The Veteran Soldier: Regular and Lousy

The six weeks at Bolivar Heights was hard and sometimes deadly for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut. Fresh water could be found at a spring about three-quarters of a mile away, but only after climbing down a steep, rocky, and wooded trail. Rations were issued regularly, but the quality was poor. Railroad cars filled with barrels of salt pork, crates of hardtack, and sacks of oats and corn, were sent to the army in the vicinity of Harper’s Ferry, but the food was often left by the side of the tracks. It turned rancid in the heat of day. It was soaked by cold rain, ruined by mold and mildew, and infested with insects. Disease swept through the camp, confining hundreds to sickbeds, and sending many to their graves.

But the men adapted to survive. They learned to soak their hardtack in their coffee. The coffee not only softened the hardtack, but also killed any bugs hiding within it. The dead bugs floated to the top and were easily skimmed off.

Sgt. Ben Hirst’s good fortune in having a Sibley tent for himself and some of his friends seems not to have been long-lived (see post of 09/28/12), because near the end of the stay at Bolivar, he mentions only a half shelter tent among his inventory of meager possessions. “My whole kit was the shoes, pants, vest blouse, and cap I had in Hartford. I had 2 shirts on my back, a stolen overcoat, and was a shareholder in a Rebel blanket, a fine assortment for a winter campaign, but there were other ones worse off than me, as they were without overcoats and blankets both, all we had at night was a flimsy shelter tent.”

On October 27, Hirst wrote to his wife Sarah, “I am in good health at present and have arrived at the stage that old soldiers consider veteran, namely regular in my bowels and lousy.” Old soldiers were old in terms of experience, not of years. His stomach now seems to tolerate the poor diet, and when Ben Hirst describes himself as lousy, he is not referring to how he’s feeling, but that he is now infested with body lice. He and every Civil War soldier would do battle with these vermin more often than they would fight the enemy on the battlefield. Cute little guy, isn’t he?  body_louse


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