The Civil War in AmericaThe Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1101, p. 121.
August 3, 1861
There are many, no doubt, who on reading a correspondent's letter envy him the life of excitement he is supposed to lead with an army in the field. They would gladly forego their home comforts for the assumed pleasures of a camp existence, convinced that a night between regulation blankets, on a straw mattress, with rank grass for a bedstead, is as comfortable as the peaceful slumber they enjoy betwixt their own white sheetings. Breakfast at nine, lunch at two, and dinner at six are conventionalities they are prepared to repudiate, preferring infinitely for the time being a simple diet of simple luxuries eaten in a simple fashion—that is, with the fingers. They picture to themselves the air filled with martial music, the march through shady forests in the "old dominion" of Virginia, the occasional halts amidst romantic scenery, the bath at some crystal spring, with a silvery cascade leaping over moss-covered stones, and invigorating the wearied frame of the campaigner with its refreshing temperature. In the cool of the evening, as they smoke their cigars in suburban summer-houses, reading "Our Special's" letter, they pine to be on tented plains. As they puff the blue cloud from the fragrant British havannah a mirage of a canvas city, transparent with light, floats before their excited imaginations. Passing the threshold of a tent in their dreamy excursion to the realms of fancy, they behold a merry group of men-at-arms jovially engaged in killing time instead of the enemy, some lounging in rocking-chairs, others reclining at length on the velvety sward, and all imbibing nectar in the shape of mint juleps, brandy smashes, gin cocktails, port wine sangarees, and whiskey punches. Such, my friends, is the romance of campaigning; read on, and you will see the reality.
My location at present is near a place called "Ball's Cross Roads," on the Virginia shore of the Potomac. In the early hours of the morning and in the evening moving about the neighbourhood is like wading through a morass, so heavy falls the dew, while during the other portion of the day the sun strikes with such intensity on the camp that one scarcely dares quit shelter for fear of coup de soleil, and to remain in the interior of your tent is to risk being parboiled. At four a.m. the drum beats the réveille close to your head just as you have done battling with myriads of bloodthirsty mosquitos and other nameless insects, and are getting into your first sleep. At five there is another roll for company drill; and, unless you want to go without your breakfast, you must be up and dressed by six. Dressing occupies but a short time, there being very little to take off on going to bed, and, consequently, very little to put on on rising. Happy is he who does not find a juvenile rattlesnake in his boot. Apropos of snakes in boots, I had a curious incident related to me the other day. An officer who had been warned over night by some of his comrades against such intrusions, and being advised to shake his leathers well before donning them, treated the matter very lightly, and thought it a useless precaution to take, as, in the first place, he did not believe a snake would seek lodgings in his wellingtons, and, in the second, he thought that a good stamp on any foreign substance would settle the affair satisfactorily. The next morning frightful yells were heard issuing from the unbeliever's tent; there were shrieks of "Murder!" coupled with implorings for the doctor; and, on his neighbours rushing to his assistance, they found him limping about with one boot on, which he begged with an agonizing expression they would immediately cut off. He screamed out there was a snake in it, which had bitten him badly, and that the more he crushed it the deeper it inserted his fangs, and he was sure he had but a few moments to live. The doctor soon made his appearance and commenced ripping the boot from the leg, when, to the surprise of every one, out dropped a spur covered with blood. The patient's nigger had the preceding evening unbuckled both these appendages, and had thoughtlessly inserted one in each boot for safety.
The crystal spring alluded to in the fanciful sketch of campaigning is, in my case, a yellow, sluggish stream, flowing lazily through a deep, wooded dell (all the water in Virginia appears to me to be of the colour and consistency of pea-soup, except here and there a drinking-spring), and in this I take my bath, feeling infinitely more dirty afterwards than I did before. The first morning I performed my ablutions in this main sewer of a clayey range of hills I disturbed by my riotous immersion a considerable family of the amphibious serpentine species (you see I am obligated to return to my snakes), which wriggled off in every direction, leaving me, terrified, mid-stream. In my anxiety to escape I dragged myself up the bank through a thicket of briars, and I still feel the smarts as I write this. Custom, however, hardens one to anything; and I and the snakes now disport ourselves with mutual confidence in our mud bath. By the time the laving process is achieved breakfast claims one's attention, and the savoury smells from Charley's kitchen lead you by the nose to the mess-tent. I declare that our sable maitre d'htel has improvised us some prime rump-steak. Crunch! how tough it is! "Why, where on earth did you get this, Charley?" "Get it, sar? Why, yer heerd last night a sentry shoot a Secesh, after tattoo?" Gracious goodness! surely the Ethiopian don't intend to make cannibals of us! "Well, sar, it warn't a Secesh at all; it war the Secesh farmer's ole cow; and, as this nigger discubbered her fust, weltering in her gauze, I thought mebbe the genlemen ud like to hab a under cut. Ugh! ugh! ugh! Berry excellent meat, sar!" Shades of the Old Cheshire Cheese! how I pine after my accustomed "steak and mashed powtaturs, down together"! Give me the Moore of Wine-office-court in place of the wretched Moor that caters for me now. After an unsatisfactory meal comes the hot, dried-up day, throughout which you are wretchedly uncomfortable. Flies and mosquitos fight their battles on each uncovered portion of your skin; the perspiration oozes from every pore in your body. You try to do some work, and immediately you have a dozen visitors from neighbouring tents, who fan and fume all round the place, distracted themselves and distracting you. An indifferent dinner at last comes as a kind of break to your misery, and the whole closes with infinite pipe-smoking, and any amount of bad whiskey for those who like it. Such is our camp life, rooted to the same spot, with no change of scene, the only incidents to enliven one being an occasional skirmish with the enemy's pickets, all of which I have sent you sketches of. As yet I have hardly dared absent myself for a day, as in front of this position the great battle will be fought.
What cannot fail to interest your readers greatly will be an effort on my part to explain the positions of the Confederate and Federal forces as they are now relatively placed. The extreme right of the Secessionist army is at Norfolk, in Eastern Virginia. Their centre may be said to extend from Richmond to Manassas Gap, running north-west, and their left rests on Winchester, in the western part of the "Old Dominion;" and it is undoubtedly in this State that all the important fighting will take place. Beyond comes Kentucky, neutral, splitting, as it were, the line of operations into two distinct aggressive and defensive movements. In Missouri the Confederates have their left, in the neighbourhood of Carthage, and their right threatening Cairo, on the extreme southern border of Illinois. Opposed to their left is General Lyons, who menaces them in that quarter, while General Prentiss, in command at Cairo, shows a good front to their right attack. But the greatest interest unquestionably lies in Virginia, where the most considerable force on both sides is brought into the field. Generals Patterson and M'Lellan, after certain successful movements on the Upper Potomac, are about to form a junction in the neighbourhood of Winchester, and we may expect daily to hear of them giving the Disunionists battle. General M'Dowell, in command at Alexandria, on the right bank of the Potomac, opposite to Washington, threatens the Secessionist positions at Fairfax and Manassas Gap; while General Butler, at Fortress Monroe, in the Chesapeake Bay, is awaiting orders to march in the direction of Norfolk (notwithstanding his reverse at Big Bethel) with a flanking movement on Richmond. If your readers will just glance at the map of the United States they will be able readily to follow out my description. General Scott, the veteran of the Mexican war, commands in chief, and though his head is blanched with the snows of seventy-five winters, and his frame enfeebled by the hardships of more than half a century of service, yet his energy and intellect are as unimpaired as when he gained his old victories. General Mansfield acts as his Lieutenant.
A few remarks in reference to the organisation of the Union Army will not be thrown away here. For a country like the United States—recollect I am speaking of only the northern division—to place 150,000 men in the field armed and equipped in the short space of little better than two months is indeed surprising. When I say 150,000 men I mean those actually in line of battle; not including the untold legions on their way to the seat of war and others drilling in the various States to which they belong. Your readers, to realise the energy that has been displayed, must take into consideration the fact that the standing army has scarcely ever exceeded 15,000; and that almost every man now called upon to serve has been enrolled, clothed, armed, and drilled in the period above mentioned. I do not mean to assert that this army goes to the field in as serviceable a condition as a European one of similar proportions; for in the essential of cavalry they are lamentably deficient. But perfection is not to be expected from a country that has never laid claim to be considered a military Power, though I very much doubt if America won't proudly assert her right to such distinction before the close of the lamentable strife she is now engaged in. To one fact I can bear positive testimony, which is, that no other nation could bring into array a more goodly show of sinew and muscle. There are regiments taken from among the hardy sons of Maine, Michigan, Vermont, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Iowa, men who gain their bread by following avocetions in which physical strength and endurance go for more than mental capacity. It is not by any means uncommon to see in the ranks huge, brawny fellows, six feet three and four in height, "boys" who can hand a tree or start a raft over a fall, throttle a bear, or pole a barge down the rapids, and in whose hands a musket and bayonet is no more than a toasting-fork. Of course, every Northern State gives its quota to the national forces, and I have simply particularised the above for the sake of introducing some of the athletae about to enter the arena. The greatest failing probably in this army is the want of competent officers. The men themselves begin to feel this, and are murmuring openly at the corruptive practices which take wealthy tradesmen from behind their counters and dub them Colonels and Majors-General. Had it not been for this system of political interestedness the mishaps at Big Bethel and Vienna would never have occurred, and the term in reference to the conduct of a commanding officer on one of these occasions, as to "losing his presence of mind," would probably have been omitted in the reports of the engagement. Speaking of engagements, I would here like to put myself right with you and your readers. If you do not receive from me sketches of every action fought, it is because I am unable to make myself ubiquitous; and it must also be recollected that this is a "big country," and that the distances between the different columns are great, and the railroads partially destroyed. I managed, however, to pay a flying visit to Patterson's division at Martinsburg, getting up in time to witness his gallant and successful dash at the Confederate troops on the Upper Potomac, which occurred on the 2nd ult. I send you a Sketch of the advance of the Wisconsin men through the wheat-fields, after fording the river, to attack the enemy's position.
We are now daily waiting orders to advance, and when they come some 75,000 troops will be put in motion, advancing on the centre of the Confederate position. It is possible the first engagement will take place at Fairfax, from which we are now distant about eight miles. Should the Secessionist force, however, retire from that neighbourhood a great battle cannot fail to be fought at Manassas Gap, twelve miles further on, where their largest body of troops is assembled. When we move there will be an increase of subjects to sketch, and I shall be able to keep you better supplied than I have hitherto done.
Some illustrations sent by our Special Artist with this letter are in hand, and will probably appear in our next Number.