War When Soldiers Were Not Fighting

                                       Original accounts in search of food


combat that to the average young person a soldier is somebody who is always fighting or preparing to fight next day.  Actually, of course, no soldier was ever fighting most of the time.  The hours, days, and months when Civil War soldiers were not in battle offered, many opportunities for relaxation, humor, romance, and fraternizing.

One of the most vital concerns of a soldier at leisure has always been food.  Especially was this true of the Confederate who rarely had all he wanted. Hunger was a deciding factor in many battles, Vicksburg for instance, where the Federals knew that if they waited long enough the Southerners would have to surrender -- or starve.
         Dr J. Richard Corbett writes:

Both Federals and Confederates craved "fresh" meat; and both engaged in killing cows and hogs belonging to civilians and distributing the meat among their troops.  During the final months of the war, more than a few horses, mules, dogs, cats, and even rats were eaten by soldiers, particularly prisoners of war.

In the closing months of 1863, the 18th North Carolina Regiment marched to Mine Run, built breastworks, and lay in line of battle opposite a Yankee regiment.  Between the lines in a thicket of old field pines, a flock of wild turkeys lit down.  The advent of these birds served to unite the opposing forces under a single objective, namely, to get some fresh meat.  As a result a fine large gobbler lost his life.  Each side determined to capture that turkey; and once again the rifles were turned on each other.  The spirit of competition intensified the appetite for fresh meat.  After sundown George W. Corbett, my great grandfather, planned a 
lateral approach to the target.  Maneuvering slowly along the ground, weaving in and out between the 
trees and sliding beneath the underbrush, he succeeded in bagging the game--plus a new overcoat and blanket off an equally venturesome, but less successful, blue coater who lay nearby.  The pot boiled that night among the North Carolina ranks.

 Another story involving an animal caught between the lines is told by Henry P. Rudasill of Catawba County, North Carolina:

The Nest morning [at Fredericksburg] about eight o'clock, a red fox was discovered between the picket lines of the two armies, which occasioned much amusement on both sides.  We had strict orders not to fire unless the enemy advanced upon us; but Reynard offered a temptation we could not resist.  Fired upon by our pickets, the fox ran first in the direction of the Yankees, and when fired upon by them rushed back toward us--and so on, back and forth, down the line for about three miles.  Whether the fox was killed I do not know.

The Negro cooks who served the Confederate soldiers on the battlefield also felt the pinch of lack of food as is shown in this story told by J. M. Cutchin in a history
he wrote of his life as a soldier:

The Rev. Jesse H. Page .. was chaplain of the regiment and ate at our table and had a old Negro cook by the name of Willis Cutchen.  Coffee, sure enough coffee, was a rare thing with us, but old Willis, somehow and somewhere, got us a little good coffee.  We did not 
bother about how he got it, but Mr. Page, in saying grace that night, accidentally knocked over one of Willis's cups of coffee, when old Willis cried out, "La, Mr. page,  I wouldn't a-give that cup of coffee for three graces," and nobody laughed more than the parson.

 More often than not, however, the scarcity of food was no laughing matter as is illustrated in this portrait of weary soldiers returning from battle.  This reminiscence was handed down to Mr. Rance, J. McLeroy of Natchitoches, Louisiana, by his grandmother, Mrs Mary 
Higgenbotham, and he writes:  "Sixty years after that memorable Saturday afternoon, I have seen big hot tears come down Grandma's cheeks as she told of this incident."

'Twas now Saturday afternoon of April, [1864] and we heard the roar of cannon at Mansfield the afternoon before and received rumors that a desperate battle had been fought.  We knew not whether we'd see the Yankee army or our army before the day was over.  Then about 1:30 we heard the low rumble of drums in the direction of Grove Hill and in a few minutes the sound of marching feet.  The children ran to the house from the bend of the road excitedly telling us, "There 
they come--there come the soldiers!"  Just as they told us we saw a column of ragged, weary, gray-clad men marching in columns of fours, coming around the bend of the road.  Walker's Texas Infantry Brigade had fought at Moss' Lane and the Bridwell place the afternoon before.

They halted in front of our house, then stacked arms in the road and were told to "fall out" for a fifteen minute rest.

Some had blood-stained bandages on their heads-
some had an arm suspended in a bloody bandage or wore bandages on their necks or shoulders.  Many of them fell prostrate on the ground, too exhausted to move.  Others staggered toward the house to beg for a bite to eat.  The yard and house were soon full of the tired and haggard men--some with the most haunted look in their eyes I have ever seen.  She (my grandmother) gave them all the leftovers from dinner (in fact we had been too excited to eat any dinner at all) but still they kept begging, "Mom, save some for me.  I haven't had a bite since Thursday evening.  Please, just one bite."  Next Ma went out to the backyard followed by dozens
of ragged, bearded men.  Our big old washpot (probably a hundred years old) was full of freshly 
cooked lye hominy, warm and ready to eat.  So she began issuing it out with a large wooden cooking 
spoonful to each man.  Some of them took it in the crown of their dirty hats, some in their bare, dirty hands, some in cups or on pieces of boards they had picked up.  All of them ate it right there like a pack of 
hungry wolves. 

When the hominy was gone she next went to the smokehouse, which contained the family's meager supply of bacon for the coming months.  There she began cutting up sides of bacon into portions half as large as your hand, handing a piece to each man as with tears in their eyes they begged for it.  An officer on horseback at the road sent his orderly to the house to beg for a piece of bacon for him and the man begged Ma to "please give him some bacon for his Captain." 

Before the man reached the gate on his way back with the precious morsel the officer galloped up to the fence and was leaning far over into the yard when the orderly reached him.  The look of hunger and despair in his face and eyes was something that has haunted me ever since that day.  Grabbing the piece of meat he tore into it with his teeth at once. 

Soon the smokehouse as well as the washpot was empty.  But the men seemed reluctant to leave, crowding around Ma to thank her again and again and to invoke the blessings of Heaven upon her.  Some handed her a dollar bill, some two dollars or even five (Confederate money) and others hugged her as they left the yard.  They had marched all night Thursday 
night, marched and fought all day Friday, then buried their dead at Moss' Lane during the night--all with only a few hours sleep and without a bite to eat since Thursday.

A blast of the bugle soon brought the men back to the road where they secured their rifles and quickly lined up.  Then the order rang out sharp and clear, "Attention.! F-o-w-a-r-d-- M-a-r-c-h!" 
Then the order, "Double quick!--M-a-h-r-c-h!" 
Soon they disappeared in a cloud of dust in the direction of Pleasant Hill. 

 For some of the more fortunate soldiers there were quite pleasant ways of passing time while waiting for the war to resume.  One of the most profitable, if not popular, pastimes was humorously described in  The Falling Flag:

. . .  We were waiting for orders by our fire, and filled up the time pressing [confiscating] horses in the town, from a kind consideration of the owners, that they should not fall into the hands of the Yankees . .  . 
. . . One of our young lieutenants had heard of a very fine bay stallion, belonging to a gentleman in town, and as the rumor had spread that pressing horse flesh was going on, he went off promptly with a man or two, reached the house, and was met at the door by a 
young and pretty woman, who with all the elegant kindness of a Virginia lady, asked him to come in.  He felt doubtful, but could not resist, ordering his men to hold on a minute or two while he talked horse with the lady, wishing, in the innocent kindness of his heart, to break it to her gently.  After a few minutes' general conversation he touched on the horse question. 
"Oh!yes, sir,"  she said, getting up and looking through a window that overlooked the back yard.  "Yes, sir; I am sorry to disappoint you, but as you came in at the front door my husband was saddling the bay, and while you were talking to me I saw him riding out the back gate.  I am so sorry:  indeed I am."  With a hasty good morning our lieutenant rode back to camp upon a horse some degrees below the standard of a "Red Eye" or any other race horse.  The laugh was 
with the lady!

Evidently it was hard for soldiers at leisure to sit around hating the enemy.  Instead they often thought up ways of enjoying each other, as reported in two letters from Catawba County, North Carolina, Confederates.  Says George W. Rabb: 

"On the Rappahannock, the river being the dividing line between the armies, we made this mutual agreement--not to fire at each other, unless giving due notice.  We thus became right familiar for enemies, and one day they asked us to come over that night and have a game of seven up.  We did so, and while we were intenssely engaged in a game, the relief came around and demanded our surrender.  The old guard said, 'No, we invited them over, and promised protection, and we mean to see the Johnnies back in safety, and so they did."

And this report came from P.A. Hoyle:

"During our stayhere, we did guard duty along the river with our enemy in full view on the other side.  We frequently would converse and exchange products with our blue-coated fellow guards.  Af field of nice corn lay between the lines and agreements were entered into that pretty nearly divided the corn between the two governments...
A flock of sheep was ranging between the lines of the sharp-shooters and after some private negotiations, small parts of both armies enjoyed mutton chops."

And a Texas soldier wrote to his son:

I embrace the present Sabbath in writing to you . . .  I am on picket guard in sight of the enemy pickets.  In some places on our picket line we run very close together but the pickets do not fire at each other.  And sometimes some of the pickets meet at the creek between us and exchange papers and sometimes trade with each other.  When they want to swap apers they 
hold up their papers and then meet and swap and that gives them a chance to trade.  Our men trade tobacco for coffee and knives or anything they have to trade for.  And I expect this will seem strange to you but it is the casse, but they have to be sly about it for it is strictly against orders. The enemy sometimes throws a shell or two at our pickets from a battery they have and make the boys skedadle and did kill a man the other day . . . 

 The distinguished Henry Wallace of Iowa told of similar conditions existing when he, as a mounted Federal army chaplain, was near Richmond not long before Lee's surrendeer: 

"On a clear day," Wallace wrote, "we could see the church spires of Richmond.  The swapping of tobacco and provisions was constantly going on between the breastworks of both armies, only a short distance 
apart."  And he then added this remarkable sentence: "Desertions from the Confederates were frequent and desertions to the Confederates almost as frequent." 

When not actually fighting, soldiers of course spent much time thinking about home, longing to see their loved ones, worrying about how things were on the farm or plantation, and writing letters.  In a letter from Mrs Craige Jones of North Carolina is a vivid description fo the homesickness of one soldier facing a Christmas away from home: 

"We are going to hve a glorious time Christmas.  I expect to get up before sunrise off my pallet of straw {wich I as home), eat some beef and biscuit (wish I was home), take a smoke out of my cob pipe, and wish I was at home again--and so on throughout the day."

Another leter sent by Mrs Hugh Warren, Sr., of Mississippi describes the discouragement of some Southerners with their cause when intervals between battles gave them time to think about it. This letter written May 8, 1864, is significant in that reveals the demoralizing effect upon soldiers resulting from the law passed by the Confederates Congress exempting from military service persons with twenty or more working slaves.

In view of the fact of the scarcity of subsistence in the South, we are now amid our greatest peril and upon the eve of great events.  We will have to have almost miraculous successes and follow them up closely even to get upon terms of equality witht he enemy.  We have already lost all our own subsistence country in the South and a large refugee population thrown back on the Atlantic states that never made a subsistence in time of peace.  The substitute and exemption laws, making distinction betwen the rich and poor, have also demoralilzed the army and people to an alarming extent. 

From Southern Historical Society Papers -