The War on Boredom Vol. III

newspaper vendor LOC

A newspaper vendor with the Army of the Potomac. (Library of Congress)

“I receive the ‘Chronicle’ regularly”

Lately a lot of people have probably spent more time than usual scrolling through the news, tracking the latest updates on the spread or containment of COVID-19, the economy and the upcoming 2020 election.  Or maybe you  decided to crack open that good-looking novel that’s been sitting on the nightstand for the past three months. Confined to camping out at home, we all begin to yearn for news of what is going on outside of our home or conversely, a distraction that will altogether take our mind off current events.  Many have turned to reading, for those that haven’t, maybe this is an excellent opportunity to give it a try.

Going along with the theme carried through volumes I and II, your experience at home is reflective of at least one aspect of life in the Army during the American Civil War.  For generations a myth has persisted that the average Civil War soldier was illiterate.  As it turns out your odds of finding a soldier who did have the ability to read and write were higher than finding one who could not. Civil War armies were among the most literate to take the field worldwide, during the mid-nineteenth century.

A survey of Tennessee soldiers conducted after the war revealed that twenty-two percent of those questioned had attended an average of four years of formal schooling while no respondent stated that they had received no education at all.  Even the least literate state in the Union before the war, North Carolina would still boast a literacy rate of eighty-three percent among its military aged white male population.  As men from the north and south marched away to war, they took with them a healthy appetite for reading materials.  And when the armies settled into camps, reading became one of the most popular ways to pass the time.

The most popular reading material was already discussed in Volume II of this series, letters from home. Men yearned for a tangible connection to their loved ones and a sense of normalcy about their daily lives by way of word from home.  A close second to mail from home in terms of popularity were the newspapers that circulated camps throughout the country during the conflict.

Burnside reading paper LOC

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside peruses a newspaper in this 1864 image. (Library of Congress)

One lieutenant in the 50th Ohio Infantry wrote of receiving four daily newspapers in camp every day.  These papers were the same periodicals received daily in cities across the north and south.  Reading the same paper a loved one read daily could serve as another connection to home and a sense of normalcy amidst the tumult of conflict.  Generally, the paper would be one or two days old but relevant nonetheless.  In the case of the 50th Ohio, the officers of the regiment subscribed to the papers for the benefit of the men and they were passed from soldier to soldier until they were all but worn out.  The aforementioned lieutenant assured his brother back home that all of the papers were “right on politics that is – republican.”

A mirrored experience was unfolding in the camp of the 17th Mississippi Infantry camped near Leesburg, Virginia in January of 1862.  A soldier of the regiment wrote home that the men were spending their down time “reading the daily papers & discussing the war question in general.”  In some cases, pickets would exchange Union and Confederate newspapers with one another while serving on an outpost in order to bring a little variety to camp.

Union and Confederates exhanging papers LOC

Union and Confederate pickets swap newspapers. (Library of Congress)

The mechanisms of the Industrial Revolution also brought with it a new phenomenon to literature in the United States: The Dime Novel.  Think of the dime novel as today’s paperback book. Believed to be the first of its kind, Malaeska, The Indian Wife of the White Hunter was published in June 1860, just as the war was breaking out by Beadle and Adams Publishers of New York City. Malaeska cover LOC In the first six months of printing the company sold sixty-five thousand copies, no doubt more than a handful making their way into the hands of new soldiers.  Dime novels were, as the name suggests, inexpensive and they could be easily carried by men on the march.  Once a soldier was done with it, the book could be traded for another with a comrade who may be carrying a different title.

Reading these accessible works of fiction certainly served as a form of escapism for the men.  They could be transported away from the horror of war, the inconveniences of Army life and the doldrums of sitting around waiting for the next campaign.  Instead, they could enter a world different altogether, entering the world of the author and taking their minds off of everything unpleasant.

In all likelihood though, the book that would outrank any dime novel in terms of popularity in the ranks was the bible.  The American Bible Society, among other organizations, produced copies of the bible and supplied them to both sides of the conflict.  On more than a few occasions books of various type, including the bible caught bullets while being carried into battle in breast pockets or in knapsacks making them lifesaving keepsakes that would be passed down through generations.

In the case of those printed materials that saved a soldier’s life, these goods were most certainly considered “life-sustaining.”  However, even those that didn’t prove to be a physical shield on the battlefield were essential to the mental health of the soldiers.  Letters from home, newspapers, dime novels and the bible all served as weapons during the war on boredom.  We hope you are enjoying this series and will tune in next time for Volume IV of the War on Boredom.

Philip Brown
Park Ranger, Gettysburg NMP

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