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Jacob C. Cohen, 27th Ohio Infantry

By J.C.C.

The Bivouac

It was a cloudy night, and one long to be remembered; December 31st, 1862. The old year, and many a brave form who had that day nobly battles against a traitorous host, was slowly passing away. We sat around a rail fire on the bloody field of Parker's Crossroads (Tenn.), and as usual talked of home, friends, and loved ones. "One year ago to-night, we had the band supper at the Sedalia House, you remember," said Captain E. "Aye!" said we all in answer. "And a gay time we had too." Then we lapsed into musing and longing. Over our bivouac fire met the pine boughs, in whispers solemn and low: and from a little distance came the deeper and more changeful murmur of the Tennessee Water-falls. "Yes, we had the band supper on New Year's eve. I remember, oh, how vividly!—that glad, sad night. The splendid decorations of the ball and table—a richly, beautiful bouquet. The charming, pleading, naive looks of the fair flower girl who sold—I mean gave it to me for a pecuniary consideration. Delightful promenades in the candle lighted halls. Rare, touching, subduing music from our Regimental band. Pleasant tete-a-tete in parlor corners, where the piano didn't stand, but where its music stole with stirring power of melancholy sweetness. Kind, cheering words and looks, the spoke out from hundreds of warm hearts—young and old—everybody—happy as the hours were long—only that in all this joy trembled a note and a tear of affectionate sadness—for the youthful manhood of that festive gathering were likely at any moment to be summoned by "war's alarms" to receive their death blow from a traitorous foe. Thus we mused, as we sat by our bivouac fire on this memorable eve. We did not so much wish for a return of this holiday; we were simply thinking of the warm hearts and smiling faces of the dear ones at home, whom nearly two years of absence had made dearer still, and wishing we could once again be with them there.

As the hours wore away, part of our military circle retired to their couches of pine boughs and evergreens, with the evident design of dreaming the old year out and the new one in. Others sat conversing on the lights and shadows of life in general, and the soldier's life in particular. There were contrasting the past life—peaceful and quiet at home, with the present—so full of stirring events of adventure, of privation and of danger. They had hoped the "cruel war" would have ended long ere then. Tonight, our pickets and those of the enemy exchanged compliments and tobacco across the "Black Ridge", and even the beginning of the end seemed a great way off. Yes, they talked of home—asking, but never doubting, whether they should find the same quiet joy—the sweet charm of welcome, the same bright sunshine of life that enriched the dear old days gone by. They lurked around the future, trying to peer into it, wondering, hoping and fearing—saddened at the thought that they might never—possibly never see again and hear and know the gladness of the old home life. For they remembered we had already buried a hundred dead, and a hundred more were wrecked of the comrades who one year ago stood at out side, and half of the remainder were wearing out their lives in hospitals. I was reading Mrs. Gaskell's beautiful story, "North and South," and deeply fascinated by her noble conceptions, her pure and lofty thoughts, and her unequaled delineation of character—"Thornton," the self reliant, self-made man; the honest, high minded, and noble hearted; the hero who thought it more and better to be a man than a gentleman. He was my ideal of a man. He was innocence and integrity, work and worth, courage and will. And the heroine, "Margaret Hall," what nobler type of womanhood has truth, or fiction that reveals truth, ever produced! Still, awfully still, grew the night, as one by one withdrew, and intense grew the spell of Mrs. Gaskell's genius. All at once Captain M. joined our circle, his "Happy New Year to you all" struck cheerily on our startled ears. My watch told it was ten minutes past twelve. The old year was gone and ten sands had fallen from the hour-glass of the new.

"Your good health, Captain," I returned, as the weasel brought from some stray haversack a suspicious looking bottle of good cheer. Ha! Ha! How we pledged to each other in bumpers, and drank to the merry New Year, until the sleepers around the neighboring fires, turned uneasily, snuffed joy in the atmosphere, and finally sat straight up and eagerly asked to join in the "hands all around." When our revels had subsided, visitors gone, I reflected. It was the morning of the New Year, and 1863 dawned on us full of event and destiny. Its reveilles and tattoos, its booming cannon and beating drums, vibrated through the air. Its white tents and flaunting banners, its bustling ramparts and open graves, looked us in the face and said, "How are you?" The fire was nearly burned low. I was growing cold. I rolled myself in my blanket, lay down beside the dying embers, and started on the road to dreamland.

The route thither seemed long and circuitous. I could not sleep of course, until I had bestowed a thought and asked God's richest blessing on the dear ones far away. Then I started out afresh. Just upon the borders of that fair land, while in that luxurious transition state from reverie to unconscious rest, the magnificent band of a neighboring regiment broke the thread of my conscious, yet the unconscious musing and the stillness of the night with "Hail, Columbia!" They were in camp, half a mile from us, and this first blast of silver thunder and welcome to the New Year, rang out with wondrous effect. It was a grand, patriotic welcome—a glad and cheering "Hail!" When out land had been remembered, and due honors paid to the heroes who fought and bled in the olden time, those speaking cornets, as if endowed with soul, subdued their voices to the solemn, slow and sympathetic strains of "Home Sweet Home." Never did that noble psalm of the heart seem to richly and touchingly beautiful. It rolled like waves or billows over the wide fenceless space, where fields had been, filling many hearts with its rich and gushing melody. It trembled through the pine woods as moonlight distills through the branches of trees. It echoed over the hills and died away in the distance in sweet cadence. It carried the sleeper in his dreams, and the waker in his reveries, far away to the bright valley of "La Belle Riviere," and filled his soul afresh with memories of, and longing for that sacred place, HOME. We are beginning to grow intoxicated with the delicious strains of the bugles and cornets, when probably anticipating our flow of spirits (not from the bottle this time) the band subsides from the ideal and calls us back to the actual, with the uplifting strains of that popular war hymn, "Glory, glory, hallelujah!" which we sing over and over again, a hundred times, "as we go marching along."

The music ceases; and supposing the exercises ended, we are just sinking into delicious repose, when a strain richer and sweeter than all that had charmed us before, burdened the night wind. It was that grand Scotch melody, "Auld Lang Syne,"—and as we lay and listened, half sleeping, half waking, it touched the sense with a beauty and sweetness almost ineffable. It carried us back through the year just gone—through its picket watches and battle smoke. Back through the years of manhood's first struggles and triumphs, where life itself seemed a battle, where brave men might win enduring victories, and where to our young ambition came the warning and appeal "we must fight." Back through the years fraught with happiness, where through the glad free romping days of boyhood where "Lang syne" memories cluster over fullness of thoughtless joy, I dream again the bright rosy dreams of boyhood, as there breathed from those silver cornets the sweetly solemn music of "Auld Lang Syne." Then the band ceases playing, and a great calm rests upon our world—a silence—broken only by the boom of a sentinel's gun in the distance, and then a sleep, a deep, sweet sleep. The first of the New Year.

Jacob C. Cohen Letters