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Friday, July 31, 2009

Women In Combat

When I think of women and the Civil War I picture the women staying at home to run the home, nurse the sick, prepare bandages, raise money for hospitals, spy for their side-you get the picture. The ladies did their bit at home. Well, they did, but there’s more. Did you know that women actually served on the battlefield beside the men? Oh, yes, we have documented cases where that’s exactly what happened.

Of course both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women so the women would have to enlist under assumed male names. We don’t know exactly how many women enlisted, but we anticipate that it was probably more than the approximately four hundred cases we know about.

If you did get caught you were sent home immediately, but we know of at least three women who fought for almost the entire war. Their names are Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye known as Franklin Thompson, Loreta Janeta Velazquez the Cuban born widow of a Confederate soldier, and Albert J. Cashier. Cashier is sort of different. She spent her entire life posing as a man. Of course this gave her a lot of freedom that other women lacked.

Edmonds was a Canadian by birth. She enlisted in the Second Michigan Infantry in Detroit on May 25, 1861. She was a nurse and a mail and dispatch carried. Her regiment participated in the Peninsula campaign and the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Antietam. What happened to Sarah? She deserted because she caught malaria and was afraid when they put her in the hospital they’d find out she was a woman.

In 1867 she married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian mechanic. They had three children together. Sarah died in 1898 after receiving a government pension for 37 years. The fact that she received the pension is significant. Most of the time if a woman got found out the government wouldn’t give her a pension. Sarah’s former comrades in arms had to verify her service before she got a penny.

Albert D. J. Cashier was a nineteen year old Irish immigrant who enlisted in the Ninety Fifth Illinois Infantry. She served until August 17, 1865 when her regiment was mustered out of the Federal army. She participated in approximately forty battles and skirmishes.

After the war, she worked as a laborer. Eventually she drew a pension and finally went to live in the Quincy, Illinois, Soldiers' Home. In 1913 a surgeon at the home discovered that Albert D. J. Cashier was a woman. You can imagine what fun the newspapers of the day had to say about that. Remember, Cashier had lived her entire adult life as a man and totally gotten away with it.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez served the Confederate side. After the death of her husband she left New Orleans where she lived in search of adventure, desiring to become “a second Joan of Arc.” She raised and equipped an infantry unit at her own expense and adopted the name of Harry Buford. Often, she wore a fake beard and had a special wire cage designed to conceal her female shape. She was elected lieutenant of her new unit, and her career as the commander of the Grays began at First Manassas (First Bull Run). Eventually she ended up serving with the army in Kentucky and Tennessee, during which service she was twice wounded and cited for gallantry.

After the war she published her memoirs and said, "Notwithstanding the fact that I was a woman, I was as good a soldier as any man around me, and as willing as any to fight valiantly and to the bitter end before yielding."

Why do you think women wanted to fight? Well, in some cases it was pure patriotism. They loved their country and weren’t content to take a secondary role. Also, the Civil War era was a time where women’s freedom and opportunities were severely restricted. This was a chance to throw convention aside and have the adventure of a lifetime.

Once women decided to join the army you’d think it would be hard to conceal their sex, but maybe it was easier than you think. Medical exams were superficial. All a soldier had to do was be able to see, march, and carry a gun. Also, during long periods of marching and fighting, soldiers seldom took a full bath. They wore the same uniforms and underclothes for weeks and slept fully clothed. In addition, I’d think getting shot at would have a tendency to dull any curiosity about your fellow soldiers. And if all else failed the ladies could always sit apart, pretending to be loners.

The outcome of the Civil War would have been the same whether the women fought or not, but these ladies were trailblazers. They were willing to disregard what society said was proper to follow their hearts. Today, we think it’s okay for women to be in the military, but do we think it’s okay for them to go into combat situations? Seems like this issue still isn’t settled.

The unlabeled picture at the top of the post is Velazquez.

These are the resources I used for this article if you’d like to read in more detail.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Like The Sound Of This?

An army finds it difficult to fight if the soldiers don’t have anything to eat. Therefore, feeding the army has to be one of the most important tasks that falls to any government, both those of a long time ago and in the present too.

One of the major problems that the Confederacy had to face was lack of a commissary department. Prior to the war most commissaries were located in the North, so when the war broke out, the South was already behind when it came to food distribution. It took them awhile to set up a viable system of food delivery.

The Union army gave out rations every three days while the Confederates relied more on what they brought from home, pilfered, or plundered. No matter which army you served in it was expected that you forage off the land.

If you were a Union soldier your rations would typically consist of the following: salt pork, fresh or salted beef, coffee, sugar, salt, vinegar, dried fruit and vegetables. And if it was in season, they might have fresh carrots, onions, turnips and potatoes.

If you were in the Confederate army you’d get bacon, corn meal, tea, sugar, molasses and the very occasional fresh vegetable. One thing that the Confederates couldn’t get was coffee. Confederate Recipe Book which was published in 1863 gave the following recipe for making coffee using substitutes.

Take sound ripe acorns, wash them while in the shell, dry them, and parch until they open, take the shell off, roast with a little bacon fat, and you will have a splendid cup of coffee.

The Daily Chronicle and Sentinel of Augusta, Georgia published the following in August of 1863. To the Editor of the Chronicle & Sentinel:
Having heard you were great coffee drinkers, and always relished a good cup, and knowing that you desired to run Lincoln's blockade into nonentity, to obtain a good cup, (such as you have no doubt often tasted at the French Market, New Orleans,) I enclose to you the receipt--the very latest--for making the very best domestic coffee. This coffee, when made by the receipt, is of excellent flavor, and very nutritious. It is of sufficient strength, and not excitable in its action. It is mild, healthy, persuasive, and sufficiently exhilarating for any epicure. When you smell it, you will say "I believe it's Java;" when you taste it, you will say, "I think it is Java;" when you drink it, you exclaim (foreignly,), "I'll pe tamn [sic??] if it isn't Java coffee!" It is true, it has not that foreign accent; but by adding a little rich milk or cream, it speaks almost the foreign tongue. Try it, as an antidote for the blockade.


Take the common garden beet, wash it clean, cut it up into small pieces, twice the size of a grain of coffee; put into the coffee toaster or oven, and roast as you do your coffee--perfectly brown. Take care not to burn while toasting it. When sufficiently dry and hard, grind it in a clean mill, and take half a common sized coffee cup of the grounds, and boil with one gallon water. Then settle with an egg, and send to the table, hot. Sweeten with very little sugar, and add good cream or milk. This coffee can be drank by children, with impunity, and will not (in my judgment,) either impair sight or nerves. Col. Wm. W. D. Weaver and myself have tried it, and find it almost equal, when properly made, to either the Java, Brazilian or Mocha coffee. I am indebted to the Colonel for this excellent substitute; and as every man has his beet orchard, so has he his coffee. R. J. Dawson. P.S. There is a percentage of water in the beet which is extracted as you toast the coffee particles to a nice brown.

Another big difference between the North and South was the bread they provided to their troops. In the North, hard crackers were baked in factories and shipped to the troops. They were supposed to be good when they were fresh, but by the time they reached the troops they were often infested with insects. One soldier said, "All the fresh meat we had came in the hard bread!" The soldiers called them tooth dullers or sheet iron crackers because they were so hard they had to be hit with a rifle butt or fist to break them up. Often they were soaked in coffee, crumbled into soup, or fried in bacon grease. Recipes varied, but here is one basic recipe.

The basic ingredients are: flour, salt and water (although quantity differs). General directions are also similar: Disolve salt in water and work into flour with your hands. Dough should be firm and pliable, but not sticky or too dry. Flatten onto a cookie sheet to about 1/4 inch thick, and cut into squares 3 inches by 3 inches. Pierce each square with 16 holes about ½ inch apart. Bake in oven until edges are brown or dough is hard.

• Preheat oven to 400° F
• For each cup of flour add 1 tsp. of salt
• Mix salt and flour with just enough water to bind.
• Bake 20-25 minutes.
• The longer you bake the hardtack, the more authentic it will appear.

The troops in the South sometimes ate hardtack too, but they also had journeycake which most people said tasted a lot better. Here’s a recipe for it.

• 2 cups of cornmeal
• 2/3 cup of milk
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (lard)
• 2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• Mix ingredients into a stiff batter and form eight biscuit-sized "dodgers".
• Bake on a lightly greased sheet at 350 degrees for twenty to twenty five minutes or until brown.
• Or spoon the batter into hot cooking oil in a frying pan over a low flame.

Troops carried their food in a special sack called a haversack. It was made of canvas with an inner cloth bag that could be washed to get debris cleaned out once in awhile, but it didn’t happen very often. Cleanliness wasn’t real important in the Civil War. They didn’t have kitchens where the troops were fed either. Soldiers cooked their own food. That’s how the "messes" word came about. Soldiers would band together and make meals together. These were called "messes."

Do you recognize any of the foods in the following list? You should. You can find them on any grocer’s shelf. Would it surprise you to learn that these canned products were often sent to Civil War soldiers? Since they were canned they were easier to keep fresh and to store.

• Underwood Deviled Ham
• Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
• Borden's Condensed Milk
• Van Camp's Pork and Beans
• McIlhenny Company's Tabasco Sauce

The picture on the left is hardtack. The one on the right is journeycake. I’ve listed the web sites I used to collect information so you can go and read in more detail if you’d like.

Friday, July 17, 2009

It Makes Me Shiver To Think About It

If you think medical procedures are unpleasant today, you’d better thank your lucky stars you weren’t born in the Civil War Era. And you’d really better be grateful that you weren’t a Civil War soldier.

During the 1860’s doctors didn’t know about germs or what caused diseases, and they had very little medical training. Harvard Medical School didn’t even own a stethoscope or microscope until after the war. Most Civil War surgeons had never treated a gunshot wound, and many had never performed surgery. Still, they did the best they could with what they had to work with.

The Union Army had about 10,000 doctors and the Confederate army had about 4,000. The doctors used bloody fingers as probes. Bloody knives were used over and over without washing or sterilizing. Doctors operated in pus stained clothes or sometimes shirtless. Blood poisoning, sepsis or Pyemia-pus in the blood-was quite common and often deadly. Surgical fever and gangrene were constant threats. This is the way one witness described amputation, the most common surgery:

“Tables about breast high had been erected upon which the screaming victims were having legs and arms cut off. The surgeons and assistants, stripped to the waist and bespattered with blood, stood around, some holding the poor fellows while others, armed with long bloody knives and saws, cut and sawed away with frightful rapidity, throwing the mangled limbs on a pile nearby as soon as removed.”

A good surgeon could remove a limb in ten minutes or less. If it took much longer the man would probably go into shock and die. Most of the time the doctors used chloroform as an anesthetic. They soaked a cloth in the chloroform and held it across the man’s face until he fell unconscious. Surprisingly enough, 75% of amputees did survive. Have you heard the term “sawbones?” The surgeons bone saw is where the term came from.

Why was amputation the most common surgical procedure? Because so many people were wounded or killed! More men were killed in the Civil War than in all previous American Wars combined! More men died at the Battle of Antietam than any other day in American History. The casualties at Antietam were twice the casualties suffered at D-Day.

Why were so many people wounded or killed? It was because the armies still were using Napoleonic tactics. They were still using frontal assaults where the men would run across open ground to engage the enemy, but during the Civil War the soldiers used guns with rifled barrels. This meant they were more accurate at longer distances. As men raced across the field it was easier to pick them off.

When the wounded were brought to the field hospital a triage system sent only those wounded in the extremities to the surgeon. A torso or head wound was considered a fatal wound, and the doctor didn’t have time to spend on men whom he couldn’t save. He didn’t have time to try to save splintered arms and legs either-too many men to see to. Therefore, amputation was the only real treatment.

Surprisingly, though, for every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. Diarrhea and dysentery alone claimed more men than battlefield wounds. Measles, smallpox, malaria, pneumonia, or camp itch claimed many more. You’d have thought the camps were safe, so what was the problem? A heck of a lot!

First, new recruits weren’t given thorough physical exams. Men went to fight who weren’t healthy enough to do it, and of course they were more susceptible to disease than healthy men. Second, troops from rural areas were in the same units as men from cities. Often the rural men had never been exposed to come of the germs carried by the men from the cities, so they got sick.

Third, camp hygiene was dreadful. One federal army inspector who visited a camp said the camps were: “littered with refuse, food, and other rubbish, sometimes in an offensive state of decomposition; slops deposited in pits within the camp limits or thrown out with heaps of manure and offal close to the camp.”

Fourth, soldiers suffered from exposure and the lack of protective clothing. Colds often turned into pneumonia, the third leading killer disease after typhoid and dysentery. And fifth, poor food and water often weakened a soldier and made him susceptible to disease. Next week we’ll talk about what the soldiers ate. I promise you it wasn’t anything too tasty.

Sometimes the cures the doctors offered sound almost as bad as the disease itself. For open bowels the patient was treated with a plug of opium. For closed bowels the doctor prescribed a mixture of mercury and chalk. Respiratory problems were treated with opium or sometimes quinine and muster plasters. Bleeding was also used. That’s when doctors nick a vein and let blood flow from the patient.

It was easier for the Union army to get medicines than it was the Confederate army. A large percentage of the medicine used by the Confederates was captured from Union supplies.

The picture on the left at the top of the page shows a Civil War field hospital after the Battle of Savage Creek. Notice that the men have no shelter from the elements. The other picture is of an original Civil War amputation kit.

Information for this post came from the following sources:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Antebellum and Civil War Weddings

In the nineteenth century women had little influence in politics, economics, or education. A woman’s wedding day was her day to shine even if she didn’t come from a wealthy family. At no other time in her life would a bride be as important as she was on her wedding day.

A wedding was also an important social event for communities, especially in the South. Relatives who lived both near and far away gathered for the joyous event.

Most girls began courting and married somewhere between the ages of 18 to 21 and men by age 23 although some girls married in their early teens. If a girl remained unmarried much past the age of 23 she was considered to be an old maid.

Just a note here; courting and dating are not the same thing. The express purpose of courtship was marriage while dating is-at least in the beginning-for fun and amusement. To court a young woman a man was expected to ask the permission of her father. It was also expected that his intentions were honorable; that is, marriage minded. Courtship usually took place in the woman’s home under close supervision. A couple was rarely left alone. While gathering information for this article I read one story about a man who was so desperate for a kiss from his beloved that he gave her chaperone a drugged peach to put her to sleep.

Of course, most people have heard of bundling which sometimes took place in the North. This was a Dutch custom that involved putting a man and woman into the same bed either fully or partly dressed. I guess we can all imagine how that sometimes went.

Our modern system of dating emerged from this tightly structured system of courtship.

I found it interesting that if you lived in the South once a man actually proposed to a girl, it was expected that she turn him down at least twice before she said yes. I guess she didn’t want to seem too eager-or maybe desperate-but given the nature of courtship it seems like a lot of silliness to me.

Once an engagement was finalized the couple would sometimes visit family members to extend personal invitations to the wedding. Engagements were usually short with many less than six months. During this time the preparations for the wedding were made. This included the bride’s trousseau.

The wedding dress itself probably would have surprised you. Prior to 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white dress to get married in most wedding dresses were chosen so they could be used as the bride’s best dress after the wedding. White was expensive and hard to clean, so it was far more practical to marry in a colored dress. The plaid dress at the top of this post was worn by Gertrude Stoddard at her wedding to William Shapper on March 22, 1861, in Horseheads, New York.

Queen Victoria’s dress was made of white satin trimmed with orange flower blossoms and over this a veil of Honiton lace. The lace was created especially for her, and after the wedding the design was destroyed. The lace which formed the flounce of the dress was four yards long and three quarters of a yard in depth. Queen Victoria’s dress is also pictured at the top of this post as well as bridal gowns featured in an 1861 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Naturally, not everyone could afford expensive lace and satin even if Queen Victoria did wear it to “the wedding of the century.” Here’s a description of the wedding dress worn by a Missouri bride in 1859: …tight bodice, a necklace neckline and dropped shoulders with flowing sleeves… material used was linsey-woolsey… produced only on American farms and plantations…blocks of dark and light gray… formed stripes around her 5 yard skirt. The gray was broken by a band of wine colored wool and natural linen stripes alternating.

Some brides wore purple in honor of those who had fallen in battle.

Although brides didn’t often wear white their attendants did. When Cornelia Jones Pond married in 1853 in Liberty County, Georgia, her attendants wore white silk dresses covered with white tulle, white sashes, gloves and slippers.

The wedding ceremony itself sometimes took place in a church, but people often chose to be married at home. After the ceremony people partied sometimes for a period of days. It’s interesting to note that people often married in late spring or in winter to avoid heavy work in the fields.

After the ceremony it was traditional to have a wedding supper much as we do today. A typical menu would consist of turkey, ham, bread, biscuits, jellies, cakes, ice cream gelatin, candy, and fruit. Again, the poor would not have served such an assortment of dishes. It’s also worth noting that during the antebellum period wedding cakes weren’t white as they are today. They were dark fruit cakes.

Did they have a honeymoon? Yes, the upper classes did, but the poor usually didn’t. The trip usually consisted of sightseeing and visiting far off relatives and could last up to several months. What about gifts? Some people gave them, but some didn’t. The war made gift giving in the South extremely difficult.

During the war itself some things changed. For one thing it was hard to meet men because everybody was in the army. Fear of being an old maid caused many girls both North and South to marry men who would have been socially unacceptable in previous days. Esther Alden who lived in the South said, “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow. Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace seemed charming.”

Marriage between Yankees and Southern girls also took place. Women who refused to walk past an American flag or listen to Northern music could also be seen “arm in arm with dashing lieutenants and captains.” Their elders mourned this “marrying craze”, but it didn’t stop anyone. Recuperating soldiers-even amputees-were acceptable as mates.
In a way it was probably easier for girls to meet possible mates in the South than it was in the North because the war was fought in the South. The armies were closer.

So, what do you think? Are modern weddings all that much different?

I used the following links to collect information for this article if you’d care to read in more detail.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Letters From The Front

I recently made a trip to our local library and found a civil war novel that looked pretty good. It’s called Hallum’s War, and it was written by Elisabeth Payne Rosen. I did enjoy the book, but it made me think about what it might have been like to have lived during the Civil War. Of course there was always the risk of losing a loved one, but just think of the families that split over the issue with one side picking the North and the other the South. Talk about a family feud.

Anyway, I decided I’d do a series of posts on the Civil War. I found a book titled The Confederacy Is On Her Way Up The Spout. The book is filled with letters written by Confederate soldiers. In previous wars before censorship, email, and cell phones, their letters were often a source of information about the progress of a war. They also explained how a soldier spent his days and nights.

Between the years 1861 and 1864 Jesse McMahan and Lucretis Caroline Barrett McMahan of Pickens County, South Carolina, received numerous letters from a family of Confederate soldiers-three brothers and a brother-in-law. The soldiers were yeoman farmers whose education was limited as you can see from their spelling and punctuation. Unhappily, none of the four survived the war.

Here are some excerpts from the letters. I hope you find them as interesting as I did. The last letter explains how the book I used got its title.

August 11, 1861
Richmond, VA

Dear Brother and Sister

…a sholger nows but little moar what is a goin on than you do only in his own ridge ment or when he receves orders to march and than he don’t know whether hit is for a fight or to change en campements til he sees the enemy. Only by the movements of the armey he can give a perty close gest. i know that tha is fifey Thousand shoulgers in camp hear and sixteen Hundred yankee prisoners hear but I don’t know ho long we wil stay her nor wher we will go to next.

Oct 14, 1861
Camp Winder, Richmond

Dear Brother and Sister-Thrue the kind provadents c. and all wise god I am enjoying good health while many of my Brother solgers has sicken and dide hoping thes lines may find you all well.

November 1, 1861
Goldsboro, NC

every thing seams still today. The same auld tail keep two days rashon cook. we have bicets that is so hard I could nock a bull down with one. hit is raining this eaven an the wind a blowing a prospeck of a stormey night.

April 11, 1862
Ashland, VA

It a snowing on the morning of the eight long be for day. the role beat we was up and on march by six. the snow had turn in to heavy rain. it continued to rain all day. ten thousand of us on march the mud and water nea deep in a heap of places and small stream to wade.

May 13, 1862
Kent County vergina

the Yankees made a heavy actact on williamsburg at 11 on monday. tha was 3000 ingage on boath sides. the fight lasted tel 6 in the even. the Yankees reinforce all the time and no reinforce got to our toops tel five in the even. our troops won the fight. drove the yankees back with grate slaughter. hit was a hard and bloody battle.

January 28, 1863
Fredericksburg, Va.

it was a sight to see the battlefield, the dead was a lying thick over a bout one hundred achors of ground and strange to tel but no les strange than true the heaps of the dead to make brest works to sight behind.

June 5, 1863
Hampton Legion
South Quay, Va.

There is nothing more but Sorrows & trubles to be seen. Oh I will be glad when it is gods will to restore Peace to our unhappy & distressed country.

July 18, 1863
Camp Neare Richmond

the soldiers has a by word when any body dies or anything lost saying its gone up the spout. tell Washington that I say the Confederacy is on her way up the spout. nothing more.