Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The domned skillipins skeddaddle extinsively — extinsively, sir!”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 29, 2012

One of the great firsthand accounts of Texas troops in the Civil War is Val C. Giles’ Rags and Hope: Four Years with Hood’s Brigade, Fourth Texas Infantry, 1861-1865 (Mary Lasswell, ed.). The book was originally published in 1961, at the time of the Civil War Centennial, and (to my knowledge) has never been reprinted. Copies are hard to find, and correspondingly expensive. That’s a shame, because Giles’ narrative is poignant, vivid, and often very funny.

Giles’ account of Second Manassas shares much with that of his postwar friend and fellow 4th Texas veteran, Lawrence Daffan of Company G. It’s a harrowing description, and Giles (Company B) was much shaken by the carnage he saw around him within the regiment. That’s for a later time, though; for now, I want to follow-up Daffan’s dramatic description of Captain James Reilly’s Battery D of the 1st North Carolina Artillery with Giles’ description of the same event. As always, Giles (right, in a studio portrait taken in Austin at the time of his enlistment in 1861) has a keen ear for vivid characters and humorous spectacle:*

When I say the greatest battles of the world have been fought by the infantry, I don’t mean to reflect on the artillery or cavalry, or intimate that they have ever failed to do their duty. Stuart’s Cavalry was always vigilant. They were the eyes and ears of the army, and while the infantry slept, these gallant fellows were far away on the flanks, watching the enemy, guarding the fords, bridges and crossroads, escorting supply trains, and, for weeks at a time, fighting every day. During the war I used to think that the artillerymen were the bravest men on earth. They could pull through deeper mud, ford. deeper streams, shoot faster, swear louder, and stand more hard pounding than any other class of men in the service. . . .

Attached to the Texas Brigade was a fine battery of six Napoleon guns, commanded by Captain Reilly. Reilly had been an artillery sergeant in the old Army, and when the trouble began in 1861, he cast his lot with the Confederacy. He was an Irishman, rough, gruff, grizzly, and brave. He loved his profession and knew his business.

In this battle of Second Manassas, we witnessed a fine display of his skill and courage. General Hood instructed his colonels to halt their regiments when they reached Young Branch, which ran parallel with our line of battle, but when the Brigade reached the branch, the enemy was falling back, all along the line, and many of our field officers were killed or wounded. Colonel J. B. Robertson, Lieutenant Colonel J. C. Upton, Major Bryant, Captain J. D. Roberdeau, and Adjutant Campbell Woods of the Fifth Texas Regiment had all fallen before they reached the branch. The regiment was left without field officers, so the men pressed over the Zouaves, across the stream, and up the hill beyond.

Lieutenant Colonel [S. Z.] Ruff, Majors [John C.] Griffis, [John B.] O’Neill, [D. L.] Jarrett, and [Joel C.] Roper of the Eighteenth Georgia had gone down. Majors [William P.] Townsend, [D. U.] Barziza, and [James T.] Hunter of the Fourth had also fallen. Colonel [William T.] Wofford of the Eighteenth Georgia, Colonel [Benjamin F.] Carter of the Fourth Texas, Lieutenant Colonel P. A. Work of the First Texas, and Colonel [W. M.] Gary of Hampton’s South Carolina Legion finally succeeded in checking our men and bringing them back under the crest of the hill.

It was then that “Old Tarantula,” Captain Reilly, made his appearance on the field. He turned a point of timber to our left and came toward us in a sweeping run. Every horse in the battery carried a rider and the caissons and gun carriages were covered with red caps holding on like monkeys as they thundered over gullies, rocks, even over dead and wounded soldiers.

“Old Tarantula” rode fifty yards in front of his battery. He hurriedly selected an elevation, and at the wave of his hand, the guns were whirled into position and every artilleryman appeared to hit the ground at once. He threw his field glass to his eye, swept the horizon at one glance, then sang out: “Six hundred yards — shrapnel!”’

The guns bellowed and roared, the shells passing ten feet over our heads. Many of .the men sprang to the top of the hill to see the effect of Reilly’s shells. He was accurate in distance, for every shell exploded right in the midst of the confused and retreating enemy. He sat on his horse, calmly giving his commands, increasing the distance as the broken columns retired.

Major [William] Harvey Sellers, General Hood’s Assistant Adjutant General, rode up to the battery on his wounded gray horse to deliver some order. Old Reilly greeted him with a grand flourish and gleefully said, pointing in the direction of the bursting shells, “See, Major, see! The domned skillipins skeddaddle extinsively — extinsively, sir!”

I have no idea what “skillipins” is a phonetic spelling of, but they skeddaddled — extinsively!

___________________________

* I’ve corrected spellings of proper names without further note. Image: Reilly’s Battery in action at Gettysburg, by Dale Gallon.

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5 Responses

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  1. theravenspoke said, on August 29, 2012 at 12:12 am

    Now that’s cinematic.

  2. Reed said, on August 30, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I found one other 19th-century use of “skillipins” in Google books, in the novel “Why Did He Wed Her?” by the prolific and once popular Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte (E.D.E.N) Southworth (1819 –1899). She was, says Wikipedia, “an American writer of more than 60 novels in the latter part of the 19th century. She was probably the most widely read author of that era…Most of Southworth’s novels deal with the Southern United States during the post-American Civil War era. She wrote over sixty; some of them were translated into German, French, Chinese and Spanish; in 1872 an edition of thirty-five volumes was published in Philadelphia.”

    Here’s the excerpt, from page 298. Like our friend Capt. Reilly, “skillipins” appears in a bit of Irish-American dialect:

    “And Mike stooped and kissed her, and asked her how Ran was getting on.

    “Half crazy wid the faver ye raised on him wid your gashly talk av murthered min, and skulls and skillipins!” (This is followed by more dialog about finding bone and ashes and the “cimitiry.” Quite the picaresque mystery, apparently.)

    So I’d translate the key sentence as: Half crazy with the fever you raised in him with your ghastly talk of murdered men, and skulls and skeletons!”

    So, skillipins = skeletons? Seems about right to me. Wha’ d’ya tink?

    • Andy Hall said, on August 30, 2012 at 11:07 am


      D’oh! (That’s modern American dialect, BTW.)

      skillipins = skeletons?

      Yeah, that sounds just about right. Well done, thanks very much!

  3. Damian Shiels said, on September 1, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Hey Andy, another great post on Reilly! Like Reed I have been fascinated by the use of ‘skillipins’ and have been looking to see can I find any Hiberno-English origin for it. I wondered initially was it a variation of ‘spalpeen’, a Hiberno-English word in common usage up to quite recently which meant a rascal, its origins are in the Irish ‘spailpín’ which was an itinerant laborer. Another alternative (and perhaps more likely) is the Hiberno-English ‘sculpin’ which was used particularly in the province of Ulster for an unruly boy or teenager. There is a recording here discussing it (http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/recordings/group/foyle-limavady.shtml). As I have yet to explore Reilly as fully as I intend to I don’t know his county of origin, although Reilly is a name associated with Cavan in Ulster so there may be a link there. It may be that it follows the Southworth reference, but some interesting possibilities nonetheless!

    • Andy Hall said, on September 1, 2012 at 9:02 am

      Damian, thanks for this.

      I though about the word being a variation of “sculpin,” but not knowing the local (Ulster) use of it, did not think that it made sense. It does fit a little better knowing that.


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