Summerville, [West] Virginia
December 29th 1862
Your long looked for letter came to hand on Saturday. We was glad to hear from you but it did [not] to contain any stamps which would have been very acceptable at this time. We are nearly out of stamps and paper but the sutler has got a new stock of goods and I expect he has got some good paper now.
Tuesday, December 30th. Now I set me down to finish this letter as I could not get it done last night. We are not allowed to have light burning after 8 o’clock at night. The big drum beats three loud taps which is called “Taps.” All lights must be put out at that time—that was the time I stopped writing last night.
The mail just brought two papers directed by your hand. Last Thursday brought two from Woodside. Those are the first we have received. I suppose you sent some before that. If you did, we didn’t get them. No matter. Your head is alright anyway.
In one of my letters to you, I sent for some money. I have not received any yet. I merely wanted 50 or 75 cents at a time—just enough to get paper and envelopes or any little thing like that. If you have not sent any, you need not for we expect. to get paid off before the 20th of next month. Postage stamps will be accepted at any time but not more than 20 cents worth at a time. We make the stamps get when we start. We can’t get them here for ten cents apiece. Old Jery sent us a lot or we would have been out before this. We would send you letters and make you pay when you got them out of the [post] office. [but] I know that makes you mad—it would me anyway.
Wyke has borrowed a fife from the drum major. He sits down at night and blows till his eyes stick out so you could snare them with a grapevine. He plays “Join Lad.” The Tomcats don’t stay about here any longer. There was one around before Wyke got his fife but it has disappeared altogether.
You can’t speak of getting you an Enfield Rifle. You are took in about the rifle. The Enfield is not half as good as a common rifle. They are clumsy, ugly things. Won’t shoot near as straight as a common one. I could have got any quantity of them from the Second Virginia Cavalry. I could have got one for five or six dollars or if I had been at the camp where the prisoners were took, could have got shotguns, carbines, Mississippi Rifles, Enfields, Pistols, and any kind of arms you could think of. If the regiment had went to the camp, they could have brought a great many things but they did not go there. The cavalry burned most all the guns and things, If I had been there, I would have [ ] to a good shotgun that would be worth two Enfield rifles. The Mississippi Rifles are more thought of than the Enfield but they are heavier than the Enfield. They can be bought for 8 or 10 dollars.
In regard to sending a box to us, there is no possible chance of getting anything larger than a package that can be carried by mail and then it [is] doubtful whether we get it or not. We are 60 miles from the boat lading and very bad roads.
You asked me in your letter if I got all the stamps you sent. I got six, Wyke got 8 in one from Aunt with a few lines from you, and he got six from Mary and two 25 cts. stamps. That is all we have got. The mail has been very uncertain. [It] is a little more regular now but it is like all other overland routes on horseback—very slow and uncertain. We are both very well. Have lots of drilling now. Some of the boys are getting furloughs. Five started for Dayton [Ohio] this morning out of our company.
Yours forever, — D. W. Maurice
David values both getting and sending letters. He clearly has a sense of humor, and shares opinions with his cousin on a variety of issues. To do this, he appreciates getting stamps from home because of the poor availability of stamps in the camp. It seems implied in the fourth paragraph that he has to pay more than face value for postage stamps in the camp. Did you catch his joke about maybe having to send letters without stamps which would mean his cousin would then have to pay to redeem the letters upon reception? Remember, there was no “free” mail for soldiers at this time. Writing the words “soldier’s letter” on the envelope got it delivered back home, but then the family had to pay the postage due in order to get the letter. And while he wants stamps, yet not too many all at once. Likely because he doesn’t want to have to deal with them being made useless by getting wet and damaged or maybe stolen since stamps were used as money due to the coin shortage. On the envelope below there is not stamp showing. So it appears that he did send the letter without postage to his cousin.
|Written to Joseph Wheldon, Springfield OH|
He is looking forward to getting paid in January which will then give him some money to buy things like stationery and envelopes now that the sutler has been resupplied. Remember, the value of 50 cents or 75 cents back then was much greater than it is today. Using a few on-line inflation computation sites, 25 cents 1861 is about $8 today  in value. The picture of the Military Portfolio writing supply sales kit below shows a cost of 30cents for 30 sets of stationery and writing utensils.
David’s comment that he has finally gotten a few newspapers reflects the general valuing of them by the troops. James McPherson cites evidence of troops valuing newspapers in his book For Cause & Comrades – Why Men Fought in the Civil War (p.92): “Newspapers were the most sought-after reading material in camp – after letters from home. Major metropolitan newspapers were often available only a day or two after publication, while hometown papers came weekly when the mail service functioned normally. ‘I receive the Chronicle regularly,’ wrote a lieutenant in the 50th Ohio to his brother back home in 1863. ‘The boys all want to read it. The officers subscribed $4.75 for papers for the benefit of the boys. [We] get four daily papers, all loyal and right on politics’ – that is, Republican. In January 1862 a private in the 17th Mississippi stationed near Leesburg, Virginia, wrote in his diary: ‘Spend much time in reading the daily papers & discussing the war question in general. We always close by coming to the conclusion that we will after much hard fighting succeed in establishing our independence.’ Two years later a lieutenant in the 4th Virginia reported that the ‘boys’ spent much of their time in winter quarters reading the papers. We ‘make comments on the news and express our opinions quite freely about the blood and thunder editorials in the Richmond papers, smoke again and go to bed.’”
Creative supplements to standard Army rations. Isaac “Wyke” Maurice [Jr.] shares in his letter some creative ways he has supplemented the standard Army rations:
Summerville, [West] Va.
January 22, 1863
I take it upon myself to inform you that David got all his tools and a letter all right the last mail (the night before last). David is cooking today. He has not time to write today though he may write before the mail goes out tomorrow morning. The mail comes in the evening.
I scarcely know what to say for there has nothing of any importance transpired since you last heard from us. The weather is rather rough. Been snowing & raining several days. I have not done any military duty since New Years Day except dress parade and inspection now and then. Been carpentering, fixing up quarters, and building a cook house & sundry work & ain’t more than half through yet fixing up.
The Sergeant Major was shot a week or two ago accidentally by a Lieut. of Co. G. The sergeant was sitting upstairs and the Lieutenant was fooling with a Secesh gun downstairs (not knowing it was loaded—no cap being on the tube) [when] it went off, went through the ceiling and floor, the ball lodging in the spine of his back. He lived a few days, then left this troublesome world. He was from Troy—Tom Mitchell.
We get mist all of the important dispatches here by telegraph every day or two—generally two fool cap sheets to write & put on the bulletin board. Tis rumored here that we will leave here before very long. From the looks of things, it may be so though I do not believe anything I hear here till I know it to be sure.
Just ate dinner. I think you had better put your usual quantity of corn ground out in beans for I think there will be a good demand before the war is over the way our boys go into them. We have a good set of boys in our mess [and we] generally have a good bit of fun. I was doing a little work for the baker this week and he gave me a couple loaves of bread and David went out in the country the other day, took our coffee and got 8 lb. of butter which goes very nice with soft bread. We have only been getting soft bread about once a week though the quartermaster is going to issue soft bread every day so reported. He has got two or three extra bakers detailed [and] they are at work now. We have had butter most all the time since New Years Day. I took our coffee out on picket the last time I was out and got 4 lb. butter. Coffee is a great object here with the folks. It’s worth 50 cents a pound and butter 15 cents.
A man came in with a watch a few minutes ago for David to fix. He has just taken it to pieces & finds the mainspring broke. How is my little watch getting along? Does it keep good time without getting out of order? Please answer soon. I have not had a letter from any of you folks for about two months. Yours, — I. W. Maurice
The main focus is on bread and meat as the two main sources of food for the soldier, with some supplements. Soldiers were issued uncooked food, so typically they would group together in a mess and take turns fixing meals, hence the term “mess mates”. Wkye’s reference about a baker making bread may reflect the fact that they are encamped, and so soft bread is being made and issued instead of hardtack which was the normal “bread” when on the march.
That he and David are using some of their standard rations like coffee beans to trade for extras from the locals shows their ingenuity in getting variety beyond the normal issued rations. Am not sure, but it probably helped the trading that they are in West Virginia where the locals may have been more supportive of the Union troops. We can see why they might enjoy getting a chicken as a break from salt pork or salt beef. Remember the rations were the same for every meal, breakfast or supper. Remember there was no Chick-fil-A in the neighborhood back then.
David’s advice to his cousin to plant beans instead of corn on the farm is probably a mix of sarcasm over normal army rations mixed in with a genuine suggestion of what crop might actually be more profitable due to the increased need for it because of the war.
1) Do not let your child think “oh it’s only 25 cents, that nothing”. Work through the “value” of things by using inflation to bring the “cost” of the various items into today’s cost.
2) Explore how they are willing to give up coffee to gain better food. Coffee was highly valued by the soldiers back then as it is today by people. Check out my posts on hardtack so your children will better understand the joy over getting “soft bread”.
3) Eating for a day as a soldier. This project would be for upper grade school & older children to help them understand the challenge of army rations. For one day they only eat bread and meat for all three meals/ no butter or jelly or snacks or goodies. Supply them in the morning with either part of a loaf of bread slices or a loaf of French/Italian bread that they have to slice themselves. If you want to somewhat give “hardtack”, maybe use crackers instead of bread. For the meat portion, maybe bacon to fry up is more accurate, or a pound of sliced ham might be simpler to use to avoid cooking. That’s it. Nothing else. They then must fix the food and eat as they want to. Drink would be water, or tea, or coffee, no juice or soda. This is their food rations for the entire day. The goal is to help them understand why Wyke is so happy about creatively getting butter and chicken etc. Now you as parent can eat like normal. Why? Because you are the “senior officer” and so have advantages. Also, all day any requests must be put in writing by the child on paper and placed in a dish on the table. An hour or so later, you do one of two things. Either read the note, and write a response that you “mail” back to them, or randomly before you read the request you crumple it up and throw it away. This will show the child the importance of letter writing and the frustration of having to wait for an answer or not getting one. Do not use this as a “punishment” exercise, but as a lesson about why variety is appreciated over the tedium of no options. OK, I doubt this project will get much use, but had to put it out for your consideration. I think I probably would have taken the challenge to do it for a day when I was a young kid, and I think it would have made me more appreciative of what the soldiers back then had to endure.