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Second Vermont Brigade
The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter IV.Nov. 25.
It is eight o'clock at night - dark, pitchy dark, and raining fast. The guards, as usual, to and fro, are pacing the trodden beats. In each tent is a candle burning, and around it a little squad of soldiers, all busy; some telling their accustomed stories; some smoking; some at a game of cards; now a lively son entices laughter; one is reading, another writing to his friend, with portfolio on his knees; perchance some weary boy has fallen asleep,-none dreaming of marches. Just now the colonel calls the sergeant major: "Tell the captains that their men must be ready to start at a moment's notice, with gun, equipments, forty rounds of ammunition, blankets and rations for a day." Ah! now the quiet scene is shifted. See the hurry, the bustle. The blankets, spread on the bunks for night's repose, are rolled and tied tot he well-filled knapsacks, and haversacks crowded with bread and pork. Then the boys come forward for the death-bearing cartridge,-many with some facetious remark: "Fun with the rebels I reckon. " "We are good for 'em." The sick in the hospital, and a few in each company unable to do military duty, are left behind. A little before nine we start, in the best of spirits, but not with a quick step, for it is muddy, and so dark that one can scarce see his comrade before him. On we plod through mud and water-hitting now this one, now that one, and in turn hit by the same-halting once an hour for a few minutes, and each time some fall asleep and have to be shaken, as we start-until half past three, when we rest in a pine grove. First we stack guns and start fires; then some spread their shelter tents; others arrange sticks of wood and lie down on these. My bed unfortunately happens near a pile of wood, and as often as sleep deigns to approach my eyes, some fellow, whose fire has burned low, comes after fuel, in a not very ceremonious manner. Half asleep, half awake, turning from one side to the other,-the rain spattering in my face,-I lie there, occasionally, I fear not in the most pleasant manner, ordering off some one stumbling about my head. Sooner than we are rested, day returns, cold and wet. But we have good fires, and around each you see a squad of soldiers, from whose blue backs steam is evaporating; not desponding, but laughing over the night's march; eating bread and pork which they have roasted, not as the followers of Aeneas, "Verubusque trementia figunt," but on peaked sticks.
Nearly all get a little taste of sweet sleep-aye sweet; for sleep a soldier will, that has marched all night through mud or water at eight we begin the march again, ignorant of our destination, and continue it until noon, with several rests, when we halt in a pine grove, just south of Fairfax Court House. Here we made fires and ate our rations. They some, weary with the night's and forenoon's marches, with the blankets over them, near the fires, fall into a gentle sleep. In two hours more we are off, and encamp near Fairfax Station, a third time in a pine grove. Here some pitch their tents, and others make little bough-houses of small pine trees and limbs. I, with fifteen comrades, pass the night in one of these. Poles are strung along from tree to tree; limbs, placed on the ground, lean against these, with a similar covering to break the wind off. In the middle is a large fire. Around this we gather, make coffee, roast pork and eat; then come smoking, story-telling, and now a song. If one happens to be in want of anything to eat, another is always ready to divide with him. The fire is kept burning all night, one tending awhile and then another. Wrapped in our blankets we lie down, feet to the fire. At midnight you hear the clicking of axes. Boys, whose shins are too cold to sleep, are up rekindling the fires that have gone out by the few hours neglect. The next morning at eight we continue the march, resting at noon long enough to boil coffee in our cups of wire bales; now up and down little hills, now through a forest of pine or oaks, till evening, when we bivouac on the rough banks of the Bull Run, near Union Mills. Three companies are sent forward as pickets and stationed along the stream. Here are a large number of earth works and barracks, built by the enemy, and abandoned by him, when McClellan moved the spring before. Some go into these rough dwellings, made of pine logs and mud, (there are places to build fires), and pass the night; others use the tents.
All around grass sprang up and grew most luxuriantly during the summer months, undisturbed by the soldiers of either side. Many gather this for beds, softer by far than coniferous twigs, with which the soldier commonly covers his bunk. The engine followed us to this point, which before had gone no farther south than Fairfax Station, after Pope's retreat the August before. During the next five days our baggage-large tents, camp kettles,-and such of the sick as are able to be moved, arrive. Two companies a day go on picket. The rest pass the time in stockading a little, and discussing the object and benefit of late moves, and of no moves, something like this: "Only one regiment of the brigade has followed us. That we are here alone, what injury to the enemy or benefit to us? What necessity of our starting in a furious storm of rain, at nine o'clock at night, to tramp here, unless forsooth to give us exercise? Sigel, with his Germans, is at the Court House-back fifteen miles; Burnside, and even Lee, is northwest of us. There is no one to support us, and we can't hold this point a single moment. Indeed, does any one know by whose order, or why, we came here at all? Already it is rumored, and I say with truth, that we are going back to our old camp. This, no doubt, will be styled a 'strategic' move. If to wear out an army by useless marches, and do the enemy little injury, is strategy, certainly the past eighteen months have called forth the most wonderful generalship the world ever saw."
One company is on picket. Three regiments have encamped near us. Rumor is unusually busy. At one time we are to join Burnside; at another, to patrol the streets of Washington the coming winter; now, go with Banks to Texas; then, into winter quarters at our old camp. A few spread these reports, and none believe them.
The next morning, I, with my company, start for the picket line along the river. This famous stream, like some men, had it not been for events that have transpired around it, would hardly have found place in print. The sterile bluffs, running to all points of the compass; rocky, so rough that you can hardly pull yourself up, carrying a gun; covered with scrubby oaks; pines and laurel with its green, orange-like leaves, in places, come down so near the turbid river, that the cheerful sun is invisible to us, save from half past nine till half past two in the afternoon So winding and broken are the banks that often the pickets cannot see each other, whose beats are not more than twenty-five rods apart. Travel the stream for miles, and rarely is the diameter of the visual circle equal to a half mile.
It is a bright, frosty morning, little crystals hanging from every limb. During the night, for several feet, ice gathered along the shores. Here it is from five to ten rods wide, and fordable in many places. Wild grapes grow in profusion along the shores, which we though a great luxury. Two or three are left at a post, and take turns in keeping watch. They have as good a fire during the day as they choose to build; but a small one by night, that cannot be seen far. Back sixty or seventy rods, in a thick pine forest, is the reserve, which relieves those posted in the morning.
It is Thanksgiving in our native State, and we had long anticipated a pleasant time; for our kind friends at home had sent forward boxes well filled with things edible, as good as any epicure could desire. These failed to reach us, so we ate hard tack and pork, and only laughed at our misfortune. Some, however, lament that they are not at home to enjoy the day. Memory takes along with herself a pleasing train-and not least to the soldier's heart-but as the fair lovely forms are contrasted with present scenes, not so pleasing as the past, they do excite mournful emotions in many a bosom.
The school with its sweet remembrance, the church with its solemnity, the light dance, the love and bridal scene, and the reassembling under the paternal roof of this anniversary; all, or each, are topics for this, or that one, according to the bent of mind."We spake of many a vanished scene. Of what we once had thought and said; Of what had been, and might have been, And who has changed and who was dead."
Fog, rising from the valley in the morning, passes over little hills, bends up, and soon is flying through the jagged notches of the mountain, if these are not too high, and then drop by drop, on leaf and moss, it loses itself. So some men with circumstances, according as they are rough and difficult, go, some over, round some, are lost in some; others, with steel-pointed drill and powder, start at once to cutting a road through the mountain. Here are a dozen good fellows, who have adopted the Lacedemonian code: "Steal (from Dixie), but not get found out," who are not to be bluffed out of a choice supper, by the mere circumstance of a few miles' march And, so they-as they say-"Lay in a requisition in the name of Uncle Sam," with rifle in hand, scour the country around, and at night sit down to their tables of "hard tack" boxes, covered with chickens or turkey, or fresh pork.