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Chapter 8: the encampment.

Many circumstances tended to make our camp on Arlington Heights an ideal one. We well knew that its material existence was to be brief; but its image in thought was to hold for us the traces of momentous history and to remain the most visible token of the probation under which our personal characters had been moulded. We took therefore a certain pride in this last encampment; we looked upon this as the graduation day of our Alma Mater. The disturbing incidents which had forbidden us ever to make a perfect camp were now overpassed, and it afforded some satisfaction to show that we had kept alive a scientific knowledge and skill we had never fairly put into practice, and cherished ideals of soldierly living, which though never projected on the earthly plane, may have somehow left an indwelling impress in our characters.

There was now an abundance of camp equipage. Tents were distributed and established in accordance with ideal regulations. And the extensive preparations for final accounting and muster-out [319] justified an extra number of great hospital tents for crowding clerical work. These were a convenience and incentive for social gatherings at hours so disposable. We had many visitors also, to whom we were glad to show civil and military courtesies.

To increase the magnitude and also the complications of this gathering, Sherman's army came up on the 20th of May and encamped on the same side of the river but lower down towards Alexandria,--a situation not so conspicuous nor otherwise desirable as ours, a circumstance which had place in some further incidents of the field in the War for the Union. These troops were not the whole of Sherman's great Army of the West. The part of it which he brought here comprised many high names and titles, as well as stalwart men: the old Army of the Tennessee (once McPherson's, later Howard's, now under Logan), composed of the Fifteenth Corps, Hazen commanding (Sherman's old corps), and the Seventeenth Corps under Blair, together with the Army of Georgia, commanded now by Slocum, composed of the Fourteenth Corps (part of Thomas' old Army of the Cumberland), now under Davis, and the Twentieth Corps under Mower,--this latter composed of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps of the Army of the Potomac sent to Sherman after Gettysburg, with Howard and Slocum. That part of Sherman's old army known as the Army of the Ohio, now commanded by Schofield, and made up of the Twenty-third Corps under Cox and the [320] Tenth Corps under Terry,--of Fort Fisher fame,was not brought to this encampment.

The fame of these men excited our curiosity and wish to know them better. Although not much interchange of visiting was allowed, we started out with very pleasant relations,--which unfortunately not being very deep-rooted soon withered. Still we admired them at a distance, and had it in our own hands to keep up that kind of a friendship. I am speaking now for our men of the rank and file, whose good nature would stand a good deal.

Within our own camp things were harmonious and more than that. The Second and Fifth Corps grew nearer and dearer to each other. One pleasing incident in my command may be worthy of record. The officers of my division desired to present to Major-General Griffin, our corps commander, a worthy token of the deep regard in which he was held in this division so honorably known as his in the last campaign, and with which he had been conspicuously associated since the heroic days of Fitz-John Porter. A Maltese cross was decided on as the basis for this memorial, and the design for it being entrusted to me by the committee in charge, was sent to Tiffany of New York for execution. It was our battle flag in miniature,the Red Maltese cross on a white field, the colors enameled on a gold ground, the cross bordered with small diamonds, and in the center a diamond worth a thousand dollars.

Orders were now out for the grand review of our [321] army on the 23d of May, and we decided to hold our presentation ceremonies on the evening before this, when so many old comrades and distinguished visitors were near by to join us. It is needless to say everything was ordered on a scale worthy of such occasion. Four large hospital tents were put together cathedral-like for our service, and clusters of smaller tents were grouped around, like chapels, to serve as offices and dressing-rooms. It had not the magnificence of array and grandeur of titled personages of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but the sentiment and soul that animated the greeting and farewell were of a fellowship more than royal. Beauty and chivalry were not lacking; nobility of soul made high presence. Soft summer airs were stirring all things to tremulous pulse. The scene without enwrapped our senses, and that within thrilled our hearts. Soon through the trembling hush the martial bugle rang out the “Assembly of Trumpeters.” Then flowed forth from a symphony of trumpets that orison of the setting sun, “The retreat,” with final cadence of the “Sunset gun,” answering afar.

Now the shadows descended, and the deep stars, brooding close over the night, lent the immortal presence. Soon all the slopes glimmered with scores of thousands of lights illuminating great fields of white tents of our army and Sherman's far outspread, like the city of a dream. So atmosphered, guest-greetings lingered; new friendships grew “old” ; farewells begun,--never to end. And when all the deep influences of the hour were at [322] their fullness, we drew within the canvas cathedral for our consummation. Here circled another scene,--bright, clear, and strong,--the presence of cherished womanhood shed a glory upon the stern faces and martial forms of men long lost to dreams like these. The great assembly hushed itself to silence in expectation. General Griffin was seated in the focus of all this; it was my part to present the material memorial. I had no experience in public speaking, and felt hardly competent to express the feeling which then filled every heart of the assembly. But words like these were somehow given me:

Our hearts stir as I speak the name,--so familiar, so revered; so interwoven with experiences deep as life and death.

The officers of your old division have desired to present you with a testimonial of their appreciation and esteem. They have selected for this purpose the badge of our division,--the Red Maltese Cross,--as the most fitting remembrance of your long association with them,--a memento of the toils and trials and desperate deeds and the sufferings you have not shunned to share with them, and a token of honorable service they are proud to share with you.

This cross of ours is already famed in story. Now it has a new history,--a new sanctity. Not more worthily was this the chosen emblem of those who thronged to redeem the Holy Sepulchre from [323] Infidel hands, than of these men of yours who have rallied to rescue a nation's life from assaults the more bitter because dealt by those we had deemed as brothers. On no breasts was this ever more bravely borne in battle — on no banners more proudly emblazoned in no cathedral arches more sacredly enshrined.

But this is not the hour for words. The tongue cannot follow where the feet have trod, nor reach where the heart aspires.

It remains for me, therefore, to present you with this cross, in behalf of the officers of your old division who wait to greet you. But not all. Some who were with us, and would have been of the brightest to grace this festival, greet us here no more,--hearts warmest in friendship, truest to trust, bravest in the day of battle. We know and hallow the spots where they fell, first or last, in the ranks of honor. But not one of them all,--I say it before these witnesses,--not one of those is lying in his lowly bed to-day through any fault or failure or rashness of our commander.

In memory, then, of those, and in behalf of these,--in the name of all,--I give this cross into the hand of a soldier without reproach. It is red,with blood more precious than its diamonds; red, --after the symbolism of sacred art,--with love more lasting than its stars.

In this day of the country's victory and peace, in this hour of sacred associations, we meet, and we part, under this cross, emblem of the world's dearest memories and most blessed hopes. Receive [324] it, therefore, with its legend and benediction: In hoc signo vinces.

General Griffin received the badge, and holding it in his hand, responded:

Your words have overcome me with a sense of what it is to be thus honored by men who have added honor to this symbol. You remind me of what has been the cost of this fame, and what has been the value of this service. You yourself, General, a youthful subordinate when I first took command of this division, now through so many deep experiences risen to be its tested, trusted, and beloved commander,--you are an example of what experiences of loyalty and fortitude, of change and constancy, have marked the career of this honored division. I say to you all, that you have written a deathless page on the records of your country's history, and that your character and your valor have entered into her life for all the future.

For myself, having seen and served with you from the first, my affection for you is in the deepest places of my heart, and as often as I shall look upon this token in the coming years, I shall thank God for the manhood that has made it glorious.

As he spoke these last words, I advanced and pinned the badge over his breast, and pressing his hand upon it he turned and bowed before the assembly. Then it was as if the slumbering chords [325] of thousands of hearts had challenged the song of the morning stars. First the low ripple of handclapping after common custom, but more were clasping each others' hands in emotion they knew not how to express. Strong men rose to their feet or bent their heads in sobs. But soon murmurs found voice, and this swelled to shouting until the band struck up its rhapsody, “Hail to the chief,” when all left their seats and crowded around General Griffin, who for once was not able to give command,--even to himself. Slowly we broke into friendly groups, calming ourselves down in circling cadences of farewells until at a signal we drew together in the song of Auld Lang Syne, after which the heart-searching bugle-call “Lights out” calling as from some far-away home dispersed us under the stars.

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