Journal of the Kosciusko Guards • Company E • 12th Regiment

 Written by William S. Hemphill • Transcribed by Marjorie Priser

 Chapter 6

Christmas 1861

It is Christmas Eve! The cold wind sweeps in fitful gusts around the lowly cot of the poor, and piles the snow in mimic mountains at the door of the rich. The inmates draw close to the bright fireside and laugh and chat merrily over the return of the day so anxiously looked for in childhood, as each succeeding year brings its "Merry Christmas", its friendly greetings, and its tokens of love and friendship to each one in the home circle. But, in how many homes is there a vacant chair to-night? In how many beaming faces is there a shadow of sadness, stealing in between the smiles? And why? A father, a husband, a brother, or a son is not there. Why is that chair vacant tonight of all nights! Come with me to the banks of the Potomac, to the fields of Kentucky, or to the broad prairies of Missouri, and you shall have your answer.

"A Merry Christmas!" Tis the old familiar greeting! Echoed from tent to tent, throughout the camp. It passes around the guard line. The sentinel on duty, whose unceasing tramp tramp tramp was keeping time to his thoughts, looks around him while a bright smile illuminates his face, which is bronzed by exposure to the sun and the elements, he passes the magic words to his comrades, and resumes his wearying walk and watch, while his thoughts, at a bound, go back to the cheerful cottage so far away, where he knows his loved ones are assembled, and in his heart he greets their wish "A Merry Christmas". Look at him now, as he calls up fond recollections of home, and you would think his heart had never known a care; that the face, now so cheerful and bright, had never worn the fierce look of determination; that the eye, now so gentle in its expression, that perchance you may detect a truant tear, rolling slowly down the brown cheek, had never blazed with the fire of passion as he glanced along the trusty rifle, now held so lovingly to his bosom, (as though it were one of the loved ones, of whom he is thinking) with the determination to send its death-dealing contents to the heart of some luckless foe-man.

Those cheering words, which brought such bright visions of happiness in childhood, still wield a magic influence over the heart of the soldier, and place him once more, in imagination, within the walls of home. But it is only the reflected joys of former years that causes his heart to beat quicker, and causes the smile to linger upon his lips. Lay aside the ideal and look at the real. All is changed. Christmas brings to the soldier none of the festivities, or unions and merrymakings that it brings to the citizens at home. He only enjoys in imagination the bright scenes, the memories of the past; while they, greeted by loved ones at every step, forget the cares of life for the time being, and mingle in scenes of mirth and pleasure.

Instead of the holiday they enjoy, the soldier has the same weary routine of duty to perform. Whilst the citizen is looking for a cherished friend, a loved brother or sister, to spend the day with him in pleasant festivities, the soldier is watching for the approach of a subtle enemy, whose appearance would probably mean the approach of the "grim monster" to one, or both. Whilst the one is watching to guard against a pleasant susprise by some loved one, which would only call forth a happy laugh, the other is watching to guard against a surprise which would call forth all the fierce elements in man's nature strife, bloodshed and death.

The one takes his place at the festal board and partakes of the luxuries of the season; while the other has the poor pittance of coarse food that is doled out to him by the government he is defending, and on which he is expected to subsist, month after month without uttering a complaint. And yet there are those who spend their lives in ease, enjoying the blessings and privileges, the soldier has sacrificed so much to secure to those, who will say "A soldier's life is a life of pleasure." It is; and the man is unworthy [of] the name of soldier, or the proud title of American Citizen, who does not take pleasure in discharging the duties assigned him; though those duties should require him to face storms and danger, and even death. It is a proud pleasure to know that he is doing his whole duty; but it is not the kind of pleasure that is found by the home fireside.

In camp, the holiday passes slowly away. Perhaps some lucky one has procured some little luxury, which is shared with all, so far as it will reach, and while the loved ones are gathered around the cheerful hearthstone, in the cozy room at home, the soldier draws his blanket about him, and whilst a comrade keeps up the weary watch and tramp tramp tramp he sits down by the camp fire to think of, and talk of the loved ones at home; of the happy hours he has spent with them, and of their probable enjoyment of "Merry Christmas". And deep down in his heart he sighs and wonders if they are thinking of him, if they regret his absence. But time passes; "Taps" have sounded. All is quiet in camp save that unceasing tramp tramp tramp of the sentinel on his lonely beat.

Let us look into this tent. There lies a soldier, with his coarse blanket drawn around him, resting his wearied form on the cold, damp ground, with nothing but this thin bit of canvas to shelter him from the storm. He sleeps. Yes, just as soundly and sweetly as those who are resting upon beds of down, at home. Watch his features and read his thoughts. A bright smile steals over his bronzed features. He mingles again with his loved ones around the festal board. Hears again the old, familiar voices, as they ring out with their "Merry Christmas" greeting. Again he sits by the fireside and joins in the innocent amusements of the occasion. But see! The smile is gone, the scene has changed. The bright visions of home have fled. A step or the challenge of the sentinel falls on the ear that is always open to detect the sound of approaching danger. Look again. Would you recognize those features now? A look of defiance, of hatred, of stern determination rests now where you so lately found a bright smile. See! His hand grasps his trusty rifle which is always by his side and with a start he awakes and finds 'tis but a dream!

Don't go yet. Wait. Again he sleeps, and again he dreams of home and loved ones. Hark! What sound is that? Like a flash he springs to his feet and as the "long-roll" swells out on the midnight air, with rifle in hand he rushes forth to join his comrades in repelling a night attack. The commands are given in a low firm voice; a cautious movement is made; a whispered "there they are" is heard; then, "Steady men!" and then - the rifles are pouring forth their deadly contents! The splintering fire; the hoarse commands; the shouts and cheers of the combatants; the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying; the roar of artillery; the bursting of shells, and the clashing of arms, all mingle together in an indescribable roar, which once heard can never be forgotten. See there! Would you recognize in that powder blackened image the features of the loved and loving one we were gazing upon but a moment ago?

"Charge!" The effect is like that produced by a current of electricity as it passes through the ranks. With a shout of defiance to the foe he rushes forward unmindful of danger. The bright flash is seen, the sharp report of the rifle is heard; he staggers forward a few steps, reels and falls! His life blood is turning the snow to a bright crimson. Again he essays to go forward; but Death orders him to "halt". With a last effort his rifle is raised to his cheek; a wild light gleams from his eyes as his last leaden messenger speeds on its mission of death.

The rifle falls from his hands; his eyes are turned toward Heaven; his lips move; Listen! He breathes a prayer. The name of some loved one lingers on his lips. Now he catches the sound of familiar voices. They call him back from the land of shadows. With a last effort he raises his hand as they approach and with his fast failing strength he joins in the glad shout of "Victory!" a triumphant smile playing upon his features. His men-mates gather around. Gently they bear him back to camp. Tenderly they gaze upon his face and minister to his wants. Sadly they bend over him to catch from his lips the last message to the loved ones at home. A moment more and the soldier's Merry Christmas is closed in death. He has gone on his last march. Has stood his last guard. Has fought his last battle, and spoken for the last time of home and loved ones. While those dear ones at home are perhaps speaking his name and indulging the fond hope that he will soon return. Tears roll down their manly cheeks. All his faults are carried with him; his virtues only are remembered. Sadly his name is spoken as they linger around the camp fire; and often do they speak of the vacant seat in that far off home, which will never again be filled and of the cheerful voice which greeted them with "Mery Christmas!" now forever hushed.

Time rolls along and while the "Home Guard" speaks with enthusiasm of the pleasures of a soldier's life, he has the weary, monotonous duties to perform, cheered occasionally by a letter from home, a token by which he knows that he is not forgotten. Cheered at all times by the knowledge that loving hearts yearn for his safe return; that a mother's, a sister's, a wife's, or a sweetheart's prayers go up to the throne of Grace by day and by night, in his behalf. But above all things cheered by the knowledge that he is discharging his duty to his God and his country. With the bright dreams of the future and of fame ever before him, he goes steadily forward in the discharge of duty, expecting a safe return to home and loved ones, where he can fight his battles over by the fireside, surrounded by their dear familiar faces, when Time again brings in his train the "Merry Christmas" greetings.

Dec. 25th "All quiet on the Potomac" is what the papers say.

Dec. 26th But still a stray shot will skip across the river.

Dec. 27th The picket at the Guard-lock was fired on. Nobody hurt.

Dec. 28th Take off the camp guard and strengthen the pickets. There appears to be a great deal of masterly inactivity among the leaders, which to men who are constantly on duty seems unaccountable. The rebel officers have complimented the two companies at this post for the gallant manner in which they defended the post on the 11th. They seem to have a better knowledge of the situation than our own officers, who have been censuring the command because the Captain and the boys were captured. The general sentiment of the men in camp is "if these officers will come to Dam No. 4 where they can see a rebel soldier occasionally, and see what a glorious chance 180 men had to cross over and wipe out 2100 rebels, they would probably not be so strong on the censure."

As there was not much prospect of a movement being made during the winter, the men went to work and put up very comfortable log-cabins. They are very neat and much more comfortable than the tents. Dr. David Hazzard of Warsaw came out as soon as he received the news of the capture of the boys on the 11th. The old man was very anxious to get word from his son "Lem" but otherwise enjoyed camp life hugely and made himself useful, by attending any of the men who happened to be "out of sorts". Luckily, but very few of the men were sick, nothwithstanding their almost constant exposure. An occasional bad cold is all.

Dec. 29th There was heavy firing in the direction of Romney, Va.

Dec. 30th The heavy booming of artillery was heard all day, rolling up from the southwest. This aroused the hope that there would be an onward movement. Any change would be welcomed. The weather was very cold and life in a picket camp, where constant watchfulness is required is anything but pleasant. The routine of duty is wearing and depressing, while to be cooped up in camp with nothing but the stale jokes and games to pass the time with is perfect torture. A shot fired at one of the picket posts is hailed as a God-send, as it sends a thrill of new life throughout the camp.

Dec. 31st There is considerable heavy firing toward Winchester all day. Our 1st and 2nd Lieutenants were a little fervent towards each other. In fact the 1st takes on rather more whiskey than is wholesome and as he persists in imbibing about every ten minutes he has been on a chronic drunk for three weeks and no hope of a change so long as he can get the liquor to keep it up. He becomes filthy in his habits and his conduct is so disgusting that no one cares to associate with him. A splendid drill officer and a model soldier when sober, he becomes perfectly hoggish and worthless when drunk.

The two companies having built about thirty neat cabins gave the camp the name of Hoosiertown.

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