Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

 

Camp Vermont—First Snow Storm.

Camp Vermont.
Fairfax County, Va., Nov. 7, 1862.

Dear Free Press:

The camp of the Second Vermont Brigade, in this place, south of Alexandria on the Mt. Vernon road, has been christened “Vermont.” And to-day it looks more like Vermont than Virginia is wont to at this time of the year. We are enjoying a veritable snow storm. It began at 7 o’clock this morning, has fallen steadily, and now at 7 P. M., at least five inches of snow lies upon the ground. Several gentlemen who spent last winter in Camp Griffin, Va., assure me that there was no such fall of snow in this region in all last winter.

The air is chill, and it will freeze sharply to-night. It is a sufficiently notable thing to be announced by telegraph, and much sympathy and concern may be expended by our Vermont friends as they read of half a foot of snow in Washington, and think of their soldier sons and brothers as shivering under canvas or standing on picket in the storm. But there is little suffering in this regiment. Not that a small tent—our tents followed us hither from Camp Seward— soaked with moisture from damp snow, is the most warm and cheerful habitation imaginable; but it can be closed tight enough to keep the snow from actual contact with its inmates, and by piling on what woolen clothing he has, in all shapes, a healthy man can keep up the warmth of his body, and by snuggling close to his comrades can sleep with some approach to comfort.

But our Vermont boys are not restricted in all cases to the means and appliances for comfort furnished them by Uncle Sam, and are, I find, apt to be equal to most emergencies. They are to this, at any rate. A couple of our old soldiers, formerly of the First regiment, set us the pattern of a tent stove, two or three days since. A piece of sheet iron, a foot or two square, bent as to the edges so as to form a shallow pan, was inverted over a hole in the ground of corresponding size; a tube of bent sheet iron, leading from the outer air to the bottom of the hole provides air, and a joint or two of rusty stovepipe, eked out with one or two topless and bottomless tin cans, makes a chimney which draws like a blister plaster. It don’t look much like a stove; I can’t say exactly what it does look like—as near as anything, perhaps, like the very young offspring of a cross between the Monitor and a Dutch oven; but it answers the purpose. Its chimney, smoking furiously this morning amid the flying snow flakes, gave the hint to our boys, and half of Company C were off at once for material wherewith to build similar nondescripts. They rummaged a deserted camp near us, and came back loaded with pieces of old stove pipe and scraps of cast and sheet iron, which were quickly put together; and as I looked up our company street an hour ago, I saw the rusty pipes sticking out of the ground by the side of more than half the tents, the curling smoke from each telling of warmth and comparative comfort within.

There were some, however—the tenthold of which your humble correspondent is a member among them—who were not lucky enough to find the needful supply of old sheet iron. So we took our dinner of boiled pork, bread and coffee, in our damp tent, ate it in sour and meditative silence, and held a council of war at its close. Something had to be done; our toes and fingers and noses were cold; our straw and blankets were damp. We must have a fire; how to get it was something of a question. Our sole supply of metal was in our dinner furniture before us. The problem was,—given a table knife and fork, a tin cup and a tin plate, to extemporize therewith a stove, pipe and chimney. But we set to work, and Mr. Ericsson himself could not have done more with the same material. With the knife and cup we excavated a hole in the firm and adhesive clay which forms the floor of our tent; at the top the hole was a little less in circumference than our tin plate; its bottom, a foot or more below the surface, was somewhat larger. A hole was then dug outside the tent, sloping inward till it nearly met our excavation inside, and the bottoms of the two were connected by a passage two inches in diameter, worked through with the knife. From the top of our circular cavity within, a trench was made extending outside the tent, and covered by a brickbat, which turned up opportunely when most needed. The tin plate was placed over the hole, and the thing was done. You perceive the nature of the invention. This planet on which we dwell forms the body of our stove. The tin plate is both door and top of the same. The small hole at the bottom is the draught; the trench at the top is the flue. We fill it with hard wood chips, light a fire, and it works quite as well as could be expected.

The heating surface was pretty small, it is true; but we kept the old plate red hot by assiduous feeding. In an hour or two the ground around began to be sensibly warmed. A dry spot developed itself, as soon as the snow stopped falling, in the canvas of our tent over the stove, and extended slowly along the side. The temperature rose sensibly within;—and when by a fortunate stroke of policy we were enabled to substitute a sheet iron mess pan for our dinner plate, thus quadrupling our heating surface, we had all the heat we needed. We can no longer see our breath within our linen house. We laid our bread on the top of our stove and had hot toast with our tea for supper; and the prospects are that we shall sleep warm and dry to-night.

.

November 8th, 1862.

So we did, though the night was a very sharp one. Our snow stands the sunshine well to-day and will not be wholly gone, I think, before to-morrow.

Nearly half the regiment is off on “fatigue duty” to-day. This, it seems, is the military term for the process which is said to be McClellan’s forte. In common English it is called digging. The defensive strength of Fort Lyon, half a mile to the north of our camp, is being increased by some formidable outworks, and fifteen hundred men from our brigade are to enjoy daily for a while the privilege of digging the trenches and throwing up the breastworks.

Orders are out, moreover, for us to build log huts for winter quarters. This looks like wintering us here, though it is quite within the range of possibility, that we shall build and leave for others to occupy. There are other indications, however, which point toward a somewhat protracted stay here. If so, Camp Vermont is worth a line or two of description. The Twelfth is encamped on a sloping hillside, by a stream of good water, and in close proximity to the family mansion of the manor of “Spring Bank.” Of this Mr. George Mason is the proprietor—an old gentleman who in this great contest between the Government and rebellion, announces himself as neutral. In token of his position he had a white flag hung out, when our regiment, without saying by your leave, marched into his grounds. A written notice, attached to a tree, informed all whom it might concern, that Mr. George Mason could accommodate no person outside of his own family in his house, and had stuck this up to save applicants the pain of a peremptory refusal. Nevertheless, I preceive that Col. Blunt has his headquarters in a wing of the mansion, and the barns are filled with the horses of the regiment. One of the old darkies of the establishment hit it about right, as one of his brother contrabands expressed astonishment at the summary exclusion of his master’s cows from their wonted stalls for the accommodation of Yankee horses: “Ole Massa might a’been nuff of a Union man to hang out de stars and stripes, den he got sarved better.”

Around us, within a circuit of a quarter of a mile, are the other regiments of our brigade. There are woods close by to furnish timber and fuel, and though it is not as sheltered and pleasant a place as our last encampment, we can make ourselves comfortable here, beyond a doubt.

The Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth regiments are to have their old French and Belgian muskets exchanged for Enfield rifles in a day or two, and will then do their share of picket duty. Some of your anxious readers may have supposed, possibly, from the fact that we are doing such duty, that we are in the face of the enemy, or somewhere near it. Such is by no means the case. It is true that, with the exception of some cavalry videttes, there are no armed bodies between us and the enemy on the direct line south; but the rebel lines are twenty or thirty miles to the south and west of us, and are likely to be farther off rather than nearer. Our only danger at their hands is from a raid, and to that we should be liable, it seems, as far north as Chambersburg, Pa., and how much farther General Stuart, C. S. A., only knows. We do not intend, however, to let that active gentleman through, about here. Our pickets have thus far brought into camp three prisoners. One was a horridly dirty and animated, externally, specimen of humanity, who turned out to be an estray from the convalescent camp at Alexandria, who had wandered beyond our lines, perhaps with the intention of deserting. The others profess to be deserters from the rebels, and have been taken for safe keeping to Fairfax Seminary. Colonel Blunt continues in command of this brigade. Colonel E. H. Stoughton, we hear, is to be assigned to the command of a brigade in General Brooks’s division of the Army of the Potomac— a high honor for a young man of twenty-two. Yours, B.


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