Friday, March 29, 2013

"We have been furloughed"

Sunday, March 29, 1863, Camp Gregg, Virginia

If we stay here much longer, we will take root. The snow is just about gone but the rain is still with us. I have noticed that the rains are getting warmer. This is good news as this army needs to move away from here lest it waste away from starvation.

During this time of year, being not yet Spring regardless of what the calendar says,
and not quite in full winter, it is exceedingly difficult to supplement our rations from sources other than our most respected Commissary. There are a very few things growing in the fields and what little is there is not yet ripe for eating. Our rations have been cut again and everyone is hungry.

According to regulations, each man of us is entitled to three-fourths of a pound of pork or bacon or, barring that, one and one-fourth pounds of fresh or salt beef per day. I cannot recall receipt of this amount since I joined the Army. In addition, the daily ration calls for eighteen ounces of  bread or flour or twelve ounces or crackers or one and one-fourth pounds of corn meal. The Commissary has been fairly good as far as the hard crackers is concerned. I know of no one who has seen any real bread.

There are new regulations. The beef may not exceed one pound. The pork or bacon may not exceed one-half pound. There are similar reductions in other items. The good news is that we can have as much water as we want. We long to have at the Yankees if only to capture the cheese in their haversacks. 

Some of us are now returning to the regiment from the hospital having recovered from attacks from Mother Nature. They are being replaced by new casualties from the same enemy. A very few new faces are entering camp from South Carolina. We are not even close to being at full strength but every additional musket is welcome.

It may be getting somewhat warmer but the weather between Duncan and Castles remains frozen. Hancock and myself have stopped trying to be peacemakers. Whatever happens will happen.

Moments ago, there was a knock at our cabin door. It was both Sergeant Harper and Corporal Flynn. We all looked at them and knew the worst was about to visit us. The Army has been granting leave since going into winter camp. Two persons from each company are selected to be granted time away from here. Adkins and I from Company I were chosen. We have been furloughed. Both of us are to report to a Quartermaster tomorrow morning who will arrange transportation. We will go to Richmond where clean sheets are rumored to exist. We are looking forward to testing the validity of these rumors. I will sleep well tonight.

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Pelham is dead".

Wednesday, March 25, 1863, Camp Gregg

I take pen in hand and jot down these few notes because I am bored. The weather has turned worse than normal and the combination of snow, sleet and wind is keeping the entire army, save those on picket duty, inside our rude cabins. There have been several chimney fires as the shivering soldiers keep feeding the primitive fireplaces, some of which burn out of control. I know of no deaths but would not be the least surprised should there be one or two.

It is not yet our turn to pull duty on the picket line. The Fourteenth is currently there and they must be suffering greatly. It is not much comfort knowing the the Yankees on the other side are suffering just as bad. If Providence shines upon us, that burned cabin will be repaired by the time of our turn. My hands are shaking badly.

Duncan and Castles are still at odds with each other. They have not spoken to each other since the last time the Twelfth was on the line. Right now, Duncan is sharpening a rather large knive. I must wonder why. All attempts to get them to bury the hatchet have proved worthless.

Although it is desperately miserable outside, there are some circumstances under which a man will eagerly brave the weather. Should word get out that someone has spirits, shortly there will be a path, trampled free of snow and ice, straight to that location. The same holds true for games of chance. 

Hancock is fond of cards and heard of a game three cabins down. He insisted that I go with him for luck. I had absolutely no interest in leaving our fire but he did insist and he is a friend. On our way, we stopped at Bill Adkins' cabin where I asked to borrow my old blanket back for the walk. The blanket that was at one time mine before I was sent to the hospital in Richmond and Bill agreed to watch it for me. I must have looked just pitiful because he handed it to me. I wrapped myself in it and felt instantly warmer and cherry. Would he take ten dollars for it, I wonder?

Hancock and I entered the cabin where the game was. I saw several people that I recognized as being in the regiment but none I can say that I knew. Two I did not know at all. On the crudest of tables were the stakes. There was cash, all Confederate bills. I saw one quarter from the Union. Hancock sat down and I stood near the door. Shortly, I became very nervous as I noticed several pairs of eyes fixed upon me as a sniper fixes on his mark.

It took a short while to realize that it was not me that was the subject of their attention but my blanket, instead. They knew a good blanket when they saw one and they saw it on me. I knew that the only friend I had in the room was Hancock but he saw nothing that was not in front of him. I clutched the blanket tighter around me.

As the players sitting at the table conducted their affairs of chance, I witnessed several wagers by the non-players. One wagered a penknife against someone else's vest that a face card would be revealed. It was not and the winner had a penknife to put in one of his vest pockets.

One of the players folded his cards and gave his place to another who eagerly took it. This person then stood next to me and introduced himself as Hezekiah. He admired the blanket and wished to wager for it, offering ten crackers against it. I told him no but did not say that it was not my blanket. He then offered ten crackers and a new pair of drawers. As I had none, it was tempting but I could not wager what was not mine. I said no.

Then he pointed to a knapsack suspended from a peg on the cabin wall. It looked new. It was a box hardpack, of the style quite similar to the one that I carried during the Mex War. Hezekiah was wagering that Hancock would lose the hand being played. Simply put, the odds were four to one against him winning as there were four other players. I said yes and instantly felt quite bad.

It was a wager with the odds stacked against Hancock and therefore myself. If I were to lose, how would I make it up to Bill Adkins? I would have to give him my own blanket and God knows what else. I would die by freezing. But I had seen Hancock play Faro before and knew him to be good at it. Hezekiah was smiling. I was perspiring but not from the warmth. I was shaking but not from the cold.

Hancock won. He collected all that was on the table and made his manners to leave. Hezekiah looked as if he would kill me and I handled my knife under the concealment of the blanket. He removed his knapsack from its' peg and removed the contents, less one pair of drawers. He threw in ten crackers from his haversack and gave me everything without a word. We left quickly afterwards.

En route back to our own cabin, I returned Bill's blanket along with five crackers for its' use. He was quite pleased and said he could borrow his blanket anytime. I smiled broadly. Once inside our cabin, I showed off my new pack and Hancock bragged at his prowess with cards. There was something making noise inside the pack. Upon investigation, I found a gutta-percha case with a tintype. It showed Hezekiah and a lovely woman whom I took to be his wife and a child.

Back to the cabin I went, holding the case. I presented it to Hezekiah who had not noticed that it was missing. He became all warm and smiling as he thanked me. He said that it was his dear wife and that he had not seen her since he enlisted in the summer of '61. He said that they had not exchanged letters as neither one could write. I then made him an offer. If he would dictate, I would write a letter. He did and I did. His wife, Annie Lynn, will be quite surprised. His child was called Sarah Ruth.

Some few days ago, a battle occurred and we knew nothing of it. We are at the far right of Lee's army. Averell's cavalry crossed the river at Kelly's Ford, some ways upriver from us, on the extreme left of the line. They were met and repulsed by Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry and Pelham's artillery. Fitzhugh, also known as Rooney, is one of the sons of our great commander. The battle was short but sharp. Pelham is dead. He was known as, "The Gallant Pelham". He was a very youthful major and quite good at the art of the artilleryman. He had done good work against the Yankees at Fredericksburg in December. We hope he can be replaced with someone just as good.

Tonight, I will sleep with new drawers using my new pack for a pillow and will dream of my younger days in Mexico.

Monday, March 18, 2013

'Our hearts were broken."

Wednesday, March 18, 1863, Camp Gregg, Virginia

Given the frequency that the weather changes, it is no wonder that the weather is referred to in the female sense. It is now that time of year when the mornings will be commonly cool and often cold but by the afternoon, one may shed the overcoat, if one has an overcoat to shed. By late afternoon or early evening, one must seek out that same overcoat, or carpet scrap previously removed as unnecessary, the prospects for relief rising as the temperature drops. Water will still freeze in the canteens of the careless.

She can still snow on us, and does, just to remind us how insignifigant we are. When she wishes to make us unduly miserable, she causes the heavens to pour and pour and pour. There are some few of us who are fortunate enough to own a rubber blanket, formerly the property of the other side. They would not part with those treasures for ten dollars in hard money. I still retain a piece of the oilcloth brought from home when I enlisted back in those heady days of '61. It has seen better days but so have I.

A few days ago, it was again our turn to go and pull duty on the picket line along the river. Behind an embankment along the Rappahannock, someone, I no longer remember who, built a rude but secure cabin where those on picket duty could warm themselves and consume hot rations. Although its location behind the embankment kept it hidden from the curious eyes of the Yankees, they certainly knew it was there because of the smoke coming from the chimney. I hope they saw the smoke and were jealous.

It was raining as we left our camp to report to the picket post. Duncan had a rubber blanket, I had my scrap of oilcloth. The rest of us were wrapped in our blankets which offered protection for only as long as it took for the rain to penetrate. We had went to the line before, when it was raining, and when we were wet. We looked forward to reaching the line when the cabin would allow us to dry out. The men we relieved would always leave a fire burning for us and we would do the same for those who relieved us.

As we approached our post, Duncan, who was in front, said that he could not hear a fire nor see smell any smoke. We picked up the pace and readied our muskets in anticipation of coming to blows in some unknown circumstance. We reached a ridge and looked down. Our hearts were broken. The cabin had caught fire and was destroyed. There would be no drying out for us. We built a large fire and did not stray too far from it. She rained on us for four hours more.

Today, we are back in camp and all of us are sick. Surgeon Prioleau has ordered us confined to our cabins as the hospital is full. Our uniforms and blankets are positioned near the fire which is eating firewood as we eat good bacon. I am sweating and I hope it is from the heat and not a fever. It is raining now and we take turns going outside to bring in more firewood. When it becomes my turn again, I think that I will throw the furniture in the fire.

We have a new occupant of our cabin and we have lost an old one. While on picket post, around the fire, Duncan and Castles started arguing about next to everything. All this cold and rain and relative inactivity have fueled hot tempers in all of the camp. I have seen and heard many such altercations. Some time ago, Holton spoke to Lieutenant Williamson in a disrespectful manner and suffered the punishment of being detailed to guard the Colonel's tent for three nights. 

Duncan and Castles hackles were raised and we feared that they would come to blows when Duncan threw off his blanket to the ground. Hancock and I, thinking the same thing, moved ourselves into such a position as to be able to separate them should either or both draw their knives. Castles proclaimed in a voice so strong that the Yankees across the river could hear that he would not stay another night in the same cabin with Duncan, who he described in very foul terms. Castles called upon someone to switch cabins with him.  Hancock said he would. For the rest of the night, Duncan and Castles stood on opposite sides of the fire and glared at each other. 

At this moment, Hancock is sleeping as are Duncan and Crenshaw. Hancock is a good man but he does snore. Our mess, the Dandy Eights, still occupies the two cabins built when the regiment went into camp after Fredericksburg but the occupants of each are now different. These two need to settle things between them in a peaceable manner without fighting. Come Spring, there will be fighting enough for everyone.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"I aimed a bit left of his head".

Friday, March 6, 1863, Camp Gregg, Virginia

The weather is still quite damp and cold but it is not as bad as it has been. There are some signs of Spring making themselves evident. Our rations are improving, though slightly. Our non-commissioned officers are becoming a bit more diligent about drilling us. It will not be very long until the roads dry and we may leave our camps and thrash the Yankees for another year. Things are looking up.

Even so, for some of us, things were not improving in the right way. There have been several desertions from the regiment. Some of them received letters from loved ones at home attesting to the deplorable conditions on the farm.  Others were weary of the grand adventure of soldiering, finding out that it is not all strawberries and cream. Others were just tired or sick of death or something.

Around the campfire, we have talked about the subject of desertion. We all expressed understanding for the conditions that may cause a man to take French leave. At the same time, we all said that no matter what the reason for desertion, it is disgraceful to dishonor one's country and pards. It is far more important to stay in the ranks and fight for our freedom. Those who desert place all in danger of being conquered and the most extreme punishment must be visited to deserters...death.

Three days ago, our squad was summoned by Lieutenant Williamson. He explained that he needed men for a firing squad to execute a deserter. He was not in our unit and strangers were being called upon to participate lest the offender be shot by his friends. Now was our  chance to act upon our words of conviction. All of us blanched. Our words and our stomachs were hollow.

Lieutenant Williamson did not ask for volunteers. He said that we would all draw straws. The three shortest would be selected. As it turned out, it was Castles, Holton and myself. We were to report to an Acting Adjutant General at once, without our muskets. Corporal Flynn was to escort us. We had not yet had our breakfast nor did we want any.

Corporal Flynn reported us to a captain unknown to us. He was a little poppinjay, full of himself. The other five members of the squad looked just like us, dirty and roughshod, and wishing they were anywhere else. We learned that there were four who had deserted in a party. Two were shot and killed by a pursuing squad. Another was wounded and was in the hospital, not expected to live. That left just one to shoot.

He was so young. Certainly, he had never shaved for all he had was down on his cheeks. Why he deserted we did not know. We did not care to know; it would not have helped us. For this boy, the only help was in the words of a chaplain. To one side was a corporal, loading muskets. One, unknown to the firing party, would be loaded with a blank round. That way, each member of the party might think it possible that they inflicted no harm.

The boy, who had enlisted to fulfill the duty of a man, was calm. He did not quiver though it was cold. I did not observe him to say anything. He was blindfolded and had his hands tied. We were brought to attention. The poppinjay read the charges and the sentence of the court. Death by firing squad. Death by us.

We were ordered to the ready. We aimed. I aimed a bit left of his head. We fired on command and it was over. A medical officer pronounced him dead and a burial detail went to work. He died brave, more brave than we who killed him, no matter how necessary it was to do so. We went back to our own camp where Castles evacuated the contents of his stomach. 

That night, it was our turn to pull picket duty along the river. The following morning, early, we heard some firing from the other side and wondered.