Monday, March 26, 2012

Evening Routine

In the late afternoon, retreat was sounded by the regimental bugler and the flag lowered.  For this ceremony the volunteers often presented in full dress uniform, especially if being visited by other officers or if important orders were being read.  This was a time when they looked and felt like "regular army" and it gave them a sense of pride, of dignity and of confidence.   It was also a dearly treasured and revered  ritual because it signified the end of the work day for most of the men.

After retreat, the soldiers were rewarded with their favorite meal of the day.  The daily ration always tasted better at the end of the day.  Sometimes  Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey was available for sipping.

The men dressed down after supper and congregated at the campfires, writing letters and singing songs.  There was time for reading and the occasional "spelling bee" provided intellectual entertainment.

"Many of the men, in later years, remembered the campfire gatherings as the most dreadful, yet most beautiful, hours of army life.  Dreaded because this was a time of longing and homesickness, but beautiful because it was a time of fellowship, and a time for remembrance of those they had left behind.  A soldier in the Seventeenth stated it well when he commented that the gatherings around the campfire after supper were 'the saddest happy times' in the army."*

A campfire wasn't complete until someone brought out their guitar, banjo or fiddle.  At the time of the Cloud Field encampment, most of the Civil War songs were yet to be written.  In April of 1862, the two most popular marching songs for the Union Army were actually the same tune, written in 1856 by William Steffe from South Carolina. The original version was titled "Canaan's Happy Shore" or "Brothers Will You Meet Me?" and was  a popular  campfire spiritual.  It was later adapted  for the war as John Brown's Body  and  Battle Hymn of the Republic. ( Reference: ) There is evidence that the volunteers knew and sang all three versions.  Most often, however, the troops would have sung popular songs of the time, like Aura Lea  or the songs of Stephen Foster.  For the volunteers from Kentucky,  My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night  was surely the finale as the campfires burned low.

* Blackburn, John; A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972, p.90. Self Published
LOC 72-93774

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