Why the Civil War Was Less Fun Than Re-Enactors Make Out

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Another alarming chapter of an 1887 book called Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac by Frank Wilkeson. Forget all those war movies. If they made them like this, nobody would believe it.

In Camp at Brandy Station

Artillery on the march during the US Civil War.

DURING the winter of 1863-64 the Army of the Potomac was camped in Virginia north of the Rapidan River. A large portion of it was at Brandy Station. The enlisted men were comfortably housed in canvas-covered log huts. There was a large fireplace in each hut, and wood was abundant and to be had for the cutting. The old oak forests of Virginia, whose owners were gathered in ranks under Lee to oppose us, suffered that winter. When the weather was fit the soldiers were drilled, and drilled, and drilled again. We were v/ell fed, having plenty of bread, fresh beef, salted pork, beans, rice, sugar, and coffee. In front of the ground on which the battery I belonged to was camped, was a large plain. On it several regiments, in heavy marching or der, were drilled every pleasant day. Instead of practising the men in the simple flank and line movements used in battle, or at targets, or in estimating distances, they were marched to and fro and made to perform displayful evolutions, which conveyed the impression to the spectators that thousands of Knights Templar were moving in competitive drill for a valuable, and, maybe, sacred prize. In the artillery service the drill was still more absurd. Teams were hitched to the guns almost daily, and they were whirled over comparatively dry ground in a highly bewildering but exceedingly useless manner. Every enlisted man in the army knew that we were to fight in a rugged, wooded country where the clearings were surrounded by heavy forests, and where deep shrub and timber-clad ravines hazed the air, and where practice and practice and still more practice in estimating distances was required, if we were to fire accurately and effectively. Did the artillery officers zealously practise us in estimating distance? Never, to my knowledge. They taught us how to change front to the right, to the rear, and on the several pieces that formed the battery, which knowledge was of as much practical use to us as if we had been assiduously drilled to walk on stilts or to play on the banjo. Never, while I was in the artillery camp, did I see the guns unlimber for target practice. The dismounted, or gun drill, was useful; but this, too, was loaded down with memory-clogging detail.

One night, one of the gunners named Jellet and I sat late by the hut fireplace after an afternoon s hard work at the guns, and I, young in years and service, humbly suggested that I thought that much of the drill we were being taught was absurd and useless, and that there was not time before the spring campaign opened
to teach the new recruits the entire light-artillery drill. Soberly, the corporal who had sighted the gun I served on through many battles, laid his hand on my shoulder and said impressively:

"My lad, you are just beginning to discover the artillery humbug. You serve in what should be the most efficient arm of the service; an arm where men and horses and guns should be wasted as water, where tons of ammunition should be expended in target practice, because if a gunner cannot hit the object he fires at he
had better not fire at all, as to miss excites the contempt of the enemy. I have served for two years in this army," he added, after an instant's pause, "and there is not a general officer in it who understands how to use artillery, not one."

Here the corporal swore roundly, and then he added, prophetically, as he solemnly nodded his head: "Wait until you get into the field and your heart will be broken." Then he went to bed leaving me by the fire, where I sat and toasted myself until I heard a guard approach ing the tent, then I turned in in full dress and
was ^sleeping soundly when the guard inquired why we had a light after taps.

How tired I got of camp, and drill, and guard duty! And how tired I got of the rain and mud! A large portion of the battery men were religious. Almost nightly these men held a prayer-meeting. Next to us, on the right, a battery manned by Irishmen was parked, and almost nightly they indulged in a fist fight. Once in a while they evinced a desire to fight with us, and at long intervals some of the un-regenerated men of our battery gratified them and got whipped. Still farther to the right a battery of the Fourth United States Artillery was parked. The men of that command were either Irish or Irish-Americans, and they were keen to gratify the desire of volunteer Irish, or any other volunteers, to indulge in personal combat. To our left a full regiment of Germans, heavy-artillery men, were camped. Between them and the regular army artillerymen a bloody feud existed. Many and many a German was savagely beaten by the Irishmen. This regiment of Germans interested me greatly. In their camp I first saw lager beer. I bought a glass of it, but finding it a weak, sloppy drink, I left the almost full glass on the counter. So strong an impression did this first drink of lager make on me, that I never see the foamy, amber-colored liquor that the sutler's tent, standing on a muddy plain, and surrounded by stout, blue-coated Germans, does not arise before me. These Germans had a vast amount of personal property. They had recently arrived from the fortifications near Washington, and had brought their accumulated wealth with them. All of the enlisted men had one knapsack, and many of them had two, and
there was a plenty of musical instruments in their camp. I used to look into my lean knapsack after a visit to the Germans, and wish it would bulge with fatness as theirs did. This regiment of Germans made more noise in their camp than two brigades of Americans would or could have done.

One day I was walking near the camp of Battery A, Fourth United States Artillery. Some of the men of that command were drunk, and among them was a line sergeant, a sturdy, blue-eyed, black-haired Scotchman. He was wildly drunk, but not staggering. He had full control of himself physically, but mentally he was a
madman. He cursed loudly, and swaggered with vehement gesticulation around the camp. I saw a door of a tent thrown open and a handsome young officer stepped out. He was neat, erect, quick-stepping, and sharp-voiced.

"Sergeant of the guard!" he called loudly.

A sergeant stepped up and saluted.

"Put a gag in Sergeant Stewart s mouth, and then tie him on a spare wheel and give it a quarter turn!" the sharp-voiced officer said loudly.

The sergeant of the guard saluted again and turned to obey. Stewart heard the order, and turned without saluting and ran at the top of his speed to a large tree that stood a few hundred yards off on the plain. When he reached the tree he nimbly swung himself up ward into its lower limbs, and speedily climbed to the top. Once there, he drew a heavy revolver and promptly opened fire on the sergeant of the guard and his detachment. He checked the pursuit. Then he howled and swore, and
amused himself by shooting at strange horsemen who happened to come within range. The quick-stepping, alert-eyed officer came to us and asked the cause of the delay in catching Stewart. On being answered, he walked toward the tree. Stewart emptied his revolver at him and missed him. He grasped the useless weapon by the barrel and waited until he got a fair chance, and then launched it at his officer, who stepped aside to avoid it. He walked under the tree.

"Sergeant Stewart, come down!" he commanded.

"To be tied on the wheel?" Stewart inquired.

"Yes; to be gagged and tied on the wheel," the officer replied.

"Then I'll not come down," the sergeant resolutely said.

The officer drew his revolver, covered Stewart with it, and said sternly:

"Come down, or I will kill you."

"I'll not come down," said Stewart. You can kill me, but you cannot tie me up." And Stewart glared savagely at the officer and whooped exultantly.

The rage of the officer was intense. He lowered his revolver and swore that he would tie him on a wheel, and that he would not gratify him by killing him.

"Go to the battery wagon and bring some axes here," he said sharply to a corporal. The axes were brought and two men began to chop the tree down. Sergeant Stewart did not fancy the prospect of riding on an oak tree as it swung
through the air and crashed on the earth. He began to parley. Would his officer kindly shoot him if he came down? No, he would not. Would he not order his head to be cut off? No, he would not. Stewart descended limb by limb, and at every limb he tried to have the disgraceful sentence mitigated to death. His officer was obdurate. He was resolute in his intention to gag him and tie him on a wheel. Stewart finally sat on a lower limb. Any of the men could have taken him by the legs and pulled him down. He wanted that done. That would have been capture, not surrender. He was not gratified. He had to climb down. Then he was marched to a spare wheel and strapped on it, previously having a heavy gag thrust crossways into his mouth and bound firmly in its position. I was amazed that Stewart had not been shot. I talked to the men and they told me that he was the best sergeant in the battery, a marvellous shot with a Napoleon gun and that his getting drunk was an accident.

"Oh," exclaimed a gray-haired private who had three service stripes on his coat sleeve, "he will be court-martialled and get three years at the Dry Tortugas. Before the sentence is re ceived here, the battery will be in the field and Stewart at his gun. The officers will not publish the order, but will hold it over him. If he again gets drunk or becomes insubordinate, then he will catch it."

When I left the camp of the regulars Stewart was hanging on the wheel and the men were drilling at the guns, and no one was paying a particle of attention to Stewart s inarticulate cries and acute suffering. Here I will say that the prediction made by the private whose coat sleeves were covered with service stripes came true. After I was promoted into the regular army I served with Battery A, Fourth Artillery, and Sergeant Stewart was then a line sergeant. He got drunk and attacked an officer with a tent pole, and the old sentence of the court which tried him at Brandy Station was put into execution. He was sent to the Dry Tortugas for three years.

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