Reflections on the common soldiers of the American Civil War

“I Wish I Had Been in the Case”: Portrait Photography, Federal Soldiers, and the Home Circle – Part I

Today the Emerging Civil War Blog published the first part of an article I wrote on the importance of portrait photography in establishing a connection between the separated military and domestic spheres for Federal soldiers during the Civil War. Using letters, diaries, post-war memoirs, novels and journals, it establishes the photographic portrait as a significant item in the soldier’s inventory and in the home of the family he departed from. Please click here to view the article.

anonymous, 'Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with Colt revolver and Sheffield side knife', 1861-1865, ninth-plate tintype, hand-coloured, Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.33328/?co=lilj

anonymous, ‘Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with Colt revolver and Sheffield side knife’, 1861-1865, ninth-plate tintype, hand-coloured, Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.33328/?co=lilj


To the Colours! Regimental Flags of the United States Colored Troops

My dissertation supervisor Professor Zoe Trodd asked me to write another short piece that merged my interest in Civil War history with the fact that we are celebrating Black History Month here in the UK. The article is written for the University of Nottingham’s Black History Month blog, which tracks the events and activities relating to the university and city during this important month. I decided to conduct a concise exploration of the regimental flags of African American soldiers with a particular analysis of the colours of the 24th U.S.C.T. You may find the post here.

To-the-coloursBowser, David B., ‘Colours of the 24th U.S.C.T.’, regimental flag, 1865, Jubilo! The Emancipation Century Blog, (accessed 29/10/2014)

“An Eagle On His Button”: How Martial Portraiture Affirmed African American Citizenship in the Civil War

I recently had a short article I wrote on the visual symbolism of African Americans in military uniform during the Civil War published on the U.S. Studies Online network, run by the British Association for American Studies. The piece provides an insight into how African Americans viewed their military service as an opportunity to establish their role as citizens in the United States, and how we can see this affirmed through photographic portraiture. Please click here to view the article.

Long, Enoch, ‘Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with a rifle and revolver in front of painted backdrop showing weapons and American flag at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri’, 1863-1865, quarter-plate tintype, hand-coloured, Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.36456/?co=lilj, (accessed 18/10/2014)

 Long, Enoch, ‘Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with a rifle and revolver in front of painted backdrop showing weapons and American flag at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri’, 1863-1865, quarter-plate tintype, hand-coloured, Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.36456/?co=lilj, (accessed 18/10/2014)

Shape Note Singing as a Civil War Coping Mechanism

The American tradition of shape note singing was well-established and had seen many decades of development by the commencement of the American Civil War. As early as the turn of the century, The Easy Instructor and The Musical Primer, published in 1801 and 1803 respectively, used shaped note heads for instruction in singing schools. Those involved in a singing would sit on four sides of a hollow square (divided into treble, alto, tenor and bass) facing one another, and would participate in songs relating to various religious themes, such as praise (31b Webster), salvation (47t Primrose), redemption (77t The Child of Grace) and reunion (260 Farewell Anthem). As Zach Allen writes in the introduction to the 1994 Christian Harmony, “written music, in its complexity, has often been accessible only to the educated… In the mid-18th century, efforts were made in America to simplify the musical learning process by assigning shapes to notes of the musical scale.”[1] The form of choral music utilised accessible participation, an aversion to instrumental accompaniment and the rotation of song leaders in order to establish itself as an embodiment of American democracy.[2]

Union Sacred Harp Convention, 131b Invocation

Shape note singing provided a communal form of music which was vastly significant during the period of westward migration. It was a simplistic expression of American culture rooted in shared Christian ideals that were contextually applicable to the livelihoods of many of those who practiced it. The aforementioned themes would be comforting to the thousands who uprooted themselves during the antebellum era in order to carve out a new living in the West, spurred on by factors such as land acquisitions, the expansion of slavery and the removal of Native Americans. Westward migration was fraught with the dangers of disability or death caused by illness, exposure and violence. The insistence that death was part of a journey towards ultimate salvation and reunion with ones’ family in Heaven surely provided comfort to those settlers who ventured out with an uncertainty surrounding their physical presence.  According to David W. Steel, the 1850s were “a period of growth for Sacred Harp singing” (the Sacred Harp book, first published in 1844, was modelled after existing shape note books, and the 1991 edition is in use to this day).[3] The Sacred Harp has established itself as a suitable case study when considering shape note singing in the nineteenth century United States due to its longevity and the academic interest, especially from the authors such as Buell E. Cobb, Jr., that it has attracted.

Such fears regarding the destruction of the physical self and the assurance of eternal rest in Heaven were clearly manifested in letters, diaries and portraiture during the conflict. In fact, it seems logical to assume that such fears were greater; considering the heightened sense of separation and mortality that war brings with it as opposed to that of other shifts during the century such as westward migration. In 1855, G. H. Perdue stated in an article published in the Sacred Harp composer B. F. White’s Harris County, Georgia, newspaper, The Organ: “Music has a powerful effect on our feelings, and in this world of care and trouble it would be extremely difficult to get along without this soul-enlivening gift of God.”[4] In a letter to his wife, Frank Batchelor of Terry’s Texas Rangers wrote in 1864: “O how sweet the thought that after the busy cares of this mortal life we shall be permitted to join our dear George “in the green fields of Eden,” and dwell together, without care or sorrow”.[5] The lines contained within shape note songs do not require explanation in order to establish their importance to the soldier at war:

“And God grant we may meet in together in that world above,

Where trouble shall cease and harmony shall abound!”[6]


“Shout on, pray on, we’re gaining ground, Glory Hallelujah!

The dead’s alive, and the lost is found, Glory Hallelujah!”[7]

Henagar Union Sacred Harp Convention, 277 Antioch

Several Sacred Harp composers served in the military during the Civil War, though this number was surely reduced by the fact that many, being professionals and preachers, could exempt themselves from service. William Hauser, author of The Hesparian Harp, served with the 48th Georgia as a chaplain and James L. Pickard, composer of 275t Loving-Kindness in 1850, died of measles in a military hospital in Savannah in 1863.[8] According to Steel, at least fourteen of the composers represented in the 1991 edition of the Sacred Harp served in the Confederate forces. James William Dadmum, the Massachusetts clergyman who composed 154 Rest for the Weary, joined the war effort as a Federal chaplain, and published Army Melodies in 1861. William Edward Chute, a Canadian-born Unionist, was under Sherman’s command in his assault on Atlanta and his March to the Sea.[9]

The presence of these pillars of shape note singing within the armies surely allowed the choral form to flourish, at least within their particularly vicinities within the army. William Jefferson Moseley of the 10th Georgia wrote “we have some of the best singings around the camp fire I have ever heard, since Troupe Edmonds and E.T. Pound used to teach singing school… Ma, you and the girls get out the old Sacred Harp songbook, turn to the old song invocation on page 131, sing it, and think of me.” Shape note singing seemed inseparable from celebrated communal morals and values, as Moseley also noted: “There are some of the boys here, that start playing cards and gambling as soon as they draw their money and in two days they haven’t got a cent… I have been in the war two years and I do not know one card from another, but I do know my notes”.[10] In Moseley’s case, practising shape note singing during his military service conveyed the impression that he retained the values of the domestic sphere, certainly in defiance to the sinful temptations of army life. In May 1863, James M. Jordan wrote to his sister-in-law, the composer Sarah Lancaster, Guinea Station, near Chancellorsville, to thank her for sending a piece of original music.[11]

Although one may note that southerners, particularly Georgians, were those to engage with the choral music, it is important to remember that such examples relate to the Sacred Harp singing book, published in Georgia, and one of many shape note books available in the United States in the antebellum and Civil War era. Shape note singing was indeed a coping mechanism encouraged by some chaplains and practised by some soldiers in order to manage the fratricidal chaos unfolding during the years 1861 to 1865. Though the existence of shape note singing as a cultural practice in the antebellum United States, North and South, is evident, it remains to be seen clearly in what forms it manifested itself and amongst which demographics it was most prevalent in military life. In May, 1866, in Poplar Springs, Mississippi, a gathering occurred at the local church which included “a few war worn rebs”. Using “the old sacred harp as text” and “mingling their voices together in song, the old veterans seemed to forget for the time being, their dilapidated farms, as well as the hardships and dangers through which they had just passed, and the kind old matrons, thankful that their husbands and sons were once again permitted to be with them on the old hill, seemed to pour forth their joy and gratitude in songs of praise.”[12]

[1] Allen, Zack, ‘Foreword.’ (Asheville: Folk Heritage Books, 1994), in Walker, William, The Christian Harmony (Philadelphia: Miller’s Bible and Publishing House, 1873)

[2] Cobb, Jr., Buell E., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and its Music, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), p. 131

[3] Steel, David W., Hulan, Richard H., The Makers of the Sacred Harp, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010), p. 16

[4] The Organ, 31 October, 1855.

[5] Batchelor, Frank, to ‘Dear Wife’, in Batchelor-Turner Letters: 1861-1864: Written by Two of Terry’s Texas Rangers, annotated by Rugeley,  H. J. H., (Austin: Steck Co., 1961), p. 80

[6] 260 ‘Farewell Anthem.’

[7] 277 ‘Antioch.’

[8] Steel, Makers of the Sacred Harp, p. 17

[9] Ibid., p. 18

[10] Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp, p. 76-77

[11] Jordan, James M., to Lancaster, Sarah, May 7, 1863, Lancaster Papers, Georgia State Library, quoted in Steel, Makers of the Sacred Harp, p. 18

[12] ‘Poplar Springs, Calhoun Co.’, Calhoun Monitor-Herald, May 7, 1903, quoted in Steel, Makers of the Sacred Harp, p. 18


“A most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves”: Perceptions of Confederate soldiers during the Maryland Campaign

Following a series of stunning successes by the Army of Northern Virginia in the Seven Days’ Battles and the Northern Virginia Campaign during the summer of 1862, General Lee’s Confederate army began an excursion into the border state of Maryland on September 4th. Yet the forces that began crossing into Maryland in September “hardly looked the part of a conquering army.”[1] Those who recorded their impressions in letters and diaries during the campaign gave testimony to the infamously ragged nature of the Confederates’ appearance, including the Rebel soldiers themselves, who agreed this was the most motley of armies.

The appearance of the Army of Northern Virginia on the Maryland Campaign asserts itself as remarkable in the history of the war, and countless eyewitness descriptions allow us to evoke the popular image of the ragged Rebel in September of 1862. Uniforms were in shreds and tatters, described more appropriately as “multiforms”; faces were unshaven, unkempt hair stuck through slouch hats of all shapes and sizes, and the dusty roads only served to cake the soldiers in further filth. Throughout the war, soldiers had often complained that uniforms were ill-fitting; sleeves were too short, trouser legs too long, only adding to their multifarious appearance. Lee’s men were particularly deficient in shoes, underwear and blankets, and “Their coats were made out of almost anything you could imagine, butternut color predominating.”[2] Their lack of shoes led to scores of footsore soldiers, and in many regiments the barefooted seemed to outnumber those with footwear.[3] The weight of soldiers had also debilitated; a supposed diet containing large amounts of green corn and apples for subsistence ensured the Rebels became hollow-eyed and sullen-faced. James Steptoe Johnston, Jr. of the 11th Mississippi wrote that “it had become quite natural for us to starve.”[4] Further evidence was given by a Sharpsburg resident who remembered that “They were half famished and they looked like tramps.”[5] This diet exacerbated a frequent plague amongst Civil War armies; diarrhoea and dysentery and did nothing for their already dilapidated appearance and stench. However, it was noted that despite all of these drawbacks in their image, the Confederate infantry had ensured good care of their small arms; one unnamed citizen in Frederick, Maryland wrote that “the filth that pervades them is most remarkable… They have no uniforms, but are well armed and equipped.”[6]

Numerous civilians of Unionist sentiment experienced a sense of mortification when they observed the columns of Rebel infantry for the first time. For many, it was simply unbelievable that such a ghastly army had bested the legions of the North. One witness said she felt “humiliated at the thought that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance”, but professed a certain sympathy “for the poor, misguided wretches, for some were limping along so painfully, trying to keep with their comrades.”[7] Dr. Lewis Steiner, an inspector for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, certainly no stranger to the worst aspects of dirt and depravation in military life, wrote of the arrival of Stonewall Jackson’s vanguard on September 6th in Frederick; “A dirtier, filthier, more unsavory set of human beings never strolled through a town – marching it could not be called without doing violence to the word… But these were the chivalry – the deliverers of Maryland from Lincoln’s oppressive yoke.”[8] It would be acceptable to assume that these were merely exaggerated descriptions of an invading army by a resentful citizenry, but considering the fact that so many Confederate diaries and memoirs testify to this shabby image, it is perhaps wiser to conclude that the Army of Northern Virginia was in fact in an extremely miserable condition. As well as this, considering that Lee’s forces had put Union armies into flight on several occasions during the preceding months, it is unlikely that Unionist sympathizers would desire to extenuate the condition of the Rebel army.


Confederate soldiers in Frederick, Maryland – though it is unknown as to whether this image was taken during the Maryland Campaign in 1862, or during Jubal Early’s march on Washington, D.C., 1864

The days of the early conflict were now over. The Maryland Campaign and the months preceding it had required a much more base approach to equipment and camping than previous months. Confederate soldier David E. Johnston recalled that “The method of carrying our few assets was to roll them in a blanket, tying each end of the roll, which was then swung over the shoulder. At night this blanket was unrolled and wrapped around its owner, who found a place on the ground with his cartridge box for a pillow. We cooked but little, having usually little to cook. The frying pan was in use, if we had one.”[9] His sleeping “quarters”, a rough patch of ground in a Maryland pasture or by the side of once quiet lane, would leave him open to exposure from rain and wind. It is no wonder that Jedediah Hotchkiss wrote that during the campaign “Our soldiers [were] as dirty as the ground and nearly the same color.”  In an army where concepts of sanitation and hygiene were still in their infancy, the daily, monotonous lives of Confederate soldiers could well have been the greatest contributing factor for their grimy appearance in September 1862.

General Lee’s army entered Maryland following months of brutal campaigning in Virginia, and these operations set the stage for the wretched condition of the invaders. As early as the Seven Days’ Battles Confederates had bemoaned their state; with the aforementioned issue of diarrhoea at the apex of their issues. Following the series of clashes around Richmond, one soldier wrote to his wife that “it is a very rare thing to find a man in this army who has not got the diorreah.”[10] From Richmond, Lee’s force marched northwards, fighting a series of bloody battles which wore out his men and left their uniforms in tatters from the exposures of campaigning. Following the victory at Second Manassas in late August 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia was blessed with a pause after two harrowing weeks of nonstop marching and fighting. It was noted that there was “a particular hunt among the Union dead for shoes to replace those worn and broken down from the prodigious marching of the past weeks.”[11] A member of the 55th Virginia wrote to his sister and boasted of his requisition; “we took Manassas and got just what we wanted. I got pants, a nice oil cloth and various other things.”[12] Another member of the regiment, the famed artist Allen Redwood, broke into the baggage of the major of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry and claimed his spare underwear.[13] On their route to Maryland, the Rebels advanced towards Leesburg, and the march was characterized by “thousands of shoeless men… tortured by bruised and bleeding feet and other thousands enervated by diarrhea resulting from the steady diet of green corn and apples.”[14] On arrival in Leesburg, the men were given some chance to revive their spirits and to attain a certain degree of comfort. One soldier that recalled that an elderly woman was moved to tears by the sight, and raising her arms aloft cried out “The Lord bless your dirty ragged souls.” He added that his company was no dirtier than the rest of the army, “but it was our luck to get the blessing.”[15] The ravages of war had been experienced by the Army of Northern Virginia before they began their excursion into Maryland, and without an effective resupply system to shod and clothe them, many ventured North in the same tattered garments they had worn during the summer campaign.

However, periods of rest and recuperation allowed some soldiers the time to wash themselves and their clothing, and the more fortunate were able to purchase new drawers, undershirts and shoes. A creek or stream could provide some relief. William Judkins wrote that on arrival in Frederick, he and his comrades had time to wash “our clothes in the [Monocacy] river and put them on wet”, they were “trying to drown some of the lice of which we had plenty.” he noted that “We had not washed our clothes in about a month, and the bugs were getting unbearable.”[16] For Judkins and others, the rest in Frederick was their first extended spell of rest in months, and as a result some Confederates began to take on an improved appearance and smell. As well as this, they had chance to boil or roast the fresh-picked ears of corn that still made up a large part of their diets. One of Jackson’s officers wrote “The ragged were clad, the shoeless shod, and the inner man rejoiced by a number and variety of delicacies”.[17]

Ultimately, using the evidence presented here it is apparent that the Confederate soldiers who embarked on the Maryland campaign of September 1862 were in a terrible condition with regards to their physical appearance. The absence of a unified, direct system of government supply forced the Army of Northern Virginia to rely on uniforms and equipment from a variety of sources, from European imports to homespun garments. Thus, even if garrisoned in a stationary camp, the soldiers would have already taken on a varied appearance. Their image was influenced greatly by the nature of campaigning, taking an already multiform presentation and rendering it ragged and motley. The lack of particularly necessary items and clothing such as boots and under-drawers ravaged the ranks with even further discomfort. Without the assurance of regular resupply, Confederate soldiers had to adapt remarkably to endure the rigors of the excursion into Maryland; those who could not are evident in the thousands of stragglers who were unable to be designated as combat effectives. Although anomalies do exist of soldiers who were better dressed than the preponderance, their numbers were apparently few and only yield inconclusive evidence on uniformity and cleanliness amongst the ranks. An army already made motley from the Seven Days’ Battles and the Northern Virginia campaign thus embarked on a brutal excursion into enemy territory, which climaxed at the Battle of Antietam, America’s bloodiest day. The men who took part in this military operation became infamously remembered as “a most ragged, lean, and hungry set of wolves.”


[1] Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, (New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1983), p. 83

[2] Angela Davis, September, 1862, in Kathleen Ernst, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), p. 81

[3] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 83

[4] Johnston, Jr., James S. in Priest, John M., Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle, (Shippensburg, PA: This White Mane Publishing Company, 1989), p. 4

[5] Johnson, Clifton, Battleground Adventures: The Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915), p. 119

[6] Duyckinck, Evert A., National History of the War for the Union: Civil, Military and Naval, (University of Michigan: Scholarly Publishing Office, 2006), p. 638

[7] “Kate” to “Minnie”, September 13, Southern Historical Society Papers, X (1882), p. 509

[8][8] Steiner, Dr. Lewis H., Report of Lewis H. Steiner, M.D., … Containing a Diary Kept During the Rebel Occupation of Frederick, MD., in Harwell, Union Reader, pp. 159-62

[9] Johnston, David E., The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War, (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2007)p. 137

[10] A. N. Erskine to his wife, July 27, 1862, manuscript, University of Texas

[11] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 63

[12] Rouzie, William, Rouzie Family Papers, (Swem Library Special Collections: William and Mary College, VA)., Richard O’Sullivan, The Wearing of Federal uniforms by the Army of Northern Virginia, August 1862 to April 1865

[13] Johnson, Robert U., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. II, (Castle Books, 1985) p. 621

[14] Ibid., p. 70

[15] Johnson, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. II, p. 533

[16] Judkins, William, Co. G, 22nd Ga., Wright’s Brigade, personal diary, September 1862

[17] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 87

Hardtack, or; Worm Castles and Tooth Dullers

It is rather common for the most plain and ordinary items to escape the attention of both contemporary observers and those historians who follow. This is understandable, as few in the present day feel any need to make particular comments about typical food items such as bread and butter, so why should we expect our forebears to do much of the same? The common staple of the Union soldier in the eastern theatre during the Civil War was hardtack; a plain biscuit made from flour and water. However, the literature on hardtack is by no means sparse; post-war recollections and diaries from the period contain references to hardtack from their enlistment right up until their return to civilian life. Rice C. Bull wrote of his first encounter with hardtack in September, 1862, stating: “We received a spoonful of boiled rice, a square chuck of salt pork, one slice of hardtack, and in our cups a dark fluid that was called coffee… the hardtack, the first we had ever seen, was of good quality but we had not yet learned to appreciate its value. It seemed like biting into a wood shingle and had not much taste… we were nearly starved so nibbled at [it].”[1] Notably, John D. Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery, found the unassuming crackers such a common theme of his service that they established themselves in the title of his post-war memoir: Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Further to this, Billings had in his possession two pieces of hardtack measuring “three and one-eight by two and seven-eighths inches… nearly half an inch thick”, that he kept as mementos of his service.[2]


Charles W. Reed, “A Hardtack – Full Size.”, sketch, in Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, p. 114

Despite being a mundane addition to any meal, it was this very characteristic that made them so notable to the soldiers.  The vast mobilisation of Union soldiers led to the establishment of shifting camps that prized efficiency over well-being and were “neither orderly, comfortable, nor sanitary.” The most remarkable feature of Civil War soldiers’ lives, according to the combatants themselves, was the “overabundance of men… In a society where women oversaw the domestic realm… the paucity of [females] hit hard.”[3] The absence of women not only manifested itself physically, but even within items such as hardtack. The bland, durable ration reflected the change from the comforting nourishment provided by the heroines of the Cult of True Womanhood to the industrial output of the mechanical baking companies contracted to the U.S. government. Bull provides a poignant comment which reinforces the notion of a transition from the longing for previous comforts to the understanding of the necessities of the present. Whilst travelling towards Washington, D.C., on September 29th, 1862, he wrote: “I had not yet reached the soldierly perfection when two or three pieces of hardtack and coffee could be made to satisfy my hunger.”[4]

Like the constantly expanding National army, the means of feeding the multitudes of men also had to develop in order to keep up. In the early days of the war, the Union army contracted with civilian bakers for hard and soft breads, and considering the concentration of Federal soldiers in cities such as Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and St. Louis, it was relatively easy to ensure appropriate foodstuffs reached these bustling centres of activity.[5] As campaigns began to commence, the need for hardtack grew. When Irvin McDowell led his 35,000-man army out of the capital for the five-day march that resulted in the battle of Bull Run, his commissaries had to organise the transportation of over one and a half million crackers. This was a modest amount compared to later campaigns, and William C. Davis estimates that in 1864 as many as three or four million of the infamous crackers were consumed every day. [6] Captain J. J. Scroggs of the 5th U.S.C.T. provides a detailed account of the industrial process in 1864, which makes interesting reading. The process meant that 1,000 pieces were baked at a time, which were then packed into wooden boxes holding 50 pounds.[7] Considering the sheer scale of its production, the item surely had an almost omnipresent characteristic to the vast majority of soldiers, and ingrained itself firmly into their recollections of service.


Charles W. Reed, “A Box Of Hardtack.”, sketch, in Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, p. 116

Soldiers repeatedly establish themselves as a versatile and resilient lot of men, and it is no wonder that they overcame the initial problems presented by hardtack. Henry C. Work’s wartime tune Corporal Schnapps provides one with an amusing glimpse into a German immigrant soldiers’ quandary with his new diet:

“They kives me hartpred, tougher as a rock –

It almost preaks mein zhaw;

I schplits him sometimes mit an iron wedge,

And cuts him up mid a saw.”

Alfred Bellard had a more practical solution: “Our crackers we used to fry, to make them more palatable soaking them an hour or two to make them soft. We fried them in pork fat and made a tasty meal.”[9] Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont observed that one of his comrades, despite having only boiled soft beef and hardtack “has a very excellent way of making such material eminently palatable”.[10] Soldiers used broken pieces mixed with other eatables to create stews, whilst others used it to thicken soups. Rice Bull’s aforementioned comments regarding the undiscovered value of hardtack at the point of his enlistment in 1862 are important. One can see how soldiers deconstructed hardtack from a inedible brick of flour reserved only for boot heels and rifle butts to an item which could be used to fill stomachs, bulk out meals, and that would prove lasting and durable during the rigours of campaign. Regardless of its many flaws, it was certainly an important necessity of sustenance that must be considered along with any deliberation of the life of the Federal soldier.


Charles W. Reed, “Frying Hardtack.”, sketch, in Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, p. 117

[1] Rice C. Bull, Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull, 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, (Presidio Press: Novato, CA, 1977), p. 11

[2] John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, (G. M. Smith & Co.: Boston, 1877), p. 113

[3] Sheriff, Carol & Reynolds, Scott R., The Male World of the Camp: Domesticity and Discipline, in Sheriff, Carol & Reynolds, Scott R., A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, (New York: Oxford University Press,2007), pg. 214

[4] Bull, Soldiering, p. 16

[5] William C. Davis, A Taste for War: A Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray, (Stackpole Books: Mechanicsburg, PA, 2003), p. 30

[6] Ibid., pp. 41-2

[7] J. J. Scroggs, “How Hardtack Was Made,” Civil War Times Illustrated XI, (October, 1972), p. 34

[8] Henry C. Work, Corporal Schnapps. Song and Chorus., 1864, John Hopkins University, (Levy Sheet Music Collection)

[9] Alfred Bellard, ed. David Herbert Donald, Gone For A Soldier: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Alfred Bellard, (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1975), p. 120

[10] Wilbur Fisk, Anti-Rebel: The Civil War Letters of Wilbur Fisk, (Croton-on-Hudson, New York: 1983), p. 93

“The Praze of Evry true Patriot”: Native Americans in the Civil War


anonymous, ‘Swearing-In Native American Civil War Recruits.’, 1861, Taycheedah, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Historical Images (Wisconsin Historical Society), http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/quiner/id/22775

There are significant subjects of Civil War study, such as the contributions of ethnic groups other than native-born white Euro-Americans, which for many years following the conflict had remained relatively unexamined by academics. In the South, the collective historical memory of the conflict excluded what did not fit into the “accepted stereotype”, making it not unusual for various ethnic groups to be overlooked in the writings of post-war and early twentieth-century historians.[1] There exists a variety of archives that, once suitably explored and compiled, allow us to gather a clearer picture of the participation of Native Americans in the Civil War. The documents that make up this archive have a tremendous variety (and must do, considering their comparative scantiness to those of Euro-Americans), and can range from names such as Crying Bear, Spring Water and Flying Bird on Confederate muster rolls to fleeting recollections of white soldiers as they recounted both the heroic and peculiar actions of Native Americans within their ranks. What follows is a brief exploration of some of the sources that attempt to present the contributions and roles of the twenty-five thousand (or more) Native Americans soldiers that served during the Civil War.

One of the first and foremost archives to consider are the remarks of contemporary observers to the Civil War who either served with or were themselves enlisted Native Americans in either of the two  armies. These are manifested in letters, diaries and the post-war memoirs of the enlisted soldiers and officers, and although they are often riddled with discriminatory assumptions and ignorance, they tell much about public opinion towards Native Americans. A member of the First Missouri Brigade described a group of Cherokees in March, 1862, writing that “Their dress was chiefly in the Indian costume… about half carried only bows and arrows, tomahawks, and war-clubs… They were… straight, active, and sinewy in their persons and movements – fine looking specimens of the red man.”[2] Although this observer regards the event as something of a spectacle, there is a measure of respect is evident in his writing. A Union officer, Freeman S. Bowley, wrote of several Native Americans in Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, who performed “splendid work” during the horrendous Battle of the Crater in 1864, with one Ottowan deliberately drawing the fire of the enemy in order to allow his comrades to escape. One Confederate company, noted for having “one of the most brilliant records of any in the war”, contained many Catawba Natives.[3] Evidently, there is a recognition of the honourable conduct of Native Americans through the medium of contemporary observations.

However, there were those who clearly held low opinions of Native Americans and their actions. Some soldiers deemed Native Americans cowardly for their use of guerrilla tactics, and the Cherokee were particularly susceptible to discouragement and defection. Following the Battle of Pea Ridge, newspapers noted that several Native Americans reverted to the primitive practice of mutilating the dead. Both Native American and white officials condemned this act.[4] Some white soldiers drew upon the perceived culture of Native Americans in order to acculturate their own identities with those of men they regarded as savages, allowing them to cope with the stress of battle and the killing of fellow human beings. Several accounts exist in letters and diaries of soldiers “playing at being Indians – imitating war whoops, painting their faces with mud or soot from cartridges in what they saw as Indian style – when going into battle.”[5] Although this latter sample does not concern the action of an “authentic” Native American, it surely provides an interesting example of how supposed Native American culture could manifest itself during the conflict, contributing a new dimension to the concept of archive in examining the Native American influence in the war.

The muster rolls and regimental records from the war illustrate that many Native Americans who served were not merely amalgamated with white servicemen and dispersed throughout the military system. Instead, many were able to form their own units and retain a measure of cultural autonomy. In the early stages of the war, the Federal government organized a “brigade of red men… for service in the Indian country” and “the Indian Home Guard” became their title.[6] To this day, the Oklahoma Historical Society preserves the muster rolls of this unit and when one reads through, culturally distinctive names such as Captain Spring Frog, Big Mush Dirt Eater, Warkiller Hogshooter and Soup assert themselves. Company F of the Third Indian Regiment kept a regimental history of their service in the conflict, providing vignettes and descriptions of significant events that illustrate the trials and obstacles that Native American soldiers faced. An example of this concerns the murder of one of their sergeants as he slept in his tent in 1864, and although the literacy of the writer is questionable, his sentiments and those of his comrades are certainly not: “Sergt Benge deserves the praze of Evry true Patriot and good soldiers for his fadelity honesty & Valor.”[7] What is also evident in this short excerpt is that obviously the members of the unit deemed their comrade a patriotic serviceman, worthy of the respect of every Unionist, regardless of the colour of his skin. Records such as these allow us to see the that Native Americans were able to retain their cultural identity in some units through naming and tribal solidarity and to record their own history of the war, thus providing historians with a valuable tool to compare with the official histories recorded by figures of authority.

It is evident that Native Americans clearly had an impact on the Civil War through their service and, in many cases, their honourable and recognized actions. The misconception that “Indians were simply hostiles resisting American progress in the nineteenth century” is obviously discredited by the evidential nature of Native American service.[8] It is unfortunate that, as in the Civil War itself, Native Americans have been disregarded and pushed into a second-class position by white Americans. Wiley provides alludes to this, as he writes “in general [Natives] were more often dealt with as stepchildren of the Great White Father than as fighting sons supporting the cause of Union and freedom.” Conversely, he himself concluded that the Native American contribution to the war “was admittedly significant.”[9] The Native American has been understudied by Civil War historians, especially considering the potential volume of archival evidence and secondary sources that relate to it (one can expand the archive to encompass photographs, newspaper accounts, even gravestones). As well as this, the overshadowing of the Native American by African-American emancipation has meant that even texts that deal specifically with race or ethnicity in the war often only contain brief mentions of the Native experience. However, those who have explored the historical archive have accomplished a feat in their ability to find evidence, varying in form and meaning, which help to counter the long-standing and outdated notions that the conflict was solely the business of white men.

[1] Bailey, Anne J., Invisible Southerners: Ethnicity in the Civil War, (University of Georgia Press: Athens, 2006), p. XIII

[2] Wiley, Bell I., The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1993), p. 325

[3] Hauptman, Laurence M., Tribes & Tribulations: Misconceptions about American Indians and their Histories, (University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1995), p. 54

[4] Cunningham, Frank, General Stand Watie’s Confederate Indians (The Naylor Company Publishers: San Antonio, 1959), p. 60

[5] Livermore, Thomas, in McPherson, James M., Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002), p. 123

[6] Wiley, Bell I., The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, (The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers: Indianapolis, 1951), p. 316

[7] Oklahoma Historical Society, Muster-out Rolls, Co. C, Second Indian Regt. And Co. B, Third Indian Regt., manuscripts

[8] Ibid., p. 51

[9] Wiley, Bell I., The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, (The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers: Indianapolis, 1951), p. 318, p. 327