“Soldier’s Heart” by Gary Paulsen Chapter 7 – Town Life
They went into camp again and this time they sat for three months. They were there so long they thought of the camp as a town and gave the paths between the tents street names based on Minnesota towns. Soon signs were stuck on poles: Winona Avenue, Taylor Falls Street…
It went from summer into fall and they cut trees and made log shanties and drilled in the rain and then snow, but spend most of their time in the log huts plugging leaks, keeping out cold wind and trying to get their clothes dry. They were rarely successful.
Disease spread through the camp like fire as the weather worsened, and with the disease came the rumors.
It was said that McClellan was afraid to fight. Almost all of the men – including Charley – loved the new commander and felt that he was only trying to be easy on the men by avoiding a winter campaign. But the rumors said that Lincoln – most of the men also loved the president and called him Old Rail Splitter – was very dissatisfied with McClellan’s “lack of bite” and wanted some attack made on the Rebels, somewhere, at some time soon.
Rumor said that a whole regiment from New York had deserted and gone home. It turned out not to be true – four men had deserted from a New York regiment and had caught and tried and shot by firing squads – but it showed the lack of morale.
Another rumor said that a young general named Grant out west in Tennessee had fetched the Rebels such a hit that he’d whipped their western army and that Grant was a drunk and that Lincoln had said, “Find out what kind of whiskey he’s drinking and send a case to all the generals.” This proved to be the truth, but none of it really mattered to Charley.
Like most of the men, he worked at taking care of himself. It kept him busy. The camp was worse than a pigsty. Men from the country – most of the Minnesota volunteers – knew of country living. They dug holes for latrines, kept their areas cleaner than others and worked at getting good shelter. Men from cities – New Yorkers were the worst – had little concept of living with the land and no idea how to take care of themselves. They left sewage in the open, didn’t drain the slops from their shelters and consequently were virtually destroyed by disease. Some New York companies lost more than half their men to dysentery, typhus, measles and diarrhea, which soon spread to other units.
It seemed somebody was always either getting sick, was sick, or was getting over something.
Charley and the rest were kept moving just working at repairing the shelter, keeping it clean and cooking. The food was simple and for the most part bad: beans, always beans, salt pork and coffee. Soon a bakery with wood-fired ovens was going and bread was doled out to the men. The plan was to give each man a pound of bread a day but it rarely worked out that well. The sutlers kept plying their trade and brought cakes and pies and cookies to the men but the prices went up – fifty cents for a cake that tasted as if it was made of wood – and most of the men only bought from the sutlers in dire emergency. Charley once relented and bought an apple pie but it when he sat down to eat it there were only three small slices of apple in it and nearly no sugar.
If they had the ingredients housewives on the nearby farms cooked and sold meals to the men, but getting food this way was chancy, to say the least. There were over ninety thousand men in the camp and perhaps twenty farms where food might be available. To feed all the men three meals a day, the farm wives would have to make thirteen to fifteen thousand meals a day each. Besides, the officers seemed to get most of this good food.
Officers were initially the only ones allowed whiskey as well. Charley didn’t drink but like everyone else thought it unfair in the extreme that only officers were considered able to handle it. There was a small mutiny among some of the units and soon whiskey was made available to all troops, although the enlisted men were to be issued it by the sutlers – a shot a day “to ward off the ague, chill and fever of winter camp” – and were supposed to drink it right where it was issued.
There was very little that was fair about the whole situation, at least from Charley’s viewpoint, and it quickly became obvious to him that it was every man for himself.
He became adept at camp survival. He pulled his own weight, took his turn gathering food and wood, and cleaning, and cooking, but he made a private world for himself where he kept his thoughts and knowledge. He worked constantly on his equipment, shining the leather, changing his cartridges if they became damp or seemed even a bit most, and most of all tending to his feet and his rifle.
“Charley, you’re going to wear that rifle out,” a man named Campbell told him one night while they sat by the trench stove. They had learned how to dig a trench a food wide and a foot deep along the floor of the shelter, then out under a wall and into the open. The trench was covered with flat rocks and a barrel placed over the opening outside to make a passable chimney. When the men built a fire in the trench inside the log hut, the rocks would become hot and heat the whole shelter.
Charley looked up at Campbell, then back to his rifle. He had forgotten none of what had happened. He knew it would come again. It had to come again because they were here. You did not have an army without a battle. It was what the generals wanted, what they needed: a battle to use their armies. On both sides it was all up to the generals, the officers. If it was left up to the men who did the killing and dying there would be no war.
Death would still come.
“I’ll be needing this rifle.” He spoke down, as if talking to the weapon. He did not like to look at people as much as he once did. He did not like to learn about them. It was better if he didn’t know them, become too friendly with them. They died so fast.
“Pshaw! We’ll be in this camp all winter. They ain’t going to fight when it’s cold.”
\ Charley said nothing but he remembered a night on guard duty. Down along the river he was put on picket duty, making sure there would be a warning if the Rebs on the other side of the river decided to attack. That night he was hunkered down behind an oak to get out of the wind –it was so cold he was reminded of Minnesota – and he heard a voice come from across the river, low and in a soft drawl.
“Hey, Union, can you hear me?”
Charley didn’t answer.
“Blue belly, are you deaf?”
Oh well, Charley thought, why not talk to them? “What do you want?”
“Just to talk, maybe do a little trading.”
“Trade bullets,” Charley said. “That’s all you want.”
“Naw – it’s too cold to fight. I’ve got me some good cut tobacco over here. You got any coffee? We’re down to burned oats for coffee of a mornin’.”
As it happened Charley had an extra half pound of coffee beans he’d been issued that afternoon. For months they hadn’t had coffee at all and had been using burned oats themselves for a hot morning drink, but when ration came, as usual the army would get it wrong and issue triple rations. Now there was a glut of coffee.
Charley didn’t use tobacco but he knew men who did, and Southern tobacco was much better than foreign tobacco available to the Union army now that the South had seceded. He could trade the tobacco for bread, pies, and leather to fix his shoes.
“How we going to trade?” Charley called back.
“I got me a plank. I”ll throw a line over to your side on a rock and you pull the plank across with the tobacco and I’ll pull it back with the coffee. Don’t you shoot me when I stand up.”
There was a half-moon and Charley peeked around the oak and watched as a slight figure stood up across the river. He was dressed poorly, his feet wrapped in what looked like sacks and his coat tattered and worn. Even in the moonlight he could see that the boy’s face was dirty. He thought, I probably look the same. But the Reb looked even younger than Charley.
“Mind the stone,” the boy called, and threw a rock with a string tied to it. The river was forty feed wide and the string snarled on the first toss and he had to retrieve it and toss it twice more before the rock made it. Charley moved from behind the oak and picked up the string. He kept low – couldn’t help it – but in a few minutes he had pulled the board across the river and found the tobacco wrapped in a cloth. He wrapped his coffee beans and put the package on the plank.
“All right – pull it back,” he called, and the piece of wood made it’s way back across the water. Charley watched it until it reached the other bank and then moved behind the oak, squatted down out of sight and tucked the tobacco inside his coat.
“Hey, blue belly – you still there?”
“This coffee looks good. Can you get more?”
“Let’s trade again tomorrow night. I can get all the tobacco you need.”
How could he not know where Minnesota was? “Up north – north of Iowa.”
“Oh. I’m from Alabama. You a farmer?”
“I worked on farms.”
“Me too. What do you grow?”
“Potatoes, corn squash, wheat and oats and barley.”
“Same as us except we have greens and ‘baccy and some rice in the bottoms. This is right stupid, ain’t it?”
“Here we be, both farmer, talking and trading goods and tomorrow or the next day we got to shoot at each other.”
I hope, Charley thought, you don’t hit me.
“Ain’t it stupid?” the boy asked.
“I’ve got to go now. My trick is near up. I’ll yell for you tomorrow night.
And that was it. There was no further talk or trading because an officer had heard Charley and jumped him about speaking to the enemy, and the same must have happened to the Reb because the next night Charley leaned against the oak and somebody fired from the other side of the river and drew splinters off the tree four feet over his head.