Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

Harry M. Kieffer’s Recollections – Camp Curtin

Posted By on February 10, 2017

Today’s post features Chapter 2 of Recollections of a Drummer Boy.

Previously on this blog, a brief sketch was presented on the Rev. Dr. Henry M. Kieffer, a Civil War veteran who was not included on the Millersburg Soldier Monument.  In that sketch, it was noted that Rev. Dr. Kieffer was enumerated in the 1860 Census of Upper Paxton Township, in the household of his father, Rev. Ephraim Kieffer, a Reformed minister who served churches in Killinger, Lykens Township, and Gratz, among other communities in the Lykens Valley area – and that the Rev. Dr. Henry Kieffer later published his recollections of the war in 1883.  In the Civil War, he served in the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Henry Kieffer was away at school, north of Millersburg, when the war broke out.  In Chapter 2, he tells of his arrival at Camp Curtin, Harrisburg.  Although he was not yet of legal age to enlist, he got permission from his parents and became a Drummer Boy.   The chapter is entitled, “First Days in Camp,” and describes camp life.


Our first camp was located on the outskirts of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was called “Camp Curtin.”  It was so named in honor of Governor Andrew G. Curtin, the “war governor” of Pennsylvania, who was regarded by the soldiers of his state with a patriotic enthusiasm second only to that with which they, in common with all the troops of the Northern states, greeted the name of Abraham Lincoln.

Camp Curtin was not, properly, a camp of instruction.  It was, rather, a mere rendezvous for the different companies which had been recruited in various parts of the state.  Hither the volunteers came by hundreds and thousands for the purpose of being mustered into the service, uniformed and equipped, assigned to regiments, and shipped to the front as rapidly as possible.  Only they who witnessed it can form any idea of the patriotic ardor, amounting often to a wild enthusiasm, with which volunteering went on in those days.  The contagion of enlisting and “going to the war” was in the very atmosphere.  You could scarcely accompany a friend to a way station on the main lines of travel without seeing the future wearers of blue coats at the car windows, and on the platforms.  Very frequently, whole trains were filled with them, speeding away to the state capital as swift as steam could carry them.  They poured into Harrisburg, company by company, usually in citizens’ clothes and marched out of the town a week or so later, regiment by regiment, all glorious in bright new uniforms and glistening bayonets, transformed in a few days from citizens into soldiers, and destined for high endeavor on many a bloody field.

Shortly after our arrival in camp, Andy I and I went into town to purchase some articles as we supposed a soldier would be likely to need, — a gum blanket, a journal, a combination knife, fork, and spoon, and so on to the end of the list.  To our credit I have it to record that we turned a deaf ear to the solicitations of a certain dealer in the cutlery, who insisted on selling each of us a revolver, and an ugly looking bowie-knife in a bright-red morocco sheath.

“Shentlemens, shust the ting you vill need ven you goes into de battle.  Ah, see dis knife; how it shines!  Look at dis very fine revolfer!”

But Moses entreated in vain, while his wife stood at the shop door, looking at some regiment marching down the street to the depot, weeping as if her heart would break, and wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron from time to time.

“Ah, de poor boys!” said she.  “Dere dey go, again, off to de great war, away from deir homes, and deir mutters, deir wives, and deir sweethearts, all to be kilt in de battle!  Dey will nefer any more coom back.  Oh, it is so wicked!”

But the drums rattled on, and the crowd on the sidewalk gazed and cheered, and Moses, behind the counter, smiled pleasantly as he cried up his wares, and went on selling bowie-knives and revolvers to kill men with, while his wife went on weeping and lamenting because men would be killed in the wicked war, and “nefer any more coom back.”  The firm of Moses and wife struck us as a very strange combination of business and sentiment.  I don’t know how many knives and pistols Moses sold, nor how many tears his good wife shed, but if she wept whenever a regiment marched down the street to the depot, her eyes must have turned into a river of tears; for the tap of the drum and the tramp of the men resounded along the streets of the capital by day and by night, until people grew so used to it that they scarcely noticed it any more.

The tide of volunteering was at the full during those early days of 1862.  But the day came at length when the tide began to turn.  Various expedients were then resorted to for the purpose of stimulating the flagging zeal of Pennsylvania’s sons.  At first, the tempting bait of large bounties was presented — county bounties, city bounties – some men towards the close of the war receiving as much as one thousand dollars, and never smelling powder at that.  At last, drafting was of necessity resorted to, and along with drafting came all the miseries of “hiring substitutes,” and so making merchandise of a service of which it is the chief glory that it shall be free,

But in the fall of ’62, there had been no drafting yet, and large bounties were unknown — and unsought.  Most of us were taken quite by surprise when, a few days after our arrival in camp, we were told that County Commissioners had some down for the purpose of paying us each the magnificent sum of fifty dollars.  At the same time, also, we learned that the United States Government would pay us each one hundred dollars additional, of which, however, only twenty-five were placed in our hands at once.  The remaining seventy-five were to be received only by those who might safely pass through all the unknown dangers which awaited us, and live to be mustered out with the regiment three years later.

Well, it was no matter then,  What cared we for bounty?  It seemed a questionable procedure, at all events, this offering of money as a reward for an act which, to be a worthy act at all, asks not an needs not the guerdon of gold.  We were all so anxious to enter the service, that, instead of looking for any artificial helps in that direction, our only concern was lest we might be rejected by the examining surgeon and not be admitted to the ranks.

For soon after our arrival, and before we were mustered into the service, every man was thoroughly examined by a medical officer, who had us presented to him one by one, in purus naturalibus [bare naked], in a large tent, where he sharply questioned us — “Teeth sound?  Eyes good? Ever had this, that, and the other disease?” –and pitiable was the case of that unfortunate man who because of bad hearing, or defective eyesight, or some other physical blemish, was compelled to don his citizen’s clothes again and take the next train for home.

After having been thoroughly examined, we were mustered into the service.  We were all drawn up in line.  Every man raised his right hand while an officer recited the oath.  It took only a few minutes, but when it was over one of the boys exclaimed:  “Now, fellows, I’d like to see any man go hoe if he dare.  We belong to Uncle Sam now.”

Of the thousand men drawn up in line there that day, some lived to come back three years later and be drawn up in line again, almost on that identical spot, for the purpose of being mustered out of the service.  And how many do you think there were? Not more than one hundred and fifty.

As we now belonged to Uncle Sam, it was to be expected that he would next proceed to clothe us.  This he punctually did a few days after the muster.  We had no merriment when we were called out and formed in line and marched up to the quartermaster’s department at one side of the camp, to draw our uniforms.  There were so many men to be uniformed and so little time in which to do it, that the blue clothes were passed out to us almost regardless of the size and weight of the prospective wearer.  Each man received a pair of pantaloons, a coat, cap, overcoat, shoes, blanket, and underwear, of which latter the shirt was — well, a revelation to most of us, both as to size and shape and material.  It was so rough, that no living mortal, probably, could wear it, except perhaps one who wished to do penance by wearing a hair shirt.  Mine was promptly sent home along with my citizen’s clothes, with the request that it be kept as sort of heirloom in the family, for future generations to wonder at.

With our clothes on our arms, we marched back to our tents, and there proceeded to get on the inside of our new uniforms.  The result was in most cases astonishing!  For, as might have been expected, scarcely one man in ten was fitter.  The tall men had invariably received the short pantaloons, and presented an appearance, when they emerged from their tents, which was equaled only by that of the short men who had, of course, received the long pantaloons.  One man’s cap was perched away up on the top of his head, while another’s rested on his ears.  Andy, who was not very tall, waddled forth into the company street amid shouts of laughter, having his pantaloons turned up some six inches or more from the bottoms, declaring that “Uncle Sam must have gotten the patterns for his boys’ pantaloons somewhere over in France; for he seems to have cut them after the style of the two French towns, Toulon and Touluse.”

“Hello, fellows!  What do you think of this?  Now just look here, will you, exclaimed Pointer Donachy, the tallest man in the company, as he came out of his tent in a pair of pantaloons that were little more than knee-breeches for him, and began to parade the street with a tent pole for a musket.  “How in the name of the American eagle is a man going to fight the battles of his country in such a uniform as this?  Seems to me that Uncle Sam must be a little short of cloth, boys.”

“Brother Jonathan generally dresses in tights you know,” said some one.

“Ah,” said Andy, “Pointer’s uniform reminds one of what the poet says, —

“‘Man need but little here below,

Nor needs that little long.'”

“You’re rather poor at quoting poetry, Andy,” answered Pointer, “because I need more than a little here below:  I need at least six inches.”

And the shoes!  Coarse, broad-soled, low-heeled “gunboats,” as we afterward learned to call then — what a time there was getting into them.  Here came one fellow down the street with shoes so big that they could scarcely be kept on his feet, while over yonder another tugged and pulled and kicked himself red in the face over a pair that would not go on.  But by trading off, the large men gradually got the large garments and the little men the small, so that in a few days we were all pretty well suited.

I remember hearing about one poor fellow, in another company, a great, strapping six-footer, who could not be suited.  The largest shoe furnished by the government was quite too small.  The giant tried his best to force his foot in, but in vain.  His comrades gathered about him, and laughed, and chaffed him unmercifully, whereupon he exclaimed, —

“Why, you don’t think they are all boys that come into the army, do you?  A man like me needs a man’s shoe, not a baby’s.”

There was another poor fellow, a very small man, who had received a very large pair of shoes, and had not yet been able to effect any exchange.  One day the sergeant was drilling the company on the facings — Right face!  Left face!  Right about face! — and of course watched his men’s feet closely, to see that they went through the movements promptly.  Observing one pair of feet down the line that never budged at the command, the sergeant, with drawn sword, rushed up to the possessor of them, and in menacing tones, demanded, —

“What do you mean by not facing about when I tell you? I’ll have you put in the guard-house , if you don’t mind.”

“Why — I — did, sergeant,” said the trembling recruit.

“You did not, sir.  Didn’t I watch your feet?  They never moved an inch.”

“Why, you see,” said the man, “my shoes are so big that they don’t turn when I do.  I go through the motions on the inside of them!”

Although Camp Curtin was not so much a camp of instruction as a camp of equipment, yet once we had received our arms and uniforms, we were all eager to be put on drill.  Even before we had received our uniforms, every evening we had some little drilling, under command of Sergeant Cummings, who had been out in the three months service.  Clothed in citizens’ dress, and armed with such sticks and poles as we could pick up, we must have presented a sorry appearance on parade.  Perhaps the most comical figure in the line was that of old Simon Malehorn, who, clothed in a long linen duster, high silk hat, blue overalls, and loose slippers, was forever throwing the line into confusion by breaking rank, and running back to find his slipper, which he had lost in the dust somewhere, and happy was he if some one of the boys had not quietly smuggled it into his pocket or under his coat, and left poor Simon to finish the parade in his stocking feet.

Awkward enough in the drill we all were, to be sure.  still, we were not quite so stupid as a certain recruit, of whom it was related that the drill sergeant had to take him aside as an “awkward squad” by himself, and try to teach him how to “mark time.”  But, alas, the poor fellow did not know his right foot from his fled, and consequently could not follow the order, “Left! Left!” until the sergeant, driven almost to desperation, lit on the happy expedient of tying a wisp of straw to one foot, and a similar wisp of hay on the other, and then put the command in a somewhat agricultural shape — “Hay foot, straw foot! Hay foot! Straw foot!” — whereupon, it is said he did quite well.   For if he did not know his left foot from his right, he at least could tell hay from straw.

One good effect of our having been detained in Camp Curtin for several weeks was, that we thus had the opportunity of forming the acquaintance of the other nine companies with which we were to be joined in one common regimental organization.  some of these came from the western, and some from the eastern part of the state; some were from the city, some from inland towns and small villages, and some from the wild, lumber regions.  Every rank, class, and profession seemed to be represented.  There were clerks, farmers, students, railroad men, iron workers, lumbermen.  At first, we were all strangers to one another.  The different companies, having as yet no regimental life to bind them together as a unit, naturally regarded each other as foreigners rather than as members of the same organization.  In consequence of this, there was no little rivalry between company and company, together with no end of friendly chaffing and lively banter, especially about the time of roll-call in the evening.  The names of the men who hailed from the west were quite strange, and a long-standing source of amusement to the boys from the east, and vice versa.  When the orderly-sergeant of Company I called the roll, the men of Company B would pick out all the outlandish-sounding  surnames and make all manner of puns on them, only to be paid back in their own coin by similar criticisms of their roll.  hen there were were certain forms of expression peculiar to the different sections from which the men came, strange idiomatic usages of speech, amounting at times to the most pronounced provincialisms, were were a long-continued source of merriment.  Thus the  Philadelphia boys made all sport of the boys from the upper tier of counties because they said “I be going deown to teown,” and invariably used “I make out to” for “I am going to,” or “I intend to.”  Some of the men, it was observed, called every species of board, no matter how thin, “a plank”; and every kind of stone, no matter how small, “a rock.” How the men laughed one evening, when a high wind came up and blew the dust, in dense clouds, all over the camp, and one of the western boys was heard to delared that he had “a rock in his eye!”

Once we got afield, however, there was developed such a feeling of regimental unity as soon obliterated whatever natural antagonisms may at first have existed between the different companies.  Peculiarities of speech, of course, remained, and a generous and wholesome rivalry never disappeared; but these were a help rather than a hindrance.  For in military, as in all all social life, there can be no true unity without some diversity in the component parts, — a principle which is fully recognized in our national motto, “E pluribus unum.”





One Response to “Harry M. Kieffer’s Recollections – Camp Curtin”

  1. Mike Schindler says:

    Great story. So much went on during those days that most of us cannot imagine. It brings back memories of when I mustered into the Army in 1966, not so very different in some ways.

Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.