Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/January/Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life

January 1877

Detailed Minutiæ of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia.

By Carlton McCarthy,
Private Second Company Richmond Howitzers, Cutshaw's Battalion.

Paper No. 3—On the March.

It is a common mistake of those who write on subjects familiar to themselves, to omit that particularity of description and detailed mention which, to one not so conversant with the matters discussed is necessary to a clear appreciation of the meaning of the writer. This mistake is all the more fatal when the writer lives and writes in one age and his readers live in another.

And so a soldier, writing for the information of the citizen, should forget his familiarity with the every-day scenes of soldier life and strive to record even those things which seem to him too common to mention. Who does not know all about the marching of soldiers? Those who have never marched with them and some who have. The varied experience of thousands would not tell the whole story of the march. Every man must be heard before the story is told, and even then the part of those who fell by the way is wanting.

Orders to move! Where? when? what for?—are the eager questions of the men as they begin their preparations to march. Generally nobody can answer, and the journey is commenced in utter ignorance of where it is to end. But shrewd guesses are made, and scraps of information will be picked up on the way. The main thought must be to "get ready to move." The orderly sergeant is shouting "fall in," and there is no time to lose. The probability is that before you get your blanket rolled up, find your frying pan, haversack, axe, &c., and "fall in," the roll-call will be over, and some "extra duty" provided.

No wonder there is bustle in the camp. Rapid decisions are to be made between the various conveniences which have accumulated, for some must be left. One fellow picks up the skillet, holds it awhile, mentally determining how much it weighs, and what will be the weight of it after carrying it five miles, and reluctantly, with a half-ashamed, sly look, drops it and takes his place in ranks. Another having added to his store of blankets too freely, now has to decide which of the two or three he will leave. The old water-bucket looks large and heavy, but one stout-hearted, strong-armed man has taken it affectionately to his care.

This is the time to say farewell to the bread-tray, farewell to the little piles of clean straw laid between two logs, where it was so easy to sleep; farewell to those piles of wood, cut with so much labor; farewell to the girls in the neighborhood; farewell to the spring, farewell to "our tree" and "our fire," good-bye to the fellows who are not going, and a general good-bye to the very hills and valleys.

Soldiers commonly threw away the most valuable articles they possessed. Blankets, overcoats, shoes, bread and meat,—all gave way to the necessities of the march; and what one man threw away would frequently be the very article another wanted and would immediately pick up. So there was not much lost after all.

The first hour or so of the march was generally quite orderly—the men preserving their places in ranks and marching with a good show of order; but soon some lively fellow whistles an air, somebody else starts a song, the whole column breaks out with roars of laughter, "route step" takes the place of order, and the jolly singing, laughing, talking and joking that follows none could describe.

Now let any young officer dare to pass along who sports a new hat, coat, saddle, or anything new, or odd, or fine, and how nicely he is attended to.

The expressions of good-natured fun, or contempt, which one regiment of infantry was capable of uttering in a day for the benefit of passers by, would fill a volume. As one thing or another in the dress of the "subject" of their remarks attracted attention, they would shout, "Come out of that hat!!—you can't hide in thar!" "Come out of that coat, come out—there's a man in it!!" "Come out of them boots!!" The infantry seemed to know exactly what to say to torment cavalry and artillery.

If any one on the roadside was simple enough to recognize and address by name a man in the ranks, the whole column would kindly respond, and add all sorts of pleasant remarks, such as, "Halloa, John, here's your brother!" "Bill!! oh Bill!!! hers's your ma!" "Glad to see you!—How's your grandma?" "Howdey do!" "Come out of that 'biled shirt'!"

Troops on the march were generally so cheerful and gay that an outsider looking on them as they marched would hardly imagine how they suffered. In summer time, the dust, combined with the heat, caused great suffering. The nostrils of the men, filled with dust, became dry and feverish, and even the throat did not escape. The "grit" was felt between the teeth, and the eyes were rendered almost useless. There was dust in eyes, mouth, ears and hair. The shoes were full of sand, and penetrating the clothes, and getting in at the neck, wrists, and ankles, the dust, mixed with perspiration, produced an irritant almost as active as cantharides. The heat was at times terrific, but the men become greatly accustomed to it, and endured it with wonderful ease. Their heavy woollen clothes were a great annoyance. Tough linen or cotton clothes would have been a great relief; indeed, there are many objections to woolen clothing for soldiers even in winter. The sun produced great changes in the appearance of the men. Their skins were tanned to a dark brown or red, their hands black almost, and, added to this the long, uncut beard and hair, they too burned to a strange color, made them barely recognizable to the homefolks.

If the dust and the heat were not on hand to annoy, their very able substitutes were. Mud, cold, rain, snow, hail and wind took their places. Rain was the greatest discomfort a soldier could have. It was more uncomfortable than the severest cold with clear weather. Wet clothes, shoes and blankets; wet meat and bread; wet feet and wet ground; wet wood to burn, or, rather, not to burn; wet arms and ammunition; wet ground to sleep on, mud to wade through, swollen creeks to ford, muddy springs, and a thousand other discomforts attended the rain. There was no comfort on a rainy day or night except in "bed"—that is, under your blanket and oilcloth. Cold winds, blowing the rain in the faces of the men, increased the discomfort. Mud was often so deep as to submerge the horses and mules, and at times it was necessary for one man or more to extricate another from the mud holes in the road.

Marching at night, when very dark, was attended with additional discomforts and dangers, such as falling off bridges, stumbling into ditches, tearing the face and injuring the eyes against the bushes and projecting limbs of trees, and getting separated from your own company and hopelessly lost in the multitude.

Of course, a man lost had no sympathy. If he dared to ask a question, every man in hearing would answer, each differently, and then the whole multitude would roar with laughter at the lost man, and ask him "if his mother knew he was out?"

Very few men had comfortable or fitting shoes, and less had socks, and, as a consequence, the suffering from bruised and inflamed feet was terrible. It was a common practice, on long marches, for the men to take off their shoes and carry them in their hands or swung over their shoulder.

When large bodies of troops were moving on the same road the alternate "halt" and "forward" was very harassing. Every obstacle produced a halt and caused the men at once to sit and lie down on the road-side where shade or grass tempted them, and about the time they got fixed they would hear the word "forward!" and then have to move at increased speed to close up the gap in the column.

Sitting down for a few minutes on a long march is pleasant, but it does not always pay. When the march is resumed the limbs are stiff and sore, and the man rather worsted by the rest.

About noon on a hot day, some fellow with the water instinct would determine in his own mind that a well was not far ahead, and start off in a trot to reach it before the column. Of course another followed and another, till a stream of men were hurrying to the well, which was soon completely surrounded by a thirsty mob, yelling and pushing and pulling to get to the bucket as the windlass brought it again and again to the surface. Impatience and haste soon overturn the windlass, spatter the water all around the well till the whole crowd is wading in mud, and now the rope is broken and the bucket falls to the bottom. But there is a substitute for rope and bucket. The men hasten away and get long, slim poles, and on them tie, by their straps, a number of canteens, which they lower into the well and fill, and unless, as was frequently the case, the whole lot slipped off and fell to the bottom, drew them to the top and distributed them to their owners, who at once threw their heads back, inserted the nozzles in their mouths and drank the last drop, hastening at once to rejoin the marching column, leaving behind them a dismantled and dry well. It was in vain the officers tried to stop the stream making for the water, and equally vain to attempt to move the crowd while a drop remained accessible. Many who were thoughtful carried full canteens to comrades in the column who had not been able to get to the well, and no one who has not had experience of it knows the thrill of gratification and delight which those fellows knew when the cool stream gurgled from the battered canteen down their parched throats.

In very hot weather, when the necessities of the service allowed it, there was a halt about noon, of an hour or so, to rest the men and give them a chance to cool off and get the sand and gravel out of their shoes. This time was spent by some in absolute repose—but the lively boys told many a yarn, cracked many a joke, and sung many a song between "halt" and "column forward!" Some took the opportunity, if water was near, to bathe their feet, hands and face, and nothing could be more enjoyable.

The passage of a cider cart (a barrel on wheels) was a rare and exciting occurrence. The rapidity with which a barrel of sweet cider was consumed would astonish any one who saw it for the first time, and generally the owner had cause to wonder at the small return in cash. Sometimes a desperately enterprising darkey would approach the column with a cart load of pies "so called." It would be impossible to describe accurately the taste or appearance of these pies. They were generally similar in appearance, size and thickness to a pale specimen of "Old Virginia" buckwheat cakes, and had a taste which resembled a combination of rancid lard and crab apples. It was generally supposed that they contained dried apples, and the sellers were careful to state that they had "sugar in 'em" and "was mighty nice." It was rarely the case, that any "trace" of sugar was found, but they filled up a hungry man wonderfully.

Men of sense, and there were many such in the ranks, were necessarily desirous of knowing where or how far they were to march, and suffered greatly from a feeling of helpless ignorance of where they were and whither bound—whether to battle or camp. Frequently, when anticipating the quiet and rest of an ideal camp, they were thrown, weary and exhausted, into the face of a waiting enemy; and at times, after anticipating a sharp fight, having formed line of battle and braced themselves for the coming danger, suffered all the apprehension and gotten themselves in good fighting trim they would be marched off in the driest and prosiest sort of style and ordered into camp, where, in all probability, they had to "wait for the wagon," and for the bread and meat therein, until the proverb, "Patient waiting is no loss," lost all its force and beauty.

Occasionally, when the column extended for a mile or more, and the road was one dense moving mass of men, a cheer would be heard away ahead and increasing in volume as it approached until there was one universal shout. Then some general favorite officer would dash by, followed by his staff, and explain the cause.

At other times, the same cheering and enthusiasm would result from the passage down the column of some obscure and despised officer, who knew it was all a joke, and looked mean and sheepish accordingly.

The men would generally help each other in real distress, but their delight was to torment any one who was unfortunate in a ridiculous way. If, for instance, a piece of artillery was fast in the mud, the infantry and cavalry passing around the obstruction would rack their brains for words and phrases applicable to the situation and most calculated to worry the cannoniers who, waist deep in the mud, are tugging at the wheels.

Brass bands, at first quite numerous and good, became very rare and the music very poor in the latter years of the war. It was a fine thing to see the fellows trying to keep the music going as they waded through the mud. But poor as the music was, it helped the footsore and weary to make another mile, and encouraged a cheer and a brisker step from the lagging and tired column.

As the men became tired, there was less and less talking, until the whole mass became quiet and serious. Each man was occupied with his own thoughts. For miles nothing could be heard but the steady tramp of the men, the rattling and jingling of canteens and accoutrements, and the occasional "close up, men,—close up!" of the officers.

As evening came on, questioning of the officers was in order, and for an hour it would be, "Captain, when are we going into camp?" "I say, lieutenant! are we going to ——— or to blank?" "Seen anything of our wagon?" "How long are we to stay here?"—"Where's the spring?" Sometimes these questions were meant simply to tease, but generally they betrayed anxiety of some sort, and a close observer would easily detect the seriousness of the man who asked after "our wagon," because he spoke feelingly as one who wanted his supper and was in doubt as to whether or not he would get it.

Many a poor fellow dropped in the road and breathed his last in the corner of a fence, with no one to hear his last fond mention of his loved ones. And many whose ambition it was to share every danger and discomfort with their comrades, overcome by the heat or worn out with disease, were compelled to leave the ranks, and while friend and brother marched to battle, drag their weak and staggering frames to the rear, perhaps to die, pitiably alone, in some hospital, and be buried as one more "Unknown."

An accomplished straggler could assume more misery, look more horribly emaciated, tell more dismal stories of distress, eat more and march further (to the rear), than any ten ordinary men. Most stragglers were real sufferers, but many of them were ingenious liars, energetic foragers, plunder hunters and gormandizers. Thousands who kept their place in ranks to the very end were equally as tired, as sick, as hungry and as hopeless as these scamps, but too proud to tell it or use it as a means of escape from hardship.

Defence of Fort Gregg.

[The heroic defence of Fort Gregg showed the spirit of the remnant of our grand old army, and illumines the sad page of its history which tells of the closing scenes of the "Defence of Petersburg." We have never seen in print any official account of the brilliant affair, and are glad to be able to present the following from the original MS. report kindly furnished us by General James H. Lane.]


Appomatox Courthouse, April 10, 1865.

I have the honor to report that on the night of the 1st of April, four regiments of my brigade, with intervals between the men varying from six to ten paces, were stretched along the works