Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 30 -- A day of reflection

A century and a half has passed and it is a time of reflection and memory about the Iron Brigade of the West at Gettysburg.
           The Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan soldiers camped at Marsh Creek south of town that night of June 30th some 150 years ago were much changed since being called to Washington. Later it was said to be a sight never seen again—the Western regiments  swinging along with an easy stride toward the Marsh Creek camp, the famous black hats now more serviceable than showy. One who saw them said they “looked like giants with their tall black hats,” and recalled the veterans of the  2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan moved with a “steady step” and filling the “entire roadway, their big black hats and feathers conspicuous….”

         Two years of service, the letters, journals, and diaries they left, revealed the bright hopes of 1861 and 1862 were gone for the veterans. The survivors gathered in close, tight messes to share food, drawing on each other support. While they marched and died, enduring unspeakable hardship, the homefolk “growled” about high prices, short money and hard times. The army tossed out the used-up soldier and the “patriotic” speculators fleeced them of their pay. The soldiers fought well, but were denied victory by incompetent generals. Officers used their rank to get through sentry posts to forage and their authority to execute a weak soldier unable to face combat.

         Only one of three soldiers was still in ranks from the regiments formed in 1861; the others dead from battle or illness or even homesickness. Scores of the early volunteers were sent home sick and disabled; some gone only God knows where or why. The survivors were first dependent on the men of their campfires and then to their small companies and then to their regiments. They were isolated from the homefolk, misused by their generals and the country’s leaders, cheated by sutlers, snubbed by Easterners because of their Western origins. They trusted only their comrades and the few officers who have proved to be skillful and brave. They are a hard lot, good soldiers, and proud of their reputations.

            Only the men of the 24th Michigan, even after 10 months in service, marched toward Gettysburg feeling they still had something to prove. The Michigan regiment and its famous brigade saw only limited service at Fredericksburg when the Wolverines first came under fire and their colonel called out, “Steady, men, those Wisconsin men are watching you.” The Michigan regiment joined in the spirited river crossing during the Chancellorsville Campaign, but it was not the kind of fighting endured at Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Antietam. It was only after Chancellorsville that the Michigan regiment’s coveted black hats arrived. “They made our appearance,” a Wolverine said, “like the name of the brigade, quite unique.”

            The Western men would regard the upcoming fighting at Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War. In many ways it was the last great fight for the “Boys of ’61,” those bright volunteers who flocked to the National flag in a swell of patriotism after Fort Sumter. The army itself was changing into something that seemed more sinister. In the camps, the veterans were unsettled by recruits who enlisted to collect bounties and newspapers reporting lack of support for the war back home. After the first three days of July 1863, it would all be different, partly to a change in the way the war was fought and partly because of the men brought in fill the battle-diminished regiments.

                     But on that quiet evening of June in 1863 at Marsh Creek, all that was yet to come…

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Men of the Cloth in the Civil War

Religion in the army was largely a personal matter. Many soldiers carried their own bibles and religious objects. The more formal service was left to regimental chaplains, who usually received appointment by the unit commander on the vote of field officers and company commanders. Such chaplains had to be a regularly ordained minister of a Christian denomination and received the pay and allowances of a captain of cavalry. The chaplain’s main duties included overseeing the moral condition of the men in their regiments, conducting Sunday services, and assisting at the burial of soldiers. Conscientious chaplains also visited hospitals and guard houses and ministered to the individual needs of soldiers. Military officials made regular efforts to weed out the incompetent, but were often unsuccessful. The proportion of Catholic to Protestant chaplains was one to 20 although Catholic historians believe the ratio of their faith to Protestants in the Army was at least one in six. There was little friction between the Catholic and Protestant chaplains and most men of the cloth were regarded as sincere, hard-working religious men.   

Friday, June 7, 2013

Hardtack, Salted Pork and Soldier Food

Now I sit me in my seat,

And pray for something fit to eat.

If this damn stuff my stomach brake,

I pray that God my soul will take.


Oh, thou who blessed the loaves and fishes,

Look down upon these old tin dishes;

By thy great power those dishes smash,

Bless each of us and damn this hash.

            A Volunteer’s Prayer

           Rations for the soldiers had to be easily transported as well as resistant to spoilage. Fresh cuts of beef, soft bread and vegetables could be issued in established camps, but soldiers on the march existed on what they could carry in their haversack—coffee, salt, sugar, hard bread and salted beef or salted pork. Regulations called for a daily issue of 16 ounces of hardtack, 20 ounces of salt beef or 12 ounces of salt pork. The meat was packed in a brine solution sufficient to preserve it for two years.
           By late 1863, desiccated potatoes and desiccated vegetables, which were scalded and then pressed and dried into sheets, were issued as an antiscorbutic to prevent scurvy.  The soldiers in the Iron Brigade called them “desecrated vegetables” and generally did not eat them.
          Coffee, usually issued in bean form, was always popular and was pounded or crushed, then boiled in water in tin cups.
          Hardtack was a square biscuit made of salt, flour and water and then baked. It could be soaked in water and fried in the sizzling fat of the issue salt pork which was called “sowbelly” by the soldiers.
          Soldiers on both sides took to “foraging” to supplement their food rations. Orders generally prohibited the theft of private property in the form of pigs, chickens, corn and sweet potatoes.  A brigade commander requested his men not steal, but added, “Boys, do not go hungry,” which, one Black Hat private observed, “in war time means take what you want whenever you can get it.”
          One French officer with the Army of the Potomac in 1862 an estimated 2,000 wagons, drawn by some 12,000 animals, were necessary to feed an army of 100,000 men and 16,000 horses at only two days march from a base of operations.