Voice from the Past: “A Great Day of Sport to Usher in the New Year”

Happy New Year!

As we begin a new calendar year and a new year of sesquincentennial celebrations, we thought it fitting to look back upon New Years 1862. All this week, The Front Line will be posting New Years-themed Voices from the Past. Our first comes from Alfred Lewis Castleman.

A great day of sport to usher in the new year. Amongst other amusements in our army, Hancock’s Brigade “got up a time on its own hook.” At twelve o’clock I went into the parade ground, and found about 10,000 people, soldiers and civilians, collected to witness the sport. Hancock’s Brigade is composed of the 5th Wisconsin, 6th Maine, 43d New York, and 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers. The sport commenced by a foot race of one thousand yards, purse $20 for the first out, $10 for second. About twenty started. The 5th Wisconsin took both prizes. Then jumping three jumps, prize $15, won by a member of the 5th Wisconsin. Next, climbing a greased pole, first prize won by a member of 6th Maine. Second, by 5th Wisconsin. Next, a greased pig (a two hundred-pounder) with a face as long as the moral law, or as a speech in Congress, shorn of his hair, the knot which had been tied in his tail to prevent his crawling through fence cracks, was untied, and his whole skin thoroughly “greased” with soft soap, was turned loose, with the announcement, “get what you can, and hold what you get.” The holder was to have the pig and ten dollars. For this prize, there were about four thousand competitors. The word was given, and the “Grand Army of the Potomac” was at last on the move. This chase commenced a little before sun-set. Pig had one hundred yards the start. One fellow far outran all the rest, and as he drew close on to his game, piggy suddenly turned on him with a “booh,” and the fellow ran t’other way as if he had seen a rebel. The whole crowd came rushing on piggy, expecting him to run; but piggy stood his ground and said “booh!” “The front line” suddenly brought a halt. But the rear, not prepared for so sudden a check, pressed forward, and the whole came down in a heap. A scream of “murder.” Piggy answered “booh.” At every “booh” a “line was swept away.” The pile of humanity became impassable. Those in the rear, filed to right and left, and by a “flank movement” took piggy in the rear. And now came a hand to hand encounter. As the last streak of the expiring day shed its light upon the excited combatants, it revealed a living mass of four thousand people — and a pig; the pig crowning the heap at the moment when the ray withdrew its light. Night was then made hideous by the screams of murder and replies of “booh.” Neither party could distinguish friend from foe; and as I retire for rest, the combat still rages. I I do not permit myself to doubt, however, that the morning will bring us the news of “another great victory by the grand army of the Potomac.”

At twelve o’clock last night, just as the old year was being crowded out of existence to make room for the new, I was awoke by a gentle thumbing of a guitar. ‘Twas right at the door of my tent. In a moment commenced at the other end of the tent, the soft, sweet notes of a violin; then, from all sides came up, low, soft, sweet sounds, as ever a band of small instruments poured forth. The music stopped for awhile, and a voice asked, “Shall we now strike up with the band?” “No! no! No drum, nor fife, nor horn; — they will disturb the sick, and he will not like that!!” Could a more delicate compliment than was conveyed in this remark have been devised by a soldiery whose business is pomp and noisy war? “He won’t like it — it will disturb his patients.” I appreciated this. It struck a cord which vibrated in unison with my pride, my vanity, my ambition. I of course acknowledged it; and so deeply felt the compliment that I record it, as worthy of my remembrance. “The hospital boys” got up a handsome supper to-night, at which the Surgeons were guests. It was a very pretty supper, and to me a pleasant affair.

Source: Alfred Lewis Castleman, “Diary of Alfred Lewis Castleman, January, 1862,” in The Army of the Potomac, Behind the Scenes: a Diary of Unwritten History (Milwaukee: Strickland & Co., 1863).

Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, July 15 1865.

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