Saturday, January 21, 2023

New Enlistee’s Camp Life Reflections – T R Sterns – 29th Wisconsin Infantry

 What was life like for a newly enlisted Union soldier?
    The following transcript of a letter by Thomas Rescum Sterns, enlisted Aug.1862, to his wife Lavinia [in Iowa University Digital Library – Civil War Diaries and Letters] has some interesting perspectives on camp life’s challenges:

Camp Randall, Madison, Wis. Sept 24, 1862

Dear wife 
    I take the pleasure of writing a few lines to you to let you know how thing are here in camp. We arrived here last Saturday about 8 o'clock in the evening. After we arrived each one eat his allowance and went to repose. Our bunks as they are called are just wide enough for two to sleep in. In which is put about a handful of straw and then we spread down a blanket and crawl on that and spread another over and in this we start for the land of dreams. After we arrived here on Saturday night, we ate our supper and the next morning we had our breakfast about noon. I have a headache today caused from the loss of sleep being on guard duty last night but when I get my regular sleep again, I shall be all right. My duty was last night when on guard was to guard prisoners, that is men from our regiment that got drunk and was shut up in the guard house. We had three last night but none from our company. 
    Tell Mrs. Parsons that if she take the blanket back again I will much obliged as I drew one and shall not want more than one. I merely speak of it for she will be looking for the money for it. I cannot get a furlough until we are mustered in U. S. service which we expect to be this week and if we are I think I can get home next week and when I come, I shall bring home all of my old clothes for I expect to get my uniform as soon as we are mustered into U. S. service. The 29th is all here in camp now we are quartered new barracks. For breakfast we have bread, meat and tea or coffee. For dinner coffee, bread and meat. For supper meat, bread and coffee. Sometimes we have in addition to the above potatoes or beans. 
    I suppose you have heard what news there has been. I have not heard much and all I have heard is the President has issued a proclamation declaring all slaves free after the 1st of Jan, and also for 400,000 more troops. 
    Everybody that wants to hear from me must write me a letter and I will answer it; for if I have any more regular correspondents than I have got some of them will get neglected. I shall have five regular correspondents. They are yourself, mother, George, aunts [Huldah?] and [Bethia?]. I have not time nor space to write much more this time. Next time I will try to write something about this city as I have not seen much of it yet. Write as soon as you get this for I shall want to hear from home soon. If I should not get home next week, it would be lonesome if I should not hear from you. How is the little boy? No more at present. so good bye. 

From your Husband, Rescum 
Direct yours to Camp Randall Madison Wis. If you direct as I have told you I will get it for I am acquainted with the P. M.

    Camp Randall, in Madison, Wisconsin was established in 1861 and named after governor Alexander Randall who served from 1858 to 1861.  (Guess it has always paid to be a politician.)  It served as a training facility for over 70,000 recruits from the area during the Civil War.  Here they received basic training, uniforms and gear.  But they did not get weapons until they arrived at federal depots in other states.  During the course of the war 27 infantry regiments trained at Camp Randall as well as nine heavy artillery companies, two batteries of light artillery and a company of sharpshooters.  The army also set up a hospital there.  In the spring of 1862, it served briefly as prisoner-of-war camp.  Today there is an arch monument erected in 1912 by veterans of the war, and a marker to the confederate dead buried in Forest Hill Cemetery; at least as I write this, the monuments haven’t been torn down yet.

    Thomas Rescum Sterns was born January 18, 1839 in Amsterdam NY.  He married Lavinia on April 25, 1860 in Jefferson County, Wisconsin.  He farmed and also taught in the local school.  In August 1862 he enlisted for a three year service, received a $25 bounty and was mustered in as a private in Company F of the 29th Wisconsin Infantry on Sept.27.
    Sterns’ letter gives a brief glimpse into camp life from an enlisted man’s perspective.  Sleeping quarters sound luxurious, don’t they?  Food rations actually seem pretty good.  Wonder if it was all organic?  Evidently there were a few ‘troubled souls’ that had signed up, which had to be held in confinement until they ‘slept it off’.  Interesting that he wants to return the blanket bought with ‘credit’ since he has gotten a government issue one.
    There is mention of the Emancipation Proclamation issued on Sept.22, 1862 to go into effect on Jan.1, 1863.  Sterns does not have an accurate understanding of the details of Lincoln’s executive order (it only freed slaves in states in rebellion against the government), but shows it was evidently a topic of conversation at the camp.
    Again, we see that he highly prized letters.  He assures his wife he will write regularly to certain correspondents.  And he will try to answer letters from others as he gets them.  McCown says that Sterns wrote at least 77 letters to his wife (Books at Iowa, p.38), so we see Sterns was diligent in correspondence with Lavinia until he died Sept.2, 1863.

    The Patriotic Envelope -- The saying printed on it:
            The union of lakes -- the union of lands -- the Union of States none can Sever
            The union of hearts -- the union of hands -- the Flag of our Union Forever

                Sold by Bliss, Eberhard & Festner  Madison
    Since he is in Madison WI, it makes sense that Sterns bought this envelope from a local merchant, maybe even the printer directly. 

        The stamp position: I've always heard an upside down stamp means "I love you".  Did just a bit of research on stamp positions and found that meaning varies with time period as well as position like straight or at an angle etc.  At one angle it could mean "Do you still love me?".  At another angle it could mean "Write no more", which obviously Sterns does not mean. And people could have their own personal messages via the stamp's placement on the envelope.  So I will not pontificate on the meaning of the stamp Sterns put on the letter.

Children’s Projects:
1) Explore a bit about the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln issued.  No, it did not resolve the issue of slavery.  But it was an honest step in that direction, and led to the 13th amendment being adopted in 1865.  In an imperfect world, steps in a good direction should be praised, not condemned “because it didn’t go far enough”.
2) Should the post-war monuments erected on the site to the Wisconsin veterans and also the confederate dead prisoners of war be torn down?  Discuss the attack on American history being waged today.  Or ignore it, to your children’s future detriment.  As I always say to spectators at Civil War reenactments:  Study history, learn from it, improve upon it.  Do not white wash it.  Also do not erase it.

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