When Company A wasn’t guarding the hospital, they were reunited with the rest of the regiment for marching and weapons training. Colonel Stone had returned to camp and immediately instituted a rigorous schedule that included company drill, battalion drill, and squad drill of the manual of arms. Each day ended with a dress parade, and Willie’s face beamed with pride when he saw how grand the Bucktails looked in clean uniforms and brass belt buckles polished to a high sheen.
One parade, however, ended on a sad note when Stone cleared his throat and thundered to the drawn-up columns, “The Bucktails have suffered a great loss at the Battle of Antietam. While leading his regiment in an attack of the East Woods, Colonel Hugh McNeil was struck down by a Rebel bullet and received by God into heaven. I was one of many who voted to elect him colonel of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves and was inspired by his leadership. He was a great orator, a fine gentleman, and a brave warrior. He will be missed by the first Bucktails who he led to victory on South Mountain. In honor of Hugh Watson McNeil, this camp on Meridian Hill shall from this day forth bear his name. Camp McNeil will forever preserve the legacy of our brave Bucktail comrade.”
Colonel Stone then ordered Willie’s squad to fire a volley in honor of the slain officer. The lad felt his eyes well with tears as he watched another detail uproot the Camp Wadsworth sign and replace it with a placard honoring Colonel McNeil. Afterward, the 149th broke rank, and the soldiers filed silently to their tents.
The men’s solemn mood continued through supper, with their usual banter suppressed by glum thoughts. Finally, the spell was broken when Professor Phillips dug out his journal and a pen from his knapsack and began feverishly scribbling in longhand.
Looking over Ben’s shoulder, Henry asked, “What’s ya writin’ in that scrawl o’ yers?”
“I’m keeping track of everything I experience in this adventure with the Bucktails. Maybe it’ll end up as a book someday. I don’t want our regiment or great men like Colonel McNeil to ever be forgotten.”
“You must be usin’ a code er somethin’, ’cause nobody else can read what ya writ there.”
“Yeah, I thought teachers placed good penmanship next ta godliness,” said Willie. “Miss Pembroke rapped her ruler ’cross my knuckles more ’n’ once when my cursive got too sloppy fer her tastes.”
“Penmanship does count plenty in grammar school,” chuckled Phillips. “Molding minds is more our goal in higher education.”
“Then, makin’ blisters must be the army’s goal after all the dang marchin’ back an’ forth we done lately,” grumbled Henry.
“The pay is the same if we’re marchin’ er fightin’,” Asher said. “To me, marchin’ is way better.”
“Only if yer feet ain’t sorer ’n’ a racehorse with a throwed shoe!”
“Or a cow-kicked milkmaid,” joked Willie.
Henry’s suffering didn’t last long, however, for the weather deteriorated quickly that fall, making drilling impossible. When sheets of rain were followed by heavy snow, the companies were permanently assigned to duty in various parts of Washington. Most of the Bucktails were quartered indoors, which helped preserve their health, as well.
To further protect the men from the elements, they were also issued heavy wool overcoats and gum blankets. When Henry was handed his rubber blanket, he snickered and held it up for Willie to see. “Look,” he said. “If you had one o’ these at home, you coulda wet the bed all ya wanted. It woulda saved Ma a lot o’ sheet washin’, too.”
“You never wet the bed,” razzed Willie, “’cause you was too busy droolin’ on yerself!”
Fall slipped away with the arrival of December, and the snow and cold became even more troublesome. The day before Christmas was no exception. After the men shuffled into rank in a driving blizzard to receive their duty assignments, Asher asked, “Captain Sofield, could I add one more thing fer the boys ta do this evenin’?”
“What’s that, Private Cole?”
“I thought some o’ us fellas could go ’round the hospital an’ sing carols ta the wounded. Bein’ this is our first Christmas away from home, it would make us less lonesome ta do somethin’ fer someone else.”
“By all means, Cole. That’s exactly what this holiday is about.”
That evening Asher, Willie, Henry, and twenty other Bucktails crowded into Carver Hospital to regale the patients with “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “”Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.” When Asher wrapped his baritone around “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the ward.
After the Bucktails finished singing, the Cole brothers dragged in a pine tree they had felled on an adjacent hillside. They set it up in the front corner of the hospital, and their company used what was at hand to decorate it. As they joked with the patients, bandages were wrapped around the branches for a garland. Following the advice of an amputee, Asher placed an empty medicine bottle on top for a star.
“Ain’t that the most beautiful Christmas tree ya ever seen?” one wounded boy said.
“Almost like the one back home,” another sniffed to Willie.
Bursting with joy, Henry and Willie returned to their bivouac to find a package had arrived from their parents. Feverishly unwrapping it, they found the box stuffed with warm knitted gloves and socks. There were also four bright red apples and a note saying, “Merry Christmas to our brave sons. Mother and Father.”
“Ya know,” said Henry, choking back a tear, “I never liked gettin’ clothes fer Christmas, ’cause I always wanted a rifle. Now, that the army give me one, I can finally appreciate Ma’s thoughtfulness.”
“Amen!” exclaimed Willie. “An’ she even sent ya yer favorite fruit. See. You’re jess as much in her thoughts as me.”
Company A continued to watch over Carver Hospital through the holidays. The other Bucktails, meanwhile, guarded government buildings, the Army of the Potomac Headquarters, Georgetown Regimental Headquarters, and three other hospitals. Everyday, rumors of being sent to the front swirled like flurries in the dark winter skies only to be squelched by the brass.
Finally, in the middle of February, Willie and Henry cheered along with their comrades when Captain Sofield announced at roll call, “Say goodbye to the stink of this place, Bucktails! We’ve been ordered to the barracks at Washington Circle. Gather your gear, and be ready to move out in ten minutes!”
As the Bucktails tramped down Fourteenth Street into the city, they filled the dawn with jubilant chatter. When they reached Pennsylvania Avenue, the provost guard finally snarled for them to pipe down. That only caused the soldiers to celebrate louder until they reached their destination.
On the morning of February 15th, Willie and Henry were roused from bed at four a.m. and issued three days’ rations by the quartermaster’s staff. In the next instant, the Cole brothers were herded out the barrack’s door into the raw winter air. Stumbling half-asleep through the snow, they somehow found their squad and fell into rank between Asher and Professor Phillips.
While the Bucktails marched toward the Sixth Street Wharf, they were enveloped in a thick mist that transformed the soldiers into ghosts around Willie. He turned up the collar of his greatcoat when the snow changed to a steady drizzle. He was soon slogging through gelid slush that caused him to complain, “Ain’t been this cold since we fell through the ice o’ our farm pond an’ got the chilblains.”
“Yeah, Ma warned us the ice was too thin fer skatin’,” muttered Henry through chattering teeth. “That was one time I shoulda listened ta her.”
“As I recall, that was the only time ya willin’ly took a hot bath,” laughed Willie. “Usually the sows smelled better ’n’ you.”
Finally, the 149th arrived at the wharf only to find the 150th Bucktails queued up between them and the gangplank of the steamer Louisiana. A great grumbling soon rose from the men as they stood in the rain chaffing to board the vessel.
“Can’t the officers organize this mob and get it moving?” complained Phillips.
“Sheep dogs would do a better job than them!” snapped Henry. “If we wait much longer, my brogans will freeze ta the stinkin’ dock.”
Slowly, the blue throng inched ahead until over an hour later the Cole brothers found themselves standing on the mud-slick deck of their transport. After throwing down their heavy packs, Willie and Henry slumped wearily next to Asher, while Professor Phillips stood watching the steamer being untied from the wharf. In the next instant, three great blasts from the steam whistle announced they were underway.
By mid-morning the fog lifted, and the Bucktails lined the ship railings to watch the scenery roll past on the banks of the Potomac River. The sunshine also brought out wild ducks, and Henry said, “I think it’s time fer some target practice.”
“At what?” asked Willie.
“Bully idea!” exclaimed a nearby lieutenant, yanking his revolver from its holster. “Our gunfire will tell the Rebs we’re comin’, too.”
The officer blazed away at the next flight of ducks, firing six futile shots as they winged past. After giving the officer a horselaugh, Henry threw his Enfield to his shoulder, nonchalantly swung with the lead mallard, and blew it from the sky.
“How did you do that?” gasped the lieutenant.
“I call it snap shootin’, sir. I do best when I just let m’ instincts take over. Them Rebs is really gonna catch hell when I level my piece at ’em!”
While Henry was bragging about his shooting prowess, Willie raised his rifle just as a second V of ducks zipped overhead. Carefully aiming along the barrel, he waited until the birds flew directly away from him before touching off a shot. The last duck in the flight exploded in a ball of feathers just before it escaped out of range.
“There ain’t enough left o’ that mallard ta make soup,” chortled Asher. “Why don’t ya jess wing the next one an’ drop it on the deck so we kin have lunch?”
“And draw down on it while it’s flying sideways,” snickered Ben Phillip. “That way you can pluck, gut, and drop it into the pot of boiling water I’ll set up right over here.”