Gone For A Soldier

Chapter 6

In the morning I asked the depot clerk where to go to volunteer. He directed me to Lafayette Square, where a new regiment was just forming. There I reported to an officer who looked at me for a moment and asked my age. Thinking of the papers inside my boots I replied, “I’m over 18.”

“Yah? When’s yer birthday.”

“March 15, 1844, sir.”

“I bet. Well, it’s yer funeral.” He called over a private and told him to get me outfitted and into a tent. The private saluted, and waved for me to follow him. He was perhaps two years older and several inches taller than me. He had bright orange, unruly hair which flew about whenever he moved his head. When we were out of earshot he said, “I’m William Riley, but ya can call me Billy. We’ll squeeze ya into our squad tent. Now,” he continued, “the first thing ya need t’ know about bein’ in the army is that the officer’s always right, even when he’s wrong. Never talk back, and always answer with a ‘sir’ and a salute. Got that?”


“An’ it’s never ‘yeah;’ it’s always ‘yes’.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, trying to salute.

He laughed, and his laugh immediately won me over. “Ya needn’t ‘sir’ me. I’m just a lowly private, like you. We’re the lowest of the low in the army.” Then he asked about my rifle and I again had to explain how I had gotten it.

Arriving at what looked like a store which Billy called a Supply Depot we went in and told the man behind the desk that I was a new volunteer. I was issued a uniform and boots, a haversack (I now had two), a ground cloth, a blanket, and some cooking utensils. I changed into the uniform right there. It was a poor fit. The jacket was a bit too small and the trouser were way too long. When I said something about that, everybody in the place laughed, and Billy said, “That’s just the way it is. Ya can shorten the pants and once yer on army rations and drilling all day you’ll find ya fit the jacket.” I tried the boots, which were too small, so I decided to wear my own. I would have preferred, of course, to go barefoot, but that wasn’t allowed.

From there Billy helped me tote my gear and led me to a field of tents. They were white-canvas, conical affairs which he told me were called Sibleys. Inside there were ground cloths and blankets laid out with seemingly no room for one more, but Billy moved some a bit and carved out a space for me next to him.

In the supply depot I had seen several soldiers gazing at Billy, and I could see why. He was strongly built and near to beautiful. I wondered for a time if sleeping next to such an attractive boy would be a complication. But in the end it wasn’t. Josiah was the only boy I ever wanted or needed.

Leaving my new and old belongings there, including my Springfield, for I was not allowed to carry it except when we were “under arms,” we walked out to the parade ground, where troops were drilling.

“What’re they doin’?” I asked.

Billy explained that they were practicing all the drills they would need to know when they were marching, either in parade or in battle. “There’s over ninety different commands you’ll have t’ learn,” he said, and he began explaining what the different commands were.

When there was a pause in the drilling, Billy took me over and introduced me to Sergeant Sweeney. The sergeant merely looked me over and grunted, telling Billy to get me into formation, which he did, again next to him.

The next hour was pure hell. I didn’t understand any of the commands and was constantly turning the wrong way and bumping into other soldiers. I could see them laughing to themselves, but at the same time they snarled at me as though somebody expected them to.

In the afternoon we drilled more. And then more. And then more. It seemed endless. By the time we broke for supper I was exhausted. We returned to our tent to get our tin bowls and cups and then Billy led me to the mess tent. The food was very plain, not at all what I was used to. At first I didn’t eat much even though I was hungry. “Better eat it all,” encouraged Billy, “’cause that’s all you’ll git.” So I followed his advice. At least they had coffee.

After supper the soldiers amused themselves, some playing cards, some drinking what they called “Old Red Eye” or “Mother,” although alcohol was technically forbidden, some writing letters, some just jawing. I pulled out my pipe and smoked while I wrote a letter to Ma and Pa and one to Josiah. I didn’t tell them how homesick I was or how bad the food was or how I was already tired of drilling. I just said I’d arrived safely and a private named Billy was showing me how to survive in camp.

That night, as I lay under my blanket and tried to sleep, visions of the farm and of Josiah kept me awake. I was used to sleeping alone or with Josiah in a comfortable bed. Now I was lying on the ground with nearly twenty others, many of whom, including Billy, were snoring loudly all around me.

I spent a restless night, and was still weary when a bugle sounded at an ungodly hour, just as the first light of morning dawned. Amid the groans and stretching of my tent mates, I arose, put on my uniform, and followed Billy, first to the latrines, where there was a long wait, and then to the mess tent. I had thought that our outhouse smelled bad, but the latrines were disgusting.

Following breakfast it was time again for drill. This time, when we arrived at the parade ground, Sergeant Sweeney called me out of formation and asked if I was “Just stupid or deef.”

“Neither, sir,” I responded.

“When ya address me don’t ever call me ‘sir’. I work for my livin’!”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Now tell me why ya couldn’t follow the orders yesterday, since yer neither stupid nor deef,” he commanded sarcastically.

“Well. They’re all new to me. But I think I can learn them quickly, s…Mr. Sweeney.”

“You’d better. I’ll be watchin’. Now fall inta formation.”

Partway through the drill, when I turned the wrong way, the Sergeant stopped the drill and called me out of formation again.

“Don’t you know yer right from yer left, soldier?”

“Yes…Mr. Sweeney, but I got confused.”

“Down on the ground and show me fifty pushups.”

“I dunno what those are, sir.”

He called a private over to demonstrate, and I did my fifty. Having grown up on a farm, I was pretty strong, and the pushups were really not that difficult. But in the course of the morning, I had to do them three more times and after that the sergeant demanded seventy each time. By lunch time my shoulders were hurting, my pride was wounded, and I was furious.

“It’s just part of bein’ in the army,” Billy said, trying to console me. Many of the others gave me a word or two of encouragement, but I was nearly weeping. And the afternoon was no better. By supper I hated Sweeney and would gladly have fought with him, but I knew that would only get me into trouble. Why he hated me, I had no idea, but I thought it was clear that he did.

I had always thought that being in the army meant lots of fighting and shooting and excitement. It turned out to be boring hours of drilling, following orders, sleeping in a tent with many others, and eating poor food. Later, when we were on the march and had little food, I would look back at my time in the mess tent with longing.

The drilling consisted of learning how to march in different formations, how to alter direction on command, and how to load and fire a musket in a way that didn’t endanger the other soldiers in the unit, especially the ones in front of you. The loading and firing drill was easy for me as I had been shooting a rifled musket since I was four, but during the drills we never loaded with powder and we never fired a shot. We had to be able to respond to any command at a moment’s notice. It was tedious work, and as the weeks passed and it grew hotter, it became even worse.

A week or two after I had volunteered we acquired a new drummer boy named Tony, who, I thought, was perhaps 14 at the most. He looked too small to carry the drum, but he managed, even though his long black hair hung before his eyes and made me wonder how he could see where he was going. There were a number of drummers in the regiment, but Tony was for our squad. From then on we had to learn to respond to the commands beaten on the drum in different patterns. Most of us were confused at first by the drum, but we learned and in time could march, change directions, or form into battle formation. We usually marched in columns of four abreast. When we changed into regimental battle formation, we had to form into two parallel lines of about 500 men each. We each had an assigned place in the formation, depending on our squad and tent location. It could take nearly an hour for us to all form up correctly, and I wondered how we could ever do that on a battle field.

The longer I was in camp, the more homesick I became. I wrote letters home, often crying as I wrote. Letters from home tried to be cheerful but they seemed to make me feel worse. Josiah dictated letters to his ma about what he and the boys were doing and how much he missed me. He always told me to be careful and he always sent me “a big hug,” which I guess was all he could say when his ma was doing the writing. Pa usually tried to send advice but also told me about the plowing and planting. Ma just said over and over that she loved me. Sometimes there were tear marks on the paper, as I knew there were on the letters I sent.

I found I did not make friends easily. The boys and men were from many different backgrounds. Some were city folk; some were farmers like me, and they represented many different nationalities. Some were new immigrants and some were sons of men and women who had immigrated earlier. I discovered that I really had little in common with most of them except some basic farming lore. Besides, most of them spent their time enjoying Old Red Eye, playing cards, and fighting.

One boy who did become my friend was Tony, the drummer boy. We cottoned to each other right away. He was, in fact thirteen, and had run away from his home in Pennsylvania to join us. Tony was a cute boy who hadn’t really begun to grow yet. We played cards together and joked often. His favorite game was twenty-one. When I smoked my pipe he wanted me to teach him, so I did. Like me, he coughed a lot at first but eventually caught on and felt quite grown up. From then on, whenever I smoked, so did Tony.

I wasn’t sure my parents would approve of me playing cards, and I was quite sure the pastor wouldn’t, but Tony and I only gambled for rocks or matchsticks so I decided it was OK, except on Sundays of course.

One night I was standing guard duty. It seemed rather pointless, but we had to take turns doing it. About 4:00 AM I heard something in the trees in front of me. I guess it spooked me, because I raised my rifle and nearly fired before a voice called out, “Don’t shoot, Fool. I’m yer relief!” He then said the password for the night before he took over my post.

In the morning, when I spoke to him on the way to the latrine, he cut me short, called me an idiot, and started to walk away. I caught him from behind, whirled him around, and asked him to repeat what he had just said.

“Yer an idiot,” he said, and took a swing at me.

Anticipating that I fended off the blow and punched him in the stomach. He bent over, gasping.

I was mad as a wet hen and breathing heavily. As he stood, I glared at him. “Don’t ever call me that again unless ya want more of the same,” I said and walked away.

Billy caught up with me, saying, “Boy, ya picked a bad egg fer an enemy. Luke’s as ornery as they come and one of the best fighters around. He won’t let this pass.”

“I’ll be ready,” I answered sullenly, and we went off to the latrines.

That evening, after supper, as we were leaving the mess tent, I was accosted by none other than Luke, joined by six of his friends. Clearly, he was the biggest toad in his pond. He was much taller than me, probably about six feet. He had muscles bulging in his jacket and his legs were thick. He challenged me to a fight. “Fine,” I said. Although he certainly was formidable he had gotten my dander up. Billy and Tony were with me so they and I followed Luke and his henchmen to the parade ground. Word spread quickly and the parade ground was soon full of boys and men. I stripped off my jacket and shirt, asking Billy to watch them. Then I moved to the middle of the ground while the onlookers formed a ring around the two of us. Luke’s little gang was never far from him.

I called out, “Let ’er rip. Let’s see all ya got!” and he came after me.

He was, indeed, a good fighter and I paid dearly for my challenge, for I had only had a few fights on the school grounds and was no match for him. I managed to get in a couple of blows but soon he had me on the ground and was pummeling and kicking me. Finally, his friends pulled him off. He stood scarcely breathing hard and asked if I had had enough. When I gasped, “Yeah,” he walked off, with his crowd following him, laughing. Most of the other boys quickly dispersed. Billy and Tony and an older man whose name I didn’t know remained behind.

I turned on my side and vomited until I was empty. Then the three of them helped me stand and put my shirt and jacket on. I was sore in every bone and muscle of my body. What the blows had not bruised the kicking had. Between the three of them I managed to make my way back to the tent, where they lowered me gingerly onto my blanket.

That night I was in a lot of pain. Someone gave me something to drink. I never had drunk alcohol, and at first I coughed and spluttered, which of course only hurt every muscle in my chest and back. “Oh, Mother!” I cried.

“Yep, that’s just what it is,” the Good Samaritan said, pouring more into me. I continued to drink until I could hold no more. I vomited into my tin bowl a couple of times and Billy took it outside to empty it.

While the alcohol helped, I was unable to sleep and passed a miserable night. In the morning, Billy had to help me stand, put on my jacket and trousers, go to the latrine (No, he didn’t hold “it” for me), and then to the mess hall. I could eat little, but was grateful for the coffee. Looking me over he said I had two black eyes and various other bruises on my face and neck.

Luke walked by, muttering, “Little shit,” but of course I had to let it pass. I soon learned that he was the worst bully of the regiment and had fought half the rest of my tent mates and as many in the other tents.

The one good thing that came out of all this was meeting the older man who had helped me. He joined Billy and Tony and me as we left the mess tent, introducing himself as Theophilus Smith. He was a short, balding man with a bushy beard and a bit of a paunch which hung out over his belt. As we had a little time, he offered to massage my aching muscles. I had never had a massage before, but, even though it hurt, it made some of the muscles feel a little better, so I thanked him. He said he’d do it again at lunch time.

Of course, when I staggered to the parade ground, Sergeant Sweeney knew exactly what had happened and showed me no mercy. Drilling was torture, and the pushups were even worse, but I refused to give in to him.

While Theophilus was massaging me at lunch time, Luke walked past, asking, “Softenin’ him up t’ fuck him, old man?”

Theophilus just continued to knead my aching muscles. But when Luke had gone, he muttered, “Fuckin’ bastard. His time will come.”

From that point on, Tony, Theophilus, Billy and I spent time together whenever we could, Tony becoming like our little brother.