Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book VI: Chapter I

The Marching Men Movement was never a thing to intellectualise. For years McGregor tried to get it under way by talking. He did not succeed. The rhythm and swing that was at the heart of the movement hung fire. The man passed through long periods of depression and had to drive himself forward. And then after the scene with Margaret and Edith in the Ormsby house came action.

There was a man named Mosby about whose figure the action for a time revolved. He was bartender for Neil Hunt, a notorious character of South State Street, and had once been a lieutenant in the army. Mosby was what in modern society is called a rascal. After West Point and a few years at some isolated army post he began to drink and one night during a debauch and when half crazed by the dullness of his life he shot a private through the shoulder. He was arrested and put on his honour not to escape but did escape. For years he drifted about the world a haggard cynical figure who got drunk whenever money came his way and who would do anything to break the monotony of existence.

Mosby was enthusiastic about the Marching Men idea. He saw in it an opportunity to worry and alarm his fellow men. He talked a union of bartenders and waiters to which he belonged into giving the idea a trial and in the morning they began to march up and down in the strip of parkland that faced the lake at the edge of the First Ward. "Keep your mouths shut," commanded Mosby. "We can worry the officials of this town like the devil if we work this right. When you are asked questions say nothing. If the police try to arrest us we will swear we are only doing it for the sake of exercise."

Mosby's plan worked. Within a week crowds began to gather in the morning to watch the Marching Men and the police started to make inquiry. Mosby was delighted. He threw up his job as bartender and recruited a motley company of young roughs whom he induced to practise the march step during the afternoons. When he was arrested and dragged into court McGregor acted as his lawyer and he was discharged. "I want to get these men out into the open," Mosby declared, looking very innocent and guileless. "You can see for yourself that waiters and bartenders get pale and stoop-shouldered at their work and as for these young roughs isn't it better for society to have them out there marching about than idling in bar rooms and planning God knows what mischief?"

A grin appeared over the face of the First Ward. McGregor and Mosby organised another company of marchers and a young man who had been a sergeant in a company of regulars was induced to help with the drilling. To the men themselves it was all a joke, a game that appealed to the mischievous boy in them. Everybody was curious and that gave the thing tang. They grinned as they marched up and down. For a while they exchanged gibes with the spectators but McGregor put a stop to that. "Be silent," he said, going about among the men during the rest periods. "That's the best thing to do. Be silent and attend to business and your marching will be ten times as effective."

The Marching Men Movement grew. A young Jewish newspaper man, half rascal, half poet, wrote a scare-head story for one of the Sunday papers announcing the birth of the Republic of Labour. The story was illustrated by a drawing showing McGregor leading a vast horde of men across an open plain toward a city whose tall chimneys belched forth clouds of smoke. Beside McGregor in the picture and arrayed in a gaudy uniform was Mosby the ex-army officer. In the article he was called the war lord of "The secret republic growing up within a great capitalistic empire."

It had begun to take form--the movement of the Marching Men. Rumours began to run here and there. There was a question in men's eyes. Slowly at first it began to rumble through their minds. There was the tap of feet clicking sharply on pavements. Groups formed, men laughed, the groups disappeared only to again reappear. In the sun before factory doors men stood talking, half understanding, beginning to sense the fact that there was something big in the wind.

At first the movement did not get anywhere with the ranks of labour. There would be a meeting, perhaps a series of meetings in one of the little halls where labourers gather to attend to the affairs of their unions. McGregor would speak. His voice harsh and commanding could be heard in the streets below. Merchants came out of the stores and stood in the doorways listening. Young fellows who smoked cigarettes stopped looking at passing girls and gathered in crowds below the open windows. The slow working brain of labour was being aroused.

After a time a few young men, fellows who worked at the saws in a box factory and others who ran machines in a factory where bicycles were made, volunteered to follow the lead of the men of the First Ward. On summer evenings they gathered in vacant lots and marched back and forth looking at their feet and laughing.

McGregor insisted upon the training. He never had any intention of letting his Marching Men Movement become merely a disorganised band of walkers such as we have all seen in many a labour parade. He meant that they should learn to march rhythmically, swinging along like veterans. He was determined that the thresh of feet should come finally to sing a great song, carrying the message of a powerful brotherhood into the hearts and brains of the marchers.

McGregor gave all of his time to the movement. He made a scant living by the practice of his profession but gave it no thought. The murder case had brought him other cases and he had taken a partner, a ferret- eyed little man who worked out the details of what cases came to the firm and collected the fees, half of which he gave to the partner who was intent upon something else. Day after day, week after week, month after month, McGregor went up and down the city, talking to workers, learning to talk, striving to make his idea understood.

One evening in September he stood in the shadow of a factory wall watching a group of men who marched in a vacant lot. The movement had become by that time really big. A flame burned in his heart at the thought of what it might become. It was growing dark and the clouds of dust raised by the feet of the men swept across the face of the departing sun. In the field before him marched some two hundred men, the largest company he had been able to get together. For a week they had stayed at the marching evening after evening and were beginning a little to understand the spirit of it. Their leader on the field, a tall square shouldered man, had once been a captain in the State Militia and now worked as engineer in a factory where soap was made. His commands rang out sharp and crisp on the evening air. "Fours right into line," he cried. The words were barked forth. The men straightened their shoulders and swung out vigorously. They had begun to enjoy the marching.

In the shadow of the factory wall McGregor moved uneasily about. He felt that this was the beginning, the real birth of his movement, that these men had really come out of the ranks of labour and that in the breasts of the marching figures there in the open space understanding was growing.

He muttered and walked back and forth. A young man, a reporter on one of the city's great daily papers, leaped from a passing street car and came to stand near him. "What's up here? What's this going on? What's it all about? You better tell me," he said.

In the dim light McGregor raised his fists above his head and talked aloud. "It's creeping in among them," he said. "The thing that can't be put into words is getting itself expressed. Something is being done here in this field. A new force is coming into the world."

Half beside himself McGregor ran up and down swinging his arms. Again turning to the reporter who stood by a factory wall--a rather dandified figure he was with a tiny moustache--he shouted:

"Don't you see?" he cried. His voice was harsh. "See how they march! They are finding out what I mean. They have caught the spirit of it!"

McGregor began to explain. He talked hurriedly, his words coming forth in short broken sentences. "For ages there has been talk of brotherhood. Always men have babbled of brotherhood. The words have meant nothing. The words and the talking have but bred a loose-jawed race. The jaws of men wabble about but the legs of these men do not wabble."

He again walked up and down, dragging the half-frightened man along the deepening shadow of the factory wall.

"You see it begins--now in this field it begins. The legs and the feet of men, hundreds of legs and feet make a kind of music. Presently there will be thousands, hundreds of thousands. For a time men will cease to be individuals. They will become a mass, a moving all- powerful mass. They will not put their thoughts into words but nevertheless there will be a thought growing up in them. They will of a sudden begin to realise that they are a part of something vast and mighty, a thing that moves, that is seeking new expression. They have been told of the power of labour but now, you see, they will become the power of labour."

Swept along by his own words and perhaps by something rhythmical in the moving mass of men McGregor became feverishly anxious that the dapper young man should understand. "Do you remember--when you were a boy--some man who had been a soldier telling you that the men who marched had to break step and go in a disorderly mob across a bridge because their orderly stride would have shaken the bridge to pieces?"

A shiver ran over the body of the young man. In his off hours he was a writer of plays and stories and his trained dramatic sense caught quickly the import of McGregor's words. Into his mind came a scene on a village street of his own place in Ohio. In fancy he saw the village fife and drum corps marching past. His mind recalled the swing and the cadence of the tune and again as when he was a boy his legs ached to run out among the men and go marching away.

Filled with excitement he began also to talk. "I see," he cried; "you think there is a thought in that, a big thought that men have not understood?"

On the field the men, becoming bolder as they became less self- conscious, came sweeping by, their bodies falling into a long swinging stride.

The young man pondered. "I see. I see. Every one who stood watching as I did when the fife and drum corps went past felt what I felt. They were hiding behind a mask. Their legs also tingled and the same wild militant thumping went on in their hearts. You have found that out, eh? You mean to lead labour that way?"

With open mouth the young man stared at the field and at the moving mass of men. He became oratorical in his thoughts. "Here is a big man," he muttered. "Here is a Napoleon, a Caesar of labour come to Chicago. He is not like the little leaders. His mind is not sicklied over with the pale cast of thought. He does not think that the big natural impulses of men are foolish and absurd. He has got hold of something here that will work. The world had better watch this man."

Half beside himself he walked up and down at the edge of the field, his body trembling.

Out of the ranks of the marching men came a workman. In the field words arose. A petulant quality came into the voice of the captain who gave commands. The newspaper man listened anxiously. "That's what will spoil everything. The men will begin to lose heart and will quit," he thought, leaning forward and waiting.

"I've worked all day and I can't march up and down here all night," complained the voice of the workman.

Past the shoulder of the young man went a, shadow. Before his eyes on the field, fronting the waiting ranks of men, stood McGregor. His fist shot out and the complaining workman crumpled to the ground.

"This is no time for words," said the harsh voice. "Get back in there. This is not a game. It's the beginning of men's realisation of themselves. Get in there and say nothing. If you can't march with us get out. The movement we have started can pay no attention to whimperers."

Among the ranks of men a cheer arose. By the factory wall the excited newspaper man danced up and down. At a word of command from the captain the line of marching men again swept down the field and he watched them with tears standing in his eyes. "It's going to work," he cried. "It's bound to work. At last a man has come to lead the men of labor."


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