Of Boxes and Balls

A curious coincidence or deliberate deprivation of enlisted men to benefit the officers, you be the judge. On February 20th, 1864, Capt. Samuel Fiske (Co. G, 14th CT Vol. Inf.) wrote a lengthy letter to his readers about the regular practice of the provost marshals (military police) of opening boxes from home addressed to enlisted men. “The provost department is truly paternal in the affectionate interest it displays in the boxes which are sent on by express to the dear boys, lest they should contain liquors whereby said privates should be tempted to intoxication, to the injury of the morale of the army.”

Fiske went on to describe in great detail the savage handling a typical box might receive. “It is true that about half the contents of the boxes and packages get broken, spoiled, lost, injured or stolen in the opening process; everything is turned topsy-turvy, the apples, eggs, and doughnuts roll out in the dirt; pickle and jam bottles coming to pieces mingle their contents with silk handkerchiefs, flannel shirts and quires of writing paper (25 sheets), more than the taste of the donors would probably choose; the packages of tea, and the pepper boxes, and the saleratus (baking soda), and the ink bottle got into one mangled compound, and it becomes difficult to tell which is cowhide boots and which is mince pie, by the time the lid is finally pressed back to its place by some strong knee and fastened by nails, one of which passes through the toe of a slipper that didn’t get in quite quickly enough, and another ruins a vest that mother’s hands had made to keep her boy warm in this cold winter weather.”

Many of the boxes were delivered with more than half their contents missing and some were entirely empty. “But,” wrote Fiske, “it was a great consolation to reflect that they now certainly couldn’t get drunk on the contents.”

“But I have become more enlightened now,” he went on, “and can take wider views, having frequently heard the remark made, ‘Well, it would be a great deal better if these privates didn’t get any boxes from home. Uncle Sam provides for them well enough.’ At this stage in the conversation I have noticed that the bottle is usually passed, and they take another drink and a slice of ‘that pudding.'”

Fiske’s very next letter, dated February 26th, described a grand ball thrown by the officers of the Second Corps on Feb. 22nd in honor of George Washington’s birthday. A new 7,500 square foot ballroom was built for the occasion near Brandy Station. The best food and drink was consumed in abundance. Officers danced with their wives and other ladies who were in attendance. The picture below was originally sketched by artist Edwin Forbes and may be found at the Library of Congress (click on the picture). It clearly shows the splendor of the event; check out the chandeliers and flags. I just hope it wasn’t at the expense of the grunts on the picket line. But like I said at the start of this post—you be the judge.



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