Thursday, December 19, 2013

The 48th/150th: "The Condition Of The Men Was Deplorable In The Extreme:" The 48th's "Valley Forge" Winter. . .

150 years ago, as the campaign against Longstreet's men drew to a close, the ragged, footsore and cold veteran soldiers of the 48th Pennsylvania endured what was a miserable winter encamped in the mountains of East Tennessee. Snow fell heavily that winter, with ice covering the ground, and temperatures seldom rising above freezing. The men had spent the winter of '61-'62 encamped along the sandy shores of Hatteras, North Carolina; the next winter--that of '62-'63--found them recovering from the shock of Fredericksburg at their camps near Falmouth, but it was this winter encampment, that of '63-'64, that the soldiers would never forget and one they would refer to as their own Valley Forge.

Edwin Forbes sketch of a Civil War Soldier in Winter Camp. . .
(Library of Congress)

Many years after the war, Sergeant William Wells of Company F left a vivid account of what the soldiers experienced that frigid winter of '63-'64 and how they did their best simply to stay warm and get something to eat:

William Wells, Company F, 48th PA
During the encampment of the 48th at Blaine's Crossroads, in East Tennessee, from December 7th, 1863, to January 13th, 1864, the condition of the men was deplorable in the extreme. Probably no troops of the Union Army, during the entire war--prisoners of war excepted--suffered so much from lack of supplies as did those of the Burnside forces during that dreary winter in that barren, mountainous region. The cause of this in no way reflected upon the War Department nor any of its officers, the conditions surrounding the situation being alone responsible. Being over two hundred miles from the base of supplies at Hickman Bridge, Kentucky, it was utterly impossible for the Commissary and Quartermaster's Departments to procure anything like adequate supplies of food or clothing for the Army of East Tennessee, as almost the entire distance lay over a succession of mountain, steep, high and rocky, as the Wild Cats, the Cumberland, the Clinch, and intervening ranges, besides rivers and mountain streams. The roads during the summer were bad enough, but almost impassable for teams in winter. To add to the difficulty, forage for the miles, from start to finish--except a few days' supply at the start--was unobtainable, both armies having devastated the country for many miles, so that the finish they scarcely had strength enough to move their loaded wagons. At places on the Clinch mountains the descent was so steep that they only way to get the wagons down was by use of ropes coiled about the trees.  Besides this method of obtaining supplies, the otherwise useless teams were sometimes sent out into the surrounding country on foraging expeditions, under strong guard, returning to camp, perhaps empty, or with a small supply of corn-on-the-cob so ancient that, to reduce the corn to an edible condition, the boys were kept busy. At any time, day or night, an old coffee mill or other improvised grinder might be heard grinding away. Two ears of corn, or eight ounces of flour, generally constituted a day's rations. Occasionally when a drove of cattle, sleek and fat at the start, but fatless on their arrival in camp, made their appearance, they were soon slaughtered and we had a little fresh meat. A little hard tack and "salt horse" now and then, varied the diet, and sometimes the memory of yesterday's meal must suffice. Most of the men at the close of this arduous campaign, in that wintry camp, the cold north wind sweeping around them, were tentless, blanketless, many without overcoats, and but few had any change of underclothing.

For shelter, two heavy logs, placed slightly apart, gave support for fence rails, which, inclining forward, served as a support for a thick covering of pine boughs, of which the woods gave a plentiful supply. Underneath this shelter additional pine boughs served for a bedding. To keep warm at night, heavy logs were laid in front of the shelter to form the fire-bed, which was kept burning by one comrade while the others slept. Thus the time passed, while the camp and picket guard "kept up their dreary rounds." To-day it seems like a dream, yet what a stern reality!

The lack of proper clothing, for want of a change, was a source of much annoyance to the men; but there was no remedy, as soap in that camp was almost an unknown commodity. Many tried, covered only with a thin blouse, to wash their shirt in the mountain streams, using clay as a substitute for soap, but with poor results. As "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," they succeeded but poorly in living up to the adage.

Their feet were in but little better condition than their bodies and stomachs, for many a foot was but poorly clad, some wrapped in rags. Raw beef-hides, when obtainable, cut into moccasin form and tied with strips of the same, or string, covered many a foot to keep it from the biting cold or frozen ground. Yet but few complained, complaint being useless, no betterment in sight. Never did men bear greater hardships in camp life than did the troops in East Tennessee in the winter of 1863-1864. Hungry, half-clad, shelterless and footsore, they bore all uncomplainingly for the land they loved so well and the flag they followed."  
Harper's Weekly

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