Washington as a Camp

Dispatches from a Union soldier, killed before his Atlantic assignment was complete

[Read Theodore Winthrop's June 1861 dispatch, Our March to Washington and the obituary for Winthrop that ran in the August Atlantic in place of his scheduled dispatch.]


We marched up the hill, and when the dust opened there was our Big Tent ready pitched.

It was an enormous tent,—the Sibley pattern modified. A simple soul in our ranks looked up and said,—"Tent! canvas! I don't see it: that's marble!" Whereupon a simpler soul informed us,—"Boys, that's the Capitol."

And so it was the Capitol,—as glad to see the New York Seventh Regiment as they to see it. The Capitol was to be our quarters, and I was pleased to notice that the top of the dome had been left off for ventilation.

The Seventh had had a wearisome and anxious progress from New York, as I have chronicled in the June "Atlantic." We had marched from Annapolis, while "rumors to right of us, rumors to left of us, volleyed and thundered." We had not expected that the attack upon us would be merely verbal. The truculent citizens of Maryland notified us that we were to find every barn a Concord and every hedge a Lexington. Our Southern brethren at present repudiate their debts; but we fancied they would keep their warlike promises. At least, everybody thought, "They will fire over our heads, or bang blank cartridges at us." Every nose was sniffing for the smell of powder. Vapor instead of valor nobody looked for. So the march had been on the qui vive. We were happy enough that it was over, and successful.

Successful, because Mumbo Jumbo was not installed in the White House. It is safe to call Jeff. Davis Mumbo Jumbo now. But there is no doubt that the luckless man had visions of himself receiving guests, repudiating debts, and distributing embassies in Washington, May 1, 1861. And as to La' Davis, there seems to be documentary evidence that she meant to be "At Home" in the capital, bringing the first strawberries with her from Montgomery for her May-day soiree. Bah! one does not like to sneer at people who have their necks in the halter; but one happy result of this disturbance is that the disturbers have sent themselves to Coventry. The Lincoln party may be wanting in finish. Finish comes with use. A little roughness of manner, the genuine simplicity of a true soul like Lincoln, is attractive. But what man of breeding could ever stand the type Southern Senator? But let him rest in such peace as he can find! He and his peers will not soon be seen where we of the New York Seventh were now entering.

They gave us the Representatives Chamber for quarters. Without running the gauntlet of caucus primary and election, every one of us attained that sacred shrine.

In we marched, tramp, tramp. Bayonets took the place of buncombe. The frowzy creatures in ill-made dress-coats, shimmering satin waistcoats, and hats of the tile model, who lounge, spit, and vociferate there, and name themselves M.C., were off. Our neat uniforms and bright barrels showed to great advantage, compared with the usual costumes of the usual dramatis personae of the scene.

It was dramatic business, our entrance there. The new Chamber is gorgeous, but ineffective. Its ceiling is flat, and panelled with transparencies. Each panel is the coat-of-arms of a State, painted on glass. I could not see that the impartial sunbeams, tempered by this skylight, had burned away the insignia of the malecontent States. Nor had any rampant Secessionist thought to punch any of the seven lost Pleiads out from that firmament with a long pole. Crimson and gold are the prevailing hues of the decorations. There is no unity and breadth of coloring. The desks of the members radiate in double files from a white marble tribune at the centre of the semicircle.

In came the new actors on this scene. Our presence here was the inevitable sequel of past events. We appeared with bayonets and bullets because of the bosh uttered on this floor; because of the bills—with treasonable stump-speeches in their bellies—passed here; because of the cowardice of the poltroons, the imbecility of the dodgers, and the arrogance of the bullies, who had here cooperated to blind and corrupt the minds of the people. Talk had made a miserable mess of it. The ultima ratio was now appealed to.

Some of our companies were marched up-stairs into the galleries. The sofas were to be their beds. With their white cross-belts and bright breastplates, they made a very picturesque body of spectators for whatever happened in the Hall, and never failed to applaud in the right or the wrong place at will.

Most of us were bestowed in the amphitheatre. Each desk received its man. He was to scribble on it by day, and sleep under it by night. When the desks were all taken, the companies overflowed into the corners and into the lobbies. The staff took committee-rooms. The Colonel reigned in the Speaker's parlor.

Once in, firstly, we washed.

Such a wash merits a special paragraph. I compliment the M.C.s, our hosts, upon their water-privileges. How we welcomed this chief luxury after our march! And thenceforth how we prized it! For the clean face is an institution which requires perpetual renovation at Washington. "Constant vigilance is the price" of neatness. When the sky here is not travelling earthward in rain, earth is mounting skyward in dust. So much dirt must have an immoral effect.

After the wash we showed ourselves to the eyes of Washington, marching by companies, each to a different hotel, to dinner. This became one of the ceremonies of our barrack-life. We liked it. The Washingtonians were amused and encouraged by it. Three times a day, with marked punctuality, our lines formed and tramped down the hill to scuffle with awkward squads of waiters for fare more or less tolerable. In these little marches, we encountered by-and-by the other regiments, and, most soldierly of all, the Rhode Island men, in blue flannel blouses and bersagliere hats. But of them hereafter.

It was a most attractive post of ours at the Capitol. Spring was at its freshest and fairest. Every day was more exquisite than its forerunner. We drilled morning, noon, and evening, almost hourly, in the pretty square east of the building. Old soldiers found that they rattled through the manual twice as alert as ever before. Recruits became old soldiers in a trice. And as to awkward squads, men that would have been the veriest louts and lubbers in the piping times of peace now learned to toe the mark, to whisk their eyes right and their eyes left, to drop the butts of their muskets without crushing their corns, and all the mysteries of flank and file,—and so became full-fledged heroes before they knew it.

In the rests between our drills we lay under the young shade on the sweet young grass, with the odors of snowballs and horse-chestnut blooms drifting to us with every whiff of breeze, and amused ourselves with watching the evolutions of our friends of the Massachusetts Eighth, and other less experienced soldiers, as they appeared upon the field. They, too, like ourselves, were going through the transformations. These sturdy fellows were then in a rough enough chrysalis of uniform. That shed, they would look worthy of themselves.

But the best of the entertainment was within the Capitol. Some three thousand or more of us were now quartered there. The Massachusetts Eighth were under the dome. No fear of want of air for them. The Massachusetts Sixth were eloquent for their State in the Senate Chamber. It was singularly fitting, among the many coincidences in the history of this regiment, that they should be there, tacitly avenging the assault upon Sumner and the attempts to bully the impregnable Wilson.

In the recesses, caves, and crypts of the Capitol what other legions were bestowed I do not know. I daily lost myself, and sometimes when out of my reckoning was put on the way by sentries of strange corps, a Reading Light Infantry man, or some other. We all fraternized. There was a fine enthusiasm among us: not the soldierly rivalry in discipline that may grow up in future between men of different States acting together, but the brotherhood of ardent fellows first in the field and earnest in the cause.

All our life in the Capitol was most dramatic and sensational.

Before it was fairly light in the dim interior of the Representatives Chamber, the reveilles of the different regiments came rattling through the corridors. Every snorer's trumpet suddenly paused. The impressive sound of the hushed breathing of a thousand sleepers, marking off the fleet moments of the night, gave way to a most vociferous uproar. The boy element is large in the Seventh Regiment. Its slang dictionary is peculiar and unabridged. As soon as we woke, the pit began to chaff the galleries, and the galleries the pit. We were allowed noise nearly ad libitum. Our riotous tendencies, if they existed, escaped by the safety-valve of the larynx. We joked, we shouted, we sang, we mounted the Speaker's desk and made speeches,—always to the point; for if any but a wit ventured to give tongue, he was coughed down without ceremony. Let the M.C.s adopt this plan and silence their dunces.

With all our jollity we preserved very tolerable decorum. The regiment is assez bien compose. Many of its privates are distinctly gentlemen of breeding and character. The tone is mainly good, and the esprit de corps high. If the Colonel should say, "Up, boys, and at 'em!" I know that the Seventh would do brilliantly in the field. I speak now of its behavior in-doors. This certainly did it credit. Our thousand did the Capitol little harm that a corporal's guard of Biddies with mops and tubs could not repair in a forenoon's campaign.

Perhaps we should have served our country better by a little Vandalism. The decorations of the Capitol have a slight flavor of the Southwestern steamboat saloon. The pictures (now, by the way, carefully covered) would most of them be the better, if the figures were bayoneted and the backgrounds sabred out. Both—pictures and decorations—belong to that bygone epoch of our country when men shaved the moustache, dressed like parsons, said "Sir," and chewed tobacco,—a transition epoch, now become an historic blank.

The home-correspondence of our legion of young heroes was illimitable. Every one had his little tale of active service to relate. A decimation of the regiment, more or less, had profited by the tender moment of departure to pop the question and to receive the dulcet "Yes." These lucky fellows were of course writing to Dulcinea regularly, three meals of love a day. Mr. Van Wyck, M.C., and a brace of colleagues were kept hard at work all day giving franks and saving threepennies to the ardent scribes. Uncle Sam lost certainly three thousand cents a day in this manner.

What crypts and dens, caves and cellars there are under that great structure! And barrels of flour in every one of them this month of May, 1861. Do civilians eat in this proportion? Or does long standing in the "Position of a Soldier" (vide "Tactics" for a view of that graceful pose) increase a man's capacity for bread and beef so enormously?

It was infinitely picturesque in these dim vaults by night. Sentries were posted at every turn. Their guns gleamed in the gaslight. Sleepers were lying in their blankets wherever the stones were softest. Then in the guard-room the guard were waiting their turn. We have not had much of this scenery in America, and the physiognomy of volunteer military life is quite distinct from anything one sees in European service. The People have never had occasion until now to occupy their Palace with armed men.


We were to be sworn into the service of the United States the afternoon of April 26th. All the Seventh, raw men and ripe men, marched out into the sweet spring sunshine. Every fellow had whitened his belts, burnished his arms, curled his moustache, and was scowling his manliest for Uncle Sam's approval.

We were drawn up by companies in the Capitol Square for mustering in.

Presently before us appeared a gorgeous officer, in full fig. "Major McDowell!" somebody whispered, as we presented arms. He is a General, or perhaps a Field Marshal, now. Promotions come with a hop, skip, and jump, in these times, when demerit resigns and merit stands ready to step to the front.

Major-Colonel-General McDowell, in a soldierly voice, now called the roll, and we all answered, "Here!" in voices more or less soldierly. He entertained himself with this ceremony for an hour. The roll over, we were marched and formed in three sides of a square along the turf. Again the handsome officer stepped forward, and recited to us the conditions of our service. "In accordance with a special arrangement, made with the Governor of New York," says the Major, "you are now mustered into the service of the United States, to serve for thirty days, unless sooner discharged"; and continues he, "The oath will now be read to you by the magistrate."

Hereupon a gentleman en mufti, but wearing a military cap with an oil-skin cover, was revealed. Until now he had seemed an impassive supernumerary. But he was biding his time, and—with due respect be it said—saving his wind, and now in a Stentorian voice he ejaculated,—

"The following is the oath!"

Per se this remark was not comic. But there was something in the dignitary's manner which tickled the regiment. As one man the thousand smiled, and immediately adopted this new epigram among its private countersigns.

But the good-natured smile passed away as we listened to the impressive oath, following its title.

We raised our right hands, and, clause by clause, repeated the solemn obligation, in the name of God, to be faithful soldiers of our country. It was not quite so comprehensive as the beautiful knightly pledge administered by King Arthur to his comrades, and transmitted to our time by Major-General Tennyson of the Parnassus Division. We did not swear, as they did of yore, to be true lovers as well as loyal soldiers. Ca va sans dire in 1861,—particularly when you were engaged to your Amanda the evening before you started, as was the case with many a stalwart brave and many a mighty man of a corporal or sergeant in our ranks.

We were thrilled and solemnized by the stately ceremony of the oath. This again was most dramatic. A grand public recognition of a duty. A reavowal of the fundamental belief that our system was worthy of the support, and our Government of the confidence, of all loyal men. And there was danger in the middle distance of our view into the future, —danger of attack, or dangerous duty of advance, just enough to keep any trifler from feeling that his pledge was mere holiday business.

So, under the cloudless blue sky, we echoed in unison the sentences of the oath. A little low murmur of rattling arms, shaken with the hearty utterance, made itself heard in the pauses. Then the band crashed in magnificently.

We were now miserable mercenaries, serving for low pay and rough rations. Read the Southern papers and you will see us described. "Mudsills,"—that, I believe, is the technical word. By repeating a form of words after a gentleman in a glazed cap and black raiment, we had suffered change into base assassins, the offscouring of society, starving for want of employment, and willing to "imbrue our coarse fists in fraternal blood" for the sum of eleven dollars a month, besides hard tack, salt junk, and the hope of a Confederate States bond apiece for bounty, or free loot in the treasuries of Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas, after the war. How carefully from that day we watched the rise and fall of United States stocks! If they should go low among the nineties, we felt that our eleven dollars per mensem would be imperilled.

We stayed in our palace for a week or so after April 26th, the day of the oath. That was the most original part of our duty thus far. New York never had so unanimous a deputation on the floor of the Representatives Chamber before, and never a more patriotic one. Take care, Gentlemen Members of Congress! look to your words and your Acts honestly and wisely in future! don't palter with Liberty again! it is not well that soldiers should get into the habit of thinking they are always to unravel the snarls and cut the knots twisted and tied by clumsy or crafty fingers. The traitor States already need the main de fer,—yes, and without the gant de velours. Let us beware, and keep ourselves worthy of the boon of self-government, man by man! I do not wish to hear, "Order arms!" and "Charge bayonets!" in the Capitol. But this present defence of Free Speech and Free Thought ends, let us hope, that danger forever.

When we had been ten days in our showy barracks we began to quarrel with luxury. What had private soldiers to do with the desks of law-givers? Why should we be allowed to revel longer in the dining-rooms of Washington hotels, partaking the admirable dainties there?

The May sunshine, the birds and the breezes of May, invited us to Camp,—the genuine thing, under canvas. Besides, Uncles Sam and Abe wanted our room for other company. Washington was filling up fast with uniforms. It seemed as if all the able-bodied men in the country were moving, on the first of May, with all their property on their backs, to agreeable, but dusty lodgings on the Potomac.

We also made our May move. One afternoon, my company, the Ninth, and the Engineers, the Tenth, were detailed to follow Captain Viele, and lay out a camp on Meridian Hill.


As we had the first choice, we got, on the whole, the best site for a camp. We occupy the villa and farm of Dr. Stone, two miles due north of Willard's Hotel. I assume that hotel as a peculiarly American point of departure, and also because it is the hub of Washington,—the centre of an eccentric, having the White House at the end of its shorter, and the Capitol at the end of its longer radius,—moral, so they say, as well as geometrical.

Sundry dignitaries, Presidents and what not, have lived here in times gone by. Whoever chose the site ought to be kindly remembered for his good taste. The house stands upon the pretty terrace commanding the plain of Washington. From the upper windows we can see the Potomac opening southward like a lake, and between us and the water ambitious Washington stretching itself along and along, like the shackly files of an army of recruits.

Oaks love the soil of this terrace. There are some noble ones on the undulations before the house. It may be permitted even for one who is supposed to think of nothing but powder and ball to notice one of these grand trees. Let the ivy-covered stem of the Big Oak of Camp Cameron take its place in literature! And now enough of scenery. The landscape will stay, but the troops will not. There are trees and slopes of green-sward elsewhere, and shrubbery begins to blossom in these bright days of May before a thousand pretty homes. The tents and the tent-life are more interesting for the moment than objects which cannot decamp.

The old villa serves us for head-quarters. It is a respectable place, not without its pretensions. Four granite pillars, as true grit as if the two Presidents Adams had lugged them on their shoulders all the way from Quincy, Mass., make a carriage-porch. Here is the Colonel in the big west parlor, the Quartermaster and Commissary in the rooms with sliding-doors on the east, the Hospital upstairs, and so on. Other rooms, numerous as the cells in a monastery, serve as quarters for the Engineer Company. These dens are not monastic in aspect. The house is, of course, a Certosa, so far as the gentler sex are concerned; but no anchorites dwell here at present. If the Seventh disdained everything but soldiers' fare,—which it does not,—common civility would require that it should do violence to its disinclination for comfort and luxury, and consume the stores sent down by ardent patriots in New York. The cellars of the villa overflow with edibles, and in the greenhouse is a most appetizing array of barrels, boxes, cans, and bottles, shipped here that our Sybarites might not sigh for the flesh-pots of home. Such trash may do very well to amuse the palate in these times of half-peace, half-hostility; but when

"war, which for a space does fail, Shall doubly thundering swell the gale,"

then every soldier should drop gracefully to the simple ration, and cease to dabble with frying-pans. Cooks to their aprons, and soldiers to their guns!

Our tents are pitched on a level clover-field sloping to the front for our parade-ground. We use the old wall tent without a fly. It is necessary to live in one of these awhile to know the vast superiority of the Sibley pattern. Sibley's tent is a wrinkle taken from savage life. It is the Sioux buffalo-skin, lodge, or Tepee, improved,—a cone truncated at the top and fitted with a movable apex for ventilation. A single tent-pole, supported upon a hinged tripod of iron, sustains the structure. It is compacter, more commodious, healthier, and handsomer than the ancient models. None other should be used in permanent encampments. For marching troops, the French Tente d'abri is a capital shelter.

Still our fellows manage to be at home as they are. Some of our model tents are types of the best style of temporary cottages. Young housekeepers of limited incomes would do well to visit and take heed. A whole elysium of household comfort can be had out of a teapot,—tin; a brace of cups,—tin; a brace of plates,—tin; and a frying-pan.

In these days of war everybody can see a camp. Every one who stays at home has a brother or a son or a lover quartered in one of the myriad tents that have blossomed with the daffodil-season all over our green fields of the North. I need not, then, describe our encampment in detail,—its guard-tent in advance,—its guns in battery,—its flagstaff,—its companies quartered in streets with droll and fanciful names,—its officers' tents in the rear, at right angles to the lines of company-tents,—its kitchens, armed with Captain Viele's capital army cooking-stoves,—its big marquees, "The White House" and "Fort Pickens," for the lodging and messing of the new artillery company,—its barbers' shops,—its offices. The same, more or less well arranged, can be seen in all the rendezvous where the armies are now assembling. Instead of such description, then, let me give the log of a single day at our camp.

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