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12th Vermont Infantry
Army Life in Virginia
Camp Lincoln, Brattleboro, Oct. 4, 1862 ...
Yesterday afternoon was rendered memorable by our first knapsack drill. The orders were for a review of the regiment, fully equipped, with knapsacks packed. The overcoat was accordingly folded and placed within the knapsack; the change of underclothing, socks, etc., ditto; and the woolen blankets rolled tightly within the rubber blanket and then strapped on the top. The whole concern, with the straps, weighs on an average about thirty-five pounds, and there goes science, let me tell you, to the production of a skillfully packed knapsack.
The review was considered, I am told, quite a fine affair by the numerous array of spectators. Let me endeavor to give you an inside view of the affair, as it seemed to one in the ranks. We of the rank and file did not think it so fine. At two o'clock, then, each private hoisted on to his shoulders his knapsack, packed as above, slung around him his haversack and canteen, buckled on his cartridge-box and shoulder-belt, and musket in hand, took his place in the ranks. The sun has come out hot. About fifteen minutes of waiting takes place before moving into line, in the course of which the luckless volunteer becomes distinctly conscious of a weight on his back. He straightens up manfully, however, and endeavors, when the order comes, to step out with his customary light step. But that, he finds, is not quite so easy. He is logy. He weighed 145 pounds half an hour ago, now he weighs 190. That knapsack gives an undue momentum to his about-face, and bumps uncomfortably against his neighbor's as he faces from file to front. But we are in line now. The captain, astonished at the unwonted clumsiness of his men, labors hard, but with only moderate success, to "dress" them into a straight line, and there we stand, arms at shoulder. There is drumming and fifing and stepping into place of officers; but you notice little of what is going on. Your attention is mainly directed to a spot between your shoulder blades, which feels peculiarly. In short it aches. The sensation gradually spreads through your back and shoulders, and is complicated with a sense of suffocation from the pressure of the straps across the chest. The perspiration bursts from every pore. You hear a groan from your comrade on the left, and are comforted to know that you have company in your misery; but it is a poor consolation. Your knapsack is evidently growing both in size and weight. It felt heavy before; now it weighs on your like a thousand of brick. You cease to wonder at the breadth and thickness of the straps which support it,--any thing less strong would snap with the tension of such a weight. You haven't been in the habit thus far, of considering it a desirable thing to be detailed for guard duty; but you now find yourself looking off at the sentries pacing to and from with only their muskets to carry, and you wish you were on guard to-day. And now you are conscious of a sharp pain in the hollow of your right arm, from holding your musket at the shoulder for three-quarters of an hour. Why can't they let us order arms for five minutes? But instead comes the order to wheel into platoons, and around the grounds we are marched for a weary hour. We don't march good. We don't "right dress" and "left dress" good, we don't "wheel" good, and we don't feel good; but somehow or other we get through with it--though a few of the weaker or ailing ones drop out of the ranks--and we are still alive when marched to quarters and allowed to break ranks. It feels better now that it is done aching; but there are some of us who express the deliberate opinion, that with all the need of drill and toughening for our work, two hours of knapsack drill on a hot afternoon, was a pretty steep dose for raw recruits, the very first time. We shall all learn to like it in time, doubtless; but like olives, tobacco and some other luxuries, one must get accustomed to it to really enjoy it.
Source: George Grenville Benedict, Army Life in Virginia: Letters From the Twelfth Vermont Regiment and Personal Experiences in the War for the Union, 1862-63 (Free Press Association, Burlington, Vt., 1895), pp. 8-12.