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Chapter 17: from Court to camp.

  • A winter's inaction and effects
  • -- comforts and Homesickness -- unseen foes and their victory -- care and cleanliness -- Nostalgia -- camp morality -- record of the “Cracks” -- in a Maryland mess -- mud and memories -- has history a parallel? -- old Cavaliers and New.
    The winter of 1861-2 set in early, with heavy and continued rains. By Christmas the whole surface of the country had been more than once wrapped in heavy snow, leaving lakes of mud over which no wheeled thing could work its way.

    Active operations-along the whole northern frontier at leastwere certainly suspended until spring; and both armies had gone into winter quarters. Military men agree that a winter in camp is the most demoralizing influence to which any troops can be subjected. To the new soldiers of the South it was a terrible ordeal --not so much from the actual privations they were called upon to endure as from other and more subtle difficulties, against the imperceptible approaches of which they could not guard. The Government had used every effort to make the men comfortable, and to supply them with all necessaries at its disposal; but still there were numerous articles it could not command.

    The good caterers at home spared no pains, no exercise of ingenuity, and no pinching from fireside supplies, to make the loved ones in camp comfortable. The country had not begun to feel the effects of actual want in any quarter; but increased demand had lessened supplies on hand and somewhat enhanced prices; so the men were comfortably clothed, fed with plain, but plentiful and wholesome food, and supplied with all the absolute necessaries of camp life. In addition to these, boxes of all sizes, shapes and contents came into the camps in a continuous stream; and the thousand nameless trifles-so precious because bearing the impress of home — were received daily in every mess from the Rio Grande to the Potomac. Still, as the winter wore on, news from the armies became gloomier and gloomier, and each successive bulletin bore more dispiriting accounts of discontent and privation, sickness and death. Men who had gone into their first fight freely and gaily; who had heard the whistling of bullets as if it had been accustomed music, gave way utterly before the unseen foes of “winter quarters.” [140]

    Here and there, a disciplinarian of the better sort — who combined philosophy with strictness-kept his men in rather better condition by constant watching, frequent and regular drills, rapid marches for exercise, and occasional change of camp. But this was the exception, and the general tone was miserable and gloomy. This could in part be accounted for by the inexperience of the men, and of their immediate commanders — the company officersin whose hands their health and spirits were in no small degree reposed. They could not be brought to the use of those little appliances of comfort that camp life, even in the most unfavorable circumstances, can afford-strict attention to the utmost cleanliness in their persons and huts; care in the preparation of their food, and in its cookery; and careful adherence to the simple hygienic rules laid down in constant circulars from the medical and other departments. Where men live and sleep in semi-frozen mud, and breathe an atmosphere of mist and brush smoke-and every one knows the wonderfully penetrating power of camp-fire smoke — it is not to be expected that their comfort is enviably great; especially where they have left comfortable homes, and changed their well-prepared, if simple, food for the hard and innutritious army ration. But such creatures of habit are we that, after a little, we manage by proper care to make even that endurable.

    Soldiers are like children, and require careful watching and constant reminding that these small matters — which certainly make up the sum of camp life — should be carefully attended to for their own good. Rigid discipline in their enforcement is necessary in the beginning to get novices properly started in the grooves. Once set going, they soon become matters of course. But once let soldiers get accustomed to careless and slovenly habits, and no amount of orders, or punishment, can undo the mischief. Unfortunately, the armies of the South began wrong this first winter, and the descent was easy; and they made the new road upon which they had entered far harder than necessary, by neglecting landmarks so plainly written that he who runs may read. Nostalgia-that scourge of camps-appeared in stubborn and alarming form; and no exertion of surgeon, or general, served to check or decrease it. Men, collected from cities, accustomed to stated hours of business and recreation, and whose minds were accustomed to some exercise and excitement, naturally drooped in the [141] monotony of a camp knee in mire, where the only change from the camp-fire — with stew-pan simmering on it and long yarns spinning around it — was heavy sleep in a damp hut, or close tent, wrapped in a musty blanket and lulled by the snoring of half a dozen comrades.

    Hale, sturdy countrymen, accustomed to regular exercise and hard work, with nothing to do all day but sun themselves and polish their bayonets, naturally moped and pined for the homes that were missing them so sorely. They, too, found the smoky blaze of the camp-fire but a sorry substitute for the cheerful hearth, where memory pictured the comely wife and the sturdy little ones. The hardy mountaineer, pent and confined to a mud-bound acre, naturally molded and panted for the fresh breezes and rough tramps of his far-away “roost.”

    The general morality of the camps was good, but praying is a sorry substitute for dry homes and good food; and, though chaplains were earnest and zealous, the men gradually found cards more exciting than exhortations. They turned from the “wine of life” to the canteen of “new dip” with a spiteful thirst. There were attempts by the higher officers — which proved abortive — to discountenance gambling; and the most stringent efforts of provost-marshals to prevent the introduction of liquor to camp reduced the quantity somewhat, but brought down the quality to the grade of a not very slow poison.

    Being much in the numerous camps that winter, I was struck with the universal slouch and depression in ranks where the custom had been quick energy and cheerful faces. Through the whole army was that enervating moldiness, lightened only by an occasional gleam from those “crack companies” so much doubted in the beginning of the war.

    It had been thought that the gay young men of cities, used to the sedentary life of profession, or counting-room-and perhaps to the irregularities of the midnight dinner and next-morning ball-that these men, steady and unflinching as they might be under fire-and willing as they seemed to undertake “what man dare” in danger or privation, would certainly break down under the fatigues of the first campaign.

    They had, on the contrary, in every instance that came under my ken, gone through that campaign most honorably; had borne the marches, the most trying weather and the greatest straits of hunger, [142] with an elasticity of mind and muscle that had long since astounded and silenced their most active scoffers. Now, in the bitter depths of winter, they went through the dull routine of camp, cheerful and buoyant, at all times ready for their duty, and never grumbling at the wearing strain they felt to be necessity. When I say that in every Confederate camp the best soldiers of that winter were “crack companies” of the gay youths of the cities, I only echo the verdict of old and tried officers. Where all did their duty nobly, comparison were invidious; but the names of “Company F,” the Mobile Cadets, the Richmond Blues, and Washington Artillery, stand on the record of those dark days as proof of the statement. Many men from the ranks of these companies had already been promoted to high positions, but they had not yet lost their distinctive characteristics as corps d‘ élite; and admission to their ranks was as eagerly sought as ever. A strange fact of these companies was frequently stated by surgeons of perfect reliability: their sick reports were much smaller than those of the hardiest mountain organizations. This they attributed to two causes: greater attention to personal cleanliness and to all hygienic precautions; and the exercise of better trained minds and wills keeping them free from the deadly “blue devils.” Numbers of them, of course, broke down at once. Many a poor fellow who would have achieved a brilliant future perished mid the mud of Manassas, or slept under the snowy slopes of the western mountains. The practice was kill or cure, but it was in a vast majority of cases, the latter; and men who stood the hardship thrived upon it.

    The Marylanders, too, were a marvel of patience. Self-made exiles, not only from the accustomed comforts of home, but cut off from communication with their absent ones and harrowed by vague stories of wrong and violence about them — it would have been natural had they yielded to the combined strain on mind and matter. At midwinter I had occasion to visit Evansport and Acquia creek. It had been bitter cold; a sudden thaw had made the air raw and keen, while my horse went to his girths at every plunge. More than once I had to dismount in mire girth-deep to help him on. Suddenly I came upon a Maryland camp-supports to a battery. Some of the soldiers I had known as the gayest and most petted of ballroom and club; and now they were cutting wood and frying bacon, as if they had never done anything else. Hands that never before [143] felt an ax-helve plied it now as if for life; eyes that were accustomed to look softly into

    The sweetest eyes that ever were,

    in the pauses of a waltz, now peered curiously in the reeking stewpan. Many of their names recalled the history of days long gone, for their father's fathers had moved in stately pageant down its brightest pages; and blood flowed in their veins blue as the proudest of earth's nobility. They had left affluence, luxury, the caresses of home-and, harder than all, the habits of society — for what?

    Was it thoughtlessly to rush foremost in the delirious shock of battle; to carelessly stand unflinchingly where the wing of death flapped darkest over the glare of the fight; to stand knee-deep in Virginia mud, with high boots and rough shirts, and fry moldy bacon over fires of wet brush? Or was it that the old current in their veins bounded hotly when they believed a wrong was doing; that all else-home-luxury-love-life!-faded away before the might of principle?

    It was an odd meeting with the crowd that collected about me and anxiously asked the news from Richmond, from abroad, but above all, from home. Bronzed and bearded, their huge boots caked with Potomac mud and rough shirts open at their sunburnt throats; chapped hands and faces grimy with smoke and work, there was yet something about these men that spoke them, at a glance, raised above the herd. John Leech, who so reveled in the “Camps at Cobham,” would here have found a companion-piece for the opposition of the picture.

    “ Hello, old boy! any news from home?” yelled a whiskered sergeant, jumping from a log where he was mending a rent in his pants, and giving me a hand the color of his favorite tan gloves in days lang syne--“Pretty tight work up here, you see, but we manage to keep comfortable!” --God save the mark!

    “What do you think Bendann would give for a negative of me?” asked a splendid fellow leaning on an ax, the rapid strokes of which he stilled at my approach-“Not a half bad thing for a fancy ball, eh?” Charles street had no nattier man than the speaker in days gone; and the tailors had found him their pearl beyond price. But Hilberg's beet was now replaced by a flannel shirt with many a rent, army pants and a jacket that had been gray, before mud and smoke had brought it near the unity of Joseph's best garment. [144]

    “ I'd show well at the club-portrait of a gentleman?” he added lightly.

    “Pshaw! Look at me/ There's a boot for a junior assembly! Wouldn't that make a show on a waxed floor?” and little Charley H. grinned all the way across his fresh, fair face, as he extended a foot protruding from what had been a boot.

    “D-1 take your dress! Peel those onions, Charley!” cried a baldheaded man from the fire--“Don't your heart rise at the scent of this olla, my boy? Don't it bring back our dinners at the Spanish legation? Stay and dine with us — if Charley ever has those onions done-and you'll feast like a lord-mayor! By the way, last letters from home tell me that Miss Belle's engaged to John Smith. You remember her that night at Mrs. R.'s fancy ball?”

    “Wouldn't mind having a bottle of Mrs. R.'s sherry now to tone up these onions,” Charley said ruefully. “It would go well With that stew, taken out of a tin cup-eh, cookey?”

    “We had lots better at the club,” the cook said, thoughtfully stirring the mess on the fire-“It was laid in before you were born, Charley. Those were days, boys-but we'll drink many a bottle of it yet under the stars and bars!”

    “That we will, old man! and I'll carry these boots to a junior assembly yet. But I would like a bottle of old Mrs. R.'s to drink now, faute de mieux, to the health of the Baltimore girls-God bless ‘em!”

    “ That I would, too,” said the sergeant. “But that's the hard part of it!” --and he stuck his needle viciously through the pants-“I always get savage when I think of our dear women left unpro-”

    “ No particular one, sergeant? You don't mean Miss Mamie on Charles street, do you? Insatiate archer!” cried Charley.

    “ Do your cooking, you imp! I mean my dear old mother and my sick sister. D-n this smoke! It will get in a fellow's eyes!”

    When Miss Todd gave her picnic in the valley of Jehoshaphat and talked London gossip under the olives, it was an odd picture; it is strange to see the irrepressible English riding hurdles in the Campagna, and talking of ratting in the shadow of the Parthenon, as though within the beloved chimes of Bow; but it was stranger still to see those roughened, grimed men, with soleless boots and pants tattered “as if an imp had worn them,” rolling out town-talk and well-known names in such perfectly natural manner. [145]

    And this was only a slice from any camp in the service. The gentlemen troops stood hardships better, and bore their troubles and difficulties with lighter hearts, than any of the mixed corps. It is true that few of them were left as organizations at the end of the war.

    As the army increased, men of ability and education naturally sifted to higher place; but they wore their spurs after they had won them. They got their commissions when they had been through the baptism of blood and fire, and of mud and drudgery as well. They never flinched. The dreariest march — the shortest rations — the deepest snow and the midnight “long roll” --found them ready and willing. History furnishes no parallel. The bloods of the cavalier wars rode hard and fought long. They went to the battle with the jest upon their lips, and walked gaily to the scaffold if need be. But they not only died as gentlemen — they lived as they died. Their perfumed locks were never draggled in the mire of the camp, and their silken hose never smirched but in the fray. Light songs from dainty lips and brimming goblets from choice flacons were theirs; and they could be merry to-night if they died to-morrow.

    The long rapiers of the Regency flashed as keen in the smoke of the fight as the jest had lately rung in the mistress' bower; and how the blase club man and the lisping dandy of Rotten Row could change to the avenging war god, the annals of the Light brigade can tell.

    But these lived as gentlemen. In the blackest hour, when none believed “the king should have his own again ;” in the deadliest fray and in the snow-bound trench, they waved the sword of command, and the only equality they had with their men was who should fight the furthest.

    But here were gentlemen born-men of worth and wealth, education and fashion-delving side by side with the veriest drudge; fighting as only gentlemen can fight, and then working as gentlemen never worked before!

    Delicately bred youths who had never known rougher work than the deux temps, now trudged through blinding snows on post, or slept in blankets stiff with freezing mud; hands that had felt nothing harder than billiard-cue or cricket-bat now wielded ax and shovel as men never wielded them for wages; the epicure of the club mixed a steaming stew of rank bacon and moldy hard-tack and then-ate it! [146]

    And all this they did without a murmur, showing an example of steadfast resolution and unyielding pluck to the hardier and tougher soldiers by them; writing on the darkest page of history the clear axiom: Bon sang ne peut mentir!

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