James Roger Atcherley’s American Civil War – Part 3

< Back to Part 2.

Quote Camp near Somerset, December 29, 1861. Mr. Editor:—Once more I take my knapsack upon my knee, in order, if possible, to give you a faint idea of the state of affairs here in Kentucky. Two days after sending you my last letter, we started on a long and tedious march from Camp Dick to Somerset, a distance of fifty one miles, and although it was made at a double-quick, as the correspondent of the Commercial thinks, yet it partook greatly of the manner in which forced marches are said to be made; in that by the time we arrived here we were pretty well tired out. Unquote — Newark Advocate, 10 January 1862.

Records confirm that the 31st Ohio Volunteers marched from Camp Dick Robinson to Somerset, Kentucky, on 12 December 1861. There, the Union forces dug in and prepared to fight, but it seems the Confederates – although apparently greater in number – were unwilling to engage. In a relatively short communication to the folks back home in Newark, Ohio, James Atcherley [] focussed on the strength and position of the force he was a part of, and the characteristics of Somerset, his temporary home. (The image below shows the uniform and kit of a Union infantryman when marching.)

Quote We events - American Civil War - Private, US Infantry (Fatigue Marching Order)had often read of the marches of great armies, and always imagined it to be more of an imposing procession; something of a Fourth of July parade, in which we used to have any amount of fun. But we have come to the conclusion that ‘That which in theory we laud and praise, in practice is quite another thing.’

The correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial misrepresents both our force and that of the rebels. He states our force to be eight regiments, and that of the enemy about the same. While the truth is that although our force consists of the 35th, 38th, 17th and 31st Ohio, the 12th Kentucky, with Standart’s and Hewitt’s batteries, in all we have not over 4,200 effective men. On the other hand, I am told by our Sergeant Major, who says he has seen General Zollicoffer’s army that he has fourteen regiments under his command, and has two cannon more than we have; thus, you see, he is two to our one.

Our position, naturally strong, has been so fortified as to render it almost impregnable, so that with our present force we can bid defiance to Zollicoffer and his rebel followers. The position of the 31st Ohio is in a piece of woods on the Clifton road, half a mile south west of Somerset. Back of the camp some 150 yards is an open field slightly elevated above the camp and road, and by cutting an opening through the woods we have the full command of it from this place.

Here we have dug rifle pits enough to hold the whole regiment, and from which we can sweep with the breath of destruction any attempt to advance by any of the avenues leading to our camp. Each company has its appointed place, so that we all know where to go and what to do in case of an attack.

Company H, or the star company’s position, is on the extreme left, and commands the Cumberland road. If an attack is made, this, most probably, will be the road upon which the hardest part of the fight will take place; but as yet there has been none, although we marched two miles to see if they would not accommodate us with a small one, but they wouldn’t, so like the bold lads of Canada, we ‘marched back again.’

Somerset is a place of about 2,000 inhabitants, or was, before the war broke out, but it has now scarcely that many hundred. Like nearly all the towns of Kentucky, the business portion of it is confined to one street, which runs North and South. The place looks as though it had been built some time in the year 1; the houses are built without any regard to beauty or regularity, and look just ready to cave in. But although those who were wont to walk its streets, or stand on its corners and discuss Southern rights, have left for parts unknown, the streets are by no means deserted, but are thronged from morning to night with officers and soldiers. But our friends in Newark know by this time the busy scene which even one regiment presents.  Respectfully, J. A. Unquote

A little over two weeks after penning the letter above, James composed another update for his readers in back home in Newark. This time he wrote at length, and his writing was more relaxed. From looking outwards at the surroundings of his camp, and the enemy forces beyond it, James now turned his gaze upon the camp itself and the daily routine of its soldiers. (The photo below, showing officers of a Union infantry regiment at camp, actually depicts officers of the 80th New York Infantry and is used for illustrative purposes only.)

events - American Civil War - 80th NY Infantry officers

Quote Somerset, Kentucky, Jan 15th, 1862. Mr. Editor:—Having at various times given you an account of our movements, position, &c., I will now endeavour to give you some idea […] of the pleasures and inconveniences of camp life.

In all compositions where it is required to describe simple every day life, it necessarily brings into play all the energy and descriptive powers of the mind in order to make these simple occurrences convey to the mind of the reader the pleasure which the participants experience while engaged in them. And now when I commence to describe camp life, with its thousand and one little nothings, all of which go towards making it not only endurable but pleasant, it is with the distinct understanding between myself and my pen that I am unable to do justice to it. But there, this is preface enough, and if I can but describe one day of this wicked, wicked life half right, I shall be satisfied.

But to begin. The first gray streaks of dawn are just perceptible in the east, and with the exception of a few sleepy guards the whole regiment is enjoying that deep, peaceful sleep which only soldier boys can. All at once the shrill notes of the fife, accompanied by the rattle of the snare drums with three long, loud flourishes, awake the soldier from his hard pallet to welcome the god of day, which is done with a deal of grumbling for be it known that the maxim,

Early to bed and early to rise,

is not so fully carried out as it might be.—But then there’s that despisable roll call to be attended to, for if it isn’t—well, most of us know by this time what extra duty is.—So we tumble out, answer to our names, and then with the exception of two, whose turn it may be to get breakfast, we all of us lay and wait for the bell (or its substitute;) and when it is heard, Oh! what a scampering, and I was going to say swearing. But no, we are a very moral set of young men, and would not make a profane remark, not even to gain possession of the one fork which the mess possesses.

Breakfast over, each one goes to work fixing up his traps or amusing himself as best he may. But let us look about us and see some of the sights. Here is a young gent I have seen when in Newark issue from a fashionable hair-dressing saloon, with a fine black broadcloth suit on, his face carefully shaved and his hair beautifully curled, going to see some of his lady friends. Here he is mending a pair of breeches. See how systematically he threads that needle. There, now he begins, when all at once, “Darn the luck” he exclaims, and away goes the article in question flying across the tent with a polite invitation for them to go a little further; while he sucks his finger, shakes it, and finally wraps a rag around it. And so ends that job.

Here again sit four young men arguing the point as to who shall get dinner, High, Low, Jack and the Game; the point is decided and the two unlucky ones go to work. Here again are two more of our old friends with their coats off, their shirt sleeves rolled up, engaged in the gentlemanly occupation of washing clothes. Bugle sounds—time for drill, heavy marching order, Fall in! Fall in!

Now the sick list increases wonderfully; but here comes the Captain. Open flies the tent flap and in comes the Captain with ‘Why ain’t you out?’ ‘Impossible, captain, got the rheumatism awful bad,’ exclaims a sickly looking young man with his face all drawn up by the pain his is suffering. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ addressing a forlorn looking youth who is groaning in the corner. ‘Got the sick headache, captain, didn’t sleep a wink all night.’ Here is another with a dreadful sore toe, who finds it impossible to get his boot on. Away goes the captain complaining at the many ills that flesh is heir to.

Battalion drill over, our time is our own for the apace of three hours. The first thing we take under consideration is dinner, and oh, ye mothers! if you could see our young hopefuls engaged in the interesting work of making “slap-jacks,” well might your parental bosoms swell with honest pride to see with what ease, grace and even elegance they by a slight twist of the wrist and pan send the cake flying into the air and cause it to alight neatly turned in the pan again. I wish I could send one to you, they are delicious. Why, even the poor invalids who found it impossible to attend Battalion drill come forth on the call to dinner at a double quick, and generally manage without much trouble to worry down three of them eighteen inches in circumference by one and a half in thickness.

Dinner over, letter writing commences, and at this time you can find nearly all of us with our knapsacks on our knees, and our favourite weapon, a lead pencil, between our fingers, scribbling away, some to father, mother, brother or sister; others

‘To the girls they left behind them.’

At three o’clock there is another drill of two hours, at which time the same interesting programme is gone through with as before. After drills comes supper, this over, we adjourn to our tents. The candle is lighted, we seat ourselves in a semi-circle and draw forth our pipes, for be it known that the ‘Henry Clays’ and ‘Havanas’ have been thrust aside, and the fragrant, soothing pipe substituted in its stead.—The graceful smoke curling around and above us drives dull care away.

A song is called for, and that young man in the corner, with hair all over his face, is asked to favor the company with that song about the sleigh-ride, which he does with great effect, and without any of those excuses which I have heard him make when in Newark about colds, etc. He sings the air and the mess join in the chorus. Here is one who glories in his deep bass voice, salutes our ears with a flood of melody which sounds like distant thunder. Another very patriotic individual thinks that a little of ‘Johnny is gone for a soldier’ would be an improvement, so he tries it.

Zollicoffer, Felix KirkSong follows song, until we tire of music, when we try story-telling. Nearly all can tell a good yarn, indeed, I have heard some of the most marvellous tales, things of which I never even dreamed before I came soldiering; but then soldiers are generally well versed in this branch. The stories exhausted, we generally wind up by talking about home, and laying plans for the future, and I can assure you that we have plans laid for our amusement for a whole year after the war, if that event ever does take place.  Respectfully, J. A. Unquote

On 19 January 1862, just four days after James wrote cheerfully about camp life, he and his fellow soldiers were on the move again – with the prospect of combat ahead of them. The 31st was marching to lend assistance to General Thomas at the Battle of Mill Springs, but the poor condition of the roads slowed their progress. By the time they arrived the battle was over, and General Felix Zollicoffer (pictured above) had become the first Confederate General to be killed in the Western theatre of the American Civil War.

James Roger Atcherley’s American Civil War – Part 4.

Picture credits. Uniform and kit of US infantryman when marching: From a public domain image at Wikimedia Commons. Officers of a Union Infantry Regiment (the 80th New York Infantry): Adapted from a public domain image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Felix Zollicoffer: Adapted from a public domain image taken from Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Newark Advocate, 10 Jan 1862, page 3. Scan of letter provided by Dan Fleming.
[2] Newark Advocate, 24 Jan 1862, page 3. Scan of letter provided by Dan Fleming.
[3] 31st Regiment, Ohio Infantry. At: The Civil War (website, accessed 6 May 2016).
[4] N N Hill, Jr. (1881), History of Licking County, O., Its Past and Present. Pages 308-9. Copy viewed at Hathi Trust website.
[5] Felix Zollicoffer. At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 6 May 2016).