Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Glory Fades to Mundane Monotony

“none of us know whare (sic) we are going goodbye all” (Welch letter Sept 16 1863)

The orders were received each man could take “an overcoat or blanket, one piece of tent, haversack, canteen, gun, and forty rounds of cartridges." (1) As the sun was setting, the regiment formed up and marched out of camp. Breaking camp quickly, light marching order all signs the men would be going into battle shortly. Charlie must have been excited along with the rest of the regiment. They were finally going out to best the Rebs. This is what they had signed up for to put down the rebellion and restore the Union.  

The excitement of going into battle died a quick death.  “At about sundown the Regiment marched down to the Potomac, crossed the Long Bridge.”(2) The regiment’s destination was the train depot in the city of Washington D.C. As Charlie was marching with his company, in regimental formation, across the Long Bridge for the second time in a month, he had no idea that the next time he would march across that bridge would be three years later as part the “Grand Review of Sherman’s Army.” (3)

Charlie and his comrades had been in the army less than a month. Notwithstanding their limited time in the service, Charlie and the rest of the men of the regiment were quick studies in the ways of soldiering. The train that was supposed to be waiting to take the Regiment to its new encampment was not ready; as a result, the men took advantage of the hurry up and wait aspect of army life.   Unlike nine days earlier, when “a whole company rushed the guard and went into the city.”(4) The men of the 123rdnow knew how far they could bend the rules. In this case, with the train not yet ready, no camp to place the men in; the officers had only one option. The orders were given to fall out, stay near the area and don’t get into trouble. Young men being young men, an as soldiers have done for time immemorial when left to their own devices, they either sleep or go in search of some form of amusement.

The call of fun and adventure was too much for some men in the regiment. At 24 years old, married with one child, prudence was probably guiding Charlie. On the other hand, a more boisterous lot of men could not resist the siren’s songs of a local entertaining establishment. “Some of”the men “went into a store where the music of a violin was heard, and a lively time they had dancing for a few moments, when crash went the floor, falling a distance of three or four feet to the ground.”(5) Undeterred, unharmed, and untangling themselves from each other “the boys crawled out”dusted themselves off “and found fun elsewhere.” (6)

So what did Charlie do? Looking at the circumstances, Charlie’s age and background, he could have been one of the men who rolled themselves up in their blankets and tried to get some sleep or he could have gone off to see the sites of Washington D.C. However, there is this small streak of mischievousness that runs through our family. I don’t know if it is the Beal side or the Gilson side of our genetic pool in which this quaint eccentricity resides; although judging from past history, I have a feeling it is on the Beal side. If Charlie was one of the revelers, he probably thought, after the fact of course, ‘this was not one of my more intelligent decisions.’ At which point, he quickly made his way back to his company area. By “seven the next morning,” the train was ready. (7) The men were formed into companies and “marched to the train station.” (8)

 In his diary Rice Bull stated that, they boarded flat cars and traveled slowly while Morhous stated they boarded “large freight cars and from thirty to forty soldiers were placed in each.” (9 ) If they were flat cars- which I tend to believe due to the fact that Bull was writing at the time while Morhous was writing about it thirty years later- the scenery during the trip must have been amazing. Traveling at thirty miles an hours through the hills of Maryland following the Patapsco stream with an unobstructed view from a flat car Charlie was looking at an idyllic scene.

Patapsco stream
The only problem was that Charlie was “crowded … on the flat car with no seats” along with 40 other men. (10) Standing while riding on a train is an exercise in agility and balance. Men bouncing off of each other, grasping a nine pound rifle that was almost 5 feet tall, carrying a haversack, cartridge box, an a canteen, trying to balance their weight to go with the rocking rhythm of the train was fatiguing. Even though, the scenery was beautiful; riding like that all day long became exhausting. To add to the weariness of their journey “there were many trains on the road and”… the train “spent much time on sidings.” (11)

The men had not had any food since Arlington Heights. “There had been no way to prepare meals” the men had to eat the hardtack in their haversacks with no means of softening it. 12 (Bull 16) They were unable to get off the train during the frequent stops on the sidings to make cooking fires. Hungry and tried, the train, making its final leg of the journey, headed down the slope of Mount Airy towards the Monocacy river.

“Just as night came,” the train “reached Fredrick, Maryland,”(Fredrick City) where it was stopped “before entering the town.” (12) The men, exhausted from the journey, climbed down from the rail cars and formed up in their respective companies. The company cooks went to work boiling coffee for the men. It had been a long journey the men were worn-out and hungry. The orders where given to fallout, the men unhooked their tin cups and wearily lined up to have coffee ladled into their cups. Finding a piece of soft ground the men spread out their blankets, drank their coffee, ate the rest of their hardtack, and then fell asleep. “It had been a hard day… crowded as we were on the flat cars with no seats” (13)

As of yet, the regiment had not been assigned to a division. The 123rd was still a detached regiment waiting to find a home. For the next two days the regiment encamped about two miles from Fredrick City. On October 4, orders were received to move out. By now Charlie and the rest of the men were becoming use to the hurry up and wait aspect of army life. Charlie packed up his meager possession, blanket, shelter half, buckled the plate of his cartridge belt, adjusted the cartridge box and the percussion cap box to make sure everything fitted properly and comfortable, and checked his canteen to make sure it was full of water. The orders were given to fall in roll was called and the regiment marched back to the train depot. The regiment was heading to Sandy Hook Maryland “about one mile from Harper’s Ferry.” (14)

The train “stopped at Point of Rocks which is an abrupt cliff extending a mile or more. Some of the rocks overhang the tracks.” (15) After a two hour wait, Charlie and his comrades “marched north about two miles and pitched camp in Pleasant Valley. Maryland Heights.” (16) This was to be the regiment’s new home for the next month.
Piont Of Rocks Maryland

The location of the regiment’s new home was nestled between“Maryland Heights is on one side of the Shenandoah River and Bolivar Heights and Loudoun Heights are on the other side of the Potomac. Bolivar Heights and Loudoun Heights are in Virginia.” (17) Even though the regiment was camped in an idyllic setting, the monotony of camp life quickly took hold. For the next month the regiment drilled nine hours a day and preformed picket duty by company. The only day Charlie and the regiment did not have to drill was on Sunday. On Sundays, the Army held inspection. Robert Cruikshank wrote to his wife, “every Sabbath morning… every man’s person clothing, tent, gun and accoutrements must be looked to and kept clean. This is necessary for the health of the men and to keep everybody in order.” (18)

Pleasant Valley, Mayland

A typical day for Charlie began with the “Assembly ” call. (19) The men were awakened from their dreams of home and decent food by the drummers throughout the camp rapping out the now familiar staccato beat. This was the signal for the men to get up and get ready for assembly call which signaled Reveille at 5:30 Am. The sergeants and corporals of the company would be moving through the company streets yelling “Turn out – all up” and I’m sure other more earthy sayings to induce the men to get up and begin the day. (20) Inevitably, one or more of the men would respond before the last drum roll was played with the command “put the” drummer “in the guard-house.” (21) However, Charlie did not have time to roll over and grab an extra few minutes of sleep. He had to wash up, answer the call of nature and be dressed in fifteen minutes when the Assembly Call was sounded.

The Dog tents being “four feet square” allowed only one man at a time to back out on his hands and knees. (22) Waking up cold, stiff, sore, and damp from the “cold nights” Charlie now had to get ready for assembly. (23) Since the men’s “knapsacks were left at Washington with nearly all” their “clothing”, Charlie had very little dressing to do. (24) Charlie’s morning washing consisted of his tent mate pouring water from his canteen into Charlie’s cupped hands so he could wash his face, hands and arms. Once Charlie was done he returned the favor for his tent mate.

When the Assembly call was sounded, the men made their way to formation while pulling on their blouses, pulling up pants and adjusting their suspenders or jamming their feet into the one size fits all brogans.

The men from each company would fall into formation each man fining his correct place in the rank and file. First Sergeant George Robinson then ordered the men to dress ranks were by each man, except the man on the far right of the line, would hold out his left arm at shoulder height and the man next to him would distance himself accordingly. Robinson would then order the men to Parade Rest. “While at Parade Rest the” drum beat “Reveille.” (25) As the last note of reveille was sounded, 1st Sergeant Robinson roared “Pay Attention to Roll-call.” (26)

The Company had four sergeant, Harrison, Norton, Cramer and Safford, each sergeant was responsible for Twenty-Five25 men. ( 27) The Sergeants would call out the names of the men in their platoon. Allen, Albert; Allen, Joshua; Baker; Bartlett; Beaumus, Oscar; Beaumus John; Bentley, Booter. After each name, the response of; HERE, YO or PRESENT was announced loud and clear less the respondent be marked absent without permission. At the name ‘Gilson’, a “five foot, four inches tall, black haired, blue eyed,” and if hereditary genes are to be believed, still half asleep, Charlie Gilson quickly snapped awake with the response; ‘HERE!’(28)

Once Roll Call was taken, the men heard the drum for Sick Call. After Sick Cal, the drum beat out Breakfast call. The food or rations as it was called in the army was not of the same quality of home cooking. In fact, Robert Cruikshank wrote home to his wife stating “Our rations are bad, the crackers are wormy- the same kind of worms as we find in decayed wood…. We find worms in our bacon and our salt beef has soured in the brine.” (29)

By now Charlie was an “experienced soldier” in the ways camp life. The first thing he would have done with his wormy hardtack was to break it up and boil it in his coffee pot. This was a quart or pint bucket with a piece of bailing wire attached so the bucket could be hung over a fire. Once the coffee came to a boil, Charlie would have taken his spoon and “easily skimmed off “ drowned worms or weevils leaving“no distinctive flavor behind” in his coffee.” (30) Spooning the now soft and eatable army cracker onto his plate he could sit back an enjoy a quality breakfast complements of The United States Government.

The next drum call Charlie would respond to was Fatigue call. The Corporals would take their squad of men and police the company streets as well as the officer’s area and tents. Once the camp was in order, the next call was for Drill. The individual companies would drill in squad and platoon formation in the morning. These drills consisted of marching in column, line abreast, oblique right, oblique left and gun drill.

“At twelve o’clock the dinner call was sounded.” (31) Charlie and his mess mates would then have another delicious meal provided to them by The United States Government. No extra charge for the wormy crackers or the rancid meat. After dinner, the men were sent out to drill for the afternoon this time it was in regimental formation.

“At about 5:45 P.M., Attention was blown, soon to be followed by the Assembly, when the men had to fall in for Retreat Roll-call … This roll call was Dress Parade. “Uniformity of dress was required” the men could not be half dressed or unkempt as was sometimes the case at Reveille. (32)

This dress parade, at the end of the day, had a specific purpose beyond roll call. It was at Dress Parade that every soldier in the Union army was introduced to always quoted but never seen E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General. Once the roll call was completed, Charlie and his comrades had to remain at attention while general and special orders of the Union Army were read aloud. On November 10, 1864 everyman in the Army of the Potomac heard the following while standing at attention during dress parade.

“Special Orders, No.337; War Department, Adj. Gen.’s Office, Washington, November 10, 1862.

VII. By directions of the President, Maj. Gen. J. Hooker, U.S. Volunteers, is assigned to the command of the Fifth Army Corps, in place of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, U.S. Volunteers, who will immediately report in person to the Adjutant-General of the Army, in the city.

By order of the Secretary of War:

E.D. Townsend , Assistant Adjutant-General.” (33)

On that day, the record shows that Charlie and the rest of the Army of the Potomac listened to at least two special orders from the Secretary of war and one from General Burnside, Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac.

Once the orders had been read, the men of the Army of the Potomac were informed of the findings of courts martial. This entailed the reading of charges and specification against a named individual. The charges were derived from the 101 rules that congress enacted in 1806. The rules were called The Articles of War. This was the quickest way to re-enforce The Articles of War which had been read to every officer, non-commissioned officer and soldier upon enlistment.

The Articles of Warcovered everything from silent insolence to murder. Courts Martial Boards were convened not to dispense justice but to enforce a ridged caste system of discipline. The following three articles, which deal with insubordination, cowardice in the face of the enemy, desertion and article 99 the catch all article, are an example of the Army and Navy’s draconian system of discipline

Art. 9. Any officer or soldier who shall strike his superior officer, or draw or lift up any weapon, or offer any violence against him, being in the execution of his office, on any pretense whatsoever, or shall disobey any lawful command of his superior officer, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall, according to the nature of his offense, be inflicted upon him by the sentence of a court-martial.

Art. 52. Any officer or soldier who shall misbehave himself before the enemy, run away, or shamefully abandon any fort, post, or guard which he or they may be commanded to defend, or speak words inducing others to do the like, or shall cast away his arms or ammunition, or who shall quit his post or colors to plunder and pillage, every such offended, being duly convicted thereof, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court martial.

Art. 99. All crimes not capital, and all disorders and neglects which officers and soldiers may be guilty of, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, though not mentioned in the foregoing articles of war, are to be taken cognizance of by the general or regimental courts-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and be punished at their discretion. (34)

A Captain or Lieutenant from the regiment would begin by reading aloud the Charges and Specification. ‘Private John Doe, 19th New York Volunteer Infantry Army of the United States.

Charge 1st Violation of the 99thArticle of War.

Specification 1st In this, that the said private John Doe of the 19th New York Volunteers Infantry, Army of the United States, having received a lawful order… ‘

The officer would then give the specific details of the violation. This would continue until all the charges and specifications were read out loud and then the finding of the courts martial was announced to the men. On one such occasion, the finding of the courts martial was death by firing squad and Charlie and his comrades were ordered to witness the event.

After the General Orders, Special Orders and Courts Martial findings were read the men where subject to a lecture by the “Officer of the Day” or in some case by “the Orderly Sergeant” also known as the First Sergeant. (35) The theme of these lectures concerned the men’s attitude to adapting to the rigors of army life.

In his book Hard Tack and Coffee John Billings describes the various lectures Charlie would have heard.

“…the text was the general delinquency of the men in getting into line; sometimes it was a rebuke for being lax in phases of discipline; the men were not sufficiently respectful to superior officers, did not pay the requisite attention to saluting, had too much back talk, were too boisterous in camp, to untidy in line. These and twenty other allied topic, all having a bearing on the characteristics essential in the make- up of a good soldier, were preached upon.” (36)

These lectures were considered a waste of time by the men. However, when the officer of the day gave the lecture, the men gave their full attention, but when the orderly sergeant gave the lecture, “unless protected by the presence of a pair of shoulder straps”-officer’s insignia was embroidered shoulder straps- the sergeant “was quite likely to be coughed or groaned down, or in some other way discouraged from repeating the effort.” (37)

Once the regiment had been dismissed, the men were left to their own devices until 8:30 P.M. when assembly was beaten out on the drums. It was during this time that Charlie would have been busy cleaning his equipment, writing letters to his wife Delia relating his experiences in the army or just relaxing with his buddies.

Who were Charlie’s closest friends at this time? Most assuredly one of them was his tent mate. What did they talk about? What did he do to occupy his time? Was he one of the men who played cards and engaged in revelry, or was he a more temperate soldier who read his bible and abstained from merriment? Well, if we consider the fact that Charlie left his home in Upstate New York, to seek his fortune in Natick, Massachusetts, as a shoemaker, that in an of itself strongly suggests that he was a person who was not afraid of doing some things slightly outside the norm. He most likely was engaged in the more interesting aspects of camp life such as playing cards, signing, horseplay and having an occasional drink. He might have been a temperance man who read his bible every night. However, judging from the events in the family history, he probably was not sitting in his tent pouring over scripture.

Charlie’s day came to an end when Assembly was sounded on the drums. The men would fall out from whatever they were doing and get into formation for the day’s final roll call. The men were counted and dismissed. The men had thirty minutes to prepare for bed. When taps was sounded, all lights were extinguished all noise must cease (in the enlisted men’s area only) and the men were in their tents sleeping or trying to fall asleep while thinking about home and love ones.

Charlie got down on all fours and crawled into his dog tent, the last sounds of the drums beating out, the far off fading notes of taps playing out, he laid down to sleep, the glory of war slowly fading into the reality of monotony; the sheer terror of battle yet to be experienced. He mentally crossed off one more day of his 3 year enlistment and blew out the dim flame of his government issued candle.

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

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

The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1891);idno=waro0028; (O.R.)

Cruikshank, Robert, Civil war letters to his wife;

Welch , Henry . Hamilton College Library , "Hamilton College Library Digital Collection . 11, 1862

Sons of Union Veterans Civil War; (SUVCW)

National Archives and Records Administration:
Gilson, Charles; Compiled Military service Records; (CMSR)


  1. Cruikshank Oct 3, 1863; Morhous, p.13
  2. Morhous, p. 13
  3. Bull, p. 16
  4. Cruikshank Sept. 21, 1862
  5. Morhous, p. 13
  6. Morhous, p. 13
  7. Bull, p. 16
  8. Bull, p. 16
  9. Morhous, p. 13
  10. Bull, p. 16
  11. Bull, p. 16
  12. Bull, p. 16
  13. Bull, p. 16
  14. Morhous, p. 14
  15. Curikshank letter October 9, 1862
  16. Morhous, p. 14
  17. Cruikshank October 9, 1862
  18. Cruikshank Letter no date, 1862
  19. Billings, p.165
  20. Billings, p. 165
  21. Billings, p. 165
  22. Welch Letter Oct. 11, 1862
  23. Cruikshank letter Oct. 12, 1862
  24. Cruikshank letter Oct. 11, 1862
  25. Billings, p. 169
  26. Billings, p. 169
  27. Jones, p. 325-326 company A roster
  28. Gilson, CMSR
  29. Cruikshank letter, Oct. 27, 1862
  30. Billings, p. 116
  31. Billings, p.186
  32. Billings, p.187
  33. O.R Series 1, Vol. 19, Part II, p. 569
  34. SUVCW
  35. Billings, p. 188-189
  36. Billings 189


  1. This is a valuable story, for your family, for our country's history. Though fiction, Lee Geiger's narrative style in Dr. Wasserman's Time Chamber captures the slowness of the civil war period. Worth a read.

    Great work, Bill.

  2. Hey! I am not mischevious at all Uncle Bill!