Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Sentimental Letter from a Soldier.

During the long winter months when unpaved roads were difficult to travel, almost all enlisted men in both armies were unable to return home to see their families.  Letters and telegrams were the only way to reach home. 

We cannot imagine what it was like to be homesick in those days.  In fact we're so connected to everyone all the time, I think it tends to make friendship --and even inter-family relations-- rather superficial and meaningless.  In the 19th century, friends were for life.  People lived in the same place for decades, with a great many of them never venturing more than 100 miles from the place they were born, or in some cases, beyond the boundaries of their farms or cities.  Generations of families often lived together, and the young'uns would care for their parents and grandparents as they aged.  When relatives or friends would come from far away to stay in town, they often stayed in the home of their guests and would stay for a month or up to a year perhaps, sharing in the pleasant life of the homestead.  Men and women married very young, the girls as young as fourteen to sixteen years of age; and divorces were very humiliating and secret affairs not to be widely publicized. What a contrast to today!

For the soldier living on the road from one battle to the next, a private's tentmate became what we would call his best friend, or maybe even a brother.  The respect and admiration among fellow soldiers was almost something beyond anything we know today... in a way that we might consider vaguely homosexual by today's standards.  (perhaps "domestic partnership" is a better word)  The men cooked together, ate together, marched together into battle, sang together, accompanied one another on fatigue duty at times... and even slept together, literally hugging each other for warmth on cold nights.  In Hardtack & Coffee, John D. Billings writes a good chapter or two about how close these men were to each other.  He explained that one would often become the "old man" of the "household", and the other would sometimes fall into the role of the "old lady," maybe doing laundry and cleaning up after meals, or looking after the more dominant soldier of the union.  Their bonds were so great, that one often took the responsibility of writing the dreaded letter home to the other man's family about the fate that befell him.

We can't comprehend a connection like that, or recreate it as reenactors. I really don't think we can, no matter how hard we try.  Any company within regiment of the United States Army was like a family.  Surely, there were trouble-makers in every branch of the military: mean people, fight instigators, cheats, liars and scoundrels; but these men became unpopular very quickly and soon found themselves without friends.

For a soldier in either side of this conflict, the written letter was often his only connection to home.  Can we even imagine what it would be like to wait six months for a letter to arrive in the mail with your name on it? During which time you would have absolutely no idea where your loved ones are or what they are doing?  In this age of Twitter and Facebook, we can't.

The Civil War was a heartbreaking conflict for both sides, and letters written to and from home to the brave soldiers (in widely varying degrees of grammar, penmanship and vocabulary) are among the most touching and sentimental pieces of literature ever written by human hands.

The following is a letter from a Union soldier named Sullivan Baillou to a girl named Sarah, possibly his wife. I just happen to think it's one of the coolest sounding Civil War letters I ever read:

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .


Sullivan Ballou, among many thousands of other young men like him, was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Song for Christmas Eve.


 Come, draw around the fire, 
And watch the sparks that go 
All singing like a fairy choir 
Into the realms of snow. 
Above us evergreen, 
With mistletoe in sprays, 
And tenderly the leaves between 
The holly-berries blaze. 
And while the logs burn bright, 
Before the day takes wing, 
The happy children, gowned in white, 
Their merry carols sing. 
Then high the stockings lift,
Like hungry beggars dumb,  
Good Santa claus, bring every gift, 
And fill them when you come! 

--from Harper's Round Table. New York, Tuesday, December 24, 1895. The below print is a sketch by renowned 1860's political cartoonist Thomas Nast, whom many consider to be the man who invented our modern day depictions of Santa Claus.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Boy Soldier in Camp - A military summer camp for boys in the 1890s

Following 2-page article is transcribed from Harper's Round Table, New York edition, Tuesday November 5, 1895. (of which I have the bound copy of issues from 1895-1896, sorry not available to loan)


IN every boy's heart - I am sure in every American boy's heart - there lies a love for martial things.  The sound of a fife and drum, the sight of a soldier's uniform, stir him and set his blood a-tingling.  Does there exist anywhere a boy or a man who has not "played soldier" at some time in his life?  No; I judge not in this country.

Every one who witnessed the Columbian parades in New York remembers the march of the city school-boys.  With shoulders and heads erect they kept their well-formed lines; their young officers knew what they were about, and gave their orders sharp and clear.

These boys had been drilled every week on the play-ground, the street, or in one of the regimental armories, and they had caught the spirit of the thing.

Some people have been foolish enough to decry military training in our public schools.  Have they ever thought that these boys will soon be large enough to carry real muskets if it should be necessary?  The big majority of our soldiers in the last great war were under the age of twenty-four.  But there are other things to be considered. 

The writer has for some years past been interested in one of the largest boys' clubs in the city of New York.  It has grown from a rather unruly mob of youngsters, gathered from the streets and tenements of the great East Side, to an orderly, well-governed body of over three hundred boys, who can be trusted to preserve their own decorum in the club-rooms, and who do not need a policeman to make them toe the proper mark.  A military formation has accomplished this.  A large drum-and-fife corps keeps up the interest, and the officers and most of the governors of the club are chosen from among the boys themselves.  A military training promotes respect for proper authority, which is the foundation of all thoroughly good citizenship.  

But as this is not a lecture on the advantages of the system; we must come to the point - the boy soldier in camp.  No doubt the most pleasant as well as the most useful part of the drill life of our militia regiments is the week's encampment at Peekskill.  The men come back brown and healthy, and with the satisfaction of having learned something.  An encampment of boys can accomplish the same results.

At Orrs Mills, Cornwall-on-Hudson, an experiment has been tried with success during the past summer.  A camp of instruction and recreation was established, and the results should encourage other attempts in the same direction.  

The life of the soldier boys was a combination of duty, which might be called pleasant work, and play.  The routine of a regular encampment was followed, and as one regiment or brigade left, another took its place, the same as at Peekskill.

These boys belonged to a Baptist military organization; they were all in charge of an instructor who ranked as a Colonel, but the Majors, Adjutants, Captains, Lieutenants, and non-commissioned officers were boys of from twelve to fourteen.

In the early morning the boy bugler turned the camp out at reveille, and the sergeants called the first roll; then the companies marched to breakfast in the mess-tent, where plain wholesome food was provided in plenty.  After the meal came guard-mount, a ceremony requiring considerable knowledge, and of the most importance.  The old guard was relieved and dismissed, and the new one took its place; sentries were posted, and the day of the soldier began.  Drills and squad details followed.  Excursions into the neighboring hills, plunges into the swimming-pool, and target practice kept the time from dragging, and at dress parade in the evening buttons and arms were brightened, the regiment took its position on the meadow near the camp, and the companies were accounted for.  Then the Adjutant read the orders for the following day, and the Colonel took command; the drums rolled, the fifes shrilled, and as the last note sounded, the cannon roared out sunset, and down came the flag.  The soldier's day was over.  "Taps" set the echoes going at nine o'clock, and tired and happy, the boys fell asleep in their cots and blankets.

There is no use saying that this does not pay.  It is the thing the boys like.  Tell a boy that a thing is "good for him," and he generally dislikes it, but in this case the boys do not have to be told.  They take to it naturally.

A word as to the starting of a boys' military company might come in well here, and might be of interest.  It is an easy thing to start one, the trouble being to hold it together; and this all depends upon the way one goes about it.

All that is necessary at first is to get the boys and find a person who is capable and willing to assist them in learning the manual of arms and the school of the soldier.  Almost any State regiment or company will supply a man who will take interest enough to attend all drills, and give up a fair amount of time for sheer love of of soldiering.

There must be one thing kept in mind; there must be no half-way interest, and there must be no foolishness; the more serious one is at first, the more successful the latter work.  It will not take long for a boy Lieutenant to be able to take command if he studies; he must enforce attention, and be sure in his orders.  Once let the others find out that he knows well what he is talking about, and they will respect him and obey him as eagerly as if he were forty years old and six feet tall.

Arms and uniforms are absolutely necessary, and of course cost money; but it is quite surprising at what comparatively small expense a company of boys can be outfitted.  Drill muskets of wood ar ethe cheapest, and can be procured with detachable bayonets, but the best of all is the old Springfield smooth bore cut down and reduced to about five pounds in weight.  A company of boys thirty in number can be equipped with these strong pieces at the cost of about sixty dollars.  [Ed. note: There must have been large surplus stocks of these in armories from the Civil War-- fought only thirty years prior-- also imagine buying thirty rifles for sixty dollars! Oh, for a time machine]  A good uniform costs much more; but serviceable fatigue-caps can be purchased for less than a dollar, and a uniform made out of good strong blue cloth for five or six dollars.  Good drums can be procured at about the same expense as the uniforms, but it does not pay to get a very cheap drum.  By enlisting the interest of parents, uncles, and the family in general, an eager boy will accomplish wonders in outfitting himself, and a fair or an entertainment well worked up will draw funds from unexpected sources.


Supposing, however, that a company of lads connected with a school, a society, or perhaps entirely independent, wishes to reap the benefits of faithful drilling and go into camp.  The first thing to be done is to get the older heads to agree in helping out the venture, then to find a suitable locality, and one not remote from home.

Good drinking water, and plenty of it, is a sine qua non {this for Latin scholars}.  The ground should be dry and hard, and in as much of a sheltered position as possible, and there should be a wide open field devoid of stumps and muddy places for a drill and play ground.  One of the first difficulties will be the procuring of tents, and here, of course, will come a rub.  There are, however, many places where they can be rented for the purpose in the big cities, and no make-shift wigwams should be attempted.  In some states the military authorities, approached through the proper channels, may be able to loan tents for the purpose, and a letter to the Adjutant-General will procure all the information upon the subject.  But even if tents are not to be had, the idea of a military outing need not be given up.  A hay-mow is far from a bad place to sleep in, and a fair-size barn will accommodate a large number of boys who do not object to roughing it.  The cooking could be done camp fashion, outside; and that brings us to one of the most important points- food, what it costs and how to get it.  A cook should be hired, and one man can cook for a large number if he has a detail of young soldiers to help him with the mess-gear.  Every boy should bring, besides his blankets, a knife, fork, and spoon, and a tin plate and cup.  It will cost to feed a healthy boy in camp at least forty cents a day; the thing to avoid is waste.

In such a short article as this is out of the question to go into general detail, and of course without the help of older people and without funds it is impossible to do anything.

A boys' encampment should be managed by the boys themselves so far as the duties are concerned.  They should be responsible for their own order and behavior, but of course it is necessary to have some one with experience at the very head, and a doctor or surgeon must be enlisted for the time.  This is most important.  Any militia regiment would provide a volunteer for the position of Colonel or post commander, and care should be taken that he is a man who is well fitted to instruct and versed in the usages of camp life.

Three or four things the boys have constantly in mind.  While they are supposed to have all the enjoyment they can, they must remember that they are soldiers, and that duty is first.  Once looked at seriously in this light, it is wonderfully surprising how quickly a boy will learn.  Another thing to remember is that every one of them may be an officer some day, and that his companions recognize merit as quickly as men do, and that he must listen.  To a young officer a good word of advice is, "make your men listen"; and that can be accomplished by speaking distinctly and evenly, and not pompously or in a shambling, careless manner.

They say that a week in camp is worth a winter's drill; and if the advantages are so great for our grown-up soldiers, they will of course work the same way with the boys.

During the war of the rebellion a military school in Virginia turned out into active service on the Confederate side.  They actually met and fought grown men, and stood their ground bravely.  Discipline made men of them, and a pride in their organization put years on their shoulders.  Of course it is not expected that our boy companies will be called upon to fight nowadays, but as the strength of a nation often depends on the striplings in the ranks, it can work no possible harm to begin early.  We trust that in the next year there will be many new encampments, many new companies formed, and that the various state governments will give all encouragement to the boy soldiers who in a few years may serve them well in the National Guard in case of riot or trouble.