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Boys of Battery A

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[Figure 13: Camp Nevin]

This was a part of Kentucky full of hills, small farms, and cabins, unlike the large manor houses they would find further south. Mostly homes in this region had been abandoned with some owners going North and others going to the South. It was hilly land for a long and heavy train that required two engines to draw. One engine stalled out in a tunnel, the other threw a piston and knocked out its cylinder head, but the battery finally joined the camp.

Fort Nevin was six miles long, and contained, they guessed, 22,000 men. By the end of the month, with new groups arriving regularly, the camp stretched for ten miles and had over 35,000 troops. Around the camp were several hospitals and three could be seen within sight. Diaries noted that officers had been busy speeding up the transport of the sick on to hospitals at Louisville — about two hundred had been shipped out recently.

[Figure 14: A field hospital]

The troops expected from here to take on the Confederate forces of General Buckner; a Louisville veteran of the Mexican-American War who had first applied for an officer appointment to the Union Army. When he wasn’t given a commission he turned coat and joined the Confederates. It was reported around camp that Buckner had 40,000 men at Bowling Green, though it was also rumored that Battalion A might be heading in a different direction — toward the Cumberland Gap instead.

Members of the troop took turns at picket duty — some thirty at a time — at watch stations six miles or so out of camp. It was known that rebel pickets were within ten miles. No one without a pass from headquarters could go out of camp at night; all the troops in camp, including cavalry took their turns. Often men could hear shots in the distance at night. They’d fear for the worst — and watch the sky for the rocket signals. Occasionally there would be skirmishes with the enemy. At least one was shot while on duty in late October.

A party of 200 cavalry went out one night and nearly stumbled across a camp of 6000 rebels, who having heard the party advancing on them, pulled up stakes and retreated. In pulling back they were cutting themselves off from food supplies and they were desperate to secure Kentucky hogs for future provisions. Occasionally a picket would bring in someone they found recruiting for the rebels. Prisoners were often escorted back north where some of them reenlisted, this time in the Union cause.

As had happened to the north, friendly locals sometimes came into camp as spies. One woman tipped off the troops on the location of $1,000 of cloth hidden in a hay stack three miles away that sixty cavalrymen went out to acquire. One could never quite trust such visitors. Other men sometimes showed up at camp claiming to be Union men with news. Generally they would be blindfolded, a man on each side, and interrogated since these men were often spies.

At Camp Nevin, the boys kept busy with drills and some of them spent a good bit of time target shooting, though not all had revolvers. Sometimes the men from various battalions with rifles would get together for target practice competitions. The camp was busy and full, sometimes downright crowded. Men like Spafford who tended many horses had quite a chore since the watering spot was half a mile from camp, and there were over three thousand horses and mules watered by the various companies every day. The path from camp to the watering spot took the horse walker past a grist and saw mill to a spot where at times one would find 1500 horses being attended. Like so much else in camp, bugles were used to signal water calls, and when a private’s turn got called, they dropped what they were doing to tend to their teams.

Members of Battery A spent several days loading 150 rounds of shells — sometimes 30 to 40 ounce balls, sometimes broken glass; for others, slugs were made from cut-up horse shoes. The army was pretty good at providing food. Men continued to take turns at “mess duty” at each of the tent clusters in camp, though cannon and caisson drivers with horses to care for were usually relieved of duty.

There was fresh beef twice a week — sometimes served as soup. Vegetables this time of the year were scarce. Hard crackers were served as a staple. Crackers were ‘very hard’ as in “you couldn’t beak it with your hands”. In dealing with these ‘crackers’ the men resorted to using hatchets, and often boiled the bits in soup for half an hour. As one diarist chided, “I do not wonder that the government wants men with good teeth.” Another joked in a letter that he ought to ask his family to send a corn sheller for cracker grinding. A third commenter at the time noted that these biscuits (something we’re more likely to think of as “hard tack”) at least kept one’s teeth clean — “We have the whitest teeth you ever saw. Crackers are as good to scour them up as charcoal.”

Egbert Viele’s “Hand-Book for Active Service” [New York : D. Van Nostrand, 1861] recipe for soup for 25 men suggested 25 pounds of meat to 15 quarts of water, and was sparsely seasoned with 2 tablespoons of salt and half a one of pepper. Rather than crackers, he’d add two pounds of rice and up to three pounds of vegetables of some kind if they could be found. Egbert also had a recipe for salt pork, potatoes, and cabbage, with ingredients that would have been easier to scrounge up earlier in the year. It was to his concoction of salt pork, potatoes, cabbages, peas, beans, onions and rice that he added “ship biscuits”.

The battalion acquired some eighteen mules for baggage wagon teams of six, though only six of them had ever had a collar on them, and taming them was quite a chore. The critters liked to cause problems and were only too ready in a team to create havoc. “We had the most fun I every had in my life. We hitched up six raw mules that never had a collar on and started to the river. I was thrown. The saddle mule jumped over the tongue and fell down on its back. When we went through the river the one I was on tried to throw me. One of them was so mad it laid down three times in the water.”

A Long Dreary Wait

Time was moving on and yet there was very little clarity for the troops about the role they would play in the war. Some thought that the Battalion would become more or less bodyguard for Brigadier General McCook of the Ohio division in Tennessee. At other times the men understood that the battalion had been attached to General Johnson’s forces, including the 32nd of Indiana, a regiment of stout and hard drinking German language soldiers. Some of those soldiers were rumored to have served in wars on the continent and their regiment was considered among the very best of the Union forces.

Ultimately, the troop spent much of its time in guarding and construction or repair of bridges. Sometimes bridge guarding and repair would take months with components machined at Louisville and brought down by train. These sorts of repairs were necessary if the sabotage of retreating rebels was to be undone, and if supply lines were to be maintained to the North.

At least with the delays this huge camp was accessible to the “sutlers” — outside traders that came to camp to sell provisions. And those sutlers did a fair business toward the middle of November when the company received cash for paying the troops. The troops bought clothing, snacks, and newspapers that were widely passed around. Sellers did a brisk business in pencils and paper as usual, and on this payday, over one hundred dollars worth of U.S. Postage stamps were sold — enough for a lot of letters home.

As November came around and the weather got colder, delays were frustrating to the men. By early November there had only been a half dozen frosts — far fewer than in Ohio, but they were starting to come on. Little if any news about their fate, or about the war, was coming from leadership. Daily they saw other troops heading down the wagon roads or moving by on trains. Many of the men were writing home, and most of the news they got about the war came from home. One can detect a sort of weariness in the letters home. Perhaps the weariness depicted in those letters had to do with the news coming from home — often loaded with rumors needing to be corrected.

The weather only got more wet and miserable as November turned into December. Rains were heavy and there were reports that some rivers came up so fast as to wash out the temporary bridges that Union forces had built along the way. Locals told troops that the weather was colder than it had been for years, though the misery seems to have been primarily of rain turning to snow, or snow piling to three inches and then taking a good coating of ice. One day an artist connected with ‘Harper’s Weekly’ spent four or five days with the troops, sitting in the center of the rainy camp and sketching their quarters. Letters home suggested that the people of Portage might get a copy of the publication if they wanted to take a view of the camp.

(fort Nevin)

Periodically again the men would get an alert from headquarters telling them to pack knapsacks and be ready to march at a moment’s notice. More than a couple of times they packed and waited for final calls that seemed never to come. Sometimes they’d be expecting to leave within five minutes — wagons ready to roll, for weeks at a time. Rumors floated through camp that Buckner and his men were marching towards them… Then they might hear that he and his troops were in retreat.

For the most part though, the soldiers of Battery A still expected the war to be over soon — either by Buckner getting bashed at a last stand, or by his calling a fast retreat, and being pursued to a quick demise. They wondered what the newspapers were saying at home and pleaded to have copies sent. The boys generally though the South couldn’t last another three or four months. In the meantime there were rebels around, causing their usual kinds of problems.

Bacon Bridge

Part of the Battalion had been tasked to rebuilt a bridge over Bacon Creek ten miles south of the camp, but when the bridge was up and they were about to lay track, rebels burned it to the ground in the middle of a night.

[Figure 15: Aftermath of December 1861 raid which burned the bridge at Bacon Creed a second time in as many months. Sabotage required floating bridge construction.]

By the end of November the weather was far colder, and it rained a good deal of the time — soldiers often had to stay in their tents most of the day, and some did not fare very well. A number of the men were said to be sick of “colic”. Food was scarce, with provisions down to about a ten day supply. Even horse feed was hard to get, though it helped when a traitor to the rebels pointed the Captain to a barn full of rye which had not been threshed — enough to last out bridge repairs so that supply trains could pass. When the Salt River bridge was repaired, a train with two hundred supply wagons could finally get through.

Soldiers in some tents agreed to go together to buy portable wood stoves for their tents. Taking up donations, they sent several of the men off to town. Before buying such equipment though, it was expected that the men get permission of higher ups — so that stoves would go as cargo when baggage carts were loaded. Cotter was willing and agreed to their transport from there on through — more grounds for the men to appreciate their Captain.

Not only Cotter, but most of the troop’s leaders came in for favorable reviews in letters home. They were described as being “quite common” and as conveying attitudes of respect. In support of the point, leaders were said to prefer “walking among the men” rather than deporting themselves on their fine horses. President Lincoln sent letters that were read to the troops. These messages from leadership were also appreciated.

December and January came and went. Over and over again, the men would expect to leave within the week and then be held for five. Expecting to tear down camp, they were told in December to grind their axes instead, and to set about building stables for the horses. They were even allowed to haul brick and gravel to pave the yard around their tents and cook places. For the first time they had kitchens with board roofs over poles and tables out in the yard. With food scarce, there were days with mush for breakfast dinner and supper and with nothing to put on it besides grease. Though the men would rather have been at home with apple-butter and milk on their mush, they don’t seem to have complained, and leadership did what it could to keep up with a commitment to two fresh-beef feeds a week.

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