By the time July starts winding down, the heat is beginning to wear on everyone, and we all start thinking about when school will resume again. I’m fortunate in that I live in the mountains, so if it gets too hot, we can head up to the hills to cool off.
Although summer was the most likely time for battles to take place during the Civil War, there was also a lot of down time. The soldiers were left to their own devices to entertain themselves. Many wrote letters to their loved ones. Others passed the time by playing cards, gambling, reading weeks-old newspapers, or shooting the bull, as they called it.
Here is an excerpt from my novel, A Beckoning Hellfire, describing typical southern soldiers who passed the time away while waiting for the next big battle.
Jake and David led their horses to the edge of the field to graze and fell down upon the damp grass in sheer exhaustion. Two other members of their company approached and lay down on the grass next to them. They welcomed each other with a weary, “Hey.”
“We heared y’all were from Alabama, so we thought we’d come over and make your acquaintance. You boys jist git in last night?” one asked.
“Yeah,” David replied.
He introduced himself and Jake. The two veterans did the same, stating that their names were John Chase and Michael Tailor.
“Do we drill tomorrow, too, or do we git a day of rest, bein’s it’s the Sabbath?” asked David.
“There’ll be no drillin’ tomorrow. Ole Beauty’s a stickler for lettin’ us off on Sundays,” John said, referring to Stuart by a nickname the general had acquired at West Point.
“Where y’all from?” asked Jake.
“We’re from Georgia,” John replied.
“How come y‘all are in a company of Virginians?” asked David.
“Well, we were over here with my cousin,” explained Michael. “Us and some other fellers from our company. Kerr, Smith, Crawford, and Campbell. Anyway, we were supposed to leave to go down south with our brigade, but when we got back, they were already gone!”
“What brigade is that?” asked David.
“Hampton’s,” John responded. “We’re with the Jeff Davis Legion. Reckon we’ll have hell to pay when they git back up here!” He and Michael chuckled. “So y’all will jist have to tolerate a few of us Georgians around the place,” he went on. “Least till our fellers git back.”
“Reckon we can overlook it if y’all can,” Jake said with a grin.
John snickered, raising an eyebrow. “I’m inclined to think that us Rebels are all in this together, so I’ll forgive y’all for bein’ from Alabama.”
David and Jake looked at each other and shrugged.
“I have cousins in Alabama,” Michael told them. “Y’all know the Ryan’s?”
Jake and David gaped at each other in astonishment.
“There are a lot of Ryan’s around our parts,” Jake replied.
“How about that!” Michael laughed. He seemed happy to hear of any news from home, however obscure it might be. They talked about their families for a while until he stood and said, “All this nostalgic talk is makin’ me well up.”
John pulled himself to his feet. “Let’s meet up tonight, and we’ll shoot the bull,” he suggested.
Jake and David agreed before following the Georgians back into camp.
“Hey,” John said over his shoulder. “Do either one of you boys know how to write, because I’ve been longin’ to send a letter home to my wife, but I jist can’t figure out how to put it in words.”
“We can write a letter for you,” said David, happy to oblige.
John smiled and trudged back toward camp.
Hesitating until the Georgians were out of earshot, Jake gave David a shove, which caused him to stumble.
“What was that for?” he angrily fired back.
“I ain’t volunteerin’ to write a letter for every soldier out here,” Jake stated.
David gave him a crooked grin, knowing that his friend wasn’t very good at writing. “Well, I’ll jist do it, then,” he said.
They returned to camp and scrounged around for something to eat, but could only manage to find the same staples they’d consumed earlier. After they tied their horses out to graze, Sergeant Williams came by and invited them to his fire. Jake and David followed him to discover a large iron kettle hanging over a flame.
“Put that Yankee coat in here, and the dye will turn it butternut,” the sergeant instructed.
David removed the coat he’d been wearing since the previous evening. He let it fall into the boiling concoction. “What do you use for dye?” he asked.
“Walnut hulls, acorns, and lye,” William replied.
They chuckled at the rhyme. Standing over the kettle, they watched the boiling water roll over the garment as it gradually washed the dark blue coat to brownish-yellow.
When he was satisfied with the result, William retrieved the coat with a stick and hung it on a bush to dry. “You’ll have to leave this here till tomorrow,” he told David, “but you can borrow my saddle blanket if you want.”
“Thanks,” David said. “I reckon I’ll be all right.”
The two troopers exchanged smiles. After bidding goodnight to the sergeant, Jake and David returned to their site, but were surprised by what awaited them. Six men were standing there, waiting for their return.
“There they are!” exclaimed John, a wide grin parting the thick fur on his face. “These boys will write home for us!”
Jake looked at David, scoffed, and shook his head. “I’m illiterate all of a sudden,” he muttered.
One of the Georgians they hadn’t yet met held out a pen and a piece of wallpaper. David wondered whose wall he’d peeled it from.
“How do,” the Georgian said, “I’m Custis Kerr.” He held out his other hand and grasped onto David’s. “John and Michael here said y’all can write a letter for us.” He had a scraggly beard that reminded David of a wire-haired dog he’d seen once. Pausing momentarily, Custis added, “I’d be willin’ to give you somethin’ for it.”
“Do you have anything to eat?” Jake inquired.
“Well, I have a cornpone and some honey,” said Custis.
David smiled, took the pen and paper from him, and seated himself on the log next to their fire. Custis sat beside him, grinning from ear to ear. Positioning the wallpaper on his thigh, David poised the pen erect and glanced over at him.
“Ain’t you holdin’ it in the wrong hand?” Custis asked.
“I’m left handed,” David explained.
The Georgians howled.
“We ain’t never seen a lefty afore!” one of them exclaimed.
David felt a little awkward, but had grown up enduring such teases, so he shrugged it off.
“Whatcha want me to write?”
“Dear Mother,” Custis dictated, “I am feelin’ well and believe the weather is becomin’ more mild.”
David raised an eyebrow as he scribbled down the words, wondering if this soldier had anything more important to say.
“I am doin’ fine and look forward to seein’ you a’gin.” Custis spoke like he was reading, slow and deliberate, so that David would catch every word. “I am writin’ to M.S.B. and C.L.S.”
Throwing a glance at him, David wondered how many letters he was expected to write for each and every soldier. He started to regret his hasty offer to John and Michael.
“If you don’t have anything more to say, I’ll close for you,” he said, hoping Custis would take him up on his offer.
“Hold on a minute.” The Georgian raised his hand. He nodded and pointed to the wallpaper, coaxing his transcriber to continue. “Received the parcels you sent from home. Many of the boys enjoyed them also.” He stopped to rub his beard in thought. “Reckon that’s all. Jist put down your lovin’ son, Custis.”
David finished writing and handed the piece of wallpaper to him. Custis clutched onto it like it was a gold nugget.
“Oh, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Thanks kindly, Summers,” Custis said, and walked off.
Another Georgian, Peter Smith, had David write home to his wife and two daughters in exchange for dehydrated vegetables. Alfred Crawford dictated a letter to his sweetheart, gave David a sewn bag of pennyroyal leaves for his effort, and instructed him to place it at the foot of his bed to repel fleas. A newlywed, Robert Campbell, sought assistance in addressing a letter to his wife. He rewarded his comrade with saddle soup and graybacks amounting to three dollars. David also wrote one letter each for John and Michael. In the time it took for him to write the soldiers’ letters, he learned more about each cavalryman than most of the others would ever know about each other. Graciously, he accepted their offerings in return.
When he had finished, he realized it was getting dark. Thankfully, Jake had taken the initiative to fry some salt pork, so he and David devoured it along with the newly-acquired cornpone and crusted honey. They cleaned up and relaxed, lying on their backs and gazing up at the stars. David’s writer’s cramp left him too disabled to pen a letter to his own family, but he reasoned that he could do it tomorrow, since it would be a day of rest. He started dozing off, but heard voices growing louder.
“Mind if’n we jine you?” Michael asked.
David opened his eyes and glanced at Jake, who shook his head, grinning as he sat up.
John chuckled. “You look right tuckered out. Did we run you ragged today?” He chuckled again. “We came over to shoot the bull with you fellers.”
David pried himself up. The two veterans seated themselves on logs. John pulled a meerschaum from his pocket and lit it. The pungent odor of rich tobacco intermingled with the smell of burning firewood.
“By the way,” Michael said, his dark eyes twinkling in the firelight. “I’d recommend you get rid of that can of desecrated vegetables Smith gave you.”
“Why?” asked David.
“I’ve heard tell that if’n you eat those critters, they’ll expand in your stomach and make you explode!”
David’s eyes grew large. He retrieved the can of dehydrated vegetables from his saddlebag, threw it into the fire, and watched along with the others. The can sizzled, popped open, and was quickly consumed by flames. Inexplicably, the recollection of Tom’s terrible death back home in the barn entered his mind. He looked away.
“I heard that last month they caught ole Abe Lincoln in a drunken stupor,” John remarked nonchalantly. “Heard from a source in Washin’ton City that he was on a binge for thirty-six hours and was still drunk when he left the drinkin’ establishment!” He laughed heartily.
Jake winked at David. It was obvious their guests were extravagant liars, but amusing, nonetheless.
“I heard tell that General Burnside passed on in his sleep,” Michael said, “and that General Beauregard was accompanied on a march by concubines and wagonloads of champagne.”
Jake and David chuckled.
“I heard from a couple of Louisiana Zouaves that the good people of New Orleans printed a picture of General Butler on the bottoms of their chamber pots!” exclaimed John. He guffawed loudly. “That’s one way to git even with that damned Yankee general!” he exclaimed, referring to the dreadful officer who had taken over the city nearly a year ago. The four soldiers laughed loudly at this.
“Is it truthful that General Stuart’s a teetotaler?” asked Jake.
John nodded, enjoying his pipe. “That he is, and a ladies’ man, but a devoted husband and father over all.”
“Where in Georgia are y’all from?” David inquired.
“Savannah,” said Michael.
“I heard it’s right purty over there,” said Jake. “Y’all have any land?” he asked.
“I have about a hundred acres,” John replied, “and a few niggers to help run the place, but Michael ain’t got any, ‘cept what his kinfolk live on. We’ve got plenty of big plantations’round our parts.”
“When we were ridin’ in,” Jake said, “we heard some fellers talkin’ bout a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, but we didn’t know what they meant by it.”
“Oh.” John took a puff from his clay pipe. “The plantation owners and their overseers are exempt from fightin’ if’n they have twenty slaves.”
“That don’t seem right,” said David.
“Nothin’ in war is right, Summers,” Michael said, “and you’ll find that out soon enough. But General Hampton’s supposed to be the largest slave owner in the South, and he’s fightin’. Say, you ain’t a conscript, are you?”
“No sir,” David responded proudly. “We’re both enlistees.”
John nodded and smiled, clenching the pipe in his teeth. He puffed again. “That’s good. We ain’t real fond of conscripts ’round here. Anyone forced to jine up ain’t worthy of the fight, and those fellers will run off first chance they git. Jist like those cowards from our home state who refuse to fight. We call them Georgia crackers. It’s downright unpatriotic.”
Jake leaned in toward his friend. “You should ask him about your pa,” he reminded.
The other soldiers looked at David, waiting for him to speak. He took a deep sigh, and said, “My pa is buried here somewhere, and I was wonderin’ if y’all might know where I could find him.”
The Georgians exchanged glances.
“Can’t rightly direct you,” Michael said. “The burial site’s mighty large, and not every grave is marked. It could take days, or even weeks, and you still might not find him.”
David bit his lower lip and gazed into the fire, disappointed with the answer he’d received.
Jake quickly changed the subject and they were soon engaged in telling one chilling horror story after another, most of which the other soldiers made up. David enthralled them with “The Tell Tale Heart,” a story by Edgar Allen Poe, which none of the others had heard before. To his amusement, the others actually shivered at his telling of the story. The four soldiers talked on into the night until they realized it was late and decided to retire. As the Georgians departed, Jake leaned back, mumbling something unintelligible. David fell asleep but was soon startled awake by the bugler’s invasion.
“I thought we got today off,” he muttered to Jake while they pulled on their boots.
“Reckon they have roll every day,” Jake said with a yawn.
He and David sauntered to the field where they again went through military procedures. Their company was informed that General Fitzhugh Lee, who was the nephew of Robert E. Lee, had taken his cavalry brigade northward. After being released, the boys stood in line for rations, disappointed with the lack of variety once more, but they ate it anyway, grateful for the meager nourishment. Afterward, they gave their mounts some seed corn and oats.
Finally finding free time, David settled in to read from his Testament. He opened the leather flap. Inside was the miniature Southern Cross Josie had sewn for him. His heart grew heavy at the thought of her, Rena, and their mother. He had hardly been gone a week, yet it seemed like years.
Flipping through the sacred pages, he found a scripture that caught his eye: So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Jake sat down beside him, holding a newspaper he had found.
“Where’d you git that?” David asked.
“Down at the sink,” Jake replied, opening the paper. “It’s a few weeks old, but it’s somethin’ to read.”
“Couldn’t find better use for it?” David snickered.
Jake glared at him. “You wouldn’t think it was so funny if you had this ailment,” he grumbled.
David shrugged. “Seems to me some of that salt pork should’ve worked its way out by now.” Unable to help himself, he snickered again.
Jake threw the newspaper down on the ground and stood. “Reckon I’ll see what’s goin’ on around camp,” he announced, and stomped off.
Deciding it would be a good time to write a letter home, David found his pencil and paper and began writing.
Dear Ma and sisters,
I take pencil in hand to inform you that Jake and I arived yesterday evening and are being aclimated to our suroundings. We have plenty to eat and are feeling fine and our horses are fine. We have yet to see General Stuart. To-day is Sunday and you will be glad to know that I am studying scripture and find it very reasuring. Please tell Callie I wish her well if you see her. I would like very much if you could rite to me every particular of what is going on back home. I am thinking of you fondly and will rite again in the near future.
Your son and brother until deth,
Intentionally excluding any reference to Tom Caldwell, he placed the folded letter into an envelope.
They must have heard by now, he thought. They must know that I killed him.
Deciding to hunt for Jake and deliver his letter to the post, he walked around camp, taking notice of the activities around him. He was stunned to see men gambling, pitching horseshoes, cursing, drinking, betting, and slapping papers while they played their poker hands, not only because it was the Sabbath, but also because it was only one week after Easter. One soldier asked David to join him for a sip of “Pine Top,” but he refused. Drinking, especially on a Sunday, appalled him. Curious as to why there were no services, he asked another trooper.
“In the beginnin’,” the soldier said, “we held services faithfully every week.” He cocked his head at David. “But truth be told, as time went on, we all got too tired of the war to care anymore.”
David nodded, and turned to search out his best friend. Jake stood in a throng surrounding two Rebels who were seated at a table. In front of them, a Federal canteen lay on its side. The men yelled and squinted at it.
“Come on, Howitzer!” one hollered.
“Go, Minié Ball!” another exclaimed. The spectators shouted excitedly.
“What’s goin’ on?” David asked his friend.
“They’re havin’ lice races,” Jake replied. He grinned at David before looking back at the table.
The crowd cheered. One of the contenders sprang from the table and threw his arms up in victory.
“Better luck next time!” he bellowed, shaking his opponent’s hand.
The loser presented a Confederate note to his rival, and men within the crowd exchanged currency as well.
David observed the spectacle with amazement, glad that no man of the cloth was there to witness it. He felt a twinge of humiliation for the soldiers in attendance, and wondered why they didn’t display any moral responsibility. Deciding he’d seen enough, he walked back over to his campsite. Jake followed, talking all the while about the carefree life of a soldier.
“Do you reckon I’ll be able to find Pa’s grave?” David asked him.
Jake’s joviality quickly changed to solemn reserve. He shrugged in response. “Sounds like the gravesite’s mighty large. It could take us days to find him, and besides, the major might notice us missin’.”
“Well, maybe I’ll ask him tomorrow if he knows where Pa might be.”
“Why don’t you ask him now?” Jake grinned, motioning for him to follow.
They walked through camp to a white canvas tent and timidly entered.
“Sir,” Jake said quietly to catch the major’s attention.
Major Warner looked up from the map he was studying. David followed Jake inside the tent, and the two saluted.
“At ease,” the major softly commanded. “What can I do for you boys?”
“My friend was wonderin’ if you might know where his pa’s buried,” Jake explained. “He was killed here last December.”
“Do you know which regiment he was with?” asked Major Warner.
David nodded. “Yessir. He was with the 4th Alabama. Uh, the North Alabamians infantry division.”
The major scratched his head. “What was your father’s name, Private?”
“Hiram Summers, sir.”
“Well, let me look into it, and I’ll git back to you in a day or two.”
The boys saluted and exited the tent. Once again, David was disappointed with the response he’d received, but decided he had no choice but to wait.