Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

A Little Farther Toward The Front.

Picket Station No. 35, Union Lines,
Mount Pleasant, Fairfax Co., Va.,
November 3d, 1862.

Dear Free Press:

The Twelfth is making some progress. We are on “the Richmond road,” from Alexandria, Va., to the South, which is one of several roads to Richmond.

Camp Seward, the first camping ground of this brigade on the soil of the “Mother of Presidents,” from which I wrote last, was on the edge of a clean stretch of oak timber near the famous “Munson’s Hill.” A few rods in the rear ran a stream of clear, sweet water. Here was a mat of furzy grass between us and the everlasting clay; here was shade in the heat of the day—the midday sun is hot here, yet;—here was wood— wood to burn if we wished a fire; forked sticks for toasting-forks and clothes-horses and gun-racks, to be had for the cutting;—wood to whittle, when one had time to indulge in that Yankee pastime. How different from that stretch of desert on East Capitol Hill where not a sliver for a tooth pick could be had at less than $25 a thousand feet, and water only came through much tribulation and by the pailful for a company. It was a right pleasant spot, and we began at once to be comfortable. The lumber on which to raise the tents for some of the boys, had followed us, and was put at once to its proper use. Others split out flat shooks and made them answer in place of boards. Others stockaded their tents with small logs, filling the cracks with fringes of cedar. The five regiments were stretched along side by side, and the camps hummed with activity. The woods were filled with men apparently on a big pic-nic. It lasted just one day! Orders came for a grand review on the parade ground of Fort Albany, near by us, on Saturday morning. The regiments marched out to it at 10 o’clock, only to be turned back by orders for two regiments to strike tents and march at once, we knew not whither. At half past twelve the Twelfth and Thirteenth started for Alexandria, Colonel Randall commanding in the temporary absence of Colonel Blunt, and the Thirteenth leading. Our A tents we left behind us and we carried shelter tents on our knapsacks, each man his half. Colonel Randall had ridden ahead, and our gait for the first two miles was set by an inexperienced officer of the Thirteenth, who forgot that men with heavy knapsacks could not march at the pace of his fast walking roadster, without feeling it.

It was a very hot day. The men sprang to it, at a smart walk for the long legged ones and on the keen jump for the short men. We passed some squads of old troops. “Where is the fight, boys?” was the first question. ”There must be one,” they added,—”men are not marched like that unless they are wanted in a mighty hurry.” We got a rest in time to save a third of the two regiments from falling out; but the men had got blown at the outset and it made the whole march a pretty hard one. Near Alexandria we passed the camps of the paroled men and convalescents, which line the road. They came out by hundreds to see us go by, and laughed at our well stuffed knapsacks. ”’You’re green,” they said, “You’ll heave them away before you march many more marches. Then you’ll see where you missed it.” “We see where you missed it,” replied Dick Erwin, the funny man of our company, whose supply of “chaff” is inexhaustible,—”it was when you hove away that soap and towels so soon.” This hit at the unwashed appearance of the first spokesman and his crowd, brought a roar of laughter from three hundred hearers, and “the uncalled for remarks” dried up suddenly. After a halt in the outskirts of the city, we passed across Hunting Creek, and after a march of about ten miles, we were glad to halt, pitch our shelter tents in a hurry, eat the rations in our haversacks, and drop off to sleep. We discovered first, however, that we were to picket a space of six miles in the Union lines around Washington, left unguarded by the marching of Sickles’ brigade, which with many thousand other troops, left the day before to reinforce Sigel. Two companies of the Thirteenth were at once sent off on that duty.

After dinner on Sunday, Nov. 2d, we marched south on the Mt. Vernon road about a mile and a half to our present camp; and within fifteen minutes after our arrival four companies were detailed for picket duty. Company C was of the number and your correspondent found it, as it has often been said to be, the pleasantest part of soldiering. We were marched off rapidly two or three miles farther into the country to the brow of the high ground which looks off on the valley of the Potomac, stretching many a mile to the south, in a varied scene of meadow and timber, now glowing with the bright colors of the American autumn, and far away to the west to the lands on the Accotink. The line of picket stations we were to man extended three miles in each direction, reaching to the Potomac on the extreme left. Two companies were taken to the right and companies C and D waited till the officer, an aid of General Casey, who was to station us, returned. As we waited we heard the first sound of actual conflict. From the north-west came, distinct and unmistakable, the sound of cannon from the distant battlefield,[1] of which you, no doubt, have the news, though as yet we have but uncertain rumors of it. For an hour and a half the booming was incessant. It mostly died away, however, before we started out upon the line. We were hurried along just at nightfall, leaving now one, now two, now three, now a reserve of ten or fifteen men, at the posts. A dilapidated log hut, a booth of boughs or the shade of a big oak, gave shelter, and fires of brush or rails were burning at each. For twenty-four hours we were to stand guard here. My own station, where I am writing, is on the estate of Mt. Pleasant, in front of the residence of Mrs. W——, its owner. From the brow of the high, level plateau I have before me a view of unusual interest and beauty. Away below winds the Potomac through a magnificent valley, woodland and meadow varying the prospect and evergreens relieving the bright coloring of the oak forest. Directly in front lies Mt. Vernon, the house hidden by an interposing ridge; but the estate plainly in view. To the left is Fort Washington, built in 1812 and now occupied by Union forces. Mansions of once wealthy “first families” are visible between the trees, here and there. It is a magnificent view. I had four hours of watch, from11 to 3. It was a mild night, sometimes a little clouded, anon the full moon bringing out the prospect almost as by daylight. Four or five picket fires gleamed along the line; but the night was still as death. There was no sound of armies or man or beast. I can bear personal witness to the fact that all was “quiet on the Potomac.”

There is nothing exciting in this duty. We know that there are no rebel forces near us; but after all, we are at the front, doing duty with loaded arms, and no armed body is between us and the lines of the enemy. I would like to describe this old house, 150 years old, and some of the peculiar features of this scene, but the relief is now in sight to take our places, and I must march back to camp.

The health of the regiment is very good. Lieutenant William Loomis of Company C is now acting as adjutant of the Twelfth, Adjutant Vaughan being A. A. A. G.—acting assistant adjutant general—of the brigade. Two men, one in Company I, another in Company K, shot themselves accidentally with their revolvers yesterday—one through the hand, one through the ankle. Yours, B.


[1] Engagement of McClellan’s advance with confederate cavalry and infantry, at Snicker’s Gap, November 2d, 1862.


Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict, 12th Regiment Vermont Volunteers.
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