The longer I work processing manuscript collections, the more I realize that it is not the big events in these materials that get me excited, but the texture and circumstances of people’s lives and how they integrated monumental events into their everyday. I love sifting through old receipts to see what people were buying, what they ate, and how much they spent. I like to read their letters to each other about major events, and see how those events impacted them. I enjoy looking at these collections to get a sense of the people who created them, and when I don’t get that sense, the collection feels rather lifeless–as if they are the papers of some dead person instead of a person who once had vibrant life experiences. Thankfully, the collections I have worked with that relate to the lives of Civil War soldiers have given me a sense of that vibrancy, that living struggle each person experienced in time and space.
I was processing the manuscript for William McCarter’s memoir My Life in the Army, a text rich with the details of the every day, and what struck me in all of the eleven slim volumes was the desperation that these soldiers lived with during intense battles. The conditions were terrible–in many cases truly unlivable–and the soldiers spent time foraging for food in shifts because of the lack of food rations in the field. McCarter writes, in a backward glance at his service, about the hunger he and his fellow soldiers struggled against.
“By this time, hunger was tightening its hold upon every man in camp, the day’s trying and irritating march, seeming to have had the effect upon their appetites, of devouring, long before night, the rations issued to them in the morning, and intended to last till next day. A little ‘salt horse’ was all that still remained, and that, in only some very few haversacks. ‘Coffee,’ the soldier’s greatest luxury on a hard march, to nourish, strengthen and invigorate, was all used up…. Here, and for the first and only time during my life in the army, was ‘whiskey’ as a ‘ration’ issued to the troops of the 2d Army Corps….”
McCarter goes on to describe the fights that broke out after too many whiskey rations were consumed, and then the desperate desire for coffee to warm them through the cold night.
The Andrew Atkinson Humphreys papers are full of orders for food and whiskey rations for officers and for general consumption by troops. One aspect of these orders that interested me was the rationale for the whiskey rations. They were used to keep troops warm and to help them get through long nights of service on the front. These men were positioned behind guns, and the whiskey was given to combat “excessive fatigue and exposure.” Looking at this reasoning from a modern perspective, it seems rather a bad idea to give men with guns whiskey, but this was the era of whiskey as medicine.
Other papers in the Humphreys collection document the quality control efforts that were made in regard to food rations. Camps were inspected and evaluated for the quality and preparation of the food troops were served. In this example, we can see what the troops ate for breakfast lunch and dinner, as well as the rating of the preparation.
McCarter’s narrative memoir of life in the service offers candid evaluations of the food served to the soldiers in various camps. He marvels at the skill of some cooks and wonders at the greasy, deplorable rations that are offered as food in other cases. He writes, as do many who kept Civil War diaries, about foraging expeditions. In one case, he describes stealing a pig and roasting it in the ground, its skin encased in mud, which resulted in the tenderest meat he had ever eaten.
These materials bring to light the difficulties of simply eating in the midst of combat. For more about the struggles of Civil War soldiers, check out the following materials:
- William F. Colton diaries (Am .10246)
- James E. Wenrick diary (Am .66954)
- Daniel Doughterty diaries (Am .6702)
- Richard H. Coolidge letterbook (Am .6698)
All of these materials are described in our online catalogue: http://www.hsp.org/default.aspx?id=17