In Light Marching Order
— I knew him in the army. Although among the youngest of our young officers, he was married, which fact gave a certain weight to his actions and opinions in the eyes of his brother officers, he having passed by one of the three epochs that mark our progress through life.
It was the custom of our brigade commander, old Tecumseh Sherman, to order out, every few days, a scouting party ; less, I fear, for any immediate results than with the hope of keeping “the boys” out of mischief,— a consideration which, I am told, is, in many sections, the sole reason for sending children to school! After designating company and commander, the order invariably read that these must proceed “ in light marching order ; ” and while all thus designated obeyed said injunction to the best of their ability, there was but one who obeyed it literally. I must here mention that “ light marching order ” implies that a soldier may carry upon his person only a few of the more obvious necessities of life, and no luxuries save tobacco. In the long life-anddeath struggle which may last from one to three days, the contestants must strip as nearly as possible to the skin ; what with the heat, the dust, and the hurrying to and fro, a man in gymnasium costume might be only too glad to drop out, finding refuge in a faint or swoon. But a soldier must be clad even to sixty rounds of ball cartridge. Small wonder is it, then, if only the lightest toothbrush, drawn through the buttonhole of his blouse, must suffice as an epitome of the refinements of life. Many of the victories of our adversaries were fairly attributable to the scantier attire and lighter marching order of the men.
The officer of whom mention has been made had lived abroad. Rumor said that, as a student, he had walked through Europe, after the fashion of Bayard Taylor (but without the knapsack); and so this young officer’s resources, in the way of a condensation of his appointments, had been enhanced by much practice. The lightest of razors (Swiss) ; a shadowy sponge, not too large for one hand; castile soap, by preference, as being lighter than toilet soap, — these signalized his outfit. Towels there were none, and our daintiest knights-errant had to content themselves, like the guests of Cedric the Saxon, with drying their hands by gracefully waving them through the air. But one superfluity accompanied the subject of our sketch, a blue-and-gold Shelley, which, carried in his breast pocket, to his admiring men masqueraded as a New Testament; for, in the eyes of the average country boy, those about to die had scant need of secular literature. But one superfluity did I say ? Perhaps I should mention also an old camp-kettle pierced with many bayonet holes, which, when suspended from the bough of a tree and filled with a bucket of brook water, afforded the luxury of a shower-bath. But it was in the charming ménage which we observed in camp, when this officer was joined by his wife, a country girl, that the best proofs of portability in household utensils were exhibited. What marvels of cookery were achieved with a sharpened rod for a toasting-fork, and an empty tomato can for a stewpan ! Four bricks sufficed for stove or oven, and a fragment of shelter-tent for the roof of the cookhouse, oftener affording protection from the sun than the rain. Of course, in a permanent camp, in winter quarters, ovens and similar necessities of living were provided by the department, while the officers took their chance of death from indigestion by “ boarding around ” at the various farmhouses in the neighborhood. Many, indeed, although their lives were spared, brought home no eupeptic zest, but an irritable Carlylean temper, the bane of their nearest relatives. Not so the two of whom I have spoken. Granted the ability to use them, almost every country place abounds in the materials of good cookery; and certainly it would have been a barren land where these two could not have thrived luxuriously. The ingenuity which, on campaign, could split a tin canteen into two frying-pans, and make a tumbler and a goblet of a bottle by dividing it in the middle, was never at a loss in utilizing raw material of whatever sort. I half suspect that the frequency with which this young officer’s name was mentioned in general orders was due not wholly to soldierly deserving, but in part to the frank delight of his colonel in the breakfast sure to follow, prepared by the hands of the officer’s wife, — this court lady who was something more than a giver of bread in those hungry times.
One day a negro appeared in camp bearing a handsome guitar, which he insisted upon laying as tribute at the feet of the young officer, whom he dubbed his rescuer. As no plantation house likely to contain such an instrument was to be found within a day’s march of camp, there might have been some truth in the negro’s story that he had received it as an offset to unpaid wages. At all events, this guitar was added to the ménage we are considering, and thenceforth it furnished the slow music for the domestic drama daily enacted in that tent, the cynosure of many homesick eyes and hearts. Not only did this instrument “raise the note” in the patriotic chorusing of the soldiery, which on moonlight nights would fill the camp with clamor, but it also atoned for such secular sins by steadying the voices of those who sang hymns on the Sabbath evenings. The respectful regard in which this frail almoner of sweet sounds was held is further attested by the fact that it winged its lightsome way, unbroken, and with no least rift in its palpitating sides, through all the confusion and tumult of army wagon life, of reckless advance and headlong retreat ; and so, on it fared, accompanying the singing soldiery of the regiment, until the surrender of Appomattox turned all music into thanksgiving, all singing into the refrain, “My Country, ’t is of thee.”
And now, after a lapse of twenty-seven years, this officer, — who, like fresh-hearted Gamelyn, “ yonge was of old,” — alive and pensionless, in his home in the North, remains as unchanged, both to outward and inward consideration, as the behests of time will allow. He lives in a dwelling scarce worth the modest insurance which spans its helplessness, and this same dwelling is furnished with a frugality that is wholly consistent with the fortunes of the average veteran. Like the Irish liveryman who economized in whips by feeding his horses so well that they needed none, this veteran saves himself the expense of a lock to his door by leaving nothing in his house, when he is away, that any tramp would carry off. Hard by, a garden supplies many of the needs and luxuries of life in the way of food ; and the owner further economizes in time and labor by declining to weed the garden, on the theory that “ the weeds carry off the bitterness of the soil ” ! Sooth to say, the fruits of the garden, though small, are of uncommon sweetness.
There is a lady of my circle who, though most tenderly reared and wealthy, having married a cavalry officer, preferred to live with him in a wall-tent carpeted with army blankets, and ornamented with his sabre and spurs. He was killed, but to this day his widow sleeps in a small apartment of her sumptuous house ; and the apartment is carpeted with the same army blankets, well cared for, and is ornamented with the same sabre and spurs. In a like manner, the frugality of the hasty march is kept up in the household I have been describing. The camp-kettle has been rendered unnecessary by the near presence of the Atlantic Ocean. The tomato can and split canteen have been replaced by articles scarcely more expensive, although more conventional. The content of mind and the characteristic enjoyment of all the free-will offerings of nature still continue, and with good reason ; for in that enchanted region of the New England coast where this officer resides the fields are a wilderness of wild flowers, and Heaven is their gardener. On the wall of his cottage of content, in perfect preservation, and in sweet survival of all that was harsh and bitter in the past, hangs the old guitar which made the tour of the South in the darkest days of the rebellion.