previous next

Recollections of army life with General Lee.

By Frank H. Foote.

In chronicling the events of the late war, many points in regard to campaigns, battles and adventures have been ably touched upon by active participants in the armies of the Confederate States, but how the Southern soldier lived and contrived for partial comfort in the last twelve months of the Confederacy's existence has not as yet been touched upon in small details which show the actual state of hardship he had to endure.

The most vulnerable point of the private soldier was his stomach. He managed to get along very well in rags and tatters, half shoeless, if necessary; but with a pinched stomach many as brave and true soldiers as the world ever produced felt their love and cause of country gradually succumb to the cravings of hearty digestive organs, their patriotism taxed, and in evil, disgraceful hour they left their standards, turned their backs upon comrades and past glories, and [238] singly or in bodies went over to the enemy. Many of these men enlisted in the Federal army as teamsters, or stipulated to fight the Indians in the far West. Whilst they would desert their cause in its extremity they were honorable (?) enough not to fire upon their former comrades.

Writing from a personal knowledge, those who left us were mainly of foreign birth, though many of our foreign-born comrades remained as true as steel to their adopted government.

The principal cause of this great and disturbing evil was the Commissary Department, as managed. Just where the fault lay is hard to divine—whether with the department in general, or with the wretched railway and other transportation facilities, or all combined, is not germane to this now, but the fact is potent that the line did thus suffer, and in suffering, the cause collapsed. All the arts and resources of the North in men and war material never affected the private soldier of the line as did the lack of his rations. To him the sounds of strife brought visions of full haversacks, warm clothing, shoes and blankets when the field was won. Often in the thickest of the fray it was not uncommon to see the soldier grasp a haversack from the ground or displace it from a dead enemy, and quickly swing it to his shoulder, and its contents shared with others at the close of the action if he survived.

As to how we lived, i. e., eked out an existence on scant grub, I will try to pen in detail. Three years of warfare, notwithstanding the many brilliant but barren victories that perched upon the battleflags of the Confederacy, had well-nigh exhausted the South, both in soldiers and supplies. Of the depleted ranks we speak not, for the disciplined armies yielded only to physical causes, not force. Active Federal cavalry had curtailed the resources of the South to a great extent. Its granaries in the Shenandoah Valley, Tennessee and Georgia were overrun and devastated. The torch completed what was not consumed, and barns, vehicles and implements were destroyed, so as to prevent even an attempt at a crop. The boast was made that over some of its sections ‘a crow could not fly without carrying rations.’ Dilapidated railways and wheezy steamboats that presaged death and disaster, were inadequate to supply the demand of the armies and trade. When a railroad was badly damaged, it was seldom repaired, for we had not the material to repair it with, and, for sake of protection, governmental restrictions were thrown around them, limiting the speed to ten or twelve miles only [239] per hour, and it took a nervy crew, indeed, to run a steamboat on Southern inland waters.

In the month of August, 1864, I came on furlough from the front at Petersburg, Va., passing through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, walking many, many miles, as the trains were then in Georgia, laden with the wounded from the front of Sherman. A survey of the country in North Carolina, as glimpsed from the railroad, showed nothing but pine wastes and resin piled at rotten depots.

The nearness of North Carolina to Lee's army had well-nigh exhausted its resources. South Carolina, being more remote, and naturally then a richer agricultural section, the people more thrifty, or, what is perhaps more to the point, being imbued with a greater degree of secession proclivities, and thereby more interested in maintaining an army, naturally showed more vim and thrift, even with the then shadowing clouds of dire disaster looming up on the horizon. In Georgia much push and stir was evidenced. Abundant crops greeted the eye, and all along the line of railway to Demopolis, on the Tombigbee, the same cheering features existed. On both banks of the Tombigbee vast heaps of corn, racked and cribbed, were to be seen. I wondered at the sight of so much provender for man and beast exposed to wind and weather, and rotting daily in the summer sun. These were neighborhood collections of ‘tax in kind,’ a necessary feature of the Confederacy. These immense piles of corn, if speedily transported to the front, would have given new lease of life to our troops and restored the wasted strength of our animals, but we had no transportation facilities. Cotton was scarcely cultivated, except in the remote districts free from raids of Federal cavalry, and even of our own troops, who generally, under orders, burned all they could find. Field peas, sweet potatoes, peanuts and melons varied the aspect of the fields, and I longed for peace, sweet peace, to come, so that I, too, could once more enjoy the bountiful harvest that looked so tempting. Here I bought a small watermelon for a one-dollar bill, and thought what a time I would have with it. I even refused, in my selfishness, to divide with a forlorn soldier, and found that, from a long-enforced contraction of the stomach, I could not devour one-half of it, and, in disgust, pitched the remainder to a cow near-by.

After this digression that gives to some degree an inside view of the Confederacy, I resume the thread of a soldier's life in the [240] trenches. Our enlistment was for the war, and the pay $1T per month, board and bedding free; services, anything your officers said had to be done, from shooting Yankees and getting shot, to starving to death, almost; in a word, to obey any and all orders. This was done with the best grace possible. The events of a gigantic struggle rolled on; shooting and getting shot was endured (when it didn't kill); our wages—at least mine were paid up to October, 1864, for I signed away my pay roll at Augusta, Ga., for clothing—were sometimes paid in Confederate notes, hut they had little value. Eloquently it has been said of them: ‘Worthless as were these “promises to pay,” they cost more than any tender ever issued by a nation on earth. They were issued in integrity, defended in valor, and bathed in priceless blood.’ Our country was—

Too poor to possess the precious ores,
     And too much of a stranger to borrow,
We issued to-day our promise to pay,
     And hoped to redeem on the morrow;
But the faith that was in us was strong, indeed,
     And our poverty well we discerned;
And this little check represented the pay
     That our suffering veterans earned.
We knew it hardly had a value in gold,
     Yet as gold each soldier received it;
It gazed into our eyes with a promise to pay,
     And each Southern patriot believed it.
But our boys thought little of price or of pay,
     Or of bills that were overdue;
We knew that if it brought us our bread to-day,
     'Twas the best our poor country could do.

Campaigns waxed hotter and hotter, paymasters became scarcer and scarcer, and the commissariat rapidly followed suit; in fact, evolved itself down to sheer nothing, and in thus contracting, the vitality of the army contracted also. Our rations were reduced to the minimum of one-quarter of a pound of salt meat, or one pound of beef, one pound of flour, or one pint of meal per diem. Coffee and sugar were luxuries, and what little we had was gotten from some victorious field. This we eked out with parched cornmeal and sweetened it sometimes with ‘long sweetening,’ i. e., sorghum molasses. This syrup, if used in other form than cooking would work you like a ‘flywheel.’ Our flour rations we utilized in its most convenient form for bread, to-wit, ‘pancake.’ Having but few cooking utensils, we took turn about in baking. We mixed the [241] batter up in the skillet, or perhaps on a corner of a tent fly, seasoning it with a bit of dirty salt. Our meat was too scarce to fry out any for grease, hence salt and water were the only components of our bread. We did not even have soda. I have seen leached ashes tried as a substitnte; except as to color, it was a dismal failure. This form of bread we called ‘short bread,’ presumably because it was short of every ingredient necessary for good bread. I have seen the dough wrapped around ramrods and toasted brown; also encased in wet shucks and baked in hot embers.

One campaign we marched far ahead of the wagons, and at night as one of a detail was sent back to cook rations. Were we puzzled? Not a bit. We went to work and made up a big batch of dough on a tent cloth; next we wrenched a wide plank from a neighboring fence, duly cleaned it, and then placed a dozen or so batches of kneaded dough upon the plank, and then gradually inclined the plank so as to catch the full heat of the coals, and there propped it to brown. When sufficiently browned, we turned the cakes over and repeated the process. Thus, by a little ingenuity, we had our bread baked by the time the wagons arrived with the camp utensils, and all we had to do was to boil the beef and distribute the rations.

The latter part of the war we had no hard tack, flour and meal being issued dry. This did well enough in camp, but on the march we frequently lost it by rain. When we had hard tack—a form of bread baked very hard and dry, and issued as part of rations—and later on stale light bread, we knew how to utilize them to the best advantage. We would break it into bits, put it into a cup of water, season with a pinch of salt and wee bit of meat, and then boil it ‘tender.’ The boiling increased the quantity of the mess, apparently, and when done we enjoyed this dish, the soldiers' friend, surnamed ‘cush.’ I lately saw some soldier lines dedicated to this dish, the author evidently having often made of it a substantial meal. With meal, good, bad or indifferent, we had our bane when the march came with three days rations. In camp we made flapjacks or mush, and parched some of it for coffee. When cooked into pones, it readily mildewed and soured; besides, it was bulky and bothered one no little to carry along with other camp accoutrements. Even if soured, we, perforce, had to use it best we may, for it was ‘our all in all.’ In winter quarters of 1864-65 we had brigade bake ovens, and light bread was issued in lieu of flour. For awhile we enjoyed it, but as soon as it became stale we tired of it as a nuisance, and preferred our one pound of flour. Three loaves of this [242] bread, weighing nearly two pounds each, issued to a soldier on the eve of a march down the Weldon railroad, or across the country to head a cavalry raid, was a positive burden and nuisance. Not having knapsacks and haversacks that would turn snow or sleet, it would get wet, then musty and unfit to eat. I have seen soldiers leaving camp with one loaf in the knapsack and one in the haversack, whilst the third one was spitted on a fixed bayonet, ready for use when wanted. Salt meat, when issued, was generally used raw as more economical. One pound of beef, poor, skinny, onion-flavored stuff, was poor rations, but we made out on it. We utilized the butcher pens to the fullest extent. The head, feet, liver, hoofs, sweetbreads and even the melt were eagerly sought for, and bought if not purloined, and the possessor envied his happy lot. The feet were boiled to pieces, picked clear of bones, strained through a rough, improvised sieve, then seasoned, mixed with flour and fried with tallow. We thought ‘cow hoofs’ were a delicacy indeed. On several occasions extract of beef in large twelve-pound cans was issued as rations. One spoonful three times a day was issued. We found it pleasant and wholesome, added to flour paste and cooked.

The hardest piece of rations we were subjected to was a kind of meat called Nassau bacon (Nausea would have been better). It came through the blockade, and we believed it was made from the hog of the tropics and cured in the brine of the ocean. More likely it was discarded ship's pork or ‘salt junk;’ some called it salt horse. It was of a peculiar scaly color, spotted like a half-well case of smallpox, full of a rancid odor and utterly devoid of grease. If hung up it would double its length. It could not be eaten raw and imparted a stinking smell when boiled. It had one redeeming quality—elasticity. You could put a piece in your mouth and chew it for a long time, and the longer you chewed the bigger it got. Then, by a desperate effort, you would gulp it down, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

We ransacked old fields for beans that had fallen out of the pods in harvesting, and frequently, after a hard shower, a good mess could be gathered. Poke-weed was used as ‘greens;’ in fact, anything green and palatable was eagerly sought for.

In the summer of 1864 our division took position in the trenches at Petersburg near the lead works. The 49th Virginia Regiment of Mahone's Brigade (our division) was made up in the city. In a few days thereafter we were agreeably surprised by receiving a large lot of vegetables, compliments of the 49th Virginia to our brigade. It [243] was a hearty token of soldierly regard to an ‘orphan brigade’ from a remote Gulf State, cut off from home and supplies, and was greatly appreciated by all. If we camped near a barn woe be to the contents, if edible, for an entrance would be found somehow. Soap, even, became a luxury, and was hard to get, except when in proximity to the Federal lines, where we could readily exchange for it tobacco, which was issued as rations to us. Our blacking, if we fancied it, we would make out of powdered charcoal, and set it with molasses. It answered well enough in dry weather, but drew myrads of flies to our feet. We made a march in February, 1865, down the Meherrin river, in North Carolina, to head off a raid. Returning to camp, with a comrade, we struck through the country to ‘pick up something.’

Passing through a farmyard we saw a large pot full of boiled turnips, corn and shucks for cattle and hog feed. While it did not look so tempting, it smelled appetizing. Yielding to our appetites, we dipped in our tin cups and drew up some of the mess. The soft corn was real good, and, stripping the turnips of the peel, we found a savory meal indeed. Filling our empty haversacks with the soft-boiled corn, we soon overtook our messmates and divided our find. Next day we crossed a turnip patch concealed in the woods. I went into the patch and pulled up a liberal supply. My companion had sought the house, and the owner gave him a peck of cowpeas. Here was a feast, and nine miles from camp, the ground partly covered with sleet and snow, and the streams frozen over. Nothing daunted, we spread a blanket on the ground and made a long row of turnips, three high, on it, wrapping carefully the blanket around the pile. Pinning it securely with skewers of wood we then gave the whole a twist, tied the ends, then swung it to one of our rifles and started for camp, determined to ‘do or die.’ This load consisted of 124 turnips, two rifles and accoutrements, ammunition, two knapsacks, one peck of peas, one ax, two haversacks, etc.

About 3 P. M. it suddenly dawned upon my comrade that he was that day in charge of the company's ax, and its delay or absence involved a serious punishment. Finally he took the peas, ax and both knapsacks and set off for the probable camp. The turnips were a load in themselves, and I soon found it becoming a burden. One of my shoes rubbed my heel sore. I cut a hole in it, and that made it worse. I finally cut the whole heel out, and then it wouldn't stay on; so, pulling it off, I trudged along in wet and cold, and was soon overcome with a chill. I lay down by the lonely roadside to await [244] recovery. About sundown the largest drove of wild turkeys I ever saw flew by and alighted on the pines overhead. I sprang to my feet and tried my best to shoot one, but failed. The exercise restored my circulation, and I again plodded on to camp, which I reached about 9 o'clock, and, under cover of a good fire, I slept the sleep of the just. My comrade, for getting into camp late, was put back in the ranks, and I still had my load to carry or give it up. Wearily I went on, and about three miles from winter quarters our regimental surgeon, in his ambulance, overtook me. I never saw a more surprised man in my life, and his exclamation, ‘What in the world have you got there, Frank?’ rang out with a laugh. I told him all about it, and he kindly let me put the turnips in his ambulance and delivered them to my messmates in camp, and for a long time we feasted on roasted turnips.

I cite this to show the endurance of a boy soldier, half-starved, barefooted and sick, yet swinging like grim death to a load ample for a horse. I have seen men frequently eat one day's rations at once, saying ‘one good bite is better than two or three pinched ones.’

Our shoes, especially those made by the Confederate department, were pitiable specimens indeed. Generally made of green or at best half-cured leather, they soon took to roaming; after a week's wear the heel would be on the side, at an angle to the foot, and the vamp, in turn, would try to do duty as a sole. It was impossible to keep them straight, and to judge by your tracks you could hardly tell whether you were going or coming. They conformed to the weather also. While hot and dry they would shrink like parchment, and when wet they just ‘slopped’ all over your feet. English-made shoes were nearly as bad. They were lined and filled with stiff paper, and after fording a few times they usually came to pieces. I have seen men while in winter quarters take a piece of beef hide, soak it well and then fit it over their shoes, hair part inside. These they allowed to dry on the feet, so as to retain the shape of the foot, and also to prevent contracting too much. When well made, they answered the purpose very well, and when the march came in the spring of the year they would cut them off and they would have a well-broke new shoe to trudge the pike with. Socks were patched at heels and toes to save wear, as were our trousers. It was a common sight to see all sorts of re-enforcements to the men's seats. On a pair of brown or butternut-colored trousers you would see a huge heart, square or star-shaped patch, according to the whim of the [245] owner. Our hats and caps were taken from ‘our friends, the enemy,’ and you could see all styles, shapes and makes, generally ornamented with letters denoting the command of the owner. The ‘alpine hat’ or ‘Excelsior,’ of New York, was the most common, and were preferred to all others. Caps were not sought after, as they neither turned sun nor rain. Slouch hats are peculiar to the South, and were affected a great deal. We also had palmetto, pine straw and quilted cloth hats. At Petersburg our captain went up to, Richmond and purchased some thirty-odd hats for his company, paying for the same ninety dollars each. ‘Oh, what a swell we did cut.’ They were a drab color, and took well as long as the weather was fine.

The first rain took out all pretension of style, and in place of a neat, nobby-looking hat, we were the possessors of a limp mass of rabbit fur and glue. When the sun shone out the hats, in spite of all contrary efforts, dried to suit themselves, and cracked when again pressed into shape, and before long drooped again and fell to pieces as we trudged the ways of the march. Our buttons were made of wood, and soon parted company with our wretched garments. In camp we boiled our underwear in the mess kettle. A good boiling of our clothes twice a month got rid of the vermin, but enough was always left for spring seed, for you could not get all the men to clean up at the same time. On the long march, not having time to boil, and our body servants having unlimited rations, increased rapidly. To find some comfort we would, where an opportunity offered, strip off and hunt them with fire. The usual and most effective way was to heat the end of a stick into coal, and with this run it up and down the several seams of your garments until all were destroyed.

A favorite yarn of the times runs thus: ‘A soldier was seated by the wayside, shirt off, busily hunting the vermin. A farmer passing by stopped and watched the operation for awhile, and then exclaimed: “Mister! Be those fleas you are killing?” With wrathful mien, the soldier responded: “Say, you look here, do you think I am a dog? No, sir; these be lice.” ’ These clothes being always of heavy and coarse material, always dried rough. To obviate the disagreeable feeling and to prevent chafing, we rubbed them around smooth-barked saplings. On the winter marches we fared wretchedly, for our clothing was not ‘overly warm,’ nor was it material that would turn water readily. When we got into camp we were soon comfortable before huge fires. When we ‘retired’ it was on the side of the fire over which the smoke curled, as affording us more warmth. [246] On the march once near Culpeper Courthouse, we tried a plan suggested by General Longstreet and never repeated it again. We built a large fire and allowed it to burn down. We then raked it off clean, spread some pine straw, on this a blanket, and, wrapped in another blanket, we slept like a top; in fact, too warm. We sweltered, and next day had violent influenza, and suffered acutely.

In the absence of pocket handkerchiefs we had to slip our nose on our rough coat sleeves, which soon produced an inflamed organ, rivaling John Barleycorn in that respect.

Our clothes, mostly cotton, were coarse and heavy, and of every hue and cut—not a full uniform of one material except those of the staff. The prevailing color was what is familiarly known as ‘butternut,’ a dry dye made from copperas. Its commonness gave rise to the nickname of ‘butternuts’ to the Confederate soldiers. Our shelters, when in winter quarters, were varied, distinct and original. We had the ‘dug out,’ the thatched arbor-shaped dog kennel, a log pen opened at one end, chimney at the other, and covered with tent flys, or riven boards, and these frequently heaped with earth. The double cabin or hut was the one most preferred, and was large enough to shelter six or eight men. This was built with a brick and mud chimney at each end. When properly chinked and daubed, and well covered, it was very comfortable. As the fireplace was ample we put on huge back logs and defied the worst of weather. Very little bedding sufficed in these huts. Many of the soldiers would, on the summer's march, throw away their blankets and superfluous clothing, trusting to luck to provide others ere winter set in. Often failing in this they had to resort to such as they could get—bed quilts or pieces of carpet, which, as soon as they became wet through, trebled in size and weight, and were finally thrown away as too cumbersome even for the frail comfort they afforded.

The latter part of the war in Virginia, and, I suppose, everywhere else, was often characterized with wretched battle scenes. I have seen hundreds of dead Federals, and many Confederates, too, stripped of every vestige of clothing. Even the wounded were robbed of their outer clothing sometimes. No matter if the underwear was soaked with life-blood, reeking with vermin and the filth of a long campaign, it was readily taken and used, because needed, and beat none badly. This robbery of the gallant dead was not done as a desecration, but on the ground of personal suffering and need of the living, and the plea was advanced that the garment was of no further service to the dead. It seems barbarous and terrible [247] that the brave who fell in defense of their cause should thus be maltreated, but it is claimed that the exigencies of the times palliated it to some extent, even if it did not justify it altogether. Even the Confederate dead, clad in his wretched raiment, fared but little better if friends were not near to prevent it. It is easily seen by whom these ghastly trophies were sought and obtained. Such ghouls belong to all armies, and are the dread of the wounded. The character of the Southern soldier, those to the manner born, in every detail of the war, was above reproach. They never robbed the living nor stripped the dead. They endured personal suffering and misery in preference to the use of such vile means of obtaining comfort. Brave, gallant and chivalrous; generous at all times, either in victory or defeat, the instinct of their breeding showed forth in most conspicuous forms.

History records that in all countries and communities, and nowhere oftener shown up than in armies, is an element—a disturbing one—who bring upon their associates odium and reproach by overt acts, which condemn all as a whole. For these we can offer no excuse. As they were for us and with us, we must be content to abide the sequence of circumstances beyond our control. We shared their glory, for many of them were brave as the bravest, as far as that goes, and can but disclaim personal participation only.

In conclusion, such was the way the Southern soldier lived and fared; how with rifles and bayonets bright as sunbeams he fought the world knows how, and when the starry-cross battle flag was furled in defeat by starvation and privation, he returned to a ruined home and sought to build anew his fortunes, and again suffered the hardships incidental thereto with the same enduring patience and fortitude he displayed as a soldier, and to-day his proudest boast is: ‘I was a Confederate soldier and fought with Lee, Johnston and Bragg. I have nothing to be ashamed of while in the ranks, and now, under the flag under which I was born, I allow none to surpass me in loyalty and allegiance to a reunited country. Our bonnie blue flag is furled in defeat—a defeat that reflects honor. I cherish its glories and traditions, and have no animosity to its rival, the Stars and Stripes. Its memories are the proudest heritage I shall bequeath my children.’

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Robert E. Lee (3)
Sherman (1)
Mahone (1)
James Longstreet (1)
Joseph E. Johnston (1)
Frank H. Foote (1)
Braxton Bragg (1)
John Barleycorn (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1864 AD (2)
February, 1865 AD (1)
1865 AD (1)
October, 1864 AD (1)
August, 1864 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: