Between The Battles


Foraging wasn’t the only way to pick up the occasional delicacy. Sutlers—government appointed merchants—followed the armies wherever they went, selling the troops everything from pickles to stationery. The articles of war stated that “persons permitted to sutle shall supply the soldiers with good and wholesome provisions or other articles at a reasonable price,” but the soldiers invariably thought their prices exorbitant. And in fact any sane man would be a little leery of doing business with the marvelous group at far left. When the campaign came to a halt for a while, the sutlers could set themselves up in fine style, as they did near Petersburg, above. Here the soldiers could dine in a real restaurant, buy cakes from Mr. Shuz and boots from his neighbor, have cigars and soda water, and make a wholesome purchase in the condensed milk “depot.” The wagon at center belonged to a New York City merchant named Bates, who attached himself exclusively to the 1st New York. That ubiquitous midnineteenth-century fixture, the oyster house, also followed the men into the field. Although the example at left looks as though it would be worth a mans life just to step inside, it undoubtedly did an enviable business. However the “5 Drons” generated Fun and Fury in their remarkably comfortable quarters, music clearly played a major role. And in fact, music was vital to the spirits of both armies. One Rebel private found a concert—doubtless performed by a band like that of the 26th North Carolina below—so inspiriting that he said, “I felt at the time that I could whip a whole brigade of the enemy,” and after hearing a similar concert in 1864, Robert E. Lee remarked, “I don’t believe we can have any army without music.” Less ennobling diversions included cockfighting; the bout shown opposite was staged by former slaves named George (left) and John at the headquarters of Brigadier General O. B. Willcox—that’s Willcox holding the letter—at Petersburg in 1864. The long, idle stretches of camp life made it a rich breeding ground for the sort of horseplay at far right, where soldiers toss a freedman in a blanket. When diversions got too gamy, the offenders were punished. Serious infractions meant court-martial, but minor ones could win the perpetrator a humiliating and uncomfortable ride on the wooden horse.

Now the earth begins to roll its wheel toward the sun, The deep mud gullies are drying. The sluggish armies That have slept the bear-months through in their winter-camps, Begin to stir and be restless. They’re tired enough Of leaky huts and the rain and punishment-drill.… “We might as well git— Fight the Rebs—and the ‘Yanks—and finish it up.…” But when they git, they are cross at leaving the huts, “We fixed up ours first rate. We had regular lamps. We knew the girls at the Depot. It wasn’t so bad. Why the hell do we have to git when we just got fixed? Oh, well, we might as well travel.” So they go on, The huts drop behind, the dry road opens ahead.…
—Stephen Vincent Benét, John Brown8217;s Body