George VanArsdale
15th New York Cavalry
Early October, 1863
Washington, D.C.

The train rolled inexorably towards the Capital. Some boys, who were able to see the sights, called out information for the boys who could not see. "Big fort over on this side!"

"One over on this side, too!"

"Lookit those big guns!"

"That is some heavy artillery!"

"We must be gettin' close!"

The train rolled past infantrymen stationed along the rails. Some boys shouted greetings to the infantrymen. "Hello!" and "Never fear! Now we are here!" There was some nervous laughter at that.

Shortly after, the train entered urban streets. One boy with a view spotted a woman, and waved vigorously at her. "Hello!" But he was disappointed. He opined, "She did not seem excited that we have come to save her."

Someone said, "There's an Army camp there. Right in the middle of the city!"

"Army wagons. Caissons. The whole city is like an Army base!"

"Look! Zouaves!" A whistle. "Those are right colorful uniforms!"

And then, "Look! There is the Capitol dome!" And before long, the train began to slow.

George expected to hear a band playing, to welcome the arrival of the heroes who would save the Union, but there was no music. Just a lot of squealing of iron wheels, and clanking of cars bumping closer, the train compressing as it came to a halt. The car doors were opened and the men stood, their joints creaky after the long ride.

On the ground, men jostled one another, moving towards the road and craning their necks. "Which way is the Capitol?"

"Over there!"

"Where is the White House?"

One of the veterans said, "Just over that way."

George saw that the black porters and the civilian travelers waiting for a train seemed bored by the arrival of the cavalrymen. "Guess they get a lot of soldiers comin' in."

Hez agreed. "Seems so."

The men were formed for a march, and without any speeches or fuss, the men simply started walking. The battalion tried not to disrupt normal traffic, but a disruption they were. There were no horns to honk; instead, there was shouting. Some drivers shouted angrily about the blockage of traffic. After a few shouts of various sorts from the cavalrymen, orders went down the line to withhold all vocalizations, although not in so many words. Finally the battalion gave up trying not to be disruptive; all efforts had just made the civilian shouting worse. Best to just march straight on ahead, and let the civilians deal with it.

George got a good look at the Capitol dome. Even though he wasn't that close, he could see that it was an impressive structure, bright and new. On the sidewalks there were soldiers, sailors, black people, men in frock coats and top hats, women in wide colorful skirts. Horse-drawn vehicles of numerous types, civilian and military. George saw a black man with a handcart, stepping into the street in traffic gaps to remove horse droppings; surely a dirty job and a dangerous one. George wondered briefly if his life was that much better than a slave's. George saw a fat bewhiskered white man in a tall black stovepipe hat ride by in a carriage chauffeured by a black driver.

After a while, the column entered a wide thoroughfare. Information and rumors passed along the line of march, "This is Pennsylvania Avenue."

"This is the street where the White House is."

"We gonna pass by it?"

"Naw, it's back the other way."

A horse-drawn streetcar went by. George looked curiously at the passengers. He saw black people and white people both. Male, female, young, old. Civilian and military. Right afterwards, another streetcar passed, going the opposite direction. And again, a democratic mix of races, genders, and professions on the car.

The column turned at an intersection. Several horse-drawn artillery limbers passed by, going the same direction. The cavalrymen had to squeeze over to the side.

"What street we on now?"

"Eleventh Street."

The column went on a ways, then came to a bridge. Up ahead, beyond the bridge, could be seen a fort on a hill. Infantrymen, armed with rifles, guarded the bridge, watching the passing column with bored looks.

Boys curiously asked what fort that was up ahead, and word passed back along the column. "That's Fort Stanton."

The road forked, and the column took the right fork. The column passed by a few more residential streets, then entered the countryside. Then a handsome brick building could be seen to the right.

There were several Army ambulances parked there, and many soldiers. There were also tents on the lawn. George's ears perked up when he heard someone pass the information down the line, "That's the Lunatic Asylum."

George asked, "Really? There are such places?"

Hez replied, "What do you mean?"

"I mean, places where they take care of the insane?"

Hez shrugged. "I s'pose."

"You s'pose all those soldiers there are insane?"

"Look more like wounded, to me." Hez looked curiously upon George's great interest in the place.

Not long after, the column entered bustling Camp Stoneman. Army tents, horse corrals, stables, all manner of buildings. Beyond could be seen the wide Potomac. Somebody said, "That's Virginia over yonder!"

George craned his neck. Virginia! That meant he had really arrived. He stood on the very lip of the crucible of war. And now that he was here, no matter how carefully he trod, he was bound to fall right into it.

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