Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Little Piece of Home



QUESTION:  Recently I discovered a well-worn copy of the Bible dated 1861 while going through an old trunk left to me by my father. He said it belonged to his father and his father before that. What’s intriguing about this Bible is the inscription inside: “Presented to John C. Gillespie of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to take with him to the field of battle, June 1, 1861.” Can you tell me why my great grandfather would have had such a Bible and why it has been handed down all these years?

ANSWER: Bibles are often what bind families together, even today. This occurred even more during the 19th century, when each person may have had their own personal copy. But this Bible, I suspect, was special, for it belonged to a Union soldier who fought in the Civil War. It’s something he carried with him into battle and which he kept his entire life, passing it down to future generations, after one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.

The Civil War continues to fascinate generation after generation. And with this fascination comes a desire to own a piece of the war, to hold on to a bit of its history.

A collection of Civil War memorabilia often begins with the purchase of a 25-cent minie ball, picked up as an inexpensive souvenir after touring a battlefield. Other people  become collectors after participating in re-enactments, as they replace reproduction articles with the real thing. Still others, perhaps like yourself, become collectors because descendants have passed down items that they carried into battle.

Collections of Civil War memorabilia can be broken into three general categories. Most collectors focus on weapons. Others specialize in collecting military uniforms, as well as associated items such as buttons, patches, badges, buckles, and hats.

And some collect the personal effects of those who left their homes and fought their neighbors on the battlefields of their own country. It’s often these homely objects that intensify the romantic appeal of this horrific war. Collecting what soldiers carried with them to war provides an intimate glimpse into their lives.

Volunteers, assembled in a short period of time, comprised most of the armies of both of the Union and the Confederacy. Men—or more often boys in their teens—reported for duty with hastily gathered supplies, and there was little uniformity about what they brought from home. Although each state was expected to supply its fighting forces with necessities, it was often the mothers, wives, sisters, a and girlfriends who were responsible for the materials that the soldiers actually brought with them when they reported for duty. As a result, there was a great variety of items included in the soldiers' personal effects.

With little idea of how the war would eventually be fought, new recruits generally overpacked, and soon found it necessary to shed their excess personal belongings as the war stretched on. These early recruits often reported with items intended to create a home away from home. Consequently, silver knives and forks, pincushions, and even embroidered booties found their way into camp. The soldiers didn’t anticipate years of war—early recruits signed up for only a few months—and the ensuing movements resulted in the abandonment of these niceties.

Identifying Civil War personal effects has been made easier because most of the soldiers marked their belongings with their names and regiments.

In addition to the items which soldiers brought from home, camp visitors gave soldiers  gifts of food, towels and soap, blankets, hammocks, tobacco and pipes, and pills. Soldiers traded their watches for some of these items. And even though the typical soldier would have appreciated more useful items, god-fearing visitors often distributed  religious tracts. Some gave soldiers sewing kits called "housewives," with which they spent idle hours mending and repairing their clothing. The soldiers played various games, including a primitive form of baseball, as well as poker and cribbage, chess and checkers, dominoes and marbles, and even bet on dice.

As the war stretched on and soldiers found themselves depleting their personal supplies brought from home, they turned to sutlers to replenish their need. Both Union and Confederate governors granted special permits to these civilian merchants. They accompanied the armies with horse-drawn wagons and sold, often at a great profit, the personal items a soldier would find in his pockets or haversack.

Articles owned by soldiers on either side differed little. Instead, social class and military rank are what determined the kinds of items the men carried,, Wealthier men, especially those with higher military ranks, were more likely to carry finer things, more things, and things not absolutely essential to day-to-day existence. On the other hand, many of the ordinary soldiers were poor men, often farmers, or recent immigrants from Ireland or Germany. Their possessions were far more modest.

One accessory common to most soldiers was a wallet, usually of folded leather, lined in linen and held together with a leather strap. Soldiers carried their money—generally not much, as a private's pay was typically $9 a month—and photographs of those at home in their wallets. Leather wallets in very good condition sell for about $65.

Another item that most soldiers carried into battle was a copy of the Bible. These  pocket-sized books are often found in poor condition today because of the amount of use they received. Inscriptions increase their value.  A typical Civil War Bible sells for about $75.

And they wrote. Soldiers of the Civil War kept extensive diaries, and maintained regular correspondence with friends and loved ones at home. Many of the envelopes they used are of particular note with patriotic scenes depicted on them, as are the many writing implements and accessories. Ordinary soldiers wrote on paper with wooden lead pencils, which they purchased from sutlers for a few cents or received as gifts.
Officers, however, often included writing sets in their holdings. Many carried bottles of ink—glass bottles covered in materials like leather to prevent breakage—and pens which, being made of a breakable material, rested in brass tube-like protective cases. Today, uncut Civil War-issued pencils can be had for $5 to $10, and fancy pens in brass cases bring $45.

Pens weren’t the only things transported in protective cases. Whiskey flasks were often covered in leather and encased in silver or pewter. Collapsible tin or pewter cups rested in little tin cases with snap-on lids. Other personally-supplied mess pieces commonly found include combination knife-fork-spoon utensils and plates.

On a more personal level were the items that soldiers carried in leather toilet kits tucked inside their haversacks. Toiletry items such as toothbrushes, tooth-cleaning powder (little more than baking soda), hand soap and shaving soap, brushes, and  mirrors were often packed in these kits. In many a soldier's pack was at least one straight razor with a bone or ivory handle, even though beards were in style.

Each article tells a story, has a message, is worthwhile keeping. The Civil War is about people. Those who fought it are no longer here to tell us about it. So the next best thing is to collect the items they carried.