Wednesday, January 16, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Thursday, Jan. 16, 1862

A Sham Battle

Today, Cpl. Robert Caldwell of Elmore, Ohio, settles down to finish a letter to his mother that he began writing yesterday. He only had time that evening to tell her that he now weighs 170 pounds (the hungry times will come later). Then came the last bugle call of the night.

The next morning, the men of the 21st Ohio and some other regiments in camp at Camp Jefferson in Kentucky donned loaded backpacks and began marching at half past eight..

They were going to intercept an enemy supply train, ran one of the many rumors, but, after marching only a mile, they came to a large field. They were going to have a sham battle! Robert told his mother in some wonderment. Military exercises simulating combat, common practice in the 21st century, were unusual in the 19th.

Breathlessly, Robert writes that a company of the 4th Ohio Cavalry—his neighbors in camp—pretended to attack the infantry from one direction, only to wheel, retreat, and attack from a different direction. Meanwhile, the infantrymen were popping away with guns loaded only with powder.

All the while, artillery pieces, pulled by horses, rushed “here and there wheeling and firing with empty guns, with terrible effect upon the imaginary enemy,” Robert wrote, quite impressed with it all.

Thus the fight raged for upwards of half a day (the young soldier continued), when thinking that the foe had been sufficiently chastised for the present, with tired limbs but fearless hearts we changed our mode of attacks and charged upon our dinner with equal effect, and [then] were ordered back to camp, where we arrived without any further adventure.

Thus terminated our first great fight in this part of Kentucky, I believe our loss consisted of one barrel [of] crackers, nothing more.

After that exciting news, Robert closed with the soldiers’ staple letter-filler, the local weather: cold, rain, one inch of snow, then rain again, meaning the soldiers are living in an ever-deepening mudhole. (Pictured above: an Illinois regiment in their tent near Corinth, Mississippi)

ELSEWHERE IN THE WAR: Confirmed by the Senate only yesterday, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wastes no time in taking over the War Department with energy, enthusiasm, and little patience for corruption and inefficiency. Stanton discovers that the previous secretary, Silas Cameron, had left him “a rats’ nest” of problems. “We have had no war,” Stanton grumbles. “We have not even been playing war.” Things are going to change very fast. In southern Kentucky, meanwhile, a Confederate force led by Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer unwisely camps with their backs to the Cumberland River and facing in the direction of a rumored Federal force led by Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas, a loyalist Virginia and a man Confederates would come to know well, to their regret.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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