Monday, April 21, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Sunday, April 20, 1862

Life in Camp

While tens of thousands of Union soldiers at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, glumly adapt to the heavy hand of their new commander, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, a few thousand others are cheerfully making the best of things in the mountains of western Virginia.

They are the men of Scammon’s brigade (the 12th, 23rd, 30th Ohio Infantry, plus the 1st Ohio Independent Battery) in the Union’s Mountain Department (western Virginia). They have a spent a long, dreary winter doing not much in the snowbound valleys of what is now West Virginia. With the promise of spring, however, they are on the move at last, tramping eastward, then southerly, bound—the men hope—for glory where a real war was going on.

A cold, pounding rain halts the march, however, and tents must be erected. Nonetheless, the men are so happy about the promise of action that they sing and laugh, according to Lt. Col. Rutherford Hayes, who is effectively the commander of the 23rd. The men “keep mirthful,” he says. One of the regiment’s surgeons plays poker and loses a knife and 50 cents. Hayes wanders around, listening to storytelling and cracking jokes.

The temperature drops, the wind gusts, and mud surrounds the camp. “But we are jolly enough,” Hayes writes Lucy. “Like sailors in a storm, the men seem stimulated to unnatural mirth by gloomy circumstances.” The soldiers even sing, playing their fiddles and banjos. The band “play their liveliest airs, and so we manage to get on.”

While writing Lucy, Hayes is alone is his tent, using a book as writing desk. He is surrounded by belongings: saddle, rubber ground cloth, an old hat, haversack, saddlebags. Behind him is his cot heaped with his clothing; in the center of the tent is a sheet-iron stove, unlit. The rain rattles against the tent wall, a damp cold settles on everyone, and only the promise of eventual sunshine and warfare lightens the mood.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—scarcely 3 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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