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A soldier's stories of the Civil War

My grandfather never had a good word to say about the State of Virginia. I was there once, and found it not at all as he had described it to me. Grandfather enlisted in Company I of the 16th Regiment of Volunteers, and knew about the Rebel States as his battleground for the duration.

Leaving by steam train in 1861, his company, made up of boys from his area of Maine, rode to Fall River, Mass., and arrived by boat in New Jersey, after which they marched, hay-foot straw-foot, from battlefield to battlefield for the four years until mustering-out back in Maine. Without boot camp or any training whatever, he met the enemy at Fredericksburg and after that everything was worse.

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He was 18 when he took part in the exercises at Gettysburg, and the book says at the end of the first day the 16th Maine was withdrawn from the field and adds, "if 27 men can be called a regiment." Most of the rest of Grampie's war he spent in Virginia.

From my 10th to my 20th years I spent Decoration Day with my grandfather, and he repeatedly told me it rained every day in Virginia. The mud was horse-wither deep, nothing was to his liking, and he was some glad when the war was over. Grampie never called it Memorial Day. It was Decoration Day, when the soldiers of 1861 to 1865 turned out to decorate the graves of "fallen comrades" and paraded behind a band from cemetery to cemetery.

At the cemeteries, the old soldiers left potted petunias or geraniums on each grave that was marked by a flag. There was always Taps and a patriotic address. Then in the evening, Gramp and I would sit and he would tell me again about the mud in Virginia.

Every now and again there will be a savant on the TV who is an authority on the Civil War. He turns out to be an expert on which general led the charge at Hackett Brook, and which regiment from Massachusetts defended Turkey Trot Common, but never knows the incidents my Grampie told about.

Being made up of Maine farm boys who were immediately confronted by the tangled logistics of conflict, Company I, 16th Maine, early became semi-official scavengers to fend off starvation. Not only did they find food, they prepared it and did the cooking. My grandfather served as regimental butcher. Seeking provender was called "skirmishing," and if Northern skirmishers came upon Southern skirmishers, the ensuing battle wasn't over secession, but over who got the sheep.

One day, my grandfather was skirmishing in muddy-muddy Virginia and he came upon some Northern cavalry riders who had "liberated" a Rebel cow and were standing by their steeds, looking down at their prize. Being city soldiers, they had no idea what to do next when a beef critter is slaughtered.

My grandfather told me he quickly made a deal. He would skin and cut up the meat if they'd give him the head. Fair enough, and Granddaddie deftly, quickly did as agreed. When he told me this story, years later on a Decoration Day, he said: "So I contrived to bring away the head so a good part of the forequarters came with it." That evening in Virginia, Company I and the 16th Maine dined sumptuously, and I notice in the history of the 16th Maine it says they were the worst soldiers but the best scavengers in the Union Army.

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Somewhere in dirty Virginia, five regiments got lost somehow and received no supplies by wagon. One was the 16th Maine; the others were from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. They skirmished for food and did without all else. Their clothing wore out, and for warmth and modesty the men wore their blankets. Thus dubbed "The Blanket Brigade," the regiments continued for some time in destitution. And one day my grandfather stumbled on a happy surprise.

HE CAME upon a cabin in the woods, very much apart, and a gaggle of slave children was running about. He spoke to them, and they came in curiosity to stand around him. The sudden silence of the children brought their mother from the cabin, and at first she was horrified. She'd been told Yankee soldiers were wicked and depraved, and here was one of the monsters about to tackle her brood! Just remember, please, that my grandfather was not yet 20, and that black folks were as strange to him as a Yankee was to this mother. He touched his cap and spoke to her, and soon they were in conversation. Her man, she said, was at the big house yonder, very occupied because Massa was away to the war. Grandfather told her he was doing no more than looking for food.

She motioned him to follow and took him inside the cabin and lifted a trapdoor in the floor. Below was a small cellar. She lowered the biggest of her boys below. She said a Union supply wagon had fallen apart down the road, and a load of cloth bags of flour had been tipped off. It had rained before another wagon could come, so the flour had been abandoned. She had most of the bags under the cabin.

True, the flour had been wet, but it dried to have a crust, and the center flour was good for biscuits, which my grandfather knew how to bake before an open fire in a metal pail. Grampie said the little black boy lowered through the floor hole was named Tom, same as he. I just want to show you that the Civil War experts are deficient in some phases of their information. Gramp was the only expert I ever heard who emphasized the deep mud in Virginia.

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