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Army of the Potomac Basic Training

by A Jewish Soldier

Oh ye talking politicians, who, in and out of Congress, have been for the last six months denouncing the inactivity of the army, whilst you fatten at the public crib, and you, wealthy merchants, who grumble at the fall of stocks or the depression of trade, whilst enjoying the same comforts as before the war, do you know what great privation that army has experienced, what dangers and labors they have endured in the scorching heat and the keen frost, whilst the plans were being matured and the training completed for their active operations by land and by water?

Here I sit in my tent, with, bayonet stuck in the ground next to me, and a sperm candle in its clasp, for it is eleven o'clock at night, my paper resting on a drum, which serves me as a writing desk, and a pleasant one it is; in the stillness of night it gives forth sounds as I pass my hands over it, and proves an agreeable companion, when all around me is silent. Tonight, its low and deep murmurs are accompanied by pelting rain falling on the canvas over me, and it responds in gentle tones to the drops that happen to fall on it, as if rebuking this intrusion. Now and then, I hear the sentinels shout: "Who goes there!" when, perchance, some rat or rustling leaf, or drop of rain, interrupts the complete silence that reigns around. Before the night is over, an alarm of the enemy's approach, or the order to advance, may turn this deathlike repose into a scene of uproar and excitement, into slaughter and destruction of life and property; it needs but one man's word to effect this sudden change. Should the night pass without such alarm, our soldiers will rise refreshed from the onerous duties performed to-day, and let us hope the weather may be more favorable. For the last five or six weeks, we have had nothing but rain and snow, which no sooner falls than it thaws, making the roads impassable to all but mules or saddle horses, and rendering our ordinary drill a matter of extreme difficulty, even to veteran soldiers. I have seen these roads in Virginia saturated with rain, even after a drought of four weeks, especially the valleys and cleft of the mountains, when in the rainy season the water accumulates into pools, which are rarely dried up; it will, therefore, be easy to imagine their present condition. This morning I noticed an Irishman probing the mud with a stick, and as he did it so earnestly, I was induced to ask him what object he had in view, to which he replied with the peculiar accent of his race, that he had been driving over that road at an early hour, a wagon with six mules, that it had sunk somewhere in that neighborhood in the mud, and he was now trying to find out the exact spot. Let, therefore all office-seekers and political patriots, who have been telling the commander-in-chief how to manage the war, come here and undergo our privations, expose their bacon to shot and shell, and do a double service to their country by storming the enemy's stronghold, and ridding us of such, a nuisance as they themselves have been to us!

The glorious news [of U.S. Grant's demand of "unconditional surrender"] received here within the last week has, however, made us forget all our troubles and sufferings. Whoever has not witnessed the enthusiasm with which that intelligence was received in the camps, can have no conception of a joyous demonstration among men. The cheers, huzzahs, and hallelujah's arose from ten thousand sound throats, were taken up by the next, and the next, until a quarter of a million of men were hoarse with shouting, and the sounds seemed like a hurricane sweeping over the rigging of a vessel. Officers threw themselves into each other's arms and hugged one another like women, privates danced like Indians, the horses took up the sound and neighed in a dignified and majestic manner, the mules pricked up their ears, the sutlers even had something in the shape of a smile about their jaws, the bands added to the enthusiasm by giving us patriotic and soul-stirring airs, a salvo must be fired, the heaviest guns moved and placed in positions in an instant, though they had stuck for a fortnight in the mud, and it was considered impossible to move them. If that night our tents had blown down, or our beds inundated, it would not have ruffled the temper of a single soldier, so well did they feel, so fill of fun were their hearts.

These events have redoubled our anxious wishes for a speedy advance; we will not lie idle whilst our comrades in the West are earning laurels. Long enough has a traitorous foe shut us out from a Southern territory. Nothing could be at present so welcome as the order: "On to Manassas!" Whenever that order comes, let our friends not be afraid of the result. The army of the Potomac is no longer that undisciplined mob of politicians and office- seekers, who disgraced their country at Bull Run; but it is an excellently disciplined, a well appointed force capable of anything that can be done by soldiers, and in my opinion, competent to cope with the best regulated European armies.

The army at Washington, including both sides of the Potomac, contains not far from 200,000 men, if it does not exceed that number. This does not include General Hooker's Division on the Lower Potomac, Gov. Banks' Division holding Baltimore, and guarding the railroads, or Gen. Wool's Division at Fortress Monroe. The flower of the regular army and all the regular cavalry, with the exception of a few insignificant squads, are here too, also all our splendid batteries of regular field artillery. There is nothing that invention could suggest, or money procure in any part of the world, that has not been furnished to the army of the Potomac. To convey an idea of the vast machinery needed to feed this force, it will suffice to state, that Captain Dana, Assistant Quartermaster, has in his employment on the North side of the Potomac, 1314 teams, and issues daily 200 tons of hay and 6000 bushels of grain, supplying in this distribution the Divisions of Generals Smith and McCall, which gives employment to 4000 persons, at a monthly aggregate of about $85,000. On the South side of the Potomac, under Quartermaster Fugles, there are issued daily 100 tons of hay and 6,800 bushels of grain, employing 600 men. The Quartermaster's Department at Alexandria, under the supervision of Lieutenant Ferguson, has now on hand nearly a million bushels of grain. The forage and subsistence for the army brought from Baltimore are now conveyed direct from the Washington station to the camps in Virginia by railroad, over the Long Bridge.

In regard to the equipment and discipline of our troops, it will suffice to say, that they are as perfect as possible. Their uniform is such, that it combines rule with comfort; every soldier can move his limbs with the greatest ease, whilst their weapons are of the most approved patterns, and, therefore, far superior to those of the rebels. A favorable change has also taken place in their drill. Instead of the old fashioned tactics, based on the difficulty of transportation in former times, we have now introduced the light infantry tactics, and the Zouave drill, which consists in rapid movements, concentrating and deploying. Firing and skirmishing are practiced in every possible position, standing, lying down on the face or back, loading whilst marching at double quick time, and a thousand other intricate performances aiming at one great object, the rapid movements of large forces, to which, more than to large numbers, we must look for success in battle. Our artillery is also all that can be desired, the ordnance is of the best material, many rifled, others smoothbored, the former useful at long, and the latter at short range. Our cavalry is not as perfect as it might be, and it will take some time to bring them to perfection, as the horses cannot be broken in so short a time, and it is on them that the cavalry is to depend in all their movements. If we add to these statistics the fact that our soldiers are an intelligent set of people, eager to vindicate the honor of their flag, to retrieve the disaster of Manassas, and to redress the military honor of their nation, you will easily conceive that is the present army of the Potomac, we have an irresistible force, which will advance with the firm determination of adding triumph to triumph. For this object, every soldier is prepared to sacrifice his life.

We have, sometimes, sham fights, to accustom the various divisions to co-operate and to train them to the rapid movements on the battle-field. On such occasions, every incident of an actual battle is introduced. Regiments retreating and advancing, bayonet charges on a gigantic scale, assaults on batteries and forts, leaping ditches, scaling ramparts, and, now and then, soldiers fall as if wounded, in order to train the ambulance drivers and litter carriers in their duties. Although the practices are not dangerous, yet they are useful, as it is an important item in the success of a battle, that soldiers are familiar with the various maneuvers, and quickly understand the nature of their General's tactics. The spirit of our troops is excellent. Nothing could be more welcome to them than the order to advance. Reports of such an order frequently find their way in the camp, and create such an enthusiasm, that a stranger would feel inclined to suppose they had all got leave of absence to return home. And, when afterwards the report proves to have been one of those canards which daily originate somewhere or other in camps, without any one knowing who spread them, then there is such disappointment and cursing, that they frequently seem to me like a lion in a cage. Fortunate is he who is privileged to go out with a scouting party, or on a reconnaissance. There is as great a competition for such dangerous excursions, as for the Government offices among the politicians. The army of the Potomac is, by far, better disciplined and equipped than the army of the West. It remains to be seen, whether it is composed of as good fighting material. Our late successes have added considerably to their confidence and sanguine expectations of a glorious campaign. By the time this appears in print, we hope that the order may have gone forth, "On to Richmond," and you may rely upon it, it needs but one minute's preparation to get this vast force into motion.

Sketches from the Seat of War