The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter VIII. The Tedium of Camp.
And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding. --Henry V.
To really enjoy life in a Camp of Instruction requires a peculiar cast of mind. It requires a genuine liking for a tread-mill round of merely mechanical duties; it requiers a taste for rising in the chill and cheerless dawn, at the unwelcome summons of "reveille," to a long day filled with a tiresome routine of laborious drills alternating with tedious roll-calls, and wearisome parades and inspections; it requires pleased contentment with walks continually cut short by the camp-guard, and with amusements limited to rough horse-play on the parade-ground, and dull games of cards by sputtering candles in the tent.
As these be tastes and preferences notably absent from the mind of the average young man, our volunteers usually regard their experience in Camp of Instruction as among the most unpleasant of their war memories.
These were the trials that tested Harry Glen's resolution sorely. When he enlisted with the intention of redeeming himself, he naturally expected that the opportunity he desired would be given by a prompt march to the field, and a speedy entrance into an engagement. He nerved himself strenuously for the dredful ordeal of battle, but this became a continually receding point. The bitter defeat at Bull Run was bearing fruit in months of painstaking preparation before venturing upon another collision.
Day by day he saw the chance of retrieving his reputation apparently more remote. Meanwhile discouragements and annoyances grew continually more plentiful and irksome. He painfully learned that the most disagreeable part of war is not the trial of battle, but the daily sacrifices of personal liberty, tastes, feelings and conveniences involved in camp-life, and in the reduction of one's cherished individuality to the dead-level of a passive, obedient, will-less private soldier.
"I do wish the regiment would get orders to move!" said almost hourly each one of a half-million impatient youths fretting in Camps of Instruction through the long Summer of 1861.
"I do wish the regiment would get orders to move!" said Harry Glen angrily one evening, on coming into the Surgeon's tent to have his blistered hands dressed. he had been on fatigue duty during the day, and the Fatigue-Squad had had an obstinate struggle with an old oak stump, which disfigured the parade-ground, and resisted removal like an Irish tenant.
"I am willing--yes, I can say I am anxious, even--to go into battle," he continued, while Dr. Paul Denslow laid plasters of simple cerate on the abraded palms, and then swathed them in bandages. "Anything is preferable to this chopping tough stumps with a dull ax, and drilling six hours a day while the thermometer hangs around the nineties."
"I admit that there are things which would seem pleasanter to a young man of your temperament and previous habits," said the Surgeon, kindly. "Shift over into that arm-stool, which you will find easier, and reat a little while. Julius, bring in that box of cigars."
While Julius, who resembled his illustrious namesake as little in celerity of movement as he did in complexion, was coming, the Surgeon prepared a paper, which he presented to Harry, saying:
"There, that'll keep you off duty to-morrow. After that, we'll see what can be done."
Julius arrived with the cigars as tardily as if he had had to cross a Rubicon in the back room. Two were lighted, and the Surgeon settled himself for a chat.
"Have you become tired of soldier-life?" asked he, studying Harry's face for the effect of the question.
"I can not say that I have become tired of it," said Harry, frankly, "because I must admit that I never had the slightest inclination to it. I had less fancy for becoming a soldier than for any other honorable pursuit that you could mention."
"Then you only joined the army--"
"From a sense of duty merely," said Harry, knocking the ashes from his cigar.
"And the physical and other discomforts now begin to weight nearly as much as that sense of duty?"
"Not at all. It only seems to me that there are more of them than are absolutely essential to the performance of that duty. I want to be of service to the country, but I would prefer that that service be not made unnecessarily onerous."
"Quite natural; quite natural."
"For example, how have the fatigues and pains of my afternoon's chopping contributed a particle toward the suppression of the rebellion? What have my blistered hands to do with the hurts of actual conflict?"
"Let us admit that the connection is somewhat obscure," said Doctor Denslow, philosophically.
"It is easier for you, than for me, to view the matter calmly. Your hands are unhurt. I am the galled jade whose withers are wrung."
"Body and spirit both bruised?" said the Surgeon, half reflectively.
Harry colored. "Yes," he said, rather defiantly. "In addition to desiring to serve my country, I want to vindicate my manhood from some aspersions which have been cast upon it."
"Quite a fair showing of motives. Better, perhaps, than usual, when a careful weighing of the relative proportions of self-esteem, self-interest and higher impulses is made."
"I am free to say that the discouragements I have met with are very different, and perhaps much greater than I contemplated. Nor can I bring myself to belived tha they are necessary. I am trying to be entirely willing to peril life and limb on the field of battle, but instead of placing me where I can do this, and allowing me to concentrate all my energies upon that object, I am kept for months chafing under the petty tyrannies of a bullying officer, and deprived of most of the comforts that I have heretofore regarded as necessary to my existence. What good can be accomplished by diverting forces which should be devoted to the main struggle into this ignoble channel? That's what puzzles and irritates me."
"It seems to be one of the inseperable conditions of the higher forms of achievement that they require vastly more preparation for them than the labor of doing them."
"That's no doubt very philosophical, but it's not satisfactory, for all that."
"My dear boy, learn this grand truth now: That philosophy is never satisfactory; it is only mitigatory. It consists mainly in saying with many fine words: 'What can't be cured must be endured.'"
"I presume that is so. I wish, though, that by the mere syaing so, I could make the endurance easier."
"I can make your lot in the service easier."
"Indeed! how so?"
"By having you appointed my Hospital Steward. I have not secured one yet, and the man who is acting as such is so intemperate that I feel a fresh sense of escape with every day that passes without his mistaking the oxalic axid for Epsom salts, to the destruction of some earnest but constipated young patriot's whole digestive viscera.
"If you accept this position," continued the Surgeon, flinging away his refractory cigar in disgust, and rising to get a fresh one, "you will have the best rank and pay of any non-commissioned officer in the regiment; better, ineed, than that of a Second Lieutenant. You will have your quarters here with me, and be compelled to associate with no one but me, thus reducing your disagreeable companions at a single stroke, to one. And you will escape finally from all subserviency to Lieutenant Alspaugh, or indeed to any other officer in the regiment, except your humble servant. As to food, you will mess with me."
"Those are certainly very strong inducements," said Harry, meditating upon the delightfulness of relief from the myriad of rasping little annoyances which rendered every day of camp-life an infliction.
"Yes, and still farther, you will never need to go under fire, or expose yourself to danger of any kind, unless you choose to."
Harry's face crimsoned to the hue of the western sky where the sun was just going down. He started to answer hotly, but an understanding of the Surgeon's evident kindness and sincerity interposed to deter him. He knew there was no shaft of sarcasm hidden below this plain speech, and after a moment's consideration he replied:
"I am very grateful, I assure you, for your kindness in this matter. I am strongly tempted to accept your offer, bu there are still stronger reasons why I should decline it."
"May I ask your reasons?"
"My reasons for not accepting the appointment?"
"Yes, the reasons which impel you to prefer a dinner of bitter herbs, under Mr. Alspaugh's usually soiled thumb, to a stalled ox and my profitable society," said the Surgeon, gayly.
Harry hesitated a moment, and then decided to speak frankly. "Yes," he said, "your kindness gives you the right to know. To not tell you would show a lack of gratitude. I made a painful blunder before in not staying unflinchingly with my company. The more I think of it, the more I regret it, and the more I am decided not to repeat it, but abide with my comrades and share their fate in all things. I feel that I no longer have a choice in the matter; I must do it. But there goes the drum for roll-call. I must go. Good evening, and very many thanks."
"The young fellow's no callow milksop, after all," said the Surgeon Denslow, as his eyes followed Harry's retreating form. "His gristle is hardening into something like his stern old father's backbone."