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Second Vermont Brigade


The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter VII.

The sun's rays are glancing obliquely on the white frosty earth, as we start forth picket line, two miles south of Centreville, and eight miles from camp. The whole brigade is stationed near the Court House, and the regiments take turn in doing the picket duty, - each on four days. The rest of the time is mostly consumed in brigade and battalion drill, and keeping guard. We pass over the broad turnpike between the two villages-since 1861, now held by friend and now by foe-not level, but rising and falling, like waves one behind another. We have reached the summit of a ridge running east and west-the highest point for a number of miles. On this is a long line of rifle pits, between works thrown up for cannon. A few rods south is Centreville, a village of twelve or fifteen houses that have been white-washed sometime, with huge stone chimneys at both ends; occupied by negroes and government stores, as a few hundred cavalry have been encamped here for awhile, also doing picket duty. Far and near are barracks and ruins of barracks, built and occupied by the enemy in the winter of 1861, and abandoned by them in the spring of 1862. We know that we are on historic ground. Eagerly the eye seizes on objects to the south, glancing down the sloping hill, then on, over a wide tract streaked with forests, and cut up with little streams - still on five or six miles to Bull Run battle-field. Two companies are posted as pickets; the rest go into the filthy log huts. When new they were doubtless quite warm and comfortable; but now, parts of them are torn down, and mud out of the crevices, so that one is in doubt whether to take them or the open fields swept by cold winds. Water freezes in the canteens. Towards evening we got in some wood to burn, boards to lie on, hang the rubbers and small tents around the rough walls, and prepare for supper. A few stroll off and find places that they regard better; but the Colonel soon orders them back, saying that they were liable to be attacked by rebel cavalry during the night. A long dull night it is-too cold for much sleep.

Dec. 21.

Early, ten men and a lieutenant are sent out from three companies each, to act with the cavalry patrols, on the main roads-two miles from the village. Two are left on the beat, who are relieved once in two hours. The rest of us selected a place a hundred rods in the rear, out of sight as much as possible, in some wild rose bushes. These we clear away with our knives; start a fire; hang up pieces of shelter tents to break the wind off - nothing over us; gather hay to lie on, and we are rigged for the twenty-four hours. We have ten hard tacks each,-twelve is a day's ration-a little pork, coffee and sugar. Some cook-fry the meat by converting the tin plates into frying pans-sticking small sticks in them and holding the move the fire. The hard tack, soaked in cold water, is then fried in the lard. Some, however, eat it clear, now and then taking a draught of hot coffee. The cavalry patrols say that they are driven in, but we see no signs of the enemy. They had been in the war from its commencement, and were fond of relating their daring exploits; how this one escaped at dead of night, with many balls through his clothes; how that one charged in first and second Bull Run battles; how from yonder peaks you could see dead men all around; and no end was there to their stealing the hens and pigs of "secesh" citizens. With us is a jolly son of Erin. He is a little blind and quite excitable. In the distance he sees a rebel in every old stump or rail fence; here they are pushing on towards us in four files; yonder are cavalry plotting against us: "That house up there is full of the divils. By jabers," says he, "we ought to burn it." When asleep, he dreams of battles, and making terrible charges on the foe:

..In broken dreams the image rose
Of varied perils, pains and woes."

It is the custom to halt the cavalry when at a distance of five or six rods, and if there is anything that shows hostile intentions, then to make one dismount and give the countersign. At one time, after dark, a cavalry man's horse had got away, and came galloping towards Uncle Dan. His spirits rise-rise as the clattering hoofs come nearer, till within fifteen or twenty rods: "Halt!" he cries, three times in quick succession, and in a half second more the crack of his rifle would have brought us to the reserve to our feet, when his laughing comrades tell him the horse is without a rider.

As we came back to our comrades the next morning, I never saw them so desponding. The cold wind, the clouded skies, the open, filthy barracks, and the rebels armies-these are nothing to daunt; but Seward and Chase have resigned, (such is rumor); Burnside is defeated; a thousand times the worst of all, the North is distracted: "Will they support us?" "Will they support us?" ask many; "Woe on the heads of those infernal villains that stab our country in this dark moment," mutter others: "the South is united; foreign intervention is staring us in the face; a long winter is closing in upon us; Congress is a mob; some blaming this general; some, that general; and as if this was not enough, we have but about half rations." In the afternoon a cavalry man, who has gone a little beyond the picket line, is shot near an house by a bushwhacker. His comrades are furiously enraged: "To be shot in battle, to die on the field, for one's country," says one of the officers, "this is honorable-this is noble. We, who have lived for twenty months, as it were, in the saddle, who have endured the heats of summer, the colds of winter, with the blue heavens over us, the damp ground beneath us, with deadly foes prowling about us in our slumbers; we who have survived the wrecks of twenty battles,-we, I say, fear no danger. But to be murdered, butchered,-for, soldiers, look on our brother,"-(they have just brought him in, and he lies still bleeding on a board); "these villains have shot him through the heart; and his face, once so full of martial beauty, and his manly form, all mangled by a murder's dagger, not a soldier's, by one that's loyal through the day, but traitor through the night. Men, we shan't endure this longer. That house shall no longer stand a rendezvous, where those who are loyal to our faces, disloyal to our backs, may congregate at night, and plot against our lives. Go, burn it on the ground, and if you set your eyes upon that murderer, never let it be said that 'that bushwhacker, has killed another man." No sooner had he ended, than fifteen horsemen put spurs to their steeds, armed with pistols, cutlass and carbine, and in a short time the house is in flames, but the traitor escaped. On the 23d the cavalry are reinforced, so only two companies go on picket. The quartermaster brings a plenty of rations to us. On the 24th we are relieved by the fourteenth regiment, who arrive at our camp the middle of the afternoon.

Dec. 25.

Christmas. In all the brigade there is no drilling. The chaplains preach to the various regiments. Then many visit the Chantilly battle field. A citizen points our the spot where the brave Kearney fell; where the lines swayed to and fro. Here, side by side, are the graves of friend and foe. The enemy held the field. Their dead are buried very decently; but shocking to say, only a few sods were thrown over ours, and frequently, feet, hands and skulls are sticking out, flesh still on. But we found men from the twelfth regiment covering these heroes that fought so bravely. We lose another of our soldiers. Oscar Reed dies suddenly of typhoid fever.

Dec. 26.

Battalion and brigade drill; nothing new in camp-not even rumors. The weather is again quite warm; plenty of rations, and the boys cheerful.

Dec. 27.

"Is it battalion or brigade drill? Shall we go on a march, or be allowed to wash our clothes?" 'Tis noon; no orders have come; clean up for inspection. In two hours more all are scattered, a part getting wood; a part washing clothes, and themselves; others scouring guns. Now the long roll is beat. "Siegel is fighting at Dumfries." See the running, the scampering for arms. Two hours more; "no marching to-day," comes the order from the General.

Dec. 28.

Sunday. The usual inspection and divine services pass off; the soldiers write to their friends; standout in the sun-light, laughing, talking, yet all quiet. Short are the hours, and quickly flies the day, hardly dreaming that we are soldiers. But just at dark one of thee General's aids rides up to the Colonel's tent, on a gallop, as usual. In a moment the bugler sounds the officers' call. "Have your men ready to march at a moment's notice," is the order. Most expect to go; for we have heard of numerous fights for the past few days; of alternate victories and defeats; of marches, counter-marches and movements front, rear and flank, till we know not whether friends or enemies surround us. We are soon formed in line, and are off, expecting to have a little skirmish with rebel cavalry, after marching five or six miles. But when a little east of the village, we are placed in some rifle-pits dug by the rebels themselves, in the early part of the war, to oppose our advance. Two companies of the twelfth are sent forward that we may not be surprised. Report has swelled the number of Stuart's cavalry that have broken through our lines south of us, to four thousand; as near as I could learn, about twice what they were. Two hours have passed; some have unrolled their blankets, and are half asleep. Now a volley from the front. All spring to their places instantly, expecting the enemy. Cannon are planted to sweep the road. These are discharged a few times at the rebels, a mile and a half away, prowling around a house which they have set on fire. We then start for another road on double quick, glad to move; for our hands and feet are getting numb with cold. Two hours here; the companies are scattered about watching. "Who comes there?" loudly cries the foremost of twenty horsemen. "Who comes there yourself?" replies the Colonel, each thinking the other an enemy. "I'm a Union picket and patrol between this and Centreville. Advance, and give the countersign." "Advance, yourself, and give the countersign; I'm a colonel in the Union army, and here's my men about me." Soon they are satisfied with each other. The horses and men are hidden from us, before the clatter of their hoofs on the frozen ground ceases to reach us. A little after midnight we go back to the rifle-pits and remain till morning. We had but few cavalry near the village, so the enemy easily bent their course around us, with but little injury to themselves, and none to us. Before the sun has risen, little fires are started along the line, and around them soldiers cooking coffee and eating bread, and butter sent from home, or bought of the sutler for forty cents a pound. At eight o'clock the regiments return to their several camps and doze away the rest of the day.

Dec. 30.

Nothing but drills and guarding.

Dec. 31.

All are mustered. The boys do their best, at washing themselves and clothes, cutting hair and scouring guns, to show off as well as they can. The brigade head-quarters are established at the village, and for the past few days the regiment shave taken turns in sending a hundred men to guard them. No little sensation has been produced by the arrest of several officers and privates, for not dressing, and washing, and stepping, and saluting, and other smaller things, just according to stern military rules. So before leaving our parade ground we go through a mimic guard-mount, under the eye of a field officer. We make a number of mistakes here. These are pointed out. And as is often the case, when, one not thoroughly versed in what he is doing, attempts at being over nice, comes short of his common work, so we under the eye of the General. Yet none are arrested; but some are sworn at, and one of the lieutenants laughed at for making a sort of an awkward start instead of a graceful salute as he passes the officer of the day. Two regiments of cavalry camped near the village. Some of these about midnight make havoc with the sutler's shops, helping themselves to the tobacco, beer, cider and apples, before the guards could reach tem, declaring that they were "on a bust the last day of the year."

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