In doing research for my previous post on the U.S. Christian Commission, I came across an intriguing artifact: a Civil War era identification tag, or dog tag. When I picture a military dog tag I see a metal rectangle suspended from a necklace, like those worn by today’s soldiers. One doesn’t usually associate dog tags with the Civil War, which is why I was interested to find one. However, it is not surprising that the basic human fear of dying unknown, of robbing one’s family of closure and certainty, was present during the Civil War just as it is today. This is why there are accounts of Civil War soldiers crudely fashioning their own dog tags before going into battle. At Cold Harbor, soldiers wrote their names and addresses on a piece of paper and pinned them to their uniforms before charging to their deaths during the suicidal attack that occurred at that battle. There are also accounts of soldiers making dog tags out of old coins and pieces of metal and wood. In addition, they would carve their initials into items of clothing or carry around photographs of family members to help ensure their identification.
During the Civil War the government did not have the capacity or the willingness to issue dog tags to every soldier. A request was made to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to issue a dog tag to every Union Soldier, but it was denied. Thus, soldiers had to look elsewhere for their dog tags, prompting some of them to make or purchase their own. They could buy silver or gold disks with their names stamped on them from the sutlers that followed the army. The U.S. Christian Commission also issued identification tags and distributed approximately 40,000 personal identifiers to Union soldiers.
While most don’t immediately associate religion with war, there is no doubt that it plays a role in most, the Civil War included. The Civil War brought with it new levels of death and destruction that the government was unprepared to deal with; it didn’t have the resources to adequately care for the influx of wounded soldiers, which was painfully evident after Bull Run when the number of soldiers needing medical care was more than the hospitals could handle. In the wake of the Battle of First Bull Run, the general public as well as the government saw the need for a civilian organization to help care for and comfort wounded soldiers. On November 14, 1861, a few months after the battle, the United States Christian Commission (USCC) was created by representatives of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to fill this void. Its headquarters were set up in Philadelphia, and a layman named George Hay Stuart was appointed to head the Commission. The Commission was made up of volunteer delegates who were unpaid, though they were reimbursed for travel costs and other expenses they acquired while in the field. These delegates would go to the field for usually only a few months, during which time they were encouraged to keep a diary; many did just that.
A diary from a delegate that spent a few months in Louisville gives us a glimpse into his everyday life. The diary was issued by the USCC and bears their stamp on the front; the first few pages detail the duties of a delegate and provide other useful information and instructions. A delegate was expected to visit hospitals, camps, and battlefields to distribute supplies and religious materials. He was also supposed to speak to the men individually as well as collectively and hold meetings of prayer. In addition, the Commission provided the delegates with supplies such as stamps, envelopes, paper, clothing, food, and coffee for distribution to the soldiers. Continue reading “Intersections of Religion and War: Examining a USCC Diary”