Washington as a Camp

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

[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.]

OUR BARRACKS AT THE CAPITOL.

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.

THE FOLLOWING IS THE OATH.

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.

CAMP CAMERON.

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.

JOURNAL OF A DAY AT CAMP CAMERON, BY PRIVATE W., COMPANY I.

BOOM!

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.

OUR ADVANCE INTO VIRGINIA.

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.

ACROSS THE LONG BRIDGE.

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.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS.

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.

"PARTANT POUR LA SYRIE."

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.

FAREWELL TO THE SEVENTH.

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In