Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/February/Camp Fires of the Boys in Gray
Camp Fires of the Boys in Gray.
By Private Carlton McCarthy, of the Richmond Howitzers.
[Note.—The substance of this paper was delivered in response to a toast at the banquet and reunion of the Richmond Howitzers, November 9th, 1875, and there has been a very general desire for its publication. It is a vivid picture of camp life, which will be readily recognized by the old soldier, and contains matter well worthy of a place in these Papers.]
The soldier may forget the long, weary march, with its dust, heat and thirst, and he may forget the horrors and blood of the battle-field, or he may recall them sadly, as one thinks of the loved dead; but the cheerful, happy scenes of the camp fire he will never forget! How willingly he closes his eyes to the present to dream of those happy, careless days and nights. Around the fire crystallize the memories of the soldier's life. It was his home—his place of rest, where he met with good companionship. Who kindled the fire? Nobody had matches, there was no fire in sight, and yet, scarcely was the camp determined when the bright blaze of the camp-fire was seen. He was a shadowy fellow who kindled the fire. Nobody knows who he was, but no matter how wet the leaves, how the twigs—no matter if there was no fire in a mile of the camp, that fellow could start one. Some men might get down on hands and knees, and blow it and fan it, rear and charge, and fume and fret, and yet "she wouldn't burn." But this fellow would come, kick it all around, scatter it, rake it together again, shake it up a little, and oh! how it burned! The little flames would bite the twigs, and snap at the branches, embrace the logs, and leap and dance, and laugh at the touch of the master's hand and soon lay at his feet a bed of glowing coals.
As soon as the fire is kindled all hands want water. Who can find it? Where is it? Never mind! we have a man who knows where to go. He says, "where's our bucket?" and then we hear the rattle of the old tin cup as it drops to the bottom of it, and away he goes, nobody knows where. But he knows, and he doesn't stop to think, but without the slightest hesitation or doubt, strikes out in the darkness.
From the camp-fire as a centre, draw 500 radii, and start an ordinary man on any of them, and let him walk a mile on each, and he will miss the water. But that fellow in the mess with the water instinct never failed. He would go as anything to him if you value his friendship! Don't attempt to put on or take off from the top of that skillet one single coal, and don't be in a hurry for the biscuit. You need not say you "like yours half done," &c. Simply wait. When he thinks they are ready, and not before, you get them. He may raise the lid cautiously now and then and look in, but don't you look in. Don't say you think they are done; because it's useless.for the spring, or well, or creek, or river, as though he had lived in that immediate neighborhood all his life and never got water anywhere else. What a valuable man he was. A modest fellow, who never knew his own greatness. But others remember and honor him. May he never want for any good thing! Having a roaring fire and a bucket of good water, we settle down. A man cannot be comfortable anywhere; so each man and his "chum" picks out a tree, and that particular tree becomes the homestead of the two. They hang their canteens on it, lay their haversacks and spread their blankets at the foot of it, and sit down, and lean their weary backs against it, and feel that they are at home. How gloomy the woods are beyond the glow of our fire? How cosy and comfortable we are who stand around it and inhale the aroma of the coffee boiler and the skillet? The man squatting by the fire is a person of importance. He doesn't talk—not he; his whole mind is concentrated on that skillet. He is our cook—volunteer, natural and talented cook. Not in a vulgar sense. He doesn't mix, but simply bakes, the biscuit. Every faculty, all the energy of the man, is employed in that great work. Don't suggest
Ah! his face relaxes—he raises the lid, turns it upside down to throw off the coals, and says: All right boys! And now with the air of a wealthy philanthropist he distributes the solid and weighty product of his skill to, as it were, the humble dependents around him.
The "General" of the mess having satisfied the cravings of the inner-man, now proceeds to enlighten the ordinary members of it as to when, how and why, and where the campaign will open, and what will be the result.
He arranges for every possible and impossible contingency, and brings the war to a favorable and early termination. The greatest mistake General Lee ever made, was that he failed to consult this man. Who can tell what "might have been" if he had.
Now, to the consternation of all hands, our old friend, "the Bore," familiarly known as "the old Auger," opens his mouth to tell us of a little incident illustrative of his personal prowess, and by way of preface, commences at Eden and goes laboriously through the Patriarchal age, on through the Mosaic dispensation to the Christian era, takes in Grecian and Roman history, by the way, then Spain and Germany and England and colonial times, and the early history of our grand Republic; the causes of and necessity for our war, and a complete history up to date. And then slowly unfolds the little matter. We always loved to hear this man, and prided ourselves on being the only mess in the army having such treasure all our own.
The "Auger" having been detailed for guard-duty walks off, and his voice grows fainter and fainter in the distance, and we call forth our Poet. One eye is bandaged with a dirty cotton rag. He is bareheaded and his hair resembles a dismantled straw-stack. His elbows and knees are out, and his pants, from the knee down, have a brown-toasted tinge imparted by the genial heat of many a fire. His toes protrude themselves prominently from his shoes. You would say, "What a dirty, ignorant fellow." But listen to his rich, well-modulated voice. How perfect his memory. What graceful gestures. How his single eye glows. See the color on his cheek. See the strained and still attention of the little group around him. Hear him!
I am dying, Egypt, dying—
Though my proud and veteran legions
Let not Cæsar's servile minions
Should the base plebeian rabble
As for thee, dark-eyed Egyptian,
I am dying, Egypt, dying!
"Good!" "Bully!" "Go ahead, Jack!" "Give us some more, old fellow!" And he generally did, much to everybody's satisfaction. We all loved Jack, the Poet of our mess. He sleeps, his battles o'er, in Hollywood.
The Singing man generally put in towards the last and sung us to bed. He was generally a diminutive man, with a sweet voice and a sweetheart at home. His songs had in them rosy lips, blue eyes, golden hair, pearly teeth, and all that sort of thing. Of course he would sing some good rolicking songs in order to give all a chance. And so, with hearty chorus, "Three times around went she," "Virginia, Virginia, the Land of the Free," "No Surrender," "Lula, Lula, Lula is Gone," "John Brown's Body," with many variations, "Dixie," "The Bonnie Blue Flag," "Farewell to the Star Spangled Banner," "Hail Columbia," with immense variations, and "Maryland, My Maryland," till about the third year of the war, when we began to think Maryland had "breathed and burned" long enough and ought to "come." What part of her did come was first class. How the woods did ring with song. There were patriotic songs, romantic and love songs, sarcastic, comic and war songs, pirates' glees, plantation melodies, lullabies, good old hymn tunes, anthems, Sunday-school songs, and everything but vulgar and obscene songs—these were scarcely ever heard, and were nowhere in the army well received or encouraged.
The recruit—our latest acquisition—was so interesting. His nice, clean clothes, new hat, new shoes, trimming on his shirt front, letters and cross guns on his hat, new knife for all the fellows to borrow, nice comb for general use, nice little glass to shave by, good smoking tobacco, money in his pocket to lend out; oh! what a great convenience he was. How many things he had that a fellow could borrow, and how willing he was to go on guard, and get wet, and give away his rations, and bring water, and cut wood, and ride horses to water; and he was so clean and sweet, and his cheeks so rosy, all the fellows wanted to bunk with him under his nice new blanket, and impart to him some of their numerous and energetic "tormenters."
And then it was so interesting to hear him talk. He knew so much about war, arms, tents, knapsacks, ammunition, marching, fighting, camping, cooking, shooting, and everything a soldier is and does. It is remarkable how much a recruit and how little an old soldier knows about such things. After a while the recruit forgets all, and is as ignorant as any veteran. How good the fellows were to a really gentlemanly boy; how they loved him!
The Scribe was a wonderful fellow and very useful. He could write a two-hours pass, sign the captain's name better than the captain himself, and endorse it "respectfully forwarded approved," sign the colonel's name after "respectfully forwarded approved," and then on up to the commanding officer. And do it so well! Nobody wanted anything better. The boys had great veneration for the scribe, and used him constantly.
The Mischievous man was very useful. He made fun. He knew how to volunteer to shave a fellow with a big beard and moustache. He wouldn't lend his razor, but he'd shave him. Very well—he shaves one cheek, one-half the chin, one side of the upper lip, puts his razor in his pocket, walks off, and leaves his customer the most one-sided chap in the army. He knew how to do something like this every day. What a treasure to a mess!
The Forager was a good fellow. He always divided with the mess. If there was buttermilk anywhere inside of ten miles he found it. Apples he could smell from afar off. If anybody was killing pork in the county he got the spareribs. If a man had a cider cart on the road he saw him first and bought him out. No hound had a keener scent, no eagle a sharper eye. How indefatigable he was. Distance, rivers, mountains, pickets, patrols, roll-calls—nothing could stop or hinder him. He never bragged about his exploits—simply brought in the spoils, laid them down and said, "pitch in." Not a word of the weary miles he had traveled, how he begged or how much he paid―simply "pitch in."
The Commissary man—he happened to be in our mess, never had any sugar over, any salt, any soda, any coffee—oh, no! But beg him, plead with him, bear with him when he says, "Go way, boy! Am I the commissary-general? Have I got all the sugar in the Confederacy? Don't you know rations are short now?" Then see him relax. "Come here, my son, untie that bag there, and look in that old jacket and you will find another bag—a little bag—and look in there and you will find some sugar." "Now go round and tell everybody in camp, won't you. Tell 'em all to come and get some sugar. Oh! I know you won't. Oh yes! of course."
Time would fail me to tell of the "lazy man," the "brave man," the "worthless man," the "bully," and the "ingenious man," the "helpless man," the "sensitive man," and the "gentleman," but they are as familiar to the members of the mess as the "honest man," who would not eat stolen pig, but would "take a little of the gravy."
Every soldier remembers, indeed was personally acquainted with, the universal man. How he denied vehemently his own identity, and talked about "poison oak," and heat and itch, and all those things, and strove in the presence of those who knew-how-it-was-themselves to prove his absolute freedom from anything like "universality." Poor fellow, sulphur internally and externally would not do. Alas! his only hope was to acknowledge his unhappy state, and stand, in the presence of his peers, confessed—a lousy man.
The "Boys in Blue" generally preferred to camp in the open fields. The Confed's took to the woods, and so the Confederate camp was not as orderly or as systematically arranged, but the most picturesque of the two. The blazing fire lit up the forms and faces and trees around it with a ruddy glow, but only deepened the gloom of the surrounding woods, so that the soldier pitied the poor fellows away off on guard in the darkness, and hugged himself and felt how good it was to be with the fellows around the fire. How companionable was the blaze and the glow of the coals! They seemed to warm the heart as well as the foot. The imagination seemed to feed on the glowing coals and surrounding gloom, and when the soldier gazed on the fire, peace, liberty, home, strolls in the woods and streets with friends, the church, the school, playmates and sweethearts all passed before him, and even the dead came to mind. Sadly, yet pleasantly, he thought of the loved and lost, and the future loomed up, and the possibility of death and prison and the grief at home would stir his heart, and the tears would fall trickling to the ground. Then was the time to fondle the little gifts from home. Simple things—the little pincushion, the needlecase with thread and buttons, the embroidered tobacco bag, and the knitted gloves. Then the time to gaze on photographs, and to read and re-read the letter telling of the struggles at home and the coming box of good things—butter and bread, and toasted and ground coffee, and sugar cakes and pies, and other comfortable things saved by self-denial for the soldier, brother and son. Then the time to call on God to spare, protect and bless the dear, defenceless, helpless ones at home. Then the time for high resolves; to read to himself his duty; to "re-enlist for the war." Then his heart grew to his comrades, his general and his country; and as the trees, swept by the wintry winds, moaned around him, the soldier slept and dreamed, and dreamed of home, sweet home.
Those whose knowledge of war and its effects on the character of the soldier was gleaned from the history of the wars of Europe and of ancient times, greatly dreaded the demoralization which they supposed would result from the Confederate war for independence, and their solicitude was directed mainly towards the young men of Virginia and the South who were to compose the armies of the Confederate States. It was feared by many that the bivouac, the camp fires and the march would accustom the ears of their bright and innocent boys to obscenity, oaths and blasphemy, and forever destroy that purity of mind and soul which was their priceless possession when they bid farewell to home and mother. Some feared the destruction of the battle-field. The wiser feared hardship and disease; and others, more than all, the destruction of morals and everything good and pure in character. That the fears of the last named were realized in some cases cannot be denied; but that the general result was demoralization can be denied, and the contrary demonstrated.
Let us consider the effect of camp life upon a pure and noble boy; and to make the picture complete, let us go to his home and witness the parting.
The boy is clothed as a soldier. His pockets and his haversack are stored with little conveniences made by the loving hands of mother, sister and sweetheart, and the sad yet proud hour has arrived. Sisters, smiling through their tears, filled with commingled pride and sorrow, kiss and embrace their great hero.
The mother, with calm heroism suppressing her tender maternal grief, impresses upon his lips a fervent, never-to-be-forgotten kiss, presses him to her heart, and resigns him to God, his country and his honor.
The father, last to part, presses his hand, gazes with ineffable love into his bright eyes, and fearing to trust his feelings for a more lengthy farewell, says, "Good bye, my boy; God bless you, be a man!"
Let those scoff who will; but let them know that such a parting is itself a new and wonderful power, a soul-enlarging, purifying and elevating power, worth the danger, toil and suffering of the soldier. The sister's tears, the father's words, the mother's kiss, planted in the memory of that boy will surely bring forth fruit beautiful as a mother's love.
As he journeys to the camp, how dear do all at home become! Oh! what holy tears he sheds! His heart, how tender! Then, as he nears the line, and sees for the first time the realities of war, the passing sick and weary, and the wounded and bloody dead, his soldier spirit is born; he smiles, his chest expands, his eyes brighten, his heart swells with pride; he hurries on, and soon stands in the magic circle around the glowing fire, the admired and loved pet of a dozen true hearts. Is he happy? Aye! Never before has he felt such glorious, swelling, panting joy. He's a soldier now! He is put on guard. No longer the object of care and solicitude, he stands in the solitude of the night, himself a guardian of those who sleep. Courage is his now. He feels he is trusted as a man, and is ready at once nobly to perish in the defence of his comrades.
He marches. Dare he murmur or complain? No; the eyes of all are upon him, and endurance grows silently, till pain and weariness are familiar, and cheerfully borne.
At home he would be pitied and petted; but now he must endure, or have the contempt of the strong spirits around him.
He is hungry. So are others; and he must not only bear the privation, but he must divide his pitiful meal when he gets it with his comrades; and so generosity strikes down selfishness. In a thousand ways he is tried, and that by sharp critics. His smallest faults are necessarily apparent, for, in the varying conditions of the soldier, every quality is put to the test. If he shows the least cowardice he is undone. His courage must never fail. He must be manly and independent, or he will be told he's a baby, ridiculed, teased and despised. When war assumes her serious dress, he sees the helplessness of women and children, he hears their piteous appeals, and chivalry burns him till he does his utmost of sacrifice and effort to protect and comfort and cheer them.
It is a mistake to suppose that the older men in the army encouraged vulgarity and obscenity in the young recruit; for even those who themselves indulged in these would frown on the first show of them in a boy, and without hesitation put him down mercilessly. No parent could watch a boy as closely as his mess-mates did and could, because they saw him at all hours of the day and night, dependent on himself alone: and were merciless critics, who demanded more of their protege than they were willing to submit to themselves.
The young soldier's piety had to perish ignominiously, or else assume a boldness and strength which nothing else could so well impart as the temptations, sneers and dangers of the army. Religion had to be bold, practical and courageous, or die.
In the army the young man learned to value men for what they were, and not on account of education, wealth or station; and so his attachments when formed were sincere and durable, and he learned what constitutes a man, and a desirable and reliable friend. The stern demands upon the boy, and the unrelenting criticisms of the mess, soon bring to mind the gentle forbearance, and kind remonstrance, and loving counsels of parents and homefolks, and while he thinks, he weeps, and loves, and reverences, and yearns after the things against which he once strove and under which he chafed and complained.
Home, father, mother, sister—oh! how far away; oh! how dear. Himself how contemptible! ever to have felt cold and indifferent to such love. Then, how vividly he recalls the warm pressure of his mother's lips on the forehead of her boy. How he loves his mother! See him as he fills his pipe from the silk embroidered bag. There is his name embroidered carefully, beautifully by his sister's hand. Does he forget her? Does he not now love her more sincerely and truly and tenderly than ever? Could he love her quite as much had he never parted, never longed to see her and could not; never been uncertain if she was safe, never felt she might be homeless, helpless, insulted, a refugee from home? Can he ever now look on a little girl and not treat her kindly, gently and lovingly—remembering his sister? A boy having ordinary natural goodness, and the home supports described, and the constant watching of men, ready to criticise, could but improve. The least exhibition of selfishness, cowardice, vulgarity, dishonesty, or meanness of any kind, brought down the dislike of every man upon him, and persistence in any one disreputable practice, or habitual laziness and worthlessness, resulted in complete ostracism, loneliness and misery; while on the other hand he might, by good behavior and genuine generosity and courage, secure unbounded love and sincere respect from all. Visits home, after prolonged absence and danger, open to the young soldier new treasures—new, because, though possessed always, never before felt and realized.
The affection once seen only in every day attention, as he reaches home, breaks out in unrestrained vehemence. The warm embrace of the hitherto dignified father, the ecstatic pleasure beaming in the mother's eye, the proud welcome of the sister, and the wild enthusiasm even of the old black mammy, crowd on him the knowledge of their love and make him braver, and stronger, and nobler. He's a hero from that hour—Death for these how easy! The dangers of the battle-field, and the demands upon his energy, strength and courage, not only strengthen, but almost create new faculties of mind and heart. The death, sudden and terrible, of those dear to him, and the imperative necessity of standing to his duty while the wounded cry and groan, and while his heart yearns after them to help them, and the terrible thirst, and hunger, and heat, and weariness—all these teach a boy self-denial, attachment to duty, and the value of peace and safety; and instead of hardening him, as some suppose they do, make him to pity and love even the enemy of his country who bleeds and dies for his country.
The acquirement of subordination certainly is a useful one, and that the soldier perforce has. And that not in an abject, cringing way, but as realizing the necessity of it, and seeing the result of it in the good order and consequent effectiveness and success of the army as a whole, but more particularly of his own company and detachment.
And if the soldier rises to office, the responsibility of command, attention to detail and minutiæ, the critical eyes of his subordinates, and the demands of his superiors, all withdraw him from the enticements of vice, and mould him into a solid, substantial character, both capable and willing to meet and overcome difficulties.
The effect of outdoor life on the physical constitution is undoubtedly good, and as the physical improves, the mental is improved; and as the mind is enlightened, the spirit is enabled to grasp the purifying truths of the gospel, and thus the whole man is benefited.
Who can calculate the benefit derived from the contemplation of the beautiful in nature, as the soldier sees? Mountains and valleys, dreary wastes and verdant fields, rivers, sequestered homes, stirred by the sounds of war; quiet, sleepy villages, as they lay in the morning light, doomed to the flames at evening: this enlarges the mind, and stores it with a panorama whose pictures he may pass before his mental vision with quiet pleasure year after year for a lifetime.
War is horrible, but still it is in a sense a privilege to have lived in time of war. The emotions are never so stirred as then. Imagination takes her highest flights, poetry blazes, song stirs the soul, and every noble attribute is brought into full play.
It does seem that the production of one Lee and one Jackson is worth much blood and treasure, and the building of a noble character all the toil and sacrifice of war. The camp fires of the Army of Northern Virginia were not places of revelry and debauchery. They often exhibited gentle scenes of love and humanity, and the purest sentiments and gentlest feelings of man were there admired and loved, while vice and debauch, in any, from highest to lowest, were condemned and punished more severely than they are among those who stay at home and shirk the dangers and toils of the soldier's life. Indeed, the demoralizing effects of the late war were far more visible "at home" among the skulks, and bomb-proofs, and suddenly diseased, than in the army.
And the demoralized men of to-day are not those who served in the army.
The defaulters, the renegades, the bummers and cheats, are the boys who enjoyed fat places and salaries and easy comfort—while the solid, respected and reliable men of the community are those who did their duty as soldiers, and having learned to suffer in war have preferred to labor and suffer and earn rather than steal—in peace.
And, strange to say, it is not those who suffered most and lost most, who fought and bled—who saw friend after friend fall, who wept the dead and buried their hopes—it is not these who now are bitter and dissatisfied, and quarrelsome and fretful, and growling and complaining—no, they are the peaceful, submissive, law-abiding and order-loving of the country, ready to join hands with all good men in every good work, and prove themselves as brave and good in peace as they were stubborn and unconquerable in war.
Many a weak, puny boy was returned to his parents a robust, healthy, manly man. Many a timid, helpless boy went home a brave, independent man. Many a wild, reckless boy, went home sobered, serious and trustworthy, and many whose career at home was wicked and blasphemous, went home changed in heart, with principles fixed, to comfort and sustain the old ages of those who gave them to their country, expecting not to receive them again. Men learned that life was passable and enjoyable without a roof or even a tent, to shelter from the storm—that cheerfulness was compatible with cold and hunger, and that a man without money, food or shelter, need not feel utterly hopeless, but might, by employing his wits, find something to eat where he never found it before; and feel that, like a terrapin, he might make himself at home wherever he might be. Men did actually become as independent of the imaginary "necessities" as the very wild beasts. And can a man learn all this and not know better than another how to economize what he has and how to appreciate the numberless superfluities of life? Is he not made, by the knowledge he has of how little he really needs, more independent and less liable to dishonest exertions to procure a competency?
If there were any true men in the South, any brave, any noble, they were in the army. If there are good and true men in the South now, they would go into the army for similar cause. And to prove that the army demoralized, you must prove that the men who came out of it are the worst in the country to-day. Who will try it?
Strange as it may seem, religion flourished in the army. So great was the work of the chaplains, that whole volumes have been written to describe the religious history of the four years of war. Officers who were ungodly men found themselves restrained alike by the grandeur of the piety of the great chiefs and the earnestness of the humble privates around them. Thousands embraced the Gospel, and died triumphing over death! Instead of the degradation so dreaded, was the strange ennobling and purifying which made men despise all the things for which they ordinarily strive, and glory in the sternest hardships, the most bitter self-denials and cruel suffering and death. Love for home, kindred and friends intensified, was denied the gratification of its yearnings, and made the motive for more complete surrender to the stern demands of duty. Discipline, the cold master of our enemies, never caught up with the gallant devotion of our Christian soldiers, and the science of war quailed before the majesty of an army singing hymns.
Hypocrisy went home to dwell with the able-bodied skulkers, being too closely watched in the army and too thoroughly known to thrive. And so the camp fire often lighted the pages of the best Book, while the soldier read the orders of the Captain of his salvation. And often did the songs of Zion ring loud and clear on the cold night air, while the muskets rattled and the guns boomed in the distance, each intensifying the significance of the other, testing the sincerity of the Christian while trying the courage of the soldier. Stripped of all sensual allurements, and offering only self-denial, patience and endurance, the Gospel took hold of the deepest and purest motives of the soldiers, won them thoroughly, and made the army as famous for its forbearance, temperance, respect for women and children, sobriety, honesty and morality, as it was for endurance and invincible courage.
Never was there an army where feeble old age received such sympathy, consideration and protection; and women, deprived of their natural protectors, fled from the advancing hosts of the enemy and found safe retreat and chivalrous protection and shelter in the lines of the Army of Northern Virginia; while children played in the camps, delighted to nestle in the arms of the roughly clad but tender-hearted soldiers. Such was the behavior of the troops on the campaign in Pennsylvania, that the the citizens of Gettysburg have in my presence expressed wonder and surprise at their perfect immunity from insult, violence, or even intrusion, when their city was occupied by and in complete possession of the Boys in Gray.