Voices From The Cold Camps

We’re having a last blast of winter in Maryland today, and as I look out at the still-bare trees bending in the wind gusts, I’m thinking of the hardships of soldiers. My newest nonfiction book, Soldier Song, is about soldiers of the North and South in the U.S. Civil War, during and after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. It tells the true story of an impromptu concert after the battle, when the two sides were camped across the narrow ribbon of the Rappahannock River from each other.

After engaging in their usual “battle of the bands”—“Yankee Doodle” from the North, “Dixie” from the South,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Bonnie Blue Flag”—one of the bands began to play one of the most popular and evocative tunes of the day. That song was “Home, Sweet Home.” (The Library of Congress today calls it “America’s first bona fide hit song.”) The other side joined in. The song finished, and there was sustained cheering and joy. As one Confederate soldier wrote of the evening:

“I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”

Well, maybe. My book doesn’t suggest that music can magically mend the deep differences between enemies. It does suggest that music is powerful enough to draw people together, even if only temporarily. And, for me, the deeper meaning of the story is the possibility of seeing the humanity in our opponents and enemies.

More on all that, perhaps, in another post. This morning, I’m thinking of those poor guys—nearing 200,000 men and boys—camped out not so far from me in Virginia, not even all that long ago, who sprinkled water on their tents so that it would freeze and provide some kind of insulation, and the wounded ones who died from exposure in the freezing night after the worst day of the fighting at Fredericksburg.

One of the most satisfying things I got to do in Soldier Song was include lots of excerpts of letters and journals and memoirs in its 80 pages. So here, an assortment of voices from the cold camps, North and South, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg:

“We are as uncomfortable as possible. . . . I have just read a very affectionate letter picked up on the field from a Northern lady to her husband. It is dated Nov 20. This battle will cost a world of pangs and sorrow. She will never receive an answer to her affectionate epistle.” –Confederate soldier Milo Grow, letter of December 16, 1862

“Dear Farther [yes, that is how this letter is addressed]

“Farther, I never want to get into another battle it is terrible Persons falling all around me. . . . 

“The Weather is now getting very cold the army is Suffering on account of the cold. We layed out in the open fields and woods without tents or eny other Shelter for nearly one week before the Battle on frost and snow Whilst the Stay at home party were enjoying their good warm beds.”  –Union soldier James A. Harman, letter of December 17, 1862

“Dear Friends, Our sufferings have been intense. . . . The ground is hard frozen up; and our poor fellows have nothing but flimsy ‘shelter tents,’ under which to lie and shiver. Talk about Valley Forge, and the huts Washington and his army had there! Why, they were infinitely better off than we are.” —Union soldier James Rusling, letter of December 21, 1862

I’ll close this with a letter written by Walt Whitman. Whitman traveled to Fredericksburg just after the battle in search of his brother George, who fought for the Union. He found George, only slightly injured, and then spent time in camp, especially with the wounded soldiers. Walt wrote regular letters to his mother:

“December 22 to 31. —Am among the regimental brigade and division hospitals somewhat. Few at home realize that these are merely tents, and sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if their blanket is spread on a layer of pine or hemlock twigs, or some leaves. . . . It is pretty cold. I go around from one case to another. I do not see that I can do any good, but I cannot leave them. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate stop with him, and sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.”

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