Category Archives: Soldiers

Hardtack 2017

One of the primary objectives in my Civil War class is to have the students understand and experience some of the things a typical soldier in the ranks might have experienced during the war. Of course, the kids do not get ticks or lice (thankfully), nor do they contract dysentery (also thankfully), further…no one is shooting at them (I am especially pleased about this one).

But there are a few things we can recreate. For example, I recently tasked them with a research project where the students read a number of soldiers’ letters and journals. From this point they assumed the identity of a soldier (Union or Confederate) and wrote a letter home.  The objective was not only to recreate an authentic look and feel but more importantly, voice the spirit of the times. You can check out the results HERE.

Last week I took a break from the more rigorous classroom work  – we formed ranks and marched to the school kitchen where we made…and then subsequently ate the Civil War delicacy: hardtack. To get them in the mood, I had them read an excerpt from John Billings’s 1887 Hardtack and Coffee – you can read the excerpt yourself HERE. I’ve included a recipe with the document. Trust me, it’s not very complicated.

So, we made it…we ate it…and some kids asked for seconds. Go figure.

As you all most surely know, this stuff – the standard Union soldier ration – was as hard as a rock. So, many would fry up some delightful (perhaps rancid) pork fat to help soften the concrete-hard cracker. Now, we didn’t do that. Those of you who know me will know why and those of you who do not – well…suffice it to say…that would not fly at my school. Instead, we soaked the hardtack in coffee, which is also a perfectly legit recreation of what an actual soldier might have done to ease the blow to his molars.

At any rate – teachers, take a break from the hard stuff (see what I did there) and put together this very hands-on project. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of it and your students will have a nice snack…who knows, they might even learn something 🙂

With compliments,


The Face of (Post) War

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 10.28.56 AMGreetings all,

I found this rather extraordinary image on the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park Facebook Page. This is Jacob Miller, a veteran of the 9th Indiana Infantry and member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who was wounded in the face while fighting  in the Brock Field at Chickamauga on September 19, 1863.

His stern countenance reflects his memories of battle: “I have an everyday reminder of it in my wound and constant pain in the head, never free of it while not asleep. The whole scene is imprinted on my brain as with a steel engraving.”

With compliments,



Frederick Douglass on Black Soldiers

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 10.35.22 AMOnce Lincoln gave the go ahead for the enlistment of black soldiers, prominent African Americans such as Frederick Douglass were asked to help with recruitment. Douglass was delighted and sent two of his sons to join the ranks of the now famous 54th Massachusetts. It quickly became apparent that black soldiers would not be treated equally with whites: less pay, no chance for advancement, and menial duty. Speaking to a group in Philadelphia, he explained that despite such treatment, the enlistment of black soldiers was a significant event.

“This is no time for hesitation…Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States. I say again, this is our chance, and woe betide us if we fail to embrace it.”

With compliments,


The Return of Henry A. Allen

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 2.56.33 PMA long time ago, I embarked on a little side project that concerned a Confederate soldier named Henry A. Allen. I came across his papers at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia back in grad school – his wartime letters had no direct bearing on my research but I thought they were interesting so I made copies and tucked them away for a later date.

Allen was a captain in the 9th Virginia Infantry Regiment and was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. He spent the remainder of the war in northern prisons – where he wrote his wife, Sarah, on a regular basis…explaining the goings on of prison life and sending her instructions as to how best conduct their household while he was away.  Long after the war Allen joined a veterans’ organization called the Immortal 600. Now, the 600 were some angry ex-Rebs, which is what drew me to Allen in the first place. What happened to him during the war and behind enemy lines that brought out the animosities later in life?

My plan was to present the letters in unedited form online – to make them available to the public. I made a good start until the letters dated after June, 1864 went missing from my files. Well, after relocating Harristorian archives a while back, the 1864-65 letters resurfaced. Thus the project is complete! Have a look to find out what happens to Allen as the months turn in to years by clicking HERE. You might just find a few surprises!

The next step is to edit this collection for publication, which means a few more trips to the archives. Allen was from Portsmouth, Virginia – and strangely…after years of living in the Old Dominion, I never made it there. I suppose a visit is in order.

With compliments,


The Brothers’ War – Some Scholarly Origins

Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 10.37.38 AMI spend a great deal of time talking about reconciliation and the problematic treatment of the era by recent scholarship. In some ways – many see the common bonds between former enemies as a given and then work backwards from there to try and figure out how that could have possibly happened – more often than not, they wind up obscuring the tense sectionalism that remained in place after the war.

The scholarship concerning the forgiving nature of former enemies follows logically from an argument suggesting Civil War soldiers embraced a mutual respect for their enemies during the war – despite an unparalleled profusion of blood. In 1943, Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy departed significantly from historiographical trends emphasizing high command, such as Douglas Southall Freeman’s massive four-volume treatment of Robert E. Lee, R.E. Lee: A Biography, by accenting the sentiments of the Confederate private soldier. Wiley identifies a variety of factors that pushed the southern soldier to kill his former countryman.  Further, he detects a hatred “deep-seated [that] had been accumulating from the time of [the soldiers’] earliest recollections,” constituting Confederates’ perceptions of a “godless and grasping society.”  Testimony from the opening pages of one chapter suggests that Confederate soldiers anticipated carrying hatred beyond the war. One twenty-three-year-old remarked, “May God avenge us of our infernal enemies – and if I ever forgive them it is more than I expect.” Another wrote his wife, “Teach my children to hate them with that bitter hatred that will never permit them to meet under any circumstances without seeking to destroy each other. I know the breach is now wide & deep between us & the Yankees let it widen & deepen until all Yankees or no Yankees are to live in the South.”

Although testimony fueled by anger stands out in Life of Johnny Reb, Wiley’s emphasis quickly shifts to one of the cornerstones of the brothers’ war argument. His conclusions lend credence to the postwar respect accorded all Civil War soldiers embedded in the triumphal celebrations of Union. The tendency of enemies to fraternize between battles characterizes his overall view. “The war of the sixties has been called the ‘polite war,’” states Wiley, “and in a sense, the designation is apt. Men of the opposing armies when not actually engaged in a shooting fray were wont to observe niceties that in twentieth-century warfare would be regarded as absurd.” The pervasiveness of Wiley’s characterization of fraternity among soldiers has far surpassed any ideas regarding sectional animosity.

Bruce Catton, among the most popular Civil War historians of the twentieth century, adds his observations regarding fraternal feelings across the killing fields. “Men would shoot and kill when the time came. Yet there was a familiarity and an understanding, at times something that verged almost on liking.” Although Catton discusses animosity engendered by regional loyalties, elements of ill feeling are overshadowed by a brotherly respect throughout his works. In illustrating this idea, Catton relies primarily on stories depicting Confederate and Union soldiers meeting between lines during informal truces. One example describes how a meeting between and Rebel and a Yankee led to talk of the 1864 election. Before long, the Rebel referred to Lincoln as a “damned abolitionist, this immediately brought on a fistfight, and officers had to come out to break it up. Still, men who felt enough at home with each other to argue about politics and fight with their fists over it were hardly, at bottom, sworn enemies estranged by hatred.”

All of this is compelling work – and both Wiley and Catton deserve the respect accorded them then and now. But alas their conclusions are shortsighted – written in a haze of mid-century triumphalism that looked past section in a world where the United States was emerging within the context of a worldwide conflagration. Section was hardly their concern or their focus – and thus was obscured.

With compliments,