George VanArsdale
Syracuse, New York
August 24, 1863 - Noonish

After a transfer to an eastbound train, the recruits disembarked in Syracuse, to an underwhelming welcome. They were greeted by an officer and two sergeants, nothing more (no band, no onlookers). The officer was mounted, and the sergeants held the reins of a horse each. The sergeants shouted the recruits to silence, and the officer addressed the throng. "Welcome to the army, men. Have you any non-commissioned officers among you?"

The boys looked around, and nobody looking like any kind of officer was among them. Somebody shouted, "No, it's just us chickens!" There was laughter.

The officer hid a smile. "I would have preferred men over fowl. But very well. Sergeant Johnson, march these chickens to the camp."

The sergeant with a yellow diamond above his three yellow stripes saluted. He said to the other sergeant, "You take rear guard," and mounted his horse. The other sergeant nodded, mounting his horse. The ranking sergeant called out, "Follow me, men."

As the crowd began walking along the road, somebody said, "What, no horses for us?" He got no reply. He tried again: "Hey, Cap'n, when do we get horses?"

Sergeant Johnson turned his horse to face the man and pointed a gloved hand at the man sternly. "No talking to officers unless spoken to! Don't you forget that! Besides, that man is a lieutenant. When you address an officer, you address him as 'sir.' You got a lot to learn about soldiering. And we're gonna give it to you."

The men were led away from the train station towards the south of town. They'd hardly gone a thousand feet when the grumbling began. George heard someone nearby say, "What the hell? How far is it? Are we gonna walk the whole way?"

Another fellow agreed. "They shoulda brought horses for us, or at least wagons."

And someone else shouted, "I thought I'd joined the cavalry, not the infantry!" Several voices chimed in, adding to the general mood.

George asked the sergeant, "Sergeant, shouldn't we be marching in step?"

The sergeant replied, "You'll get plenty of that soon enough."

Hezekiah Morris said, "That's a good idea, George." And he started singing "John Brown's body." All the boys joined in and soon everyone was marching in step (although some were on a right foot when others were on a left foot). By the time the company arrived in camp, they had finished "John Brown's Body," transitioning smoothly into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," then ran through "We Are Coming Father Abraham," "Grafted Into The Army," and "The Girl I Left Behind." As George sang the words to that last song, he at first thought of having left Clarissa Fallon behind, and he was glad. He had dodged a bullet there. But soon enough his thoughts went back farther, to Lottie Howe in Caton. And he regretted that his life was taking him even farther away from her. He wondered how she looked now, a year and a half after he'd last seen her.

The energy of the singing was waning, several boys going silent, but then the tents and flags of the camp came into view, and when they entered the camp, the boys were singing zestfully. Men in the camp gathered along the camp street to initiate the newcomers. There were hoots, jeers, and catcalls.

"Hey, fresh fish!"

"You call that marchin'?"

"What is this army comin' to? They let anybody in!"

"Where you boys from?"

The march continued through camp and ended at camp's edge. The officer and sergeants dismounted, and the sergeant without the diamond on his sleeve led the horses away. Several of the recruits sat on the ground, tired from the march. The officer talked to the sergeant and left, while four men wearing faded infantry uniforms came. The sergeant announced to the crowd of recruits, "You men need a place to sleep, right? You will sleep here." He spread his arms to indicate the open area in which the recruits were gathered.

Somebody complained, "What? On the ground, in the open?"

The sergeant continued, "You will build your camp here. You saw how we lay out our tents in ordered streets. You will build your camp with two streets, extending this street..." he swept one arm along the street they'd taken, and into the field. "...and this street." He swept the other arm outwards into the field from another street.

The sergeant nodded at the four men. "These men will take you to the quartermaster, where you will obtain 'A' tents and equipment. Each 'A' tent houses four men, so you will work in teams of four." He looked at the recruits and bellowed, "Go!"

George said to Hez, "Let's tent together." Hez nodded agreement.

* * *
As the boys struggled with the tents, they were exhorted to greater speed by the sergeant. "No shirking there! There is much more to be done before you can eat! Then there is much more to be done before you can sleep!"

George, Hez, and their two new tentmates were just about finished pitching their tent. The tent was standing, and three of the corners had been staked down. But then Sergeant Johnson and his crew came along the row, yanking stakes out of the ground. Johnson yanked out George and Hez' stakes. "Four inches out of line, and not square with the other tents. Do it over."

In an undertone, Hez grumbled, "Hell damn shit piss! Four inches! That man is trying my patience!"

The sergeant surveyed the new street of tents. It was perfect. "That'll have to do, I guess. All right, you men get lumber from the quartermaster and put in floors."

George had observed someone farther up the tree line go to relieve himself at the trees' edge. Now, before heading to the quartermaster's tent, George walked to a nearby tree, and unbuttoned his trousers fly. He was reaching into his trousers when the sergeant shouted right behind him, making George jump. "What do you think you are doin'?"

"Um, just need to relieve myself... Sergeant."

"We do not piss in our home like animals! You will report to the quartermaster, and obtain picks and shovels to dig sinks for your company."

"Sergeant, I..."

"Move!" The sergeant saw some other recruits loitering nearby and shouted, "You, too! You are on sink detail with him. Now, get going!"

* * *
George and the others were down in the trench they'd made, shoveling out dirt. He heard someone jump down into the trench behind him, and turned to see. It was Hezekiah Morris, shovel in hand. "Hez! So the sergeant caught you, too, eh?"

"Nope. We finished the wood floor in our tent, and I thought you boys looked like you could use some help. "

They dug side by side. George grunted as he threw another shovelful, "War is not living up to my expectations."

* * *
Finally the latrine trench was finished, and a rail seat installed along its length. No time to sit, even for a minute. The sergeant called, "Fall in! Fall in!" Some of the boys came near the sergeant, but others just looked confused. The sergeant said, "That means, come here and listen."

George, still standing near the trench, mumbled to Hez, "Oh. I thought we were to be buried in the trench we just dug."

Hez chuckled. The boys gathered around the sergeant.

"Report to the quartermaster. You will be issued gear and supplies."

One boy excitedly asked, "Uniforms and sabers and guns?"

The sergeant was not surprised by the question. "Not today. You need blankets, eating gear, soap, razors. After you've received your gear, stand ready for mess call."

Someone asked, "What's that?"

"Supper. Now go on. You know where the quartermaster is."

* * *
Supplies obtained, mess was served Army style. George and Hez sat on the ground to eat. George said, "This pork is too salty, and these potatoes are boiled to the death."

Hez said, "Well, I guess we didn't enlist for the food. But this is decidedly a step down from my ma's cookin'."

George scowled, "I have sampled the tables of good cooks and not so good ones, but this is many steps down from the worst I have had."

* * *
At 5:00, a bugle call brought all the men in the camp together. Most of the men there were in civilian clothes, but there was a sizeable phalanx of veterans in faded infantry and cavalry uniforms. Those men had been in regiments that had disbanded after serving their terms, and they now formed the core of the new Fifteenth New York Cavalry. The new recruits looked with awe upon these men.

A bugler played a spritely tune whose notes fell, and rose, and fell again. The Union flag (still showing stars for rebellious states) was lowered, then untied from the halyard. There were salutes, and then the honor guard departed.

The boys broke ranks. Hez mused, "I wonder what we do now."

Another recruit said, "Sarge says we are finished for today." As this was August, Retreat had occurred well before sundown. The boys were left on their own.

One boy said, "I am tired! It has been a long day."

Another said, "I need to wash up." Fellows started walking towards the tents.

George said to Hez, "Do you hear that?"

Hez said, "You mean that singing?"

"Yeah. And men laughing." George looked at the street of tents, one of which was where he would sleep this night, then he looked at the other companies' streets, where campfires were coming to life. George looked back at Hez and said, "I may be tired, but I can't go make my bed. I might just lie on it, and that'd be that. Too early!"

Hez agreed. "Let's go have a look." They walked towards the sound of the singing. They passed by several soldiers going to and from the nearby stream for washing.

One fellow greeted them with a chuckle, "Hey, fresh fish. How'd you like your first day?" He didn't wait for an answer; just kept on walking.

They came upon a couple of men playing a game with cards. Hez said, "Will ya look at that now." George was more interested in the group singing around a campfire, and kept walking. Hez caught up with him, and they came to the outskirts of the singing group as a song came to an end.

George caught the eye of one fellow and asked, "How long you boys been here in camp?"

"A couple weeks. I hear you boys are from Ithaca?"

Hez answered, "That's right. How about you fellows?"

"Lot of the boys in my company are from right here, Syracuse."

George said, "I wasn't expecting our first day to have us putting up tents and digging a ditch."

The fellow replied, "Well, that's the army for ya. A soldier has to build his own camp. Ain't nobody else gonna build it for ya."

Hez asked, "When will we get uniforms, and guns?"

George added, "And horses?"

The fellow chuckled. "Don't know for sure. I saw a wagonload of uniforms come in this morning. Maybe they want to issue weapons when all the companies have been mustered. I hear tell we'll get horses after we get sent on to the next place."

Hez asked, "The next place?"

Another fellow joined in. "I hear we'll be goin' to New York City. To help keep things quiet, so there're no more riots like last month."

The first fellow said, "Oh? I heard we'd be goin' to protect the Capital."

George dubiously asked, "Albany?"

"No, I mean Washington."

George whistled, one eyebrow raised. Hez asked the fellows, "So what are we supposed to do here in Syracuse, without guns or horses?"

The second fellow grinned. "Drill!"

George asked, "Drill, what's that?"

"Marchin'. Movin' as a group, real organized like."

The first fellow agreed. "You'll be doin' a lot of that."

Hez grumbled, "Sounds more like infantry than cavalry."

* * *
The fellows made a campfire in their area, and their company came together. Fellows had a little time to get to know one another, sing some songs around the fire. A bond was slowly beginning to grow.

Again a bugle rang out. George asked nobody in particular, "What's going on?"

Somebody in particular replied, "That's tattoo. Time to retire for the night."

George looked up and noticed that the sun had set, and the sky was beginning to darken.

* * *
George had laid down his rubber blanket on the plank floor, folded lengthwise to make it thicker. He laid his woolen blanket atop that, with his folded clothing for a pillow, and stretched out, pulling the side of the blanket around himself. "Don't know if I'll be able to sleep like this."

Hez said, "I can sleep anywhere, anytime, anyhow. You just watch me."

A bugle sounded another call. George mused, "I wonder what that one means."

Robert said, "I don't know." The level of sound in the camp died down.

West conjectured, "Might mean 'shut up and go to sleep now.' Gettin' kinda quiet out there."

George groused, "When are they gonna teach us what all these bugle songs mean? How are we supposed to just know..."

Sergeant Johnson suddenly tore open the tent flap. He held a lantern, by whose light he could make out the faces of the tent's occupants. "That call is 'Lights Out,' and it means you must be quiet!" He pointed at George. "I remember you. You're that damn fool who pisses anywhere he damn well pleases. Well, I will be watching you. Now put those candles out and go to sleep."

After he walked away, shushing other recruits, West whispered, "I told you so."

Hez whispered, "Hell damn! That man seems to dislike you, George."

George mumbled, "This war is not living up to my expectations." It was becoming a mantra.

West whispered, "Best you concentrate on living up to the army's expectations, if you know what's good for you."

Lying on the wood plank floor in the dark, George's thoughts were of the world he had left and the world he had gotten into. In the civilian world, there were women who cared if you were hurt, or if you had been kidnapped and sold like a slave. Here, there were only uncaring men who shouted at you if you made the littlest mistake. A young man in this world, the military world, gave up all free will. George had given up family and friends; he'd left the people in Caton who'd loved him (and one who'd hated him). He'd left the kind people in Ithaca who'd accepted him into their hearts and homes. Now all he had was the boys and men in this camp, all strangers, unknowns. And sometime in the foggy future, he would be ordered to ride a horse into battle, where slavery-loving Southerners would try to kill him.

He thought of the Wyeths, the Blacks, of pretty but self-centered Clarissa, and her family. He thought back further, to the VanArsdales. Eliza had loved him. But she'd lied to him all his life, telling him she was his mother. He thought of Jacob VanArsdale: impatient, often angry. That man should have been a sergeant! He thought of his birth parents, wondered again if he would find them, what they would be like.

And he thought of Lottie. Charlotte Howe, the girl he'd left behind. The girl he should have stayed with. Hiram Black had said, "When y'find a nice girl, y'gotta grab'er and never let'er go." Regret took a sudden and unexpected hold on George, and he sobbed, one quick unstoppable sob.

He forced down the lump in his throat and listened, to see if anybody had heard him. He heard nothing but deep rhythmic breathing from Hez. Snoring could be heard from a nearby tent. George matched his breathing with Hez, and tried to stop thinking about the direction his life was taking this time. Lying on the plank floor, even with the folded rubber blanket and the wool blanket, was decidedly uncomfortable. George remembered seeing some straw bales, and now he wished he'd taken a blanketful of straw for a bed. He imagined himself walking to a bale, picking up straw, bringing it in, spreading it... Sleep came before he managed to finish constructing the straw bed in his mind.

* * *


© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.