Lawyer, novelist, and professional traveler, Theodore Winthrop is probably best remembered for his two volumes of sketches: The Canoe and the Saddle and Life in the Open Air; his novels, Cecil Dreeme and John Brent, are universally unread. At the beginning of the war he enlisted in the 7th New York, and his account of its journey to Washington has already been mentioned. He was killed in a charge at the Battle of Great Bethel, June 1862.
Boom! I would rather not believe it; but it is--yes, it is--the morning gun, uttering its surly "Hullo!" to sunrise. Yes,--and, to confirm my suspicions, here rattle in the drums and pipe in the fifes, wooing us to get up, get up, with music too peremptory to be harmonious.
I rise up sur mon seant and glance about me. I, Private W., chance, by reason of sundry chances, to be a member of a company recently largely recruited and bestowed all together in a big marquee. As I lift myself up, I see others lift themselves up on those straw bags we kindly call our mattresses. The tallest man of the regiment, Sergeant K., is on one side of me. On the other side I am separated from two of the fattest men of the regiment by Sergeant M., another excellent fellow, prime cook and prime forager.
We are all presently on our pins,--K. on those lengthy continuations of his, and the two stout gentlemen on their stout supporters. The deep sleepers are pulled up from those abysses of slumber where they had been choking, gurgling, strangling, death-rattling all night. There is for a moment a sound of legs rushing into pantaloons and arms plunging into jackets.
Then, as the drums and fifes whine and clatter their last notes, at the flap of our tent appears our orderly, and fierce in the morning sunshine gleams his moustache,--one months growth this blessed day. "Fall in, for roll-call!" he cries, in a ringing voice. The orderly can speak sharp, if need be.
We obey. Not "Walk in!" "March in!" "Stand in!" is the order; but "Fall in!" as sleepy men must. Then the orderly calls off our hundred. There are several boyish voices which reply, several comic voices, a few mean voices, and some so earnest and manly and alert that one says to himself, "Those are the men for me, when work is to be done!" I read the character of my comrades every morning in each fellows monosyllable "Here!"
When the orderly is satisfied that not one of us has run away and accepted a Colonelcy from the Confederate States since last roll-call, he notifies those unfortunates who are to be on guard for the next twenty-four hours of the honor and responsibility placed upon their shoulders. Next he tells us what are to be the drills of the day. Then, "Right face! Dismissed! Break ranks! March!"
With ardor we instantly seize tin basins, soap, and towels, and invade a lovely oak-grove at the rear and left of our camp. Here is a delicious spring into which we have fitted a pump. The sylvan scene becomes peopled with "National Guards Washing,"--a scene meriting the notice of Art as much as any "Diana and her Nymphs." But we have no Poussin to paint us in the dewy sunlit grove. Few of us, indeed, know how picturesque we are at all times and seasons.
After this beau ideal of a morning toilet comes the ante-prandial drill. Lieutenant W. arrives, and gives us a little appetizing exercise in "Carry arms!" "Support arms!" "By the right flank, march!" "Double quick!"Breakfast follows. My company messes somewhat helter-skelter in a big tent. We have very tolerable rations. Sometimes luxuries .appear of potted meats and hermetical vegetables, sent us by the fond New-Yorkers. Each little knot of fellows, too, cooks something savory. Our table-furniture is not elegant, our plates are tin, there is no silver in our forks; but a Ia guerre, comme a Ia guerre. Let the scrubs growl! Lucky fellows, if they suffer no worse hardships than this! By and by, after breakfast, come company drills, bayonet practice, battalion drills, and the heavy work of the day. Our handsome Colonel, on a nice black nag, maneuvers his thousand men of the line-companies on the parade for two or three hours. Two thousand legs step off accurately together. Two thousand pipe-clayed cross-belts--whitened with infinite pains and waste of time, and offering a most inviting mark to a foe--restrain the beating bosoms of a thousand braves, as they--the braves, not the belts--go through the most intricate evolutions unerringly. Watching these battalion movements, Private W., perhaps, goes off and inscribes in his journal--"Any clever, prompt man, with a mechanical turn, an eye for distance, a notion of time, and a voice of command, can be a tactician. It is pure pedantry to claim that the maneuvering of troops is difficult; it is not difficult, if the troops are quick and steady. But to be a general, with patience and purpose and initiative,--ah!" thinks Private W., "for that, purpose you must have the man of genius; and in this war he already begins to appear out of Massachusetts and elsewhere."
Private W. avows without fear that about noon, at Camp Cameron, he takes a hearty dinner, and with satisfaction. Private W. has had his feasts in cot and chateau in Old World and New. It is the conviction of said private that nowhere and no-when has he expected his ration with more interest, and remembered it with more affection, than here.
In the middle hours of the day, it is in order to get a pass to go to Washington, or to visit some of the camps, which now, in the middle of May, begin to form a cordon around the city. . . . Our capital seems arranged by nature to be protected by fortified camps on the circuit of its hills. It may be made almost a Verona, if need be. Our brother regiments have posts nearly as charming as our own, in these fair groves and on these fair slopes on either side of us.
In the afternoon comes target practice, skirmishing-drill, more company-or recruit-drill, and at half past five our evening parade. Let me not forget tent-inspection, at four, by the officer of the day, when our band plays deliciously.
At evening parade all Washington appears. A regiment of ladies, rather indisposed to beauty, observe us. Sometimes the Dons arrive, "Secretaries of State, of War, of Navy,--or military Dons, bestriding prancing steeds, but bestriding them as if "'twas not their habit often of an afternoon." All which,--the bad teeth, pallid skins, and rustic toilets of the fair, and the very moderate horsemanship of the brave,--privates, standing at ease in the ranks, take note of, not cynically, but as men of the world.
Wondrous gymnasts are some of the Seventh, and after evening parade they often give exhibitions of their prowess to circles of admirers. Muscle has not gone out, nor nerve, nor activity, if these athletes are to be taken as the types or even as the leaders of the young city-bred men of our time. All the feats of strength and grace of the gymnasiums are to be seen here, and show to double advantage in the open air.
Then comes sweet evening. The moon rises. It seems always full moon at Camp Cameron. Every tent becomes a little illuminated pyramid. Cooking fires burn bright along the alleys. The boys lark, sing, shout, do all these merry things that make the entertainment of volunteer service. The gentle moon looks on, mild and amused, the fairest lady of all that visit us.
At last when the songs have been sung and the hundred rumors of the day discussed, at ten the intrusive drums and scolding fifes get together and stir up a concert, always premature, called tattoo. The Seventh Regiment begins to peel for bed; at all events, Private W. does; for said W. takes, when he can, precious good care of his cuticle, and never yields to the lazy and unwholesome habit of soldiers,--sleeping in the clothes. At taps--half past ten--out go the lights. If they do not, presently comes the sentrys peremptory command to put them out. Then, and until the dawn of another day, a cordon of snorers inside of a cordon of sentries surrounds our national capital. The outer cordon sounds its "Mis well"; and the inner cordon, slumbering, echoes it.
And that is the history of any day at Camp Cameron. It is monotonous, it is not monotonous, it is laborious, it is lazy, it is a bore, it is a lark, it is half war, half peace, and totally attractive, and not to be dispensed with from ones experience in the nineteenth century.
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger, From Theodore Winthrop's "Life in the Open Air, and Other Papers"
This Page last updated 01/17/04
RETURN TO HOW THE CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS LIVED PAGE