Who was Turner anyway?

Who was Turner anyway?

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A Turner Bugler, 2004

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Western Soldiers.


November and December 1863

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, November 3, 1863.


Their Self Reliance – Illustrative Incidents – Making Camp “Improvements” – Striking Tents – Taking Coffee – Downy Pillows – Life in Canvas Cities, Etc., Etc.

[Correspondence of the Chicago Evening Journal.]


If there are men in the world gifted with the most thorough self-reliance, Western soldiers are the men.  To fight in the grand anger of battle seems to me to require less manly fortitude, after all, then to bear without murmuring the swarm of little troubles that vex camp and march. No matter where or when you halt them they are at once at home. They know precisely what to do first and they do it. I have seen them march into a strange region at dark, and almost as soon as fires would show well, they were twinkling all over the field, the Sibley cones rising like the work of enchantment everywhere, and the little dog tents lying snug to the ground, as if, like the mushrooms, they had grown there, and the aroma of coffee and tortured bacon, suggesting comforts, and the whole economy of a life in canvass [sic] cities moving as steadily on as if it had never intermitted. The movements of regiments, you know, are as blind as fate. Nobody can tell tonight where he will be tomorrow, and yet with the first glimmer of morning the camp is astir, and the preparations begin for staying there forever; cozy little cabins of red cedar, neatly fitted, are going up; here a boy is making a fireplace, and quite artistically plastering it with the evitable red earth; he has found a crane somewhere and swung up thereon a two-legged dinner pot; there a fellow is finishing out the chimney with brick from an old kiln of secession proclivities; yonder a bower-house closely woven of evergreen is almost ready for the occupants; tables, stools, bedsteads are tumbled together by the roughest of carpenters; the avenues between the lines of tents are cleared and smooth – “policed,” in camp phrase; little seats with cedar awnings in front of the tents give a cottage-look, while the interior, in a rude way, is a genuine home-like air. The bit of a looking glass hangs against the cotton wall; a handkerchief of a carpet just before the “bunk” marks the stepping off place to the land of dreams; violin case is strung up to a convenient hook, flanked by a gorgeous picture of some hero of somewhere, mounted upon a horse rampant and saltant, “and what a length of tail behind!”

The business of living has fairly begun again. There is hardly an idle moment, and save here and there a man brushing up his musket, getting that “damned spot” off his bayonet, burnishing his revolver, you would not suspect that these men had but one terrible errand. They are tailors, they are tinkers, they are writers; fencing, boxing, cooking, eating, drilling, – those who say that camp life is a lazy life know little about it. And then the reconnaissance is “on private account;” every wood, ravine, hill, field, is explored; the productions animal and vegetable are inventoried, and one day renders them as thoroughly conversant with the region round about as if they had been dwelling there a life-time. They have tasted water from every spring and well, estimated the corn to an acre, tried the watermelons, bagged the peaches, knocked down the persimmons, milked the cows, roasted the pigs, picked the chickens; they know who lives here and there and yonder, the whereabouts of the native boys, the names of the native girls. If there is a curious cave, a queer tree, a strange rock anywhere about, they know it. You can see them with chisel, hammer and haversack, tugging up the mountain or scrambling down the ravine in a geological passion that would have won the right hand of fellowship from Hugh Miller, and home they come loaded with specimens that would enrich a cabinet. I have in my possession the most exquisite fossil buds just ready to open, beautiful shells, rare minerals collected by these rough and dashing naturalists. If you think the rank and file have no taste and no love for the beautiful, it is time you remembered of what material they are made. Nothing will catch a soldier’s eye quicker than a patch of velvet moss, or a fresh little flower, and many a letter leaves the camps enriched with faded souvenirs of these expeditions. I said that nothing will catch an old campaigner’s eye quicker than a flower, and I was wrong; a dirty, ragged baby will. I have seen a thirteen dollar man expend a dollar for trinkets to hang about the dingy neck of an urchin that at home and three years ago he would hardly have touched with tongs. Do you say it is for the mother’s sake? You have only to see the bedraggled, coarse, lank, tobacco-chewing dam – is it wicked for me to use that word in such a fashion? – to abandon that idea, like a foundling, to the tender mercies of the first door-step.

But to come back to camp; talk of perfumed clouds of incense, there is to me nothing sweeter than a clear, bright red cedar fire; the mountain air is fairly laden with the fragrance. Everything is red cedar, and a prairie man, as he sees the great camp fires fed with hewn timbers of the precious wood, when about as soon think of cutting up his grand piano – seven octave or so – into fuel for the kitchen stove. The breath of the red cedar fires will float back to me like a pleasant memory, if I ever inhale again the sulphurous, Tartarian gusts from the smothering beds of Illinois coal. Writing of fuel, you should see the fences melt away anywhere within a mile of camp; up goes the red cedar again, like a prophet, in a chariot of fire, and not enough left for a bow and arrow.

The work of improvement goes briskly on; a week has passed, and the boys seem settled in life, just before tattoo, some night, down comes in order to march at five in the morning. A fine, drizzling rain has set in; thick blanket of fog has been snugly tucked about the camp; the fires look large and red and cheerful; the boys are just ready “to turn in,” when down comes the order. Nothing is as you would think; no complaints, no murmurings, no watching the night out. They are not to be cheated out of their sleep – not they; it takes your green recruits to do that; every bundle of a blanket has a sleeping soldier in it; every knapsack has a drowsy head on it. At three the roll of a drum straggles through the gloom; the camp is awake; tents are struck, knapsacks packed, baggage wagons loaded, mules untangled. Soldiers have notions and among them is the destruction of their “improvements;” the bower house crackles like a volley of musketry, the cedar cottages are in flames, the stools and tables are glowing coals, and if they don’t fiddle, as Nero did, while their Rome is burning – and as much of a Rome too, as that was in the time of the lupine brothers – at least they eat. A soldier can starve patiently, but when he has a chance he eats potently. Huddled around their little fires, in the thick and turbid morning, the clink of the bayonets betokens the coffee to come; the smutty kettles bubble with the Arabic decoction as black as the tents of the sheik who threw dust on the beard of his father; unhappy pork sizzles from ramrods, and the boys take breakfast.

Some wise man proposed in Congress, you remember, the substitution of tea for coffee in the army, and told the people that the soldiers would welcome the change! A tolerably fair specimen of theoretical, stay-at-home wisdom, and not worthy of a Sabbath’s days journey of the Queen of Sheba to look at. Why, coffee is there true aqua vitae; their solace and mainstay. When a boy cannot drink his coffee, you may be sure he has done drinking altogether. On a march, no sooner is a halt ordered, than little fires begin to twinkle along the line; they make coffee in five minutes, drink it in three, take a drill at a hard cracker, and are refreshed. Our comrades from “der Rhine” will squat phlegmatically anywhere, even in line of battle. No sooner has the storm swept to some other part of the field, than the kettles begin to boil, and amid stray bullets and shattering shell, they take great swallows of heart and coffee together. It is Rhine wine, the soul of Gambrinus, “Switzer” and “Limberg” in one.

But it is five o’clock and a dingy morning; the regiments march away in good cheer; the army wagons go streaming and swearing after them; the beat of the drum grows fainter; the canvas city has vanished like a vision. On such a morning and amid such a scene I have loitered till it seemed as if a busy city had been passing out of sight., Leaving nothing behind for all that life and light but empty desolation. Will you wonder much if I tell you that I have watched such a vanishing with a pang of regret; that the trampled field looked dim to me, worn smooth and beautiful by the touch of those brave feet, whose owners have tried upon thorns with song – feet, alas, how many, that shall never again in all this coming and going world make music upon the old thresholds? And how many such sites of perished cities this war has made; how many bonds of good fellowship had been rent to be united no more.

At home anywhere, I wrote, and I might well have added, and used to anything, the boys are. You would wonder, I think, to see me lie down in the dusty road, under the full noon sun in Tennessee and Alabama, and fall asleep in a minute. I have passed hundreds of such sleepers. A dry spot is as good as a mattress; the flap of a blanket quite a downy pillow. You would wonder, I think, to see a whole army corps, as I have, without a shred of a tent to bless themselves with, lying anywhere and everywhere in an all night rain, and not a growl or grumble. I was curious to see whether the pluck and good nature were not washed out of them, and so I made my way out of the snug, dry quarters I am ashamed to say I occupied, at five in the morning, to see what water had done for them. Nothing! Each soaked blanket hatched out as a jolly of fellow as you would wish to see – muddy, dripping, half-foundered, forth they came, wringing themselves out as they went, with the look of a troop of “wet-down” roosters in a fall rain-storm, plumage at half mast, but hearts trumps every time. If they swore – and some did – it was with a half laugh; the sleepy fires were stirred up; then came the coffee and they were as good as new. “Blood is thicker than water.” I could never tire of telling you how like iron – wrought iron – men can get to be, and half the sympathy I had corked and labeled for the hardships of soldiers evaporated when I came to see how like rugged oaks they toughened into knots under them. True, there is another light to the picture. The regiment twelve hundred strong now stacks five hundred muskets. Bullets did not do it, as you would think, but just the terrible sifting process; the regiment is screened like grain; the sturdiest manhood alone remains. Writing of downy pillows, I noticed, on that rainy morning, that one of the boys did not hug mother earth quite as closely as the rest; his head was well up, and when he shook himself and whisked off the blanket he had lain upon, I saw his pillow, and no duck ever dressed such plumage; it was a little triangular piece of iron, the fragment of some bit of machinery, through which were thrust three iron rods some six inches in length. It was first this queer tripod of a pillow, then a corner of a blanket, and a pouring rain, and then a good, hearty all-night sleep. Never mind that feather the wrong way in your pillow; thank God for the one feather, pleasant dreams and good night!                     B. F. T.