Today it’s 15 degrees outside the walls of my warm home. It made think of my great grandfather and his years as a Union soldier during the Civil War. This excerpt finds his unit settling down in Newport News, Virginia, on a small chunk of land surrounded by the James River and Chesapeake Bay. The soldiers enjoyed a short respite from war as recorded by my great grandfather, Harmon Camburn. I’m amazed that this Michigan born and raised young man so readily went for oysters from the bay. This excerpt makes me yearn for oyster stew!
From Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier (available on Kindle and in paperback)
February 15, 1863 – Early in the morning, the anchor was up, and we crossed the Roads to Newport News Point at the mouth of the James River. Here we were told we should camp for a time to recruit health, restore discipline, and improve drill. The surroundings are admirable adapted for these purposes. The point is high and sandy, widening to a level plain of considerable extent inland, and the James rolls seven miles wide on the southern side.
The 9th Corps camped upon the level plain extending along the James. The position of the 2nd Infantry was about two miles from the point, facing the river. The plain at this point is about thirty feet above the river, and although the river is seven miles wide, the air is so clear that objects can be seen very plainly on pleasant days on the opposite shore.
Two gunboats of the Monitor pattern were anchored in the river to prevent the enemy from coming down with vessels.
From our camp the spars of the sunken Cumberland could be seen where she went down, colors flying and guns booming, carrying with her dead, wounded and able bodied, the living sending up a lusty hurrah as she plunged beneath the waves, sunken by the Merrimac.
Newport News was not a village, not even a hamlet. It was a mere landing, with a dwelling or two near.
Fish and oysters are taken in abundance from the brackish water near the mouth of the James. With the advent of the camp, of course, the oyster made a regular landing and numerous board shanties sprang up where cooked oysters and fish could be had for a small sum.
As soon as our camp was located, with the drum major I visited one of these shanties, presided over by an “Old Auntie,” to get an oyster stew. Ordering a stew each, we were each soon served with a full quart of solid meats. Remarking to the “Old Auntie” that there was not much soup, she raised her hands and said, “Laud, love yer soul, honey! Oysters is what yer want – can dip up soup anywhere.”
As we had come here for general improvement, the first care was to provide quarters that would be healthy.
New A tents were issued, and these were placed on frames four feet high, two tents together while our poncho tents were used to enclose the frames below the A tents. This made a roomy tent for eight. Material for these frames was gathered from all sources. Some of us went some miles up the river and tore down a barn, formed the lumber and timber into a raft and floated it to camp. Working in rain or sunshine, we soon had the most complete quarters that we had ever had since our enlistment. The encampment was laid out into streets and parades with exact precision, and as soon as the tents were arranged, strict orders were issued and enforced regarding cleanliness and order, and for a month, this became a camp of discipline and instruction.
Each day went through the following programs: six o’clock, Reveille; six-thirty, clean streets; seven, breakfast; eight, guard mounting; eight-thirty to nine-thirty, company drill; nine-thirty to eleven, battalion drill; twelve, dinner; two to four, brigade drill; six, dress parade; eight, Tattoo, eight-thirty, Taps.
Although we had a full share of rain, a healthy location, good shelter, plenty of good rations helped out with oysters and fish, plenty of hard drill and discipline, we grew vigorous and the old 9th Corps fast gained its former soldierly appearance, and in our busy life, we soon forgot the gloomy winter camp.
This camp leaves a pleasant memory, yet there were few incidents worthy of note.
A human skull was the football of our regimental parade ground during our stay at this camp. Whence it came, no one seemed to know. Where, when, or how its owner’s life went out, no one seemed to care. Its shape would indicate that it was formerly worn by a Negro and on top the bone was more than a quarter of an inch thick. Kicked, hustled, and thrown about, it served as football, baseball, shuttlecock for the regiment and was never at rest only when the men were asleep. “To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole.” [From Hamlet by William Shakespeare]