On July 1, 1913, veterans of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate, gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The anniversary activities served a dual purpose of commemorating the battle and those who perished there, and giving veterans the chance to come together and reminisce and share with each other experiences that few outsiders would be able to appreciate or understand. Despite worries that hostility may lie between veterans from the North and South the event as a whole was a harmonious occasion that ultimately commemorated the anniversary of one of the greatest battles fought on American soil.
For many, mention of the American Civil War conjures up notions of excitement and danger; these elements, while certainly present, had less of a presence than many of us would believe. In fact estimates say that up to 75% of a soldier’s time was spent marching and in camp, in situations that were relatively safe from the threat of combat. This led to periods that soldiers described as times of intense boredom.
The boredom that often permeated camps led to an environment in which soldiers had to find comfort and enjoyment in anyway they could. One thing the soldiers looked forward to was the small ration of coffee that they were issued. The coffee that was so enjoyed by many soldiers was consumed from tin cups that were also issued to them. These tin cups surely were a prized possession of many soldiers. For soldiers in the midst of the boredom of camp life, or those on the brink of battle, coffee provided not only the practical boost needed in the morning, but served as a nineteenth-century form of “comfort food” to the men who consumed it.
For many soldiers the tin cup they were issued by the army was one of their most prized possessions and many carried it with them into the midst of battle.
One such soldier was infantryman Lewis W. Tway of Company K of the 147th New York Volunteers, whose tin cup is pictured above. Enlisting in Company K on July 15, 1863, shortly after the battle of Gettysburg, Tway hailed from Brooklyn, New York, where he had previously worked as a farmer. Although Tway himself never saw action of battle at Gettysburg, many of the members of his company had. These men likely shared experiences of the battle, giving Tway an idea of some of the horrors that had occurred.
While Tway didn’t fight at Gettysburg, he did see serious military action, ultimately being wounded in the leg at the Battle of the Wilderness. After a short furlough and recovery, Tway returned to service with Company K before his discharge at the end of the war.
The importance of small items such as this standard tin cup is illustrated by the example of Tway, as he kept this tin cup until his death. It is interesting to note however that on the bottom of this cup is inscribed “1863 Gettysburg July 1st to 4th 1913.” The latter half of this inscription refers to the reunion that Company K attended to mark date of the 50th anniversary of the battle.
We cannot be sure whether the inscription was placed on this cup by Tway or if the cup was a souvenir of some sort to commemorate the anniversary. Regardless it is interesting that Tway kept this artifact with many of his other items from the war for the remainder of his life. Tway himself had not seen combat in the battle, and the company itself had been created long before this turning point of the war, which raises the question of why did Tway decide to safeguard this inscribed cup with other pieces that actually pertained to his personal war experience?
The fact that Tway chose to save a cup inscribed with the date with “July 1 1863” indicates two things. First, although Tway himself did not experience the battle, it still shaped the events that he experienced for the remainder of the war. The Battle of Gettysburg marked the heaviest casualty rate the 147th New York encountered during the war with 301 of 380 men being either wounded, killed, or captured. Tway, enlisting a few days after the battle, joined a regiment and company that had lost many of their original members and leadership, leading to a restructuring, as the group had to retrain new members and adjust to new leadership within the ranks. Thus Gettysburg was not only a turning point in the war but also in the history of Company K.
The usage of this date, in connection with the date of the 50th reunion, indicates how much stock Tway put into the importance of this battle. For Tway the Battle of Gettysburg represents a bookend, marking the beginning of the company’s history. It is almost as if Tway is telling us that although the company was in existence before the battle, they did not gain their true identity until the events of the battle.
Prior to the battle, the 147th New York had not seen much battle action. Previously a part of the defenses of Washington D.C. the 147th played a minimal role in the Chancellorsville Campaign, losing minimal men at each post. Gettysburg, however, changed everything. Involved in much of the early fighting, the group suffered heavy losses with the majority of the men going missing, or being wounded or killed. The battle of Gettysburg therefore could be seen as the 147th New York and Company K’s baptism by fire, or first experience with the true horrors of battle.
The example of Tway’s inscribed cup provides a unique insight into the battle. Although it is easy to view the battle as a singular event that shaped the course of the war, this inscription also shows that the impact of the battle had impacts on the individual companies that participated, even ultimately shaping the course of events for individuals who had yet to enter the fray.
For further reading:
Hess, Earl J. The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1997.
Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers. Viking, 1988.