Romeo and Juliet of Co. D, 44th Massachusetts Volunteers: A Tragedy in Two Brief Acts

Soldiers of Company D of the 44th Massachusetts Volunteers were pleased to have a friendly dog and cat join their ranks while the regiment was training at Readville, Massachusetts, in October 1862. Writing under the pen name “Corporal,” Zenas T. Haines, a member of Company D and a journalist and correspondent for the Boston Herald newspaper, reported on the jolly reception the men gave to their new canine comrade, whom they named Romeo:

“In Barracks at Readville,
Saturday, Oct. 11, 1862.

 

“Your correspondent, and the other members of Company D, are indebted to Corporal Gardner for the introduction of a company dog — Romeo, a promising fellow, whose laughing countenance, waving tail, and general intelligence have already won him a host of friends. Several of the boys are industriously laboring to reconcile him to the society of a cat which has come to our barrack.”
Alas, the budding friendship between dog and cat—and the camaraderie of soldiers with their pets, as well–was cut short, first, by authoritarian decree, and then by treachery. Only a week after introducing Romeo, Haines reported his banishment from camp…followed by worse proceedings.

 

The regiment’s 1887 history summarizes the tragedy this way:

“Unfortunately, an order promulgated from headquarters sent ‘Romeo’ out of camp, and ‘Juliet,’ in despair, followed the example of her illustrious namesake; at least it was so supposed, as pussy died very suddenly the day following Romeo’s departure. One of the members of Company D was accused of murdering her, tried by court-martial, and convicted; but the evidence against the alleged culprit was far from conclusive.”

But Haines’s full report in 1863 gives us a true tale of crime and punishment.

“In barracks at Readville,
Saturday, October 18, 1862

“When in my last I made allusion to our company dog Romeo and his feline companion, we could not foresee the sad and sudden rupture of all the relations between us. On Sunday a fiat from headquarters sent Romeo out of camp; the succeeding night pussy departed this life. Did she die of grief at the loss of Romeo? No one can say; but general opinion inclines to catalepsy. Her little stiffened body was encoffined in a paper box, and placed in the centre of the barrack. A small American flag was thrown over it, and the boys gathering about the remains sung Pleyel’s Hymn with an appearance of solemnity that was altogether irresistible. The remains were then carefully placed upon an extemporized bier, and borne to the rear of the kitchen in the midst of a formidable guard of honor, marching with arms reversed, and chanting doleful symphonies. The weeping skies were in sympathy with the occasion; and the clouds were soon shedding tears upon the turf imprisoning the pet of the barrack. Imaginary volleys were fired, but all was not over. The funeral party had no sooner returned to the barrack than rumors of foul play began to circulate. A horrid secret was believed to be involved in the death of the cat. Suspicion fell upon a man whose bunk she had lately occupied, and who had been heard to utter threats against pussy for certain alleged rank offenses. The suspected party was arrested, a court organized, the defendant tried, convicted, and sentenced to subsist two days upon the rations. The unhappy man, anticipating his fate, made three desperate attempts to escape, but was foiled in each instance, and forced to submit to the decree of justice.”

We can only hope the “sentence” was carried out in full view of comrades enjoying delicacies sent by loved ones back home and patriotic residents of Readville. Now that would be just deserts.

Our cover illustration of Romeo and Juliet as we imagine them is based on an 1878 chromo-lithograph in the Library of Congress titled “Uncle Tobey and the widow / after F. Dielman.

See the original illustration here:  https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.14163/

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