12th Vermont Infantry
Army Life in Virginia
PICKET DUTY ON CUB RUN
Picket Camp, Centreville, Va.,
December 19th, 1862.
Dear Free Press:
The main camp of our brigade is at Fairfax Court House, eight miles back of here. From thence a regiment is sent every four days to picket the lines in this vicinity. The turn of the Twelfth came day before yesterday. We started at 7.30 A.M., with two days' rations in our haversacks, and were marched briskly hither over the Centreville turnpike, which has been so often filled with the columns of the army of the Potomac, in advance or in retreat. The skeletons of horses and mules, left to rot as they fell, were frequent ornaments of the highway, and the remains of knapsacks, bayonet sheaths, and here and there a broken musket, strewn along the road, told the story of strife and disaster in months and years gone by. Three hours brought us to the highlands of Centreville, covered with forts, eight of which are in sight from this camp, connected by miles of the rebel rifle pits which kept McClellan so long at bay during the impatient months of last winter. One of the famous "quaker" guns lies near our camp.
The regiment halted here, and the right wing was at once despatched to the picket lines, Company C, under command of Lieutenant Wing, forming a portion of the detachment. Three miles of sharp marching across the fields, over a surface seamed with ditches and covered with a little low vine which tries its best to trip up the traveler, brought us, about noon, to the picket lines; and the men were at once distributed to the stations, to relieve the men of the Sixteenth regiment, who for four days had kept watch and ward on the line. The space allotted to Company C extended along the turbid stream of Cub Run, from a point near its junction with Bull Run, up to and beyond the ford and bridge where "Fighting Dick" Richardson opened the first battle of Bull Run, July 18th, 1861. Back from the stream a little are the camps of three Georgia and Kentucky regiments and a battery of rebel artillery, which wintered here last winter. The huts are of logs plastered with mud, with shed roofs of long split shingles or of poles covered with clay, each having a small aperture for a window, and capacious fire place and chimney of stone and mud masonry. They are a portion of the famous hut camps of Beauregard's army, which cover the desirable camping spots for many a mile around, in which the rebel army spent a comfortable winter, while our army was shivering in tents. Our reserves are now posted in them--a picket reserve, as you know, is a body of 15 or 20 men, on which the pickets fall back for support if attacked, and from which men are sent at intervals to relieve the men on the lines--and we find them warm and comfortable shelter on these cold nights.
Let me describe to you a day and night of picket duty. We were stationed within hailing distance of each other, one man at a station for the most part, but sometimes two or three together at posts requiring especial vigilance, along the eastern bank of Cub Run, a small stream, a rod or two wide, which for the present is the boundary of Uncle Sam's absolute control. Beyond it is debatable ground, a cavalry patrol of the First Virginia (loyal) cavalry, and occasional reconnoitering expeditions, alone disputing its possession with the enemy. A cavalry vidette is posted on the Gainesville road, and a patrol is sent out daily over the road for four or five miles.
We took our posts, in a flurry of snow, at noon. Each man's thought was first of his fire and next of his dinner. The nearest fence or brush-heap furnishes the means of replenishing the one, the haversack supplies the other. From its depths the picket produces a tin plate, a piece of war pork, a paper of ground coffee, and a supply of hard tack. If inclined for a warm meal, he cuts a slice or two of his pork and fries it on his plate, if less fastidious, he takes it raw with his hard bread. His cup is filled from his canteen and placed on the fire, and a cup of coffee is soon steaming under his nose. With such materials, and the appetite gained by a march of a dozen miles, a royal meal is soon made.
The afternoon passed with little incident. At my station I had a solitary visitor, a gaunt and yellow F. F. V., who came to say that he was anxious to save the rails he had left, around his cattle yard, and rather than have them burned he would draw some wood for the pickets--a suggestion which found favor with our boys, and they old fellow found occupation enough for himself, boy and yoke of oxen, for a good share of the day, hauling wood to the stations. He said he was a Virginian born, owned a farm of 130 acres, had not apples and no orchard to raise any with, no potatoes either, nothing that a soldier would eat except corn meal, and couldn't sell any of that, as his supply was small and he could not cross the picket line to mill; had never taken the oath of allegiance nor been asked to take it; was a peaceable man himself, and meant to keep friends with the soldiers the best way he knew how; found some good men and some hard fellows among them on both sides; had lost a great deal by the war; but felt most the loss of his horses, which he said were taken from his stable while he was sick by some Union soldiers; had no slaves nor anybody to help him but his boy; had no gun of any description and never owned one; was glad to believe the war could not last forever, and only hoped it would be over in time to leave him some of his fences and timber.
At our reserve station, in the old rebel artillery camp, some stir was occasioned by a colored individual, one of a family of free negroes who own a fine farm of 400 acres just across the Run, who came in to say that a man believed to be a secesh soldier dressed in citizen's clothes, had just been at his house and made inquiries as to the number and position of our pickets. Lieutenant Wing at once started out with two or three men, saw the fellow making tracks for the woods, and gave chase. He gained the timber, however, and made good his escape. As such a search for information might be preliminary to a rebel dash on our picket line, the affair had a tendency to put our men on the alert. Further down the line the men of another company while scouting round a farmhouse, discovered in the barn a suspicious looking box, which, when opened, disclosed within a metallic burial case, containing a corpse, which the family there averred to be the body of a Southern officer, which was left there on the retreat of the rebel army last March, with directions to keep it until it should be sent for. But it had not been sent for and perhaps never will be.
The night settled down clear and very cold.--With the darkness came orders to put out the picket fires or keep them smouldering without flame. Your humble servant was stationed on the bank of Cub Run, opposite a rude foot bridge thrown across the stream. My turns of duty were from 4 to 8 and 10 to 12 P.M., and from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 A.M. The stars shone bright; but there was little else to see. The stream rippled away with constant murmur and the wind sighed and rustled through the trees; but there was little else to hear, till about midnight, when the reports of fire arms came from the direction of the cavalry vidette, further out on the battlefield, two or three miles away, and shortly after a sound of the clatter of hoofs on the frozen ground. The sound died away and the night was still as before. When I was relieved and returned to the reserve, the fires were burning brightly in the wide fire places, and seated around we told stories and cracked jokes, and discussed the campaign, and wondered where Banks had gone. Suddenly a hasty step is heard without, and one of the pickets puts in his head at the door to announce that men are moving on the opposite bank of the stream. While he is talking, bang goes a musket from our line to the left, and then another. Something is going on, or else somebody is unnecessarily excited. We seize our pieces, and hurry down to the ford, close by, where if anywhere a rebel party would probably attempt a crossing, and are not quieted by hearing in a whisper from the three trusty men stationed there, that a small party of men had just come stealthily along the opposite bank, stopped at the ford, discussed in a low tone the expediency of crossing, and then, disturbed by the firing and stir down our line to the left, had hastily retired.
Our boys kept quiet, for the comers were invisible in the shadow of the opposite bank; had they stepped into the water they would have been fired on. Of course they might return and more with them, and dropping low, so as to get a sight against the star-lit horizon, we awaited developments. A hostile body attempting the crossing about there would have met the contents of fifteen rifles muskets, tolerably well aimed. But no more sound was heard, and the reserve returned to their post. A sergeant and two men, sent down the line, had in the meantime discovered that the shots heard were fired by two of our sentinels, who hearing a movement in the bushes across the run, had fired at random. I returned to my sentry post, but there was no more alarm. I saw the big dipper in the North tip up so that its contents, be they of water, or milk from the milky way, must have run out over the handle. I saw the triple studded belt of Orion pass across the sky. I saw two meteors shoot along the horizon, and that was all the shooting. I saw the old moon, wasted to a slender crescent, come up in the east. I saw the sun rise very red in the face at the thought that he had overslept himself till half past seven, on such a glorious morning. I heard a song bird or two piping sweetly from the woods; but I neither saw nor heard any rebels. With daylight, however, a Union cavalry man, on foot, bareheaded, with scratched face and eyes still wild with fright, came to our line and told a story which explained the alarm of the midnight. The cavalry vidette, sixteen in number, of which he was one, posted out some three or four miles, while sleeping around their fires had been charged into by a party of White's rebel cavalry, who captured all their horses and seven or eight of their number; the rest scattered into the bush in all directions, and it was doubtless some of them trying to make their way into Centreville, who created the alarm along our line, and came so near being fired on by our men at the ford.
I hear this morning that the infantry pickets are to e withdrawn from the line along Cub Run, letting cavalry take their places, and that we shall go into the redoubt close by, to-day, to be relieved, I suppose, to-morrow, by another regiment of the brigade. A grand review of the other four regiments by General Stoughton took place yesterday at Fairfax Court House.