Second Vermont Brigade
The Second Brigade; or Camp Life.
Next ChapterJune 25.
As early as the 13th, General Milroy was attacked at Winchester, by the advance of Lee's army under Ewell, and retreated to Harper's Ferry. A force of rebel cavalry crossed the Upper Potomac on the 15th, causing no little consternation among the people of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The President sees the great danger, and calls for one hundred thousand more men from these two states, Ohio and Western Virginia, on the same day, to serve six months. On the 16th, a detachment of the enemy makes an attack on Harper's Ferry, but is repulsed by Gen. Tyler. During the night, ten thousand infantry are sent across the river at Williamsburg [sic-Williamsport]. As early as the 19th, the whole force under Ewell was on the north side of the Potomac, and by this time it is though that a large part of Lee's army must be. Our brigade is transferred form the defences of Washington, and ordered to report to Gen. Reynolds, commanding the first army corps, which is moving north, to oppose the invading foe. We leave camp a little before eight o'clock, with a slow step, we in the ranks not knowing where we were bound, whether west, or north to Alexandria The regiment rested four times before arriving at Union Mills at one o'clock; and there is far less falling out from the ranks than ever before The day, tough hot, is not excessively so; but at every pure stream of water we pass, many run to fill their canteens. A the last named place the five regiments of the brigade come together; and there is the most friendly feeling among all. Here we halt an hour and eat dinner. Before starting, it begins to rain, and continues at intervals the rest of the day. When it is growing dark we spread our little tents, which we have brought on our backs, using guns for stakes, a mile west of Centreville. Wet as every thing is, fires are started, and all have hot coffee and hard tack for supper. In a short time you hear but little noise in the camp the soldiers are asleep, wrapped in their blankets. Some have thrown theirs away, but crawl in by the side of others.
Early every-body is preparing for the march. A part fill the canteens; a part kindle fires; and straightway coffee is boiled, and breakfast eaten. Now the tents are taken down, and with them the blankets rolled. Near by us we find bivouacked the old brigade, and the rest of the sixth corps, who came from Bristoe Station, and marched till two o'clock in the morning. Centreville is abandoned, and all the government property that cannot be carried is burned. The solders that that their winding course yesterday from the mouth of the Occoquan would measure twenty-five miles; and a few now are got into the ambulances before starting. After the artillery, teams, and all the troops have passed us, we fall in, and bring up the rear.
Friday Noon. -The whole brigade is resting in a wide, grassy plain. On the right and left are cherry trees, filled with boys picking the delicious fruit; here, are squads around little fires, (they don't burn well, for small, thick drops of rain are falling,) cooking coffee; there, are long lines of soldiers, with rubbers tied close around the neck, sitting on knapsacks, eating their dry food; and now and then you meet one asleep, all covered with his blanket. Soon the drum beats, and we are marching again. The sun is hid from us by clouds; and it is quite amusing to hear the boys conjecture the direction of the course; indeed they put it to nearly all points of the compass. As we start off in the morning, there is much fun, and jokes fly as lively as in camp, but this grows less and less, till dark, when you hear but a little, and this seems somewhat forced. At night we pitch our tents in a mowing near a station on the Alexandria and Loudon railroad. Pickets at once are sent forward to guard all approaches to the camp.
At daybreak the bugle is blown. The rolls are called; breakfast ate; tents and blankets are rolls; and by five we are tramping. Up to nine o'clock the brigade rested three times. It seems at such halts to be the invariable custom to sit on the knapsack, or lop over on the ground, and nibble away at hard tack; but some spread their rubbers, and lie flat on their backs; and those accustomed to smoke do not now forget their old habit. At one time we made a long stop, for hundreds of teams belonging to the army of the Potomac to pass. At two we came in sight of Edward's Ferry. All around it is a beautiful, rolling country, covered with wheat and corn. Here we find many soldiers; and here we halt an hour,-during which time many wash their feet, some of them blistered and almost bleeding. We encamp for the night a few miles north of the river, expecting to start early in the morning for Harper's Ferry, or Hagerstown.
Sunday. We remained till all the troops around the ferry passed. A little before seven it is known that a chaplain is going to Poolsville and will carry letters. Now see the scribbling. Each soldier sits on his knapsack, and with lead pencil writes a few words to his nearest friend. This perhaps is a specimen.
My Dear Father:--I have just time to tell you that I am well, and feeling well. We have been marching three days, and are now somewhere in Maryland, near Poolsville, expecting to start in a few minutes. There are thousands of rumors, and if any of them are true, we shall have a brush with the rebels before night. Don't worry about me; for I shall come out all right, and do my duty the best I can.
Your affectionate son."
At eight we are marching,-the hottest day we have seen. Frequently you will see soldiers falling out to throw away their blankets, or all their clothing, except what they are wearing, and then run to take their place in the ranks; and at each rest, the ground is strewn with blankets, blouses and shirts. At noon we have reach the mouth of the Monocacy river. here we halt just long enough to boil coffee and "cloy the hungry edge of appetite" with hard tack. Then we push on, rest,-on, rest again,-on,-on, no rest,-on, up a rising land. "I'd like," said the soldier by my side, "I'd like to be General just one half day, and load some of these officers with my knapsack, gun, and equipments strapped to their backs." His face is fiery red, and sweating running down it like rain on window panes; but still we push on; the front regiment has gained he height. "Halt," cried the General; and "halt" comes down the long line, repeated by the officers. Down go the guns,-down goes everything that weighs down, and then the panting soldiers. Five minutes more, and the bugle is sounded for us to march. "The General has changed horses, we've tired out one," I hear a good natured soldiers saying, as he is bending over to pick up his rifle. A mile and a half more brings us to the foot of a small mountain a little north of Adams's Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad; and here we bivouac for the night. "To-morrow we are going to Antietam."
Beeves were shot and dressed last night, so we have fresh meat with hard tack for breakfast this morning. Some of the soldiers' feet are in a bad condition. I saw one round blister an inch in diameter on the bottom of the heel. "Can't go far to-morrow," said many a boy, as we closed our march yesterday. But they washed them in cold water, and all start off in far better spirits than last night, although it rains hard, and we in the ranks actually known nothing at all where we are going. We suppose the enemy somewhere in Maryland or Pennsylvania, rushing now where, now there, committing all manner of depredations. "Lee is within five miles of Baltimore and marching on the city." Last night the great battle was to come off at Antietam; and there we were going; but to-day noon, after plodding through mud and rain as fast as we can, wind ourselves at Frederick city. Here the brigade leaves ninety soldiers, unable to go farther. Some buy pies and pay fifty cents apiece, and a dollar for smallish loaves of bread. From this place we march northerly, and pitch out tents just at dark in a rich valley covered with grass, waving wheat and corn. We closed our eyes, thinking that the worst had befallen our arms, and that Harrisburg was being sacked by the rebels. We have herd that Gen. Meade is in command of the army, not knowing whether to believe it.
We commence marching at six; and halt at Lewistown in about two hours. The soldiers here buy cakes for a fair price. "Hard tack has played out, whilst green backs last," is a common remark; but on a long march it is not possible to carry soft bread. We also halt awhile at Mechanicstown. Here we find that a brigade of cavalry passed us in the night. These, too, wear out as well as infantry. I saw six sleeping in a field, whilst it was raining, and no rubbers over them. Our regiment is in the rear, and arrives at Emmettsburg just at dark; but still we must pitch our tents and have our coffee. The march this afternoon has been exceedingly hard. Two soldiers are left in houses on the way. At one time, near evening, as we had been exerting every chord for near two hours, splashing, splashing through the mud, faster, faster every moment, "it seems," said an old soldier, whose lips had never uttered a complaint before, "it seems as though the General meant to kill the whole of us." Soon one drops down in his tracks, and is thought to be dying; but stimulants are given him, and he survives, but unable to go farther. As we near the place of encampment, though not a man can hardly drag one blistered, bleeding foot after the other, I hear a few jolly fellows, as much as to say: "See here, boys, we are all right, if we have marched six days," singing" "I'm bound to be a soldier in the army of the Lord," "John Brown's knapsack," &c.; but rarely one responds, even with a smile. "I'd rather fight than sir another step," has fallen from many a lip to-day.
Wednesday. Early we are informed that we shall not march to-day. So many lie down and sleep, and many seize the time to write home. But unexpectedly about nine o'clock orders came for us to fall in. We move on rapidly through the mud and rain, (it clears off in the afternoon,) when, suddenly, at four, the smoke, like a vast, dark, snow-drifting cloud, rolls up before us from the field of Gettysburg, five or six miles away. Here we halt a number of minutes, and the guns are closely examined, and made sure of fire by snapping caps. From this place onward the brigade moves slower, -little talking, no straggling, each man with a sober, determined look, till a little after dark, regiment behind regiment, we stack our arms in sloping wheat field, a few rods in the rear of the cannon now crowning Cemetery Hill, and occasionally being discharged, but not replied to. As we are approaching the field we meet women and children doing back into the country, now and then looking around with terror on every face; but one middle-aged woman stands nearly still, bareheaded, whilst the brigade is passing her, screaming till she can hardly speak, "Go-a-head, boys; the rebels are off there," and swinging her large naked arms in all directions, causing general and hearty laughter among al the soldiers that see her. There is no infantry firing after we arrive on the first of July, and it is fortunate, as all are too much exhausted to endure a great deal more before rest. As soon as the arms are stacked, three men from each company are sent to fill the canteens. But no fires are kindled, and so we eat hard tack and drink cold water for supper. The Colonel comes around and says, "Every man must keep his equipments on to-night." Soon the rubber blankets are spread on the ground and we lie down, side by side, behind our guns, with the starry heavens over us, ready for any emergency; and though expecting to be roused at break of day by roaring cannon, soon, too, all are asleep.