Coffee

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There is always a pot of coffee on in my tavern, sometimes more than one. I make a fresh pot every Monday morn whether I need to or not. Used up coffee beans get fried in a bit of bacon grease and eaten up. To a man who has been hungry nothing is wasted.

During the war one of the nicknames given the US soldier was “coffee boilers” as whenever there was a halt in the march dozens of small fires would spring up along the column and coffee would be brewed and drank as quick as a wink. Coffee became a constant with us during the war. No matter the weather or the day coffee was being made somewhere around the camp. A good mug of coffee was the start of a day and often the end of it as well.

I drank tea when I could get it but coffee was more readily available. Most of us put a handful of beans in a poke sack with some sugar and used our rifle butts to smash the beans. It worked as well as most coffee grinders. A poke sack like that was good for a half dozen cups of coffee… or more if coffee was in short supply.

The Captain always insisted a pot of coffee be on the fire in garrison available to any soldier who wished a cup. The Colonel gave a similar order for the Regimental headquarters. My mess acquired a good solid copper coffee pot early in the war from an abandoned plantation and it served us through the entire war, it sits now on the hearth of my friend Seth and is brought out for every GAR meeting to make another pot.

Coffee became a comfort for us in the ranks, it was something we had every day regardless of the weather or fortunes of war. We may have gone short of rations while on campaign a time or three but I can recall no time we ever were shorted of our coffee. Part of that was my insistence that every man have a poke sack of coffee and as much more as he could carry in his bedroll or knapsack.

Our haversacks would see salt pork, hard tack, rice, beans, desecrated vegetables and often fresh victuals scavenged or foraged from the nearby plantations and farms of the enemy. But our coffee was always there in one haversack or another ready for the boiling pot. Some men took to flavoring their coffee with a touch of vanilla, milk and some used a bit of hot sauce. I occasionally used a bit of butter and salt as was the habit of the Arabs and Turks I had encountered. No one but I ever seemed to have appreciated that particular flavor. I was most fond of simple black coffee; the stronger the better.

The wounded were always given fresh coffee and if they could not drink it without help a spoon was provided. We even used our coffee as currency bartering it for goods from the enemy. At Vicksburg we were cursed mightily by the enemy in the trenches opposite as they could smell our coffee but had none of their own. The rebels were often short of real coffee and would cut it with chicory or parched corn in an effort to make it go further. A poke sack of coffee was always a valid trade for a twist of tobacco. In short coffee was as a gift from god to us and we appreciated it as such.

The war generation

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The generation of young men and women who came of age during the war have been influenced much like any other generation that came of age during a war. Americans are no different than French, Russian, Turks or any other peoples who came of age during a conflict. All too many have seen the horrors of war and survived the worst man can do to one another. They have seen things no man or woman should ever have to see. Yet for the most part they have simply kept on keeping on making their life better as they can.

These young men and women lived through shortage and suffering. The most unlucky were in the path of one army or another; others had family or were themselves with one army or another. In the picture above you see one of my men towards the end of the war; William Young and his little sister Ellie. Towards the end of the War, just prior to his sewing on Corporal stripes, William paid to have this image struck. Miss Ellie was a real treat to have with the regiment as a laundress; she and her brother brought much needed coin to their family. By William being there Miss Ellie suffered no insult and when with my Mina and the other laundresses her safety was never in any doubt. Though while Miss Ellie was normally a pleasant addition to the regiment when angry that young lady was a sight! She did not get angry so much as rage. When one young soldier refused to dance with her for fear of offending her brother she took a boot to the young man calling him a coward and using all sorts of less than ladylike language. When she had finished upon young Sebastian she took her anger and frustration out upon Wills tent kicking down the uprights sending the tent down upon him. I would have been angered by her outburst had it not been so amusing. It is a difficult thing for a man to remain angry when he is trying desperately not to laugh.

Miss Ellie and another laundress remained home after the regimental furlough in the spring of 64. I have not seen her since. I have heard that she married and has children now. I have no doubt that her husband is sufficiently cowed by her temper. I do not worry that the man would ever raise a hand to her as there are men of the regiment who reside near to them who would eagerly come to aid if needed. Raising a hand to Miss Ellie or any one of the ladies of our regiment would be a less than healthy proposition. It most likely would get such a fool a talking to from the book if not hanged.

The NCO Cadre

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A friend sent me this CDV a few years ago, it is an early or mid war picture that I do not recall being taken. From the men and the location I expect it was taken sometime during the Vicksburg campaign. I remember all the men in the picture, we were from a variety of different companies and I wonder why we were together in the same location like that. The Pioneer you see in the center of the CDV was a hard man of indeterminate age who could easily out work most men of eighteen years; I believe he was from an Iowa Regiment and a blacksmith by trade. The two men closest were sergeants though one did not wear his stripes and to my knowledge never did sew a set on. Both were proud Unionists and good men though the man who wore no stripes was as avid a Democrat as you might come across and yet was as avid a supporter of Lincoln as you would find in the army. His younger compatriot was the youngest sergeant in the regiment and one of the more enthusiastic abolitionists I knew. The young man was so well educated at such a young age I always wondered how he did not become an officer. The hospital steward you see was as fine a young man as one could find in the army; quiet and thoughtful he never spoke without first carefully thinking first. Never a foul word or insult came from him and he was one of the finest assets to any hospital I could imagine. As I avoided the hospital at all costs I only occasionally had dealings with him. I do know he stopped both a riot and an inevitable lynching of a corrupt officer though; had he not been there men like me might have had some explaining to do when the Colonel arrived.

What you see here was the common NCO of the Union Army during the war. Competent, professional and invariably tired. we so often wanted nothing more than a bit of tobacco, coffee and a lifetime of sleep. We never seemed to have enough of any of those, sleep in particular always seemed to be in short supply. As good Sergeants we made certain our men had the food and other supplies they needed but all too often we ignored our own well being.

What happened to those other men in this CDV? I am happy to say that we all survived the war but what has happened to them since I cannot say. Knowing then as good soldiers and excellent NCO’s I suspect they have done well. I know they would have went back to their homes and taken up the lives they left when they enlisted to save the flag. I can only hope they have fared well; I suspect they have.

Hand Adze

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Every once in a while someone brings me something interesting. A local lumberjack brought me this old hand adze he had found in an old Indian cam in the woods north of here. I figure it came to this country courtesy of some Frenchman and probably found its way into a lodge along with the owners scalp. How it came to be left next to an abandoned fire ring in an old abandoned Indian camp is likely quite the story.

The blade of this old hand adze spent some time in the water and was damaged by it. But she was cleaned up and someone spent some time keeping her sharp and useful. What kind of use was made of her? How many canoes, lodges and other structures were made with this tool? If only she could talk and tell her story.

The lumberjack said he’s heard I liked old tools and traded a drink a meal and a night of sleep in a real bed for the old hand adze. I think we both made out well on the exchange. I doubt I will ever use her, she’ll look good hanging on peg above the bar in my tavern.

Regimental Armorer

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One of the duties I accomplished during the war was that of the Regimental Armorer. I was well placed to accept this job as I had ample experience with the maintenance and care of a myriad of French arms. That experience set me in good stead when it came time to do the job. I knew how to properly clean a musket or rifle, I knew how to make small repairs and deal with a improperly loaded weapon or one that had been badly fouled. It normally really only required the proper application of hot water to clean and a few drops of sweet oil in the workings. On occasion a weapon had seen too much water and some time with a bit of brick dust and even the most stubborn rust could be dealt with fairly easily. Broken parts were not much of an issue as the interchangeability of parts was a fact instead of a suggestion with the US arms in the regiment. Other regiments ran into real trouble with non interchangeable arms from the continent such as the P53 Enfield or M1854 Lorenz. A good amount of work with a file was often needed and more than a little cursing was the norm instead of the exception.

Where I had difficulty was in the book work inherent to the job. Early in the war I was lucky to have the assistance of an officer that helped me with how I needed to keep records. Lt Kazavalowski was a lawyer before the war and a popular officer until typhoid fever took him at Jefferson Barracks. He was so popular that a replacement wasn’t promoted to fill his position for the better part of two years when a popular Sergeant took up the reins. By the time disease took him I had learned enough of my letters to do the paperwork correctly and knew the right way to fill out requisition and inventory forms.

Under normal circumstances the work was not much of a nuisance; though after a hard battle or harsh weather it wasn’t uncommon to have men bring me their arms and ask for assistance in their repair. By far the most common issues were broken nipples, sling swivels or mainsprings all of which were rather easily repaired or replaced.

The primary arm for the first half of the war in my regiment was the excellent M1841 and a company worth of M1855 rifles, the problems had with those were minimal and easily dealt with. After Vicksburg fell a few Enfields did find their way into the regiment but they remained only a short time before those men went back to the M1841 they knew so well. I was not as impressed by the Enfield as some; I certainly preferred the Springfield.

In mid 64 we received issues of M1861 series arms which included M1855, M1861, M1863 and M1864 rifle muskets. Some were not new but reissued arms that had seen hard service. All came to us in good working order and they were quite well liked by the men. I did manage to maintain a few dozen M1841 in the regiment though.

I liked my job as an armorer; it passed a little extra coin my way at pay call. It was a good way to pass time in garrison and allowed me to keep an eye on the state of arms in the regiment as well as others in my brigade. It also gave me an appreciation of the quality of American made arms, which I consider the finest in the world.