This continues transcripts of my great-great-grandfather Abiel Teple LaForge's Civil War diaries and correspondence. See here for earlier material and background. The site there contains the original transcripts. The versions I'm posting here have been lightly edited for spelling, but especially for punctuation and paragraphis to add readability.
When you think about “care packages” sent to servicemen in war time, you probably think about the WWII program, or Red Cross deliveries in a similar era. But the longing of a soldier for the comforts of home has existed as long as there have been soldiers serving in the field. (I believe one of the surviving wax tablet letters from the northern frontier of Roman Britain includes a request for more warm socks.) Abiel wasn’t serving in a battle zone at the time of today’s entries, and the folks back home on the farm were close enough that they could send perishable foods by “Express wagon”, though as you’ll read, the handling wasn’t always optimal. For an even more impressive package, check out this letter from February the year before (1863) when the shipment included boiled chickens!
Serving at “convalescent camp” on the outskirts of Washington DC, and duties that regularly included escorting people into the city, meant that Abiel was able to enjoy a number of cultural entertainments: plays, fine dining, attending congressional debates. Not exactly your image of a typical Civil War soldier! But things are moving in the background to get him back to more active duty. His temporary commanding officer has recommended him for promotion in anticipation of this, but the wheels of bureaucracy will grind slowly.
There's one extremely uncharacteristic episode of impulsive stupidity recorded this month, which stands out from what is otherwise a record of very steady character. Interesting, that there never seems to have been any question that Abiel or the friend who witnessed it would report his part in causing it--something that might well have ruined his career!
One of the other interesting incidents this month, from a personal point of view, is Abiel's encounter with a woman who disguised herself as a male soldier in order to accompany her husband in the army. His diary doesn't note how the disguise was discovered, but the consideration and sympathy with which the woman is viewed and treated is interesting.
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[PUNCTUATION AND SPELLING ARE COPIED FROM THE ORIGINALS. EDITORIAL COMMENTS ARE IN BOLD TYPE.]
February 1, Monday
Rained all day, getting very muddy.
I received a letter from my sister. She says she has sent a box of good things for Oscar Remington and me. They started January 28th so they will soon be here. We were anxiously looking for the Paymaster all day but he did not come, probably on account of the weather. Susan wrote that Joseph's straight finger did not trouble him as much as I might suppose, for he took good care of it. The people were generaly well. All in good spirits.
Tuesday February 2, 1864
Day pleasant over head until evening. Since sundown it has clouded up and is now looking very black. Low muttering thunder is heard, like artillery at a great distance, which I should think it was but for the lightnings which accompany it. This is the first thunder this year.
The Paymaster came out today and paid us off. About half of the Head Quarters boys have gone off on a spree. Thank the lord I have no desire to do any such thing.
Friday 5, 1864
Day warm & clear, as also was yesterday. I received a box from home yesterday with lots of good things in it. Among the rest was a lot of honey, which had got all pressed out of the comb and run all through the box, spoiling some of the things in it. But nevertheless, Oscar and myself enjoyed it very much. Delos Remington was over her to day. He belongs to the company of I.C. doing duty at the Aqueduct Bridge. We had a dinner of good things in the kitchen. Frank Basset was also with us. Lots of visitors were with us today. Our band discoursed their best music for their benefit.
Head Quarters Rendezvous of Distribution February 5th 1864
It is now 9 O.C. P.M., but I concluded to write you a short note acknowledging the reception of your box of good things, and also your letter of the 1st which preceeded it only two days, and to return my thanks to you for both.
I received your letter the 1st inst[ance?] and I assure you from that time till the box arrived I was fairly nervous with anticipation. Every time the Express wagon went to town (which it does once a day) I would caution the Agent to be sure and not overlook it at the office in Alexandria, and I would importune him untill I made him promise to be very careful.
The expected good things arrived yesterday, no the day before. Oscar and me went down to get it and were very sorry to find unmistakeable evidence that there was honey amongst its contents, for it was oozing out through the cracks. This we considered a great waste of material, but concluded not to "cry for spilt" honey, for if it was loose in the rest of the things it would only sweeten them the more. We took the box to Oscar's Barrack and opened it, he was saved the trouble of saying it "opened rich" for that was a self evident fact, as was shown by the honey on the outside of the package. The things were considerably smeared with the sweet stuff but we managed to make it prety much all count in some way. The butter and cheese were not hurt, for both had something arround them.
The jell cake too was splendid. "Oh! how I lubie(?)" as Matie says. It was the best thing in the whole package. How is this? There is that fruit cake, but the jell was best after all, though it is rather hard to decide, when there were so many good things. The butter and cheese will out-last the rest for they are the most needed after all. After we opened the thing I ate untill I could eat no longer and if you have any doubts of whether I liked it or not, just ask Oscar, who was a witness of the whole proceedings.
Frank Basset also came in for a share. And today at dinner we had Debs, who came over from Georgetown to pay us a visit. Us four made a rather gay dinner party. We had biscuits with butter and honey, jell and fruit cake, cheese and coffee. These with the jokes that were cracked during our repast made our meal fit for a King, and I dare say we enjoyed it more than most monarchs do. After dining we had a cigar and walk. The latter was very much enlivened by the anecdotes of Charley Bossard which were related by Debs. We tried to get him to stay all night with us but his pass was to go back tonight, so back he sent just like a good soldier as he is would.
We were sorry for we were going to have fun with him tonight. Tell Mr Joseph Potter [note: this is his sister Susan's husband] that I should be mighty glad to accept his invitation to come up and get better things at home, notwithstanding the good things you sent. You must charge the cost of the things on the "Contra" side of our account--$3.34 cents besides the cost of the Express--and consider me your debtor for all your kindness.
Did I tell you the name of our camp had been changed to Rendezvous of Distribution? If I did not I will now. Hereafter none but men fit for duty in the field are to be sent to the command, which will make our duties much lighter and we can also dismiss some of our surgeons, which will in some cases be a benefit to the men. The way the camp will be arranged now will enable us to send all of the men of an Army corps, whenever they are called for, without having them examined by the Doctor before they go, as they have been heretofore, to see if they were fit for duty or not.
We have lots of distinguished visitors out to see us every day now: Congressmen with their wives and daughters, the former homely and the latter mostly pretty. [Note: Although "homely" can mean "comfortable, home-like", a later similar contrasting use indicates that Abiel is using it in the more modern sense of "plain-looking".] I suppose when they go back they entertain their friends with an account of the peculiarities of the animal called "Soldier." It makes no difference to us what they say after they go away as long as they will only enliven us with their cheerful faces once in a while it is all we care about. To crown the rest of our present blessings we are blessed with the most pleasant weather imaginable. The air feels as balmy as spring time. In fact we have had but little bad weather this winter. Last winter we considered that we enjoyed as fine weather as ever this country was blessed with during that season, but even that is beaten by the present season, for which we cannot feel too thankful. I believe if Mother was down here she would grow yong even faster than she did from the time I enlisted till last May.
I have less than eight months to serve now. It dont seem possible that I have been in the service two years and four months, but such is the fact. Yes, two years of the best time of my life and a third is still to be given to my country, and yet this long as it may seem is a small price to be paid for liberty. For perfect Liberty we shall have befor the war is over. Once gained that great boon for the nation, then my struggle to gain a place in the world will commence. I hope it will not wear on the spirits as does the struggle for Freedom.
With much love many thanks and good wishes I must bring my letter to a close. Hoping you will excuse brevity.
I remain as ever
Your loving Brother
(written along edge)
That jell cake is perfectly grand. Very bad pen.
LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION FOR LaFORGE
Rendezvous of Distribution, late Convalescent Camp Virginia
February 5th 1864
“To whom it may Concern”
This is to certify that Sergeant A.T. LaForge, 85th Regiment New York Volunteers has been attached to the Head Quarters of this Command for over one Year.
Being Chief Clerk of camp the greater part of the time above mentioned, I had every opportunity of becoming fully acquinted with Sergeant LaForge’s character both as a soldier and a gentleman.
It is with pleasure, at my departure from the Command, that I bear testimony to his upright character, his ever obliging manner & the faithful performance of his duties as a soldier. Being a good clerk I am fully satisfied he would perform any duties assigned to him, either in military or civil life in a manner highly creditable to himself and to the satisfaction of those whom he may have doings with.
H. J. Winters
late Chief Clerk
Convalescent Camp Virginia
Tuesday 9 February 1864
Day clear and cold. I was very busy. We sent all the men not fit for duty to the General Hospitals at Washington D.C.. The rest of the men in camp were arranged in corps preparatory to moving Distribution camp into the barracks camp. Deserters were moved over yesterday. They occupy from 20 to 25 [barracks numbers?] inclusive. 26 to 50 is for the Army of the Potomac, and from 1 to 20 is for men who do not belong to the Army of the Potomac. Part of Distribution Camp was moved over to day. Mrs Thayer, the Assistant State Agent of New York was here to day. The Governer of New York writes that as soon as there is a vacancy he will give me a commission. Yesterday Mrs. Vice President Hamlin, Mrs Colonel Green, Mr George F Train (the great bombast speaker), with about 20 more ladies and the same number of gentlemen, were out here from Washington. They had a ball in the Commisary Depot. The band played for them. Colonel McKelvy did not know they were coming until this morning, as it was an arrangement of Captain Elison A.Q.M. [Assistant Quarter Master?] Colonel was rather angry at first, as he was not consulted, and worked against them all day so that they did not enjoy themselves as well as they might.
Thursday February 11, 1864
Day cold and clear, as also was ysterday.
I was very busy yesterday A.M. examining the Commissary Papers for January 1864. P.M. went with Frank Basset 1st New York Dragoons to Washington. We were to meet Oscar Remington at the corner of Willards Hotel. We did not see him however. Went to the Washington Theater. Saw Laura Keene and her celebrated company play the "Sea of Ice." It was the perfection of the scenic art. When they were froze up in the polar sea, the house was filled with some kind of fog that looked just like a sea fog. I thought Miss Keene rather overdid the part of the Indian Girl "Oberita". Basset seemed to enjoy himself immensely. [Note: I can find references to a play called "The Sea of Ice" that appear to be the correct one, but don't have a good link for it.] We came back about midnight. We had a pretty good time. Could not got anything to drink. Basset was dreadful dry but it was of no use, no whiskey was to be had. Cold as the mischief walking back. All Camp Distribution is moved over now, the tents all taken down and the ground is being cleared up. It is very hard to tell where a man is now, for things are rather mixed up. Division commanders swearing.
Received a letter from Uncle John. Beautiful sentiments in it. All well.
Friday February 12 1864
Day clear and warm.
Wrote a letter to Miss Annie Porter, a young lady I never saw. She lives at Swampscott Massachussetts. I sent Edmonds, or rather started him, for Point Lookout with 19 men of the 2nd, 5th & 12th New Hampshire Regiments. He got to Alexandria too late for the boat, so had to bring the men back. He will try it again Sunday.
Sunday February 14
Day clear & warm.
I went out to see the review of the 1st Com[mand?] Heavy Artillery. They are garrisoning several of the forts along our Defenses of Washington. They are splendidly drilled and make a fine show on parade. On my return, I did what I consider the most foolish thing of my life of the kind, and it has taught me a lesson I shall never forget.
As we were walking down through the bushes beyond the New Barracks, built for the Invalid Corps who do our guard duty, I was struck with the idea that the long dry grass that was growing up among the bushes by the edge of a little brook would burn finely. So I took out a match, and in spite of the Sergeant's (Beaugureau) remonstrances, set fire to it. A gale was blowing from the north, and in a second it sprung into a bright blaze and spread so rapidly as to defy my efforts to put it out.
Then the folly of the deed, and danger too, was apparent, for the wind was blowing directly towards the new buildings. The brushwood ran within a rod of them, and the ground arround them was covered with shavings and old timber scraps of boards etc., as dry as tinder. I knew if it was not subdued before it got there, all the buildings were goners. So I went down to the I.C. Head Quarters. The chaplain was performing divine service. I told one of the officers that somebody had set fire to the bushes and it was running rapidly towards them. He went in and reported to the Major who at once came out on the stoop and intimated the danger to the chaplain, who at once closed the services by singing the Doxology. Never was hymn so long as that. Before I thought the words were a minute long. My heart was fairly bursting. It was finaly done, and the Major told the men the danger, which was now mde plainly visible by the dark clouds of smoke sweeping by, and they at once started for the scene of danger.
It was at once plainly to be seen that no effort could stop it, where it was then burning. The only hope was to let it burn until it came where burning material was less thick, made so by the wise forethought of Lieutenant Colonel Samuel McKelvy, who had this part of the ground burned over before the building were begun. To this part of the ground it soon came, then the work began. The Invalids went at it with a will, and I also. An hour of anxious fighting--more interesting to me than leading a regiment into battle--it was subdued, and I began to breathe easy. The Sergeant says I turned very pale when the danger of my folly burst on me, but that I was perfectly cool as far as actions and orders were concerned.
Mrs Thayer was out here today. She says the A. A. General of New York told her that my commission was to be along in a few days, just as soon as a vacancy occured to which I could be appointed with less rank than that of captain. I wrote a letter to O. L. Barney tonight. I have not written to him before, since he refused to give me half the worth of the revolver he lost for me on the Peninsula. Commenced reading Scott's poems. Have been studying Wilson's Tactics. [Note: A later reference clarifies that the poet is Sir Walter Scott. If anyone has a good idea what "Wilson's Tactics" may have been, I'd love to know.]
A little colder this P.M.
Monday February 15, 1864
Day cloudy and cold. Commenced snowing about an hour before sundown. Is still snowing a little. Sergeant B[eaugureau] and I went over to see the result of yesterday's fire. It had worked back aganst the strong wind, crossed the creek, and burned on this side of the road clear up to opposite "Fort Barnard," where it had been put out by getting to the top of the hill where the [wind] blew so fiercely it could not burn. It had crossed a little branch of Four Mile Run and the road burned two or three acres on the other side, as far as it had any thing to burn. It makes me tremble when I think of what might have been.
Day very cold. P.M. Snowed about an inch A.M. Edmonds returned from Point Lookout tonight.
Day very cold. Sent the men who belonged to the Department of the South (Charleston) to Washington to be sent to Hilton Head on the Steamer D. Webster. They were sent back tonight. A guard of 20 men are to be organized from them and they are to be sent tomorrow to report to Captain Allen A.Q.M. 6th Street Wharf, Washington D C.
Thursday February 18th 1864
Day very cold & clear. I sent the men belonging to the Department of the South again this A.M. I guess they got off, for they have not came back yet. I took some of our boys up to be examined for the Invalid Corps. They are to be put into the 10th Co[mpany] I.C. [Note: the context makes me thinkg "I.C." elsewhere is "Invalid Corps."] Soldiers begin to canvass a little for the next president. I think Lincoln is sure to be reelected. Soldiers take much less interest in politics than could be expected, say very little in regard to elections. This is not the effect of regulations, but they are not stirred up by firey speech makers and, although they keep better posted than if at home, they say little.
Day clear & cold.
Crosby, our former Chief Clerk, is going on duty in the Provost Marshal General's office. Sergeant Beaugureau takes his place. I received a letter from Sherman Crandall. He is at Alfred Centre College. I rather think he is a little in love. I also got a letter from Bill LaForge. According to his report. he is the most happy mortal alive. Takes solid comfort [and] advises me to get married.
Saturday February 20th 1864
Day warmer than yesterday but still very cold.
Day still warmer. Bery pleasant walking without an overcoat. Sergeant Beaugureau and I went nearly out to Balls Cross Roads. I finished reading the 1st Volume of Sir Walter Scott's poetry. "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" is very good, but I do not like him as well as Byron which [I] have just got and am now reading.
Day warm and pleasant. I received a letter from Miss Anne S. Porter of Swampscott Massachusetts, an unknown correspondent. She writes a very pretty letter indeed.
This P.M. Sergeant Beaugureau and myself got an ambulance & went over to Washington. While on the bridge, a train of cars came along and frightened a couple of four horse government teams. One of them got turned halfway round on the bridge and commenced backing aganst the railing which was rotten and gave way, and over they went into the river. That is: wagon and pole horses. The leaders broke loose just as the others went over the side. The driver found they were sure to go and jumped out on the bridge but got tangled in the lines and was pulled off on top of all the rest. He was rescued pretty badly hurt, but not dangerously. The horses drowned, of course.
We went and got our pass countersigned by the Pro[vost] Mar[shall] then came down to Willard's Hotel and told the driver to come back to camp. We went up to the "Sanitary Faire" at the "Patent office." It was closed, so we went down to a saloon, had a game of billiards, then secured seats in the Orchestra at "Grovers Theatre” and got our suppers. Had a good talk on politics and went up to the play, which was "Ruy Blas" written by Victor Hugo. Young Boothe was Ruy, "C. Barrow" was Don Salustio. The only part badly played was the Princess Maria of Neubourge, Queen elect of Spain. Miss A. Placide took the charactor and I must say did not aquit herself with much honor. I concluded with the farce of "The Irish Tutor” (T.I. Donnelly). It was impossible to resist the desire to laugh at him. I laughed till my sides ached. We walked home. A very pleasant night, but that does not prevent my being tired and sleepy notwithstanding enjoying myself so well.
[Note: As best I can determine based on some superficial research, "Young Booth" here is Edwin Booth. "Young" to distinguish from his father, for his brother John WIlkes Booth was younger than Edwin. And purely in the "small world" department, my girlfriend Lauri had a long stint as house manager of the Booth Theater, which was named in Edwin Booth's honor. At some point I may put together an index of all the theatrical and literary references in Abiel's records.]
Wednesday February 24th 1864
Day warm and pleasant. I feel rather tired tonight somehow. Today a woman dressed up in soldiers clothes, who had been in camp two days, attempted to follow her husband to the front. She came with him from the hospital and wanted to follow him wherever he went. When they got down to Alexandria, Major Wood Assistant Pro[vost] Mar[shall], Army of the Potomac would not let her go any farther but sent her back to camp. Colonel McKelvy pitied her. She was such an interesting little thing, so he took her down to Mrs McDonnald's, who keeps a boarding house in camp, and put her to work there until she wishes to change her garb and go home. Her husband's name is Philips and hers [blank space]. A very good looking girl. I received a letter from my sister today. All well. Very cold weather for a couple of weeks back, getting warmer.
[enclosed letter about above case]
Office Assistant Provost Marshal General
Army Potomac, Alexandria
February 24th 1864
Lieutenat Cololel Samuel McKelvy
Comding Rendezvous Distribution
I send back to your camp, by the bearer, a woman who came in with the detachment of convalescents this morning, dressed in soldiers clothes. She claims to be the wife of Private V?. B. Phillips 140th Penna. Vols.
Your Obedient Servant
Major 17th ......
Assistant Provost Marshal General
February 26th 1864
Day clear and warm.
Received a letter from father. Mary is somewhat sick. [Samuel’s third wife was expecting a child] Prices high. Wends [probably an editorial typo: sends] me a list and requests me to send him a list of prices here. Weather rather milder than it was, but once this winter it was intensely cold.
Saturday February 27th 1864
Day warm and pleasant.
An order came from the War Department today for me to be returned to duty with the regiment. Col McKelvy wanted to know if I belonged to the Invalid Corps. I told him I was not nor did not want to be. He said I had better see Mrs Thayer and hurry up my commission. I told him I thought my best plan was to go to the regiment and wait for it. Well, said he, if you think that is the best plan, you had better go. I saw I had slightly offended him in thinking different from him, but I had only given expression to my honest feelings. So at my request the paper was endorsed that I would be sent at the first opportunity.
I received a letter from O.L. Barney. He has returned from New York city and is now at home. He had a fine time attending lectures. I should judge he is a pretty good doctor by this time. He is as great a lover of the female sex as ever I should judge. I know I should have objections to employing him for my female friends if I had any until he is a fiew years older.
Head Quarters Rendezvous of Distribution VA February 28th 1864
I have just finished a letter to father, and as my hand is in I think this is my best oppertunaty to answer your short but kind letter of February 13th & 18th 1864. Now I tell you I don't approve of your writing on such small paper. You should use a sheet like this and put in all the local news, and then you may devote about half of a page to scolding me, but not without. You see if you write on such small paper and devote a little of it to a little well-merited scolding, why by the time you are done you have no room to write any more. And that makes me feel bad without doing one any good. Whereas if you used a large sheet it would make me feel so good reading the rest of the letter that I would swallow the advice like a bait, and the first thing you would know, I would fetch myself up with a hook in my nose and give myself a regular going over about my bad habits, and all on account of the long letter.
Seriously, however sister, I thank you for your caution for although there is no great danger of my becoming a drunkard or great smoker, still your kind advice shows me that my sister loves me more than any other earthly being "except Josey" and you may be sure your advice and warning falls not on closed ears or obstinate heart. I have not smoked since the 2nd inst[ance]. I made a compact in a joke with one of the boys that I would not smoke again this month and although made in jest my word is sacredly kept.
I was over to Washington a few days ago and stayed till after midnight. I went to "Grovers Theater" and saw Victor Hugo's celebrated play of "Ruy Blas". The star actor young Edwin Boothe plays "Ruy" and played it well. I saw him play "Richard III" (Shakespeare's) while I was in Boston, but the house was so crowded in Boston that I could not enjoy it much. But at "Grovers" I secured a splendid seat in the "Orchestra" where I could be at my ease and at the same time see and hear everything going on on the stage.
After the first play, we had a finishing tuch[?} called "The Screaming farce" or "Irish assurance and Yankee modesty." This was such an intensely amusing play that I fairly made myself sick laughing so much my sides have been sore ever since with the effects of it. But the finest part of the whole thing was we had to walk back after the whole thing to camp. The ambulance which took Sergeant Beaugureau (Chief Clerk of Camp) and myself over to Washington could not stay, as we had forgotten to get a pass for it to stay all the evening, and it had to return to camp before the countersign was out. The walk was most delightful, however. The moon shone brightly. The air was as balmy as spring, the road dry and hard, and we are the best friends in the world. So you see we had every thing to make our walk agreable and so it was.
It is very dusty indeed now, over in Washington. When the wind blows, it raises such clouds of dust that a person can hardly see. And here too it comes sweeping down across our parade ground sometimes, so it look like the picture of a storm of sand we see in some geography. We are willing to put up with the dust, however, when in exchange for it we have such beautiful weather. The air is warm and has that hazy appearence peculiar to the skies of "Indian Summer." The hills two or three miles off look so blue and soft that it makes me wish to go and roll down their sleepy looking sides. The river flows by in the distance and its glassy surface reflects only the still bluer sky. All nature seems at peace and only men in discord. Why is it we cannot remain at peace also? An answer is too ready. Traitors have attcked our free institutions. Our mother is in danger and her sons fly to her rescue. God cannot be angry with us when we [are] fighting in such a sacred cause, though shame it seems to desecrate his beautiful earth with the foul scenes of carnage which are the necessary concomitants of War.
The colonel of the 85th has sent for me to come back to the regiment, as I will have to go or go into the Invalid Corps, which I hate to do. I have some notion of going, but I will think of it for two or three weeks first.
What do you think of our little paper "The Soldiers Journey" of which I have sent you a couple of copies? It is all done at camp from composing the articles to working the press and all done by soldiers too. I feel proud of it, dont you?
Please give lots of love to all for me, for I have a large stock on hand, and believe me ever
Your loving brother
P.S. I received those socks all safe for which receive my thanks I beg pardon for not acknowledging their receipt before. thought I had done it. Yours, LaF
February 29th 1864
Day warm and pleasant, as also was yesterday. I answered father's letter last night and my sister's also. Today we were mustered for pay for January & February. Will not probably until the last of the month. We did not last pay time.