The War on Boredom: Volume II

“I write these few lines to you in good health, hoping they find you in the same condition.”

Correspondence and Care Packages in the Civil War

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has affected almost every facet of everyday American life over the past two weeks.  It has altered our daily routines, our modes of transportation and how we communicate with one another.  The Center for Disease Control’s recommendations on social distancing has pushed face to face communication to a six-foot minimum distance if not halted it altogether.  The staff at Gettysburg National Military Park has taken all communications amongst one another to an all-digital format, in step with the majority of the nation and a growing portion of the world.

In front of Yorktown

Winslow Homer, In Front of Yorktown, ca. 1863–66. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery

In truth, every Civil War soldier went through this same transition upon enlistment.  All face to face ties were cut with his family and friends who did not enlist with him.  He would quickly find it challenging to carry on any semblance of a prior relationship with those he called his closest associates.

If you were to have an opportunity to sort through the personal belongings of a Civil War soldier, namely the contents of his haversack, knapsack or tent you would find the expected accoutrement of military life- rations, extra underclothing, blanket, ground cloth, musket.  Buried in amongst this overwhelming weight of gear would be an unexpected yet highly prized item, his only two-way link to the outside world- his writing kit.  Think of this as his nineteenth century smartphone or tablet.

A soldier’s writing kit could vary widely in contents and sophistication depending upon what was available at the time of purchase as well as personal preferences.  They could be as simple as a few envelopes, stamps, sheets of paper and a pencil or as complex as a pen holder, steel pen tips, ink, inkwell, stationary and decorative envelopes.  In some cases writing kits could be purchased complete or put together at the discretion of the soldier by buying each item separately.  In either case, the materials were most often procured from merchants following the army called “sutlers.”   

Mail Wagon

Mail wagons of the 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac, 1864 (Library of Congress)

A letter from home could bring a sense of normalcy to a soldier’s life which had been turned upside down when he was wrenched, voluntarily or not, from his life back home. In some cases, businesses or entire estates were managed by way of letter writing.  In the case of Confederate soldiers, slaves were sold and purchased at the written request of men serving in ranks hundreds of miles from home. Entire romantic relationships unfolded through written communication. Letters could bring tidings of joy with the birth of a new little one, or in the case of Lieutenant Sidney Carter of the 14th South Carolina Infantry, the saddening news of his mother’s passing in 1862. 

Another form of mail that brought universal happiness to soldiers serving in the field was the receipt of a care package from home.  Most soldiers referred to this joyous occasion as receiving a “box” from home as care packages were mailed in the 1860s either in wooden boxes or barrels.  For many, these served as the life blood of survival for men.  They most often contained items that were specifically requested by the soldiers and were sent more often in the long boring times spent between the battles while regiments stayed in relatively static, unmoving camps where reliable mail could be had.

John Billings, the now famous author of Hardtack and Coffee, wrote that the minimum dimensions for a useful box from home were roughly ten inches wide and ten inches long with an inside depth of about six inches; however, he also stated that most boxes were quite a bit larger in size.  Billings also described how these boxes were almost universally packed as tightly as they could be with every available space filled with foodstuffs or small knit or woolen goods.

Minolta DSC

The contents of packages sent from home are eagerly unpacked in this front page illustration from Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress).

The contents of a box sent from home would vary depending on what a soldier asked for. Soldiers often requested supplemental warm clothing- hats, scarves, mittens and boots- to stave off the cold in the winter months.  They also frequently asked for ration supplements in the form of dried fruits and meats, butter, jams and preserves, anything that could break the monotony of Army fare.

As the war progressed, reliable mail service became ever more challenging for the Confederate Army.  Eventually, soldiers would rely on friends within their company or regiment who were going home on a furlough, to take with them and bring back mail from home.  Samuel Watkins, author of Co. Aytch and veteran of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment received both a letter and a box from home by way of a comrade who was the uncle of a woman he was in a romantic relationship with named Jennie.  She sent him a tobacco bag, a watch-chain made of horse hair, and a wool hood – presumably to ward off the cold air – knit by Jennie herself.  A careful reading of later Confederate letters reveals that soldiers would often cut a letter short, stating that the mail carrier (furloughed soldier) was leaving soon and they had to hand the mail off quickly.  The strains of war clearly put a strain on communication.

Over the next few weeks, the next time you are frustrated by having to send a text, make a phone call, drop someone an email or order yourself a “box” from your favorite online shopping center, think of the soldiers and the fact that you are sharing a common hardship with those that served in the American Civil War (albeit on a much more luxurious scale).

 

Ranger Philip Brown
Gettysburg National Military Park

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