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Four Hundred Thousand Men

SKETCHES FROM THE SEAT OF WAR
by A Jewish Soldier

Four hundred thousand men, well armed and well drilled, ready at one man's command to engage in a deadly conflict their foes and countrymen, —such is the picture, the two contending hosts present to the world at this moment on the banks of the Potomac. Terrible as this martial array must appear to the distant reader, whose imagination may perchance have been assisted by graphic description in estimating the number and power of such hosts, yet to realize the degree of physical power concentrated in such an army for destructive purposes, it is necessary to see what art, money, and labor have effected in the organization and equipment of these legions; what skill has been devoted to the construction of those forts, built for the protection of the defenders and the destruction of the enemy; how those blockhouses command the military roads and those batteries the block houses; then trace, as well as you may, the mathematical precision with which those brigades are grouped together in certain lines and curves, so as to give the greatest effect to their fire and the least danger to themselves; follow up those new roads behind the hills and through the bushes, apparently constructed for no earthly purpose, yet wisely intended to attack an assailing force in the rear; then cast your eyes on those rifled guns, which cover the roads, hills and forts, ready to consume those piles of conical balls that are heaped up at their side— all this and much more you must have seen before a faint idea can be formed of the powerful hosts that are at present encamped on the banks of the Potomac.

A traveler coming from the North has the best opportunity for realizing the vastness of those warlike preparations. They open gradually upon him, and prepare him for a more thorough conception of the imposing sights that are in store for him across the river.

The signs of war, which are not very discernable in the North, become more marked as you travel from Philadelphia southward, the entire road being guarded by soldiers, especially the bridges, boats and junctions; and more especially still, the delightful city of Baltimore, which has earned such a prominent place in History through that heroic attack on the Massachusetts volunteers, when they hastened to the rescue of the capital, and is even at the present moment only kept in order by the electro- magnetism of certain batteries, called Fort McHenry, supported by certain red-breeched gentlemen, not altogether inexperienced in the use of steel. Sentries, companies and regiments are stationed at short distances, and now and then as the train stops, they call upon you for newspapers, which moderate request every one tries to meet, and not only rarely some patriotic lady will take out of her basket some refreshments she had provided for herself on her journey, and hand them to the shivering soldiers.

The nights begin to get cold, the hills are covered with snow, the camp-fires are but a poor protection against the keen winds that blow over those mountains, the tents will scarcely keep out the rain and sleet— all this, thoughtful ladies and gentlemen, bear in mind, and provide yourselves accordingly with such trifling gifts as can alleviate, though not altogether remove, the soldiers' sufferings.

As you approach Washington, the camps increase in size and number, and on entering the capital, you feel that you are indeed approaching the scenes of actual conflict; a company of soldiers, with glistening bayonets, receive you at the station; strong patrols go to and fro through the streets, to pick up stray soldiers and officers; mounted sentinels, at the corner of each street, remind you of Paris as it looked after the coup d'etat of 1851; hundreds of army wagons roll lazily along towards the place of their destination— galloping officers and orderlies fill your eyes with dust— soldiers coming and going— batteries, ambulances, sutler's cars, cavalry and infantry pass in every direction, but, if you are a loyal citizen, you can, nevertheless, move about with the freedom allowed in the North, and find no difficulty in even obtaining a pass for visiting our lines in Virginia.

Every one must of course go there. Never before has the "sacred soil" of Virginia been trodden by so many Northern mudsills, and never before has such a miserable delusion been so thoroughly exploded. Why, I expected on putting my foot on that "sacred soil," to feel a certain holy feeling penetrate my bowels; many, more sanguine than myself, were sure these Virginia's fields would entirely regenerate their fallen natures, giving to them the feelings of gentlemen and the aspirations of angels. Notwithstanding all these expectations, the truth must be spoken, and true it is, that there is nowhere in the inhabited portions of the North, such a total absence of civilized life, such wretched roads, such broken down shanties, such mud, in fact, such living witnesses of Noah's flood, all of which, so far from sanctifying our disposition, had a most damaging effect on our forms of expression, and a most revolutionary influence on our teetotal principles. Nature, indeed, has been lavish in her gifts to the South, and had art in the least developed the beauties of these states, it would be the Paradise of the world. Beauty of scenery and fertility of soil are the characteristics of that country, but its inhabitants, spoiled by an over- indulgent mother, have become rebellious against her and mischievous to their fellow-citizens, thus furnishing another illustration of that saying uttered by Moses, "When Jeshurun grew fat, he kicked."

Even the present scene of action, destitute though it be of the signs of civilization, nevertheless presents a pleasing picture, when viewed on a fine day from the balcony of the Capitol. The Potomac, as smooth as a mirror, reflects with great brilliancy the rays of the sun; the woods, that formerly covered her banks, have been levelled by the soldiers, only here and there a tree remains to serve as a shelter to the sentinel on a rainy night; the hills and valleys have even, at this advanced season, some of the rich verdure of summer; in other parts of the Potomac, where the destructive foot of the army has not trod, the primitive features of the scenery still remain unchanged— thick forests cover its banks, and a rural simplicity, the more striking in contrast with the active scenes in the neighborhood, gives a charming aspect to the favored spots.

We look beyond the river, and then have a full view of the camps, of thousands of tents and many flagstaffs, we see the circular line of forts surrounded by ditches and abatis, the soldiers going through their evolutions, and bands of music accompanying them. But from this survey, so gratifying through the pomp it displays to our eyes, we are naturally led to reflect on former days, when no armies were needed to protect our capitol, when a united people sent their representatives to this city, and no force was required to maintain the authority of the law. Alas! why should those noble rivers be navigated by men-of- war, to the exclusion of peaceful commerce, which sent comfort and wealth to the inhabitants of the coasts? Why should those fields be overrun by hostile armies, where formerly the laborer could peaceably till his soil? But, at present, it is of little use to raise lamentations. It is the time for action, the time for sacrifices of blood and treasure, the time for the display of patriotism and self-denial.

The crisis, through which we are now passing, may leave us a wiser and better people, the teachings of adversity may enable us more fully to appreciate the blessings of prosperity, the institutions of this country may derive therefrom a certain stability and firmness which hitherto have not characterized them. At the same time, half a million of our young men, inured to all kinds of hardships in camp, will return to their homes with manlier ideas and more vigorous constitution, whilst the citizens in general will no longer allow the affairs of the government to be mismanaged by hungry politicians. With such fruits resulting from this war, it will not be one of unalloyed evil, but will, on the contrary, purify the nation of its social as well as its political relations, and thus complete what the Revolutionary war has left unfinished. There anticipations must reconcile us to the temporary devastations of war, to the desolation of happy homes, to the privation of camp life, and deadly struggle with our foe.
 

Sketches from the Seat of War