Old Ring

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In the portfolio of Civil War photographs that ran in our June/July 1981 issue, we identified Colonel Joseph Plympton, on page 50, as a Northerner—which was true enough. What wasn’t true was the implication that he’d served in the Civil War. Colonel Jack Rudolph, who wrote the article on Yorktown which we ran in the October/November issue and who knows his military history, tells us that Colonel Plympton “didn’t have anything to do with the Civil War, having died in June, 1860.”

A regular who joined the army in 1812, Plympton served in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. He was apparently pretty tough: “His nickname,” says Colonel Rudolph, “was ‘Old Ring/ derived from a cute little punishment he used: a soldier awarded garrison punishment had to chop wood with an axe that had a sliding metal ring on the handle. Every time he swung it, the ring slid down and whacked him on the hands. Since he was chained to the axe handle, he couldn’t drop it.

“But although he didn’t live to see the Civil War, Plympton may have had a hand in starting it. As a captain in the 5th Infantry during the autumn of 1837, he took command of Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Shortly after his arrival he was attracted to the parade ground one afternoon by a sudden uproar. There he found a badly frightened post supply officer—a little guy—fleeing for his life with the post surgeon in hot pursuit and waving a brace of horse pistols and roaring at his prospective target to stand and take it like a man.

“Plympton halted the chase and, as the quartermaster cowered behind him, demanded an explanation. A few minutes earlier the surgeon had come upon the supply officer delivering sheetmetal stoves to the officers’ quarters and requested an extra one for his black man servant. The stock QM reply (none available for extra issue) being the answer, one word led to another until the doctor called the other a liar. Despite the disparity in size—the medic was a big, tall man—the QM punched him in the snoot. Returning to his quarters, the infuriated surgeon grabbed his pistols and went hunting for the now thoroughly scared supply officer.

“The affair blew over after much excited talk of a duel and the departure of the surgeon to St. Louis. He was Dr. John Emerson, and the servant over whom the fight started was his slave, Dred Scott. The latter’s plea in the celebrated case twenty years later was based on his stay at Snelling while Emerson served there with the 5th Infantry.”