Our First Foreign War

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Dear friends: I now begin what I intend shall be, when finished, a very long letter. The first observation that I shall make is that if you all are in as good health as I am, you could not wish for better. I presume you received a letter stating that I had enlisted in the Army, and that I was at this place. When we shall go away is uncertain, probably by the first of March, or at any rate as soon as Spring opens. …

I will now proceed to give you a description of matters and things in general and of the life I now lead. When I first came here, I with the other recruits was drilled 1½ hours in the A.M. —that looks odd—and the same in the P.M. —that looks odd, too—when we had as much as you please of Right dress, Front, Right flank, Right face, Left flank, Left face, ’Bout face, Countermarch by file right and left, Left and right oblique march, Right and left wheel, Right and left turn, Right into lines, Common time, Quick time, Double quick time, Treble quick time, Mark time, etc., etc., etc.

I will describe the everyday performance here. Reveille is beat at daylight in the morning. In fifteen minutes every man must be on parade at the exact time which is announced by firing a big gun. Then the roll is called at sunrise; breakfast at eight o’clock; the sick call is beaten when all that are sick go to the hospital [at] half past eight; dinner at noon; retreat is beat at sundown; another gun fired; and the roll called. Supper, however, is before retreat. Tattoo is beat at eight, and in fifteen minutes [all] must be in bed. …

Each man is allowed eighteen ounces of bread, eighteen ounces of beef, or three-fourths pound pork a day. The old liquor ration is now served in the shape of coffee, a large bowl of which is furnished at every meal. These rations or their value in something else is more than a man needs. AVe have about every other day a soup of beef, potatoes, turnips, cabbages which is first rate. At supper we usually have nothing but coffee and bread—no butter, cheese, pies, or—see that: I was going to write cakes, kakes . …

There are now four or five hundred recruits and soldiers belonging to organixed companies on the Island. We are finely situated here for one who likes to see something new every day. Governors island is situated in the harbor of New York about three-fourths of a mile from the city and contains sixty or seventy acres and is a good deal higher in the middle where the Garrison is. There is also a strong fort on the west side of the Island containing 125 large cannons mounted on carriages, facing the portholes. The fort is circular with five tier of guns all around it. These guns are of iron and of three different sizes, the smallest on the top. …

On Sundays the men’s arms, clothes, knapsacks, and quarters are inspected at ten o’clock when at the long roll we all go on the parade ground to be inspected. There are four organized artillery companies here who all march to meeting to the music of a large brass band containing about forty members. The most appropriate instruments also assist the choir in singing. The service is the established Church of England. …

The soldiers are all paid off once in two months, viz., the first of January, March, May, etc. The day before payday is a general muster, and you hear the rumbling of cannon wheels and the bang of guns and rattling drums all day.

New York City is in full view, at least the first streets on the south side for three miles, for the city is so level that nothing but the first block of buildings and steeples can be seen, but the ships, schooners, sloops, brigs, barks, sailboats, and steamboats that lie all around the city is a caution to greenhorns. I venture to say that six hundred different water crafts can be seen at any time from Governors Island, and the different colors that fly from the masthead look scrumptious. …

Sunday, February 9

… Almost every kind of men you will find in the Army and a good many are well educated. I am acquainted with one who has been a preacher, with three or four who have been schoolteachers, clerks, etc., and there is any quantities of shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, etc., etc.

The soldiers have a hundred ways to amuse themselves: in the day time between mealtime and drill you might see the parade ground covered with men running, jumping, wrestling, playing ball, leapfrog, pitching quoits, or looking on. In the evening there are debates in which the most learned spout, or mock court martials where some prisoner is brought up, tried, and either acquitted or convicted and sentenced. These courts are carried on with a great deal of gravity and solemnity. …

The soldiers are allowed three uniform coats and caps in the five years, the first, third, and fifth years; one fatigue jacket every year; four pair boots and stockings every year; two pair woolen pants; one pair cotton ditto; one cotton jacket; one pair drawers; two flannel shirts [and] two cotton ones in a year; three blankets in the five years. Knapsacks and haversacks and arms are loaned to soldiers by [the] Government. Many soldiers save forty or fifty dollars during the term by saving their clothes. …

Sunday, February 23

… Yesterday, Washington’s birthday, was celebrated by the Yorkers in great style. Their cannon, flags, and music afforded amusement not only to thousands of citizens assembled on the Battery but called out some hundreds of soldiers on Governors Island.