Are you a rule breaker? I wonder why we like to think of ourselves that way. Don’t know, but The 1865 Customs of Service for Officers and The Customs of Service for Non-commisioned Officers and Soldiers are two extremely fun books about rules and regulations. Seems sort of dull, right? Nope, not at all. Augie, as I like to call him, wrote these little gems in the 1860’s and he was a professional soldier so he knew what he was talking about.
Here’s the fun part as a writer: There’s page after page of the way things should be done, but we all know how difficult keeping track of the “shoulds” is. Aside from the very handy descriptions of company, regiment and corps duties, battle tactics and strategy and organizational leadership techniques there’s the advice to captains and sergeants:
A great many stories about men could be taken from these very pages and when I get done with my Tenafly Road series I just may do that.
Charles Francis Adams, despite being considered an authority on the management of railroads couldn’t keep the Union Pacific stable as its president. One of the reasons, according to Richard White in Railroaded, was the boys–the young men too young to have fought in the war seemed “weak, unruly, willful and hard to control.”
On July 9, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Colonel Adams for the award of the rank of brevet (honorary) brigadier general, United States Volunteers, “for distinguished gallantry and efficiency at the battles of Secessionville, South Carolina and South Mountain and Antietam, Maryland and for meritorious services during the war” to rank from March 13, 1865 and the U. S. Senate confirmed the award on July 23, 1866. [wiki]
When the mother of one of his young subordinates (at the railroad) wrote about the hardships of his life, Adams told her, ‘You will, I fear, have to talk in vain to men of my generation . . . [T]he hardships and dangers incurred by your son seem to me quite trifling in comparison with my own recollections of four years active service, summer and winter, in Virginia.” Richard White, Railroaded.
Ouch. So here’s a few questions: Why do most cultures still value the warrior? Why do most boys play soldier? Is it possible to reach true masculinity without a battle?
If you imagine, based on your high school American history class, that reconstruction was a bore-fest, think again. John William De Forest brings the reader on a trip to Greenville, South Carolina and introduces us to the colorful characters (black and white) he dealt with as an agent of the Freedman’s Bureau. There’s no whitewashing, no PC language, no modern sociological studying here–just one decent man’s appraisal of a bad (sometimes funny) situation. Here is yet another white man with compassion, intelligence and humor. It’s fun to see how a northerner felt about his southern brethren as well as some of the fairer sex.
As an interesting aside De Forest is thought responsible for the phrase “the great American novel.”
And why Ken Burns rocks:
This is one of my all time favorites. Good old John Billings. Don’t you just love a soldier who gives you the inside dirt with some wit and great illustrations? I do. John enlisted in The Army of the Potomac, but don’t let that remind you of the boring history teacher with coffee breath and endless baseball analogies. While reading this book I was thinking, “Wow, I really have a crush on this guy! He’s giving me everything I need to know about the daily ups and downs of soldiering back in the day–the slang, the food, the music and the complete jerks who could spoil a perfectly good campfire. I’m pretty sure I would have married him if I knew him.” But that’s how I get when people give me stuff and put illustrations (done by another soldier who lived through the Civil War) in their books.
I got lucky though–I found a veteran of my own who will occasionally throw a salty sailor story my way–but for the rest of you there’s Hardtack and Coffee
And the mashed potatoes with gravy, please.
Don’t let the picture fool you. Outdoor feasts are not quite what they’re cracked up to be, but it’s better than fighting.
Your loving son,
illustration courtesy Time Life Books
What is the allure of war? If there is no such thing as progress then war is just a morality play wrapped in different uniforms. If morality is relative then not only have we killed the gods but also heroism. Without heroism there is no nobility and war is just a series of species eliminating acts of survival of the fittest hardly worthy of novels. These are random thoughts from the comfort of home while men and women on endless tours of duty die.
Okay, I’ll admit it, after only a few days of post Valentine’s Day optimism, I need to remind myself that all of that uninhibited flirtation and carousing during the Civil War did come at a cost. I was as shocked as my character Katherine when her brother confessed that during the war he’d contracted gonorrhea (especially since Simon had been my perfect imaginary brother)! He was such a great guy and all. But we forgive our brothers, don’t we? My real brother went on a crazed sex-binge after his young, prudish wife died of cancer and I know this because he tells all and sundry.
The reason Simon had to get VD was because I was reading a lot of Civil War medicine books with tons of strange and fascinating descriptions . . . I couldn’t pass up the research (most of which got cut out in the final draft of Tenafly Road). So for all of you modern pleasure seekers be glad you live when you do 🙂 and here’s why: “Chlamydia trachomatis . . .produced plum-sized swellings in the lymph glands of the groin . . .termed bubos that when bursting and draining pus are described as suppurating bubos.” Cute! Gonorrhea was “cured” in a bunch of different ways: ” . . . injection [presumably urethrally] a solution of chlorate of potash, one drachm in eight ounces every hour for twelve hours . . .” or a “thorough cleansing of the alimentary canal, rest, low diet, the balsam and cubebs internally, with urethral injections of nitrate of silver, sugar of lead or sulfate of zinc.” I can’t remember if you were supposed to eat asparagus or stay away from it, but you definitely weren’t supposed to dance or ride.
Syphilis was super fun to treat: ” . . .mercurical fumigation . . . potassium iodide in sarsaparilla, corrosive sublimate, lunar caustiic, calomel, black draught, emetics, blistering, iron, quinine . . .” and so it went. Of course there was no way Simon would get syphilis as one of the effects was losing your nose and basically having a “revolting death.” I mean, Simon had his flaws, but that would be too much! These descriptions and so many more can be found in Thomas P Lowry’s book The Story Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell! Just think of the havoc wrought on the girls back home!