The Continental Monthly, Vol. 6, No. 6, December 1864 online

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VOL. VI. - DECEMBER, 1864 - NO. VI.



Before the enlightenment derived from the sad experiences of our present
civil contest, upon the incidents of protracted warfare, probably most
persons conceived of war as a scene of constant activity - a series of
marches, battles, and sieges, with but few intervals of repose. History
records only the active portions of war, taking but little account of
the long periods consumed in the preliminary processes of organization
and discipline, in the occupation of camps and cantonments, in the
stationary watches of opposing armies, lying in the front of each other,
both too weak for aggressive movements, but each strong enough to
prevent such movements on the part of its opponent. Such matters, if
noticed at all, are recorded in a few sentences, making no impression on
the reader. Novels of the 'Charles O'Malley' class have also given
incorrect ideas. Every page relates some adventure - every scene gleams
with sabres and bayonets. Our three years' experience has taught us that
the greater portion of an army's existence is spent in inactivity; that
campaigning is performed only through one half of the year, and of that
time probably not over one third is occupied in progressive movements.
In the campaign of 1861, the only marches of the Army of the Potomac
were to the battle field of Bull Run and the retreat. In 1862, after a
march of fifteen miles to Fairfax Court House and returning, the army
was transferred to Fortress Monroe and moved to Yorktown, where some
weeks were passed in the trenches; it then proceeded up the Peninsula,
and laid a month before Richmond; retreated to Harrison's Landing, and
laid another month; returned to Fortress Monroe, and was shipped to the
vicinity of Washington, marched for about a month, fought at Antietam,
and then laid in camp a month; moved to Warrenton and remained a
fortnight; proceeded to Fredericksburg and continued in camp all winter,
except making the short movements which led to the battle of December,
and the ineffective attempt to turn the rebel left, known as the 'mud
march.' In all this long campaign, from March to December, a period of
nearly nine months, spent in various operations, more than five months
were passed in stationary camps - most of the time occupied, it is true,
in picketing, entrenching, and other duties incident to positive
military operations in proximity to an enemy, but very different from
the duties connected with marching and fighting. The campaign of 1863
comprised a still smaller period of active movements. Commencing in
April with the battle of Chancellorsville, it continued till the march
to Mine Run in October - seven months; but considerable more than half
the time was spent in camps at Falmouth, Warrenton, and Culpepper. The
great campaign now in progress has consumed (at the time this article is
written) three months, commencing after a six-months' interval of
inaction, and already half the time has been spent in the trenches at

Since so large a portion of the time of an army is passed in camps, that
branch of military science which governs the arrangement of forces when
stationary, is one of considerable importance. It is in camps that
armies are educated, that all the details of organization are
systematized, that the _morale_ of troops is cultivated, that a round of
laborious though monotonous duties is performed. Nothing is so trying to
the temper of the individuals composing an army as a long season in a
stationary camp; nothing has more effect for good or for evil upon the
army in the aggregate, than the mode in which the time, at such a
season, is occupied. The commander who does not exercise care to have
his camps pitched in the proper localities, to insure the observance of
hygienic rules, and to keep his men employed sufficiently in military
exercises, will have discontented, unhealthy, and indolent troops.

The words 'camps' and 'cantonments' are frequently used in the
newspapers without any discrimination; but they denote two entirely
different methods of sheltering troops. A camp is defined to be the
place where troops are established in tents, in huts, or in bivouac;
while cantonments are inhabited places which troops occupy for shelter
when not put in barracks. Of camps there are several kinds, according to
the purposes to be effected by their establishment, such as the nightly
camps while upon the march, camps of occupation, camps in line of
battle, &c. Cantonments are most frequently used when, during the
winter, or other considerable period of inactivity, it is necessary to
distribute an army over a large district of country, so as to guard a
number of points. We have not had any instance of cantonment, properly
speaking, during the present war; but in Europe this method of disposing
troops is frequently adopted.

The scenes ensuing upon the arrival of an army corps at its camping
ground for a night, after a day's march, are very lively, often amusing,
and sometimes present picturesque effects. Where the country traversed
by the army is known to the commander, he is able to designate the
nightly camps of the different corps with precision; if, on account of
ignorance of the country, this cannot be done, places are approximately
indicated upon the information given by maps or extracted from the
inhabitants, or procured by reconnoitring parties. Usually, however, the
commander possesses considerable topographical information, procured by
his officers in the advance with the cavalry and light troops, so that
he can fix the nightly camps in such a manner that the various corps
shall all be upon the same line, and lie within supporting distances.
The vicinity of streams is invariably selected for a camp, if other
circumstances permit. When a corps arrives within a mile or two of its
destination, the commander sends forward some of his staff officers
(accompanied by a cavalry guard, if the country is suspicious), and
these officers select the different localities for the camps of the
divisions, of the artillery, the cavalry, and the trains, care being
taken to give all equal facilities for wood and water, and at the same
time to take advantage of the features of the country for military
purposes, such as the guarding of roads in all directions, the
establishment of the picket line, &c. The leading division arrives
perhaps at 5 P.M., and its commander is shown to the locality assigned
him. He immediately distributes the ground to the brigades, and the
troops, as fast as they arrive, filing into the designated spots, occupy
but a few moments in the necessary formalities by which disorder is
prevented; then each man quickly spreads his little tent upon the place
which in the military order belongs to him, a general din of cheerful
voices arises, a unanimous rush is made to the water, cooking fires are
kindled in all directions, and in ten minutes a scene of (it may be)
utter desolation becomes full of life and activity. For a couple of
hours the columns continue to file in, until all the hillsides are
covered with tents. Then, far into the night, is heard the braying of
mules, the shouts of drivers, and the rattling of wheels, as the heavy
wagon trains toil to the place of rest. All through the evening prevails
that peculiar, cheerful din of a camp, as peculiar and characteristic as
the roar of a great city; gradually the noises decline, the bugles and
drums sound the tattoo, the fires grow dim, and the vast mass of hardy,
resolute humanity is asleep - all except the two or three score of sick
and dying men, wasted by fever, who have been jolted all day over the
rough roads in the ambulances, and now groan and writhe in delirium upon
their narrow stretchers in the camp hospitals.

Camps designed to cover and guard a country, are constructed when the
army has not sufficient strength to advance, or when the season
prevents, or some other cause interferes with the prosecution of
hostilities, while at the same time it is necessary to occupy a portion
of the hostile territory. We have had numerous examples of this kind of
camps - indeed, our armies occupy them generally while lying inactive
during the winter. The character of the ground must always determine the
shape and features of such a camp, but unless peculiar modifying
circumstances dictate otherwise, the general form is that of the arc of
a circle. This, with extensions at the sides to cover the flanks, and a
rear guard, is the best for protection. The extent of this kind of camp
is governed by circumstances, but is much greater, generally, than would
be supposed. The camp of an army of 100,000 men, designed to cover any
considerable district of territory, in a country where hills and rivers
assist in giving protection, might have a front (including flanking
parties of cavalry) of from 30 to 50 miles, and a depth of from 10 to
20; besides a continuous chain of forces in the rear, guarding
communications with the base of supplies, from 10 to 50 miles distant.

Camps in line of battle are generally established when opposing armies,
lying in proximity, must be on the alert for attacks. They cover but
little more ground than is required for the manoeuvres of the force,
and are so arranged that, in case of probable conflict, the troops can
assume immediately the formations of battle. Such camps are arranged in
two or three lines, adapted to the natural features of the country for
defence. The approach of the enemy having been communicated from the
outposts, the tents are rapidly struck, the baggage loaded and sent to
the rear, and in an hour the army is free from all encumbrances, and
ready to meet the advancing foe. Usually, when armies lie in contact,
expecting battle, the troops bivouac - no tents being pitched except at
the headquarters of superior commanders, and at other places
sufficiently in the rear to be free from immediate danger. The troops
may be obliged to remain thus for a day or two, no fires being permitted
in the advanced lines, so that their positions may not be indicated.

The season for the suspension of active hostilities having arrived, it
is necessary for the commander of an army to select some place in which
his forces can remain for the winter - where they will have sufficient
facilities for fuel and water, where their health can be preserved,
where they can be protected against surprises or annoyance, where the
country can be covered and guarded, and where the supplies can be drawn
with security from the base of operations. After a due consideration of
all the intelligence that can be obtained upon these points, the
commander issues his general directions, the various corps move to their
designated positions, and preparations for the habitations of the winter
are made. Each corps commander, either personally or by his staff
officers, makes a survey of his ground, and assigns the positions of his
divisions. If within a few miles of the enemy, he throws detachments of
observation toward the front, and then proceeds to establish his picket
line, usually some three or five miles in advance of his main line.
Precautions for security being thus adopted, more minute inspections of
the ground are made, so that unhealthy positions may be avoided. The
troops, being placed, immediately proceed to clear the sites of their
respective encampments, and wagons are set to work to bring in logs with
which huts may be constructed. In about a week thousands of diminutive
log houses arise, roofed with the shelter tents of the soldiers, or,
when the occupants have sufficient handicraft ability, with rough
shingles. Shelters are erected, as far as possible, for the animals,
generally being nothing more than frameworks covered with pine brush. If
there are lumber mills in the vicinity, they are set to work, and boards
sawed for floors to the tents and hospitals. The adjacent forests now
begin to disappear rapidly, leaving nothing but an unsightly array of
stumps; for a regiment is entitled to about two hundred cords of wood
per month as fuel, and in a well-wooded country, where the men can
conveniently cut for themselves, much more is consumed. Every regiment
requires, therefore, about eight or ten acres of woodland per month. An
army of a hundred regiments will, in the course of a winter, denude
several square miles of trees, so that (in the proportion which woodland
generally bears to that which is cleared) a space of country equal to a
county may be stripped of its timber. The men, having made themselves
comfortable, are now called on to form working parties, and put the
roads leading to the depots and the various camps in good order,
generally corduroying them, so as to be passable during the winter;
bridges are made over streams, drainage perfected, &c. In a few weeks,
the chief portion of the labor of preparing a winter's camp is

The sanitary regulations for camps are very stringent and comprehensive.
The suggestions of experience as to the details by which the diseases
incident to camp life can be prevented, are embodied in orders, and it
is the duty of the medical officers and of the inspectors to see that
they are observed. For instance, it is not permitted to have the floors
of the huts lower than the external ground, and the men are required to
keep pine boughs between their blankets and the earth. The method in
which a camp shall be drained, and the offal disposed of, is prescribed.
The cleanliness of the men is enforced. A rigorous system of reports
upon these and many other particulars exists, so that negligences are

The military occupations which relieve the monotony of camp life are
drilling and picketing. It is in the latter that officers and men find
change and freedom, though it often involves severe exposure. The
ordinary detail for this duty in a corps averages perhaps eight hundred
to one thousand men, who are changed usually every three days. If the
country be well settled, some opportunities are presented during that
interval for intercourse with the 'natives;' but in Virginia, it must be
confessed, the attractions of this kind are few. The secession ladies
are not over well disposed to any wearers of Yankee uniforms, and though
many of them are willing to bestow a few soft words in exchange for tea,
coffee, and sugar, they are not liberal of social courtesies. The young
man who joins our armies expecting to realize for himself the love
adventures he has seen recorded in novels, will find the Southern ladies
less given to romance than the damsels of Spain or Mexico. They are
inclined, also, to be treacherous, as the fate of several gallant
officers, who have gone stealthily beyond the lines to spend an evening
with fair rebel sirens, and found themselves delivered to guerillas, has
shown. Nevertheless, the experience of others never warns an adventurous
youth, and opportunities frequently arise for practical jokes. During
the winter of 1862-'3, while the army was encamped on the Rappahannock,
an officer was fascinated by the charms of a fair widow who resided just
beyond the lines, and frequently made evening visits to her. His
companions, being aware of this, formed a party, on a bitter January
night, and proceeding to the widow's house, surrounded it, and sending
within some who were strangers to him, they announced themselves as
belonging to the rebel army, and captured the enamored lover,
blindfolded, led him out, and mounted him. Crestfallen and moody with,
thoughts of his disgraceful situation, cursing, perhaps, the wiles of
the enchantress, to whom he attributed it, he was made to ride many
weary miles, and then, being dismounted, and the bandage removed from
his eyes, he found himself at his own camp, where he was greeted with
uproarious laughter.

The duties incident to picketing and outpost stations are so important
that several works by distinguished authors have been written concerning
them, but most of the rules are of too technical a character for recital
in these papers. The friends of soldiers will, however, take interest in
some general statements. The picket line consists of three
portions - first, the stations of the main guard; second, some distance
in advance of these, the picket stations; and third, some two hundred
yards in advance of these, the stations of the sentinels. If the country
is open and hilly, the latter need not be posted closely together, but
in a wooded country they must be quite numerous. It is their duty not to
allow any person to pass their line; and if a force of the enemy, too
strong to be resisted, approaches, they fall back on the pickets. These
should be stationed where they can command the main avenues of approach,
and offer resistance to the advanced parties of the enemy. After such
resistance becomes useless, the various pickets fall back on the grand
guard, which offers a more determined contest. The advance of the enemy
should by these means have been delayed for a couple of hours, affording
time for the troops to get under arms and take the order of battle.

The following diagram exhibits the general arrangement of picketing:


Let the line A B represent a chain of sentinels on a mile of picket
front, C D a line of picket stations, and E the grand guard. The whole
force of men may perhaps be three hundred, of whom two thirds will
remain at E, posted advantageously upon some eminence protected in part
by a stream and commanding an open country. The remaining one hundred
will be distributed among the picket stations and thrown forward as
sentinels. The whole arrangement is supervised by an officer of
rank - usually a colonel. With a disposition like the above in front of
every division in an army, it is obviously impossible for any
considerable force of an enemy to approach without detection.

One of the greatest practical difficulties our armies have experienced
has been connected with the system of picketing. The South having been
greatly impoverished in those portions traversed by the contending
armies, and the people entirely destitute of luxuries, there are
innumerable applications from residents outside of the pickets for
admission within the lines, in order to trade with officers, for the
purpose of procuring in return articles from our well-supplied
commissariat. Various other necessities of the people appeal for a
modified degree of rigor in regard to picket arrangements, so that our
armies are never free from the presence of rebel inhabitants, traversing
them in all directions. Perfectly familiar with the country, they are
able to detect any weakly guarded places, and undoubtedly, in frequent
instances, after receiving the kindest treatment, return to their homes
conveying such information to guerillas as enables these prowlers to
penetrate through by-roads and seize animals and straggling soldiers. As
a precaution against such annoyances, a very judicious arrangement was
made last winter by the provost marshal general of the Army of the
Potomac. He established certain points on the picket line at which
traffic might be conducted, and forbade admission to citizens. Some
rigorous system like this is very necessary.

The social life of camps is, however, the topic of chief interest. The
question is often asked, Is the life of a soldier demoralizing? The
answer must be, 'Yes,' but not for the reasons generally supposed. The
opportunities for vice and dissoluteness are really less than at home.
The hundred thousand men in an army use less liquor than the same number
of men in a city. In fact, liquor is nearly inaccessible to the soldier
when on the march. For other kinds of vice the temptations are few. The
demoralization arises from the terrible monotony of a prolonged camp,
which produces listlessness, indolence, and a devotion to small
amusements; deranges and reverses the whole system of active life, as it
is seen at home; renders a man uncouth; disqualifies soldiers for
anything else than the trade of war. To the officer in his tent and to
the soldier in his log hut, while the cold rains are beating without,
and the ground is knee deep with mud, there is a constant temptation to
find amusement in cards. Gambling thus becomes a pastime too generally
adopted. The books sent to the army are not always of the character best
adapted to the circumstances. Moral essays and tracts will not be very
eagerly sought for by men whose principal object is to kill time. The
reading matter needed is the kind afforded by the periodicals of the
day, unobjectionable novels, biographies, works of travel, etc.

Camp life has, however, its pleasures, and it must not be supposed that
all succumb to its enervating influences, or that any great number yield
themselves entirely to its demoralizing effects. The period of military
service among our volunteers is too short to permit its full influence
to be experienced, and the connections of our soldiers with their homes
too intimate to allow them to subside completely into the routine
veterans, whose social, mental, and moral nature is altogether lost and
absorbed in the new and artificial military nature imposed on them.

War collects many characters of peculiar idiosyncrasies, and jumbles
them strangely together, so that curious associations are produced. In
any collection of men upon a staff or in a regiment, gathered from
different localities, will be found characters of the most opposite and
incongruous elements. There will be the youth who has never before
travelled beyond his own village, and is full of small anecdotes of the
persons who have figured in his little world; and the silent and
reserved man of middle age, who, if he can be induced to talk, can tell
of many a wild scene in all quarters of the world in which he has been a
participant, since he stealthily left his native home, a boy of sixteen.
There are men who have passed through all the hardships of life, who
have been soldiers in half a dozen European armies, or miners in
California and Australia, or sailors; and men who have always had wealth
at their disposal, and spent years in foreign travel, viewing the world
only under its sunniest aspects. There are many officers grown gray
while filling subordinate capacities at posts on the Western prairies
and mountains, who can relate many interesting anecdotes of their
companions - the men now prominent in military affairs; and there are
officers of high rank, recently emerged from civil life, who nourish
prodigiously in self-glorification upon their brief warlike experience.
There are brave men, and men whose courage is suspected; quiet men, and
men of opinionated perversity; quick-witted men, and men whose profound
stupidity makes them continual butts for all kinds of practical jokes;
refined, educated, poetical men, and men of boorish habits. In short,
any camp presents such specimens of humanity as would be furnished if
all the ingredients of character and experience that compose the world
had been collected in a huge pepper box and sprinkled miscellaneously
throughout the army.

In such associations there are of course many occasions for extracting
interesting and comical conversation and incident. Jokes of all kinds
are constantly on the wing, and no one can consider himself safe from
collision with them. Ridiculous nicknames become attached - no one knows
how - to the most dignified characters, and altogether usurp the places
of the genuine cognomens. No person possesses the art of concealment to
such a degree that all his foibles and weaknesses will escape
observation in the companionship of a camp; and when discovered, the
treatment of them is merciless just in proportion to the care with which
they had been hidden. All pretensions will be penetrated, all disguises
unmasked. Every man finds himself placed according to his exact status,
no matter how well contrived his arrangements for passing himself off
for more than his par value. Many an officer, whom the newspapers
delight to praise, because he is over courteous to correspondents, and
takes precautions to have all his achievements published, has a camp
reputation far different from that by which he is known to the public.

Opinions of all kinds flourish in the army as vigorously as in the outer

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Online LibraryVariousThe Continental Monthly, Vol. 6, No. 6, December 1864 → online text (page 1 of 18)