January 17 was a Sunday in 1864. How did Colonel Charles S. Wainwright spend this Sunday during a winter encampment?
Being Sunday when no business is done at Army Headquarters, I am staying at home today, and trying to make it appear different from other days. In the first place, I went to church in the village, where I heard one of the chaplains preach a very poor sermon fifty minutes long; not a good way to induce men to attend….
The need to break up the monotony is something any soldier can relate to. In Iraq, we often referred to the situation as “Groundhog Day.” A reference, of course, which would have been lost on Wainwright.
… My other effort was more successful, being a Sunday dinner. On Friday still another box arrived from New York or I might properly say from The Meadows, for its contents consisted of long strings of sausages, pots of head-cheese, and a three-gallon can of okra soup. By looking after them myself and a constant blowing up I have managed to get “Ben” and “John” into something better than they were. “Ben” is too helped in his cooking by a great tin oven which Bergain sent me in place of a Dutch bake oven I ordered; this the darky pronounces to be “the goodest thing to back in he ever se’ed” – roast is a word unknown in his vocabulary. Dr. Heard dined with us in honor of the extra spread, which consisted of soup, turkey, potatoes, and beats; then broiled quail; finishing off with nuts, dried fruit, cake, and candy. Backed by the sherry, which we drank out of tumblers in the absence of wine glasses, it made a very respectable feed for camp.
The opulence of Wainwright’s table was mostly due to his station, of course. But similar “care packages” were supplementing many a soldier’s rations in the Federal camps. With adequate railroad lines, the Army of the Potomac did not want for sustenance.
There is a bit of contrast, considering Confederate reports from that January. Only a week earlier, General Robert E. Lee complained to President Jefferson Davis about 5,000 pounds of bacon lost in transit. “At our present rate of issue this is equal to 20,000 rations, and is intolerable.” In South Carolina, General P.G.T. Beauregard complained on January 12 that, “Troops on James Island have been several days without meat of any kind.” Both Confederate generals mentioned inefficiencies with the transportation system and commissary officials.
I know but a few of the officers at Army Headquarters well. Dr. [Jonathan] Letterman, who has proved himself such a capable surgeon-in-chief, has been relieved, a Dr. McParlin taking his place. Letterman was married not long ago, and I suppose wants to get home post where he may enjoy more of the company of his bride….
Reading Wainwright’s installment of January 17, it seems he accomplished something very difficult for any soldier, at any rank, in a theater of war – to have escaped the war, in even a small way, for a day.
(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 316; OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 1076, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 520.)