special rations.--boxes from home.--sutlers.
“Can we all forget the bills on Sutler's ledger haply yet,
Which we feared he would remember, and we hoped he would forget?
May we not recall the morning when the foe were threatening harm,
And the trouble chiefly bruited was, “The coffee isn't warm?
If there was a red-letter day to be found anywhere in the army life of a soldier,it occurred when he was the recipient of a box sent to him by the dear ones and friends he left to enter the service.
Whenever it became clear, or even tolerably clear, that the army was likely to make pause in one place for at least two or three weeks, straightway the average soldier mailed a letter home to mother, father, wife, sister, or brother, setting forth in careful detail what he should like to have sent in a box at the earliest possible moment, and stating with great precision the address that must be put on the cover, in order to have it reach its destination safely.
Here is a specimen address:-- “
Sergeant John J. Smith
, Company A., 19th Mass. Regiment
Second brigade, Second Division, Second Corps,
Army of the Potomac, Stevensburg, Va.
Care Capt. James Brown
As a matter of fact much of this address was unnecessary, and the box would have arrived just as soon and safely if
the address had only included the name, company, and regiment, with Washington, D. C
., added, for everything was forwarded from that city to army headquarters, and thence distributed through the army.
But the average soldier wanted to make a sure thing of it, and so told the whole story.
The boxes sent were usually of good size, often either a shoe-case or a common soap-box, and were rarely if ever less than a peck in capacity.
As to the contents, I find on the back of an old envelope a partial list of such articles ordered at some period in the service.
I give them as they stand, to wit: “Round-headed nails” (for the heels of boots), “hatchet” (to cut kindlings, tent-poles, etc.), “pudding, turkey, pickles, onions, pepper, paper, envelopes, stockings, potatoes, chocolate, condensed milk, sugar, broma, butter, sauce, preservative” (for the boots). The quantity
of the articles to be sent was left to the discretion of thoughtful and affectionate parents.
In addition to the above, such a list was likely to contain an order for woollen shirts
, towels, a pair of boots made to order, some needles, thread, buttons, and yarn, in the line of dry goods
, and a boiled ham, tea, cheese, cake, preserve, etc., for edibles.
As would naturally be expected, articles for the repair and solace of the inner man received most consideration in making out such a list.
How often the wise calculations of the soldier were rudely dashed to earth by the army being ordered to move before the time when the box should arrive!
And how his mouth watered as he read over the invoice, which had already reached him by mail, describing with great minuteness of detail all the delicacies he had ordered, and many more that kind and loving hearts and thoughtful minds had put in. For the neighborhood generally was interested when it became known that a box was making up to send to a soldier, and each one must contribute some token of kindly remembrance, for the enjoyment of the far-away boy in
But the thought that some of these good things might spoil before the army would again come to a standstill came upon the veteran now and then with crushing force.
Still, he must needs endure, and take the situation as coolly as possible.
It was a little annoying to have every box opened and inspected at brigade or regimental headquarters, to assure that no intoxicating liquors were smuggled into camp in that way, especially if one was not addicted to their use. There was many a growl uttered by men who had lost their little pint or quart bottle of some choice stimulating beverage, which .had been confiscated from a box as “contraband of war,” although the sender had marked it with an innocent name, in the hope of passing it through unsuspected and uninspected.
Yet the inspectors were often baffled.
A favorite ruse was to have the bottle introduced into a well roasted turkey, a place that; no one would for a moment suspect of containing such unique stuffing.
In such a case the bottle was introduced into the bird empty, and filled after the cooking was completed, the utmost care being taken to cover up all marks of its presence.
Some would conceal it in a tin can of small cakes; others inserted it in a loaf of cake, through a hole cut in the bottom.
One member of my company had some whiskey sent for his enjoyment, sealed up in a tin can; but when the box was nailed up a nail was driven into the can, so that the owner found only an empty can and a generally diffused odor of “departed spirits” pervading the entire contents of food and raiment which the box contained.
It was really vexing to have one's knick-knacks and dainties overhauled by strangers under any
circumstances, and all the more so when the box contained no proscribed commodity.
Besides, the boxes were so nicely packed that it was next to impossible for the inspector to return all the contents, having once removed them; and he often made more or less of a jumble in attempting to do so. I think I
must have had as many boxes sent as the average among the soldiers, and simple justice to those who had the handling of them requires me to state that I never missed a single article from them, and, barring the breakage of two or three bottles, which may or may not have been the fault of the opener, the contents were always undamaged.
Sometimes the boxes were sent directly from brigade headquar-
A wagon-load of boxes.|
ters to the headquarters of each company without inspection, and there only those were opened whose owners were known to imbibe freely on occasion.
The boxes came, when they came at all, by wagon-loads -mule teams of the company going after them.
I have already intimated that none were sent to the army when it was on the move or when a campaign was imminent; and as these moves were generally foreshadowed with tolerable accuracy, the men were likely to send their orders home at about the same time, and so they would receive their boxes together.
In this way it happened that they came to camp by wagon-loads, and a happier, lighter-hearted body of men than those who were gathered around the wagons could not have been found in the service.
I mean now those who were
the fortunate recipients of a box, for there was always a second party on hand who did not expect a box, but who were on the spot to offer congratulations to the lucky ones; perhaps these would receive an invitation to quarters to see the box unpacked.
This may seem a very tantalizing invitation for them to accept; but, nevertheless, next to being the owner of the prize, it was most entertaining to observe what some one else was to enjoy.
I think the art of box-packing must have culminated during the war. It was simply wonderful, delightfully so, to see how each little corner and crevice was utilized.
Not stuffed with paper by those who understood their business, thus wasting space, but filled with a potato, an apple, an onion, a pinch of dried apples, a handful of peanuts, or some other edible substance.
These and other articles filled the crannies between carefully wrapped glass jars or bottles of toothsome preserves, or boxes of butter, or cans of condensed milk or well roasted chickens, and the turkey that each box was wont to contain.
If there was a new pair of boots among the contents, the feet were filled with little notions of convenience.
Then, there was likely to be, amid all the other merchandise already specified, a roll of bandages and lint, for the much-feared but unhoped — for contingency of battle.
It added greatly to the pleasures of the investigator to come now and then upon a nicely wrapped package, labelled “From Mary,” “From Cousin John,” and perhaps a dozen other relatives, neighbors, school-mates or shop-mates, most of which contributions were delicious surprises, and many of them accompanied by notes of personal regard and good-wishes.
There were some men in every company who had no one at home to remember them in this tender and appreciative manner, and as they sat or stood by the hero of a box and saw one article after another taken out and unwrapped, each speaking so eloquently of the loving care and thoughtful remembrance of kindred or friends, they were moved by
mingled feelings of pleasure and sadness: pleasure at their comrade's good-fortune and downright enjoyment of his treasure, and sadness at their own lonely condition, with no one to remember them in this pleasant manner, and often would their eyes fill with tears by the contrast of their own situation with the pleasant scene before them.
But these men were generally remembered by a liberal donation whenever a box came to camp.
Still, there were selfish men in every company, and, if they were selfish by nature, the war, I think, had a tendency to make them more so. Such men would keep their precious box and its precious contents away from sight, smell, and taste of all outsiders.
It was a little world to them, and all their own. “Send for a box yourself, if you want one,” appeared in their every look, and often found expression in words.
As a boy I have seen a school-mate munching an apple before now with two or three of his less favored acquaintances wistfully watching and begging for the core.
But the men of whom I speak never had any core to their apples; they absorbed everything that was sent them.
I knew one man who, I think, came uncomfortably near belonging to this class of soldiers.
The first box he ever received contained, among other delicacies, about a peck of raw onions.
Before these onions had been reached in this man's consumption of the contents of his box a move was ordered.
What was to be done?
It was one of the trying moments of his life.
Nineteen out of every twenty men, if not ninety-nine out of every hundred, would at this eleventh hour have set them outside of the tent and said, “Here they are, boys.
Take hold and help yourselves!”
But not he. He was the hundredth man, the exception.
So, packing them up with some old clothes, he at once expressed them back to his home.
But, as I have intimated, such men were few in number, and, while war made this class more selfish, yet its community of hardship and danger and suffering developed sympathy and large-hearted generosity among
223 the rank and file generally, and they shared freely with their less fortunate but worthy comrades.
Nothing, to my mind, better illustrates the fraternity developed in the army than the following poem, composed by Private Miles O'Reilly
But I will now leave this — to me deeply interesting theme — and introduce
The Army sutler.|
This personage played a very important part as quartermaster extraordinary
to the soldiers.
He was not an enlisted man, only a civilian.
By Army Regulations sutlers could be appointed “at the rate of one for every regiment, corps, or separate detachment, by the commanding officer
of such regiment, corps, or detachment,” subject to the approval of higher authority.
These persons made a business of sutling, or supplying food and a various collection of other articles to the troops.
Each regiment was supplied with one of these traders, who pitched his hospital tent near camp, and displayed his wares in a manner most enticing to the needs of the soldier.
The sutler was of necessity both a dry-goods
dealer and a grocer, and kept, besides, such other articles as were likely to be called for in the service.
He made his chief reliance, however, a stock of goods that answered the demands of the stomach.
He had a line of canned goods which he sold mostly for use in officers' messes.
The canning of meats, fruits, and vegetables was
then in its infancy, and the prices, which in time of peace were high, by the demands of war were so inflated that the highest of high privates could not aspire to sample them unless he was the child of wealthy parents who kept him supplied with a stock of scrip or greenbacks.
It can readily be seen that his thirteen dollars a month (or even sixteen dollar, to which the pay was advanced June 20, 1864, through the efforts of Henry Wilson
, who strove hard to make it twenty-one dollars) would not hold out a great while to patronize an army sutler, and hundreds of the soldiers when the paymaster came round had the pleasure of signing away the entire amount due to them, whether two, three, or four months pay, to settle claims of the sutler upon them.
Here are a few of his prices as I remember them:--
Butter (warranted to be rancid), one dollar a pound; cheese, fifty cents a pound; condensed milk, seventy-five cents a can; navy tobacco of the blackest sort, one dollar and a quarter a plug.
Other than the milk I do not remember any of the prices of canned goods.
The investment that seemed to pay the largest dividend to the puchaser
was the molasses cakes
which the sutlers vended at the rate of six for a quarter.
They made a pleasant and not too rich or expensive dessert when hardtack got to be a burden.
Then, one could buy sugar or molasses or flour of them, though at a higher price than the commissary charged for the same articles.
The commissary, I think I have explained, was an officer in charge of government rations.
From him quartermasters obtained their supplies for the rank and file, on a written requisition given by the commander of a regiment or battery.
He also sold supplies for officers' messes at cost price, and also to members of the rank and file, if they presented an order signed by a commissioned officer.
Towards the end of the war sutlers kept self-raising flour, which they sold in packages of a few pounds.
This the men bought quite generally to make into fritters or pancakes.
It would have pleased the celebrated four thousand dollar cook at the Parker House
, in Boston
, could he have seen the men cook these fritters.
The mixing was a simple matter, as water was the only addition which the flour required, but the fun was in the turning.
A little experience enabled a
man to turn them without the aid of a knife, by first giving the fry-pan a little toss upward and forward.
This threw the cake out and over, to be caught again the uncooked side down — all in a half-second.
But the miscalculations and mishaps experienced in performing this piece of culinary detail were numerous and amusing, many a cake being dropped into the fire, or taken by a sudden puff of wind, just as it got edgewise in the air, and whisked into the dirt.
Then, the sutler's pies!
Who can forget them?
“Moist and indigestible below, tough and indestructible above, with untold horrors within.”
The most mysterious products that he kept, I have yet to see the soldier who can furnish a correct analysis of what they were made from.
Fortunately for the dealer, it mattered very little as to that, for the soldiers were used to mystery in all its forms, and the pies went down by hundreds; price, twenty-five cents each.
Not very high, it is true, compared with other edibles, but they were small and thin, though for the matter of thickness several.
times the amount of such stuffing could have added but little to the cost.
I have said that these army merchants were dry-goods
The only articles which would come under this head, that I now remember of seeing, were army regulation hats, cavalry boots, flannels, socks, and suspenders.
They were not allowed to keep liquors, and any one of them found guilty of this act straightway lost his permit to suttle for the troops, if nothing worse happened him.
I am of the opinion that the sutlers did not always receive the consideration that they deserved.
Owing to the high prices which they asked the soldiers for their goods, the belief found ready currency that they were little better than extortioners; and I think that the name “sutler” to-day calls up in the minds of the old soldiers a man who would not enlist and shoulder his musket, but who was better satisfied to take his pack of goods and get his living out of the soldiers who were doing his fighting for him. But there is something to be said on the other side.
In the first place, he filled a need recognized, long before the Rebellion
, by Army Regulations.
Such a personage was considered a convenience if not a necessity at military posts and in campaigns, and certain privileges were accorded him.
In the second place, no soldier was compelled to patronize him, and yet I question whether there was a man in the service any great length of time, within easy reach of one
of these traders, who did not patronize him more or less.
In the third place, when one carefully considers the expense of transporting his goods to the army, the wastage of the same from exposure to the weather, the cost of frequent removals, and the risk he carried of losing his stock
of goods in case of a disaster to the army, added to the constant increase in the cost of the necessaries of life, of which the soldiers were not cognizant, I do not believe that sutlers as a class can be justly accused of overcharging.
I have seen one of these merchants since the war, who seemed seized with the fullest appreciation of the worth of his own services to the country, and, with an innocent earnestness most refreshing, applied for membership in the Grand Army of the Republic, into which only men who have an honorable discharge from the government are admitted.
There undoubtedly were Shylocks among them, and they often had a hard time of it; and this leads me to speak of another risk that sutlers had to assume — the risk of being raided-or “cleaned out,” to quote the language of the expressive army slang.
This meant the secret organization of a party of men in a regiment to fall upon a sutler in the
darkness of night, throw down his tent, help themselves liberally to whatever they wanted, and then get back speedily and quietly to quarters.
It did not do to carry stolen goods to the tents, for the next day was likely to see a detachment of men, accompanied by the sutler, searching the quarters for the missing property.
Sometimes this raiding was done in a spirit of mischief, by unprincipled men, sometimes to get satisfaction for what they considered his exorbitant charges.
Sometimes the officers of a regiment sympathized in such a movement, if they thought the sutler's exactions deserved a rebuke.
When this was the case, it was no easy task to find the criminals, for the officers were very blind and stupid, or, if the culprits were detected, they were quietly reminded that if they were foolish enough to get caught they must suffer the penalty.
But sutlers, like other people, profited by the teachings of experience, and, if they had faults, soon mended them, so that late'in the war they rarely found it necessary to beg deliverance from their friends.
The following incident came under my own knowledge in the winter of ‘64, while the Artillery Brigade of the Third Corps lay encamped in the edge of a pine woods near Brandy Station, Virginia
Just in rear of the Tenth Battery camp, near company headquarters, the brigade sutler had erected his tent, and every wagon-load of his supplies passed through this camp under the eyes of any one who cared to take note.
A load of this description was thus inspected on a particular occasion, and while the wagon was standing in front of the tent waiting to be unloaded, and without special guarding, an always thirsty veteran stole up to it, seized upon a case of whiskey, said to have been destined for a battery commander, and was off in a jiffy.
Less than three minutes elapsed before the case was missed.
At once the captain of the company was notified, who immediately gave his instructions to the officer of the day. The bugler blew the Assembly
, summoning every man into line; and
every man had to be there or be otherwise strictly accounted for by his sergeant.
What it all meant no one apparently knew.
Meanwhile, two lieutenants and the orderly were carrying on a thorough search of the men's quarters.
When it was completed, the orderly returned to the line, and the company was dismissed, in a curious frame of mind as to the cause of all the stir.
This soon leaked out, as did also the fact that no trace of the missing property had been discovered.
All was again quiet along the Potomac
, except when the culprit and his coterie waxed a little noisy over imbibitions of ardent
mysteriously obtained, and not until after the close of the war was the mystery made clear.
It seems that as soon as he had seized his prize he passed swiftly down through the camp to the picket rope, where the horses were tied, and there, in a pile of manure thrown up behind them
, quickly concealed the case, and, at the bugle signal, was prompt to fall into line.
Under cover of darkness, the same night, the plunder was taken from the manureheap and carried to a hill in front of the camp, where it was buried in a manner which would not disclose it to the casual traveller, and yet leave it easily accessible to its unlawful possessor, and here he resorted periodically for a fresh supply, until it was exhausted.
I have quoted a few of the prices charged by sutlers.
Here are a few of the prices paid by people in Richmond
, during the latter part of the war, in Confederate money:--
Potatoes $80 a bushel; a chicken $50; shad $50 per pair; beef $15 a pound; bacon $20 a pound; butter $20 a pound; flour $1500 a barrel; meal $140 a bushel; beans $65 a bushel; cow-peas $80 a bushel; hard wood $50 a cord; green pine $80 a cord; and a dollar in gold was worth $100 in Confederate money.