gladly took the opportunity to join the US Army and became a “Galvanized Yankee.” He was shipped west to form part of the garrisons in the west where he faced Lakota and Cheyenne warriors instead of US rifles and artillery.

After the war and his discharge he went home and took up life as a salesman. After a few years he made good and built a family that he could be proud of. He also felt that he owed me a debt and spent some time seeking me out. It took him some time to discover if I survived the war and where I had gone after. When he learned that I had opened a tavern he decided to thank me in a very material way. I can say that I believe I merely did my duty as what any good soldier is supposed to do. But this young man thought otherwise and believed I deserved a thank you for doing my duty.

I admit that I sometimes stand in front of the mirror and study my reflection wondering if I truly deserve such. The mirror is a thing of grace and beauty and it will hold a cherished place upon the wall in my tavern so long as I live.

Death, she walks among us.

I have been a soldier for more than half of my life campaigning across four continents with three different armies in two major wars and innumerable smaller ones. I have seen death visited upon men in all of its horrid forms. Whether a quick merciful death from a bullet to the head or a slow lingering death from disease. Death is not something to be mocked or ridiculed. We all will face it one day, the luckiest of us will be able to choose the circumstances of that death.

Some time in the distant past I picked up the belief that the Angel of Death was a beautiful woman who escorted you to judgement. I have no idea if such is true or not but it has been a comforting belief to me over the years. It is a comforting belief that the last thing I see before I am taken to judgement will be a beautiful woman. Twice now I have been with men who made me believe in such as they passed beyond. One was a fellow Legionnaire who had been horribly wounded in the Crimea. The other was a young Confederate soldier who took hours to go and spoke of seeing a beautiful woman as he went. Both were better men than I who were too young to die. I would like to think their view of a beautiful woman as the Angel of Death was a comfort to them. They deserved that at the very least.

I have killed often; some have accused me of murder which may well be true. I admit there is death in my past were the wrong people to discover the details I might face some difficult questions. I do not regret those deaths, those that I regret were of brave fighting men who had the courage to stand in the line of battle.

Down the road from my home is a farm where a family is losing the dowager of the household is passing. She has had a fairly soft life free of pain and worry. In the last year her health has failed and she has begun to fade, her death will be a mercy upon both the family and her. She lives every day in pain but refuses to pass, she stubbornly holds onto life. I can respect that, life is something worth holding on to. That said when my time comes I hope to go quickly with dignity. Perhaps some cold winter night I see the end is near I shall simply walk into the woods and let the cold take me. No, I think that I might prefer to be allowed a death in battle where I have the opportunity to sell myself dearly. Failing that I believe drowning myself in a bottle of Cognac would be an acceptable end.

Hatchets and hand axes

The hatchet is one of the most useful tools in or out of the tool box. I have several throughout the place, one near every woodpile a couple more around the place as well as several good full size axes. The three in the middle of the picture are carpenters hatchets of good use when working with wood. They are superb for trimming branches and a score of other uses that eventually lead to furniture or shelter. The small hatchet on the right is a small woodsman tool that is ideal for trekking through the woods. Now the one on the left is a bit of a mystery, I would be more likely to call it a hand axe. The blade is certainly strong enough for any use I can imagine and the handle long enough to use in combat or the woods.

I have a tendency to find myself with tools. Some are given me as payment, some fall out of wagons or find their way into my possession from lonely undefended campsites. All are well sharpened and hard used. What good is a dull blade? When an axe, hatchet or any other blade is needed it is more useful as a sharp implement. Whether working with wood or an errant skull that needs to be split sharp is better than dull.

My Mrs Mina favors a skillet or fry pan as a weapon of choice that she keeps close to hand. The woman even says she prefers a dull blade because it will hurt more. I have to admit that sometimes that woman scares me just a little bit. But as I have yet to wake up dead perhaps my worries are unfounded. At least when it comes time for me to introduce such a weapon to a fight I have had the courtesy to keep it clean and sharp so that it will be swift and merciful in final execution if need be. I suspect I would be quite put out if I were to appear before the good Lord to be judged with my broken body ripe with the scent of bacon grease. I do not believe it would do to be embarrassed by ones appearance before the good Lord.

A chisel from an old file

Most who know me understand that I dislike wasting things. I have never really been a wealthy man and understand that using something until it is no longer functional is the only way to save coin. Being able to take a worn out item and turn it into something useful again is priceless.

This chisel started life as a file and a blacksmith used it until the teeth were all but gone. Then with a few minutes on a saw and whet stone he created a useful chisel. I picked it up for a song and added it to my small but expanding collection of tools created from cast off files. It has seen hard use and will continue to see more for some time to come.

Simple function over form is my ideal. That said it is a simple beauty in my eye. If an artisan chooses to embellish the tool who am I to fault him such a small pleasure? I am much like this simple recycled tool. I am a man who has been and seen much, not all of it good and proper. But it has shaped me, forged me into the man I have become. Much like this file that is now a chisel I hope I still have something to add to this world. Alexandre Dumas may have said it best when he said that we are always in a hurry to be happy for when we have suffered greatly we have difficulty believing in good fortune. Is that my future, like this chisel? To be used hard and reshaped into something to soldier on? Perhaps, perhaps… I am a good bartender with many a happy customer. I like those who come to drink in my tavern and by most accounts those who frequent the place like me and mine.