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Second Vermont Brigade
The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter XII.April 2.
So acquisitive a being as a Yankee cannot remain two months in one place without collecting more materials than one man ought to carry on a march. The soldiers this morning, after selecting the choicest things, slung their knapsacks, crowded to the utmost. The warm sun is shining on the fresh, green earth; the trees are just leafing out; the little birds are singing their sweet mains; and one can scarce believe that war, mad, furious and desolating war, is in the land. But stop, only two nights ago they say that a picket post of twenty cavalry was captured, down the river eight or ten miles; and they we are going to defend the place. So it is. The loaded teams go around by the road; we, along the banks of the Occoquan, up and down ragged bluffs, so rough and steep that the regiment is scattered; one here, one there; the right wing only a quarter of a mile in advance, but still out of sight. At noon we halt; make coffee in our little cups, and eat dinner, of soft bread and fresh beef, which we have brought in the haversacks. Before two o'clock we and he teams have arrived at the place of encampment, near the main road running from Alexandria to Fredericksburgh, in a dense forest of pines. Immediately some are making stockades; but a stop is soon put to this, by the Colonel's saying that it was growing warm so fast there was no need of it. It is a hot day, and the sweat rolled down the soldiers' red cheeks like rain. Whisky rations are dealt out to all. Before night the tents are pitched, and most have constructed bunks of round poles to sleep on. At half past seven the long roll is beat, quick-quick,-as if the enemy were close upon us. The boys seize their arms, and almost instantly are in line. The reason of it was this: The woods seemed full of wild hogs, when we first came here. This is too tempting a lure for some. Though strict orders have often been read I the past against shooting guns near camp, the roar of the rifles comes thicker and thicker, mingled with shouts and boisterous laughter, as the bristly animal gives up the chase. But, "Hark!" "The long roll! The long roll!" Now the legs of the excited hunters are flying through the dark forest, towards the blazing camp fires. But as they come in, they are taken and ordered to guard the camp during the night.
Early the Colonel rides around to discover the best site for a camp and one company is sent on picket. By ten we are carrying our things towards the newly selected spot,-an open, level field, in sight of the Potomac; and yet pines are growing, now in thick clumps, and now more scatteringly, over the most of the plantation. The camp is laid out regularly. There are twenty rows of parallel tents; two for each company, with streets a rod wide. A little in the rear of these, and forming right angles with them, is the long line of tents belonging to the captains and lieutenants; next, those of the field officers; then you come to the hospital; and still on, among the trees, are hitched the horses and mules. Many lug, on their backs, poles for their bunks, from the last night's encampment. At the usual time we have dress parade, and also our mail.
One company a day does the picketing. There are three posts on the main roads near camp, and two fords and one ferry to be guarded. It is said that this line is to be defended by cavalry, and that we are going back near Washington. time will show how this is. "We may start here for a week," says one; "and we may a month," replies another; "I've no care which it is, a week or a month," continues the next. "But wherever this brigade is, no rebel will turn his tracks that way, unless he has made up his mind to commit suicide, and takes that course to get rid of himself, suddenly and honorably." At half past eight my company is starting off to relieve the old pickets. A lieutenant, sergeant and ten privates are stationed at the ferry opposite Occoquan Village,-a place of some thrift before the war. A part of the inhabitants are loyal, a part disloyal; and both abandon their homes, and go back to home, as that army to which their sympathies belong recedes or advances; and still a third class call themselves neutral, a sort of amphibious animals, now in the slough of treason, and then out, whichever will profit them most. One is stationed on the beat at a time; and is relieved each hour. He gets the following instructions: "Keep a sharp watch up and down the river, and also in the rear of us; for it is reported that rebel cavalry are within our lines, and if they capture this post, they can cross and recross on the ferry as much as they choose." The rest of us are glad to turn into a very dirty shop, standing on the side of the bluff; for before noon it begins to storm, and continues till the next day, when we go back in a foot of snow. The soldiers at the two fords above us suffered far more than we, as they had nothing but bough-houses to shelter them. The boys are much delighted to exchange their salt pork for fresh herrings, which the citizens are just beginning to catch with their nets.
As we arrive in camp, we find that many have sought covering in the nearest houses and barns. The storm came upon us all unprepared. None have built fire-places, and but few have stoves. "This," says one, "is not so bad as a defeat; for it chills our bodies only and not our spirits." "The next disaster that befalls the Union armies," answers another, "I shall set down as a snow storm in April, which hides from us only for a day the sure signs of coming spring,-the wild flowers and the green scattering grass,-and soon the earth is fresher and greener than before. But if we've had a specimen of the 'sunny south,' I'd as soon desert the girl I love best, and marry a wench, as, after the war, bid farewell to old New England, thinking to live on the barren plains and hills of Virginia." Those tents where there are fires, are crowded full. At night there is no roll-call, and early the boys lie down, covered with their blankets.
April 6, 7.
Both days are warm, and both are passed with us in making our tents more comfortable. On the night of the 7th, it is thought there is difficulty on the picket line, for some reason. So a lieutenant and twenty-five soldiers are sent down only a mile's distance, through the mud and dark; but the disturbance is only imaginary.
Col. George J. Stannard is promoted Brigadier General, and assigned to the command of this brigade. Two regiments and the headquarters are at Union Mills; two at Wolf Run Shoals; and ours a mile north of Occoquan village, which is situated on the banks of a small bay of the same name; all keeping up about twenty miles of the front line in the Department of Washington. In the afternoon, battalion drill.
April 9, 10.
Drilling both days.
The regiment is mustered. It is said that all are, to learn the exact number of fighting men. "What does this mean?" asks one, (for we commonly are mustered the last day of every other month). "It means," replies another soldiers, "that we have fun with the 'rebs,' and 'right smart, too, I reckon,' (imitating the native Virginians;) fighting Joe isn't the fellow to lie idle much longer. And when he strikes, he will give them a wound that won't stop bleeding in one day; and will send them running in a way they won't look back before they reach Richmond. So it wouldn't be very wonderful if the Second Brigade should be picketing on the Rappahannock instead of the Bull Run and Occoquan, next month. Or, some say hat we shall be transferred into the army of the Potomac soon; and for my part I would like to see it, that we might prove to the old soldiers that they should call us 'Casey's lions' soon than 'Casey's pets.'"
In looking over my diary for the last fortnight I find nothing but "picketing," "guarding," "battalion drills" and "pleasant days." Though in the morning each company sweeps its street, in a short time, without the greatest care on the part of all, the vicinity of the amp becomes dirty. All the boys have been policing, that is, cleaning the camp and the adjacent lands.
Review. In the morning, hair is cut, whiskers trimmed, boots made to shine a little brighter; in fine, the "finishing touch" is put on to everything, as our General is present, for the first time. The review passes off finely and agreeably to all.
Battalion drill in the morning. At the close, the regiment is formed into a square; Gen. Stannard is introduced, and makes a short speech; the soldiers give him three loud and hearty cheers; then the officers are called forward, and introduced personally to him by Col. Randall,-the General shaking each by the hand warmly.
Three or four from each company are usually permitted to visit Mount Vernon a day, which is about twelve miles northeast of our camp. Many have turned their faced that way to-day. But I will not give an account of our pilgrimage to this sacred shrine, since others have done it so often before; but suffice it to say that we had a most pleasant ride over the hilly, wood-covered country; and strange, though not unpleasing sensations, as we, as soldiers, looked in upon the sarcophagus holding the ashes of Washington; and also, most hospitable treatment at the loyal village of Accotink, where we put up during the night. This is the first time that I have slept in a bed since leaving home; but I have become so accustomed to my pine bunk, that my comrades affirm, after ten o'clock at night, the rebels could rag me off, without disturbing my slumbers.
We receive four months' pay.
A holiday with us; warm and lovely as one can imagine. All, save the guards and pickets, take a stroll and come back to camp with a bunch of wild flowers or peach blows.May 2.
Drilling; and rumors, that Hooker is moving; and we have heard cannonading the most of this afternoon.
Picket Post, near Occoquan Village, Va.,
Sunday Morning, May 3, 1863.
My Dear Father and Mother:-You will have heard of the great battle now going on near Fredericksburg, before this shall reach you. It is a still, Sabbath morning; not a cloud in the sky; and all nature clad in the freshness and beauty of spring. Since day-light we have heard the roar of cannon growing heavier and heavier, till now it almost shakes the solid rocks on which I am writing. Our brigade has not yet been ordered to move, and we may not be, though we could doubtless reach the scene of conflict before it will have ended.
Sunday Evening. -We at this post have been busy all day ferrying sutlers across the river, who arrive from the army of the Potomac. They all bring one report: "Hooker is thrashing the rebel." They no soon reach the opposite shore than some of our boys run quickly down and ask: "What's the news from the old army?" "Fighting; fighting all Along the line; but we are laying them out good," and many such expressions. They say that a number of regiments have volunteered, whose time of service had expired, to fight during this battle. Our boys gave three cheers for them; and are ready to start any moment. All feel that Government has done what it can to make us comfortable. And now if this brigade is called upon to face danger, they will do it like heroes; mark that. But this picket line must be kept up, and we may not move at all.
Monday Morning, May 4.
We heard cannonading until late in the evening. We are to be relieved from this post soon; have heard from camp, and the whole brigade is under marching orders, and expect to start in a few hours. You shall hear again as soon as affairs are more settled; but I must close now, as the postmaster will soon be on his way to Union Mills with the mail.
Your affectionate son.