Guard duty around “the watch fires of a hundred circling camps”

 

Under the watchful eye of an officer (right) who probably wanted to be elsewhere, Union soldiers celebrate Thanksgiving in their camp. The approximately 1,000 men of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment spent their first Christmas away from home at Camp Knox in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

Under the watchful eye of an officer (right) who probably wanted to be elsewhere, Union soldiers celebrate Thanksgiving in their camp. The approximately 1,000 men of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment spent their first Christmas away from home at Camp Knox in Washington, D.C. This art was done by Winslow Homer. (Library of Congress)

For the 11th Maine Infantry lads spending winter 1861-62 at Washington, D.C., living at Camp Knox on Meridian Hill was exciting …

… and the nights were noisy, thanks to the boisterous camp guards.

“Camp Knox was beautifully situated on a slope of Meridian Hill,“ marveled Pvt. Robert Brady Jr., an Enfield youngster spending his first winter away from home. Pulling into the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depot in Washington late on Nov. 15, 1861, the 11th Maine boys had slept “that night on the not so very plank flooring” inside the depot.

After a verbal contretemps with the D.C. gendarmes the next morning over the Maine lads brewing “coffee … in the public streets,” Brady and his Co. D comrades formed up and marched to Meridian Hill. Along the way, Brady sampled a “tough-crusted” pie that “Washington was famous for in those days.”

The pie was “so suggestive of leather” that “a soldier” could ask if it was “sewed or pegged,” Brady muttered, probably after spitting out the crust.

Setting up Camp Knox, the 11th Maine lads overlooked Washington “and a stretch of adjoining country,” Brady observed, likely comparing Meridian Hill to the relatively flat topography around Enfield. The rear of the camp abutted “a deep wood-bordered ravine”; the stream flowing through it provided the Mainers with “pure water.”

Soon issued rifled muskets, the fledgling soldiers started “learning our drill from the ‘School of the Soldier,’” Brady said. The men drilled relentlessly, fought “the Battle of the Sand Pits” with a regular Army cavalry regiment camping nearby, and helped build drafty wooden buildings dubbed Carver Barracks. Packing up their tents, the 11th Maine lads moved into the barracks on Jan. 1, 1862.

With its location on the northern edge of Washington, Camp Knox was relatively secure against Confederate attack. Nevertheless, Brady and his comrades learned how to guard a camp, a skill they would need once the 11th Maine marched into hostile territory.

After arriving on Meridian Hill in Washington, D.C., the 11th Maine Infantry lads set up a tent camp that they dubbed Camp Knox. That camp was similar to this 7th New York Infantry Regiment camp located near 14th Street in the nation's capital. (Library of Congress)

After arriving on Meridian Hill in Washington, D.C., the 11th Maine Infantry lads set up a tent camp that they dubbed Camp Knox. That camp was similar to this 7th New York Infantry Regiment camp located near 14th Street in the nation’s capital. (Library of Congress)

“As our camp was a large one, our guard-posts were numerous,” Brady said. After dark, the guards sounded “the night hours,” with a designated sentinel leading off at the top of the hour and the “calling” continuing around the guard-posts until the last sentinel reported.

While the fires snapped and crackled and gradually dried down at Camp Knox, men trying to sleep learned just how irritating the “calling” was. Brady vividly remembered the disruption years after the war.

“The first quarter of each hour of the night was rendered hideous by a cry that passed along from post to post of ‘ten (or so) o’clock and a-l-l’s well,’” he said.

The voices shouting the “calling” ranged “from the roar of some deep-chested bull of a man to a shrill wailing cry as of a woman at a wake,” Brady said.

Their sleep disrupted for 15 minutes, tired Mainers fell into dream land again … until the top of the next hour and the resumption of the “calling.”

Soldiers vociferously complained up the chain of the command, and “this disturbance to sleep was soon discontinued and the sleepy sentinels obliged to pace their posts silently,” Brady reported.

But soldiers being soldiers, however, the guards (usually privates) figured out another verbal game. Sometimes the guards called “for the ‘corporal of the guard,’” Brady quickly learned this game’s rules. “This cry, too, would some nights ring over and over again, in all possible voices.”

The gamers particularly targeted “a new or an objectionable corporal,” he explained the rules. A changing of the guard involved a designated corporal marching several men to their assigned posts and relieving the guards on duty.

If a guard had a problem, he was expected to summon the corporal of the guard — and some nights, this happened a lot.

A targeted non-com “passed his two hours [of duty] in trotting from guard-house to post, to stand temporary guard for this or that tormentor” (probably when the private needed to take a leak), said Brady, who may have participated in the game himself.

Returning to the guard-house, the corporal “would throw himself on the guard-bed fully determined that before he was another twenty-four hours older[,] he would insist on being killed, promoted to sergeant, or reduced to the ranks,” Brady said.

He knew of only one corporal who wanted to be busted down to private, and that was so his brother could be promoted to corporal. While admiring the man for making room for his sibling, Brady questioned the wisdom of deliberately taking a “backward step from the first one out of the ranks to a commission of major-general.”

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.