John Harwood Pierce
Biography: Part 2 1860 to 1876
Civil War. As a child of 14, John enlisted in the 11th
Illinois Volunteer Cavalry to fight the Civil War. He enlisted three
times and was rejected twice because of his youth. He served on the line
Ingersoll's famous Civil War regiment. He may be one of the youngest
veterans in the country who served in this capacity; typically most
young enlistees served as musicians. He was discharged December 2, 1864,
but reenlisted in the U.S. Veterans Volunteer Infantry where he served
until June 25, 1865. As he began his Civil War service, John was still
growing. At the time, he was listed as a blue-eyed, brown-haired young
man with a height of only 5 feet, 3/4 inch. Later, as he aged into
adulthood, he gained another 8 inches in height.
Below is a transcript of the Adjutant General's Report in the 11th
Illinois Cavalry Regiment History for the period during which John
served in this regiment.
The Regiment left Vicksburg about the last of March for
home, on a Veteran furlough of 30 days and again returned to
Vicksburg, Miss.; were engaged in scouting through the spring and
summer, destroyed the R.R. track north of Jackson,
Miss., for a long distance and burned all bridges of any size. At this
time, they were with Gen. Osburn, and were in the
fight at Yazoo City, in July 1864, where they co-operated with Elliot's
Marine Brigade to relieve Col. Coats, with the
Eleventh Infantry, who was besieged in that city by the rebels under
Gen. Wirt Adams. Late in the fall of '64 the
Regiment left Vicksburg on boats, and landed at a point on the east bank
of the river, 50 miles below. Marched first in
an easterly direction, and by a circuitous route reached Natchez, where
the Brigade embarked on boats, and landing a
few miles above Baton Rouge, marched rapidly east and north. Engaged in
a fight at Woodville, La., in which a Battery
of 6 guns was captured and about 100 prisoners. Marched to Mississippi
River with guns and prisoners, and from there
to Natchez, then embarked on boats and landed at Vicksburg, and a short
time afterward left in boats for Memphis,
Tenn. Here the non-Veterans and most of the officers were mustered out.
[NOTE: Evidently, there were two John H. Pierces in the
11th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry: John Harwood Pierce and John Hassett
Pierce. See this supporting
In his autobiographical poem, A
Ranger's Biography, John writes about his years as a Civil War
soldier as follows:
- What sounds are these I hear?
- The cannon speaks!
- Louder, nearer, yet more near,
- And now Columbia shrieks,
- And calls to arms her sons.
- Sires of Revolutionary fame
- Spoke to my soul.
- And I essayed to place my name
- Upon the roll.
- And be a soldier in the ranks.
- And then they looked upon my slender form
- And asked my age,
- Then turned away and said the storm
- Of battle must not rage
- Around such little boys.
- But now the wreck of bloody fields
- Is borne on every train
- And every daily paper yields
- Each page to one sad strain
- Of woe and wounds and death.
- And yet again, and still once more,
- I stood rejected.
- Then Captain Moffatt's open door,
- And field white tented
- Gave welcome call to me.
- Poncho-roll, carbine, sabers, haversack, revolvers, and canteen
- With very little boy
- Rations, ammunitions, water, spurs and fifty things I seen,
- All ready to destroy
- Jeff Davis and his army.
- And why so seed the field of strife?
- Ah man is savage,
- And war is dear to him as life;
- He recks not of the ravage
- The dragon's teeth can make.
- And in our cause I saw the right,
- The slaves glad jubilee,
- The first faint dawning of the light
- That was to make them free,
- As God ordained.
- Closely we struggled life for life,
- The boys fell thick and fast.
- Moffatt, Dature, Weaver, Fyfe
- Scores from our hundred passed
- Into their rest.
- We struggled o'er the rights of men,
- For liberty and light
- And now we see what man saw when
- Old Israel's flight
- Was guided by the hand of God.
- How proudly through the Red Sea waves
- Our nation came;
- While slavery found a crimson grave
- And treason the same
- In that dark tide.
Served as a Spy in Woman's Clothing In his later years, when John was a
lecturer and showman, he often spoke
to audiences about his days as a 14-year-old Civil War soldier. One
story which occurs frequently in his papers, is that dealing with the
time he served as a spy. Evidently, he was so young and small that his
commanding officers felt they could dress him up to look like a
respectable young woman. Thus, he was ordered to dress as a girl, and
sent out to spy. As you can imagine, some interesting events occurred!
Sometime much later in his life, when John had access to a typewriter,
he wrote down the full story of his forays as a spy. Three carbon copies
were among his papers. A full transcript of this marvelous story, The Spy, is linked to this biography.
It is well worth reading! No doubt in later years, he entertained
audiences countless times with the retelling of this story. The
five-page typed manuscript ends with these words:
The spy was John H. Pierce, Co. "H" 11th
Illinois Cavalry, and the story is true in every
Served as a Prison Guard for Charles Morey. In 1919, John Harwood Pierce
happened upon a former Civil War friend of
his while visiting the newspaper offices of the Oakland Daily Post
(Oakland, California). More than half a century earlier, they had known
each other in a Civil War prison at Camp Douglas, Illinois. One was a
captive drummer boy of a Virginia regiment [Charles Morey], and the
other was a Yankee corporal [John H. Pierce] acting as prison gruard
while convalescing from a shell wound. The Virginia drummer boy was
Charles H. Morey, now a dashing 70-years-young movie actor from Los
Angeles, and familiar to millions of movie fans the world over as the
man who played the part of Robert E. Lee in the "Birth of a
Nation." A full transcript of the article
After 55 Years, together
with a photograph of the event, is linked to this biography. The
article is both amusing and interesting. It gives further insight into
John's engaging personality as well as some brief additional information
about his days as a Civil War soldier.
Teaching and Wandering Years. After the War, John describes time
spent wandering in the Southern States. He speaks of teaching the slaves
to read. But his efforts to help the freed slaves were discoverd by the
local Klu Klux Klan, and he was run out of town on fear of death. He
also describes years spent wandering and adventure-seeking. Apparently,
he supported himself by freelance writing, talking plainly about what it
was like to live a life of adventure on the wild western frontiers of
- Far in the South where hangs the funeral moss
- Where walls have tears,
- And cypress, pine and live oak toss
- And moan their fears.
- Far in the South by fevered swamp
- And alligator's lair.
- Where Ebon Dinah and her dusky Pomp,
- Have gunnysacks to wear.
- Far down where reeds like bamboo grow,
- And serpents vile.
- Fill the dark waters of the foul bayou,
- Swimming in file.
- Down where the cutthroat pirate crews
- Started the towns
- And the witches froth their children's brews
- In coal black gowns.
- And there this ghastly Ku Klux Klan,
- Found me one night;
- For teaching, I was under the ban
- Of death or flight.
- I wandered then through many states
- Adventures seeking,
- A freelance, careless of the fates,
- And plain in speaking.
First Marriage & Birth of Edgar. At the age of 23, John married
Marie E. R. De Belisle. At the time of the marriage (November 22, 1871),
his bride was only 15 years old. John and Marie made their home in
The following year, John
and Marie had a son (b. 10/18/1872) whom they named Edgar B. Pierce.
Marie died the following year (3/24/1873) at the age of 17. Throughout
his long life, John never forgot the exact date of Marie's death.
Obviously this event was a profound tragedy that occurred early in his
In his autobiographical poem, A
Ranger's Biography, John writes about the death of his first
wife as follows:
- And next with bride so sweet and fair,
- A year went by.
- Death came, and touched her raven hair,
- "Don't cry so, John, don't cry."
[At another time, someone
wrote next to this:
"These were her dying words = the last on
- What need to tell the weary tale,
- Of sorrow's blight.
- Oh how I struggled, but to fail
- To reach the light.
- Sometimes the clouds dissolved
- And youth held sway,
- Life's problems must be solved.
- We soon turn grey.
John leaves no information concerning who raised Edgar following the
death of his mother. Most likely, Edgar's maternal grandparents took
him in and raised him to adulthood. Lovingly, John refers to his
first-born son in the dedication to
Ranger's Biography, "To Edgar, son, the six-foot man, may
angels guard his way." One can safely assume that John did not lose
track of his son, but saw him and wrote to him from time to time.
John reports in one of his pension application documents that his son
Edgar served eight years the U.S. Navy and that he died in the Navy at
Antioch, California as the result of a boiler explosion. This appears to have
ocurred in 1908 during either the Spanish or Samoan campaigns, when
Edgar was 36 years old. Among John's keepsakes was a card from the
cemetery were Edgar is buried. In John's handwriting, it shows the
exact location of his son's grave (Lot 47, Division 3, Section K) at
Cypress Lawn Cemetary, near San Francisco, California. One can assume
that John visited the grave on the day he wrote that location on the
and Wild West Poet. After Marie died, John spent many years
wandering on the wild western frontiers of America. First, he worked as
a hired hand on various ranches. In his autobiographical poem, A Ranger's Biography,
John writes about these years as follows:
- For years the boundless plains,
- The Rocky Mountains and the prairie
- O'er ranch steeds I drew the reins,
- Learned to be quick and wary.
Ranger of the Plains. In early 1876, when news of the
discovery of gold in the Black Hills
swept through the nation like a fever, the Omaha Bee sent two
paid journalists into the Black Hills to report on the events occurring
there. These two journalists were John Harwood Pierce, known as
Ranger, and John W. Crawford, known as Captain Jack
Crawford. During the months that followed, reports from these two
journalists fueled the fire which helped spark the famous Black Hills
gold rush. In turn, that gold rush caused the events leading up to the
famous Battle at Little Big Horn, the death of Colonel George A. Custer,
and eventually, the slow demise of the proud indian cultures of the
During these years, he served as a lieutenant colonel in the Moraska
cavalry, a regiment formed in Nebraska at the time of the Indian
uprising in the Black Hills, but one
which saw little active service. Thereafter, John referred to himself as
Colonel John Pierce. This appears to have been a common practice
among the Indian scouts. For example, Buffalo Bill, another Indian
scout, was commonly referred to as Colonel Cody. But, neither
Bill Cody nor John Harwood Pierce served as an officer in the U.S. Army.
He was a close friend and keen admirerer of Indian scout and poet, Jack
Crawford. A study of John Harwood Pierce's personal papers makes it
clear that he tried very hard to be a famous poet-scout like the
legendary Captain Jack.
In the Sunday, August 26, 1917, Oakland Tribune article referred to in
John explained how he...
...scouted on the plains for eight years, journeying from
place to place, anywhere where there was any fighting to be done, or
where frontiers were being raided, wherever there was need of a man who
knew the Indian tribes.
The Oakland Tribune interviewer described how he saw on John's wall in
his apartments, an autographed photograph of famous Wild West
poet-scout, Jack Crawford, also known as Captain Jack. The
photograph was described as showing a tall man with long flowing hair,
much like John kept his own hair throughout his life. The man was
surveying the Grand Canyon in Arizona. [The photograph described by the
interviewer, was not found among John's papers. The photography below is
a historical portrait of Jack Crawford.] The autograph said: "To my
old Pard and Comrade, John H. Pierce." Below the photograph, the
interviewer goes on to tell, was a poem that John had written earlier
that same year, when he heard that his "Old Pard," had died in
New York. The poem reads:
- Goodbye to Captain Jack.
- The only foe that ever gained
- Your conquest, has attained
- The victor's place in fight.
- I read you died last night.
- I stand alone, Wild Bill
- And Texas Jack. Buffalo Bill
- And California Joe, none that I
- Was wont to know
- To hold the trait, when I am called to go
- I stand alone, The Ranger of the Plains.
- Jack Crawford, poet-scout.
- So you are mustered out.
- Goodbye, old Captain Jack,
- I loved you, but I would not bring you back.
The Last of the Frontier Showmen. This poem is a very
telltale piece, revealing a deep truth about John's
personal self-image. He thought of himself as the last "to hold the
trait," the last of a dying breed of Wild West showmen--men like Wild Bill
California Joe, and
Buffalo Bill Cody. At the time he wrote this poem in 1917, John
Harwood Pierce knew he stood alone; he had outlived all the famous
frontier showmen. These were men that he had known personally, and men
whose lives he tried, in many ways, over many years, to copy and profit
from. In the poem, he says that he loved Captain Jack, but that "he
would not bring him back." Why? Because, he was deeply proud that
he had outlived them all--the last "to hold the trait!" He
knew very well that he had not attained the same level of fame as they
had, but he had survived them all! Thus, in the opening lines of the
poem, he brags that he, John Harwood Pierce, in living to be the sole
surviving poet-scout, was...
- The only foe that ever gained
- Your conquest, has attained
- The victor's place in fight.
Like Captain Jack, John tried to make a living as a poet, lecturer, and
showman. "Ranger of the Plains," or just " Ranger" for
short, was John Harwood Pierce's nom de plume--the name under
which he wrote his Wild West verse. He also use that name as his byline
while serving as a journalist for the Omaha Bee.
Click Part 3
here, or below, to continue this biography.