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Chapter 5: life at camp Benton.

On returning to the camp at Poolesville, on October 24 the second day after the battle of Ball's Bluff, it was found that the wound of Gen. Lander and the capture of Col. Lee left Col. Hinks in command of the First Brigade. The Nineteenth Regiment was sent no more on picket duty at the river and the real drill and discipline, under Lieut. Col. Devereux, who was left in command, was again begun. The hard work resulted in rapid improvement in the regiment, as is evidenced by the following letter:

Headquarters Corps of Observation, Poolesville, Nov. 13, 1861.
Lieut. Col. Devereux, commanding. 19TH Mass. Vols.

The general commanding directs me to express to you the gratification with which he noticed the advancement in drill made by the regiment under your command, as exhibited at the review of yesterday.

So much progress in so short a time gives promise of admirable results and reflects great credit upon both instructors and instructed.

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

Chas. Stewart, A. A. G.

At this time there were six Harvard men in the regiment,— Maj. Henry Jackson Howe, '59; Asst. Surg. Josiah Newell Willard, '57; Capt. George Wellington Batchelder, '59; Sergt. Maj. Edgar Marshall Newcomb,‘60; First Lieut. John Hodges,. Jr., ‘61 and Charles Brooks Brown, '56. It was not an infrequent [36] occurrence for the regimental band to include among its selections the delightful melody of ‘Fair Harvard’ in their honor.

The chief thing of interest, beside work, at Poolesville seemed to be to stockade the tents and to build a fire-place which would not smoke the occupants out. Capt. Rice constructed one where the fire was to be in a hole in the ground, the smoke to be carried under ground until it could escape by means of a hollow log, placed upright, some six or eight feet from the tent. This seemed a success until one morning, when the log was found burning rapidly and the tent was filled with smoke so dense that one could almost cut it. In some tents a trough about eighteen inches deep and two feet wide was dug from the centre of the tent to the outside. This was covered with broad flat stones. A barrel over the outer end formed a chimney and the whole was plastered with mud. A small opening left in the centre of the tent served for the admission of fuel, and, when the wind was contrary, for the exit of smoke. One officer had a fine fire-place, with a mantel over it and a chimney built of mud, bricks and sticks. Others secured stoves and then, by building wooden walls to their tents, were made quite comfortable.

Among the incidents of camp life at Camp Benton was one which showed how the ingenuity of the soldier can be worked into his duty, making it enjoyable and divesting it of what otherwise might prove to be tedious and irksome.

A detail of woodchoppers was made up, consisting of two men from each company, with a corporal in charge of each squad. The detail was placed in charge of Sergt. William A. McGinnis, of Company K, who, in his spirit of getting as much fun out of everything as was possible, designated each of the corporals as captains and made Charles A. Newhall of Company K ‘Adjutant’ of the detail. As Sergt. McGinnis told an interviewer in after life, Newhall was a ‘mere’ at that time, and when asked to explain, said:

You see, we had a second lieutenant who felt pretty big over his new straps and nobby uniform. One day he had visitors and one of the boys passed them. A lady asked him who the man was. [37]

“He? That fellow?” said the Lieutenant, “Oh, he's a mere private, you know.” The boys caught on to it and after that all high privates were “Meres.”

Lieut. Col. Devereux, who for a time was at West Point, was very insistant upon the proprieties. He always addressed the second lieutenants as ‘Mr. So-and-So’ and when Sergt. McGinnis was in the woods with his ‘Battalion’ he would go around to all the chopping parties and address the corporal: ‘Mr. Hood, how are you getting on today?’ etc., etc.

Axes were issued and each morning the detail would go into the woods, cut down trees and return at night. McGinnis was a natural soldier and everything he did was characterized by military precision and snap. His gait and movements were military. He would salute a superior with an axe as gracefully as with a musket. He could also sing and dance and was a fairly well trained athlete. He could assume command of a detail in the most approved style and his genial qualities made him popular with all.

His manner of drilling his ‘Axe Handle Battalion’ on their march to their daily duties was soon noticed and their return was awaited with much interest by the entire regiment. The ‘Battalion’ marched in double files of four men abreast, every axe in the same position, and changed with the regularity of the manual. The men were incited by the interest manifested by the others and paid much attention to their unique drill. It was not long before they concluded the day's duty with a dress parade on the parade ground. Sergt. McGinnis commanded and his orders for the next day were promulgated with all the dignity which characterized the ‘Attention To Orders’ by the adjutant on the official dress parade of the regiment.

Col. Hinks witnessed and enjoyed the dress parade and particularly so, when, after a few days it was found that McGinnis' orders paraphrased his own with a naive and witty interpretation. But when, later, the ‘music’ beat off down the line, consisting as it did of a banjo and a pair of bones, the climax was reached.

The logs which this ‘Axe Handle Battalion’ cut were hauled into camp eventually and a large hospital was built of them. [38] Work upon this hospital was hurried, in order that it might be in readiness for a ball on Thanksgiving night. It was the first Thanksgiving the regiment had spent in camp and a jollification was planned. As Col. Hinks was very popular with the people of Baltimore, where he had been stationed with the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment during the three months service, invitations were sent to the Baltimorians to attend, and between thirty and forty ladies traveled the seventy-five miles necessary to be present. The space between the uprights of the frame of the building had been arranged so that it corresponded with the flies of the officers tents. The building was unfinished when Thanksgiving arrived, so the skeleton frame was temporarily covered with the tent flies and the space floored over, making a large and commodious ball room.

During Thanksgiving Day there were many sports inaugurated. There was a sack race, shinning the greased pole, on which was place a bottle of ‘Commissary’ and a ten dollar bill; a greased pig race and many other sports, in all of which Sergt. ‘Billy’ McGinnis was the central figure. After about ten feet of the greased pole had been wiped on the trousers of some half dozen of the men, the articles on the tops were awarded to Sergt. McGinnis, who had climbed the highest. The ‘ball room’ was not ready for occupancy until very late in the afternoon, and, as a consequence, the dinner, which was to be served in it, was quite cold when the time came to eat it and most of the men were shivering and disgruntled.

In the evening, the regimental band furnished the music for dancing, and the fete was continued until a late hour, ‘taps’ being suspended by special order. There were not enough ladies to go round, however, and some of the officers had to be content with other officers for partners, some from the Twentieth Massachusetts having been invited. During the evening, Sergt. McGinnis was called in and danced a jig, receiving great applause.

A few days after Thanksgiving had passed, the boys had a very jolly auction sale of the things which had been left over.

The ground occupied by the brigade was undulating. The Nineteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts Regiments were [39] camped together on the higher portion, The Forty-Second New York was farther to the right and the Seventh Michigan was across the road, in a hollow. The battery was in the woods adjoining. Company C had begun the erection of a log cook house and had it built about five feet from the ground. In this tables were built, the lumber having been brought from Poolesville. The company had previously built an oven in which to bake their beans and their meat. This was now used to roast poultry in, and in addition to ‘soft tack’ brought from the goverment bakery every day, they had home-made bread and biscuit from the hands of Mrs. Fletcher, wife of private James Fletcher, all being served hot.

The days during October and November were clear, but the nights were cold and the condensation, after sunset, caused a dense mist to hang over the camp during the night. With the rising sun it gradually disappeared, first from the higher ground, but hanging in a thick cloud over the lower portions for an hour or so. From the positions of the Nineteenth and Twentieth regiments, it was then impossible to see the camp or parade ground of the Seventh Michigan regiment, but on many days the men listened to the band of the Michigan regiment at guard mounting, hearing the commands of the officers and the rattle of the muskets at inspection, on the low ground. It was possible from the various sounds to follow the ceremony from the beginning to end, without a person being visible,—so enveloped were they in the fog, while the camp of the Battery on the high ground, stood out clearly and distinctly in the sunlight.

Often, too, the doleful strains of the muffled drum and the fife were heard as the burial detail bore a comrade through the miasmatic cloud to his final resting place, but none of the participants could be seen.

The plan for the removal of the tents of the regiment at Camp Benton, on October 26, was unique in conception and novel in execution. The camp literally walked and this was an actual reality much more true to conception than the ‘fake’ removal of the trees of ‘Burnham Wood to Dunsinane,’ in Macbeth.

It was decided to remove the entire regimental camp up the [40] sloping ground to a higher place and this was accomplished with military movement and precision. It was a feat never duplicated by any other regiment in the service, to the writer's knowledge.

After removing everything from the tents, regimental line was formed, in heavy marching order. Guns were stacked. knapsacks unslung and piled at the foot of the stacks. Then the order was given: ‘By the right of companies to the rear, battalions right face, to your quarters, march.’

Arriving in the company street, ranks were broken and tent pins were ordered to be pulled, with the exception of those at the four corners which were loosened. The guy lines were rolled up and a man was stationed at each tent pole to steady the tent, while the four corner pins were pulled and these guy lines rolled up. This left the tent to be supported by the men at the poles. At the command of Lieut. Col. Devereux, the men at the poles raised them. Then, to the music of the ‘Zingrea Polka’ by the band, stationed at the rear of the column, the entire regiment marched to the rear, keeping in line, each tent preserving its relative place. It was a pretty spectacle to witness, but the ‘Pennyroyal’ field over which they had marched was so thickly planted that the perfume of the herb was almost suffocating to the men.

Direction was changed to the left, up the slope, and the line passed through an opening in the stone wall, then again to the left and parallel to the original line. When the head of the column had arrived at the point opposite the original right, the command ‘Halt’ and ‘Tents about face’ was given and the tent poles were dropped like ‘Order Arms,’ being maintained erect. They were then dressed, distances rectified, the four corner pins set, pins for the other guy lines driven home, and thus the camp was moved, almost without the fact having been realized. It was short work to ‘move in’ with the baggage and impediment as, which had been left on the sight of the former camp, and the affair, so successfully accomplished, was the talk of the camps in the vicinity for sometime.

There was one feature of the removal, however, which the men did not like, for the ovens which had been a blessing to [41] them could not be moved and were consequently left behind. It being Saturday, the beans and puddings were ready to go in them. Col. Hinks placed a guard about the abandoned ovens, however,—fires were built in them, and, for that night, the men slept in sweet contentment, feeling that their beans were cooking safely. Alas! the awakening. With appetites sharpened by the chilly air and the cold Northwest wind, with their coffee steaming hot,—the beans were brought up to the new camp. Carefully the burned ones on the top of the dish were scraped off. But they seemed all to be burned, and so they were. In the centre of the mass was just about a spoonful which had not been burned to a brown coffee color. The indian pudding was in the same condition. Result,—hard tack and coffee, eaten in emphatic silence.

One first sergeant was very fond of pie and on a cold stormy day, when the rain was falling in torrents, he, not caring to go out at guard mounting, sent another sergeant in his place, a proceeding not relished by the comrade, who, knowing the sergeant's greatest weakness, put up a job on him. Coming in after guard mounting, the water dripping from his garments and making little pools on the floor of the tent, he proceeded to hang up his gun and equipments. Casually remarking, ‘There was a man out on the parade ground selling pies and he guessed they must be pretty good, as they were going quick.’ The bait took, and the first sergeant jumped up excitedly, ‘Where? Where?’ ‘Down at the lower corner,’ said the sergeant, referring to a point which was distant a three minutes run, with high ground intervening. A person would have to get well away from the company before he could see anyone there. Hastily throwing a rubber blanket over his head, the champion pie eater ran out and returned in about five minutes in a decidedly wet condition, without the pie. The laughter that greeted his entrance caused him to make some remarks which made the atmosphere of the tent several degrees warmer.

The hair cutting mania seemed, at one time, literally to have taken hold of the men, and the shorter they had it cut, the better, as some believed. They called it the ‘fighting cut.’ Jere Cronan, of Company G, outdid everybody else [42] by having his head shaved of every spear of hair, so that it looked like a new-born baby's. It was an amusing sight and no sooner was it done than he repented. He said he felt as if his head was ‘all out of doors’ and he was obliged to wear his handkerchief, knotted at the four corners, on his bare head in lieu of a cap until the hair grew again. As he was the acting color sergeant of the regiment, he was a most conspicuous figure on dress parade and drill. Jere was a good soldier, and, although he had a peculiar impediment in his speech, his sunny disposition and invariable good nature made him very popular. He served his full term, reinlisted as a veteran, was promoted to lieutenant in the 1st U. S. Volunteers, was honorably mustered out of service and lost his life, several years after the war, in a sewer in New Jersey, where he volunteered to go down and rescue a laborer who had been overcome by gas.

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