“He says that nine men were hung the day before he left, good citizens, and men whose only crime was loyalty to the United States Government.”–Army Life of an Illinois Soldier, Charles Wright Wills.

Cairo, May 5, 1861, Sunday, 11 a.m.

The bells are just ringing for church. I intended going, but it is such hard work getting out of camp that I concluded to postpone it. Anyway, we have service in camp this p.m. This is an awful lazy life we lead here. Lying down on our hay constitutes the principal part of the work. As our routine might be of interest to you, I will give it. At 5 a.m. the reveille is sounded by a drum and fife for each regiment. We arise, fold our blankets in our knapsacks and prepare to march. We then “fall in,” in front of our quarters for roll-call; after which we prepare our breakfast and at the “breakfast call” (taps of the drum at 7) we commence eating; and the way we do eat here would astonish you. At 9 a.m. we fall in for company drill. This lasts one hour. Dinner at 12. Squad drill from 1 to 3 and supper at 5:30. At 6 p.m. the whole regiment is called out for parade. This is merely a review by the colonel, and lasts not more than 30 minutes and often but 15. After 8 p.m. singing and loud noises are stopped; at 9:30 the tattoo is beat when all are required to be in quarters, and at three taps at 10 p.m. all lights are put out, and we leave things to the sentries. Our company of 77 men is divided into six messes for eating. Each mess elects a captain, and he is supreme, as far as cooking and eating are concerned. Our company is considered a crack one here and we have had the post of honor assigned us, the right of the regiment, near the colors. Our commanders, I think, are anticipating some work here, though they keep their own counsels very closely. They have spies out in all directions, down as far as Vicksburg. I think that Bradley’s detective police of Chicago are on duty in this vicinity. We also have two very fleet steamers on duty here to stop boats that refuse to lay to, and to keep a lookout up and down the Mississippi river. Yesterday, p.m., I noticed considerable bustle at headquarters which are in full view of our quarters, and at dark last night 20 cartridges were distributed to each man, and orders given to reload revolvers and to prepare everything for marching at a minute’s notice, and to sleep with our pistols and knives in our belts around us. That’s all we know about it though. We were not aroused except by a shot at about 2 this morning. I heard a little while ago that it was a sentinel shooting at some fellow scouting around. The Rebels have a host of spies in town but I think they are nearly all known and watched. The men confidently expect to be ordered south shortly. Nothing would suit them better. I honestly believe that there is not a man in our company that would sell his place for $100. We call the camp Fort Defiance, and after we receive a little more drilling we think we can hold it against almost any number. We have 3,300 men here to-day, but will have one more regiment to-day and expect still more.

We are pretty well supplied with news here; all the dailies are offered for sale in camp, but we are so far out of the way that the news they bring is two days old before we get them. Transcripts and Unions are sent to us by the office free. I wish you would send me the Register once and a while, and put in a literary paper or two, for we have considerable time to read. We have a barrel of ice water every day. Milk, cake and pies are peddled round camp, and I indulge in milk considerably at five cents a pint. Everything is much higher here than above. Potatoes, 50 cents; corn, 60 cents, etc. It has been raining like blue blazes since I commenced this, and the boys are scrambling around looking for dry spots on the hay and trying to avoid the young rivers coming in. Almost all are reading or writing, and I defy anyone to find 75 men without any restraint, paying more respect to the Sabbath. We have not had a sick man in camp. Several of the boys, most all of them in fact, have been a little indisposed from change of diet and water, but we have been careful and are now all right. There are 25, at least, of us writing here, all lying on our backs. I have my paper on a cartridge box on my knees.

We have been seeing and feeling the roughest side of camp life, ever since my last. Rain in double-headed torrents; lightning that will kill easily at five miles; thundering thunder; and wind from away back. But the mud dries like water on a hot brick, and six hours sun makes our parade ground fit for drill. Afternoon when the sun is out its hot enough to scorch a phoenix; yesterday we drilled from 1 to 3. I was almost crisped, and some of the boys poured a pint of grease out of each boot after we finished. Up to 10 last night when I went to sleep it was still boiling, but at five this morning, when we got up, we shivered in coat, vest and blankets. Bully climate! And then the way that the rain patters down through the roof, now on your neck; move a little and spat it goes, right into your ear, and the more you try to get away from it the more you get, until disgusted, you sit up and see a hundred chaps in the same position. A good deal of laughing, mixed with a few swears follows, and then we wrap our heads in the blankets, straighten out, “let her rip.” I never was in better health, have gained four pounds since we started, and feel stronger and more lively than I have for a coon’s age. Health generally excellent in our company, because we are all careful. There has not been a fight yet in the whole camp. A man was shot dead last night by one of the guards by accident. We have a fellow in the guardhouse whom we arrested a couple of days since as a spy. He is almost crazy with fear for his future. His wife is here and has seen him. His trial comes off this p.m. We all hope that he will be hung, for he laid forty lashes on the back of a man down south a few weeks since, who is now a volunteer in our camp. The boys would hang him in a minute but for the officers.

The news of the fuss in St. Louis has just reached us. We suppose it will send Missouri kiting out of the Union. General Prentiss has some information (don’t know what it is) that makes our officers inspect our arms often and carefully. I know that he expects a devil of a time here shortly, and preparations of all kinds are making for it.

The boys are just now having a big time over a letter in the Transcript of the 10th, signed W. K. G. Of course it is a bundle of lies. We have given nine groans and three tiger tails for the writer W. K. G. A man just from Mobile is in camp now. He landed this morning. He took off his shirt and showed a back that bore marks of 30 strokes. They laid him across a wooden bench and beat him with a paling. His back looks harder than any one I ever saw. He says that nine men were hung the day before he left, good citizens, and men whose only crime was loyalty to the United States Government. They would not volunteer under the snake flag. He reports 1,500 men at Memphis, a few at Columbus, only 50 at Mobile, and none worth mentioning at other points. A man has been here this morning from 20 miles up the river in Missouri. He wants arms for four companies of Union men that have formed there, and who are expecting an attack from the secessionists. The Union men have but 20 shotguns now. A boat came up yesterday crowded with passengers. Looked as though she might have a thousand on her. All Northerners.

One of the boys has just come in with a report that there are “to a dead certainty” 5,000 men now at Columbus (20 miles below) who have just arrived this morning. They are after Cairo. The boys are all rumor proof, though, and the above didn.t get a comment. One of the boys has just expressed my feelings by saying: “I don’t believe anything, only that Cairo is a damned mud hole.” I have not stood guard yet a minute. Have been on fatigue duty is the reason. A general order was given last night for every man to bathe at least twice a week. Most of us do it every day. The Ohio is warm enough and I swim every night now. There were over 2,000 of us in at once last night. We had a candy pulling this p.m. There was an extra gallon in to-day’s rations, and we boiled it and had a gay time. Our company is, I believe, the orderly one here. We have lots of beer sent us from Peoria, and drink a half barrel a day while it lasts. (Do those two statements tally?)


Life at Fort Defiance is also described today at Seven Score and Ten from an 1861 New York Times article.

Army Life of an Illinois Soldier, Charles Wright Wills, (8th Illinois Infantry)

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