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Second Vermont Brigade


The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter VI.

Long before daylight the stars are shipping brightly, and the camps are all alive. Things are being packed up; breakfast ate; such of the sick as are unable to march a part of the way and be carried a part on the ambulances, turned over to the regimental hospital, and thence to some general hospital in Alexandria or Washington; last, the tents are struck and loaded on the wagons, and we are off. The whole brigade is moving, commanded by Gen. Stoughton. This one declares that we are going up the Potomac; that one, down; this one, to Bull Run again; and that one, to Centreville. But if either is right, it is because he happens to guess it; for rarely does a soldier know long before, when, or where he is to march; and as well might one, unlearned in astronomy, conjecture the shiftings of the winds and storms, for the next generation, as for a soldier in the morning to pretend where he Will be at night. They know this, submit to it, with little or no murmuring, and as soon as they halt for the night go to making them as good a place to lie on as they can .We have marched about a mile, when the sun rises above the low, wooded hills of Maryland, its rays flashing on the burnished rifles, and the long line of men rolling steadily over little swells of land, now seen, and now the living chain is broken from your view by the uneven land, looking not unlike a beautiful river, as seen from some neighboring hill in early day, whose silvery waters are winding through the valley below, at one time hid by rocks or strips of trees, and then pouring on, narrowing, till lost far away; so looked this line of brave men, each gathering courage as he sees the host stepping by martial music, and pride, that he, with such, are the defenders of his country. At ten we are told that Burnside has taken Fredericksburg; that soldiers have been pushed on from Centreville to support him; and that we are to occupy their places. A glorious day it is; a bright sun, pure air, just cool enough for exercising, and never did men march with higher sprits, all except the weakly; victory perching on our banner; and many, forgetful of the peninsular disaster, and the famous retreat of Pope, almost with their heated imaginations behold Richmond in flames, Lee, Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson in the old capitol prison, and the rebel army scattered like autumn leaves. My company is placed in the rear of all to pick up the stragglers, that is, such as fall out from their places. The teams, four horses to each, drawing large, heavily ironed, four-wheeled wagons-covered with coarse cotton cloth-of the whole brigade, start between us and the last regiment. There are seven for each, except our own regiment, and two ambulances, on drawn by four, and the other by two horses. Our teams had been turned over to the government when at Bull Run, and we had not succeeded in getting others, only for the ambulances. There are men in every company, who are just recovering from sickness, or just growing sick, or weak from diarrhea-a most common complaint among the soldiers-or low from various causes, who prefer to try the march to being left behind, and hence sent to a general hospital. So they start with the rest. We have gone a mile and a half. I now see one, pale, breathing hard and coughing; two comrades step up to him: "Johnnie, let us carry your knapsack;" a third comes up; "and let me have your gun." He goes on a mile or so; takes his own things; on again, till his strength gives out. Then some one assists him to get on the ambulance, if this is not already full; if so, then try the wagons. But what if these are loaded with tents, pork and hard tack? Then he must sit by the roadside till the rear guard salutes him. "Fall in, boys, fall in! We have orders to pass by none." He looks as though doubting whether to try the march, or not. But he slowly puts on his burden, and continues along with us for awhile. Now the whole brigade halts; and perhaps some ambulance which has been emptied of its soldiers, who have become rested, comes back to the rear, and takes those who have suffered most from the march. In this way there were not more than twenty-five fro the whole brigade with the rear guard, as we reached the place of encampment, a mile north-west of Fairfax Court House, just dark, about an hour later than the main force. We have marched twenty miles. I saw only one throw his knapsack away-remember in this is everything a soldier has to keep him warm, and that he cannot long endure these frosty nights without his blanket,-and a surgeon got this one on an ambulance. We camp in the edge of a forest of oak and chestnut; here, instead of the open plain, as the leaves will be between the rubber blankets and the ground, and wood for our fires nearer. Most pitch their shelter tents; a few have lost them, and lied around the fires-I so near one that my overcoat receives a good scorching. Short is the time between boiling coffee, and lying on the leaves under the blankets; and still shorter between this and sleep. Early the next morning everything is arranged to continue the march. But the forenoon passes off, we expecting each hour to go the next; but in the afternoon it is understood that we remain through the night, and so we have a battalion drill. From one till dark, infantry, cavalry and teams, are marching by us to reinforce Burnside.

Dec. 14.

Sunday morning-calm and still save the tramp; the ceaseless tramp of cavalry and infantry that are rolling by us from early down till late in the evening. As one for the first time looks on the waves and tidal motions of the ocean, at once does he explain, "What power! How great, how grand, how majestic, is the ocean;" and if he dwells in the city, in ecstasy will he ride over the country, and breathe the pure mountain air; and in turn, a countryman's curiosity is not a little aroused by a stroll through the most ordinary city. But though the objects of nature and art are grand and beautiful, and great to stir one's feelings within him-all pale away, like stars before the silver flood of the morning sun, as he gazes long on the vast human sea, in a few hours to be thrown into fury by the shock of battle. Onward, onward they go, unbroken as a stream, and resistless as the tide, think we. "They conquered the rebels at Antietam; Burnside has again at Fredericksburg; he must capture Richmond this time," many say. Give the soldiers a plenty to eat; give them a general who will lead them to victory; pay then when they are in need, and rarely will you hear a murmur or see a better feeling set of fellows.

We have the usual Sunday morning inspection. They captains examine the arms to see that they are in good condition; and cartridge boxes, that there are forty rounds of ammunition. The boys spend not a little time in scouring and oiling their guns. For this purpose each has a little bottle of oil and piece of emery paper, which they buy of the sutler; or if wanting this, they use the top of the round, soft, fine, a little gritty, but not so as to scratch the barrel. After the inspection is over, the colonel forms the regiment into a square and speaks as follows: "Soldiers, this inspection has been very imperfect on my part. But do not think there will be any relaxation. I ordered you to leave your knapsacks in your tents on account of this sudden march, thinking that your clothes might not be clean and well arranged. Now the object of this inspection is not to make your clothes clean, and guns bright, but to know that they are so. I see, boys, that some of you are getting somewhat dirty, greasy even, about the neck. There will always be a few in every regiment who don't have a care for these things. So they get vermin on them, and that isn't the worst; Necessarily they give the prolific creatures to others, who are very particular as to cleanliness. These things must be attended to:-your guns in good order, your clothes and persons clean. And since you have a little leisure, and there is a stream of running water near, and the day is warm, I advise you to do this as soon as your are dismissed; for you know you cannot on the march, and to-morrow you may be following in the steps of yonder veterans."

Many heed the colonel's advice and give their bodies a good scrubbing with soap and water,-most from inclination; but possibly a few, through fear of becoming unpopular with their comrades. Many hang out their clothes to dry, as they washed them the day before we started on the march; and so were packed into the knapsack wet.

Dec. 15.

Still lying in the woods; and still expecting each our to start the next. Many rumors reach us from Burnside. Alas! his star, that shone with such splendor but yesterday, is shooting from the heavens with the comet's speed, scarce leaving one ray of light-darkness closing in upon its course, like waters in the wake of a ship. Now he is shelling the city, and throwing pontoon bridges across the river; now his men are over, and Fredericksburg burned to the ground; now the rebels are flying back to Richmond, pursued by our victorious army. All are jubilant. But in a half an hour more the news is brought us from Gen'l. Sigel's head-quarters at Fairfax Court House: "Gen. Burnside's whole army is driven back across the rive with fearful loss." Never were bright skies so suddenly darkened by clouds; never did thermometer so frequently rise and fall by shifting storms, as did our spirits by alternate reports of victory and defeat. But just at night the surgeon comes into camp with a paper. According to this, our forces have been partially successful,-room for hope, but bitter comparisons drawn between Burnside and McClellan. We have had most fortunately three warm and pleasant days, but at four the next morning we are roused from sound sleep by rain coming through our shelter tents, as if made of paper. Soon all are up, stumbling around in the woods and dark, to start fires and throw the rubber blankets over tents. We are now short of rations. A few frequently have complained that they did not have what they wanted to eat; did not get what government furnished; but most have had a plenty until now. But last night, a few ate more than half a meal, and now only six hardtacks for the day,-no meat, no coffee, no sugar, (deprived of either, a soldier is somewhat out of humor,) all expecting a great rain storm. There is considerable murmuring. Some of the rash ones, not to officers, of course, but to sympathizers, give vent to their passions thus: "I won't lift a hand until I have had more to eat." "I will help myself to the bread, and they can put me in the guardhouse as quick as they please." As fifteen or twenty stand around a heap of wet brush, smoking more than burning, one rough fellow explodes in this way: "This whole war is a d--d swindling concern. It's kept up by inferior scoundrels to make money. Six hundred million dollars squandered in a year, and we half fed! Down here it is first nigger, then mule, and last soldier. We haven't drawn half our rations since we left home; but by the ----, I'll not stir another inch till they get us what we want to eat. When my time is out, if they get me again, they will get me by drafting. What a shame for a soldier to starve within four miles of a railroad, and in sight of Washington." Another answers, who utters the opinions of most: "We are now, and have been in the past, occasionally short of rations. But have we never gone without a meal when at home? And who thought of whining like a child? Didn't we suddenly start on a march, and hence the commissary was more or less disarranged? And to talk of starving as we now live, is merely talking Don't we all weigh more tan when we left home? Is this starving? Those, who will eat themselves sick in a week's time,-if the sutler don't get all his green backs before-of course will complain here. Didn't seventy-five thousand soldiers pass through here yesterday and the day before? All these must be fed. Let us look at these things like men. The wonder is, that the government feeds so many so well. The skies are dark this morning; and if Burnside is beaten, darker still our national affairs; not from the blow received from the rebels; but the traitors in the North will seize on this, and cry 'Peace.' It is time to deplore the event when we know the worst; but never to despair, whatever disaster befall our country."

Our A tents were brought by railroad to Fairfax Station last night; those of the rest of the brigade were on the teams that came with us. About nine o'clock quite a number from each company go down to bring them up on their backs,-four miles from the camp. As they plod on, the red mud sticking to their boots, they speculate thus: "Now if Burnside beats the rebels at Fredericksburg, and forces them back to Richmond, we shall be ordered on at once to take their places on the Rappahannock; if he is driven back, we shall go to aid him. Hence, whichever way the tide of the battle turns, we cannot remain there more than a day or two. So why carry these tents four miles on our backs through this infernal mud?" But after they have become warmed by exercising, all conclude that it is better to move about than to shiver in camp. Whilst at the Station, an old woman, whose dress was certainly never worn out by being washed, gets up a brisk trade with the boys, by selling pies,-some made of dried peaches, and some of wild rabbit. We reach camp, and have our tents up before dark, in much better spirits than in the morning. Near by had been all day a pile of bread,-a thousand loaves. Around it a guard paces, shifting his gun from shoulder to shoulder. The soldiers think it ought to be dealt out. After dark (we are told) one creeps up slyly, seizes a loaf, and starts off on the run. The guard don't see him till off a number of rods. He now comes to his accustomed sharpness at once, and is on the thief's track, screaming "corporal of the guard! corporal of the guard!" Whilst on the pursuit, and before the corporal reaches the spot, another helps himself. In this way the pile was some smaller the next morning.

Dec. 17.

No drilling. Similar rations are dealt out as at the other camp,-soft bread, pork, coffee and sugar. Rumors of Burnside's defeat; grumbling in the North.

Dec. 18.

All of our things reach us to-day. Two men from a company were left behind to take care of them. They day after we left, Captain White died of typhoid fever. All are anxious (asking this one, and that one, if he has heard from Burnside,) to get an accurate report of the great battle at Fredericksburg. Rarely do daily papers come to us, though we get our mail every other day.

Dec. 19.

Lying in the woods; no drilling. The Colonel won't let us stockade the tents, as he says we shan't remain here but a short time. But few have any fires in them. The nights are cold. This morning, when I went to the little stream to wash me, I found it frozen an inch deep. If you wake any hour of the night, you heard the strokes of a dozen axes; and what is really painful, many coughing-coughing-deep and hoarse. He cold has crept through the tent and blanket, and thief-like, robbed the soldier of his sleep. He starts up, cold all over, feet, hands, head and body. His fire outside his tent has burned low. He throws the brands together, and then starts with his axe after wood. Now the logs are burning brightly, forming a beautiful circle of light, the radius of which is growing fainter and fainter till lost in the darkness; within is another circle of soldiers chatting around the fire. In the afternoon the bugle calls the officers about the Colonel's tent. The order is given to have their men ready to start at a moment's notice. This is soon changed, and we go on battalion drill. It has been rumored all day that McClellan is reinstated in power At nine o'clock at night orders came from the brigade head-quarters for the whole regiment to go on picket the next day.

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