There’s an adage the soldiers march on their stomach, and there is some real truth to that. If you’ve ever tried doing anything that remotely requires exertion while hungry… well. I suppose you’d well know what I mean. You fatigue easier, you lose concentration, your body turns to cannibalizing its own muscle mass in order to have energy to keep going– deepening the cycle. One gets weaker in both the short and long term. It can be debilitating. Naturally then, it has been of utmost importance during times of war that leadership has turned to whatever means necessary to keep their soldiers in the field fed adequately, but how? How to provide sufficient nutrition for thousands and by the American Civil War, tens of thousands of soldiers in the field, day after day? How to keep all that food from spoiling?
My own hardtack in the making.
Anyone who’s seen, felt or tasted the theoretical baked good (hey, technically it is a baked good!) know that the stuff is dry as a bone, hard enough to serve as building material, and about as tasty as the paste that that one kid would jam across his tongue in kindergarten. In many ways though, hard tacks greatest weaknesses are its greatest strengths as well. I’ve made the stuff myself: It’s just flour and water. Nothing more. Mix it, roll it cut it, and bake it. Once all the water is baked out, stack the things so that they will stay flattened (if not, they tend to curl a bit around the edges), and let them sit.
For days. Or weeks. Or months.
Sharon’s Civil War Monument, in Rock Ridge Cemetery as captured by Patrick Browne.
In the interest of blatant self-promotion, I wanted to share widely and boost the signal of an informal project that I’m very happy to have become involved with. A little earlier this year on Memorial Day Weekend, long-time friend and historian Patrick Browne (he of the Historical Digression blog, which you really need to follow if you have interest in history) shared a batch of images he’d taken of Civil War monuments in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on Facebook, and noted the following:
“This weekend, take a minute or two to walk across your town common or city park to go look at that old monument that everyone passes by. If you have youngsters, bring them along, read the inscription. Once, folks with living memories of those named on these monuments stood there and remembered.”
A strange sight crossed the eyes of travelers at London’s famed Waterloo Station this morning, a vision one hundred years anachronistic. Hundreds of young men dressed as Tommys from the Great War milled about in the main concourse, some quietly, others chatting with their chums, a number answering questions from confused passers-by. The answer to the most frequent question was undoubtedly echoed time and time again: “We’re commemorating the Somme.”
To those with a grounding the history of the Great War, that name should provide a chill. The Somme was a bloodletting unlike any that British forces had ever fought before, or would ever fight again– inclusive of the next war to follow. The Somme was a long British offensive designed to take pressure off the French army that was cracking under pressure at the Battle of Verdun, and the Russian Imperial Army driving against Austria-Hungary in the Brusilov Offensive in the east.
Perhaps one of the more amusing tales of the Civil War is the nigh-forgotten Battle of Wauhatchie on October 28-29 of 1863. While there may be some myth amongst the tale, and a healthy dose of a soldier’s exaggeration of the truth, there are sufficient reports to suggest that one particular, peculiar incident did in fact occur, much to the amusement of the Federal troops who witnessed it.
Late October of 1863 saw the Federal Army of the Cumberland besieged in Chattanooga Tennessee following the disastrous Battle of Chickamauga that left Union General William Rosecrans “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head” according to President Lincoln. Rosecrans was sacked, and the man who fought a tremendous rear-guard action at Chickamauga, George Thomas, placed in his stead. Forces were rushed to the area to relieve the Army of the Cumberland from Virginia and Mississippi, but the men in Chattanooga were starving. There was only one tenuous link between Chattanooga and Federal depots– a narrow, snaking road through the mountains, bypassing the entrenched Confederate forces holding the mountains and hills around the city– and that too was soon cut off by a Confederate cavalry raid. By late October, the soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland were reduced to only “four cakes of hard bread and a quarter pound of pork” every three days. They were at risk of being starved out before help could arrive. The situation was truly dire.
Major General William Shepard was a man with a complicated legacy. At one turn, hero of the French and Indian War of 1754-63 and the American Revolution, Shepard commanded the 4th Massachusetts Militia through 22 actions as its colonel before it was sent home in the winter of 1783, one of the last to leave revolutionary service. At the next, Shepard became a goat to his neighbors—and especially those with whom he’d served faithfully in the revolution– owing to his actions on an icy day in January 1787, where despite the venom that would be later directed at him, he made decisions with forbearance, wisdom, and such humanity as war allows one to retain. Worse, it was ultimately his actions on that day that ensured his own financial ruin, even as it perhaps saved the Commonwealth and even the nation.
One of my favorite poems from the Civil War era was one written by an author whose name remains unknown, an ode to the unheralded, uncelebrated common soldier (reproduced in this post). One of the points it makes so poignantly is that the officers, the generals, the politicians– they are well represented in the histories (perhaps overly so), to the detriment of that private in the ranks who, though legion, often blends in to become just one face in the crowd. That focus on the officers and leaders does a grave disservice to the vast majority of men who fought, suffered, bled, and died in service to their country. As the poem states (in part):
Nobody cared, when he went to war,
But the woman who cried on his shoulder;
Nobody decked him with immortelles:
He was only a common soldier.
Nobody packed in a dainty trunk
Folded raiment and officer’s fare:
A knapsack held all the new recruit
Might own, or love, or eat, or wear.
Nobody gave him a good-by fete,
With sparkling jest and flower-crowned wine:
Two or three friends on the sidewalk stood
Watching for Jones, the fourth in line.
One such common soldier is one that I have based some of my impression on–indeed, he was the first such private I began to research when I became involved in Civil War reenacting six years ago; this fellow by the name of Edwin Henry Charles Wentworth. His is a peculiar tale that leads him through some very challenging events during the war. Unlike many of the more celebrated figures, and in contrast to the heroic image many would prefer to paint, Wentworth was a flawed individual. He was part of one of the ‘first blood’ moments of the war. He battled in the botched Peninsula Campaign under McClellan and nearly was captured or killed in the largest Confederate assault of the war (Gaines Mill). He deserted the army, only to return under an assumed name, under which he fought before Petersburg and in the brutal trench warfare. He saw the war through to its end.
This is the final entry detailing the letters home of Loren Goodrich of Co. F, 14th Connecticut. The rest of the series– ten parts in all– may be found in the archives of this website.
Goodrich’s War: Complete
Loren Goodrich remained with Co. F and the 14th Connecticut for another thirteen days or so, crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers through the Loudon Valley; retracing their steps out of Harper’s Ferry of 1862. The regiment marched on through Bloomfield, Uppersville, Paris, and made camp in Ashby’s Gap by July 22. They pushed on through fatigue and hunger through Manassas Gap and to Front Royal. Regimental historian Charles Page notes by July the 24th, the army had so far outmarched their supply that they were angry, bordering on mutinous. Indeed, ten members of the 14th were arrested for foraging liberally off the land without orders (Page 173-4).
This is Part 9 of an ongoing series built around the letters home of Loren Goodrich, Co. F 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. See the entire collection to date here:
Temporary Hero Archive: Loren Goodrich (Parts 1-9)
The Gettysburg Campaign, and the pursuit of Lee into Pennsylvania.
The Gettysburg Campaign of 1863 was Robert E. Lee’s last invasion of the north– an attempt to defeat the Federal army somewhere north of Washington, embolden Copperhead Democrats in the legislatures, and force a negotiated peace– as well as, tactically, to pull the seat of war off the bare Virginia fields into the untouched farms of Pennsylvania, where his Army of Northern Virginia could forage effectively.
The campaign kicked off on June 3, with Lee moving his army north, through Manassas Gap and into the Shenandoah Valley on the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where their movements would be masked by the peaks; and where their flank would be protected by the barrier of the hills and the river. The Army of Northern Virginia already had quite a lead over the Federals by mid-June, as they were near Winchester Virginia and the Army of the Potomac was just setting out– having realized, finally, that Lee was on the march– and northwards!– threatening the capital and their critical line of supply.