A Portrait of a Private in the Army of the Potomac

Abner Small, whose diary, The Road to Richmond, is one of the best of Civil War sources, enlisted as a private in the 16th Maine Volunteers, fought through all the campaigns until 1864, 'was captured at Petersburg and imprisoned in Libby prison. He was later appointed historian of his regiment.

        PORTRAIT of a private.--The ideal picture of a soldier makes a veteran smile. Be a man never so much a man, his importance and conceit dwindle when he crawls into an unteaseled shirt, trousers too short and very baggy behind, coat too long at both ends, shoes with soles like firkin covers, and in a cap as shapeless as a feed bag. Let me recall how our private looked to me nf in the army, in the ranks, a position he chose from pure patriotism. 1 can see d him exactly as I saw him then. He is just in front of me trying to keep his balance and his temper, as he spews from a dry mouth the infernally fine soil a of Virginia, and with his hands--he hasnt a handkerchief--wipes the streaks of dirty sweat that make furrows down his unshaven face. No friend of civilian days would recognize him in this most unattractive and disreputable-looking fellow, bowed under fifty-eight pounds of army essentials, and trying to suck a TD.
        His suit is a model one, cut after the regulation pattern, fifty thousand at a time, and of just two sizes. If he is a small man, God pity him; and if he is a big man, God pity him still more; for he is an object of ridicule. His forage cap, with its leather visor, when dry curls up, when wet hangs down, and usually covers one or both ears. His army brogans, nothing can ever make shine or even black. Perhaps the coat of muddy blue can be buttoned in front, and it might be lapped and buttoned behind. The tailor never bushels army suits, and he doesn't crease trousers, although he is always generous m reenforcing them with the regulation patch.
        The knapsack (which is cut to fit, in the engraving) is an unwieldy burden with its rough, coarse contents of flannel and sole leather and sometimes twenty rounds of ammunition extra. Mixed in with these regulation essentials, like beatitudes, are photographs, cards, huswife, Testament, pens, ink, paper, and oftentimes stolen truck enough to load a mule. All this is crowned with a double wool blanket and half a shelter tent rolled in a rubber blanket. One shoulder and the hips support the "commissary department" --an odorous haversack, which often stinks with its mixture of bacon, pork, salt junk, sugar, coffee, tea, desiccated vegetables, rice, bits of yesterdays dinner, and old scraps husbanded with miserly care against a day of want sure to come.
        Loaded down, in addition, with a canteen, full cartridge-box, belt, cross belt, and musket, and tramping twenty miles in a hurry on a hot day, our private was a soldier, but not just then a praiser of the soldiers life. I saw him multiplied by thousands. A photograph of any one of them, covered with yellow dust or mosaics of mud, would have served any relation, North or South, and ornamented a mantel, as a true picture of "Our Boy."...
        Beans.--Long, weary marches were patiently endured if in the distant perspective could be seen the company bean-hole, and no well-disciplined New England regiment would be in camp thirty minutes without the requisite number. When we went into bivouac, every cook would have one dug and a fire over it before the companies broke to the rear and stacked arms. In the early morning I would hang around a particular hole, and ask Ben to just hist the cover .and let me get a sniff for an appetizer; and how Ben would roll his orbs, till only the whites were visible, and say, "Golly, Adjutant, dem yalla-eyes don got dere kivers off yet; youll just natchely have to wait a while!" But manys the tin~e we would have to "git up and git," eating our beans half-cooked, and then would come an internal disturbance--not that infernal demon, dyspepsia, of civil life, but an almighty bellyache that would double a man up and send him into line at "Surgeons Call."
        Desiccated vegetables.--Too many beans with salt junk demanded an antiscorbutic, so the government advertised proposals for some kind of vegetable compound in portable form, and it came--tons of it--in sheets like pressed hops. I suppose it was healthful, for there was variety enough in its composition to satisfy any condition of stomach and bowels. What in Heavens name it was composed of, none of us ever discovered. It was called simply "desiccated vegetables." Ben once brought in just before dinner a piece with a big horn button on it, and wanted to know "if dat 'ere was celery or cabbage?" I doubt our men have ever forgotten how a cook would break off a piece as large as a boot top, put it in a kettle of water, and stir it with the handle of a hospital broom. When the stuff was fully dissolved, the water would remind one of a dirty brook with all the dead leaves floating around promiscuously. Still, it was a substitute for food. We ate it, and we liked it, too.
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger, An Article From Abner Small's "The Road to Richmond."

This Page last updated 01/17/04

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