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12th Vermont Infantry

Army Life in Virginia


Camp Vermont,
Fairfax Co., Va., Nov. 14, 1862.

Dear Free Press:

You have discovered that I make little or no mention of army movements; nor do I indulge in criticism or speculation in regard to the course of the war in any of its parts. Such matters I leave to the correspondents from headquarters. My object is to give your readers, so many of whom have friends in our ranks, some idea of our life and business, as seen, not from the officer's marquee or the reporter's saddle, but from the tent of the private. I have nothing to write, consequently, about the recent change in the chief command of the Army of the Potomac, or its probable results. I may say, however, that there has been no mutiny in the Second Vermont brigade in consequence of General McClellan's removal, and that any change that promises more active and efficient service for the army, will have our hearty approval, as a portion of the same.

In the absence of any thing especially exciting, let me try and describe, briefly, an ordinary day in camp. You are perhaps, familiar enough with the regular arrangement of tents in a regimental camp. The tents of the colonel and his staff are commonly disposed in a line at the rear of the camp. In a parallel line with them are the tents of the line officers, each captain's tent fronting the street of his company. The company streets run at right angles to the line of the officers' tents, and are of variable widths, in different camps, according tot he extent of the ground. In our present camp they are about twenty-five feet wide. On each side are the company tents, nine on a side, facing the street on either side. At the inner end of the street, on one side, is the cook tent, occupied by the company cooks and stores, and in front of it is the "kitchen range." Whose patent this is, I cannot say. It is composed of a trench, four feet long and two deep, dug in the ground. In the bottom of this the fire is kindled. Forked sticks at the corners, support a couple of stout poles, parallel with the sides, across which are laid shorter sticks on which hang the kettles. With this apparatus, and an oblong frying pan of formidable dimensions, say three feet long by two wide, is done all the cooking of the company.

The first signs of life, inside of the lines of the main camp guard, are to be seen at these points. The cooks must be up an hour or two before light, to get their fires started and breakfast cooking. The fires on the cold mornings, and most of the mornings are cold, are objects of attraction to those of the soldiers who for any reason have lain too cold to sleep. These come shivering to the fires, and watch the cooks and warm their skins, till reveille. There are stoves now, however, of some sort, in most of the tents, and almost all can be as warm as hey wish at any time.

At daybreak the drum major marshals his drum and fife corps at the centre of the line, and the reveille, with scream of fife and roll of drum, arouses the sleeping hundreds, lying wrapped in their blankets under the canvas roofs. The reveille is a succession of five tunes, of varying time, command quick, closing with three rolls, by the end of which each company is expected to be in line in the company street. The men tumble out for the most part just as they have slept, some with blankets wrapped about them, some in slippers and smoking caps, some in overcoats. They fall into line and the orderly sergeant calls the roll and reads the list of details for guard, police, fatigue duty, etc. After roll call, many dive back into their tents and take a morning nap before breakfast; others start in squads for the brook which runs close by the camp, to wash. The fortunate owners of wash basins--there are two in our company--bring them out, use them, and pass them over to the numerous borrowers; Others wash in water from their canteens, one pouring on the hands of another. "Police duty" comes at 6.15, and is performed by a squad under direction of a corporal. This varies slightly from the popular notion of such duty, which is commonly supposed to consist in wearing a start and standing round on city street corners, with the occasional diversion of clubbing some non-resistant citizen. In camp "police duty" corresponds to what, when I was a boy, was called clearing up the door yard. The sweeping of the company streets, removal of unsightly objects, grading of the grounds, and work of similar character, comes under this head. At half past six comes the "surgeon's call." This is not a call made by the surgeon, who is not expected to appear in company quarters unless for some special emergency; but of the orderly sergeant, who calls for any who have been taken sick in the night, and feel bad enough to own it and be marched off to the surgeon's tent, where, after examination, they are ordered into hospital or on duty, as the case may require.

Breakfast takes place at 7, by which time, in well ordered tents, the blankets have been shaken, folded, and laid away with the knapsacks in a neat row at the back of the tent, and the soldiers start out, cup in hand, for the cook tent, where each takes his plate with his allowance of bread and beef or pork, and fills his cup with coffee. Some sit and eat their breakfast on the wood pile near the fire; but most take their meals to their tents. The straw covered floor is the table, a rubber blanket the table cloth, and sitting round on the ground like so many tailors, we eat with an appetite which gives to the meal a zest almost unknown before we came "a sogering." Our meals do not differ greatly, the principal difference being that for dinner we have cold water instead of tea or coffee. The rations are beef, salt and fresh, three-fifths of the former to two of the latter, both of fair quality; salt pork, which has uniformly been excellent; bread, soft and hard, the former equal to first rate home-made bread, the latter in size, taste and quality resembling basswood chips--very wholesome, however, and not unpalatable; rice, beans, both good, and potatoes occasionally; coffee fair, and tea rather poor. Butter, which when good is one of the greatest luxuries in camp, cheese, apples, which with most Vermonters are almost an essential, and other knickknacks are not furnished by government, but may be bought of the sutlers at high prices. Our men are great hands for toast; and at every meal the cook-fires are surrounded with a circle of the boys holding their bread to the fire on forked sticks or wire toast racks of their own manufacture, and of wonderful size and description. So we live, and it shows to what the human frame may be inured by practice and hardship, that we can eat a meal of good baked or boiled pork and beans, potatoes, boiled rice and sugar, coffee and toast, and take it not merely to sustain life, but actually with a relish--curious, isn't it?

Dinner is at 12, dress parade at 4:30, and supper at 5:30. The heavy work of the men fills the intervals. This varies. At Capitol Hill it was company and battalion drills. Here it is digging in the trenches of Fort Lyon, and cutting lumber in the woods near by, for our winter quarters. Evenings are spent very much as they would be by most young men at home, in visiting their comrades, playing cards and checkers, writing letters, and reading. A common occupation of a leisure hour, with the smokers, is the carving of pipes from the roots of the laurel, found in profusion in the woods here. It is a slow business in most cases beginning with a chunk about half as large as one's head, which is reduced by slow degrees and patient whittling to the small size of a pipe bowl. Another common, but not so delightful pastime, is the washing of one's dirty clothes. Many of our men have learned to be expert washers, and that without wash-board or pounding-barrel. These who have pocket money, however, can have their washing done by the "contraband" washerwoman, who have been on hand at every camp we have occupied.

At half-past eight P M. the tattoo is sounded by the drum and fife corps, playing several tunes as a reveille, when each company is again drawn up in its street and the roll called. At nine comes "taps," when every light must be out in the tents, and the men turn in for their night's rest. The ground within the tents is covered with straw or cedar branches, on which are spread the rubber blankets; this is the bed, the knapsack is the pillow. There is no trouble about undress; our blouses, or flannel fatigue coats, pantaloons and stockings, sometimes with overcoat added, are the apparel of the night, as of the day. We slip off our boots, drop in our places side by side, draw over us our blankets; and sleep, sound and sweet, soon comes to every eyelid. The man who can sleep at all, in camp, commonly sleeps soundly and well.

I spoke in the beginning of this letter of the absence of anything exciting in camp. We have since had something particularly exciting for Company C--the arrival of some boxes of good things sent by our kind friends in Burlington. We have had warning of their coming and were anxiously awaiting them. They reached camp after dark last evening; but the noise of unloading before the captain's tent told everyone that they had come, and an eager crowd hurried to the spot. A couple of pickaxes were quickly put in use. The covers flew off as if blown upwards by the explosive force of the good will and kind feeling imprisoned within, and the parcels were quickly handed out to the favored ones, who thereupon disappeared within the tents, from which shouts of joy and laughter would come pealing as the things within were unpacked. What unrolling of papers and uncovering of boxes there has been, and uncorking of jars and bottles and munching of good things in every tent! A bevy of children, in holiday time, were never more pleased with their presents than we with our home luxuries, made doubly delicious by our confinement to army fare, and trebly valuable because they were from the friends at home. The whole thing was pronounced emphatically, "bully." I beg you will divest this word of anything of coarseness or slang it may heretofore have had. It is the adjective which in the army expresses the highest form of admiration and is in constant use from the colonel and chaplain to the lowest private. When the soldier has pronounced a things "bully," he can say no more. I wish you could have heard--and if you had listened sharply. I think you might--the cheers and tigers which after roll call at tattoo last night, were given by Company C "for our friends in Burlington."

The health of the regiment is improving. We have but thirteen men on the sick list, and none dangerously ill.

The picket line our brigade is guarding has been moved out several miles, and now runs about two miles this side of Mt. Vernon. The weather is fine and the spirits of the men good. But they do not take kindly to "fatigue duty" on the trenches. They think they had rather be engaged in chasing or fighting rebels than in "strategy," however important the latter may be in all wars.



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