Spectator December 18, 1915
CHRISTMAS DAY IN CAMP
Far up in the Kanawha valley, in West Virginia, near Camp Platt, an advanced picket of 167th Ohio was surprised by Jennings’ guerilla band, during the Civil War in the United States, some fifty years ago, and, for a couple of hours the conflict was brisk. The guerillas had the advantage, for they were fighting on their native heath and knew every foot of the valley. More than one fellow on both sides answered his last roll call, and many were wounded, none very seriously. Like all guerilla warfare, the fight was sharp and quick. The Jennings band was outnumbered and hastily withdrew from the conflict, which was a source of satisfaction to the Federal soldiers. No prisoners were taken, as it was one of the rules of guerilla warfare not to be hampered with prisoners. It was a might fall, yet cold and chilly, and Christmas was close at hand. Only a few more days and the families would gather in the home churches and sing the songs of “Peace on Earth; good will to men”, while husbands and sons were engaged in bloody war on the field of battle. The night after the skirmish all seemed peaceful and quiet, and one would never think that within a mile from the Federal camp, but a few hours before, the Federals and Confederates had been engaged in deadly strife. And for what? The soldiers in either army had no ill will toward each other, nor indeed had they ever met except to wound and kill. “War is hell!” sure enough, as German Sherman said. In the Federal camp, numerous fires were burning, the moving forms which surrounded them rising upon the vision of the distant spectator like giant shadows. The rain, that dripped and drizzled clammily, evoked no complaint from the hardy soldier’s lips. He recited not of the sights that had met his eyes during the hours before on the battlefield that day, nor of the unburied braves that lay but a short distance from his present bivouac, stiffening in the rain. He and his bunk-mate, the kindly-hearted Jake, had built for refuge a temporary habitation, and the big fire that hissed in the storm was solid comfort to their stiffened limbs. Frequently you might hear a boisterous laugh, a song of more mirth than melody, and the sounds of a mouth-organ or fiddle – no Stradivarius by nay means – or, see, now and then, looming up fantastically, the brawny forms of Uncle Sam’s jovial boys, in a reckless stag dance around the fires.
It was well toward evening when the picket guard got back into camp. As far as the eye could reach, the white tents were visible. As the sky grew heavy and lowering, suggestive of tempestuous weather, the boys began to collect material from the neighboring fields for the erection of shacks for shelter or warmth. It does not take long for the veteran soldier to build a hut if there is material anywhere within a mile of the camp. When in the enemy’s territory, might makes right. The moving of Burnam Wood toward Dunsinane may have been an astounding spectacle in Macbeth’s opinion; but if that bloody Thane had risen from his grave on that cold December night and paid a ghostly visit to the vicinity of Camp Platt, he would have gone back to Scotland with a weakened estimate of General Macduff’s stratagem. Hundreds of acres of land lay under good fence. The corn was still standing in the shock; the wheat in the stack ; the hay in the rick. See how they disappear from their respective places, as if by magic. The air is alive with huge piles of cornstalks, hay, straw, rails and lumber of every description – all moving toward camp. Company A is sure to have its share of the good things. Corporal Jake is a stalwart, and anything that is within reach is not a bit too good for him and his bunk mate. Each man has, with mutual ambition, appointed himself commander-in-chief to order and furnish a shack and a fire for his companions and himself. Some seize upon the great oaken logs which the West Virginia farmer has cut into shape for the splitting out of staves. With a “Yo-heave-ho!” and “Altogether!” these are rolled to the summit of the ridge, and soon the fire is frisking about them cheerfully. The rails are arranged into frames for shacks; and the straw, hay and fodder are carefully piled on top and around the sides, to exclude the wind and rain, or are nicely laid on the ground for beds.
With such an array as this, no great length of time is required to desolate the landscape. The soldier regards himself as a privileged character, and his own comforts and enjoyments are above those of the planter. Wherever his footsteps tread, woe to that land – be it the property of friend or foe! Recklessness and daring have been the characteristics of the soldier in all climes, and from time immemorial, no matter what flag, be it the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes. His food and raiment are of the coarsest – he lives virtually “from hand to Mouth” – and the country through which he passes must pay custom to him nolens volens. It is well when he is so far advanced in the courtesies of civilization as to decently respect the personality of the inhabitants of an occupied country. The larders and granaries must necessarily pay tribute, in the best and politest ages, to the scarred warrior, as the prompt supplying by the government of the needs of an immense body of men constantly on the march is impossible. He should consider himself a happy patriot who has furnished the weary soldier a shelter from the wintry blast – the hungry one a yellow-legged chicken from the roost for his evening meal.
It was the night before Christmas. The loved ones in our Ohio home had not forgotten the absent ones. That afternoon the steamer Annie Laurie came puffing up the Kanawha river and her siren had shrieked out a warning to the boys that the boxes of which they had been notified were coming. Every company in the regiment was remembered. Talk about your Christmas dinners !! Never was there the prospect of such a feast ! The soldiers were so anxious to investigate the contents of the boxes that they could hardly wait to get them up from the landing to the camp. Just fancy, after months of feeding on sowbelly and hard tack, and baked beans, and tomorrow it would be turkey, chicken, roast beef, plum pudding, mince pie – what is the use of giving the list of good things when we tell you that those boxes came from home, sweet home, and our wives and mothers knew just what we would like best! My, it makes the mouth of this old Muser water even now to go back in memory to that Christmas of more than half a century ago. The boys did not wait for old Pap Fisher to beat up the reveille the next morning, for they had tumbled out of their bunks long before the sun had sent his bright and frosty rays down the valley. Breakfast was but little thought of for everyone wanted a sharp appetite to do justice to the Christmas feast that was in store for him. The company cooks did themselves proud that day in warming up the turkeys and the chicken and geese, and as the mothers and wives had sent word to the cooks that they had only partially cooked the beef, the big fat roasts got their finishing touches over the log fires, and were pronounced fit for a feast for the gods. Corp. Jake, being a college professor back in Ohio, the superintendent of a Sunday school and the leader of a Presbyterian choir, was considered the proper man to invoke the divine blessing on the feast set before us, which he did reverently, and also prayed for the Girls We Left Behind Us in the old Ohio homes, to which the entire company responded with a hearty amen! And then the good mothers and wives had another think coming when they packed those boxes, and they remembered the cigars, and boxes of them, so that the smoke from the fragrant weed arose as sweet incense around the camp fire that Christmas night.
The mountain ranges along the valley of the Kanawha were mines of wealth in Cannel coal, and all that was necessary to get at it was to scrape the earth a foot or two on the side of the hill and get an abundance of black diamonds. The boys had provided a supply, and along the front of the company quarters great roaring fires gave us summer warmth. The boys from other companies tempted by the cheerful blaze that rose from our coal and log fires, flocked to our cosy quarters and threw themselves into comfortable positions. As we began to grow more cheerful after feast and the fragrance of the cigars, conversation and storytelling, interspersed with song, made happy the passing hours. There is no soldier in an army I presume who has not had some pleasing incident – a reminiscence of march, carnage, or camp fire – that a trifling suggestion will call forth. Almost everyone at our bivouac fire that night, enlivened the hour with an interesting anecdote or broad witticism, and I wish I could now remember even a tithe of them. It seems to me that they would be interesting to readers of Saturday Musings in these days of war when the whole world is one vast battlefield. The program opened with the United States national anthem. Of course, being an American army, what might you expect for a curtain raiser? This was followed by marching through Georgia. This put Corp. Jake in mind of a story about the time when our regiment was called to Cincinnati to defend that city from the raid of Kirby Smith’s army. “Didn’t you remember the day at Camp King?” said the corporal, “when we were ordered into line of battle because Captain Dan was scared by four women and a coach dog on St. John’s Hill, south of Cincinnati? He thought that the innocent crowd was the advance guard of Kirby Smith’s army swinging over the brow of the hill. Well, by jove, I never saw an officer brandish his sword more heroically than Captain Dan did on that occasion. It seemed to me he was so furious and looked so terrible that if the enemy had appeared they must have been appalled into surrender. His looks were a whole park of artillery.”
A grave-looking corporal, who was leaning against a tree, and roasting his shins at the fire, seemed interested in the conversation. He said : “I am from the Eighty-First, the regiment adjoining yours. Your cheerful fire attracted me here, and Corp. Jake’s story has somewhat fascinated me. Captain Dan was probably green in military matters. Give the old man a chance. The first fight doesn’t always show the soldierly character. One of the greatest captains of all time was panic-stricken in his first battle – Frederick the Great, you know. Macaulay tells the story. I’ve been in a few fights myself before this civil war began – in Mexico with Taylor; on the border with Johnston; in Missouri and Arkansas with Fremont, and, before that, with the British army in the Crimea, and chanced often to notice the conduct of both raw recruits and veterans. Soldiers need to be tested, boys. Many a fellow I have seen hide away, or turn ghastly, and even faint in his first scrimmage, who afterward became one of the bravest men in the army, and would risk the shot and shell of the enemy to carry off a wounded comrade from the firing line. It isn’t always those who look the strongest and speak the loudest that prove the best in the end, as I’ve found out. I suppose you have noticed that a good many volunteers, who seemed to be the toughest, and were really tough in camp – great, hulking chaps, with biceps like a hickory wart, and always itching for a row – have played out before many days’ marching, and have gone into the ambulance or the hospital, especially if there is a prospect of a fight with the enemy, while timid-looking fellows – counterhoppers or boys from whom you expected nothing – have bronzed into health and cheerfulness, always ready to find their place on the firing line, and passed through the hard phases of a soldier’s life with courage.”
“That’s gospel!” said the Orderly Sergeant Langstroth. “There’s that big lubber of Co. H. with a fist like a triphammer and a leg like a weaver’s beam. On our first day’s march, he was away head of the regiment, applauded for his sturdiness, and swaggering grandly; on the second day, he had dropped down to the middle, and dropped his swagger a bit; on the third, he was among the tail-enders, with still less swagger; on the fourth, he was lolling in the ambulance, his face wrinkled with the blues, and guyed unmercifully by his comrades afoot. A few days later, he disappeared. When we next saw him, Billy was trudging wearily along with a rail tied to his back, and the swagger gone altogether. Some disgusted officer had caught him wandering about, like a chronic shirk, without gun or knapsack, and had subjected him to the disgraceful penalty of the rail and the derision of the whole army. Lord knows where Bill is now. A deserter maybe.
The oldest genius , and one of the bravest I ever saw,” said the strange corporal, “was a little fellow who was killed at the siege of Atlanta, with a ‘coon on his shoulder. That little chap came from a farm near Clinton, Illinois, and had carried a pet ‘coon all the way from home. Jim Farnworth was his name. Jim was a small, pale boy, as thin as a sandpiper, and looked as if he might give out in a day’s march. But men of apparently twice his size and muscle shed their overcoats, blankets and baggage along the line of march, while Jim swung along bravely, always in his place in the regiment, and carrying every shred of a soldier’s equipage, besides his ‘coon. He was a most tenderhearted lad, too; would go out of his way if he saw an insect on the ground to avoid treading on it, and cried as easily as a baby if anything went wrong with his ‘coon. The boys indeed called him Baby Jim. But Baby Jim, I’ll tell you, was no slouch when tough work was at hand. He was generally at the fore then, first in mounting an escarpment and in planting a banner of the enemy’s works – that pet ‘coon always on his shoulder, seeming to enjoy his master’s excitement. Poor Jim! He died in the van in Atlanta, while bearing forward the flag which a wounded color-sergeant had dropped. The boys of the Twentieth Illinois, his regiment, had begun to love and worship him long before he fell in battle. He was no longer Baby Jim, but our Bully Little Corporal. The shot that killed Jim also killed the ‘coon.
THEN YOU’LL REMEMBER ME
“Come dick,” said Corp. Jake, “let’s sing that dear old song of Balfe’s, from the Bohemian Girl.” The corporal and this old Muser some ‘on the singing when we were young, and many an hour was whiled away around the camp fire in the valley of the Kanawha. The songs of half a century ago were altogether different from the ragtime we hear nowadays; they were full of heart sentiment, with music that thrilled the soul. “Then,” said the corporal, “tell us the story of the young musician and his wife away up in Hamilton, Canada, where you spent your boyhood days.”
When other lips and other hearts
Their tales of love shall tell,
In language whose excess imparts,
The pow’r they feel so well,
There may, perhaps, in such a scene
Some recollection be,
Of days that have as happy been,
And you’ll remember me.
When coldness of deceit shall slight
The beauty now they prize,
And deem it but a faded light
Which beams within your eyes,
When hollow hearts shall wear a mask,
‘Twill break your own to see.
In such a moment I but ask,
That you’ll remember me.
“Now, Dick, for the story,” said Corp. Jake.
Once before we have told in these Musings the story we told that Christmas night at the campfire in the Virginia mountains. As the great army of readers of the Spectator has increased since that time, it may not be amiss to give it again in connection with our reminiscences of the days in the long ago when we carried a musket in Uncle Sam’s army.
“The memories of the song that Corporal Jake and I have just sung,” said the Muser, “recall the long ago when I was emerging into young manhood in dear old Hamilton, where I spent many happy years as an apprentice at the printing business and preparing for the life of work before me. The incident has long since been forgotten save by one here and there who lives in the past. A young musician and his child wife came across the sea to make their home in Canada, and Hamilton, with its small population of not more than 10,000 seemed to hold out a friendly hand to the young foreigners and decided them to go no further. Both were accomplished musicians, but he excelled on the violin and guitar. The way opened to them as teachers, and the future promised a prosperous and happy home in the town of their adoption. Never of a robust nature, the severe climate of their second winter in Hamilton was too much for the delicate child wife, who had been born and raised in a foreign sunny clime, and she gradually faded away. How they hoped and prayed for the warm summer months that would bring healing in balmy air to the suffering one! She had to give up her work of teaching, but her love of music was so great that even when her voice was too weak for song, she would take a seat at the piano and play over the airs of her favorite opera, The Bohemian Girl. In the summer twilight, when the din and bustle of outside life seemed to be hushed around their humble cottage, the neighbors could hear husband and wife playing, he on the violin and she softly the accompaniment on the piano or guitar, from the songs they loved. Rarely did one of those recitals end without one or more selections from The Bohemian Girl.
Death came slowly, but surely and silently, to that little cottage home, and with the blossoming of the summer roses, the child wife passed to the life of perpetual sunshine, music and flowers. Out in the cemetery on the heights overlooking the beautiful bay of Hamilton, neighbors and friends gently laid away the mortal remains of his loved one, and the bereaved husband took up his sad life among the kind neighbors who had known and ministered to his child wife. The sounds of music from the lonely corner in the cemetery attracted the attention of passersby in the lone hours of the summer nights. That was a superstitious age, and the sweet strains of the arias from the Bohemian Girl as they came floating through the sift summer night sounded uncanny to the listeners. One night when the moon was shining brightly, a party of young folks plucked up courage to visit the graveyard, and, secreting themselves on the side of the hill, to learn from whence came the songs they too loved so well, saw the young musician approaching the grave of his child wife. As he seated himself on the mound, and for a moment bowed his head as if in prayer, he took from its case his violin and began to play the arias from the opera that his wife loved so well and that had comforted her in many a lonely hour during the closing months of her life. Her favorite was Then You’ll Remember Me, and after playing through a score of the other songs he ended his midnight serenade with that tender heart song.
On almost every pleasant night during the summer months was the midnight serenade repeated, and always the same songs. No one broke in on his vigil, although he was never alone, for those who had learned the story, rarely missed the privilege of being present, unknown, however, to the bereaved musician. It would have been a sacrilege to intrude upon his solitude. The cottage home was broken up, for the musician was without relatives in Canada. With the approaching winter, his health began to fail, and before the blooming of the spring flowers, he was compelled to give up his scholars. Gradually his gentle life ebbed away, and early in the summer months, strangers bore his remains to the grave and laid them beside his angel wife. One night the small company of young who had first discovered the musician in his midnight reverie, went out to the cemetery and, reverently kneeling at the grave of the musician and his child wife, sang the selections from The Bohemian Girl which both loved so well. It was a solemn hour for those who took part in the service of song.”
When the boys were weaving recollections of the past, and interspersing the program with songs, the clouds gathered for a storm, and the wind developed a gale. Tenting Tonight could not be omitted, after which, as by one common impulse, the company rose to their feet, uncovered their heads and reverently sang that song of all songs, Home, Sweet Home. It was long past the hour of midnight, and no company of men ever enjoyed such a Christmas. By this time, the storm became a fury, whirled great sparks and cinders from the fires in wild and wide confusion. Our combustible shacks caught the flying embers and burned with alarming ferocity. The whole landscape was a scene of exciting conflagration. It was as grand as a battle. Before the great blaze had died down, old Pap Fisher’s drum corps was beating the assembly, the orderly sergeant’s command, “Fall in!” echoed far and wide, and the boys were once more on their winding way. But few of the old boys are left to answer roll call at the annual reunion.
AN APPEAL TO YOUNG MEN
Religion has somehow come to be looked upon as sentiment, a something that is weak and valuable for the aged, or in case of sickness or death, but not needful or suited for the young or a strong life. And there has too often come into religion a softness and effeminacy that may well fail to satisfy the mind of a thoughtful man, if indeed it does not offend him. Religion needs to become more practical, more heroic, and to be carried more into the great fields of thought and activity where the young men live. They must have something more than to turn over the experiences in meeting and talk about saving their souls. They may be well; but they want to feel that they are in the grasp pf a powerful truth and under the inspiration of lofty motives, and charged with the dignity of men, and sent forth to save the world from darkness and sin. They want to feel that religion is not an exceptional thing – a something apart from life. And upon the ministry of today there is a weight of responsibility. The pulpit must not let the young men pass from its power. It cannot hold them by mere commonplaces, or by issues long dead and passed from living thought. Young men must be met on the battlefield of today’s duty. And, O young men, you owe much to home, to a mother’s prayers and a father’s love; much to the church and to society. They have helped you to be what you are. Come a step further; to take your places in the line of battle against sin; against the influence of the saloon; take your places in the field where the harvesters are bending to the ripened grain; take your places at the altars where hymns are chanted and paryers are offered; take your places in the great work of humanity – bring all your thought, your morality, your strength, your love, your heroism, and help mankind in the work, help your sisters and your mothers fight intemperance; help God save the world. If you have strayed from the path of right during the year that is now closing, remember that there is hope for you if you will begin the new year with a sincere determination to open up a clean chapter in life’s history. There are many pitfalls in the pathway of a young man – the saloon, the gambling den, evil companions of both sexes – and it is only by constant watch that temptation can be overcome. God bless the youth of today, and may brightness and happiness be theirs this blessed Christmas season.