Lawrence Van Alstyne was a young Hudson Valley boy who enlisted in August 1862 in the 128th New York Volunteers--popularly called "Bostwicks Tigers." He trained for a short time at Camp Hudson, and then at Camp Millington, outside Baltimore, before sailing to the Gulf region. His account of daily life in the camp, in diary form, is one of the most authentic that has come down to us.
September 17, 1862. Maybe I have described our life here before, but as no one description can do it justice I am going to try again. We are in a field of ioo acres, as near as I can judge, on the side of a hill, near the top. The ground is newly seeded and wets up quickly, as such ground usually does. We sleep in pairs, and a blanket spread on the ground is our bed while another spread over us is our covering. A narrow strip of muslin, drawn over a pole about three feet from the ground, open at both ends, the wind and rain, if it does rain, beating in upon us, and water running under and about us; this, with all manner of bugs and creeping things crawling over us, and all the while great hungry mosquitoes biting every uncovered inch of us, is not an overdrawn picture of that part of a soldiers life, set apart for the rest and repose necessary to enable him to endure several hours of right down hard work at drill, in a hot sun with heavy woollen clothes on, every button of which must be tight-buttoned, and by the time the officers are tired watching us, we come back to camp wet through with perspiration and too tired to make another move.
Before morning our wet clothes chill us to the marrow of our bones, and why we live and apparently thrive under it, is something I cannot understand. But we do, and the next day are ready for more of it. Very few even take cold. It is part of the contract, and while we grumble and growl among ourselves, we dont really mean it, for we are learning what we will be glad to know at some future time.
Now I am about it, and nothing better to do, I will say something about our kitchen, dining room and cooking arrangements. Some get mad and cuss the cooks, and the whole war department, but that is usually when our stomachs are full. When we are hungry we swallow anything that comes and are thankful for it. The cooks house is simply a portion of the field we are in. A couple of crotches hold up a pole on which the camp kettles are hung, and under which a fire is built. Each company has one, and as far as I know they are all alike. The camp kettles are large sheet-iron pails, one larger than the other so one can be put inside the other when moving. If we have meat and potatoes, meat is put in one, and potatoes in the other. The one that gets cooked first is emptied into mess pans, which are large sheet-iron pans with flaring sides, so one can be packed in another. Then the coffee is put in the empty kettle and boiled. The bread is cut into thick slices, and the breakfast all sounds. We grab our plates and cups, and wait for no second invitation. Ve each get a piece of meat and a potato, a chunk of bread and a cup of coffee with a spoonful of brown sugar in it. Milk and butter we buy, or go without. We settle down, generally in groups, and the meal is soon over. Then we wash our dishes, and put them back in our haversacks. We make quick work of washing dishes. We save a piece of bread for the last, with which we wipe up everything, and then eat the dish rag. Dinner and breakfast are alike, only sometimes the meat and potatoes are cut up and cooked together, which makes a really delicious stew. Supper is the same, minus the meat and potatoes.
The cooks are men detailed from the ranks for that purpose. Every one smokes or chews tobacco here, so we find no fault because the cooks do both. Boxes or barrels are used as kitchen tables, and are used for seats between meals. The meat and bread are cut on them, and if a scrap is left on the table the flies go right at it and we have so many the less to crawl over us. They are never washed, but are sometimes scraped off and made to look real clean. I never yet saw the cooks wash their hands, but presume they do when they go to the brook for water.
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger, From Lawrence Van Alstyne's, "Diary of an Enlisted Man."
This Page last updated 01/17/04