George VanArsdale
15th New York Cavalry, Co. G
November 1-6, 1863
Camp Stoneman, Washington, D.C.

Because of the nature of an army camp like Camp Stoneman, just south of the nation's capital, it was not unusual to hear gunshots. They were sometimes heard because of firing practice, and sometimes heard because a sleepy-eyed picket saw a tree move and shot at it when it refused to respond to a peremptory challenge. Sometimes a horse at the cavalry depot had to be put down. But two incidents occurred during George's time in Camp Stoneman that foreshadowed the hazards of combat.

The first occurred in the dead of night. A number of shots were heard, distant and then more somewhat nearer. George's eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright. Hez asked, "What is going on?"

"Sounds like some trouble." More shots. George said louder, "Fellows! Wake up!" He threw off his blanket and started putting on his clothes.

Creque, the bugler, asked, "Are those shots?"

Emly asked, "Who's shooting?"

A bugle sounded, and Creque jumped into action. He threw on his coat and boots, grabbed his bugle, and ran off. George strapped on his revolver. "Come on!" He ran out and saw quite a few signs of something unusual happening; men heading towards the captain's tent, some with revolver in hand.

"The shots are over that way," someone said. He was pointing southeast, into Maryland countryside. More shots could be heard in that direction.

Bugles sounded assembly, and that made it official. George ran to his place, and soon the company was formed. No more shots could be heard now. Sergeant Lane came from the captain's tent. "Enemy raid. Wait for further orders."

Hez asked, "Enemy raid? Here?" Other boys started asking questions, but Lane shut them up. "Company, attention! Just wait for orders." So the men had to stand and just wait in silence for a while. Then the bugles sounded recall. Lane said, "All right, the excitement is over. Go on back to bed. Company dismissed."

Boys started up asking questions again but Lane just said, "We'll hear all about it in the morning. I'm going back to bed."

Sergeant Lane was right. The next morning, the story was told, retold, and embellished. It had been a raid by a rebel guerrilla band, trying to obtain horses and weapons. They had succeeded in obtaining none of either. The brazenness of the raid was discussed, and the route of the attackers was conjectured on; one theory held that they must have come between Forts Snyder and Carroll, and escaped the same way, over the ridge and across Oxen Run.

But the part of the story that made the biggest impression on George was that someone had actually been killed. The storyteller said, "It was a fellow name of August Holburton."

George commented, "That's awful."

Hez asked, "Did you know him?"

"No. That doesn't make it less awful."

* * *

The next shooting occurred a few days later. It was breakfast; boys were boiling water in their cups, and cooking their salt pork skewered on sticks or a bayonet. It was a typically tranquil enough scene, but a shot was heard, followed by a ruckus, boys running and shouting over in Company H.

George ran over there. He knew several of the Company H boys. He found a group gathered around a fallen fellow. "Who is it? What's happened?"

"It's John Clark. He was just cooking, when all of a sudden..."

"Came from over there!"

Another fellow ran in from that way, and said, "It was the picket."

"A picket? Was there an attack? Was he shootin' at something?"

"He said he didn't know his rifle was cocked."

George looked with sympathetic pain as the boy on the ground lay barely breathing, conscious and bleeding while other fellows gathered around, worried over what to do. Several boys wanted to lift Clark and carry him to the surgeon, but cooler heads suggested that a litter would be better. Someone ran off, and soon fellows were coming with a litter and the assistant surgeon John Robinson and private Sheffield Green in tow. Clark moaned something awful as he was lifted onto the litter and carried off. His blood left a puddle by the fire, and a trail that led to the surgeon's area.

George watched him go. Standing next to George was William Brill, a German immigrant from Company H. George looked at Brill and said, "Dear Lord, what a thing! Poor John! Y'think he'll be all right?"

Brill just shook his head and muttered, "Son of a bitch."

That almost made George smile. Brill was well known to have a limited English vocabulary, and "Son of a bitch" was Brill's trademark phrase.

An hour later, word came back: Clark was dead.

* * *


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