Washington as a Camp

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



I would rather not believe it; but it is—yes, it is—the morning gun, uttering its surly "Hullo!" to sunrise.

Yes,—and, to confirm my suspicions, here rattle in the drums and pipe in the fifes, wooing us to get up, get up, with music too peremptory to be harmonious.

I rise up sur mon seant and glance about me. I, Private W., chance, by reason of sundry chances, to be a member of a company recently largely recruited and bestowed all together in a big marquee. As I lift myself up, I see others lift themselves up on those straw bags we kindly call our mattresses. The tallest man of the regiment, Sergeant K., is on one side of me. On the other side I am separated from two of the fattest men of the regiment by Sergeant M., another excellent fellow, prime cook and prime forager.

We are all presently on our pins,—K. on those lengthy continuations of his, and the two stout gentlemen on their stout supporters. The deep sleepers are pulled up from those abysses of slumber where they had been choking, gurgling, strangling, death-rattling all night. There is for a moment a sound of legs rushing into pantaloons and arms plunging into jackets.

Then, as the drums and fifes whine and clatter their last notes, at the flap of our tent appears our orderly, and fierce in the morning sunshine gleams his moustache,—one month's growth this blessed day. "Fall in, for roll-call!" he cries, in a ringing voice. The orderly can speak sharp, if need be.

We obey. Not "Walk in!" "March in!" "Stand in!" is the order; but "Fall in!" as sleepy men must. Then the orderly calls off our hundred. There are several boyish voices which reply, several comic voices, a few mean voices, and some so earnest and manly and alert that one says to himself, "Those are the men for me, when work is to be done!" I read the character of my comrades every morning in each fellow's monosyllable "Here!"

When the orderly is satisfied that not one of us has run away and accepted a Colonelcy from the Confederate States since last roll-call, he notifies those unfortunates who are to be on guard for the next twenty-four hours of the honor and responsibility placed upon their shoulders. Next he tells us what are to be the drills of the day. Then, "Right face! Dismissed! Break ranks! March!"

With ardor we instantly seize tin basins, soap, and towels, and invade a lovely oak-grove at the rear and left of our camp. Here is a delicious spring into which we have fitted a pump. The sylvan scene becomes peopled with "National Guards Washing,"—a scene meriting the notice of Art as much as any "Diana and her Nymphs." But we have no Poussin to paint us in the dewy sunlit grove. Few of us, indeed, know how picturesque we are at all times and seasons.

After this beau ideal of a morning toilet comes the ante-prandial drill. Lieutenant W. arrives, and gives us a little appetizing exercise in "Carry arms!" "Support arms!" "By the right flank, march!" "Double quick!"

Breakfast follows. My company messes somewhat helter-skelter in a big tent. We have very tolerable rations. Sometimes luxuries appear of potted meats and hermetical vegetables, sent us by the fond New Yorkers. Each little knot of fellows, too, cooks something savory. Our table-furniture is not elegant, our plates are tin, there is no silver in our forks; but a la guerre, comme a la guerre. Let the scrubs growl! Lucky fellows, if they suffer no worse hardships than this!

By-and-by, after breakfast, come company-drills, bayonet-practice, battalion-drills, and the heavy work of the day. Our handsome Colonel, on a nice black nag, manoeuvres his thousand men of the line-companies on the parade for two or three hours. Two thousand legs step off accurately together. Two thousand pipe-clayed cross-belts—whitened with infinite pains and waste of time, and offering a most inviting mark to a foe—restrain the beating bosoms of a thousand braves, as they—the braves, not the belts—go through the most intricate evolutions unerringly. Watching these battalion movements, Private W., perhaps, goes off and inscribes in his journal,—"Any clever, prompt man, with a mechanical turn, an eye for distance, a notion of time, and a voice of command, can be a tactician. It is pure pedantry to claim that the manoeuvring of troops is difficult: it is not difficult, if the troops are quick and steady. But to be a general, with patience and purpose and initiative,—ah!" thinks Private W., "for that you must have the man of genius; and already in this war he begins to appear out of Massachusetts and elsewhere."

Private W. avows without fear that about noon, at Camp Cameron, he takes a hearty dinner, and with satisfaction. Private W. has had his feasts in cot and chateau in Old World and New. It is the conviction of said private that nowhere and no-when has he expected his ration with more interest, and remembered it with more affection, than here.

In the middle hours of the day it is in order to get a pass to go to Washington, or to visit some of the camps, which now, in the middle of May, begin to form a cordon around the city. Some of these I may criticize before the end of this paper. Our capital seems arranged by Nature to be protected by fortified camps on the circuit of its hills. It may be made almost a Verona, if need be. Our brother regiments have posts nearly as charming as our own in these fair groves and on these fair slopes on either side of us.

In the afternoon, comes target-practice, skirmishing-drill, more company- or recruit-drill, and, at half-past five, our evening parade. Let me not forget tent-inspection, at four, by the officer of the day, when our band plays deliciously.

At evening parade all Washington appears. A regiment of ladies, rather indisposed to beauty, observe us. Sometimes the Dons arrive,—Secretaries of State, of War, of Navy,—or military Dons, bestriding prancing steeds, but bestriding them as if "'twas not their habit often of an afternoon." All which,—the bad teeth, pallid skins, and rustic toilets of the fair, and the very moderate horsemanship of the brave,—privates, standing at ease in the ranks, take note of, not cynically, but as men of the world.

Wondrous gymnasts are some of the Seventh, and after evening parade they often give exhibitions of their prowess to circles of admirers. Muscle has not gone out, nor nerve, nor activity, if these athletes are to be taken as the types or even as the leaders of the young city-bred men of our time. All the feats of strength and grace of the gymnasiums are to be seen here, and show to double advantage in the open air.

Then comes sweet evening. The moon rises. It seems always full moon at Camp Cameron. Every tent becomes a little illuminated pyramid. Cooking-fires burn bright along the alleys. The boys lark, sing, shout, do all those merry things that make the entertainment of volunteer service. The gentle moon looks on, mild and amused, the fairest lady of all that visit us.

At last, when the songs have been sung and the hundred rumors of the day discussed, at ten the intrusive drums and scolding fifes get together and stir up a concert, always premature, called tattoo. The Seventh Regiment begins to peel for bed: at all events, Private W. does; for said W. takes, when he can, precious good care of his cuticle, and never yields to the lazy and unwholesome habit of soldiers,—sleeping in the clothes. At taps—half-past ten—out go the lights. If they do not, presently comes the sentry's peremptory command to put them out. Then, and until the dawn of another day, a cordon of snorers inside of a cordon of sentries surrounds our national capital. The outer cordon sounds its "All's well"; and the inner cordon, slumbering, echoes it.

And that is the history of any day at Camp Cameron. It is monotonous, it is not monotonous, it is laborious, it is lazy, it is a bore, it is a lark, it is half war, half peace, and totally attractive, and not to be dispensed with from one's experience in the nineteenth century.


Meantime the weeks went on. May 23d arrived. Lovely creatures with their taper fingers had been brewing a flag for us. Shall I say that its red stripes were celestial rosy as their cheeks, its white stripes virgin white as their brows, its blue field cerulean as their eyes, and its stars scintillating as the beams of the said peepers? Shall I say this? If I were a poet, like Jeff. Davis and each and every editor of each and every newspaper in our misbehaving States, I might say it. And involuntarily I have said it.

So the young ladies of New York—including, I hope, her who made my sandwiches for the march hither—had been making us a flag, as they have made us havelocks, pots of jelly, bundles of lint, flannel dressing-gowns, embroidered slippers for a rainy day in camp, and other necessaries of the soldier's life.

May 23d was the day we were to get this sweet symbol of good-will. At evening parade appeared General Thomas, as the agent of the ladies, the donors, with a neat speech on a clean sheet of paper. He read it with feeling; and Private W., who has his sentimental moments, avows that he was touched by the General's earnest manner and patriotic words. Our Colonel responded with his neat speech, very apropos. The regiment then made its neat speech, nine cheers and a roar of tigers,—very brief and pointed.

There had been a note of preparation in General Thomas's remarks,—a "Virginia, cave canem!" And before parade was dismissed, we saw our officers holding parley with the Colonel.

Something in the wind! As I was strolling off to see the sunset and the ladies on parade, I began to hear great irrepressible cheers bursting from the streets of the different companies.

"Orders to be ready to march at a moment's notice!"—so I learned presently from dozens of overjoyed fellows. "Harper's Ferry!" says one. "Alexandria!" shouts a second. "Richmond!" only Richmond will content a third. And some could hardly be satisfied short of the hope of a breakfast in Montgomery.

What a happy thousand were the line-companies! How their suppressed ardors stirred! No want of fight in these lads! They may be rather luxurious in their habits, for camp-life. They may be a little impatient of restraint. They may have—as the type regiment of militia—the type faults of militia on service. But a desire to dodge a fight is not one of these faults.

Every man in camp was merry, except two hundred who were grim. These were the two artillery companies, ordered to remain in guard of our camp. They swore as if Camp Cameron were Flanders.

I by rights belonged with these malecontent and objurgating gentlemen; but a chronicler has privileges, and I got leave to count myself into the Eighth Company, my old friend Captain Shumway's. We were to move, about midnight, in light marching order, with one day's rations.

It has been always full moon at our camp. This night was full moon at its fullest,—a night more perfect than all perfection, mild, dewy, refulgent. At one o'clock the drum beat; we fell into ranks, and marched quietly off through the shadowy trees of the lane, into the highway.


I have heretofore been proud of my individuality, and resisted, so far as one may, all the world's attempts to merge me in the mass. In pluribus unum has been my motto. But whenever I march with the regiment, my pride is that I lose my individuality, that I am merged, that I become a part of a machine, a mere walking gentleman, a No. 1 or a No. 2, front rank or rear rank, file-leader or file-closer. The machine is so steady and so mighty, it moves with such musical cadence and such brilliant show, that I enjoy it entirely as the unum and lose myself gladly as a pluribus.

Night increases this fascination. The outer world is vague in the moonlight. Objects out of our ranks are lost. I see only glimmering steel and glittering buttons and the light-stepping forms of my comrades. Our array and our step connect us. We move as one man. A man made up of a thousand members and each member a man is a grand creature,—particularly when you consider that he is self-made. And the object of this self-made giant, men-man, is to destroy another like himself, or the separate pigmy members of another such giant. We have failed to put ourselves—heads, arms, legs, and wills—together as a unit for any purpose so thoroughly as to snuff out a similar unit. Up to 1861, it seems that the business of war compacts men best.

Well, the Seventh, a compact projectile, was now flinging itself along the road to Washington. Just a month ago, "in such a night as this," we made our first promenade through the enemy's country. The moon of Annapolis,—why should we not have our ominous moon, as those other fellows had their sun of Austerlitz?—the moon of Annapolis shone over us. No epithets are too fine or too complimentary for such a luminary, and there was no dust under her rays.

So we pegged along to Washington and across Washington,—which at that point consists of Willard's Hotel, few other buildings being in sight. A hag in a nightcap reviewed us from an upper window as we tramped by.

Opposite that bald block, the Washington Monument, and opposite what was of more importance to us, a drove of beeves putting beef on their bones in the seedy grounds of the Smithsonian Institution, we were halted while the New Jersey brigade—some three thousand of them—trudged by, receiving the complimentary fire of our line as they passed. New Jersey is not so far from New York but that the dialects of the two can understand each other. Their respective slangs, though peculiar, are of the same genus. By the end of this war, I trust that these distinctions of locality will be quite annulled.

We began to feel like an army as these thousands thronged by us. This was evidently a movement in force. We rested an hour or more by the road. Mounted officers galloping along down the lines kept up the excitement.

At last we had the word to fall in again and march. It is part of the simple perfection of the machine, a regiment, that, though it drops to pieces for a rest, it comes together instantly for a start, and nobody is confused or delayed. We moved half a mile farther, and presently a broad pathway of reflected moonlight shone up at us from the Potomac.

No orders, at this, came from the Colonel, "Attention, battalion! Be sentimental!" Perhaps privates have no right to perceive the beautiful. But the sections in my neighborhood murmured admiration. The utter serenity of the night was most impressive. Cool and quiet and tender the moon shone upon our ranks. She does not change her visage, whether it be lovers or burglars or soldiers who use her as a lantern to their feet.

The Long Bridge thus far has been merely a shabby causeway with waterways and draws. Shabby,—let me here pause to say that in Virginia shabbiness is the grand universal law, and neatness the spasmodic exception, attained in rare spots, an aeon beyond their Old Dominion age.

The Long Bridge has thus far been a totally unhistoric and prosaic bridge. Roads and bridges are making themselves of importance and shining up into sudden renown in these times. The Long Bridge has done nothing hitherto except carry passengers on its back across the Potomac. Hucksters, planters, dry-goods drummers, Members of Congress, et ea genera omnia, have here gone and come on their several mercenary errands, and, as it now appears, some sour little imp—the very reverse of a "sweet little cherub"—took toll of every man as he passed,—a heavy toll, namely, every man's whole store of Patriotism and Loyalty. Every man—so it seems—who passed the Long Bridge was stripped of his last dollar of Amor Patriae, and came to Washington, or went home, with a waistcoat-pocket full of bogus in change. It was our business now to open the bridge and see it clear, and leave sentries along to keep it permanently free for Freedom.

There is a mile of this Long Bridge. We seemed to occupy the whole length of it, with our files opened to diffuse the weight of our column. We were not now the tired and sleepy squad which just a moon ago had trudged along the railroad to the Annapolis Junction, looking up a Capital and a Government, perhaps lost.

By the time we touched ground across the bridge, dawn was breaking,—a good omen for poor old sleepy Virginia. The moon, as bright and handsome as a new twenty-dollar piece, carried herself straight before us,—a splendid oriflamme.

Lucky is the private who marches with the van! It may be the post of more danger, but it is also the post of less dust. My throat, therefore, and my eyes and beard, wore the less Southern soil when we halted half a mile beyond the bridge, and let sunrise overtake us.

Nothing men can do—except picnics, with ladies in straw flats with feathers—is so picturesque as soldiering. As soon as the Seventh halt anywhere, or move anywhere, or camp anywhere, they resolve themselves into a grand tableau.

Their own ranks should supply their own Horace Vernet. Our groups were never more entertaining than at this halt by the roadside on the Alexandria road. Stacks of guns make a capital framework for drapery, and red blankets dot in the lights most artistically. The fellows lined the road with their gay array, asleep, on the rampage, on the lounge, and nibbling at their rations.

By-and-by, when my brain had taken in as much of the picturesque as it could stand, it suffered the brief congestion known as a nap. I was suddenly awaked by the rattle of a horse's hoofs. Before I had rubbed my eyes the rider was gone. His sharp tidings had stayed behind him. Ellsworth was dead,—so he said hurriedly, and rode on. Poor Ellsworth! a fellow of genius and initiative! He had still so much of the boy in him, that he rattled forward boyishly, and so died. Si monumentum requiris, look at his regiment. It was a brilliant stroke to levy it; and if it does worthily, its young Colonel will not have lived in vain.

As the morning hours passed, we learned that we were the rear-guard of the left wing of the army advancing into Virginia. The Seventh, as the best organized body, acted as reserve to this force. It didn't wish to be in the rear; but such is the penalty of being reliable for an emergency. Fellow-soldier, be a scalawag, be a bashi-bazouk, be a Billy-Wilsoneer, if you wish to see the fun in the van!

When the road grew too hot for us, on account of the fire of sunshine in our rear, we jumped over the fence into the Race-Course, a big field beside us, and there became squatter sovereigns all day. I shall be a bore, if I say again what a pretty figure we cut in this military picnic, with two long lines of blankets draped on bayonets for parasols.

The New Jersey brigade were meanwhile doing workie work on the ridge just beyond us. The road and railroad to Alexandria follow the general course of the river southward along the level. This ridge to be fortified is at the point where the highway bends from west to south. The works were intended to serve as an advanced tete du pont,—a bridge-head, with a very long neck connecting it with the bridge. That fine old Fabius, General Scott, had no idea of flinging an army out broadcast into Virginia, and, in the insupposable case that it turned tail, leaving it no defended passage to run away by.

This was my first view of a field-work in construction,—also, my first hand as a laborer at a field-work. I knew glacis and counterscarp on paper; also, on paper, superior slope, banquette, and the other dirty parts of a redoubt. Here they were, not on paper. A slight wooden scaffolding determined the shape of the simple work; and when I arrived, a thousand Jerseymen were working, not at all like Jerseymen,—with picks, spades, and shovels, cutting into Virginia, digging into Virginia, shovelling up Virginia, for Virginia's protection against pseudo-Virginians.

I swarmed in for a little while with our Paymaster, picked a little, spaded a little, shovelled a little, took a hand to my great satisfaction at earth-works, and for my efforts I venture to suggest that Jersey City owes me its freedom in a box, and Jersey State a basket of its finest Clicquot.

Is my gentle reader tired of the short marches and frequent halts of the Seventh? Remember, gentle reader, that you must be schooled by such alphabetical exercises to spell bigger words—skirmish, battle, defeat, rout, massacre—by-and-by.

Well,—to be Xenophontic,—from the Race-Course that evening we marched one stadium, one parasang, to a cedar-grove up the road. In the grove is a spring worthy to be called a fountain, and what I determined by infallible indications to be a lager-bier saloon. Saloon no more! War is no respecter of localities. Be it Arlington House, the seedy palace of a Virginia Don,—be it the humbler, but seedy, pavilion where the tired Teuton washes the dust of Washington away from his tonsils,—each must surrender to the bold soldier-boy. Exit Champagne and its goblet; exit lager and its mug; enter whiskey-and-water in a tin pot. Such are the horrors of civil war!

And now I must cut short my story, for graver matters press. As to the residence of the Seventh in the cedar-grove for two days and two nights,—how they endured the hardship of a bivouac on soft earth and the starvation of coffee sans milk,—how they digged manfully in the trenches by gangs all these two laborious days,—with what supreme artistic finish their work was achieved,—how they chopped off their corns with axes, as they cleared the brushwood from the glacis,—how they blistered their hands,—how they chafed that they were not lunging with battailous steel at the breasts of the minions of the oligarchs,—how Washington, seeing the smoke of burning rubbish, and hearing dropping shots of target-practice, or of novices with the musket shooting each other by accident,—how Washington, alarmed, imagined a battle, and went into panic accordingly,—all this, is it not written in the daily papers?

On the evening of the 26th, the Seventh travelled back to Camp Cameron in a smart shower. Its service was over. Its month was expired. The troops ordered to relieve it had arrived. It had given the other volunteers the benefit of a month's education at its drills and parades. It had enriched poor Washington to the tune of fifty thousand dollars. Ah, Washington! that we, under Providence and after General Butler, saved from the heel of Secession! Ah, Washington, why did you charge us so much for our milk and butter and strawberries? The Seventh, then, after a month of delightful duty, was to be mustered out of service, and take new measures, if it would, to have a longer and a larger share in the war.


I took advantage of the day of rest after our return to have a gallop about the outposts. Arlington Heights had been the spot whence the alarmists threatened us daily with big thunder and bursting bombs. I was curious to see the region that had had Washington under its thumb.

So Private W., tired of his foot-soldiering, got a quadruped under him, and felt like a cavalier again. The horse took me along the tow-path of the Cumberland Canal, as far as the redoubts where we had worked our task. Then I turned up the hill, took a look at the camp of the New York Twenty-Fifth at the left, and rode along for Arlington House.

Grand name! and the domain is really quite grand, but ill-kept. Fine oaks make beauty without asking favors. Fine oaks and a fair view make all the beauty of Arlington. It seems that this old establishment, like many another old Virginian, had claimed its respectability for its antiquity, and failed to keep up to the level of the time. The road winds along through the trees, climbing to fairer and fairer reaches of view over the plain of Washington. I had not fancied that there was any such lovely site near the capital. But we have not yet appreciated what Nature has done for us there. When civilization once makes up its mind to colonize Washington, all this amphitheatre of hills will blossom with structures of the sublimest gingerbread.

Arlington House is the antipodes of gingerbread, except that it is yellow, and disposed to crumble. It has a pompous propylon of enormous stuccoed columns. Any house smaller than Blenheim would tail on insignificantly after such a frontispiece. The interior has a certain careless, romantic, decayed-gentleman effect, wholly Virginian. It was enlivened by the uniforms of staff-officers just now, and as they rode through the trees of the approach and by the tents of the New York Eighth, encamped in the grove to the rear, the tableau was brilliantly warlike. Here, by the way, let me pause to ask, as a horseman, though a foot-soldier, why generals and other gorgeous fellows make such guys of their horses with trappings. If the horse is a screw, cover him thick with saddle-cloths, girths, cruppers, breast-bands, and as much brass and tinsel as your pay will enable you to buy; but if not a screw, let his fair proportions be seen as much as may be, and don't bother a lover of good horseflesh to eliminate so much uniform before he can see what is beneath.

From Arlington I rode to the other encampments,—the Sixty-Ninth, Fifth, and Twenty-Eighth, all of New York,—and heard their several stories of alarms and adventures. This completed the circuit of the new fortification of the Great Camp. Washington was now a fortress. The capital was out of danger, and therefore of no further interest to anybody. The time had come for myself and my regiment to leave it by different ways.


I should have been glad to stay and see my comrades through to their departure; but there was a Massachusetts man down at Fortress Monroe, Butler by name,—has any one heard of him?—and to this gentleman it chanced that I was to report myself. So I packed my knapsack, got my furlough, shook hands with my fellows, said good-bye to Camp Cameron, and was off, two days after our month's service was done.


Under Providence, Washington owes its safety, 1st, To General Butler, whose genius devised the circumvention of Baltimore and its rascal rout, and whose utter bravery executed the plan;—he is the Grand Yankee of this little period of the war. 2d, To the other Most Worshipful Grand Yankees of the Massachusetts regiment who followed their leader, as he knew they would, discovered a forgotten colony called Annapolis, and dashed in there, asking no questions. 3d, And while I gladly yield the first places to this General and his men, I put the Seventh in, as last, but not least, in saving the capital. Character always tells. The Seventh, by good, hard, faithful work at drill, had established its fame as the most thorough militia regiment in existence. Its military and moral character were excellent. The mere name of the regiment carried weight. It took the field as if the field were a ball-room. There were myriads eager to march; but they had not made ready beforehand. Yes, the Seventh had its important share in the rescue. Without our support, whether our leaders tendered it eagerly or hesitatingly, General Butler's position at Annapolis would have been critical, and his forced march to the capital a forlorn hope,—heroic, but desperate.

So, honor to whom honor is due.

Here I must cut short my story. So good-bye to the Seventh, and thanks for the fascinating month I have passed in their society. In this pause of the war our camp-life has been to me as brilliant as a permanent picnic.

Good-bye to Company I, and all the fine fellows, rough and smooth, cool old hands and recruits verdant but ardent! Good-bye to our Lieutenants, to whom I owe much kindness! Good-bye, the Orderly, so peremptory on parade, so indulgent off! Good-bye, everybody!

And so in haste I close.

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