The following account describes a series of events which involved men of the 22nd New York Volunteer Infantry. The 22nd New York was stationed at David Island's Fort Slocum, and the account concerns social events surrounding a young lady, the captain of one of the regiment's company and a private in that company.
How the Private Fooled the Captain
A Real Life Romance of Camp Life at Fort Slocum
A romance in real life that fully equals the best product of the imagination of a writer of fiction was related by a captain of the National Guard to a party of officers at the State camp at Peekskill, N.Y., the other day. It happened during the recent Spanish war, when he was a lieutenant in the Twenty-second Regiment. At that time the Twenty-second was stationed at Fort Slocum, on Davids Island in the Sound. This island lies about a mile from the New York main shore, on a line with New Rochelle, about a mile and a half from Travers Island, the country home of the New York Athletic Club, and perhaps three miles from Larchmont, where is located the clubhouse of the Larchmont Yacht Club. During the war many dances were held at the yacht clubhouse, which were always attended in full force by the officers of the regiment, dancing being about the only recreation.
A constant attendant at these dances, it seems, was a private of one of the companies, notwithstanding that leave of absence was never accorded him. As he was punctually on hand every morning for roll call, however, no particular thought was given to the matter, except some wonder as to how he made his way to the mainland. The only communication between Davids Island and the New York shore was by means of a government tug , stationed there for that purpose, and he certainly did not use that, for this was the boat that carried the officers to Larchmont whenever the dances took place.
But there he would be as regularly as the affairs came around, in all the glory of his white duck trousers and blue yachting cap, having in some equally mysterious way doffed his soldier rig, which was another source of speculation, as nothing but the regulation uniform was allowed the private soldiers, and there was no way in which such clothes could be smuggled to the island.
Now the captain of the company of which the private was a member was quite attentive to the daughter of a certain resident of Larchmont. She was very pretty and attractive -- in fact, the belle of that section. She, however, didn’t seem to appreciate these attentions very highly. On the contrary, her interest was in quite another direction. In the direction, to come to the point, of he enterprising private, whose position, it is unnecessary to state, was every bit as good in civil life as that of his captain, but who, by the fortune of war and by the rules governing the relations of officer and private, was rated very much inferior in the army.
The fact that the young woman preferred the private soon made itself evident to the captain, who was, as one might easily imagine, none too well pleased with the knowledge. Hitherto, he had given the private’s unlooked for and unsanctioned presence at the dances no consideration, but now there was certainly occasion for an investigation, and the captain sternly resolved that such a breach of discipline would have to be attended to.
The big dance of the season, the event of the yachting year, was to be held in a few days. Everybody had been invited, and all looked forward to a great time. The captain asked the young woman for the honor of being her escort on this occasion, and was informed that she was awfully sorry, but she had promised Mr. W. that pleasure, mentioning the name of the private soldier.
When the private came to the officer for leave of absence on that night he was curtly refused.
“But, captain,” pleaded the unfortunate, “I have already asked a young lady to go with me, and what will she think of me when I fail to put in an appearance?”
This appeal in no wise weakened the captain’s determination or awakened any sympathy for his inferior’s predicament. At last, seeing that further remonstrance would have the same result, the private apparently gave up in despair and left his superior’s presence.
A court-martial was the inevitable result of leaving the island without permission, which might have had serious results, as the country was really in a state of war, and army officers at such times are pretty apt to punish severely such a violation of the regulations.
Everything was aglow with life and merriment at the yacht clubhouse that night, and a large crowd was lined up on either side of the main entrance, when, to the surprise of all, along came the private with the belle on his arm! With face beaming with pride and satisfaction he bowed right and left in answer to the salutes of their many friends until he came to a gauntlet of the officers of the Twenty-second. These he coolly saluted, as if the fact of his being there were the most natural thing in the world. But the captain’s face was a picture. Vexation, amazement, and exasperation, all were plainly expressed there. Could this be the fellow he imagined to himself as moping disconsolately somewhere about the fort, mournfully gazing in the direction of Larchmont? These expressions, however, finally gave way to one that boded ill for the private, who, with the young woman, was now joyously gliding through a waltz with a look of pleasure on his face that indicated anything but apprehension as to what the morrow might bring.
At last, like all periods of joy, the dance came to an end. Among the last of the guests to depart were the army officers. A number of the Larchmont couples accompanied the officers down to the clubhouse landing stage to see them aboard the boat which was to take them back to the island. Among these couples were the belle and the private, around whose head trouble seemed about to break. But he joined in the merriment of the party so heartily that it would be hard to imagine that he would soon be the victim of a court-martial. Gaily waving their farewells to the receding officers, among whom stood the captain with a look on his face as he glared at the private which seemed to say: “Well, I’ve got you at last, and I’ll make you dance to a different tune,” the party retraced their steps toward the clubhouse. As soon as they were out of sight of the officers the careless attitude of the young private changed like a flash. Now was the time for action, or he was in for it. Hurriedly telling the young lady that he was forced to ask her to allow her brother to see her home, to which she consented, for she had entered into the lark as gladly as himself, he made a dash for the clubhouse gate.
The tug bearing the officers landed at Davids Island about fifteen minutes before roll call that morning, and the captain made it his business to be present, although as a rule he was absent. He was sure that by no possible chance could the young private have reached the fort this time, and his face lit up with a grim pleasure as his eyes ran rapidly over the faces in the front rank and the features of his rival were not visible. The different names were called in alphabetical order until at last the Sergeant cried “W---!”
“Here!” came the answer.
“Where’s W---?” said the captain, peering incredulously over the front rank.
“Here!” repeated the private from the rear.
“W---, step two paces to the front,” commanded the captain.
And the private broke through the front rank and saluted his astonished superior, whose face plainly said:
“Well, I’ll be damned!”
A year or so later the captain joined the New York Athletic Club and he and his former private met in the café one night. Finally the captain said:
“W---, there’s one thing that’s always puzzled me ---“
“And I know just what you are going to ask,” interrupted W---.
“How the devil did you get back to the island that morning?”
“Well, it happened in this way,” W--- replied. “I was a member of the New York Athletic Club, and being a good swimmer, each night of the dances I used to swim the mile and a half to our boathouse. There in a locker I kept my yachting outfit. After donning this I would mount a bicycle, which I always had on hand, and then ride up to Larchmont. On the night of the big dance, as soon as the tug with the officers aboard left for the yacht clubhouse, I jumped into the water, and, aided by a swiftly running tide, soon reached the boathouse. Hastily throwing on my shore rig, I mounted my wheel and pedaled to the house of Miss ---, I trundled the wheel along as we walked to the clubhouse, and left it at the gate which opens into the grounds.
“After you left for the island on the morning after the dance, I ran for the gate, mounted the bicycle, and fairly burned up the road to Travers Island. Without delay I shook off my clothes, donned my bathing suit and once more assisted by a friendly tide, which I had studied out beforehand, soon swam to the fort. My feet had no sooner touched the bottom at Davids Island than the bugle sounded the reveille. Dashing over to my tent , I threw on my uniform, and as the men lined up for roll call just had time to step into the rear, though my usual place was in the front rank.”
Contrary to the usual romance, however, neither one got the girl, for she later became the bride of a handsome young Southerner.
"How the Private Fooled the Captain," Washington Post. August 21, 1904, p. 5