Matthews, Brander, ed. (18521929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.
XVIII. Our March to Washington
Theodore Winthrop (18281861)
Through the City
AT three oclock in the afternoon of Friday, April 19, we took our peacemaker, a neat twelve-pound brass howitzer, down from the Seventh Regiment Armory, and stationed it in the rear of the building. The twin peacemaker is somewhere near us, but entirely hidden by this enormous crowd.
This is a part of the town where baddish cigars prevail. But good or bad, I am ordered to keep all away from the gun. So the throng stands back, peers curiously over the heads of its junior members, and seems to be taking the measure of my coffin.
At a great house on the left, as we pass the Astor Library, I see a handkerchief waving for me. Yes! it is she who made the sandwiches in my knapsack. They were a trifle too thick, as I afterwards discovered, but otherwise perfection. Be these my thanks and the thanks of hungry comrades who had bites of them!
It was worth a life, that march. Only one who passed, as we did, through that tempest of cheers, two miles long, can know the terrible enthusiasm of the occasion. I could hardly hear the rattle of our own gun-carriages, and only once or twice the music of our band came to me muffled and quelled by the uproar. We knew now, if we had not before divined it, that our great city was with us as one man, utterly united in the great cause we were marching to sustain.
This grand fact I learned by two senses. If hundreds of thousands roared it into my ears, thousands slapped it into my back. My fellow-citizens smote me on the knapsack, as I went by at the gun-rope, and encouraged me each in his own dialect. Bully for you! alternated with benedictions, in the proportion of two bullies to one blessing.
I was not so fortunate as to receive more substantial tokens of sympathy. But there were parting gifts showered on the regiment, enough to establish a variety-shop. Handkerchiefs, of course, came floating down upon us from the windows, like a snow. Pretty little gloves pelted us with love-taps. The sterner sex forced upon us pocket-knives new and jagged, combs, soap, slippers, boxes of matches, cigars by the dozen and the hundred, pipes to smoke shag and pipes to smoke Latakia, fruit, eggs, and sandwiches. One fellow got a new purse with ten bright quarter-eagles.
At the corner of Grand Street, or thereabouts, a bhoy in red flannel shirt and black dress pantaloons, leaning back against the crowd with Herculean shoulders, called me,Saäy, bully! take my dorg! hes one of the kind that holds till he draps. This gentleman, with his animal, was instantly shoved back by the police, and the Seventh lost the dorg.
These were the comic incidents of the march, but underlying all was the tragic sentiment that we might have tragic work presently to do. The news of the rascal attack in Baltimore on the Massachusetts Sixth had just come in. Ours might be the same chance. If there were any of us not in earnest before, the story of the day would steady us. So we said good-by to Broadway, moved down Cortlandt Street under a bower of flags, and at half-past six shoved off in the ferry-boat.
Everybody has heard how Jersey City turned out and filled up the Railroad Station, like an opera-house, to give God-speed to us as a representative body, a guaranty of the unquestioning loyalty of the conservative class in New York. Everybody has heard how the State of New Jersey, along the railroad line, stood through the evening and the night to shout their quota of good wishes. At every station the Jerseymen were there, uproarious as Jerseymen, to shake our hands and wish us a happy despatch. I think I did not see a rod of ground without its man, from dusk till dawn, from the Hudson to the Delaware.
At sunrise we were at the station in Philadelphia, and dismissed for an hour. Some hundreds of us made up Broad Street for the Lapierre House to breakfast. When I arrived, I found every place at table filled and every waiter ten deep with orders. So, being an old campaigner, I followed up the stream of provender to the fountain-head, the kitchen. Half a dozen other old campaigners were already there, most hospitably entertained by the cooks. They served us, hot and hot, with the best of their best, straight from the gridiron and the pan. I hope, if I live to breakfast again in the Lapierre House, that I may be allowed to help myself and choose for myself below-stairs.
I stopped at a corner shop to ask for pork, and was amicably assailed by an earnest dame,Irish, I am pleased to say. She thrust her last loaf upon me, and sighed that it was not baked that morning for my honors service.
A little farther on, two kindly Quaker ladies compelled me to step in. What could they do? they asked eagerly. They had no meat in the house; but could we eat eggs? They had in the house a dozen and a half, new-laid. So the pot to the fire, and the eggs boiled, and bagged by myself and that tall Saxon, my friend E., of the Sixth Company. While the eggs simmered, the two ladies thee-ed us prayerfully and tearfully, hoping that God would save our country from blood, unless blood must be shed to preserve Law and Liberty.
Our regiment was ready to a man to try its strength with the Plug Uglies. If there had been any voting on the subject, the plan to follow the straight road to Washington would have been accepted by acclamation. But the higher powers deemed that the longest way round was the shortest way home, and no doubt their decision was wise. The event proved it.
The Boston is a steamer of the outside line from Philadelphia to New York. She just held our legion. We tramped on board, and were allotted about the craft from the top to the bottom story. We took tents, traps, and grub on board, and steamed away down the Delaware in the sweet afternoon of April. If ever the heavens smiled fair weather on any campaign, they have done so on ours.
Soldiers on shipboard are proverbially fish out of water. We could not be called by the good old nickname of lobsters by the crew. Our gray jackets saved the sobriquet. But we floundered about the crowded vessel like boiling victims in a pot. At last we found our places, and laid ourselves about the decks to tan or bronze or burn scarlet, according to complexion. There were plenty of cheeks of lobster-hue before next evening on the Boston.
A thousand young fellows turned loose on shipboard were sure to make themselves merry. Let the reader imagine that! We were like any other excursionists, except that the stacks of bright guns were always present to remind us of our errand, and regular guard-mounting and drill went on all the time. The young citizens growled or laughed at the minor hardships of the hasty outfit, and toughened rapidly to business.
Sunday, the 21st, was a long and somewhat anxious day. While we were bowling along in the sweet sunshine and sweeter moonlight of the halcyon time, Uncle Sam might be dethroned by somebody in buckram, or Baltimore burnt by the boys from Lynn or Marblehead, revenging the massacre of their fellows. Everyone begins to comprehend the fiery eagerness of men who live in historic times. I wish I had control of chain-lightning for a few minutes, says O., the droll fellow of our company. Id make it come thick and heavy and knock spots out of Secession.
By and by boats come off, and we get news that the steamer is the Maryland, a ferry-boat of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Railroad. The Massachusetts Eighth Regiment had been just in time to seize her on the north side of the Chesapeake. They learned that she was to be carried off by the crew and leave them blockaded. So they shot their Zouaves ahead as skirmishers. The fine fellows rattled on board, and before the steamboat had time to take a turn or open a valve, she was held by Massachusetts in trust for Uncle Sam. Hurrah for the most important prize thus far in the war! It probably saved the Constitution, Old Ironsides, from capture by the traitors. It probably saved Annapolis, and kept Maryland open without bloodshed.
As soon as the Massachusetts Regiment had made prize of the ferry-boat, a call was made for engineers to run her. Some twenty men at once stepped to the front. We of the New York Seventh afterwards concluded that whatever was needed in the way of skill or handicraft could be found among those brother Yankees. They were the men to make armies of. They could tailor for themselves, shoe themselves, do their own blacksmithing, gun-smithing, and all other work that calls for sturdy arms and nimble fingers. In fact, I have such profound confidence in the universal accomplishment of the Massachusetts Eighth, that I have no doubt, if the order were, Poets to the front! Painters present arms! Sculptors charge bayonets! a bakers dozen out of every company would respond.
Well, to go on with their story,when they had taken their prize, they drove her straight downstream to Annapolis, the nearest point to Washington. There they found the Naval Academy in danger of attack, and Old Ironsidesserving as a practice-ship for the future midshipmenalso exposed. The call was now for seamen to man the old craft and save her from a worse enemy than her prototype met in the Guerrière. Seamen? Of course! They were Marbleheaded men, Gloucester men, Beverly men, seamen all, par excellence! They clapped on the frigate to aid the middies, and by and by started her out into the stream. In doing this their own pilot took the chance to run them purposely on a shoal in the intricate channel. A great error of judgment on his part! as he perceived, when he found himself in irons and in confinement. The days of trifling with traitors are over! think the Eighth Regiment of Massachusetts.
But there they were, hard and fast on the shoal, when we came up. Nothing to nibble on but knobs of anthracite. Nothing to sleep on softer or cleaner than coal-dust. Nothing to drink but the brackish water under their keel. Rather rough! so they afterward patiently told us.
Meantime the Constitution had got hold of a tug, and was making her way to an anchorage where her guns commanded everything and everybody. Good and true men chuckled greatly over this. The stars and stripes also were still up at the fort at the Naval Academy.
Our dread, that, while we were off at sea, some great and perhaps fatal harm had been suffered, was greatly lightened by these good omens. If Annapolis was safe, why not Washington safe also? If treachery had got head at the capital, would not treachery have reached out its hand and snatched this doorway? These were our speculations as we began to discern objects, before we heard news.
But news came presently. Boats pulled off to us. Our officers were put into communication with the shore. The scanty facts of our position became known from man to man. We privates have greatly the advantage in battling with the doubt of such a time. We know that we have nothing to do with rumors. Orders are what we go by. And orders are Facts.
We lay a long, lingering day, off Annapolis. The air was full of doubt, and we were eager to be let loose. All this while the Maryland stuck fast on the bar. We could see them, half a mile off, making every effort to lighten her. The soldiers tramped forward and aft, danced on her decks, shot overboard a heavy baggage-truck. We saw them start the truck for the stern with a cheer. It crashed down. One end stuck in the mud. The other fell back and rested on the boat. They went at it with axes, and presently it was clear.
As the tide rose, we gave our grounded friends a lift with the hawser. No go! The Boston tugged in vain. We got near enough to see the whites of the Massachusetts eyes, and their unlucky faces and uniforms all grimy with their lodgings in the coal-dust. They could not have been blacker, if they had been breathing battle-smoke and dust all day. That experience was clear gain to them.
By and by, greatly to the delight of the impatient Seventh, the Boston was headed for shore. Never speak ill of the beast you bestraddle! Therefore requiescat Boston! may her ribs lie light on soft sand when she goes to pieces! may her engines be cut up into bracelets for the arms of the patriotic fair! good by to her, dear old, close, dirty, slow coach! She served her country well in a moment of trial. Who knows but she saved it? It was a race to see who should first get to Washington,and we and the Virginia mob, in alliance with the District mob, were perhaps nip and tuck for the goal.
Has anybody seen Annapolis? It is a picturesque old place, sleepy enough, and astonished to find itself wideawaked by a war, and obliged to take responsibility and share for good and ill in the movement of its time. The buildings of the Naval Academy stand parallel with the river Severn, with a green plateau toward the water and a lovely green lawn toward the town. All the scene was fresh and fair with April, and I fancied, as the Boston touched the wharf, that I discerned the sweet fragrance of apple-blossoms coming with the spring-time airs.
I hope that the companies of the Seventh, should the day arrive, will charge upon horrid batteries or serried ranks with as much alacrity as they marched ashore on the greensward of the Naval Academy. We disembarked, and were halted in line between the buildings and the river.
Presently, while we stood at ease, people began to arrive,some with smallish fruit to sell, some with smaller news to give. Nobody knew whether Washington was taken. Nobody knew whether Jeff Davis was now spitting in the Presidential spittoon, and scribbling his distiches with the nib of the Presidential goose-quill. We were absolutely in doubt whether a seemingly inoffensive knot of rustics, on a mound without the inclosures, might not, at tap of drum, unmask a battery of giant columbiads, and belch blazes at us, raking our line.
Nothing so entertaining happened. It was a parade, not a battle. At sunset our band played strains sweet enough to pacify all Secession, if Secession had music in its soul. Coffee, hot from the coppers of the Naval School, and biscuit were served out to us; and while we supped, we talked with our visitors, such as were allowed to approach.
Do you see that white farm-house, across the river? says a brave pigmy of a chap in navy uniform. That is head-quarters for Secession. They were going to take the School from us, Sir, and the frigate; but weve got ahead of em, now you and the Massachusetts boys have come down,and he twinkled all over with delight. We cant study any more. We are on guard all the time. Weve got howitzers, too, and wed like you to see, to-morrow, on drill, how we can handle em. One of their boats came by our sentry last night, (a sentry probably five feet high), and he blazed away, Sir. So they thought they wouldnt try us that time.
It was plain that these young souls had been well tried by the treachery about them. They, too, had felt the pang of the disloyalty of comrades. Nearly a hundred of the boys had been spoilt by the base example of their elders in the repudiating States, and had resigned.
After the middies, came anxious citizens from the town. Scared, all of them. Now that we were come and assured them that persons and property were to be protected, they ventured to speak of the disgusting tyranny to which they, American citizens, had been subjected. We came into contact here with utter social anarchy. No man, unless he was ready to risk assault, loss of property, exile, dared to act or talk like a freeman. This great wrong must be righted, think the Seventh Regiment, as one man. So we tried to reassure the Annapolitans that we meant to do our duty as the nations armed police, and mob-law was to be put down, so far as we could do it.
Here, too, voices of war met us. The country was stirred up. If the rural population did not give us a bastard imitation of Lexington and Concord, as we tried to gain Washington, all Pluguglydom would treat us à la Plugugly somewhere near the junction of the Annapolis and Baltimore and Washington Railroad. The Seventh must be ready to shoot.
At dusk we were marched up to the Academy and quartered about in the buildings,some in the fort, some in the recitation-halls. We lay down on our blankets and knapsacks. Up to this time our sleep and diet had been severely scanty.
We stayed all next day at Annapolis. The Boston brought the Massachusetts Eighth ashore that night. Poor fellows! what a figure they cut, when we found them bivouacked on the Academy grounds next morning! To begin: They had come off in hot patriotic haste, half-uniformed and half-outfitted. Finding that Baltimore had been taken by its own loafers and traitors, and that the Chesapeake ferry was impracticable, had obliged them to change line of march. They were out of grub. They were parched dry for want of water on the ferry-boat. Nobody could decipher Caucasian, much less Bunker-Hill Yankee, in their grimy visages.
But I must make a shorter story. We drilled and were reviewed that morning on the Academy parade. In the afternoon the Naval School paraded their last before they gave up their barracks to the coming soldiery. So ended the 23d of April.
Midnight, 24th. We were rattled up by an alarm,perhaps a sham one, to keep us awake and lively. In a moment, the whole regiment was in order of battle in the moonlight on the parade. It was a most brilliant spectacle, as company after company rushed forward, with rifles glittering, to take their places in the array.
They found it torn up. No doubt the scamps who did the shabby job fancied that there would be no more travel that way until strawberry-time. They fancied the Yankees would sit down on the fences and begin to whittle whiteoak toothpicks, darning the rebels, through their noses, meanwhile.
A track without a train is as useless as a gun without a man. Train and engine must be had. Uncle Sams mails and troops cannot be stopped another minute, our energetic friends conclude. So,the railroad companys people being either frightened or false,in marches Massachusetts to the station. We, the People of the United States, want rolling-stock for the use of the Union, they said, or words to that effect.
The old rattletrap was an old friend. Charles Homans had had a share in building it. The machine and the man said, How dy do? at once. Homans called for a gang of engine-builders. Of course they swarmed out of the ranks. They passed their hands over the locomotive a few times, and presently it was ready to whistle and wheeze and rumble and gallop, as if no traitor had ever tried to steal the go and the music out of it.
This had all been done during the afternoon of the 23d. During the night, the renovated engine was kept cruising up and down the track to see all clear. Guards of the Eighth were also posted to protect passage.
Our commander had, I presume, been co-operating with General Butler in this business. The Naval Academy authorities had given us every despatch and assistance, and the middies, frank, personal hospitality. The day was halcyon, the grass was green and soft, the apple-trees were just in blossom: it was a day to be remembered.
Many of us will remember it, and show the marks of it for months, as the day we had our heads cropped. By evening there was hardly one poll in the Seventh tenable by anybodys grip. Most sat in the shade and were shorn by a barber. A few were honored with a clip by the artist hand of the petit caporal of our Engineer Company.
While I rattle off these trifling details, let me not fail to call attention to the grave service done by our regiment, by its arrival, at the nick of time, at Annapolis. No clearer special Providence could have happened. The countrypeople of the traitor sort were aroused. Baltimore and its mob were but two hours away. The Constitution had been hauled out of reach of a rush by the Massachusetts men,first on the ground,but was half manned and not fully secure. And there lay the Maryland, helpless on the shoal, with six or seven hundred souls on board, so near the shore that the late Captain Rynderss gun could have sunk her from some ambush.
REVEILLE. As nobody pronounces this word à la française, as everybody calls it Revelee, why not drop it, as an affectation, and translate it the Stir your Stumps, the Peel your Eyes, the Tumble Up, or literally the Wake?
The Sixth and Second Companies, under Captain Nevers, are detached to lead the van. I see my brother Billy march off with the Sixth, into the dusk, half moonlight, half dawn, and hope that no beggar of a Secessionist will get a pat shot at him, by the roadside, without his getting a chance to let fly in return. Such little possibilities intensify the earnest detestation we feel for the treasons we come to resist and to punish. There will be some bitter work done, if we ever get to blows in this war,this needless, reckless, brutal assault upon the mildest of all governments.
Before the main body of the regiment marches, we learn that the Baltic and other transports came in last night with troops from New York and New England, enough to hold Annapolis against a square league of Plug Uglies. We do not go on without having our rear protected and our communications open. It is strange to be compelled to think of these things in peaceful America. But we really knew little more of the country before us than Cortés knew of Mexico. I have since learned from a high official, that thirteen different messengers were dispatched from Washington in the interval of anxiety while the Seventh was not forthcoming, and only one got through.
At half-past seven we take up our line of march, pass out of the charming grounds of the Academy, and move through the quiet, rusty, picturesque old town. It has a romantic dullness,Annapolis,which deserves a parting compliment.
Although we deem ourselves a fine-looking set, although our belts are blanched with pipe-clay and our rifles shine sharp in the sun, yet the townspeople stare at us in a dismal silence. They have already the air of men quelled by a despotism. None can trust his neighbor. If he dares to be loyal, he must take his life into his hands. Most would be loyal, if they dared. But the system of society which has ended in this present chaos had gradually eliminated the bravest and best men. They have gone in search of Freedom and Prosperity; and now the bullies cow the weaker brothers. There must be an end of this mean tyranny, think the Seventh, as they march through old Annapolis and see how sick the town is with doubt and alarm.
Here the scene is beautiful. The van rests upon a high embankment, with a pool surrounded by pine-trees on the right, green fields on the left. Cattle are feeding quietly about. The air sings with birds. The chestnut-leaves sparkle. Frogs whistle in the warm spring morning. The regiment groups itself along the bank and the cutting. Several Marylanders of the half-price ageunder twelvecome gaping up to see us harmless invaders. Each of these young gentry is armed with a dead spring frog, perhaps by way of tribute. And herehollo! here comes Horace Greeley in propria persona! He marches through our groups with the Greeley walk, the Greeley hat on the back of his head, the Greeley white coat on his shoulders, his trousers much too short, and an absorbed, abstracted demeanor. Can it be Horace, reporting for himself? No; this is a Maryland production, and a little disposed to be sulky.
Remember it! J. H. Nicholson is its name. Charles Holmes drives, and on either side stands a sentry with fixed bayonet. New spectacles for America! But it is grand to know that the bayonets are to protect, not to assail, Liberty and Law.
The train leads off. We follow, by the track. Presently the train returns. We pass it and trudge on in light marching order, carrying arms, blankets, haversacks, and canteens. Our knapsacks are upon the train.
Fortunate for our backs that they do not have to bear any more burden! For the day grows sultry. It is one of those breezeless baking days which brew thunder-gusts. We march for some four miles, when, coming upon the guards of the Massachusetts Eighth, our howitzer is ordered to fall out and wait for the train. With a comrade of the Artillery, I am placed on guard over it.
HENRY BONNELL is my fellow-sentry. He, like myself, is an old campaigner in such campaigns as our generation has known. So we talk California, Oregon, Indian life, the Plains, keeping our eyes peeled meanwhile, and ranging the country. Men that will tear up track are quite capable of picking off a sentry. A giant chestnut gives us little dots of shade from its pigmy leaves. The country about us is open and newly plowed. Some of the worm-fences are new, and ten rails high; but the farming is careless, and the soil thin.
Two of the Massachusetts men come back to the gun while we are standing there. One is my friend Stephen Morris, of Marblehead, Sutton Light Infantry. I had shared my breakfast yesterday with Stephe. So we refraternize.
His business is,I make shoes in winter and fishin in summer. He gives me a few facts,suspicious persons seen about the track, men on horseback in the distance. One of the Massachusetts guard last night challenged his captain. Captain replied, Officer of the night. Whereupon, says Stephe, the recruit let squizzle and jest missed his ear. He then related to me the incident of the railroad station. The first thing they knowd, says he, we bit right into the depot and took charge. I dont mind, Stephe remarked,I dont mind life, nor yit death; but whenever I see a Massachusetts boy, I stick by him, and if them Secessionists attackt us to-night, or any other time, theyll get in debt.
A hundred yards farther on is a delicious fresh spring below the bank. While the train halts, Stephe Morris rushes down to fill my canteen. This ant like Marblehead, says Stephe, panting up; but a man that can shin up them rocks can git right over this sand.
The train goes slowly on, as a rickety train should. At intervals we see the fresh spots of track just laid by our Yankee friends. Near the sixth mile, we began to overtake hot and uncomfortable squads of our fellows. The unseasonable heat of this most breathless day was too much for many of the younger men, unaccustomed to rough work, and weakened by want of sleep and irregular food in our hurried movements thus far.
An enemy that dared could have made a moderate bag of stragglers at this time. But they would not have been allowed to straggle, if any enemy had been about. By this time we were convinced that no attack was to be expected in this part of the way.
The main body of the regiment, under Major Shaler, a tall, soldierly fellow, with a mustache of the fighting color, tramped on their own pins to the watering-place, eight miles or so from Annapolis. There troops and train came to a halt, with the news that a bridge over a country road was broken a mile farther on.
It had been distinctly insisted upon, in the usual Southern style, that we were not to be allowed to pass through Maryland, and that we were to be welcomed to hospitable graves. The broken bridge was a capital spot for a skirmish. Why not look for it here?
We looked; but got nothing. The rascals could skulk about by night, tear up rails, and hide them where they might be found by a man with half an eye, or half destroy a bridge; but there was no shoot in them. They have not faith enough in their cause to risk their lives for it, even behind a tree or from one of these thickets, choice spots for ambush.
So we had no battle there, but a battle of the elements. The volcanic heat of the morning was followed by a furious storm of wind and a smart shower. The regiment wrapped themselves in their blankets and took their wetting with more or less satisfaction. They were receiving samples of all the different little miseries of a campaign.
But Good Feet are distinctly the first thing. Without them you cannot get to your duty. If a comrade, or a horse, or a locomotive, takes you on its back to the field, you are useless there. And when the field is lost, you cannot retire, run away, and save your bacon.
Good shoes and plenty of walking make good feet. A man who pretends to belong to an infantry company ought always to keep himself in training, so that any moment he can march twenty or thirty miles without feeling a pang or raising a blister. Was this the case with even a decimation of the army who rushed to defend Washington? Were you so trained, my comrades of the Seventh?
A captain of a company, who will let his men march with such shoes as I have seen on the feet of some poor fellows in this war, ought to be garroted with shoe-strings, or at least compelled to play Pope and wash the feet of the whole army of the Apostles of Liberty.
If you find a foot-soldier lying beat out by the roadside, desperate as a sea-sick man, five to one his heels are too high, or his soles too narrow or too thin, or his shoe is not made straight on the inside, so the great toe can spread into its place as he treads.
I am an old walker over Alps across the water, and over Cordilleras, Sierras, Deserts and Prairies at home; I have done my near sixty miles a day without discomfort,and speaking from large experience, and with painful recollections of the suffering and death I have known for want of good feet on the march, I say to every volunteer:Trust in God; BUT KEEP YOUR SHOES EASY!
When the frenzy of the brief tempest was over, it began to be a question, What to do about the broken bridge? The gap was narrow; but even Charles Homans could not promise to leap the J. H. Nicholson over it. Who was to be our Julius Cæsar in bridge-building? Who but Sergeant Scott, Armorer of the Regiment, with my fellows-entry of the morning, Bonnell, as First Assistant?
Scott called for a working party. There were plenty of handy fellows among our Engineers and in the Line. Tools were plenty in the Engineers chest. We pushed the platform car upon which howitzer No. I was mounted down to the gap, and began operations.
Scott and his party made a good and a quick job of it. Our friends of the Massachusetts Eighth had now come up. They lent a ready hand, as usual. The sun set brilliantly. By twilight there was a practicable bridge. The engine was dispatched back to keep the road open. The two platform cars, freighted with our howitzers, were rigged with the gun-ropes for dragging along the rail. We passed through the files of the Massachusetts men, resting by the way, and eating by the fires of the evening the suppers we had in great part provided them; and so begins our night-march.
It was full-moonlight and the night inexpressibly sweet and serene. The air was cool and vivified by the gust and shower of the afternoon. Fresh spring was in every breath. Our fellows had forgotten that this morning they were hot and disgusted. Everyone hugged his rifle as if it were the arm of the Girl of his Heart, and stepped out gayly for the promenade. Tired or foot-sore men, or even lazy ones, could mount upon the two freight-cars we were using for artillery-wagons. There were stout arms enough to tow the whole.
The scouts went ahead under First Lieutenant Farnham of the Second Company. We were at school together,I am afraid to say how many years ago. He is just the same cool, dry, shrewd fellow he was as a boy, and a most efficient officer.
It was an original kind of march. I suppose a battery of howitzers never before found itself mounted upon cars, ready to open fire at once and bang away into the offing with shrapnel or into the bushes with canister. Our line extended a half-mile along the track. It was beautiful to stand on the bank above a cutting, and watch the files strike from the shadow of a wood into a broad flame of moonlight, every rifle sparkling up alert as it came forward. A beautiful sight to see the barrels writing themselves upon the dimness, each a silver flash.
It was found without difficulty. The imbeciles who took it up probably supposed we would not wish to wet our feet by searching for it in the dewy grass of the next field. With incredible doltishness they had also left the chairs and spikes beside the track. Bonnell took hold, and in a few minutes had the rail in place and firm enough to pass the engine. Remember, we were not only hurrying on to succor Washington, but opening the only convenient and practicable route between it and the loyal States.
A little farther on, we came to a village,a rare sight in this scantily peopled region. Here Sergeant Keeler, of our company, the tallest man in the regiment, and one of the handiest, suggested that we should tear up the rails at a turn-out by the station, and so be prepared for chances. So Out crowbars! was the word. We tore up and bagged half a dozen rails, with chairs and spikes complete. Here too, some of the engineers found a keg of spikes. This was also bagged and loaded on our cars. We fought the chaps with their own weapons, since they would not meet us with ours.
These things made delay, and by and by there was a long halt, while the Colonel communicated, by orders sounded along the line, with the engine. Homanss drag was hard after us, bringing our knapsacks and traps.
After I had admired for some time the beauty of our moonlit line, and listened to the orders as they grew or died along the distance, I began to want excitement. Bonnell suggested that he and I should scout up the road and see if any rails were wanting. We traveled along into the quiet night.
We had arrived at the nick of time. Three rails were up. Two of them were easily found. The third was discovered by beating the bush thoroughly. Bonnell and I ran back for tools, and returned at full trot with crowbar and sledge on our shoulders. There were plenty of willing hands to help,too many, indeed,and with the aid of a huge Massachusetts man we soon had the rail in place.
From this time on we were constantly interrupted. Not a half-mile passed without a rail up. Bonnell was always at the front laying track, and I am proud to say that he accepted me as aide-de-camp. Other fellows, unknown to me in the dark, gave hearty help. The Seventh showed that it could do something else than drill.
At one spot, on a high embankment over standing water, the rail was gone, sunk probably. Here we tried our rails brought from the turn-out. They were too short. We supplemented with a length of plank from our stores. We rolled our cars carefully over. They passed safe. But Homans shook his head. He could not venture a locomotive on that frail stuff. So we lost the society of the J. H. Nicholson. Next day the Massachusetts commander called for someone to dive in the pool for the lost rail. Plump into the water went a little wiry chap and grappled the rail. When I come up, says the brave fellow afterwards to me, our officer out with a twenty-dollar gold-piece and wanted me to take it. That ant what I come for, says I. Take it, says he, and share with the others. That ant what they come for, says I. But I took a big cold, the diver continued, and Im condemned hoarse yit,which was the fact.
Farther on we found a whole length of track torn up, on both sides, sleepers and all, and the same thing repeated with alternations of breaks of single rails. Our howitzerropes came into play to hoist and haul. We were not going to be stopped.
But it was becoming a Noche Triste to some of our comrades. We had now marched some sixteen miles. The distance was trifling. But the men had been on their legs pretty much all day and night. Hardly anyone had had any full or substantial sleep or meal since we started from New York. They napped off, standing, leaning on their guns, dropping down in their tracks on the wet ground, at every halt. They were sleepy, but plucky. As we passed through deep cuttings, places, as it were, built for defense, there was a general desire that the tedium of the night should be relieved by a shindy.
About midnight our friends of the Eighth had joined us, and our whole little army struggled on together. I find that I have been rather understating the troubles of the march. It seems impossible that such difficulty could be encountered within twenty miles of the capital of our nation. But we were making a rush to put ourselves in that capital, and we could not proceed in the slow, systematic way of an advancing army. We must take the risk and stand the suffering, whatever it was. So the Seventh Regiment went through its bloodless Noche Triste.
At last we issued from the damp woods, two miles below the railroad junction. Here was an extensive farm. Our vanguard had halted and borrowed a few rails to make fires. These were, of course, carefully paid for at their proprietors own price. The fires were bright in the gray dawn. About them the whole regiment was now halted. The men tumbled down to catch forty winks. Some, who were hungrier for food than sleep, went off foraging among the farm-houses. They returned with appetizing legends of hot breakfast in hospitable abodes, or scanty fare given grudgingly in hostile ones. All meals, however, were paid for.
Here, as at other halts below, the country-people came up to talk to us. The traitors could easily be distinguished by their insolence disguised as obsequiousness. The loyal men were still timid, but more hopeful at last. All were very lavish with the monosyllable, Sir. It was an odd coincidence, that the vanguard, halting off at a farm in the morning, found it deserted for the moment by its tenants, and protected only by an engraved portrait of our (former) Colonel Duryea, serenely smiling over the mantel-piece.
We put our guns on their own wheels, all dropped into ranks as if on parade, and marched the last two miles to the station. We still had no certain information. Until we actually saw the train awaiting us, and the Washington companies, who had come down to escort us, drawn up, we did not know whether our Uncle Sam was still a resident of the capital.
I have scribbled my story with a thousand men stirring about me. If any of my sentences miss their aim, accuse my comrades and the bewilderment of this martial crowd. For here are four or five thousand others on the same business as ourselves, and drums are beating, guns are clanking, companies are tramping, all the while. Our friends of the Eighth Massachusetts are quartered under the dome, and cheer us whenever we pass.