Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Charles Gilson Chapter II: The Rookie

             The martial music had faded away; the patriotic parades were a memory; the job of soldiering began. The regiment was marched off to Capitol Hill’s camp Chase.  Upon arriving, Charlie was given his first of what would become a monotonous diet of army camp rations.  The men were marched to the commissary shed for the “banquet.” (1)  The rations “consisted of beef, rice, beans, bread, coffee, sugar, salt and vinegar. (2) Charlie was most likely also issued “candles and soap” which were part of the allowable ration for soldier. (3)  Once the rations had been distributed Charlie and the regiment were “issued their guns and accoutrements.” (4 )   Charlie Gilson was about to begin his formal education as a warrior. 

            The regiment marched to their assigned area of camp Chase. The officers laid out the company streets.  “Each man was issued a tent cloth, and with these strips of cloth were directed to construct shelter tents; ‘dog tents’ was the name given them.” (5)   John Billings wrote of the dog tent, “I can imagine no other reason for calling it a dog tent than this, that when one is pitched it would only accommodate a dog, and a small one at that.  (6)     Henry Welch gave a very good description of the dog tent in a letter home.  The piece of cloth was “four feet square with buttons on three sides.” (7)  If two men joined their pieces together you had an eight foot square tent that would be hung over a ridge pole.  The only problem was that both ends were open to the elements.  If you wanted to close off one end, you asked another man to be your tent mate and used his shelter half to cover one end. This made the sleeping accommodation rather cramped.  Who did Charlie join up with to make a shelter?  Did they become lifelong friends?  Did this person survive the horrors of battle?  If so, did this person leave a diary of his experiences?

            The day following their arrival at camp Chase, the men of the regiment would get a taste of their company cook’s culinary ability.  The cooks for each company “were appointed” most likely by their officers . The meal was the same for each company; “a spoonful of boiled rice, a square chunk of salted pork, and one slice of hard tack” and a cup of “dark fluid that was called coffee.” (8 )    The culinary skills of each company’s cooks decided the quality of the meal.  Private Bull’s critique of this first repast prepared by the cooks of company D was scathing. “The rice was badly burned and inedible; the hard tack…seemed like biting into a wooden shingle and had not much taste.  The pork very salty and the coffee was not made by an expert.” (9)  Henry Welch of company K had similar feelings about the food but did not go into detail about the meal.  He was so disgusted with the food that he refused to go into any detail about its quality in his letter home on October 11, 1862.  I wonder how Charlie described the food when he wrote home?    

Charlie and his comrades had their first lesson major lesson in practical soldiering with in forty- eight hours after their arrival at camp Chase.  The ground the regiment occupied was neat and level.  “The tents were new… white and attractive”; however “a hard thunderstorm” erupted and they were “washed out of house and home.” (10)  The men had forgotten to dig a trench around their tents for water drainage. I wonder if Charlie, a shoemaker by trade or his tent mate, was smart enough to “ditch” their tent?  I tend to believe that they were in the majority of the men in the regiment standing their soaked through to the skin in wool clothes and leather brogans with no change of dry clothing to be had.  I can just imagine Charlie standing out in that deluge his wet hair matted against his skull, his uniform water logged weighing twice its normal weight, his knapsack with his extra clothing laying in a puddle of mud, and his growling due to lack of decent food  yelling to no one in particular ‘I volunteered for this!’ 


            The regiment spent a week at camp Chase adapting to military life.  They would drill and do camp guard duty. Once the regiment and the men had been equipped with all their necessary accoutrements, the “orders came to strike tents” “prepar (sic) for heavy marching immeadly(sic).” (11)  (12)  The men packed what they believed to be the bare necessities.  On September 17, 1862 the regiment began its “long march” approximately eight miles into Virginia to camp near Fort Albany.  The day was extremely hot. “Every soldier was loaded down with many things then considered indispensable”, the new recruits quickly became exhausted and began “falling out by the wayside.”  It was here near Fort Albany the new regiments of the army were drilled and trained in the art of soldiering.   

Arlington Heights
            The camp was located on Arlington Heights, Virginia The men began the dull routine of drill, drill, drill. They did regimental drills of changing front and brigade drills of changing front. The brigade drills could become “tiresome” when the regiment was on the “extreme flank and had to make the long swing to get into line.” (13)  The men were becoming use to the army food and the army way of doing things. Rice Bull noted in his memoir; “A certain length of time was required to bring us to the starvation point and found it at this camp. When we had taken to army ration we had no further trouble.” (14)   It was here at Camp Arlington, that Charlie and his comrades passed through an unseen portal. They transformed from naive patriotic volunteers, eager to get into the fight immediately and whip the rebels, to soldiers accepting the army and all of its conditions.  This is not to say that they became disenchanted with the Union. On the contrary, they were still very eager to get into the fight.  Their letters home tell of their devotion to the Union cause.  They had just become accustomed to the machination of the Union Army.

While the regiment was stationed at Arlington Heights camp, President Lincoln paid a visit to a Massachusetts regiment which was heading to the front.  “Soldiers crowded around his carriage cheering calling for a speech. ” (15) The speech, unfortunately, went unreported. Rice Bull stated the President “looked thin and worn and one could see that he was troubled an anxious.” (16)  President Lincoln “impressed upon the men that it was their efforts alone that would save the country”. (17)

After his speech, President Lincoln remained to shake hand and greet the soldiers who were now part of the effort to restore the country.  Was Charlie among the crowd of soldiers gathered around President Lincoln’s carriage cheering him, calling for a speech?  Did he shake President Lincoln’s hand? Did the President talk with Charlie?  Well, we don’t know.  Charlie could have had guard duty at that time. But the chance of Charlie not being on guard duty on the same day that Lincoln visited the camp are in his favor. 

On September 29 1862 the regiment received Marching orders.  Their time at Arlington Heights camp was over.    



Source notes


1.      Bull , Rice . Soldiering The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull. San Rafael : Presidio Press , 1977.  11     (Bull 1977)


2.      Morhous, Henry. 123d Regiment, N.Y.S.V. Giving a Complete History of Its Three Years Service in The War . Greenwich, N.Y.: People's Journal Book and Job Office, 1879. November 21, 2012). 11   (Morhous 1879)


3.      John Billings , Hardtack and Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life, (Boston : George M. Smith & Co., 1888), 111   (Billings 1888) 

4.      Morhouse  p. 11

5.      Bull  p. 10

6.      Billings  p. 52

7.      Welch , Henry . Hamilton College Library , "Hamilton College Library Digital Collection ." Accessed November 21, 2012.  Oct  11, 1862

8.      Bull  p. 11

9.      Bull  p. 11

10.  Bul  p. 11

11.  Morhouse  p. 12

12.   Welch   9/16/1862

13.  Bull  p. 15

14.  Bull  p.  15

15.  Bull  p. 14

16.   Bull  p. 14

17.  Bull  p. 14


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