Poor Slovenly Ragamuffins (December 14, 1864)

"Winter picket duty" by Alfred Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

“Winter picket duty” by Alfred Waud. Click to enlarge (Library of Congress).

Sadly, this is the last we will hear from Theodore Lyman for a while. Around this time Meade said to him, “I have a Christmas present for Mrs. Lyman—a certain worthless officer whom I shall send home to her.” He gave Lyman a 30-day leave, with the understanding that he would return for the opening of the spring campaign.He will leave the army on December 20 and not return until March 1

In this letter , Lyman describes some of the miseries of a Civil War soldier in winter. His description of the men covered by snow while they sleep reminds me of a passage from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, in which the same thing happens to the sled dogs. Lyman also details the nuts and bolts of picket duty.

General Winthrop [in speaking of Warren’s operations] said his brigade bivouacked in a cornfield; it blew, snowed and sleeted all night, and when reveille beat in the morning, you could only see what seemed a field full of dead bodies, each covered with a rubber blanket and encased with ice. Some of the men had to kick and struggle, they were so hard frozen down. Yet, despite this, I have not learned that it has caused much sickness. How would you like to carry forty or fifty pounds all day, be wet through, have your feet soaked with mud and snow-water, and then go to sleep in a cornfield, with a drifting sleet coming down on you all night? This is what twenty-five thousand men did, for more than one night, on that expedition. This is what our poor slovenly ragamuffins can do; and this it is to be a good soldier. The Rebels are still tougher, if anything. Being still in love with the new picket line, which has been established in our rear, I again went down what is called the Church road, until I struck the infantry pickets, near a Colonel Wyatt’s house. This once was a well-to-do establishment. The house is large and a huge cornfield testifies that he (or our cavalry) had gathered a good harvest that very year. There were the usual outbuildings of a well-to-do southern farmer: little log barns, negro huts, and odd things that might be large hencoops or small pigstyes. The Virginians have a great passion for putting up a great lot of diminutive structures as a kind of foil to the main building, which, on the contrary, they like to have as extensive as possible; just as the old painters added importance to a big saint by making a number of very small devotees, kneeling below him. A stout old gent, in a shocking bad beaver, who was walking about in the back yard was, I presume, the distinguished Colonel. Having stared at the house and been in turn stared at by a pretty little girl who threw up a window, to have a more clear view of the Yank, I went, still along the Church road, till I got to the Weldon road.

A picket line is always one of the most picturesque sights in an army, when it runs through woods and fields. You know it consists of a string of “posts,” each of half a dozen men, or so, and, in front of these, a chain of sentries who are constantly on the alert. The squads of men make to themselves a gipsy bough-house in front of which they make a fire in cool weather. They must always have their belts on and be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. In the woods, you follow along from one rustic shelter to another, and see the sentries, out in front, each standing behind a good tree and keeping a sharp lookout for Rebel scouts, bushwhackers and cavalry. A short distance in the rear you from time to time come on a “reserve,” which is a large body, perhaps of fifty or a hundred, who are concealed and who are ready to come to the assistance of the posts, if they are attacked. Picket duty is, of all others, that which requires most individual intelligence in the soldiers. A picket line, judiciously posted, in woods or swamps, will oppose a formidable resistance, even to a line of battle. There was careful Mr. Corps, officer of the day, with his crimson scarf across his shoulder, inspecting his outposts and reserves; each one falling in as he came along and standing at a shoulder.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 300-02. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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