Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for The Color Guard, A Corporal’s Notes, James Kendall Hosmer.

The Color Guard, A Corporal’s Notes, James Kendall Hosmer.

May 14, 2013

The Color Guard, A Corporal's Notes, James Kendall Hosmer

May 14. — A gentle rain is pattering on the tent-roof, — grateful to us now as a shower in August in Northern city or hamlet. To its soothing music the other men have gone to sleep; while I sit here with my back to the tent-pole, writing words to this pretty pattering tune. May is going; and we are, generally speaking, as idle here as during the previous month we were active. It is nearly three weeks since we encamped on the Courtableau, — weeks of glorious summer. Day and night, along the bayou, the mocking-bird “shakes from his little throat whole floods of delirious music;” and over the stream, from the boughs of the big trees, hang the ladders of moss, — the Jacob’s ladders, on which “the angels, ascending, descending, are the swift humming-birds.” The distant forest line is blue to the eye, and of impenetrable density. What enchanter’s incense is this sweet blue haze! lulling the outer sense, stimulating the fancy; so that I sit under our booth, my eyes upon the far-away woods, dreaming of romance,—just now of the “wood of Broceliande,” and Vivien charming Merlin with her spells “of woven paces and of waving arms.” O sweet “Idyls of the King”! is there any poetry like you? It is all beautiful. But our sojourn here is inglorious. Instead of being left behind to guard cotton, I would have preferred to march with Banks to the Red River: a cup of fatigue and hardship it would have been, but gloriously dashed with excitement.

The pile of cotton is a mountain on the landing. All day long, — every day for weeks, — teams have brought it in, until it almost seems worth while to build here the factories that are to work it up into fabric; but, since Mahomet will not come to the mountain (to set on its head the saying), the mountain is going to Mahomet. Down it goes, piecemeal, through the bayou, on little steamers padded out like lank belles, at every available place, into portentous embonpoint. They say our business here will be finished when the cotton is carried away: so we watch the slow decrease of the pile, hear the mocking-birds, wash lazily in the bayou in contempt of alligators, and live along.

Along the bank of the stream is an immense camp of negroes. They have come by thousands from the whole country round. Generally, their masters appear to have fled; and the negroes, harnessing up the mules, loading in their families together with their own and their masters’ goods, have come crowding in to us. They come trustingly, rejoicing in their freedom. By night, until long past midnight sometimes, we can hear them shout, pray, and sing. Gen. Ullman has been here, and the able-bodied men are to become soldiers. The women and older men, and all not fit for military duty, are to go on to plantations taken by the Government or by loyal men. They are to receive wages, and be well cared for. No doubt, their condition will be distressing in many cases. For them, it is a most momentous period of transition, — a crisis which they can hardly pass without suffering; but it will be temporary, and a bright future lies before them.

The other day, on the bank of the bayou, I found a man, born, as he said, in New Jersey. He came South as steward of a ship, and was coolly sold by his captain into slavery at New Orleans. From there he became a plantation-hand, and for fifteen years had been in bondage.

Last week, there came shivering through to us from Port Hudson, forty miles away, the boom of a mighty bombardment. We heard them, Friday and Saturday, getting the range; then Saturday night, —it was starlight, and all calm as an infant’s sleep, — that night we heard the roar of the real attack, — continuous thunder from the far north-east. We could tell the sharp reports of the Parrotts, the heavier boom of Dahlgren, the long-drawn crash of mortar. The whole air listened; and the land trembled, as if it partook in the guilt of its inhabitants, and quailed beneath the blasting and thunderous retribution that was falling. We felt it, rather than heard it, all through the long night, coming through desolate fen and over plain, through wood and over stream; imparting tremor to every foot in those dreary, intervening leagues, as if the Genius of the conquering North were making the land feel everywhere the -indignant stamp of her resistless heel!

So we live and listen and wait. I am reduced now to about the last stage. My poor blouse grows raggeder. My boots, as boys say, are hungry in many places. I have only one shirt; and that has shrunk about the neck, until buttons and button-holes are irretrievably divorced, and cannot be forced to meet. Washing-days, if I were anywhere else, I should have to lie abed until the washer-woman brought home the shirt. Now I cannot lie abed, for two reasons: first, I am washer-woman myself; second, the bed is only bed at night. By daytime, it is parlor-floor, divan, dining-table, and library, and therefore taken up. I button up in my blouse, therefore; and can so fix myself, and so brass matters through, that you would hardly suspect, unless you looked sharp, what a whited sepulchre it was that stood before you. I have long been without a cup. Somebody stole mine long ago; and I, unfortunate for me, am deterred, by the relic of a moral scruple which still lingers in my breast, from stealing somebody else’s in return. My plate is the original Camp-Miller tin plate, worn down now to the iron. I have leaned and lain and stood on it, until it looks as if it were in the habit of being used in the exhibitions of some strong man, who rolled it up and unrolled it to show the strength of his fingers. There is a big crack down the side; and, soup-days, there is a great rivalry between that crack and my mouth, —the point of strife being, which shall swallow most of the soup; the crack generally getting the best of it.

Rations pall now-a-days. The thought of soft bread is an oasis in the memory. Instead of that, our wearied molars know only hard-tack, and hard salt beef and pork. We pine for simple fruits and vegetables. The other day, however, I received a gift. An easy-conscienced friend of mine brought in a vast amount of provender from a foraging expedition, and bestowed upon me a superb turkey, — the biggest turkey I ever saw; probably the grandfather of his whole race. His neck and breast were decorated with a vast number of red and purple tassels and trimmings. He was very fat, moreover; so that he looked like an apoplectic sultan. I carried him home with toil and sweat; but what to do with him for the night! If he had been left outside, he would certainly have been stolen: so the only way was to make a bedfellow of him. Occasionally he woke up, and “gobbled;” and I feared all night long the peck of his bill and the impact of his spurs. In the morning, we immolated him with appropriate ceremonies. The chaplain’s coal-hod, the best thing in camp to make a soup in, was in use; but I found a kettle, and presided over the preparation of an immense and savory stew, the memory whereof will ever steam up to me from the past with grateful sweetness.

In spite of hard fare, I appear to flourish. The other day, I thought I was afflicted with some strange and terrible disease. I was growing short-winded, and had a novel fulness about the waist, which tightened my vest-buttons. Yesterday, however, I was weighed, and found myself fourteen or fifteen pounds beyond my usual weight. I was short-winded only because I was pursy; and the protuberant stomach was simply adipose. My gait, too, I thought was affected. Alas! is it simply that I waddle?

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