Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Pennsylvania Reserves in Northern Virginia 1863, Part IV: Daily Life in the Department of Washington

Today's post marks the final installment in my series on the Pennsylvania Reserves in Northern Virginia during the first half of 1863. The veteran division from the Keystone State arrived in Alexandria at the start of February 1863. The Union Army had sent the men to the Department of Washington to rest and recruit away from the front lines. As I wrote last week, the Reserves spent a lot of time on picket, fatigue, and guard duty. The constant threat of attacks by Confederate guerrillas made the work a little less than pleasant, but the men otherwise settled into the daily routine of camp life.

The weather proved uncooperative during the Reserves' first few months in Northern Virginia. As Richard Woolworth of the 4th Pennsylvania Reserves told his sister on March 22, "[s]now, hail, rain and sunshine alternately make the walking very disagreeable. We have been hoping for a change for the better but have been disappointed." A regimental history of the Bucktails recalled:
The winter. . . was remarkably severe, snow alternating with heavy rain making things generally uncomfortable. Even as late as March 31st, eighteen inches of snow were recorded; nor was this the last fall, as on April 5th, another heavy snow storm obstructed the camp. (Thomson & Rauch 245.)
All of the wet weather made for hard marching. The 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves broke camp on March 28 and headed for Fairfax Station. The distance was just four miles, but constant downpours had turned the road into a nearly impassable mess. The men "plunged through the mud up to their knees" and labored for several hours to reach their destination. (Woodward 256.) Towards the end of April, the weather began to show signs of improvement. Americus Murray of Co. H, 4th Pennsylvania Reserves told his cousins that on April 21, "[t]he Weather is pleasant and warm, the buds are opening, and the grass is growing very nicely, and I hope that we have had our last cold storm for this Spring."

Despite all of the miserable weather, the men reported generally healthy conditions in camp. Private Lewis Prall of Co. A, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, informed his sister on March 16, "There is not much sickness here now. There is no cases of smallpox around here. All the boys are well and lively." Woolworth of the 4th felt much the same. He noted to his sister on March 22 that "we mostly enjoy good health." Of the sixteen sick soldiers, most were "very trifling cases." One man, who appeared "very low spirited" and "home sick," was sent to his family. The Bucktails, meanwhile, suffered from an outbreak of smallpox, but "the cases were few and the disease did not spread." (Thomson & Rauch 246.)

Soldiers' letters back home testify to relatively comfortable conditions in camp. Prall of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves told his sister in March:
We have a good tent with a large fireplace in it and have six woolen blankets over us. We sleep warm at night. We get plenty to eat. We get fresh bread 3 times a week, also fresh beef besides sugar, coffee, crackers, rice, beans, salt pork, salt beef, and several other things. We have plenty to wear and will soon have plenty of money – we expect to get paid this week.
Sgt. Thomas Dick, Co. A, 12th Pennsylvania Reserves wrote to his brother on March 6 that "[w]e have comfortable quarters plenty of soft br[ea]d fresh beef and other things in proportion." Family members also supplemented the soldiers' victuals with packages from home. At the end of March, Prall "went to Alexandria to the express office and brought up 21 boxes for the regiment," including his own. The contents of Prall's package were "in good order" and "nothing was spoiled, except two or three pies was a little moldy."

Camp of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves (30th Pennsylvania Infantry) near Fairfax Court House, June 1863 (courtesy of; information on photo from MOLLUS-Massachusetts Civil War Photographs, U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center). 
Like all soldiers, the men of the Pennsylvania Reserves found a variety of ways to pass their down time in camp. Reading and letter writing were popular. The soldiers also bet their paychecks on card games like poker. Prall turned to a more productive past time and whittled rings from wood to send to his mother and little sister. Col. Charles Taylor of the Bucktails, who would soon fall at Gettysburg, sponsored a target shooting contest and offered a fifty cent prize to the winner. Some of the Reserves spent their free time playing baseball. Sgt. Dick of the 12th Reserves seemed rushed to finish a letter to his sister so he could enjoy the weather and check out the friendly athletic competition:
For it is such a beautiful day outside, that I can scarcely content myself to remain indoors while I write it. I can hear the loud shouts of the boys who are engaged at a game of ball while I write.
Some soldiers also took advantage of the proximity of the nation's capital. Murray of the 4th Reserves wrote to his cousins of an April trip to Washington City:
I have been in Washington to day and visited some places of interest. It is a grand sight to go over the Capitol grounds and view that noble structure, which is not yet finished, and will not be for a number of years yet. The Capitol is built of marble, and when completed will be one of the finest buildings in the world. The Capitol grounds are at present covered with a growth of fresh green grass; the parks contain a great variety of trees and shrubs, which are just putting forth their green leaves. The avenues and promenades are bordered by a great variety of flowers, many of which are already in full blossom.
A wartime view of Washington showing the unfinished Capitol dome and Trinity Episcopal Church, c. 1863 (courtesy of The Atlantic). Such sights awaited the men of the Pennsylvania Reserves who visited Washington City.
Camp life also provided time for quiet reflection. Sgt. Dick spoke for many in the Reserves when he wrote to his brother on March 6 about the sacrifices of the past year:
Our company presents quite a different appearance now to what it did when we were here before It is but a skeleton of its former self. We now draw rations for over 40 men. how does that compare with last winter when we drew rations for over 90 men; and the missing where are they? The bones of some of them black in the blood stained soil of the peninsula: Some of them repose on the disastrous plains of manasses; While others who fell at south mountain and antietam received a decent burial in the faithful old state of Maryland. I thought I had done. But others yet who perished at Fredericksburg go to swell the number in the graveyard of Virginia. There are others still who may be classed among the missing of Co H. some of them are languishing in the hospitals that have become so common in our land and others I suppose you see almost daily: some with their arms hangings powerless by their sides; and others with their limbs bent in an uncomely shape. and some with an empty coat sleeve that shows to plainly that they were members of the glorious old reserve.
Dick was all too aware of the toll that the war had taken. As he and the other soldiers continued their duty in front of Washington, an even bigger fight loomed on the horizon. Before long, many of these same men would be marching off to defend their home soil against Robert E. Lee's Confederates.


Ltr. from Thomas Dick to Brother, Mar. 6, 1863; Ltr. from Thomas Dick to Sister, Mar. 25, 1863; Ltr. from Americus Murray to Cousins, Apr. 19, 1863; Ltr. from Lewis Prall to Sister, March 16, 1863; Ltr. from Lewis Prall to Unknown (likely Sister), Apr. 1, 1863; Ltr. from Richard Woolworth to Sister, Mar. 22, 1863; O.R. Howard Thomson & William H. Rauch, History of the "Bucktails" (1906); Evan M. Woodward, Our Campaigns (1865).

Spelling and grammar are as in the original letters.

I would like to thank the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps Historical Society for publishing all of the letters referenced in this post. This group is doing invaluable work to preserve the story of the Reserves. Please check out the society's website and lend your support.

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