A list of the battles in which we were engaged and a narration of the events that took place in them would form at least a good sized fragment of the annals of that great gigantic civil war which cut the nineteenth century in two with a torrent of blood and enabled four years to make more American history than all the others combined.
We soon found that this was a war and not a pleasure excursion and governed ourselves and were governed accordingly We were taught that it was the theory of the Government that we were not murderers or robbers or thieves that what we did must be under the established laws of civilized war and what we took even from the enemy's country must be paid for unless extreme necessity drove us to a contrary course.
There was however a disposition on the part of officers to deal with offenders leniently especially for the first time It was understood that a glowing opportunity to steal something to eat was very tempting to a hungry man and especially was this so when a tender luscious looking chicken confronted him with a temptingly implied invitation to eat it Some laughable occurrences took place in this connection.
For instance during a long march of several days one of our men could not resist the temptation of gathering in a chicken which ran so near him as to almost make it seem as if the dainty little creature had been intended for him by a divine Providence Rations were peculiarly low at that time and the man's mouth naturally watered at something that would remind him of Thanksgiving Day at home.
So he quietly transferred the trim little winged flutterer to his haversack There was no knowing how soon he was going into camp again and it would not do to carry a dead chicken around very long and he concluded to transport it as live stock.
The man was well toward the front of the regiment and within Col Berdan's hearing Through a long night march the chicken which had not been taken entirely into the soldier's confidence kept making little inquiries of curiosity as to where she was going in the shape of an occasional peep.
The Colonel could not help hearing these tiny but shrill notes upon the air and to know that others heard them and there seemed no way but to put the man under arrest and summon him before a drum head court martial The whole regiment was intensely interested in the case and news of the proceedings flew from man to man almost as if wireless telegraphy had already been invented and put into practical use.
The court was convened early in the morning with due solemnity and the following question was asked For what are you arrested For stealing a chicken I suppose was the reply Are you sure that is the correct answer asked the Colonel grimly and severely It's as near as I can figure it out replied the man meekly I can t think of anything else that I've done I will give you a day for reflection rejoined the Colonel. You will be put under guard at the rear of your regiment and appear before me again tomorrow morning Until then you may think it over and see if you can give the right answer.
The man went back under guard and had time to think the matter over all day and all night not unaided by the sly jollying as it would now be called of his comrades who asked him all sorts of questions as to whether he liked his chicken rare or well done whether he had found the wishbone yet why he didn't chloroform the little biped as soon as captured etc etc Meanwhile he naturally suffered a certain amount of humiliation from the facts of the case The next morning he was summoned again before the drum head court martial and again asked if he knew for what he was under arrest He could think of no new reply to make and stolidly repeated his statement of the day before Take him back under guard again shouted the Colonel He does not yet realize the enormity of his offense The second day of his arrest was still more trying than the first The good natured jeers of his comrades began to rub in and he promised two or three of them a good drubbing as soon as he got a chance But he had time meanwhile to do a little thinking and to ponder as to what the Colonel was really driving at For a third time he was called up and was now getting used to it and acquiring a little more confidence So he looked squarely in the officer's face and said Colonel I suspect I m under arrest for not havin cut that chicken's head off before he had a chance to make a single peep You are discharged exclaimed the Colonel Go to your company and sin no more He was quite a hero with his comrades when he got back although they would persist in calling him Peeps during the rest of the march But the circumstances certainly put a stop to the stealing of chickens alive This method of punishment with a bit of humor in it was one of the best that could have been employed with a band of soldiers just out of the free life of American citizenship It gave them something to laugh at and at the same time something to avoid on account of the joke that went with it Some people would rather be hit with a club than to have a joke fastened upon them Col Berdan was quite addicted to pronouncing these whimsical sentences.
One night a sharpshooter had been stealing fence rails in order to boil his coffee In order to save time he took a short cut which led him in front of Col Berdan's tent.
He was discovered and being caught red handed or at least rail handed was punished without trial being made to march up and down in front of the tent for half an hour lugging the rail on his back This of course was not a particularly pleasant stunt and it was a sort of relief when he was finally allowed to put one end of the somewhat heavy timber on the ground and sustain a verbal examination It did not take him two days to get his answer as it had done in the case of the man with the chicken Perhaps he had derived some instruction from that incident Do you know why you have been made to do this asked the Colonel severely Yes sir boldly answered the culprit it was for not going behind your tent instead of in front of it The Colonel smiled grimly told him to take the rail back where he got it which he perhaps did and released him from custody His comrades called him The Shortest Way Round for a time but he felt that he got off cheap even with that This sort of punishment reminded us of the penalty that General Grant put upon a lieutenant when he issued an order something like this Lieutenant having eaten everything in a certain farmer's house ten miles back excepting one pie is hereby ordered to return under guard and eat the remaining pie.
Some of the punishments that Colonel Berdan inflicted were serious enough though not severe He particularly abhorred cowardice as all good military chieftains do This disease or distemper or whatever else it may be called would seem to be the last thing a soldier would ever sustain and yet some of the bravest of men have sometimes streaks of it Panic is a temporary development of this disease and all wars and warriors have had experience with it So badly were our Union soldiers frightened at conclusion of the Battle of Bull Run that the Confederates could easily have taken Washington had they known and followed up their advantage The story is told of one of our soldiers who at the first fire wanted to run to the rear Brace up old fellow said his nearest comrade fight bravely and you will live in history I d rather live in Chicago where I came from was the trembling reply While we were lying before York town during our part in the siege of that place we were vigorously shelled by the enemy and ordered to advance in the face of their fire One of our number could not summon courage to do this refused to go and in fact conducted himself in a very cowardly manner At dress parade the same evening the Colonel called him out before the whole regiment and mildly but firmly made an example of him In a short speech to the men he discussed the question of cowardice its causes its effects etc He said he could understand how a soldier might feel a sinking of the heart before he had gone into the battle with perhaps the dead and wounded being borne past him but he could not see how there could be any cowardice after the battle commenced with drums beating and colors flying This man may not be to blame he continued any more than if he had the measles the fever or the cholera And then again it may be that he has not exercised his thinking faculties and his will power sufficiently upon the subject At any rate he evidently is not worthy to be a comrade of you brave men Take his rifle away from him and send him to fatigue duty This man pleaded to be given back his place in the ranks vowing that if tried again he would not fail to do his duty in every case But Col Berdan was inexorable at first until finally he yielded to the pleadings of the man's comrades so far as to say that if a petition was sent him signed by every member of the company he would consider it This was done the man was taken back into the ranks treated kindly and with consideration by his comrades and proved thereafter one of the bravest of soldiers and no one ever cared or dared to twit him of bygones