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Second Vermont Brigade
The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter XVI.July 4.
Early it is reported that the enemy are retreating; but the soldiers don't know whether to believe it nor not,-all hoping that it is so; for our brigade has certainly endured about all it can until it has more than one night's rest. Soldiers are sent out in little squads,-some to bury the dead that have fallen both days, and others to bring in the wounded, our own and the rebel. Now that the enemy are wounded, our boys seem just as willing to give them a drink of cold water, or something to eat, as their own comrades. This morning the soldiers of our regiment have no breakfast-some borrow a few hard tacks of other soldiers-and one soldiers will always divide with another if he has half a meal himself,-but still there is not a word of complaint; for all know that our quartermaster, Nelson A. Taylor, Esq., will have rations on the grounds as soon as possible; and then the men on such occasions seem lifted up beyond heir own natural selves, and to forget in a measure all bodily wants. An order is issued by Gen. Doubleday and read to each of the regiment of the brigade, that took part in the battle, thanking them "for their gallant conduct, in resisting, in the front lines, the main attack of the enemy upon this position."
The adjutant comes around to learn the names and number of those killed and wounded, that they may be telegraphed home. It is found that a quarter of my company had been hit by balls or pieces of shells, and only one killed-James Wilson, a good soldier and a fine young man.
At noon some beeves are shot and dressed; and teams have arrived with rations. Little fires are kindled all over the camp, and soon, I, with twenty others, am crowded around one of them, roasting meat-some fixing it on picked sticks, others, on ramrods bent and broken by balls flying through the air but yesterday. Citizens came to the field and offered to carry letters to the post office, of which the following may be a specimen:
Gettysburg, Pa., July 4, 1863.
On the Battle-field.
My Dear Father and Mother:--I wrote you last when at Emmetsburg. We did not then expect to march that day; but we suddenly found ourselves tramping, and as suddenly in sight of the battle-field. When we arrived at this place, each boy's feet were very badly blistered; and all of us so tired we could hardly stand up. But the moment the cannon's smoke rose before us, it sealed every soldier's lips against complaining, and all nerved themselves to do their duty,-seeming to march easier than before. I cannot describe the battle, only to say, that for more than fourteen hours, both days, we were under fire, where shell and balls were flying thick almost every moment. We, and our friends, ought to thank God that we were not all killed, for this is really the greatest wonder. I came out of the fight without a scratch. You will have learned the names of the wounded before this can reach you. When or where we shall now move none of us known.
Your affectionate son.
We have heard but little firing to-day, and the troops around us have not been moved. Just after noon it begins to rain, and continues through the rest of the day and night. Our camp is nothing but one great mud-hole. The boys bring rails on to the ground, place them parallel, cover them with bushes, and sleep on these with their rubbers over them. We were still far too tired not to sleep soundly, although a barn stood near by, filled with the wounded enemy, whose shattered limbs the surgeons were amputating. I awoke once and heard some of them groaning, some swearing, and others praying fervently to God.
By half past five, troops are hurrying off, we know not where, in pursuit of the rebels. After breakfast our brigade is moved a hundred rods further in front, and there remains quietly till the next morning. It is now rainy, now sunshiny, all day. A few form each company-not to be gone long-are allowed to stroll over the field, and examine where the enemy stood. All are struck with the number of their dead and the almost countless number of arms they left behind. Many of the dead are not buried yet; and in some places, where horses, caissons, guns, gun-carriages, and mangled men, are all rolled in one decaying heap, the loathsome sight and stench are hardly to be endured.
The boys are getting somewhat rested and in much better spirits than yesterday,-laughing, telling over their narrow escapes; how the balls whistled above their heads, how the shells would whir and whiz and burst, and then their white puffs of smoke gently float away in the air, and their pieces come thundering to the earth, covering them with dirt; how and where this one or that one fell fighting bravely; how two in our regiment actually ran away; how the "rebs" jumped and staggered and "tipped over" as we opened fire on them; and how the General did rightly in hurrying us the seven days that we might take part in the great battle. At night we spread our shelter tents, and sleep soundly till morning.
As soon as coffee is made and breakfast eaten, we begin to march rapidly towards Emmetsburg, where we arrive before noon. We were among the last soldiers to leave Gettysburg. The most of the army was set in motion yesterday, and we learn that there was considerable skirmishing between our advance guard and the rear of Lee's army, on the day after the battle closed. Why Gen. Meade did not see fit to set us marching immediately, whether because he could not discover the exact position of the enemy, or because he knew that the army-having marched so long, so rapidly, and fought so hard,-needed a little time to rest before it could operate to advantage, I know not. But this assertion I will venture to make, namely: That when those, who think the army of the Potomac did not commence the pursuit quick enough, have fought for their country as long and as bravely as they did at Gettysburg even, the present soldiers will volunteer to pursue the enemy, one and all; and not complain because ninety thousand veterans have not been annihilated instead of being reduced one third.
As we halted here none expected to stop but a few minutes; but we continued to remain, and just before dark pitch our tents-many have thrown them away, declaring that they would not carry even these on another seven day's march-in a piece of woods on one Of the highest hills near the town. Where Lee is, and the best way of hitting him the hardest blow, are much talked of, and of course each soldier must express his opinion to his fellow comrade. There were a few rumors, such as these: "Lee has been cut off at Hagerstown?" "He is coming through his way." We got papers to-day and also yesterday, the first we have seen since starting from the mouth of the Occoquan river the 25th of June. A number of thousand troops encamped near us, and considerable artillery is planted on the brow of the hill line our front. But at ten o'clock at night, when many are asleep, and the camp fires burned low, orders are sent around for each company to be up by three, and ready to start at half past three in the morning on the march.
Before the bright stars have faded in the heavens, the camp fires are kindled anew, and the boys are bustling around in the forest preparing for breakfast. Soon all is ready; for our weak and wounded have been left at Gettysburg, from thence to be transported by railroad to Washington, and by daylight we are marching. Many are the places named by this and that one where we are bound; but straightway it is evident that we are going back over the same road by which we had come from Frederick. From this time onward until we make our coffee for dinner, there is hardly a moments' pause, and when there is, the boys spread their rubbers and lied down panting on their backs. Tramp, tramp,--a July forenoon is hot and long-tramp, tramp; the rumble of artillery wheels, and now and then squads of cavalry dashing by us, are about all we see or hear; and shall I not say, thing of? Tramping, still tramping, sweating, chafing, puffing. "Be patient, boys; we have yet got to climb a steep, slippery, winding road over the mountain, six miles, before we pitch our tents in the Middleton valley," says the General. A while after noon we turn to the right, cross the Catochin mountain, and encamp on the west side near its foot, after it has grown quite dark. We have never seen so hard a day's march before. The citizens say that we have come more than thirty miles. "A battle must be raging somewhere, or why this rush, this steady stretch of sixteen hours' marching? And that too, by men well nigh Worn down before?" With such thoughts as these the soldiers closed their eyes,-the rain spattering in their faces.
Before it is fairly light we are awake, and commence marching without any breakfast, only as each nibbles a hard tack on the way. It rains violently, and the roads are all mud. So hurried is our course-one after another in the advance falling out and mixing up with those further to the rear-that in two hours you cannot distinguish one regiment from another. Near noon we halt on the top of a steep hill covered with clover, not far from Middleton Village, wet, hungry, so tired that all would most gladly lie down to sleep, expecting to continue the march in a short time. Now the clouds have departed, and the sun shines out warmly; the crystal raindrops twinkle on the green grass and leaves; and all nature smiles, and looks fresher and lovelier than before the storm had swept over her bosom. But a still greater change has come over he soldiers; for now it is known that Vicksburg has fallen; that Lee's defeat is overwhelming; and that we shall turn our faces homeward in the morning.
After the boys had eaten their dinner-the most buy warm biscuit or loaves of bread of the citizens-all go down and wash themselves in a small stream. The sixth corps is camped near us, and many from the old brigade visit their friends in ours, and congratulate them upon doing so well at Gettysburg, and upon going home. Soon the troops around us are marching towards Hagerstown. Although every man is in ecstasy at the thought of meeting his friends, yet, with pain and many regrets, did we see our brother soldiers depart, with whom we had marched so many miles and fought by their sides at Gettysburg, and always treated so kindly by them. We remain in the beautiful valley until morning. It reminded us of New England more than any other place we had seen, lying between the Catochin and South mountains, much broken, but the little hills are covered with wheat, corn, and sweet smelling clover, with pure springs of water at their bases.
Not far from seven o'clock, we begin to march towards Frederick, where we arrive at noon. We meet the old brigade, just starting for Hagerstown, and give each regiment three as loud cheers as our tongues would let us, which they answered with cheers equally loud, and wished us a safe and pleasant journey home. The road, the while distance, was crowded with troops-we have never seen every-body in such fine spirits-and teams to supply them, all following the retreating enemy. We march down three miles to the Junction, and there take the cars for Baltimore. Sleep and darkness soon almost unconsciously steal upon us; and by midnight we are in the latter city. It was a warm, starry night, far different from the rainy, chilly 12th of October, when we arrived here nine months before.
We remain in Baltimore till the night of the 11th. All have considerable pride to meet their friends looking as well as possible. Many-some have left their youthful mustaches to themselves for the nine months-visit the barbers' shops; and many buy new suits of clothes. We stopped here for the sick and wounded to arrive from the hospitals in Alexandria and Washington.
The next morning, Sunday, Philadelphia welcomes us back from the war not less kindly than she received us when we were going, nine months before, to defend her borders.
The middle of the afternoon finds us at Jersey city. Just at dark we go on board a steamer, but do not start out till the next morning at seven. For awhile after we had pushed off from the wharf, the deck is covered with soldiers to view the principal objects of interest; but, one by one, they go back, and in an hour the most are sleeping on the floors. At one o'clock we disembark at New Haven; and soon those waving kerchiefs; those sweet voices; those well tilled fields; those white cottages, surrounded by flowers and fruit trees, and near by the garden patches filled with vegetables; those green pastures; school-houses and churches,-all tell us that we are once more in New England. We arrive at Brattleboro' at half past eleven P.M.; and the soldiers go to the barracks which they first entered on the last day of September before.