War From the Inside

This is a book by Frederick L. Hitchcock, who was a major and the adjutant of the 132nd Pennsylvania. It was published in 1904. Later in the war, Hitchcock was a lieutenant colonel and then colonel of the 25th USCT. You can download and read the book for free here or here.

The book is a good read with excellent information on the daily life of a soldier. For example, Hitchcock tells us, “An interesting feature of the issue of rations was the method of supplying the fresh beef. Live cattle were driven to the army and issued alive to the several corps. from which details were made of men who had been butchers, who killed and dressed the beef. The animals were driven into an enclosure and expert marksmen shot them down as wanted. This seemed cruel work, but it was well done; the animal being hit usually at the base of its horns, death was instantaneous. This fresh meat, which we got but seldom after the march began, was cooked and eaten the day it was issued. Enough for one day was all that was issued at a time, and this, after the non-eatable portions had been eliminated, did not overburden the men. The hard bread was a square cracker about the size of an ordinary soda cracker, only thicker, and very hard and dry. It was supposed to be of the same quality as sea biscuit or pilot bread, but I never saw any equal to that article. The salt pork was usually good for pork, but it was a great trial to us all to come down to camp fare, ‘hardtack and pork.’ Sometimes the ‘hardtack’ was very old and poor. I have seen many a one placed in the palm of the hand, a smart blow, a puff of breath, and mirabile! a handful of ‘squirmers’—the boys’ illustration of a ‘full hand.’ It came to be the rule to eat in daylight for protection against the unknown quantity in the hardtack. If we had to eat in the dark, after a prolonged march, our protection then lay in breaking our cracker into a cup of boiling coffee, stir it well and then flow enough of the coffee over to carry off most of the strangers and take the balance on faith. On the march each man carried his own rations in haversacks. These were made of canvas and contained pockets for salt, sugar and coffee, besides room for about two days’ rations of hard bread and pork. Sometimes five, six, and seven days’ rations were issued, then the balance had to be stowed away in knapsacks and pockets of the clothing. When, as was usual in the latter cases, there was also issued sixty to one hundred rounds of ammunition, the man became a veritable pack-mule. For the first month many of our men went hungry. Having enormous appetites consequent upon this new and most strenuous mode of life, they would eat their five days’ supply in two or three, and then have to ‘skirmish’ or go hungry until the next supply was issued. Most, however, soon learned the necessity as well as the benefit of restricting their appetites to the supply. But there were always some improvident ones, who never had a supply ahead, but were always in straights for grub. They were ready to black boots, clean guns, in fact, do any sort of menial work for their comrades for a snack to eat. Their improvidence made them the drudges of the company. Whatever may be said about other portions of the rations, the coffee was always good. I never saw any poor coffee, and it was a blessing it was so, for it became the soldiers’ solace and stay, in camp, on picket and on the march. Tired, footsore, and dusty from the march, or wet and cold on picket, or homesick and shivering in camp, there were rest and comfort and new life in a cup of hot coffee. We could not always have it on picket nor on the march. To make a cup of coffee two things were necessary besides the coffee, namely, water and fire, both frequently very difficult to obtain. On picket water was generally plentiful, but in the immediate presence of the enemy, fire was forbidden, for obvious reasons. On the march both were usually scarce, as I shall show later on. How was our coffee made? Each man was provided with a pint tin cup. As much coffee as could comfortably be lifted from the haversack by the thumb and two fingers—depending somewhat on the supply—was placed in the cup, which was filled about three-fourths full of water, to leave room for boiling. It was then placed upon some live coals and brought to a boil, being well stirred in the meantime to get the strength of the coffee. A little cold water was then added to settle it. Eggs, gelatin, or other notions of civilization, for settling, were studiously (?) omitted. Sometimes sugar was added, but most of the men, especially the old vets, took it straight. It was astonishing how many of the ‘wrinkles of grim visaged war’ were temporarily smoothed out by a cup of coffee. This was the mainstay of our meals on the march, a cup of coffee and a thin slice of raw pork between two hardtacks frequently constituting a meal. Extras fell in the way once in a while. Chickens have been known to stray into camp, the result of a night’s foraging.” [pp. 22-25]

He also gives us some insight into the military science of the time: “Still another arm of the service was the pontoniers, whose duty it was to bridge non-fordable rivers. They were armed and drilled as infantry, but only for their own protection. Their specialty was laying and removing pontoon bridges. A pontoon train consisted of forty to fifty wagons, each carrying pontoon boats, with plank and stringers for flooring and oars and anchors for placing. In laying a bridge these boats were anchored side by side across the stream, stringers made fast across them, and plank then placed on the stringers. Every piece was securely keyed into place so that the bridge was wide enough and strong enough for a battery of artillery and a column of infantry to go over at the same time. The rapidity with which they would either lay or take up a bridge was amazing. If undisturbed they would bridge a stream two hundred yards wide in thirty minutes.” [p. 30] Regarding his own specialty, Hitchcock tells us, “Having now given some account of the organization of this great human fighting machine, it will be proper to show how it was handled. For this purpose there were four staff departments, namely, the adjutant-general’s, the quartermaster-general’s, the commissary-general’s, and the ordnance departments. The first named was the mouthpiece of the army. All orders were issued by and through that officer. It was the book-keeper of the army. Each subdivision of the army had its adjutant-general down to the office of adjutant in the regiment, who was charged with issuing all orders, and with attending to their execution. He was secretary, so to speak, of the commanding officer, and his chief executive officer as well. Extraordinary executive talent and tireless energy were required in these positions. The adjutant must be able at all times to inform his chief of the condition of every detail of the command whether an army corps or regiment, exactly how many men were fit for duty, how many sick or disabled, and just where they all are. In fact, he must be a walking encyclopaedia of the whole command; added to this he was usually chief of staff, and must be in the saddle superintending every movement of the troops. Always first on duty, his work was never finished.” [p. 31] He tells us two of the best adjutants were Seth Williams under McClellan and John Rawlins under Grant. He continues, “I have said all orders were sent out through the adjutant-general’s office. This, of course, applies to all regular routine work only, for during the movements of troops on campaigns and in battle orders had in the nature of the case to be delivered verbally. For this purpose each general had a number of aides-de-camp. In sending such orders, the utmost courtesy was always observed. The formula was usually thus, ‘General Kimball presents his compliments to Colonel Oakford and directs that he move his regiment to such and such a point.’ To which Colonel Oakford responds returning his compliments to General Kimball and says ‘his order directing so and so has been received and shall be immediately obeyed.’ The quartermaster’s department was charged with all matters connected with transportation; with the supplying of clothing, canvas, and equipage of all sorts. Both the commissary and the ordnance departments were dependent upon the quartermaster for the transportation of their respective stores. The wagon trains required by the Army of the Potomac for all this service were prodigious. They were made up of four and six mule teams with heavy ‘prairie schooners’ or canvas-covered wagons. I have seen two thousand of them halted for the night in a single park, and such trains on the march six to ten miles long were not unusual.” [pp. 32-33] He also tells us, “The commissary department supplied the rations, and the ordnance department the arms and ammunition, etc. Still another branch of the service was the provost-marshal’s department. This was the police force of the army. It had the care and custody of all prisoners, whether those arrested for crime, or prisoners of war—those captured from the enemy. In the case of prisoners sentenced to death by court-martial, the provost guard were their executioners.” [p. 34]

Hitchcock also gives us insight into how the armies marched. “The army marches in three and four parallel columns, usually each corps in a column by itself, and distant from the other columns equal to about its length in line of battle, say a half to three-fourths of a mile. Roads were utilized as far as practicable, but generally were left to the artillery and the wagon trains, whilst the infantry made roads for themselves directly through the fields. The whole army marches surrounded by ‘advance and rear guards,’ and ‘flankers,’ to prevent surprise. Each column is headed by a corps of pioneers who, in addition to their arms, are provided with axes, picks and shovels, with the latter stone walls and fences are levelled sufficiently to permit the troops to pass, and ditches and other obstructions covered and removed. It is interesting to see how quickly this corps will dispose of an ordinary stone wall or rail fence. They go down so quickly that they hardly seem to pause in their march.” [p. 35] As far as discomfort on the march goes, he identifies dust as being worse than heat or being tired. At the end of the day’s march was the bivouac. “Arriving in bivouac for the night, the first thing was a detail to fill canteens and camp kettles for supper coffee. We always bivouacked near a stream, if possible. But, then, so many men wanting it soon roiled it for miles, so that our details often had to follow the stream up three and four miles before they could get clean water.” [p. 37] He also gives us a warning in accepting soldier recollections of battles without question: “And right here I ought to say that what an individual officer or soldier—unless perhaps a general officer—knows of events transpiring around him in the army is very little. Even the movements he sees, he is seldom able to understand, his vision is so limited. He knows what his own regiment and possibly his own brigade does, but seldom more than that. He is as often the victim of false rumor as to movements of other portions of the army, as those who are outside of it.” [p. 38]

Something we don’t normally think about is the difference between officers and enlisted men when it came to rations. “The officers at this time experienced difficulty in getting food to eat. The men were supplied with rations and forced to carry them, but rations were not issued to officers —though they might purchase of the commissary such as the men had, when there was a supply. The latter were supposed to provide their own mess, for which purpose their mess-kits were transported in a wagon supplied to each regiment. The field and staff usually made one mess, and the line or company officers another. Sometimes the latter messed with their own men, carrying their rations along on the march the same as the men. This was discouraged by the government, but it proved the only way to be sure of food when needed, and was later on generally adopted. We had plenty of food with our mess-kit and cook, but on the march, and especially in the presence of the enemy, our wagons could never get within reach of us. Indeed, when we bivouacked, they were generally from eight to ten miles away. The result was we often went hungry, unless we were able to pick up a meal at a farm-house—which seldom occurred, for the reason that most of these farmers were rebel sympathizers and would not feed us ‘Yanks,’ or they would be either sold out, or stolen out, of food.” [pp. 42-43] That difference in rations even extended to wounded soldiers in the hospital. “This hospital was no better and in no wise different from those for private soldiers, except that we were charged a per diem for board, whereas there was no charge for the privates.” [p. 161]

Hitchcock explains the picket line: “the picket line consists of a cordon of sentinels surrounding the army, usually from two to three miles from its camp. Its purpose is to watch the enemy, and guard against being surprised by an attack. Except for this picket line, the main body of troops could never sleep with any degree of safety. To guard against attacks of the enemy would require it to remain perpetually under arms. Whereas with its picket lines properly posted it may with safety relax its vigilance, this duty being transferred to its picket forces. This picket service being a necessity of all armies is a recognized feature of civilized warfare. Hence, hostile armies remaining any length of time in position near each other usually make an agreement that pickets shall not fire upon each other. Such agreement remains in force until a movement of one or the other army commences. Notice of such a movement is, of course, never given. The other party finds out the fact as best it can. Frequently the withdrawal or concealment of the picket line will be its first intimation. Ordinarily, picket duty is not only of the very highest responsibility, but an exceedingly dangerous duty. Until agreements to cease picket-firing are made, every sentinel is a legitimate target for the sentinels or pickets of the enemy, hence extreme vigilance, care, and nerve are required in the performance of this duty. The picket line in the presence of the enemy is generally posted in three lines,—viz.. First, the line of sentries; second, the picket supports, about thirty yards in rear of the sentries, and third, the guard reserves, about three hundred yards farther in the rear, depending upon the topography of the country. Each body constitutes one-third of the entire force, i.e., one-third is constantly on duty as sentinels, one-third as picket supports, and one-third as grand reserves. The changes are made every two hours, usually, so that each sentry serves two hours on ‘post’ and four hours off. The latter four hours are spent half on grand reserve and half as picket supports. The supports are divided into companies, and posted in concealed positions, near enough to the sentry line to be able to give immediate support in case of attack, while the grand reserves, likewise concealed, are held in readiness to come to the assistance of any part of the line. Ordinarily this part of the picket force is able to sleep during its two hours of reserve service. The supports, however, while resting, must remain alert and vigilant. It being the duty of the picket-line to prevent a surprise, it must repel any sort of attack with all its power. In the first instance the sentinel must promptly challenge any party approaching. The usual formula is: ‘Halt! Who comes there?’ The approaching party failing to obey the command to halt, it is his duty to fire at once, even though he be outnumbered a hundred to one, and it cost him his life. Many a faithful sentinel has lost his life in his fidelity to duty under such circumstances. For although the picket is there to prevent a surprise, the attacking party is equally bent on getting the advantage of a surprise, if possible, and many are the ruses adopted to capture sentinels before they can fire their guns. He must fire his gun, even though he be captured or run through with a bayonet the next instant. This gives the alarm, and the other sentries and picket supports open fire at once, and the reserves immediately join them, if necessary, to hold or impede the progress of the enemy. It is thus seen that in case of an attack the picket force finds itself maintaining a fight possibly against the whole opposing army, or whatever the attacking force may be. Fight it must, cost whatever it may, so that time may be gained to sound the ‘long roll’ and assemble the army. Many of our picket fights were so saucy and stubborn that the attacks were nipped in the bud, the enemy believing the army was there opposing them. In the mean time, mounted orderlies would be despatched to army headquarters with such information of the attack as the officer of the day was able to give.” [pp. 167-170]

This is really an excellent book, not for the claims about what happened in battles, but for the information about soldier life Hitchcock relates. It’s the strength of the book and makes the book well worth the time to read. I highly recommend this book.


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