Friday, December 7, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Saturday, Dec. 7, 1861

“Going to Soldier”

They came from classrooms and offices, stores and workshops, and, in Ohio, most of they came from farms. They were naive men and innocent boys, confused and shy in the hurly-burly of camp life. But they were strong and eager, calloused by the hard labor of wresting livings from the soil or a rough-and-tumble economy, and they were ready to go to war without really knowing what war was like. They wanted to be soldiers, and they thought war would be a grand adventure.

“Our ideas of war, then, were rather of a romantic order,” John A. Bering and Thomas Montgomery recalled in 1880 in their history of the 48th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. “A skirmish, we supposed, would be a recreation, and a battle a real enjoyment....

“Some were even worried for fear the war would be over before we arrived, and peace declared before we ever fired a gun,” Bering and Montgomery explained. “But these romantic notions passed away, in the active service which soon followed.”

Like soldiers throughout history, these men of the 48th will discover an old truth: warfare consists of long periods of tedium interrupted by moments of sheer terror or intervals of misery. The 48th would be cursed with all three.

For the 48th, the tedium is now. Since late summer, small groups of men have been drifting into Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati and joining the 48th, which is slowly approaching the required size (approximately 1,000 men). Some regiments fill faster than others, and the 48th is one of the slow ones, its men coming in dribs and drabs from throughout western Ohio. Making a lot of difference is the charisma, or lack thereof, of the regiment’s commander (in this case, Lt. Col. Peter J. Sullivan, a hot-tempered “big-city lawyer" from Cincinnati) and the skill of its recruiters—typically young men promised lieutenant’s commissions if they recruit enough men.

By early December, the 48th still has not reached its required number, and its men are growing restless as they watch other regiments go off to war. For the 48th, the routines remain the same week after week:

  • Squad, company, and battalion drill every morning and afternoon. Most of this involves learning how to march smartly in formation, moving this way and that with precision in response to shouted commands. This is needed so the men will learn to almost automatically respond to orders yelled out on a noisy, confusing battlefield, creating concentrated, simultaneous firepower with their short-range, inaccurate muskets. Very little time is spent practicing the firing of weapons. No time is spent on physical conditioning for its own sake.

  • Every evening, the regiment appears for “dress parade,” a formal ceremony in which the companies are drawn up in a line and inspected. The captains report on their company roll calls and important orders are read.

  • On Sunday mornings at 9, the companies again form on a line, the captains inspect their companies, and the first sergeants read the Articles of War, which includes, over and over, the refrain, “Any violator of said section shall suffer death, or such other punishment as by a court martial shall be inflicted.”

  • After Sunday inspection, the companies are dismissed until 11, when they are marched to the colonel’s quarters to hear a sermon preached by the regimental chaplain.

  • Guard and housekeeping duties rotate among the men, so leisure time is kept to a minimum.

And this goes on and on and on…

>>> In winter quarters at Fayetteville, western Virginia, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio notes that area residents from as far as 25 miles away are coming to take loyalty oaths, but “how much is due to a returning sense of loyalty and how much to the want of coffee and salt, is more than I know.”

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