|from The Webster Times, Dec. 26, 1902 Volume XLV # 43),|
| A Christmas in the Army
(written for the Webster Times by the Corporal, a Webster man)
I am not going to tell you a story of startling adventure or of hair-breath escapes, nothing of the kind; just a little account of one day and night, in camp, during the Civil War. Tame it may be, but the writer loves to think of it occasionally.
To begin, then; it was a cold windy night in December, the 24th, Christmas eve. We were encamped in what had been a pine grove, having pitched our tents there some weeks before. But the constant demand for artificial warmth had led us to make such inroads upon the trees that nothing now remained but the stumps, and even these were rapidly being rooted out, and converted into fire wood. Bitter blew the cold winds over the bare hills . The winds can blow cold even in Virginia, when they start out, as we found on many unpleasant occasions.
Here and there throughout the camp stump fires were burning. At times during a lull in the gale, the flames burned up straight from the ground, sending out, a genial glow of warm comfort. But suddenly a blast would come, always from an unexpected quarter, and with smoke, flame, and sparks go scudding along the ground, scattering the poor soldier boys, who happened to be on the wrong side of the fire, like chaff. But when the burst had passed , they would gather around the treacherous element again, laughing and joking each other,
The fact of the matter was, we were trying to keep our spirits up, for we had the blues bad. Only a few days before, the 13th of the same month, our army had suffered that terrible defeat at Fredericksburg. In that struggle more than half our men had thrown away, or lost, overcoats, blankets, tents etc. and here we were, in mid-winter, without a decent place of shelter from the pitiless cold and storm.
Fortunately all had not been so imprudent as to get rid of the articles we needed so much now, and so there were some overcoats and blankets in the company and with them we tried to make ourselves comfortable. One man would have a blanket another an overcoat, and still another a rubber blanket. These three would join forces, placing the rubber blanket on the ground, with the overcoat over that, and using whatever came handy shoes, stump, mess pans, anything for pillows, the three would lie down “spoon fashion” and draw the woolen blanket over them, and go to sleep. Thus we continued to keep comfortable or partly so, at any rate, for two or three weeks or until new supplies could reach us from our Uncle Sam in Washington.
Now I’ll begin again; On this cold windy night before Christmas, a lot of us were gathered round our fire, joking and laughing, and telling stories of the most happy Christmas days we had spent in our far away New England homes, in the days when war was something we knew nothing about. We were interrupted by the addition to our circle of a bright healthy face, full of excitement and with wide sparkling eyes. “Say boys,” said the owner of the face, “the Elizabeth and Helen has got in.”
“Oh give us a rest,” replied one of his hearers, “that old tub has got in, half a dozen times before and that has always been the last of it till the story was started that she has got in again; lets have something new”. “ Oh, but I guess its true this time,” said the first speaker, ”I was just over at the suttlers and they say it’s a fact, and the teams have gone to Aquia Creek to get the stuff.” Everyone was deeply interested to know, and they all began discussing the probable truth of the story and while they are talking about it I will explain.
The people at home, in the goodness of their hearts had chartered the Elizabeth and Helen, a small schooner, some weeks before to carry, to the regiment from our state any thing that the friends at home, desired to send to the boys in the field. Contributions were called for, and as there was to be no charge for freight, the little schooner was soon loaded with potatoes and onions, and in fact vegetables of all kinds, besides boxes of good things for individual members of the different regiments.
As soon as we at the point heard of it, we began to reckon how many days, or weeks, it would take the vessel to reach us. Several times the report had been circulated that she had arrived but proved to be false, and now ’twas was hard for us to believe that she really had got through all safe.
For some unaccountable reason, we in the dismal camp opposite Fredericksburg, Camp Mud some called it, had not been living on the fat of the land, since the great battle. Yes we had too, come to think, that’s just what we had been living on, fat pork, morning, noon, and night, pork port with never a bit of salt horse to change the diet. Crackers, or hardtack, and pork with perhaps a few beans once a week, and now and then a little rice or hominy, was all we fellows had had to eat since we camped there. So you may be sure that the announcement that our schooner had arrived safely, with the boxes packed by the living hands of wife or mother, and the loads on loads of nice vegetables created no little excitement.
We could hardly credit it, so many times had our hopes been raised only to be dashed down again. We hoped t’was true, but we were not going to be fooled again not much. And so to prove that we “took no stock” in the report, we dodged the fire and smoke blown hither and thither by the capricious wind, and talked about it till ‘twas time to go to rest. And though we said to each other, I don’t believe a blessed word of it, I believe, nearly every one of us cherished a secret faith in the arrival of the vessel.
Soon Camp Mud as silent. The fires burnt low, and finally went out. The soldier boys had forgotten the cold, their hunger, and even the ”Elizabeth and Helen,” and slept calmly in their improvised beds.
Christmas morning broke fair and clear. The sound of the reveille pierced the keen air, and reached the ears of the sleepers, mingling perhaps with dreams of mother, home, and friends. As the last roll of the drums ceased, the sharp voice of the first sergeant took its place, “Fall in for roll call.” Standing, shivering in line, we answered to our names as they were called.
This as a rather a sad duty for a while after the fight, for we were reminded of our comrades whose names came next to Brown or Jones, that were not called now. They had answered the final roll call on Mary’s Heights.
“Face right, break ranks march.” “Well , how about the schooner?” “Ain’t heard anything; guess its all bosh as usual.” Thus the questions and answers began as soon as the line was broken. “Here comes the sergeant major with the detail for guard. The sergeant major comes into our company street and addresses the first sergeant: “Orderly, send six men to the quartermaster as soon as they’ve had their breakfast.”
Surly excitement ran high now. “What did they want six men for?” “I’ll bet the stuff has come and these men are going after it.” “Hah! do you suppose six men could bring all the stuff that’s coming to Co. E? More likely they are for fatigue duty or something of that kind.”
Our simple meal of hardtack and coffee disposed of, six of us in charge of a corporal, were marched over to brigade headquarters, half a mile away. When we got there such a sight as greeted our eager gaze was “good for sore eyes,” as one of the boys said. All about the quartermasters tent were piles of bags barrels and old boxes.
Surely, our “ship had come in.” The teams had been to Aquia Creek in the night and had transferred the cargo of “Elizabeth and Helen” to our camp.
Already details of men from other regiments were busy sorting out the boxes and dividing he vegetables into equal portions. Soon all was ready and the regimental teams tooted the good cheer to the respective camps. There was rejoicing and gladness all through the camp that day.
We made a day of it you may be sure. The company cook made a vegetable soup for dinner, to which we did simple justice. The afternoon was given to games and athletic sports, in which most of the officers, including the dignified colonel took part. As the day drew to a close, we made rousing fires of stumps, and gathered around these, we passed a very pleasant evening.
Thus ended one of the pleasantest days I ever spent, made so, I suppose, in part at least, by the contrast between it and the dreary weeks preceding it.
The last thing I heard that night, as we curled up under our
blanket was these words sung in the old familiar air: