Recollections of a Private E-mail
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Written by Charles Wood   
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 18:46
While I was perusing the Battles and Leaders of the Civil War which consists of reprints of articles from the Century Magazine issues printed between 1883 and 1887, I came across a few articles written by a private. Warren Lee Goss. These articles are out of copywrie but are interesting reading for anyone interested in the Civil War from an enlisted man's point of view. Below is the first article entitled "Going to the Front."

RECOLLECTIONS OF A PRIVATE - I. By Warren Lee Goss

GOING TO THE FRONT.

Before I reached the point of enlisting, I had read and been "enthused" by General Dix's famous "shoot him on the spot" dispatch; I had attended flag-raisings, and had heard orators declaim of "undying devotion to the Union." One speaker to whom, I listened declared that "human life must be cheapened"; but I never learned that he helped on the work experimentally. When men by the hundred walked soberly to the front and signed the enlistment papers, he was not one of them. As I came out of the hall, with conflicting emotions, feeling as though I should have to go finally or forfeit my birthright as an American citizen, one of the orators who stood at the door, glowing with enthusiasm and patriotism, and shaking hands effusively with those who enlisted, said to me:

"Did you enlist?" "No," I said. Did you?"

"No; they won't take me. I have got a lame leg and a widowed mother to take care of."

I remember another enthusiast who was eager to enlist others. He declared that the family of no man who went to the front should suffer. After the war he was prominent among those who at town-meeting voted to refund the money to such as had expended it to procure substitutes. He has, moreover, been fierce and uncompromising toward the ex-Confederates since the war.

From the first I did not believe the trouble would blow over in "sixty days"; nor did I consider eleven dollars a month, and the promised glory, large pay for the services of an able-bodied young man.

It was the news that the 6th Massachusetts regiment had been mobbed by roughs on their passage through Baltimore which gave me the war fever. And yet when I read Governor John A. Andrew's instructions to have the hero martyrs "preserved in ice and tenderly sent forward," somehow, though I felt the pathos of it, I could not reconcile myself to the ice. Ice in connection with patriotism did not give me agreeable impressions of war, and when I came to think of it, the stoning of the heroic "Sixth" didn't suit me; it detracted from my desire to die a soldier's death.

I lay awake all night thinking the matter over, with the "ice" and " brick-bats" before my mind. However, the fever culminated that night, and I resolved to enlist.

"Cold chills" ran up and down my back as I got out of bed after the sleepless night, and shaved, preparatory to other desperate deeds of valor. I was twenty years of age, and when anything unusual was to be done, like fighting or courting, I shaved.

With a nervous tremor convulsing my system, and my heart thumping like muffled drum-beats, I stood before the door of the recruiting-office, and, before turning the knob to enter, read and re-read the advertisement for recruits posted thereon, until I knew all it's peculiarities. The promised chances for "travel and promotion" seemed goo, and I thought I might have made a mistake in considering war so serious after all. "Chances for travel!" I must confess now, after four years of soldiering, that the "chances of travel" were no myth; but "promotion" was a little uncertain and slow.

I was in no hurry to open the door. Though determined to enlist, I was half inclined to put it off awhile, I had a fluctuation of desires, I was faint-hearted and brave; I wanted to enlist, and yet ---- Here I turned the knob, and was relieved. I had been more prompt, with all my hesitation, than the officer in his duty; he wasn't in. Finally he came, and said: "What do you want, my boy?" "I want to enlist," I responded, blushing deeply with upwelling patriotism and bashfulness. Then the surgeon came to strip and examine me. In justice to myself, it must be stated that I signed the rolls without a tremor. It is common to the most of humanity, I believe, that, when confronted with actual danger, men have less fear than in its contemplation. I will, however, make one exception in favor of the first shell I heard uttering its blood-curdling hisses, as though a steam locomotive were traveling the air. With this exception I have found the actual dangers of war always less terrible face than on the night before the battle.

My first uniform was a bad fit: my trousers were too long by three or four inches; the flannel shirt was coarse and unpleasant, too large at the neck and too short elsewhere. The forage cap was an ungainly bag with pasteboard top and leather visor; the blouse was the only part which seemed decent; while the overcoat made me feel like a little nubbin of corn in a large preponderance of husk. Nothing except "Virginia mud" ever took down my ideas of military pomp quite so low.

After enlisting I did not seem of so much consequence as I had expected. There was not so much excitement on account of my military appearance as I deemed justly my due. I was taught my facings, and at the time I thought the drill-master needlessly fussy about shouldering, ordering, and presenting arms. At this time men were often drilled in company and regimental evolutions long before they learned the manual of arms, because of the difficulty of obtaining muskets. These we obtained at an early day, but we would willingly have resigned them after carrying them for a few hours. The musket, after an hour's drill, seemed heavier and less ornamental than it had looked to be. The first day I went out to drill, getting tired of doing the same things over and over, I said to the drill-sergeant: "Let's stop this fooling and go over to the grocery." His only reply was addressed to a corporal: "Corporal, take this man out and drill him like h-l"; and the corporal did! I found that suggestions were not so well appreciated in the army as in private life, and that no wisdom was equal to a drill-master's "Right face," "Left wheel," and "Right, oblique, march." It takes a raw recruit some time to learn that he is not to think or suggest, but obey. Some never do learn. I acquired it at last, in humility and mud, but it was tough. Yet I doubt if my patriotism, during my first three weeks' drill, was quite knee-high. Drilling looks easy to a spectator, but it isn't. Old soldiers who read this will remember their green recruithood and smile assent. After a time I had cut down my uniform so that I could see out of it, and had conquered the drill sufficiently to see through it. Then the word came: On to Washington!

Our company was quartered at a large hotel near the railway station in the town in which it had been recruited. Bunks had been fitted up within a part of the hotel but little used. We took our meals at the public table, and found fault with the style. Six months later we would have considered ourselves aristocratic to have slept in the hotel stables with the meal-bin far a dining-table. One morning there was a great excitement at the report that we were going to be sent to the front. Most of us obtained a limited pass and went to see our friends for the last time, returning the same night. Many of our schoolmates came in tears to say good-bye. We took leave of them all with heavy hearts, for, lightly as I may here seem to treat the subject, it was no light thing for a boy of twenty to start out for three years into the unknown dangers of a civil war. Our mothers - God bless them!- had brought us something good to eat, - pies, cakes, doughnuts, and jellies. It was one way in which a mother's heart found utterance. The young ladies (sisters, of course) brought an invention, usually made of leather or cloth, containing needles, pins, thread, buttons, and scissors, so that nearly every recruit had an embryo tailor's shop, with the goose inside. One old lady, in the innocence of her heart, brought her son an umbrella. We did not see anything particularly laughable about it at the time, but our old drill-sergeant did. Finally we were ready to move; our tears were wiped away, our buttons were polished, and our muskets were as bright as emery paper could make them.

"Wad" Rider, a member of our company, had come from a neighboring State to enlist with us. He was about eighteen years of age, red-headed, freckled-faced, good-natured and rough, with a wonderful aptitude for crying or laughing from sympathy. Another comrade, whom I will call Jack, was honored with a call from his mother, a little woman, hardly reaching up to his shoulder, with a sweet, motherly, care-worn face. At the last moment, though she tried hard to preserve her composure, as is the habit of New England people, she threw her arms around her boy's neck, and with an outburst of sobbing and crying, said: "My dear boy, my dear boy, what will your poor old mother do without you? You are going to fight for your country. Don't forget your mother, Jack; God bless you, God bless you!" We felt as if the mother's tears and blessing were a benediction over us all. There was a touch of nature in her homely sorrow and solicitude over her big boy, which drew tears of sympathy from my eyes as I thought of my own sorrowing mother at home. The sympathetic Wad Rider burst into tears and sobs. His eyes refused, as he expressed it, to "dry up," until, as we were moving off, Jack's mother, rushing toward him with a bundle tied like a wheat-sheaf, called out in a most pathetic voice, "Jack! Jack! You've forgotten to take your pennyroyal." We all laughed, and so did Jack, and I think the laugh helped him more than the cry did. Everybody had said his last word, and the cars were off. Handkerchiefs were waved at us from all the houses we passed; we cheered till we were hoarse, and then settled back and swung our handkerchiefs.

Just here let me name over the contents of my knapsack, as a fair sample of what all the volunteers started with. There were in it a pair of trousers, two pairs of drawers, a pair of thick boots, four pairs of stockings, four flannel shirts, a blouse, a looking-glass, a can of peaches, a bottle of cough-mixture, a button-stick, chalk, razor and strop, the "tailor's shop" spoken of above, a Bible, a small volume of Shakespeare, and writing utensils. To its top was strapped a double woolen blanket and a rubber one. Many other things were left behind because of lack of room in or about the knapsack.

On our arrival in Boston we were marched through the streets - the first march of any consequence we had taken with our knapsacks and equipments. Our dress consisted of a belt about the body, which held a cartridge-box and bayonet, a cross-belt, also a haversack and tin drinking-cup, a canteen, and, last but not least, the knapsack strapped to the back. The straps ran over, around, and about one, in confusion most perplexing to our unsophisticated shoulders, then knapsack constantly giving the wearer the feeling that he was being pulled over backward. My canteen banged against my bayonet, both tin cup and bayonet badly interfered with the butt of my musket, while my cartridge-box and haversack were constantly flopping up and down - the whole jangling like loose harness and chains on a runaway horse. As we marched into Boston Common, I involuntarily cast my eye about for a bench. But for a former experience in offering advice, I should have proposed to the captain to "chip in" and hire a team to carry our equipments. Such was my first experience in war harness. Afterward, with hardened muscles, rendered athletic by long marches and invigorated by hardships, I could look back upon those days and smile, while carrying a knapsack as lightly as my heart. That morning my heart was as heavy as my knapsack. At last the welcome orders came: "Prepare to open ranks! Rear, open order, march! Right dress! Front! Order arms! Fix bayonets! Stack arms! Unsling knapsacks! In place, rest!"

The tendency of raw soldiers at first is to overload themselves. On the first long march the reaction sets in, and the recruit goes to the opposite extreme, not carrying enough, and thereby becoming dependent upon his comrades. Old soldiers preserve a happy medium. I have seen a new regiment start out with a lot of indescribable material, including sheet-iron stoves, and come back after a long march covered with more mud then baggage, stripped of everything except blankets, haversacks, canteens, muskets, and cartridge-boxes.

During the afternoon in Boston, after marching and countermarching, or, as one of our farm-boy recruits expressed it, after "hawing and geeing" about the streets, we were sent to Fort Independence for the night of safekeeping. A company of regulars held the fort, and the guards walked their post with an uprightness that was astonishing. Our first impression of them was that there was a needless amount of "wheel about and turn about, and walk just so," and of saluting, and presenting arms. We were all marched to our quarters within the fort, where we unslung our knapsacks. After the first day's struggle with a knapsack, the general verdict was, "got too much of it." At supper-time we were marched to the dining-barracks, where our bill of fare was beefsteak, coffee, wheat bread, and potatoes, but not a sign of milk or butter. It struck me as queer when I heard that the army was never provided with butter and milk.

The next day we started for Washington, by rail. We marched through New York's crowded streets without awakening the enthusiasm we thought our due; for we had read of the exciting scenes attending the departure of the New York 7th for Washington, on the day the 6th Massachusetts was mobbed in Baltimore, and also of the march of the 12th Massachusetts down Broadway on the 24th of July, when the regiment sang the then new and always thrilling lyric, "John Brown's Body." The following morning we took breakfast in Philadelphia, where we were attended by matrons and maidens, who waited upon us with thoughtful tenderness, as if they had been our own mothers and sweethearts instead of strangers. They feasted us and then filled our haversacks. God bless them! It we did not quite appreciate them then, we did afterward. After embarking on the cars at Philadelphia, the waving of handkerchiefs was less and less noticeable along the route. We arrived in Baltimore late at night; Union troops now controlled the city, and we marched through its deserted streets unmolested. On our arrival at Washington the next morning, we were marched to barracks, dignified by the name of "Soldiers Retreat," where each man received a half loaf of "soft-tack," as we had already begun to call wheat bread, with a piece of "salt junk," about as big and tough as the heel of my government shoe, and a quart of coffee, - which constituted our breakfast. Our first day in Washington was spent in shaving, washing, polishing our brasses and buttons, and cleaning-up for inspection. A day or two later we moved to quarters not far from the armory, looking out on the broad Potomac, within sight of Long Bridge and the city of Alexandria.

Here and there the sound of a gun broke the serenity, but otherwise the quiet seemed inconsistent with the war preparations going on around us. In the distance, across the wide river, we could see the steeples and towers of the city of Alexandria, while up stream, on the right, was the Long Bridge. Here and there was to be seen the moving panorama of armed men, as a regiment crossed the bridge; a flash of sunlight on the polished muskets revealed them in the eye; while the white-topped army baggage-wagons filed over in constant. procession, looking like sections of whitewashed fence in motion. The overgrown country village of that period, called Washington, can be described in a few words. There were wide streets stretching out from a common center like a spider's web. The Capitol, with its unfinished dome; the Patent Office, the Treasury, and the other public buildings, were in marked and classic contrast with the dilapidated, tumble-down, shabby look of the average homes, stores, groceries, and groggeries, which increased in shabbiness and dirty dilapidation as they approached the suburbs. The climate of Washington was genial, but in the winter months the mud was fearful. I have drilled in it, marched in it, and run from the provost-guard in it, and I think I appreciate it from actual and familiar knowledge. In the lower quarter of the city there was not a piece of sidewalk. Even Pennsylvania Avenue, with its sidewalks, was extremely dirty; and the cavalcade of teams, artillery caissons, and baggage-wagons, with their heavy wheels, stirred the mud into a stiff batter for the pedestrian.

Officers in tinsel and gold lace were so thick on Pennsylvania Avenue that it was a severe trial for a private to walk there. The salute exacted by officers, of bringing the hand to the visor of the cap, extending the arm to its full length, and then letting it drop by the side, was tiresome when followed up with the industry required by this horde. Perhaps I exaggerate, but in a half-hour's walk on the avenue I think I have saluted two hundred officers. Brigadier-generals were more numerous there than I ever knew them to be at the front. These officers, many of whom won their positions by political wire-pulling at Washington, we privates thought the great bane of the war; they ought to have been sent to the front rank of battle, to serve as privates until they had learned the duties of a soldier. Mingled with these gaudy, useless officers were citizens in search of fat contracts, privates, "non-com's" and officers whose uniforms were well worn and faded, showing that they were from encampments and active service. Occasionally a regiment passed through the streets, on the way to camp; all surged up and down wide Pennsylvania Avenue.

The soldiers of this period were eager to collect mementoes of the war. One of my acquaintances in another regiment made sketches of the different camps he had visited around Washington, including " Brightwood " and Camp Cameron; the latter he termed "a nursery for brigadier-generals." Another friend hoarded specimens of official signatures and passes issued in Washington, conspicuous among which was a pass with the well-known John-Hancock-like signature of Drake De Kay.

Before enlisting, and while on a visit to a neighboring town, I was one evening at the village store, when the talk turned upon the duration of the war. Jim Tinkham, the clerk of the grocery store, announced his belief in a sixty-day's war. I modestly asked him for more time. The older ones agreed with Jim and argued, as was common at that time, that the Government would soon blockade all the rebel ports and starve them out. Tinkham proposed to wager a supper for those present, if the rebels did not surrender before snow came that year. I accepted. Neither of us put up any money, and in the excitement of the weeks which followed I had forgotten the wager. During my first week in Washington, whom should I meet but Jim Tinkham, the apostle of the sixty-day theory. He was brown with sunburn, and clad in a rusty uniform which showed service in the field. He was a veteran, for he had been at the battle of Bull Run. He confidentially declared that after getting the order to retreat at that battle, he should not have stopped short of Boston if he had not been halted by a soldier with a musket, after crossing Long Bridge.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 June 2010 21:30
 

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