Monday, January 30, 2012

Vignettes of a Solider's Life at Camp Pierpont

While researching for my article on the Battle of Dranesville, I came across an interesting memoir by A.F. Hill of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves.*  Published in 1864, Our Boys: The Personal Experiences of a Solider in the Army of the Potomac tells Hill's story from enlistment through the Battle of Antietam, where Hill was wounded and lost his left leg.  Hill belonged to Company D ("Brownsville Grays"), which was raised in Brownsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania.  He rose to the rank of sergeant before being discharged after Antietam.  Hill dedicated Our Boys to George B. McClellan, "our loved and honored commander."  I have not yet read the entire book, but it seems like a lively and perhaps sentimental account of life in the Union Army.  I hope to add a first edition of Our Boys to my antique book collection in the near future!

There are a few passages from the book that are worth sharing for the window they provide into the everyday life of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley during the winter of 1861-62.  I particularly like this excerpt, which describes the heart of the camp along what is today the Georgetown Pike, or VA-193:
The Pennsylvania Reserve Corps was encamped so as to occupy, about equally, both sides of the "Georgetown and Leesburg" pike. This road was to us as Broadway to New York—as Chestnut Street to Philadelphia; it was our thoroughfare—our most public avenue. A number of independent sutlers had erected their temporary store-houses by the pike; several generals, among them [George A.] McCall and [John F.] Reynolds, had established their head-quarters immediately by it; and it was altogether quite a public street. (Hill 176.)
The pike is now a two-lane commuter road, lined with large homes and sometimes choked with traffic, but the Langley Ordinary, site of McCall's HQ, survives as a witness to the war years. 
Flag of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves (courtesy of Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee)
Hill and his friend, Dave Winder, decided at one point in December 1861 to pay a visit to Winder's acquaintances at Camp Griffin, where Gen. "Baldy" Smith's division had its winter quarters.  After "a very muddy walk of three-fourths of a mile" from Camp Pierpont to the neighboring encampment, Winder found his friends and immediately launched into a story.  (Hill 177.)  As Hill describes the scene:
I thought he would never get done telling his friends stories of the battle of Drainesville [sic], in which he asserted that our regiment had been hotly engaged. He stated that, three separate times, our regiment repulsed a brigade of five thousand rebels; and he expressed it as his belief, that the Eighth Regiment alone, unsupported, could charge clear to Richmond. When, at length, he did pause, I suggested the propriety of returning to the pike. Winder, with difficulty, succeeded in tearing himself away from his friends, informing them, as he bade them farewell, that he expected soon to be made captain of the company to which he belonged—that our former captain had been killed in the battle of Drainesville, and that the company would not hear to any other man than himself assuming the position.  (Hill 177.)
Winder certainly enjoyed telling tall tales, as the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves did not even fight at Dranesville, and the Confederate force was considerably smaller than 5,000.  Hill's anecdote about Winder, however, shows the extent to which Union soldiers in Virginia were riveted by the victory at Dranesville in late December 1861.  After all, this engagement was a much-needed win at a time when the North was recovering from defeats at Bull Run and Ball's Bluff, and any man who fought there was likely viewed by other soldiers with esteem or awe.  Winder played on that sentiment.

I've also taken a recent research interest in drinking and army life during the first winter of the war.  (In fact, the other day I wrote about excessive alcohol consumption in the Confederate winter camps around Centreville.)  Hill's story covers the bases when in comes to the use of adult beverages at Camp Pierpont.  Hill notes that "[t]he sale of liquor in the army being prohibited, it was frequently vended by sutlers and others 'on the sly.'"  (Hill 181.)  The veteran recounts a trick that Winder played on a soldier who was desperately looking for some rye:
On reaching the pike we stopped for a few minutes by a sutler's establishment, around which was collected quite a crowd. While there we heard one soldier ask another, in a whisper, if he could inform him where "something to drink" could be procured. (Hill 181.)
Winder told the poor lad, who happened to be from Smith's division, that drink could be procured from a nearby tent.  When the solider went to ask for whiskey, it turned out that Winder had sent him to a colonel's tent.  The officer chased the enlisted man through camp, but he managed to get away and presumably made it back to Camp Griffin.

Whiskey advertisement from Feb. 22, 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly (courtesy of 
Hill was luckier in meeting his own needs:
On arriving in camp, I was informed, by my messmates, that a "box" had been sent to one of them from home, containing, among other things, two half-gallon tin cans, tightly sealed, one marked in big letters—"preserved Peaches," the other, "Currant Jelly." Now, the one marked "preserved peaches" contained whiskey; that marked "currant jelly" contained whiskey, too. Thus one gallon of the " poison" had walked slyly into camp, beneath the very noses of provost-marshals, officers of the day, etc.
Haman, Dick, Ort, and Enos had been imbibing, and were already right merry when I entered our domicile. They urged me to take "something." Well, I do not think it any harm to take a little now and then while in camp, especially in damp and muddy weather, so I did take a "little" three or four times. By and by all became boozy; Haman and Dick called in everybody that passed by, made everybody drink several times till nearly every man in the company felt right happy.  (Hill 185.)
That night, excessive drinking led to a fight, and one of Hill's messmates was almost shot, but Hill managed to grab the musket from the aggressor.  An officer eventually intervened and put the culprit in the guard house to sober up.  Hill's stories, aside from being just plain entertaining, provide insights into the role that alcohol played in winter camp.

I look forward to reading through other parts of Our Boys, and I will be certain to share with readers any other insights from the book concerning life at Camp Pierpont.  And wish me luck on my search for a first edition!

*There seems to be some degree of confusion over Hill's actual first name. Our Boys lists the author as "A.F. Hill" on the title page and elsewhere.  Google Books indicates that A.F. Hill is "Alonzo F. Hill."  However, the National Park Service database, which is also available on, indicates that A.F. Hill from Co. D, 8th Pennsylvania Reserves is "Ashbol F. Hill," while a Pennsylvania genealogy site has A.F. Hill from Co. D listed as "Archibald F. Hill."

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