Washington as a Camp/Across the Long Bridge
- Across the Long Bridge.
I have heretofore been proud of my individuality, and resisted, so far as one may, all the world’s attempts to merge me in the mass. In pluribus unum has been my motto. But whenever I march with the regiment, my pride is that I lose my individuality, that I am merged, that I become a part of a machine, a mere walking gentleman, a No. 1 or a No. 2, front rank or rear rank, file-leader of file-closer. The machine is so steady and so mighty, it moves with such musical cadence and such brilliant show, that I enjoy it entirely as the unum and lose myself gladly as a pluribus.
Night increases this fascination. The outer world is vague in the moonlight. Objects out of our ranks are lost. I see only glimmering steel and glittering buttons and the light-stepping forms of my comrades. Our array and our step connect us. We move as one man. A man made up of a thousand members and each member a man, is a grand creature, — particularly when you consider that he is self-made. And the object of this self-made giant, men-man, is to destroy another like himself, or the separate pigmy members of another such giant. We have failed to put ourselves — heads, arms, legs, and wills — together as a unit for any purpose so thoroughly as to snuff out a similar unit. Up to 1861, it seems that the business of war compacts men best.
Well, the Seventh, a compact projectile, was now flinging itself along the road to Washington. Just a month ago, “in such a night as this,” we made our first promenade through the enemy’s country. The moon of Annapolis — why should we not have our ominous moon, as those other fellows had their sun of Austerlitz? — the moon of Annapolis shone over us. No epithets are too fine or too complimentary for such a luminary, and there was no dust under her rays.
So we pegged along to Washington and across Washington, — which at this point consists of Willard’s Hotel, few other buildings being in sight. A hag in a nightcap reviewed us from an upper window as we tramped by.
Opposite that bald block, the Washington Monument, and opposite what was of more importance to us, a drove of beeves putting beef on their bones in the seedy grounds of the Smithsonian Institution, we were halted while the New Jersey brigade — some three thousand of them — trudged by, receiving the complimentary fire of our line as they passed. New Jersey is not so far from New York, but that the dialects of the two can understand each other. Their respective slangs, though peculiar, are of the same genus. By the end of this war, I trust that these distinctions of locality will be quite annulled.
We began to feel like an army as these thousands thronged by us. This was evidently a movement in force. We rested an hour or more by the road. Mounted officers galloping along down the lines kept up the excitement.
At last we had the word to fall in again and march. It is part of the simple perfection of the machine, a regiment, that, though it drops to pieces for a rest, it comes together instantly for a start, and nobody is confused or delayed. We moved half a mile farther, and presently a broad pathway of reflected moonlight shone up at us from the Potomac.
No orders, at this, came from the colonel, “Attention, battalion! Be sentimental!” Perhaps privates have no right to perceive the beautiful. But the sections in my neighborhood murmured admiration. The utter serenity of the night was most impressive. Cool and quiet and tender the moon shone upon our ranks. She does not change her visage, whether it be lovers or burglars or soldiers who use her as a lantern to their feet.
The Long Bridge thus far has been merely a shabby causeway with water-ways and draws. Shabby, — let me here pause to say that in Virginia shabbiness is the grand universal law, and neatness the spasmodic exception, attained in rare spots, an æon beyond their Old Dominion age.
The Long Bridge has thus far been a totally unhistoric and prosaic bridge. Roads and bridges are making themselves of importance, and shining up into sudden renown in these times. The Long Bridge has done nothing hitherto except carry passengers on its back across the Potomac. Hucksters, planters, dry-goods drummers, members of Congress, et ea genera omnia, have here gone and come on their several mercenary errands, and, as it now appears, some sour little imp — the very reverse of a “sweet little cherub” — took toll of every man as he passed, — a heavy toll, namely, every man’s whole store of Patriotism and Loyalty. Every man — so it seems — who passed the Long Bridge was stripped of his last dollar of Amor Patriæ, and came to Washington, or went home, with a waistcoat-pocket full of bogus in change. It was our business now to open the bridge and see it clear, and leave sentries along to keep it permanently free for Freedom.
There is a mile of this Long Bridge. We seemed to occupy the whole length of it, with our files opened to diffuse the weight of our column. We were not now the tired and sleepy squad which just a moon ago had drudged along the railroad to the Annapolis Junction, looking up a Capital and Government, perhaps lost.
By the time we touched ground across the bridge, dawn was breaking, — a good omen for poor old sleepy Virginia. The moon, as bright and handsome as a new twenty-dollar piece, carried herself straight before us, — a splendid oriflamme.
Lucky is the private who marches with the van! It may be the post of more danger, but it is also the post of lest dust. My throat, therefore, and my eyes and beard, wore the less Southern soil when we halted half a mile beyond the bridge, and let sunrise overtake us.
Nothing men can do — except picnics, with ladies in straw flats with feathers, — is so picturesque as soldiering. As soon as the Seventh halt anywhere, or move anywhere, or camp anywhere, they resolve themselves into a grand tableau. Their own ranks should supply their own Horace Vernet. Our groups were never more entertaining than at this halt by the roadside on the Alexandria road. Stacks of guns make a capital framework for drapery, and red blankets dot in the lights most artistically. The fellows line the road with their gay array, asleep on the rampage, on the lounge, and nibbling at their rations.
By and by, when my brain had taken in as much of the picturesque as it could stand, it suffered the brief congestion known as a nap. I was suddenly awaked by the rattle of a horse’s hoofs. Before I had rubbed my eyes the rider was gone. His sharp tidings had stayed behind him. Ellsworth was dead, — so he said hurriedly, and rode on. Poor Ellsworth! a fellow of genius and initiative! he had still so much of the boy in him, that he rattled forward boyishly, and so died. Si monumentum requiris, look at his regiment. It was a brilliant stroke to levy it; and if it does worthily, its young Colonel will not have lived in vain.
As the morning hours passed, we learned that we were the rear-guard of the left wing of the army advancing into Virginia. The Seventh, as the best organized body, acted as reserve to this force. It didn’t wish to be in the rear; but such is the penalty of being reliable for an emergency. Fellow-soldier, be a scalawag, be a bashi-bazouk, be a Billy-Wilsoneer, if you wish to see the fun in the van!
When the road grew too hot for us, on account of the fire of sunshine in our rear, we jumped over the fence into the Race-Course, a big field beside us, and there became squatter sovereigns all day. I shall be a bore if I say again what a pretty figure we cut in this military picnic, with two long lines of blankets draped on bayonets for parasols.
The New Jersey brigade were meanwhile doing workie work on the ridge just beyond us. The road and railroad to Alexandria follow the general course of the river southward along the level. This ridge to be fortified is at the point where the highway bends from west to south. The works were intended to serve as an advance tête du pont, — a bridge-head, with a very long neck connecting it with the bridge. That fine old Fabius, General Scott, had no idea of flinging an army out broadcast into Virginia, and, in the insupposable case that it had turned tail, leaving it no defended passage to run away by.
This was my first view of a field-work in construction, — also, my first hand as a laborer at a field-work. I knew glacis and counterscarp on paper; also, on paper, superior slope, banquette, and the other dirty parts of a redoubt. Here they were, not on paper. A slight wooden scaffolding determined the shape of the simple work; and when I arrived, a thousand Jerseymen were working, not at all like Jerseymen, with picks, spades, and shovels, cutting into Virginia, digging into Virginia, shovelling up Virginia, for Virginia’s protection against pseudo-Virginians.
I swarmed in for a little while with our Paymaster, picked a little, spaded a little, shovelled a little, took a hand to my great satisfaction at earth-works, and for my efforts I venture to suggest that Jersey City owes me its freedom in a box, and Jersey State a basket of its finest Clicquot.
Is my gentle reader tired of the short marches and frequent halts of the Seventh? Remember, gentle reader, that you must be schooled by such alphabetical exercises to spell bigger words — skirmish, battle, defeat, rout, massacre — by and by.
Well, — to be Xenophontic, —from the Race-Course that evening we marched one stadium, one parasang, to a cedar-grove up the road. In the grove is a spring worthy to be called a fountain, and what I determined by infallible indications to be a lager-bier saloon. Saloon no more! War is no respector of localities. Be it Arlington House, the seedy palace of a Virginia Don, — be it the humbler, but seedy, pavilion where the tired Teuton washes the dust of Washington away from his tonsils, — each must surrender to the bold soldier-boy. Exit Champagne and its goblet; exit lager and its mug; enter whiskey-and-water in a tin pot. Such are the horrors of civil war!
And now I must cut short my story, for graver matters press. As to the residence of the Seventh in the cedar-grove for two days and two nights, — how they endured the hardship of a bivouac on soft earth and the starvation of coffee sans milk, — how they digged manfully in the trenches by gangs all these two laborious days, — with what supreme artistic finish their work was achieved, — how they chopped off their corns with axes, as they cleared the brushwood from the glacis, — how they blistered their hands, — how they chafed that they were not lunging with battailous steel at the breasts of the minions of the oligarchs, — how Washington, seeing the smoke of burning rubbish, and hearing dropping shots of target-practice, of novices with the musket shooting each other by accident, — how Washington, alarmed, imagined a battle, and went into panic accordingly, — all this, is it not written in the daily papers?
On the evening of the 26th, the Seventh travelled back to Camp Cameron in a smart shower. Its service was over. Its month was expired. The troops ordered to relieve it had arrived. It had given the other volunteers the benefit of a month’s education at its drills and parades. It had enriched poor Washington to the tune of fifty thousand dollars. Ah, Washington! that we, under Providence and after General Butler, saved from the heel of Secession! Ah, Washington, why did you charge us so much for our milk and butter and strawberries? The Seventh, then, after a month of delightful duty, was to be mustered out of service, and take new measures, if it would, to have a longer and a larger share of the war.