On the Periphery of War: Sutlers, Luxuries, and the USCT

By Jon Danchik ‘17

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

Sutler’s Token. This coin would be used as credit with a sutler, or vendor, who followed the Union Army, selling a range of luxury items from toothbrushes and soap to tobacco, cheese, and custom identification tags. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The Civil War caused an unmistakable strain on production and the allocation of resources in the North as well as the South. In order to keep armies in good order, a steady influx of supplies was needed, leading to shortages of food on the home front and in places like prisoner of war camps. The armies were typically well-fed, and many rations commonly consisted of small amounts of coffee, salt pork, and hardened bread called “hard-tack.” While enough to keep one from starvation, rations could hardly be described as appealing, and soldiers spent much of their time in camp devising new and innovative ways to make them more appetizing. Foraging for supplies yielded resources for combatant armies, but the practices of foraging depended on different commanders’ interpretations of official policies and unofficial social contracts. Soldiers were capable of living off of the land, and sometimes taking supplies from hapless farmers at the point of a bayonet was the only way to stay well-fed. Clearly the rationing system had its downsides.

Continue reading “On the Periphery of War: Sutlers, Luxuries, and the USCT”

A Taste of the Civil War: Barbara Sanders’ Lecture on Civil War Era Food

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

There are few ways to better immerse oneself in the past than through food. It is relatively easy to follow a recipe from the Civil War era and enjoy the same cuisine as Union and Confederate soldiers. In this way, one can experience the past in a most interactive way. Experiencing the past was accomplished in the lecture “Hearth, Hardtack, and Hospital: A Close Look (and Taste) of Civil War Era Food,” given by Gettysburg National Military Park education specialist Barbara J. Sanders. The lecture focused on the topic of the interaction between history and food, specifically in the Civil War.

Many soldiers would fry their hardtack to make it more appetizing. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sanders’s lecture, while directed at an older audience, was just as interactive as one she might give to a younger audience. She provided samples of food from the Civil War era for the audience to try and showed the audience how rations were issued, having an officer stand with his back to the rations, randomly reading off names of the soldiers to make sure that no soldier was purposefully getting a larger ration than another. She also ground up some coffee beans with a bayonet, as the soldiers would have done. All of these activities helped the audience better experience and imagine what a soldier’s diet and food preparation habits would have been. Continue reading “A Taste of the Civil War: Barbara Sanders’ Lecture on Civil War Era Food”

Reluctant Rebels? Historian Kenneth Noe Talks Late-Enlistees in the Confederate Army

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Image courtesy of Auburn University.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Kenneth Noe.  Dr. Noe is the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University, where he teaches classes on the American Civil War and Appalachian history.  He is the author or editor of seven books, including Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis (University of Illinois Press, 1994); A Southern Boy in Blue: The Memoir of Marcus Woodcock, 9th Kentucky Infantry (U.S.A.) (University of Tennessee Press, 1996); The Civil War in Appalachia: Collected Essays, (co-edited with Shannon H. Wilson, University of Tennessee Press, 1997); Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Politics and Culture of the Civil War Era: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Johannsen, (co-edited with Daniel J. McDonough, Susquehanna University Press, 2006); Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (UNC Press, 2010); and, most recently, The Yellowhammer War: Alabama in the Civil War and Reconstruction (University of Alabama Press, 2014). He also has written many articles and essays for publications in scholarly journals such as Civil War History and The Journal of Military History.  Dr. Noe was a Pulitzer Prize entrant and the winner of the 2003 Kentucky Governor’s Award, the 2002 Peter Seaborg Book Award for Civil War Non-fiction, and the 1997 Tennessee History Book Award.  He currently is writing a book on Civil War weather.  Dr. Noe is a frequent speaker on the Civil War Round Table circuit, a participant in the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lectureship Program, and served as the 2008-2009 president of the Alabama Historical Association. He currently serves on the Board of Editors of Civil War History, and was a consultant for the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are?

CWI:  Who do you define as a “reluctant rebel,” and why were these individuals “reluctant?”

NOE:  In my study, “reluctant rebels” are men who enlisted in the Confederate Army no earlier than January 1862.  While I also look at a few draftees, my real interest is the men who could have enlisted at the beginning of the war but chose not to do so.  Their reluctance, I concluded, stemmed from many individual reasons, but generally speaking they were less politicized than those who went before them.  Their decisions to not enlist after Fort Sumter and also to sign up later usually reflected more practical concerns, notably the threat of Union troops wrecking their small local worlds. Continue reading “Reluctant Rebels? Historian Kenneth Noe Talks Late-Enlistees in the Confederate Army”

From Farmers to Soldiers: Raising a Civil War Volunteer Regiment

By Savannah Labbe ’19

How did one transform a group of raw recruits, of men who had no military knowledge, into soldiers? It was not an easy task, especially since many of the men had never even touched a weapon, let alone knew how to use one. This task often fell to private citizens, who, out of patriotic sentiment or the prospect of becoming commissioned, persuaded their neighbors to join their regiment. While this method was convenient and inexpensive for the government it often meant that the commissioned officers were inexperienced and underqualified, chosen only for their skills of persuasion. Because of this, transforming a group of men who were more skilled as farmers or lawyers into soldiers prepared for battle could prove to be a daunting task. It is also a subject that is paid little attention, outshone by the great battles and leaders of the Civil War. However, these regiments and the efforts of the men that raised them allowed for the possibility of those battles to occur and those leaders to emerge.

Major General Adelbert Ames, who earlier in the war had served as the first colonel of the Twentieth Maine. Photo from the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

In an effort to recognize the importance of the act of raising a regiment, Ellis Spear of the Twentieth Maine wrote the story of the establishment of his regiment, entitled The Story of the Raising and Organization of a Regiment of Volunteers in 1862. While it is the story of the Twentieth Maine, it is one that is reflective of the process of raising most Civil War volunteer regiments. For the Twentieth Maine, their story began in the summer of 1862 when Lincoln called for 30,000 more troops. Maine needed to provide four regiments, resulting in the raising of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Maine regiments. The response of Maine men to this call was so overwhelming that they had enough men for a fifth regiment, the Twentieth Maine. Because of this, the Twentieth Maine was a kind of surplus regiment, made up of men from all over the state as opposed to just one region. Continue reading “From Farmers to Soldiers: Raising a Civil War Volunteer Regiment”

Dream Weavers: Civil War Soldiers After Hours

By Alex Andrioli ’18

A sleeping soldier dreams of returning home to his wife and child. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. Currier & Ives. New York.

I am in the middle of a retail store that is similar to a Christmas Tree Shop or Walmart, but this one has a nautical theme. While shopping with my mother I see her take something, put it in her purse, and start for the automatic sliding doors at the entrance. Like a good store patron, I naturally try to prevent my mother from shoplifting. I call out to her, “Mom!” She doesn’t turn around. “MOM!” All of the other moms in the store stare at me except for my own. “APRIL!” I yell so loud that I wake myself up to find my whole family stirring awake in our hotel room in Hershey, Pennsylvania and my half-asleep mother, April, voicing her unhappy opinion.

Now, before I go on, I must make clear that my mother is not a shoplifter. So, why in the world would I have a dream like this? Why do we, as humans, dream at all? The popular answer among scientists is that they don’t know. So how can something for which we have no explanation impact us individually and culturally so much? All throughout human history, dreams have left people both baffled and with answers. Albert Einstein discovered the principle of relativity, Paul McCartney composed the song “Yesterday,” and Abraham Lincoln might have predicted his own assassination according to Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard, all while dreaming. Continue reading “Dream Weavers: Civil War Soldiers After Hours”

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (And Away From Camp): How Soldiers Used Sports to Cope During War Time

By Annika Jensen ’18

Snowball fights during the Civil War were a pretty big deal.

In fact, sports and fitness in general played a role in shaping ideals of honor, courage, and idolization among the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia, and they proved to have an impact on the life of the individual soldier by distracting him (or possibly her) from the monotonous routine of camp life and establishing bonds of comradeship.

Boredom seems a triviality compared with the tragedy and hardships of the war’s famous battles, but it took its toll on the outlook and mental health of soldiers. The mundane repetition of everyday army life along with grief for lost friends and fear of impending violence caused depression, homesickness, loneliness, and anxiety and contributed to a general gloom among the armies. Soldiers felt captive in their own camps.

The remedy? Sports. A few men would organize a game of baseball and moods were instantly lifted, grievances temporarily forgotten. The physical exertion itself was beneficial to the soldiers’ stiff limbs and offered a refreshing change of pace and atmosphere compared to the doldrums of boredom and inactivity. Immersing oneself in the game allowed an escape from plaguing thoughts and an outlet for expression.

Baseball game between Union prisoners at Salisbury, North Carolina, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading “Take Me Out to the Ball Game (And Away From Camp): How Soldiers Used Sports to Cope During War Time”

Henry A. Kircher’s Unalterable Past

By Emma Murphy ’15

Analyzing soldiers letters’ home gives deep insight into not only the political tensions during the time they were writing, but also the personal struggles they went through during combat. What was it like seeing a close comrade killed during a battle that was viewed as pointless? How did dreams affect soldiers’ views on the war?

While researching Henry A. Kircher of the 12th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, I found a collection of his letters written to loved ones back home during the time he served in the Civil War. Born in Illinois from German immigrants, Kircher spent much of his early years surrounded by German-Americans. Despite his social separation due to his decent, his devotion to the Union led Kircher to enlist in the 9th Illinois Infantry at the age of nineteen. While still with the ninth, he wrote to his father of an accident in camp. A young man had tripped and his rifle fired into the guardhouse, hitting another soldier in the abdomen. “Life and death are fighting,” he wrote of the experience. “Probably the latter one will win.” It did not take long for the young Kircher to be exposed to death.

Murphy -- Henry Kircher Office

Continue reading “Henry A. Kircher’s Unalterable Past”

“We Stared Death in the Face”: Confronting the Realities of War

By Heather Clancy ’15

Another Compiler post, another letter between brothers. This time we will turn to Alexander “Sandie” Murdoch, an Ordinance Sergeant in the 2nd North Carolina State Troops. Engaged in combat during the battle of Gettysburg, Murdoch faced his understandings of mortality perhaps even more immediately than did F.M. Stoke. On August 10, 1863, Murdoch wrote home to relay his reflections on the battle’s conduct. While several weeks had passed since his involvement in the fighting on the first week of July and although he rarely identifies them as such, Murdoch’s letter is full of references to death and his own mortality.

In the most explicit reference he makes to the very real possibility of his own death, Murdoch writes the following of laying in expectation of the order to attack:

There we lay looking around upon our comrades and wondering who would be the ones who would be taken from us and in full health with the life blood coursing joyously through our veins we stared death in the face.

Continue reading ““We Stared Death in the Face”: Confronting the Realities of War”

“No More”: F.M. Stoke’s Letter Home

By Heather Clancy ’15

On October 23, 1863, F.M. Stoke paused from his duties at the Gettysburg Hospital to write a letter to his brother. More than three months had passed since Union and Confederate troops had brought war to the rolling ground of rural Pennsylvania, but reminders of the recent conflict were everywhere. Stoke apologized for the span of time since his last letter home. He had been busy lately writing letters for the patients in the hospital and had found no time for even a brief note for his own loved ones. Things were going well enough at the hospital, he wrote.

The impromptu clinic was located about a mile east of town (about where Ewell formed his battle line, he added) and consisted of large tents set up over approximately eighty acres of land. The tents were organized in “streets,” much as in military camps, an outline that made the hospital look nearly like a city of its own. When he first arrived, there were already 5,000 sick and wounded convalescing in the tents and it was not uncommon for seventeen men to die in one day. Continue reading ““No More”: F.M. Stoke’s Letter Home”