“It always amazes me how the miles fly by once a train hits rolling speed,” said Ben Phillips, staring out a window at the broad Susquehanna River. In his lap lay a worn, leather-bound journal that he wrote in periodically as inspiration dictated.
The professor was flanked by Willie Cole, while Henry and Asher Cole sat in the seat behind them. The other sturdy men of the Wellsboro Bucktails played cards, talked of home, or bragged of heroics yet to be accomplished. Some recruits dozed in open-mouthed sleep, oblivious to the clacking train wheels.
“What I can’t figger is why you’d quit a soft job like teachin’ ta risk yer skin with us fellas,” grunted Henry. “The only calluses you ever got was from all the settin’ an’ readin’ ya did.”
“Oh, there’s a lot more to teaching than that,” assured the professor, putting his journal aside. “But to answer your question, it was reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Breecher Stowe that caused me to leave the seminary.”
“Yeah, Henry, look at how war news in The Agitator got you stirred up,” Willie said.
“But what was so special ’bout Uncle Tom’s Cabin? That’s jess some old book written by a meddlin’ woman who never seen a real slave in the South.”
“How can you say that?” gasped Phillips. “It was that old book that pricked the conscious of an entire nation! It was reported that when Mr. Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe, he said, ‘So you are the little lady who started this Great War.’ ”
“What did he mean by that?” inquired Willie.
“Seems like the sanctioned institution of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin exposed raw nerves in the North and South. Slaves were promised freedom, but it never came because the owners were complacent or the slaves were betrayed. Slaves were sold and families broken apart in heart-wrenching scenes. Slaves were hunted like animals. Slaves were brutalized physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Most were treated as less than human. Slaves even turned on each other to curry favor. Masters were tormented by ignorance, superstition, and even conscience. Religion was subverted to excuse slavery. Neither masters or slaves escaped the sharp pen of Mrs. Stowe.”
“You sure use a lot o’ big words,” mumbled Henry. “I like ta hear ya talk, professor, but I can’t say I understand ya all the time.”
“Did this book inspire the Underground Railroad?” asked Asher thoughtfully.
“Indeed it did,” replied Ben Phillips, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Because it was published in serial form in major newspapers, it was in front of the people for a long time. Did you know that there’s an Underground Railroad station in Mansfield?”
“No foolin’?” croaked Willie.
“That’s where we abolitionists stoked the fire of our convictions and backed them with action. Seeing the deplorable condition of the passengers we helped drove home the need to fight the injustice of slavery.”
“Now, I see why ya was so hard on that old farmer on the march ta Troy,” murmured Willie. “Before, I thought you was only bein’ mean.”
Three blasts of the locomotive’s steam whistle brought the recruits’ conversation to a sudden halt. When they felt their train slow to a crawl, they glanced out the window and saw a sprawling city stretched out along the river. Willie gasped at the size of it, and Henry emitted a low curse.
“You boys act like you’ve never seen Harrisburg,” said the professor.
“Heck no!” replied Asher. “’Cept fer a trip er two ta Mansfield, us Coles ain’t been more ’n’ five miles from our own hayfields.”
“Then, it looks like you’re in for more than one type of education.”
“Don’t scare me none,” crowed Henry. “Them city folks ain’t never seen the likes of us Coles!”
“’Specially the likes o’ Henry Cole, Jr.,” Willie laughed.
The soldiers heard the grating of metal as braking wheels skidded along the train tracks. As they held their hands over their ears to block out the strident sound, their car screeched to a stop next to the city station. Immediately, officers bellowed for them to gather their possessions and get moving. While they filed onto a long wooden platform, they heard Captain Sofield ask a baggage handler, “Which way to Camp Curtin, mister?”
“Well, boss, you jess follow the Ridge Road, and you’ll come right to her. It ain’t far.”
“Thanks!” shouted Sofield, tossing the worker a bright coin. “I need to get these men settled in.”
“Good luck to you, boss. You’s gonna need it. May the Lord watch over you.”
“And you!” exclaimed the captain.
As the last of the Bucktails stumbled off the train, Sofield was already ordering them into marching formation. They started down the road at a brisk pace until the rising dust forced them to walk slower. Coughing and choking, they hiked along the ridge between the Susquehanna River on the west and the Pennsylvania Railroad and a broad canal on the east.
Finally, Henry’s eyes were drawn to a walled camp ahead. A cloud of dust hovered over it, and the dull tramp of many feet echoed from inside. When he saw a racetrack and pavilion in the center of the enclosure, he cried, “Well, I’ll be jiggered. I thought we were goin’ to an army camp, not the dang fairgrounds.”
“Shucks!” joshed a young recruit. “If I’da knowed we was goin’ to the fair, I’da brung my prize heifer along.”
“That wouldn’t do ya no good,” needled Henry, “’cause I doubt they’d allow yer sister in camp.”
As the soldiers drew nearer to Camp Curtin, they found the road flanked by a row of makeshift ice cream stands on one side and the Mashmeat Tavern on the other. Vendors called to them as they passed, and Willie wished he could break rank and treat himself to some cold dessert after his long, dusty march.
Instead, Captain Sofield led his men to an intricate gating system. A double gate flanked by a single door on each end was guarded by citizens armed with wooden clubs. When the Bucktails approached the larger opening, a guard shouted, “No, not there! That gate’s for ordnance, wagons, an’ such. Come in through the left door.”
“I got hungry men. Where can they draw their rations?” asked Sofield.
“If there are any,” grunted another guard, “you’ll find ’em at the quartermaster’s—first buildin’ to the right.”
The Bucktails were in luck when they visited the quartermaster. Not only were they issued a full ration of coffee, beans, hardtack, and bacon, they also received tents, blankets, and eating utensils.
The first thing Willie noticed when he again emerged from the dimly lit hut was a vast crowd milling about the grounds. Then, his eyes fairly bugged from his head as he watched regiment after regiment march around the racetrack demonstrating their martial skills. Not a blade of grass could be seen anywhere, so even men who weren’t involved in the drilling stood.
“I read this camp holds up to 30,000 men,” said Professor Phillips, making a mental calculation. “By the look of things, it must be close to capacity.”
“I just wonder if other Bucktails are here,” muttered Captain Sofield. “I’d better check in at headquarters to see where they’re camped.”
Sofield and Sergeant Warriner stalked off to the racetrack pavilion in front of which flew a monstrous U.S. flag. They were only gone a few minutes before returning with glum news. “We’re the first of our regiment to arrive,” the captain announced in a loud voice. “We’re to establish the base camp.”
On the far side of the racetrack there were so many tents that it resembled a canvas city. Captain Sofield looked in vain there for a place for his men. The officers’ quarters occupied the space to the left of the track behind which sat the general hospital. To the right sat the judges’ stand and a smaller hospital. Between the two structures was a vacant area, so finally Sofield ordered his men to bivouac there.
The Bucktails were issued the big Sibley tents, which resembled Indian teepees when they erected them. The Coles took shelter from the ever-present dust with Phillips’ Mansfield squad until the oppressive heat drove them out from beneath the canvas. The men were so uncomfortable that the professor finally asked Captain Sofield, “Is it okay if we look around, sir? Any shady spot will do.”
“It’s too late for drilling today,” replied the officer, “so go ahead. Just stay together and be back in time for mess call.”
Sweating profusely, the recruits followed Phillips through an endless mob of jabbering soldiers who joked and spread rumors like they were standing on their hometown square. A host of fruit, pie, and cake peddlers beset them at every turn until Henry said, “Dang! Ain’t it grand to be away from Ma an’ Pa, Willie? We kin do as we please an’ eat what we please, too.” With that, the youngster bought three apples from a gnarled old crone and began wolfing them down.
“That fruit don’t look good,” cautioned his brother. “Didn’t ya see how dirty that woman was? I wouldn’t eat nothin’ she touched! Besides, they’re greener than green.”
“I ain’t et an apple all year with our crop ruined by frost, so shut up, Willie!”
With no escape from the noise, heat, and dust, the young soldiers finally pushed their way to the camp gates where recruits and vendors streamed in and out as they pleased. Unchallenged by the guards, they walked outside and saw a sign pointing toward the Susquehanna River. It read: Soldiers’ Bathing Beach.
The Bucktails raised a triumphant shout and charged off for a cool dip. When they arrived at the river’s edge, they found it deserted. As they peeled off their clothes, Henry challenged, “See that rock out there, Willie? I’ll bet I can beat ya to it an’ back before these other boys even git in the water.”
“But that’s a long swim after all the marchin’ an’ tent erectin’ we done. Why do ya always make a contest out o’ everything?”
“So ya know who’s the big brother!”
“Then, I guess you’ll be the big brother, an’ I’ll be the better brother,” yelped Willie.
“All right! On the count of three! One! Two! Three! Go!”
Willie drove headfirst into the river and surged forward with powerful strokes toward the distant rock. It wasn’t until he was halfway there that he suddenly realized he was alone in the water. The current was swift and gripped him mightily when his brother’s horselaugh finally reached his ears.
“Tricked ya, dummy!” sang Henry. “Have a nice swim back.”
Before Willie could respond to Henry’s taunts, an undertow sucked him from the surface toward a submerged ledge. He was slammed against the ledge, drawing blood from his smashed knee. Sinking to the river bottom, the boy bounced along until nearly out of oxygen. Seized by panic, he managed a handhold on a rock and clawed upward toward the sunlight above.
When Willie’s head broke water, he choked and gasped for air. Soon, he saw a powerful swimmer fighting toward him through the current. In the next instant Cousin Asher grabbed him by the arm and towed him on an angular course back to shore. Instead of fighting the power of the river, the older Cole let it push them along. Slowly, he worked to his left, only swimming faster to dodge rocks.
Professor Phillips and his young squad raced along the riverbank howling encouragement until the Coles reached the shallows. Trooping onto the shoal, the other Bucktails dragged the exhausted swimmers onto dry sand just as Henry came trudging up to them.
“Well, are ya satisfied, big brother?” panted Willie after Asher pumped some water out of him. “Ya almost got me drowned!”
“If ya weren’t so dumb, you’d have knowed I was only funnin’ ya,” replied Henry, holding his stomach.
“Is that so?” growled Asher. “Then, you’re the last fella any o’ us would trust in battle.”
“Well, it really ain’t my fault,” bleated Henry after vomiting into the river. “I didn’t go swimmin,’ ’cause that old witch sold me poison apples.”
“She weren’t gonna find Snow White in the camp over yonder,” ribbed Asher, “so she had to sell ’em ta somebody. That somebody happened ta be the rear end of a government mule.”
“Enough o’ this talk,” gasped Willie. “Let’s jess go back ta our tent an’ git some rest. It’s ’bout time I write a letter home, too.”
“Why? So you can tattle ta Ma?” growled Henry.
“No, I want to let her know we got ta Harrisburg. You know how she worries.”
“I best do the same fer my folks,” said Asher. “Thanks fer remindin’ me, Willie.”