Site Logo
Home | Battles | Descendants | Find A Soldier | Monuments | Museum | Towns | Units | Site Map

Second Vermont Brigade


The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Chapter IX.

Jan. 20.

"Is it forward or backward? to Bull Run or Alexandria? Are we really going, or is it another rumor?" Last night, with these queries in their minds, the soldiers closed their eyes; and this morning at five, they are pulled open by the beat of the drum. Soon the camps are all lighted; the rolls called; things packed; the mule teams loaded; and we are marching a little after day-light. We have gone but a few rods, when one comes from the brigade hospital to our company: "John Canady is dead," he said: "died at midnight." "died at midnight." "John Canady is dead," passes down the line from mouth to mouth. The next day a soldier goes back to see that his body is sent to his friends. None have any regrets at turning their back on this place; for the brigade has four dead men now in the hospital, and a hundred and fifty sick,-some with typhoid fever, but most wit the measles. We have reached our destination the middle of the afternoon - a high bluff near the Occoquan river, (twelve miles march,) with aching backs and weary legs. A soldier's burden (nearly fifty pounds) is much heavier this season of the year than in the summer. Now he clings to his blankets, shirts, &c., as to his life; then he threw them away on long marches to save it. As soon as it is known that we are to halt here through the night, all are working in great haste. The trees (for we are in a pine forest) fall as if the men were clearing the land. The tents are close behind us; and pitched before dark. We have no stoves; no brick with which we can make fireplaces; and the ground is frozen.

At night I go over the camp. Each company has eight or ten fires between its two rows of tents. Here is a small one, where are four or five soldiers chatting; there is one that roars, and lights up the woods for rods, its cone-like flames darting up ten feet and spreading as they curl among the spitting pine twigs and leaves. There is no war-whoop sounding out on the night air; no wild dance, or painted faces; but the scene really brings to mind the Indian stories of one's childhood. But no,-soon there are signs of civilization, and of a fiercer war than of bows and arrows. A battery of brazen cannon follows us, and is planted to defend the fords of the river; and the telegraph, with its lightning tongue to herald the lest move of the enemy at any other point, is strung through the forest; and each man, though armed with rifle, has a copy of the New Testament. The brigade is now scattered; two regiments are here; the other three at Fairfax Station, -eight miles in the rear.

Jan. 21.

It rains fast all day. Some of the soldiers suffered considerably from lying on the ground last night. There were not axes enough so that all could make themselves bunks. Two teams reach us, lightly loaded with hard tack, -it is so muddy.

Jan. 22.

A captain, two lieutenants and one hundred men are detailed to turn the road where it is muddiest; and near evening the teams arrive with most of the baggage and some rations. Illy fares the mules and horses that have fallen into the hands of the government. Many fine animals-often by improper use-are spoiled in a short time; and now their bodies and skeletons line the fields and roads, where the armies have moved. Such of the sick as are able to walk, come up with us; for walking, as one can turn his course around the worst places, is much easier than riding over these roads. We also get our mail. No drilling; no skirmishing; -but rumors, thick as flies before a storm, and of about the same importance, -doing no injury, but still tormenting; these by little bites; those by setting curiosity on tiptoe, -now spreading events before you as you would like to have them, and on a sudden topsy-turvy every thing is turned. "The whole army is in motion," they say. "Burnside has crossed the river and captured eight thousand prisoners." One company pitches its tents on the scraggy side of the bluff in some bushes, near to and in sight of Wolf Run Shoals, -the name of one of the fords that we are to guard.

Jan. 23, 24.

The army of the Potomac is still on the Rappahannock. A few days ago they made a move, but were wholly impeded by the mud. Indeed, it is almost impossible to get provisions to us, only eight miles from the Station. The six mule teams flounder through, covered with mud from hoof to ear,-with loads hardly heavier than the same number of men could carry. We are thirty-five miles in the rear of the main army. Here is a long line of pickets on the outmost edge of the Department of Washington, guarding each pass from the Bull Run mountains to the Potomac. At many points the pickets are posted within sight of each other, but nearer the Potomac, where the water is deeper, only the fords are guarded; and these sometimes by infantry, and sometimes by cavalry. Yesterday ten paroled prisoners, that belonged to Gen. Slocum's corps, came into our camp. They had been captured a few days ago a little in the rear of the main body, whilst going through to Fredericksburg.

Our tents are now stockaded; in each is a bunk, and a good fireplace made of mud and stones. Many carry in their arms, or on the shoulder, long stones for mantel-pieces, a half mile. Twenty-five men, a sergeant and lieutenant, guard Sally Davis's ford, about a mile down the river.

Jan. 25.

At half past eight the drum beats, and soon twenty-five men are assembled before the Colonel's tent as pickets, equipments on, armed with rifle, blankets rolled and thrown over the shoulders. As soon as the guns are loaded, we start, led by the lieutenant, down the steep bluff, up and down another, and then along the muddy banks of the river, till we come to the old pickets, in a clump of pines, near the ford. The arms are stacked; one is posted on the beat close to the river; wood chopped for the fires; a sort of burrows of pine limbs constructed, sometimes large enough for only two, and then semicircular around a fire, where a dozen crawl in at night. It is a warm spring-like day, and the boys enjoy it much, chatting, writing letters, reading newspapers, preparing dinner and supper. As eight or ten stand around a fire boiling coffee, "It is a beautiful Sabbath," says one, who had just come in from filling his canteen at a burgling stream running down between two hills, and who doubtless had been led to meditate, as he, walking alone, saw the golden sun so gloriously setting in the west. "Is it Sunday?" reply three or four at the same time; "is it Sunday? I can hardly keep the days of the week, time flies so fast." With us were five Michigan cavalry. All but one take no note of time. He would be delighted to see the sun doubling her peed, and the months huddled into days; they can hardly tell whether it is January or March, and certainly don't care. Says he: "Eighteen months ago I enlisted; left the best wife in the world, and haven't seen her since; had a good farm, and easily got a good living; came with no other ambition than to serve and save my country. Many is the time that I have sat all night on my horse, and slept by turns as he was going, or lain with the bridle about my arm." Another boasts that he had descended from revolutionary sires; that he had a boy in the Western army, and "one that will fight, too;" that he himself had been in twenty charges, and never received a wound; but that many a rebel had been slashed with his old sabre; that he would pass the rest of his life in war, before he would see the Federal Government go down; that this was the greatest war that ever raged on the face of the earth, and that the men who took part in it would be dearer to our descendants for transmitting liberty to them, than those that fought under Cromwell or Washington. The next morning we are relieved and arrive in camp about ten o'clock. Besides the pickets and guards, two hundred men are detailed in the rifle pits, to prevent the enemy crossing the ford near the camp. There are ditches, running zigzag, so deep as to protect the soldiers, with the dirt thrown towards the place from which the attacking party is supposed to come.

Jan. 27.

The same number of pickets, guards and men to work on the rifle-pits are detailed to-day as yesterday But before noon it begins to rain, and the men on fatigue are called in. There are various rumors flying through camp. "Burnside has thrown up his commission. His soldiers have thrown down their arms, declaring that they would not fight any longer."

Jan. 28.

Stormy; sleet and snow falling all day; but the pickets and guards tie the haversacks close to their necks, and rubbers over the shoulders, and start to relieve those who have been on duty for twenty-four hours, knowing that they, too, will be relieved, the same hour to-morrow morning. Slowly, slowly, wear the hours again, as the boys sit in the leaky bough-houses; snow and rain now and then splashing through the pine shelters; and nothing heard all day-all night-save the roar of the muddy waters of the river rushing madly by them. Before morning the snow is a foot deep in the fields; but this mud-mud-in the roads.

Jan. 29.

The boys have waited patiently since they have been mustered, for their pay. Some are really in need of it; fathers, whose families depend mostly on their wages. Nearly all are out of money; and a soldier actually needs a little, though fed by the government. If he is unwell, and we happened to be living on hard tack, he wants a piece of soft bread, piece of cheese, or butter, which he can get of the sutler by paying a high price. Some, however, are better off without a cent. More than one soldier have we seen unfit for duty, and the surgeons say "He buys too much stuff of the sutler. He heats too many luxuries." The paymaster arrives about dark, and receive two months' pay in green-backs. During the next four days it rains and snows alternately. We are almost blocked in with mud. A six mule team, now up, now down, wading through, comes in with two barrels of pork. Each day a hundred and fifty are detailed to build corduroy roads. These are divided into squads, strung along, and then work busily till they meet. We cover the old road with trees from four to ten inches in diameter, mostly pine; but if there are any chestnuts near by, we take these, being soft to cut and fissile. Some cut them down; some carry them on their shoulders, and others place them side by side. By the 5th of February, two-thirds of the eight miles from the Station to camp, is corduroy road. About this time I called at a citizen's house to get a meal of victuals. The old man was killing his hogs, and scalded by putting hot stones into the tub of water. His house stands in the centre of a cleared spot, all surrounded by pine forests which have been encroaching on him for years. A Union soldier, one unable to do much duty, guards his property. As I approach and make known my errand, I soon observe that the owner is not in the best of humor for some reason, when he turns up his red face and stares at me with his blood-shot eyes: "Buy," he mutters, "soldiers buy? They've stole all I've got that they could carry away-them devils that followed Dan Sickles-my potatoes, my turkies, and most of my cattle. I never had any niggers; don't want them; but if soldiers should come into your country and steal your goods, wouldn't you fight? By the G-ds, wouldn't you fight? I still love the old Union; but I reckon it will be a long time before things are settled; and that proclamation will only make more difficulty. Oh, this terrible war! It will kill us all, I fear. We can hardly live here between the two armies. All the soldiers won't steal; but there are some thieves in the army as everywhere, and when they are going through here they take what they want, and I supposed the generals don't know it. You see this is a bad way of living; but, soldier, I'm a Union man, and if you want a meal, go in, and the women will get it." At which I go in; soon sit down to the table of hoe-cake, cold beef , cabbage and coffee. As the tract of land all around here is now held by Northern, now by Southern soldiers, then by neither, but the scene of almost single combat, where cavalry patrols on both sides scour, where you can trace many and long lines of pickets by the ashes of their posts, where guerrillas lurk, where great armies have met and fought most furiously, and the field sometimes held by one side and sometimes by the other,-so loyalty and disloyalty, by turns, hold sway over the minds of most citizens, near where we have camped.

Feb. 6.

Since here we have not got our mail daily. This the boys don't like, and blame the postmaster for it. Whisky rations (a rare thing with us) were dealt out to the soldiers last night. The Army regulations say: "One gill of whisky is allowed daily, in case of excessive fatigue and exposure." From this time till the middle of March, our "fatigue and exposure" were regarded so "excessive" as that when the guards and pickets came in, the coldest and stormiest mornings, the lieutenant takes them to the commissary, who gives each a small drink. But last night it was otherwise. The most drank it; some saved it for future occasions, when possibly they might be sick; a few sold it to those too fond of it. So occasionally one gets so much that he is noisy, and somewhat irregular in his actions. This morning one is drunk, and in for fighting. He speaks contemptuously to his lieutenant; strikes the corporal of the guard; pays no attention to the officer of the day; it takes four or five to manage him and get him in the guard-house, and he bites one of them quite badly. But he is not abused. He strikes them; but they do not return it, only hold him as well as they can. As soon as his hands are tied behind him, he gives up in despair, and the poor fellow cries like a child. The guard-house is a wall tent, and no fire in it; and being quite cold, when he comes to himself, so a to misuse no one, he is let out, and nothing more was done with him. To-day we draw soft bread, the first since we came here. But we get more fresh meat, as beeves can be driven and butchered here easier than pork or beef drawn through the mud. And our friends at home are ever mindful of us. Hundreds of boxes are sent to the brigade. Almost every day a load comes to our regiment, filled with butter, cheese, dried berries, and such as the soldiers need.

Feb. 7.

Save those detailed last night as guards and pickets, the rest remain quietly in camp; or some perchance stroll over the rough country around us. My friend, Sergeant Boyce, invited me and a few others to take supper with him, as he had lately received some things from home. He, as the others, had stockaded; that is, had built a sort of a pen with smallish logs, six or seven feet square, four high, filled the cracks with mud, and fastened his tent to this. Within is a floor made of slabs split out with the axe; in the corner, a small fireplace, (an aperture having been made through the side of the stockade, and on the outside a stack of stones for the chimney); on one side is a bunk, where three sleep, covered with blankets, and constructed of round poles; on it is a hard tack box,-a fine writing desk. Around the rough walls hang guns, bayonets, equipments, canteens and haversacks. He had fixed up a table for the occasion, running across one side of his castle, and blocking up the door, so that he has to remove a part of it for us to enter. We came a little early, and soon the sergeant
"Turns, on hospitable thought intent;
What choice to choose for delicacy best,
What order, so contriven as not to mix
Tastes not well joined, inelegant, but bring
Taste after taste upheld with kindliest change-
---------------- and on the board.
Heaps with unsparing hand,"
plum preserves, mince pies, pudding filled with raisins, honey, and much more. Though the camp has been so quiet for several days, at eleven o'clock at night the long roll is beat and the soldiers spring for their arms.

Next Chapter