The US Civil War: From Barracks to Front

1 Conversation

This is the hair-raising first chapter of an 1887 book called Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac by Frank Wilkeson. Forget all those war movies. If they made them like this, nobody would believe it.

From Barracks to Front

Punishment in the Union Army in the 1860s

I WAS a private soldier in the war to suppress the rebellion. I write of the life of a private soldier. I gloss over nothing. The enlisted men, of whom I was one, composed the army. We won or lost the battles. I tell how we lived, how we fought, what we talked of o' nights, of our aspirations and fears. I do not claim to have seen all of Grant s last campaign; but what I saw I faithfully record.

The war fever seized me in 1863. All the summer and fall I had fretted and burned to be off. That winter, and before I was sixteen years old, I ran away from my father s high-lying Hudson River valley farm. I went to Albany and enlisted in the Eleventh New York Battery, then at the front in Virginia, and was promptly sent out to the penitentiary building. There, to my utter astonishment, I found eight
hundred or one thousand ruffians, closely guarded by heavy lines of sentinels, who
paced to and fro, day and night, rifle in hand, to keep them from running away. When I entered the barracks these recruits gathered around me and asked, "How much bounty did you get?" "How many times have you jumped the bounty?" I answered that I had not bargained for any bounty, that I had never jumped a bounty, and that I had enlisted to go to the front and fight. I was instantly assailed
with abuse. Irreclaimable blackguards, thieves, and ruffians gathered in a boisterous circle around me and called me foul names. I was robbed while in these barracks of all I possessed a pipe, a piece of tobacco and a knife. I remained in this nasty prison for a month. I became thoroughly acquainted with my comrades. A recruit s social standing in the bar racks was determined by the acts of villany he
had performed, supplemented by the number of times he had jumped the bounty. The social standing of a hard-faced, crafty pickpocket, who had jumped the bounty in say half a dozen cities, was assured. He shamelessly boasted of his rascally agility. Less active bounty-jump ers looked up to him as to a leader. He commanded their profound respect. When he talked, men gathered around him in crowds and listened attentively to words of wisdom concerning bounty-jumping that dropped from his tobacco-stained lips. His right to occupy the most desirable bunk, or to stand at the head of the column when we prepared to march to the kitchen for our rations, was undisputed. If there was a man in all that shameless crew who had enlisted from patriotic motives, I did not see him. There was not a man of them who was not eager to run away. Not a man who did not quake when he thought of the front. Almost to a man they were bullies and cowards, and almost to a man they belonged to the criminal classes.

I had been in this den of murderers and thieves for a week, when my uncle William Wilkeson of Buffalo found me. My absence from the farm had caused a search of the New York barracks to be made for me. My uncle, finding that I was resolute in my intention to go to the front, and that I would not accept a discharge, boy as I was, did the best thing he could for me, and that was to vouch for me to the major, named Van Rensselaer, I think, who was in charge of the barracks. He knew my family, and when he heard that I had run away from home to enlist, and that I would not accept a discharge, he gave me the freedom of the city. I had a pass which I left in charge of the officer of the guard when not using it, because I was afraid I would be robbed of it if I took it into the barracks. The fact of my having a pass became known to the bounty-jumpers, and I was repeatedly offered large sums of money for it. In the room in which I slept, a gang of roughs made up a pot of $1,700, counting out the money before me, and offered it to me if I would go out and at night put my pass in a crack between two designated boards that formed a portion of a high fence that surrounded the penitentiary grounds. I refused to enter into the scheme, and they attacked me savagely, and would have beaten me, perhaps to death, if the guards, hearing the noise, had not rushed in. Of course they swore that I had madly assaulted them with a heavy bed slat, and, of course, I was punished, and, equally of course, I kept my mouth shut as to the real
cause of the row, for fear that I would be murdered as I slept if I exposed them. In front of the barracks stood a high wooden horse, made by sticking four long poles into large holes bored into a smooth log, and then standing it upright. Two ladders, one at each end, led up to the round body of the wooden steed. A placard, on which was printed in letters four inches long the word "Fighting," was fastened on my back. Then I was led to the rear ladder and told to mount the horse and to shin along to the other end, and to sit there until I was released. The sentinel tapped his rifle significantly, and said, earnestly: "It is loaded. If you dismount before you are ordered to, I shall kill you." I believed he meant what he said, and I did not get off till ordered to dismount. For the first hour I rather enjoyed the ride; then my legs grew heavy, my knees pained dreadfully, and I grew feverish and was very thirsty. Other men came out of the barracks and climbed aloft to join in the pleasure of
wooden horseback riding. They laughed at first, but soon began to swear in low tones, and to curse the days on which they were born. In the course of three hours the log filled up, and I dismounted to make room for a fresh offender. The placard was taken from my back, and I was gruffly ordered to "get out of this." I staggered back a few yards, stooped to rub my lame knees, and looked at the gang who were
sadly riding the wooden horse. Various words were printed on the cards that were fastened to their backs, but more than half of them announced that the bearers were thieves.

On my urgent solicitation Major Van Rensselaer promised to ship me with the first detachment of recruits going to the front. One cold afternoon, directly after the ice had gone out of the Hudson River, we were ordered out of the barracks. We were formed into ranks, and stood in a long, curved line 1,000 rascals strong. We were counted, as was the daily custom, to see if any of the patriots had escaped. Then, after telling us to step four paces to the front as our names were called, the names of the men who were to form the detachment were shouted by a sergeant, and we stepped to the front, one after another, util 600 of us stood in ranks. We were marched to the barracks, and told to pack our knapsacks as we were to march at once. The 400 recruits who had not been selected were carefully guarded on the ground, so as to prevent their mingling with us. If that had happened, some of the recruits who had been chosen would have failed to appear at the proper time. The
idea was that if we were kept separate, all the men in the barracks, all outside of the men grouped under guard, would have to go. Before I left the barracks I saw the guards roughly haul straw-littered, dust-coated men out of matresses, which they had cut open and crawled into to hide. Other men were jerked out of the water-closets. Still others were drawn by the feet from beneath bunks. One man, who had burrowed into the contents of a water-tight swill-box, which stood in the hall and into which we threw our waste food and coffee slops, was fished out, covered with coffee grounds and bits of bread and shreds of meat, and kicked down stairs and out of the building. Ever after I thought of that soldier as the hero of the swill-tub. Cuffed, prodded with bayonets, and heartily cursed, we fell into line in front of the barracks. An officer stepped in front of us and said in a loud voice that any man who at tempted to escape would be shot: A double line of guards quickly took their proper positions around us. We were faced to the right
and marched through a room, where the men were paid their bounties. Some men received $500, others less; but I heard of no man who received less than $400. I got nothing. As the men passed through the room they were formed into column by fours. When all the recruits had been paid, and the column formed, we started to march into Albany, guarded by a double line of sentinels. Long before we arrived at State Street three recruits attempted to escape. They dropped their knapsacks and
fled wildly. Crack! crack! crack! a dozen rifles rang out, and what had been three men swiftly running were three bloody corpses. The dead patriots lay by the roadside as we marched by. We marched down State Street, turned to the right at Broadway, and marched down that street to the steamboat landing. Previous to
my enlistment I had imagined that the population of Albany would line the sidewalks to see the defenders of the nation march proudly by, bound for the front, and that we would be cheered, and would unbend sufficiently to accept floral offerings from beautiful maidens. How was it ? No exultant cheers arose from the column. The people who saw us did not cheer. The faces of the recruits plainly expressed the profound disgust they felt at the disastrous outcome of what had promised to be a remunerative financial enterprise. Small boys derided us. Mudballs were thrown at us. One small lad, who was greatly excited by the unwonted spectacle, rushed to a street corner, and after placing his hands to his mouth, yelled to a distant and loved comrade: "Hi, Johnnie, come see de bounty-jumpers!" He was promptly joined by an exasperating, red-headed, sharp-tongued little wretch, whom I desired to destroy long before we arrived at the steamboat landing. Men and women openly laughed at us. Fingers, indicative of derision, were pointed at us. Yes, a large portion of the populace of Albany gathered together to see us; but they were mostly young males, called guttersnipes. They jeered us, and were exceedingly loth to leave us. It was as though the congress of American wonders were parading in the streets preparatory to aerial flights
under tented canvas.

Once on the steamboat, we were herded on the lower deck, where freight is usually carried, like cattle. No one dared to take off his knapsack for fear it would be stolen. Armed sentinels stood at the openings in the vessel's sides out of which gangplanks were thrust. Others were stationed in the bows; others in the dark
narrow passage-ways where the shaft turns; still others were on the decks. We were hemmed in by a wall of glistening steel. "Stand back, stand back, damn you " was the only remark the alert-eyed, stern-faced sentinels uttered, and the necessity of obeying that command was impressed on us by menacing bayonets. Whiskey, guard-eluding whiskey, got in. Bottles, flasks, canteens, full of whiskey, circulated
freely among us, and many men got drunk. There was an orgie on the North River steamer that night, but comparatively a decent one. In spite of the almost certain death sure to ensue if a man attempted to escape, two men jumped overboard. I saw one of these take off his knapsack, loosen his overcoat and then sit down on his knapsack. He drew a whiskey flask from an inner pocket and repeatedly stimulated his courage. He watched the guards who stood by the opening in the vessel's side intently. At last they turned their heads for an instant. The man sprang to his feet, dropped his overcoat and ran to the opening and jumped far out into
the cold waters of the river. Instantly the guards began to fire. Above us, in front of us, at our sides, behind us, wherever guards were stationed, there rifles cracked. But it was exceeding dark on the water, and I believe that the deserter escaped safely. Early in the morning, before it was light, I again heard firing. I was told that another recruit had jumped over board and had been killed.

Editor's Note: It goes downhill from there. Put it this way: Gods and Generals, it ain't.

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