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October 20, 2011
A Slight Demonstration (2)By Greyhawk
(Part one here.)
Saturday, 19 October, 1861: The men of the 15th Massachusetts could proudly claim their regiment had the finest band in their division of the Army of the Potomac.
Their commander, Colonel Charles Devens, hoped they'd have other things to be proud of before this war was over and done with, but he was enjoying the music provided by that band just now. Once they finished he'd offer a few words on this, the occasion of the opening of their new camp hospital, then it was on to the next item on his agenda. If nothing unexpected came up, that is.
And it seemed that something unexpected always did. Earlier this month, for example, he thought he'd issued a simple order. Per General McClellan's order, all members of regimental bands were to be proficient in the ambulance drill; learn to set up and dismantle stretchers, the proper methods of transporting wounded for their least amount of discomfort, etc. etc. A fine idea; however, the finest band in his army believed that sort of thing wasn't within the scope of their rightful duties, and declined to participate in the training. So they soon found themselves under arrest, and confined without rations. As another member of the Fifteenth described the circumstances, "They were all spunky, and would die first, but before twenty-four hours were over they came to terms." Since then, they'd devoted an hour a day to such drills, and their musicianship hadn't seemed to suffer from it in the least.
That wasn't the only contentious issue he'd had to deal with since arriving here at this camp in late August. In another example that still rankled many of his men, General Stone had recently issued an order to soldiers in his command not "to incite and encourage insubordination among the colored servants in the neighborhood of the camps." This was something more than a delicate situation. Maryland was a slave state, still loyal to the Union, but just barely so - and it wouldn't do to tip the balance in the wrong direction. Beyond inciting and encouraging, there was a difference in appropriate ways to handle runaway slaves depending upon which side of the Potomac their run began, but some of the more ardent antislavery men (and in a point of pride, Massachusetts had an abundance of those) were reluctant to acknowledge that.
He wondered if Colonel Morse, commanding the other regiment from Worcester - now stationed at Annapolis on the other end of Maryland - was confronting any of the same challenges... It was a position of great responsibility, marching off to war at the head of a column of men. But Devens had to admit - to himself, at least - he hadn't anticipated the number and variety of things he'd found himself responsible for since he'd done just that.
Take the clipping someone had recently sent him from the Fitchburg Sentinel, a piece attributed to one of the soldiers in his regiment:
"We have agreed with the pickets on the opposite shore, who are Mississippians, not to fire at each other, but be on friendly terms as long as they are posted as pickets. .... Yesterday, one of our boys agreed to meet one of the Mississippians half-way across the river and exchange newspapers. They met in the middle of the stream where the water is but waist deep, and after shaking hands and exchanging the "Boston Herald" for the "Mobile Tribune," they held a social chat. They are of the opinion that the shooting of pickets is all foolishness. I have just learned that one of the Mississipians is coming over in a boat to take dinner with the Leominster boys today."
The informal "cease fire" seemed like a fine idea (not that he personally would officially approve of it, had he officially been told), considering the boys over on the Virginia side of the Potomac had weapons with range to shoot all the way across while his men were still toting smooth-bore muskets, and rounds splashing into the river short of midstream might give the enemy some bad ideas about the capabilities of the Yankees occupying this side. (In fact, an earlier letter written to the Worcester Palladium from someone somewhere near here aired bitter complaints regarding the quality of the guns furnished the Fifteenth: "This regiment, as you well know, is armed with the old smooth-bore muskets of the pattern of 1842, altered from the flint to the percussion lock. With these miserable weapons we are expected to victoriously contend with an army that have arms of more than three times the length of range of our own.") But the remainder of the account in the Sentinel (and news from Fitchburg, as with any town in Worcester County, tended to spread through the county and the state remarkably fast) indicated a level of developing friendship among members of opposing armies that was altogether unacceptable under the circumstances, and seemed much worse in newsprint than when whispered as mere camp rumor. (Come to think of it, that earlier letter arguably revealed a bit too much about the limited usefulness of federal arms, but hopefully that shortfall would be fixed before it mattered.)
There were examples of more significant infractions of that nature from other units (and just about every company had someone along who would act as "special correspondent" for the hometown paper - if they didn't have an actual reporter at the front) so not long afterward Colonel Devens - and his fellow regimental commanders - had to pass this caution down their respective chains of command:
Sept. 10, 1861. The General commanding, desires to caution all under his command against the unmilitary and treasonable practice, too much followed in some corps of the army, of writing private reports of military movements and operations which may find their way into the newspapers and thence to the enemies of the country.
Hopefully in the future the men would be a bit more guarded in what they wrote in letters home or to the newspapers (and the first often became the second, as proud parents seemed to enjoy seeing their boy's writing in print) but the business of how far these fine young Americans, here defending the very Union that guaranteed free speech and freedom of the press, could exercise those freedoms themselves was as yet unresolved.
In the balance, however, there was more good to report than bad - and now that the band had concluded their performance he was about to highlight some of that. He opened with words in praise of a nation capable of providing such a hospital facility to men here on the front lines, added some remarks on the great progress they'd made at becoming soldiers in the weeks since they'd departed their distant Worcester County homes, and offered special praise to the efforts of his surgeons. They'd yet to have their abilities at treating combat wounds tested, but they'd certainly had some experience treating the sick. No surprise in a group this size - at about 800 men the authorized strength of the 15th Massachusetts was greater than that of many small towns. Their losses to illness had been few, though each regrettable, and most importantly, their efforts in making sanitary improvements to the camp had assured the numbers of solders falling ill in this outfit were small compared to many others. He could spend the day listing the positives, but kept his remarks brief. It was a Saturday, but he still had plenty of business to attend to that day.
The next day was Sunday, and there would be work to do that day, too - but he fully intended to attend church. On the Sabbath all drills were suspended. They'd have a morning inspection, and after that a reading of the Articles of War, but the afternoon was given over to divine services which all in the regiment would attend. "You would hardly think," one of his soldiers wrote home in a letter higher headquarters would no doubt approve of wholeheartedly, "to look at the camp of the Fifteenth on Sunday evenings, that it was the encampment of a body of men whose purpose is what it is."
"Everything is tranquil, and from many of the quarters songs of praise to God float out upon the air. It puts one in mind of a camp-meeting more than it does of a military encampment, which is thought to be, by a large number, the abode of all that is contaminating and impure. In some of the tents the boys make a practice of reading a chapter every night from the Testaments presented to them."
That was the sort of thing the Army liked the folks back home to hear. All in all, Colonel Devens supposed, he had much to be thankful for in this so far bloodless (for his regiment, at least) war. He hoped it remained just so, and certainly saw Sunday services as the place to offer those thanks, and pray for continued blessings.
It occurred to Devens that if any of his men were wounded, they could now depend on being transported to a fine new hospital, by well-trained members of the best band in the army. For just a moment he regretted not thinking of that in time to use it as the opening line of his speech... but only for a moment.
The next day was Sunday, October 20th, and unplanned events would indeed occupy much of the day.
(Part three is here...)
Posted by Greyhawk / October 20, 2011 8:44 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
I like having visitors to my house. I hope you are entertained. I fight for your right to free speech, and am thrilled when you exercise said rights here. Comments and e-mails are welcome, but all such communication is to be assumed to be 1)the original work of any who initiate said communication and 2)the property of the Mudville Gazette, with free use granted thereto for publication in electronic or written form. If you do NOT wish to have your message posted, write "CONFIDENTIAL" in the subject line of your email.
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