Copyright 2005, 2006
On the long winding road
I paused to look at the stars,
sparkling with the cold eye of death.
We started out early the next morning, after a delicious breakfast of eggs, ham and some of the finest biscuits I ever ate. When we finished breakfast, Mr. Samuels saddled his horse and tied the deserter to a rope, pulling him along behind. The deserter never spoke a word the whole way to Morganton. We said good-bye to Mr. Samuels in town as he pointed us toward Camp Vance. We arrived at the camp about seven in the evening, footsore and hungry. The camp wasn’t much. There were a couple of rows of burned out buildings and a few dozen tents to the side. It looked like they were building a couple of new structures, but hadn’t gotten very far. The frames rose up like wooden skeletons from the muddy ground. Overall, it had a depressing look, like a place that tried hard but was still all loose ends and shabby ones at that.
We found a group of soldiers having supper near a large tent. We asked a sergeant where we could sleep. He said there were no tents left for recruits, but that we could bed down near the creek and pointed to a small stream about two hundred yards to the west. He also said that we might find a biscuit or two over by the mess tent. We walked over and asked the corporal if there was any food left. He went in the tent and brought out four small biscuits and some bacon. We went on over to the stream, which was about five feet across and maybe a foot deep as it rushed over the smooth stones. Poplars and river birches lined the banks. We found a relatively level clearing and laid out our bedrolls, then started a little fire. We boiled some water, made some coffee, and ate our biscuits and some chicken Mrs. Samuels had sent with us.
We reclined against a tall poplar tree and listened to the murmur of the stream in the dark. Everything got quiet in the camp, but I stayed awake for a long time. Too much had happened, leaving home, and tangling with the deserters. I turned it all over in my mind for what seemed like several hours. I finally went to sleep, but I kept awakening from a dream in which I was fighting off a wolf that was trying to get at a calf. I hit at the wolf with a stick, but it kept coming back, biting at me, biting my arms and my legs. I could feel the wolf’s fangs tearing at me. I would knock it down, but it kept coming back. About five o’clock, after I had awakened from the dream for the third or fourth time, I got up and walked over to the creek. I stripped to my skivvies and sat down in the cold water to bathe as well as I could. I tried to wash the blood out of my shirt.
I didn’t bother to shave. I figured that living in an army camp and maybe marching about, I wouldn’t have many opportunities to shave, so I began to let the beard grow. My Pa had a full beard and I always figured I would resemble him even more if I let mine grow. It would come out brown, with some reddish tint to it. A lot of the men had beards and it seemed like the thing to do. I got out of the creek and went back to build a fire to dry off. I patted down with my blanket and sat close to the fire. When I was reasonably dry, I got dressed.
By that time old Whit was awake and I told him to hurry, that we had to report to the headquarters. He growled, “I don’t care what that old sergeant said about bein’ at headquarters at six thirty. All my conscript orders said was to be here by 25 August. That’s today and we’re here. That’s all that counts!”
“Just the same,” I said, “we ought to try to get off to a good start.”
He whined, like only Whit can. “Francis, you is the durndest man I ever seen to try to go out of his way to do what somebody else thinks you ort to do, even contrary to what’s fer yer own good. These fellers don’t care about us bein’ on time, all they want is more fodder for the Yankee cannons.”
I said, “Maybe so, but this fodder ain’t gonna start out a shirker from the git go. I didn’t want to come, but now that I’m here, I’m gonna do my duty if it kills me.”
“Prob’ly will,” Whit muttered as he rolled out of the blankets and on to his feet.
He sauntered toward the creek to do his business. I looked out over the camp, which was beginning to stir. Men started fires, put on coffee, and some were gathering at the mess tent. Daylight was coming; the sky was a deep blue. It looked like a clear day, no clouds in sight. I thought about home.
As I stood there, I felt as if I were suffocating under a huge weight. I don’t know what it was. I’m a simple man, a farmer and a worker, but I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders that morning. Our country was torn asunder; the grim reaper stalked the land cutting down men in their prime by the thousands. The death and destruction were overwhelming. I wondered if we would even have homes to come back to. I worried for my wife and my little ones. The future looked as bleak as a stony tomb in the wilderness.
My thoughts were interrupted by Whit returning from the creek. “Whooee, that crik water’s cold! What say let’s git some breakfast.” We walked to the mess tent where there were some tables set up outside and men walked through a serving line. The food was all right, some eggs and a little fatback, but the portions were small. There always seemed to be a shortage of some kind or another these days, not enough of anything to go around. Talk around the camp was that things were going from bad to worse. Richmond and Petersburg, where Lee’s army was entrenched, were cities under siege. Food and supplies, war materials, and anything else needful for surviving this holocaust were in dreadfully short supply.
By the time we finished our meal it was almost six thirty, so we grabbed our belongings and headed over to the headquarters building, which looked like it had just been finished. It was a little one story wooden building with a small porch and a window on either side of the door. The wood looked and smelled new, but the floor was already mud-stained. We walked in and reported to a young lieutenant who was seated behind a little oaken desk, which was maybe two feet by three feet. He had a real neat stack of papers on each side of the desk and he was writing on a sheet in the middle. He had a candle placed perfectly in the middle at the front. On one side was an ink well; on the other was an ivory handled pen knife.
We handed him the papers they gave us and he studied them with a scowl on his face. Then he looked us both up and down like we were something he had just scraped off the bottom of his boot. He looked no more than eighteen. He had a skimpy blond mustache which drooped to either side of his mouth, no chin whiskers. His hair was slicked to the side and curled up about his ears. Fair skinned, he did not appear to be a man who had spent much time out of doors. He was all decked out in what they call a “butternut” uniform. The lieutenant was resplendent with shiny boots and the uniform didn’t have a speck on it. I wondered how much fighting he had done, and decided probably not much if any at all.
He said (with a sort of sideways sneer on his face), “Report to Sergeant Washburn over at Company C,” and he looked back down at the papers on his desk. I asked him how we would find Sergeant Washburn and he yelled, “Look for the flag with the big ‘C’ on it, or can’t you sod busters read?” I looked at Whit and he sort of raised his eyebrows, and we turned and walked out the door.
“There it is,” Whit said, almost as soon as we walked out the door. Whit could read a little and he took every opportunity to show off his somewhat limited ability. At least he knew what a “C” looked like. Sure enough, about a hundred yards over to the left was a group of tents with a flagpole and a flag with a big “C” on it. Whit bit off a plug and then offered me some, which I gladly took, and we walked over to the tent nearest the flagpole. “We’re here to see Sergeant Washburn,” Whit announced as we walked up.
A couple of soldiers looked up from a card game and said, “In there,” nodding toward the big tent near the flagpole.
We walked on in and there sat the sergeant behind the same kind of tiny little desk the lieutenant had. It held an inkwell, a quill pen and knife, and a stack of papers. The floor in the tent was wooden and had been swept clean. He was writing something as we came in. A stout man, he stood about five feet eight and was about forty years of age. He had a shovel beard and a head full of unruly hair and just about the bushiest eyebrows I ever saw on a man. As he looked up I noticed he had a big scar which ran along his left cheek from his ear almost to his mouth, right at the line of his beard. He studied us critically for a minute, an intense scowl on his face, his hard gray eyes narrowed.
Whit seemed nervous and kept shifting from one foot to the other. I nodded at the sergeant. We handed him the papers and he looked at them like they were written in Greek. He sighed and looked up. “A conscript and a volunteer,” he said to no one in particular with a tone he might have used after stepping into a cow pile. He shook his head and then he looked at us appraisingly. “Let me see you grin.”
Whit looked at me, and I said, “Beg your pardon?”
He sighed. “Grin at me, show me your teeth and then bite like your bitin’ off a chaw.” We did as we were told, though somewhat bemused by the whole thing. When Whit opened his mouth, his chaw fell out and splattered on the floor. The sergeant shook his head again. He growled, “Clean it up.” Whit bent down and scooped up the chaw as best he could. He looked around for a place to dispose of it and finding none, he ceremoniously placed it in his pants pocket. The sergeant groaned a little. Whit grinned, pulled out another plug, and bit if off dramatically. The sergeant closed his eyes and, speaking slowly, explained, “In order to serve in the army, you have to have two teeth that meet in the front, for bitin’ open cartridges. I suppose you’ll both do.”
He looked us over and said, “You fellers ain’t old and you ain’t young. How come you ain’t been in the army all along?”
Whit pursed his lips and said solemnly, “Well, Sergeant, I been busy a takin’ care of my family. I ain’t rightly had time to sign up what with farmin’ and loggin’ and a runnin’ the sawmill.”
The sergeant looked at Whit disgustedly and said, “All of us has things to do. But duty comes first, which you’ll soon find out.” Then he turned to me and said, “What’s your excuse?” I told him that I had served in the militia and that I was a farmer with a family to feed and that I had supplied corn and sorghum and felt like I was doing my duty. Besides which, I really had no quarrel with the Yanks and I have always been happy to be an American and live in a free land and wasn’t even sure about all the whys and wherefores of this war anyway. I told him I came because I did not want to be seen as a dodger.
The sergeant got this real disgusted look and shook his head slowly once again. He looked down, then back up again, and took a deep breath. He began to methodically spit out the words. “Let me tell you something farmer.” He said the word “farmer” like it tasted bad in his mouth. “If men like you don’t come forward and fight, the blue-bellies will be marchin’ right through the middle of this country, burnin’ your crops, stealin’ your women and shootin’ you down like dogs and no hometown militia is gonna stop ‘em. Hellfire, they’re already doin’ it! Look at Kirk. (He meant a certain Colonel Kirk who led a band of Yankee and turncoat cavalry raiding in Western North Carolina and Tennessee). They came stormin’ through here and burned this camp not two months ago. Not to mention the gangs of deserters tearin’ up jack. The Yankees and the lawbreakers will take over.
“But that ain’t nothin’; look at what Sherman’s doin’ in Georgia and what any number of Yankee vermin has done up in the Shenandoah.” He paused long enough to glare at both of us some more. “I been on the front lines at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, not to mention a hundred dustups of one kind or another. I watched them carry Stonewall from the field after our own men opened fire on him by accident; my own outfit, the old 18th North Carolina! I saw the men fall down and cry like babies when they learned what happened.
“I got this (he pointed to the scar) when a Yankee cavalryman tried to take my head off with his saber! I been shot, stabbed with the bayonet, and damn near froze to death a dozen times. I’ve seen men blown to pieces by Yankee artillery, and they was the lucky ones. I’ve seen men come back from battle missing an arm or a leg or an eye or private parts, or with holes in them you could stick your fist in and them still walkin’. You may have no quarrel with the blue-bellies now, but that’s because you ain’t seen ‘em up close and personal like I have.
“Now I’m here to make soldiers out of you dirt farmers and that I intend to do, in about two weeks time. You just plan right now on doin’ what I tell you to do; when I tell you to do it and you might just get to come back to your little farms in the piney woods” He said this with a particular bit of disdain in his voice, wrinkling his face when he said “piney woods.” He took a deep breath and said, “Now you men go see Corporal Hamrick about some equipage and report back here in one hour for drill.” With that, he looked back down at his papers and we knew we were dismissed. The sergeant must have given that speech a hundred times because he sure gave it well.
We got our equipage from the quartermaster and reported back to Company C for drill. We talked with a few of the men gathered on the parade ground. They were mostly scared and depressed about the situation we found ourselves in. We had all heard the stories about the war, like the one Sergeant Washburn told. We also all knew that more men were deserting than were being killed by Yankee bullets. We knew that while we were marching to Petersburg, there would be thousands of men walking back toward the hills of North Carolina and Tennessee because they were tired of the fighting, the sickness and the starving. They were tired of getting letters from home telling of loved ones near starvation, of wives and sweethearts trying to work like men, and children dying from illness and lack of decent food.
Most of the men were not cowards in the least; they were just tired of the war. They were tired of freezing in the open when rumor had it there were blankets rotting in warehouses in Georgia. They were tired of marching on bloody bare feet when there were shoes by the thousands sitting in musty buildings near Richmond. They were tired of starving when canned food filled warehouses to overflowing in Salisbury. It is one thing to fight an enemy with the full support of your government behind you, but it’s quite another thing to fight when that government is too ill-equipped or ill-managed to provide for your basic needs.
Even the most ignorant private in the ranks somehow knew that the Confederate government was woefully bad. Poor old Jeff Davis tried mightily to do his best, but he was surrounded by a lot of selfish pocket-liners and sycophants who undercut him at every turn. The Yankees had some of the same problems, but their sources of supply were far more plentiful. They had all the manufactories and the shipyards and many more able bodied men. The south with its little farms and plantations had very few manufactories. So when the Confederate government messed up, it hurt plenty. The men knew this, so they were leaving faster than people like us could fill the ranks. Knowing all this made the thought of marching into what looked like a disaster all the worse. We all tried to put on a brave face, but we were scared and homesick to a man and we wondered how we could be such fools.
The sergeant came out to the parade ground and we drilled until almost sundown, with the sergeant yelling and waving his arms in the air most of the day. Our instruction at Camp Vance was brief but very intense and very thorough. We learned the manual of arms, to load our weapons in nine times and four times and at will. Over the two weeks we learned firings, direct, oblique, by file and by rank. We learned to fire and load, standing, kneeling and lying. We had bayonet exercises. We also learned how to march, a concept which amused me to no end at first. I had always thought anyone could march. I was ill-informed. We learned how to march in union of eight or twelve men, the direct march, the oblique march and all the different steps. We learned to march by the flank, and the principles of wheeling and change in direction. We learned long marches in double quick time, and the run, with arms and knapsacks, and on and on.
Whit looked confused much of the time as, I must say, did most of us. We didn’t look much like soldiers and we often felt foolish, but it slowly came to us thanks to the sergeant’s persistent and rather vocal efforts.
They gave me an 1861 Springfield rifled musket, .58 caliber, probably captured from the Yankees. I told them I couldn’t carry two muskets, so they said they would pay me ten Confederate dollars for my musket and give it to the home guards. I knew then my old musket was gone for good. I might as well have given it to them. Ten Confederate dollars wouldn’t buy you supper in Petersburg. The rifle they gave me fired a large round, about the size of the last joint of a man’s little finger. They called it a minie ball, named for some Frenchman. If the heavy lead round struck a bone, it splintered and the splinters tore up the muscle and flesh and the limb had to be amputated. It was not a pleasant fate. If the ball struck you in the chest or head, you would soon be saying hello to your Maker.
For two weeks we drilled and marched and practiced shooting, then we drilled some more. The sergeant said all this would be most useful when thousands of Yankees were charging your position. Most of the men could shoot, but none of us knew anything about military tactics and such. They told us we had to learn fast because the Yankees were threatening Richmond, where Lee’s Army was entrenched along a line about thirty miles long from south of Petersburg to north of the capital.
The day before we left for Petersburg, we learned that Whit and I would be joining the 18th North Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment in General A.P. Hill’s corps as replacements for those who had died or deserted. Sergeant Washburn told us it was his old regiment (he had mentioned as much in his speech), the very same regiment that had accidentally shot Stonewall Jackson in the dark at Chancellorsville. The general was riding back from the direction of the enemy with some others, including General Hill, and the North Carolina boys thought the riders were Yankee cavalry. He died a few days later from his wounds. It is said that the loss of 10,000 ordinary men would not equal the loss of Stonewall. He had been a brilliant field commander, defeating every enemy he encountered, often with odds against him of two or three to one. His name was spoken with fear and respect in the North and with reverenced and adoration in the South.
He was Lee’s ablest lieutenant and some said the best general on either side. And to think boys from his own Army were responsible for his death. It goes to show a battlefield can be a most confusing and heartbreaking place.
Turns out the 18th had lost its colors twice in battle. A regimental flag was a real point of honor and pride in the Confederate Army and to lose one was almost disgraceful. But to lose two was just about too much to bear. It seemed to Whit and me that maybe we were joining up with a real hard-luck outfit and it didn’t exactly make us feel any better about things. The sergeant made it clear to us though that any regiment that had lost its colors in battle had clearly been in the thick of the fight. They weren’t guarding the wagon trains and they weren’t quick to retreat. Whit and I went back to our little camp by the creek to spend the last night before marching off to Petersburg.
Whit grumbled as we walked back to our camp. “Well Francis, looks like you and me got ourselves into a real fine outfit. They cain’t keep their battle flag, and they shoot their own generals. Do you think they know which end of a rifle is which?”
I shook my head. “Don’t be so hard on ‘em, Whit. War is rough business, which we’re about to learn first hand. I just hope I can remember which end of a rifle is which when the time comes to use it and the Yanks are coming at us in hordes, like the sergeant said.”
Whit laughed loudly and said, “Well, Francis, just watch me! I’ll show you how shoot Bluebellies, because I don’t aim to be captured by them Yankee hordes. I heard the food in them prison camps is so bad the buzzards won’t eat it!”