By Elizabeth Hoole McArthur Dalton 150th Civil War Commission
“Soldiering,” declared one Civil War infantryman, “is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror.”
During the fall of 1863 the Confederates of the Army of Tennessee saw their share of terror in the battles for Chattanooga. When they arrived in Dalton in late November they were defeated, disheartened and demoralized. One soldier reported, “Desertions were increasing alarmingly. The men were in rags and half starved. Even guns and accouterments were needed. The winter was upon us with all of its severity.”
But when Gen. Joseph Johnston was named commander in December, he addressed these problems, granting much-needed furloughs, providing clothes, shoes and rations, and instituting fair discipline and high standards. Pride and confidence eventually returned, and morale rose. There was still much work to be done (part of the 99 percent boredom), but after that, soldiers eagerly sprang for some rest and relaxation.
With a civilian population of only about 3,000, Dalton offered few leisure activities to an army of 40,000 and growing. But these soldiers were clever and resourceful, and lost no time in devising fun, frolic and frivolity. Some was wholesome, some mischievous, and some (not surprisingly) prohibited.
Soldiers spent much of their time writing letters to family and friends, or keeping journals or diaries — their primary means of sharing feelings, concerns and experiences. In response, they anxiously awaited mail from home, with news, affection and (being uncensored) military information. Soldiers read and reread letters, and jealously protected these fragile links to their prewar lives.
The military equivalent of the family hearth was the comforting campfire. “At night,” wrote Dalton resident Emma Love Thompson, “the surrounding hills were covered by thousands of camp fires.” “Camp life is not so horrible as one might suppose,” wrote one soldier in Dalton. “(The soldiers) assemble around the roaring log fires ... some to talk of the gay times they will have ‘when this cruel war is over,’ to recount their adventures and hardships in former campaigns, and to speculate on those to be made in the future; and ... to talk of their faraway homes.”
Soldiers read any printed material available. Twenty-five-cent thrillers, dime novels and classics were popular, though the best-loved book by far was the Bible. Periodicals were always welcome, like the Southern Literary Messenger and Field and Fireside, but newspapers offered the best window to the outside world.
One soldier lamented from Dalton: “Have not had any newspapers for a week, owing to the strike of the printers in Atlanta. I feel at a loss without the daily papers — don’t know what is going on in the world.”
Some soldiers chose more active pursuits, like wrestling, boxing matches, horseshoes, foot races, horse races, an early version of baseball, or even chasing greased pigs. Winter sports were popular when snow fell. “We had a good deal of spare time in the five months we camped at Dalton,” wrote one soldier, “because much of the time was sleeting & very rough weather.” A particularly large snow battle occurred in March, causing one participant to declare, “We have seen more fun today than at any one time during the war.”
Even military practice became exciting entertainment. Three huge sham battles were conducted; one in April was deemed the social event of the season. A grand review held the same month presented a dazzling spectacle of artillery and infantry, with rousing music and waving banners.
All soldiers loved music. “Our life in camp had its pleasant side, singing being the chief feature,” wrote a member of a singing group in Dalton. “I had a high, clear, falsetto voice, and, knowing all the popular songs of the day, I was constituted leader of the gang ... Many were the nights we sang ... and hundreds of the boys from the adjoining camps came over to hear us sing.” Favorite songs were “Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Home Sweet Home.”
The most popular musical instruments were drums, fifes, banjos, fiddles, guitars, harmonicas and bugles. Several in the Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade formed a band and glee club in Dalton, sharing their talents with fellow soldiers and performing concerts for civilian groups. “Music exercises a wonderful and inspiring influence over the soldier,” wrote a member, “making him forget the hardships, trials and dangers to which he is almost constantly exposed.”
Board games like checkers, chess and dominoes were popular, as were marbles and dice. But the favorite game (though considered evil by many) was cards — twenty-one, keno and especially poker. Cards at the time did not have numbers, just symbols or suits.
Fights and races were also staged, the favorite being cockfights. For the very bored there were louse or cockroach races. Any and all of these games and races could be played for fun, or for money. Though deemed despicable, gambling was prevalent. It was not uncommon for some soldiers to lose a month’s pay on unlucky wagers.
Despite all efforts to prevent it, drinking was rampant. According to one soldier, “Orders have been published strictly prohibiting the bringing of any whiskey into camp by the men, & Col (Martin H.) Cofer, who has been made provost marshall [sic] of the town of Dalton, has strictly prohibited the sale of liquor except for medicinal purposes.” Nevertheless, alcohol was available. One enterprising soldier managed to conceal a canteen full of whiskey in a pumpkin and sneak it into camp. It was reported that “his entire mess (dinner mates) were mellow for several days.”
Another soldier described the availability of liquor in Dalton: “On the railroad, which is the thoroughfare between camps and town, a drinking saloon is sometimes opened, in the shape of a man, with several canteens swung around his neck, who doles out the ‘pine top’ (cheap whiskey made from pine boughs) at the moderate rate of two dollars a drink. There is generally a crowd around (him).” For Christmas, some soldiers made a batch of “pine top” and became so merry they burst out singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” — totally failing to comprehend the implications of their vocal selection.
Civilians trailed all the huge armies, and the army in Dalton was no exception. These “camp followers” included photographers, soldiers’ relatives, preachers and more. Among them were sutlers, traveling merchants who sold goods not issued by the army, like tobacco, candy, tinned meats, shoelaces, medicines, cigarettes and newspapers. They were known for their steep prices and shoddy goods, but some soldiers were always willing to pay.
Also among the camp followers were women, sometimes called “fallen flowers.” Their large numbers became a problem in Dalton, as soldiers often stole food and supplies to give to them. Gen. Johnston ordered that they be located and removed, and that all women be required to furnish evidence of respectability and “honest livelihood.” Johnston’s efforts, like those of many other commanders who faced similar problems, met with limited success.
Thankfully (and for some, none too soon), a great religious revival spread through the army, reaching its height in Dalton in April. One soldier wrote, “I have never seen such a spirit as there is now in the army. ... Thirty-one men were baptized at the creek below our brigade here yesterday.” He reported even larger numbers on other days — eighty-three, sixty-five and forty. Many soldiers found much-needed spiritual salvation, and welcome compassionate fellowship, in services held by local ministers, visiting preachers and chaplains.
During the long, cold months in Dalton the Army of Tennessee rebuilt its strength and spirit as a fighting force. At the same time, the men restored their inner strength and spirit as soldiers. It is well they did. They would have many of the 1 percent incidents of sheer terror ahead in the days and months to come.