The school of the soldier
Fenwick Y. Hedley, Brevet Captain United States Volunteers, and Adjutant, Thirty-second, Illinois Infantry
Veterans already in 1861
These drummer-boys of the Eighth Regiment of the National Guard of the State of New York were photographed in the '50s, wearing their Mexican War uniforms.
The boys of this regiment went to the front in these same uniforms and marched throughout the war.|
The American volunteer of 1861-65 never before had his like, or ever will again.
He was of only the third generation from the Revolutionary War
, and the first after the Mexican War
, and he had personal acquaintance with men who had fought in each.
Besides, a consideration of much meaning, he was brought up in a day when school declamation was practised, and once a week he had spoken or heard Patrick Henry
's ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ Webster
's ‘Reply to Hayne
,’ ‘The Battle of Buena Vista
,’ ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ ‘The boy stood on the burning deck,’ and the like.
So it was, when Lincoln
called him, he responded with a heart intensely patriotic and aflame with military ardor, and he proved marvelously adaptable as a soldier.
At the outset and occasionally afterward, many young men went into service in companies and regiments of militia.
A few were well drilled, the greater number indifferently.
These were but a sprinkling in the great mass of volunteers, who were without such experience, and came fresh from farms, workshops, stores, and schools.
But most of them had been members of the uniformed clubs in the exciting political campaign of 1861, and were fairly proficient in ordinary marching movements and handling torchsticks in semi-military fashion, which proved of advantage to them in entering upon a soldier's life.
Usually for a few weeks before taking the field, the embryo soldiers lay in camps of instruction.
Probably in every regiment were some veterans who had seen service in the Mexican
A time-stained photograph of the fifties officers and non–commissioned officers company ‘F,’ eighth New York
These officers of the Eighth New York are garbed in the same uniforms that they wore to the Mexican War. This and the hotly contested political campaign of 1861 served as the two great ‘drill-masters’ of the Federal recruits at the outset of the war. A few of them were indifferently drilled through their connection with regiments of militia, but these were but a sprinkling in the great mass that thronged from the farms, the workshops, and the schools.
Most of these had marched as members of the uniformed clubs in the exciting political campaign of 1861, and were fairly proficient in ordinary movements and in handling torch-sticks instead of rifles.
Probably in every quota there were some men who had seen service in the Mexican War or in the militia.
They had become accustomed to military systems now obsolete, but their training enabled them to speedily put off the old and put on the new, and they often proved highly capable drill-masters.|
War or in the militia.
They had been accustomed to military systems now obsolete, but their training enabled them to speedily put off the old and put on the new, and they proved fairly capable drillmasters.
It was days, often weeks, before uniforms were provided, and entire battalions performed their evolutions in their civilian clothes, of all cuts and hues.
Longer were they without arms.
The sentries, or Camp guards, walked their beats day or night with clubs.
At the regimental headquarters were a score or two of ‘condemned’ muskets which were utilized all day long by alternating squads of non-commissioned officers, practising the manual of arms in preparation for instructing the men.
Now armed and equipped, the men were industriously drilled, by squads, by companies, and by battalions, six to eight hours a day. There were awkwardness and blundering; sergeants would march their platoons, and captains, their companies, by the right instead of by the left flank, or vice versa
to the destruction of a column or square, necessitating reformation and repetition of the movement, sometimes again and again.
But, on the whole, the men progressed well, and soon performed ordinary evolutions with creditable approach to soldierlike exactness.
The greatest stress was laid upon the use of the musket, and this was the young soldier's severest experience.
To begin with, the arms were old muzzle-loaders—muskets of Mexican War days, altered from flint-lock to percussion, or obsolete Austrian
or Belgian guns, heavy and clumsy.
The manual of arms, as laid down in the text-book of the time, Hardee
's ‘School of the Soldier,’ was complicated and wearisome.
In particular, the operation of loading and firing involved numerous counted ‘motions’—handling the cartridge (from the cartridge-box), biting off its end, inserting it in the gun-barrel, drawing the ramrod, ramming the cartridge home, returning the ramrod, and placing the percussion cap upon the
This feat (or series of feats) required much practice.
The musket was to rest upon the ground, immediately in front of the soldier, and exactly perpendicular.
Its excessive length made it impossible for a short man to draw and return his ramrod in precise manner, and, in either act, he frequently interfered with the man upon his right, breaking the symmetry of the movement, and provoking language forbidden by the ‘Articles of War.’
Further, the men were diligently drilled in firing—by file and by company, to the front, to the right oblique, to the left oblique, and to the rear.
But most awkward and wearisome of all was the bayonet exercise, requiring acrobatic agility, while the great length of the musket and fixed bayonet rendered the weapon almost impracticable except in the hands of one above the average stature.
As a matter of fact, all of the accomplishments thus particularized—methods of loading and firing, and bayonet exercise—fell into disuse with entrance upon actual field-service, as having no practical worth.
With such preparation and such equipment, the soldiers marched to their first battle.
The experience of a single regiment was that of thousands.
The drums sound the ‘long roll,’ or the bugle ‘the assembly,’ and companies form and march to the regimental color-line.
A few moments later the regiment marches forward until the first scattering fire of the foe is received.
Sometimes the antagonists are visible; often but few are seen, but their presence is known by the outburst of flame and smoke from a fringe of forest.
The regiment forms in line of battle, and at the word of command from the colonel, passed from company to company, opens fire.
No thought now of manual of arms, but only of celerity of movement and rapidity of fire.
Shouted a gallant officer who at home (as he was in the field, the war through) an exemplary Christian gentleman, ‘Load as fast as you can, and give them the devil!’
The battle is now on in earnest, and the discharge of thousands of muskets becomes a roar.
The range is not more than two hundred
The volunteer's teachers—class of 1860, United States military academy in the field, 1862
The men who founded the United States Military Academy in 1802 little thought that, three-score years later, hundreds of the best-trained military men in America would go forth from its portals to take up the sword against one another.
Nine of the forty-one men who were graduated from West Point in 1860 joined the Confederate army.
The men of this class and that of 1861 became the drill-masters, and in many cases the famous leaders, of the Federal and Confederate armies.
The cadet who stood third at graduation in 1860 was Horace Porter.
He became second-lieutenant, lieutenant-colonel three years later, and brigadier-general at the close of the war. He received the Congressional medal of honor for gallantry at Chickamauga, and later gained great honor as ambassador to France.
Two other members, James H. Wilson and Wesley Merritt, fought their way to the top as cavalry leaders.
Both again were found at the front in the Spanish-American War. The former was chief of the Cavalry Bureau in 1864 and commanded the assault and capture of Selma and Montgomery, Ala. He was major-general of volunteers in the Spanish-American War, commanded the column of British and American troops in the advance on Peking, and represented the United States army at the coronation of King Edward VII of England.
General Wesley Merritt earned six successive promotions for gallantry as a cavalry leader—at Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern, Hawe's Shop, Five Forks, and other engagements—and was one of the three Union leaders to arrange for the surrender at Appomattox.
He participated in several Indian campaigns, commanded the American troops in the Philippines, and was summoned from there to the aid of the American Peace Commission, in session in Paris.|
yards—sufficient for antiquated weapons carrying a nearly three-quarter-inch ball and three buckshot.
It may be here remarked that early in 1862 practically all the obsolete muskets were replaced with Springfield
or Enfield rifles, the former of American, the latter of English make, and the best of their day. They were shorter and lighter than the discarded arms, well balanced, and of greater efficiency, carrying an elongated ball of the minie pattern, caliber .58, with a range of a thousand yards.
At times the regiment shifts its position, to right or left, sometimes diminishing the distance.
During much of the time the men experience heavy artillery as well as musketry fire.
At the outset a lad threw away a pack of cards, saying, ‘I don't know they would bring me any bad luck, but I wouldn't want to be killed and have them found in my pocket, and mother hear of it.’
He lived the war through, but never again so disburdened himself.
A grape-shot tore off the end of a lad's gun as he was capping it. He finished the operation, discharged his weapon, and recovered it for reloading, to find that, while the ragged muzzle would receive the powder, it would not admit the ball.
‘Don't that beat the devil,’ he exclaimed—his very first use of language he was taught to abhor.
On the instant he had grasped another gun from the hands of a comrade by his side.
A youth, in a regiment which had lost nearly half its men, his ammunition exhausted, fell back into a ravine where the wounded had crawled, to replenish from their cartridge boxes.
Returning, he saw so few of his comrades that he thought the regiment gone, and started for the rear.
He came face to face with the colonel, who called out, ‘Where are you going?’
‘To find the regiment!’
‘Well, go to the front!
All that are left are there,’ said the colonel.
‘All right,’ responded the lad, and he again went into action.
The first battle was a great commencement which graduated both heroes and cowards.
A few, under the first fire,
ran away, and are only known on their company rolls as deserters.
An elbow comrade of the lad whose gun was shot away, as told of above, ran from the field, and died the next day, from sheer fright.
Men were known to fire their muskets into the ground, or skyward.
In various battles scores of muskets were found to contain a half-dozen or more charges, the soldier having loaded his gun again and again without discharging it, and many a tree in Southern forests held a ramrod which had been fired into it by some nervous soldier.
A great majority of those who had demonstrated their worthlessness, soon left the service, usually under a surgeon's certificate of disability, for they were generally so lacking in pride as to be unconformable to health-preserving habits.
There were, however, some who fell short at first, but eventually proved themselves good soldiers, and the great majority of volunteers were pluck personified.
A soldier who saw the war through from beginning to end has said that he knew only two men who actually enjoyed a battle.
The majority held to their place in the line from duty and pride.
Except among the sharpshooters, charged with such a duty as picking off artillerists or signalmen, few soldiers have knowledge that they ever actually killed a man in battle, and are well satisfied with their ignorance.
More than thirty years after the war, an Illinoisan went into the heart of Arkansas
to bury a favorite sister.
After the funeral service, in personal conversation with the attending minister, Northerner and Southerner discovered that, in one of the fiercest battles of the first war year, their respective regiments had fought each other all day long; that they were similarly engaged in the severest battle of the Atlanta campaign
, and finally in the last battle in North Carolina
, in 1865; also that, in the first of these, as determined by landmarks recognized by each, the two men had probably been firing directly at each other.
These past incidents, with the pathos of the present meeting, cemented a lasting friendship.