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Jacob C. Cohen, 27th Ohio Infantry

The Ups and Downs of a Soldier's Life — Reflections on Summer — An Expedition "Outside the Lines" — Miscellaneous

Near Memphis, Tenn., June 2nd, 1863.


At length I have left the dusty confines of the Corinthian fortifications, and am now campaigning in sight of the follies and dissipation of the Memphians. One day's journey nearer our base, as much nearer home; and again in the midst of civilization. When I last wrote, our boys had been indulging in the fond, and, at the time, not unreasonable hope that they would have been permitted to sojourn at Corinth; for the summer at least. Not that they were unwilling to share the toil of march, and the perils of battle with their brethren in the field, for they had had their share of those natural consequences of campaigning. But they felt that they needed rest; needed the relaxation which other troops in our immediate vicinity have been enjoying for the past year. Therefore, when a short time since they received orders to move, you may be assured they were somewhat chagrined. Firstly, because they would thereby be obliged to leave the comfortable quarters which they had erected themselves, and secondly, because all their fond anticipations were thus suddenly destroyed:

"The hopes they had cherished would never come more
Their dreams had all perished, their happiness was o'er."

However, twelve hours after receiving marching orders, we had left Corinth behind us, and were whirling over the Memphis & Charleston R.R. en route for this city. On the morning of the 11th ult. we arrived here and in a short time were encamped on the suburbs of the city, within sight of the church spires, and hearing of the buzz and din of this now commercial metropolis. But it appears that there is no rest for the wicked. For again we are under marching orders. So this is as likely to be my farewell, as introductory letter from this place. Where we will go, or if we will go at all, yet remains to be seen.

We have made an excellent and comfortable set of quarters for officers and men, fortified our camp strongly, brought up and planted artillery behind formidable breastworks, made passable roads, and supposing from the vital importance of this place to our army in Mississippi that a force must be stationed here constantly to guard the railroads, &c., we not unreasonably concluded that those who did the labor, ought to enjoy the fruits of it. This was the consideration drawn from reason, but there was another drawn from astrology, which I fear will prove the correct one. We have never been in a place yet which we did not have to leave a short time after preparing for a stay. If we were content to live in tents like the greater portion of the army, we were safe from a move, but as soon as we began erecting barracks, or digging wells, &c., just so soon could we confidently look for marching orders. We have therefore vague apprehensions that the finishing of the police of our present camp, will be the limit of our stay.

Though willing to serve our country, and do our duty wherever we are needed, we shall leave this place with regret. Changing Goldsmith's couplet in his charming poem, The Traveller,

"Rich vernal blooms these torpid rocks array
And Winter dies within the lap of May."

The hills around us hide their rough nakedness in robes of the freshest green, the small valleys retreat in graceful curves from the eye, looking as if they were the paths to come paradise beyond; the full moon bathes all in the softest, mellowest light; the night air is vocal till the gray of dawn; with a chorus of whippoorwills, and when they cease, the morning songsters anticipate the reveille drums and bugles. Wild flowers—many of them strangers—all of them beautiful, spring up by the rough rocks, and gnarled roots of the trees, and no voice or aspect of nature harmonizes with our deadly, awful calling. How happy shall we all be, when we can say of our country, like Shelley,

"Not gold, not blood, her altar dowers,
But native tears and symbol flowers."

How welcome the day when the soldier shall no longer bleed as a man, nor the contractor fatten as a vampyre. There will be many tender adieus. Farewell, to the gentle and impressible beauties of Mississippi, Tennessee and other portions of the sunny south; farewell to the fountains of sin, after copper distilled lightning; farewell to the butter and eggs brought in by our pedestrian hucksters, who, I must say, in our present camp, fairly earn their money, by climbing the rough hills around us; farewell, too, on the part of the country folks here, to the prices they never saw before, and never will again, when their chickens and geese laid golden eggs, and their cows grazed on the shores of Poetolus.

We have planted a large number of cedar trees in camp, and they will form, in after years, a pleasant memorial of the rough and ready "Yankees." It has been often said, and with much truth, that army life is demoralizing, but the great law of compensation which operates in moral and material nature, operates even here, and along with the vices, inseparable from large gatherings of men unrestrained by social ties or by civil law, they acquire some virtues. They learn to endure hardship, to be content with little, to obey superiors, and to exercise a helping and forbearing disposition that shines through the roughness of their manner like the slender veins on the auriferous rock.

A brother officer and myself made a trip the other day our into the country in search of eggs, butter, poultry, and information. The first three we paid money for; of the last we imparted more than we received. There is no use trying to get blood out of a stone, nor knowledge from these schoolless dwellers among the hills. The shade of slavery rests over them, though niggers are very scarce. (The poverty of many of the people will not allow them to indulge in such expensive luxuries.) We ascended and descended, we climbed the mountain, and threaded the vale—"A mighty maze, yet not without a plan"—but, unfortunately, we did not know the plan. We turned from the Rolla road into an old wagon road which dwindled down to a horse track, to a foot track, to a rabbit track, and vanishing into thin air, left us on the steep hillside alone. We paused and debated, whether to turn back or advance, but, finally, "forward," was the word, and we descended into the narrow valley before us. We found a path down it, and following that, came to where another lovely valley opened into it. Here we were abundantly rewarded for our pains. Seated on a log, an axe in his hand, and a block of wood before him, sat a man about fifty years old. We went up and accosted him, and, as he seemed sociable inclined, took seats—my companion on a log, I on the ground, but not long, as I found the wood ticks too sociably inclined to suit my taste. These little brutes are about the size of an ant; they get on you, insert their heads into your flesh, and stay there, until cut out. Our friend was a man who might have become eminent; he had been gifted with greatness, and condemned to obscurity. He reminded me of one of the suppressed verses in Grey's Elegy:

"Some Rip Van Winkle o'er whose head
The rolling years have vainly floated by,
Some genius who, in yearning college bred,
Might e'en have taught Munchausen how to lie."

The Rip Van Winkle was illustrated by the block of wood, which was intended to be fashioned into a mouldboard for a furrowing plow, in utter oblivion of the steel mouldboards which freedom puts into the hands of her toiling sons, to polish in the soil that sustains them. The Munchausen shone in every word, lightened through every sentence, and gradually reached the climax of a series of the most outrageous lies to which I ever listened. We accompanied him to his cabin, where we found his family of eight tow-heads. We obtained directions to the next house, up another steep hill, and left him alone in al his glory. The quest of eggs takes time, the quest of information takes more, and ere we reached the pickets the shades of night were around us. The stars were out, and so was the countersign, but the sentinel was indulgent. Occasionally there is a fool on duty, but not often, and we got safely through the lines.

It is thus we vary the monotony of camp life, and between a trip outside the lines and an occasional visit to the city, we manage to kill time more pleasantly then heretofore. Since our encampment here we have one desirable advantage, i.e. the opportunity to visit the synagogue on Shabbos and holydays. Last "Shevuous" the two synagogues here were well attended and among the worshippers I noticed several blue coats. In the person of the חזן [Cantor] of the Main Street Congregation, I recognized the Rev. Mr. Ritterman, formerly of the Greene St. Synagogue, of your city [New York].

Memphis at present is the metropolis of the Southwest. Traders have flocked here from New York, St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. And at all hours of the day, the streets present a busy appearance. Trade is somewhat restricted, at present, with the people outside of the lines; but in a short time the restrictions are likely to be removed. Gen. Hurlburt [sic. Hurlbut], in command here, has ordered all residents of the city to take the oath of allegiance to the United States before the 16th inst. As many seem disposed to resist the order, lively times are anticipated here about that date.

Next Saturday the anniversary of the capture of Memphis—of the occupation of this city by the Federal army, there is to be a grand celebration. The Union citizens, and military authorities, are quite active in the matter, so an imposing celebration is expected. The Jewish population here is considerably larger than I anticipated; it is estimated that there are at least a thousand of our co-religionists here at present; they manage to support two synagogues, three charitable societies, two clubs, besides a literary society, &c.

One noticeable feature of the effect of the war on a southern community is the large majority of women over men, who are seen on the promenade, in church [synagogue], or in society. I have no doubt but that there are five of the gentler sex in Memphis to each male, and what makes this fact more apparent is, that at least one-third are in mourning—probably for lost relatives in this war. (?) How sad a reflection! How serious a one for those ambitions and fanatical spirits, whose impious hands first applied the torch, which has ended in such a general conflagration!

As I write there is a grand sight in the front of our camp. Far and wide, on a distant hill, the woods, are on fire. We can hear the rush of the flames, the crackling of the limbs; sounding strangely in the night air, when commingled with the clatter of the fire bell of the city. The burning trees show in the front, as the lamps of the city do in our rear. One tall, dead poplar tree, in particular, towers aloft like a pillar of fire, and the ruddy glow illuminates our camp, as well as it can, with a full bright moon shining over us. By its light, I will close. Good night.


Jacob C. Cohen Letters