Sometimes military and civilian interactions take surprising turns. This account that Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Infantry wrote in a letter for newspaper publication offers some humorous antics of children pestering soldiers.
The regiment quartered in the “beautiful park” of Washington Square in New York City during the late summer and early autumn of 1863, arriving after the Draft Riots but as part of the peacekeeping efforts. Surrounded by “an iron fence of good, lawful height” and living in new A-tents, the regiment was fairly comfortable. The soldiers found the civilization of the city a welcome change from their rough campaigning quarters, but instead of watching for gray-clad Rebels, they found a more conniving “enemy” infiltrating their camps. Little rascals who might have made John Mosby himself look tame and innocent!
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We have had to skirmish through the camp occasionally, to drive out the juvenile population, but in these operations we are not always so brilliantly successful, for the ubiquitous rascals will either flank us, or spring up spontaneous in our rear. Getting rid of them is out of the question. After all, it is quite convenient to have these youngsters around, for some of them are the most accommodating fellows you ever saw. They are always on hand to run on errands, such as filling canteens, purchasing knicknacks, whatever we may want, always, of course, expecting a respectable commission. If we happen to have money of large denominations, they know where to get the exact change wanted, and they generally manage to get it so effectually changed that it is never a trouble to the owner afterwards. If anyone has surplus rations, or anything else laid by, they are perfectly willing to relieve him from all care concerning their safe keeping. Once in a while there is a boy among them that would steal the meat from between one’s teeth, and they have a skill in their dishonest tactics, that would shame many an older accomplice….
The best fun of all was to stand guard to keep the little children out of the park. They seemed to have the faculty of dodging a guard every way at once. If we told one to stay out of the park, and threatened him if he didn’t, the next minute we might look to see him scampering like a wild cat away to the middle of the camp. They would seem to fly over the fence, invisibly, at least no one could see them till the thing was done, or else they would vanish from the street and scamper in the park. When other expedients failed, they would offer to bring a canteen of ice water for some of the boys, which of course we could hardly find a heart to forbid, and this would pass them in. Children when their parents were with them, were allowed to come in. I noticed many children followed parents that the latter did not own.
One day I was on guard before the camp was fairly organized, and the rules were, as they always are at such times, without head or tail, or all head and no tail. Children were not allowed to come in at all. The regulars had then a separate guard. There are three skeleton regiments of regulars in this park, the 3d, 4th, and 6th, but all three are not larger than one Vermont regiment. They occupy the southwest portion of the park. They guarded their own gates that day, and we guarded ours.
At that time it so happened that these sentinels had received no instructions to keep the children away from the park, and the children soon found out that there was ingress there, and it was sought all the more because forbidden on our side. My post was on the west side. There was a large gate there for teams, which was kept closed…and on each side was a small gate for travelers on foot. I guarded one of these small gates and a regular guarded the other. My orders were strict to let none of the little brats into the park, but the regular might let in as many as he pleased.
Troops of frolicking children were continually pressing to enter, but my bayonet afforded an inseparable barrier at the gate. It was amusing to notice how quickly their look of eager glee changed to one of grim despondency when I told them it was against the orders to let them in, and they saw I evinced a determination to keep them away. If they happened to think of it they would try the next gate, and when they saw there was nothing to hinder, they would march in in the greatest triumph.
Of course it was a matter of perfect indifference to me, but when they turned and gave me a salute with their thumbs to their noses and their four fingers dangling in the air towards me, I began to appreciate the importance of my position, and to see great advantages arising from winning the respect of the rising generation thus early in the day. These young ones would certainly admire my firmness in preserving order, and they had here a lesson on the consistent management of the war, which they could understand, and which was a fair specimen on a small scale of the way the whole concern is carried on.
Since that time, the guards have been united, and each regiment took their turn. The regulars are considered as one regiment. Matters are better arranged by this time. But the children carried their point; we have given up trying to keep them out.
Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865. (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1992). Pages 143-146.