The Toothbrush (Examiner Part VII)

Published:May 20, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

We’ve finally arrived at the sixth and final column of the May 17, 1864, edition of the Daily Richmond Examiner [pdf]. All right, actually we’re at the end of the fifth column, where the editors are passing along news of a “Yankee dog” calling himself Major Hogan who has claimed responsibility for firing the shot that brought down the most “gallant” General Stuart at the Battle of Yellow Tavern a few days earlier. Worse, perhaps, than his ugly boast were the “kindred mastiffs” who complimented him on it.

“Hogan claims to be the slayer of the Confederate lion,” the Examiner writes, “the shaking of whose mane and angry roar kept the jackall North in a perpetual terrour. True to their cowardly instinct, they feared him living, but insult him dead, by honouring his assassin.”

The editors then quote a couple lines of poetry, but you get the idea.

What follows, then, is a “Tragical Affair in North Carolina”—the story of another unfortunate shot. And is it too strange a coincidence that its protagonist, a soldier in the 17th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, should be named Hogans?

Well, regardless, this Hogans “was traveling home on foot, musket in hand by moonlight” when “he was startled by the sight of a dark object, like a bear,” drinking from the river. From about seventy yards, Hogans cautiously approached, his gun cocked. Then he “fired with deadly aim. The animal fell and struggled convulsively on the ground.” When a farmer came to his aid bearing an axe they found “to their horrified eyes the body of a soldier, weltering in his blood, quite dead!”

This is dramatic enough, but nothing can prepare you for the image that follows: “The right hand of the corpse tightly clasped a toothbrush, which no doubt he was using when the fatal ball took effect.”

A toothbrush!

This is the work of a novelist, not a newspaper reporter. And I say that as much for the juxtaposition of these two narratives as for that lovely, lovely toothbrush. In the first, Major Hogan carries out his deadly duty in the rain and muck of battle and is demonized for it. He is a “dog” who treated our gallantly gallant General Stuart no better than a trophy from the hunt. Soldier Hogans, by contrast, kills what he believes to be wild game only to discover, to his horror, that it was no such thing.

In other words, when killing is the order of the day, we are all debased. And as none of us is safe, perhaps the best we can do is keep our teeth clean …


IMAGE: Edge of a Wood by Vincent Van Gogh