A break in the fighting

Published 8:44 pm Saturday, April 27, 2013

Part 12: The lighter side of war


By Kermit Hobbs

Special to the News-Herald

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Except for the deadly clashes with the enemy, Civil War soldiers lived a pretty dull life. As a result, they became creative in how to amuse themselves. This was no different during the Siege of Suffolk.

Henry Ingalls wrote in his diary on Friday, April 17, 1863, “(There was) considerable music in the camp to night.” And on Sunday, April 27, he wrote, “Could hear the rebs talking and laughing, and their band play.”

Soldiers from both sides enjoyed a good laugh, but their means of playing pranks or having fun sometimes stretched the limits of respectable behavior. Union soldiers often hired contrabands to sing or dance for them, or sometimes the soldiers tossed the poor frightened Negroes on blankets high into the air.

In Fort Huger, before its fall, members of the 4th Alabama Infantry found that the “abatis” — pine limbs cut and placed in front of the fort to obstruct an invader — made soft, inviting bedding for a weary infantryman.

After dark, those rebels would go over their embankment and sleep in the pine boughs. Col. Scruggs of the 4th Alabama had obtained a bundle of hay for his horse, and he laid it out to further pad his bed.

Soon, “a stray horse from a nearby artillery battery came over and began to eat the bed away from the Lt. Col. The hungry animal persisted even when Scruggs drove him away several times. To rid himself of the horse and get some sleep, Scruggs tied some of the fodder to the horse’s tail and set fire to it. The horse bolted through the ranks of sleeping men, causing a commotion and alerting the Federal artillerymen on the (opposite) bank. They opened fire upon the Alabamians, driving them back into their works. When the Alabamians learned no one was injured by the cannon fire, they enjoyed a good laugh over the incident.”

General Longstreet himself, years after the war, recalled an incident in Suffolk that particularly amused him.

“About this time the soldiers on both sides had considerable amusement over a Federal signal station that was inside our lines as we had laid them. The Union troops had some time previously trimmed up a tall pine-tree and built near the top a platform for use as a signal station, and, coming upon this, to gratify his curiosity a Confederate soldier climbed to the staging and seated himself for a leisurely view of the Federal forces inside their works. An artillerist of the other side, after allowing sufficient time to satisfy a reasonable curiosity, trained one of his rifle guns upon the platform, and sent a shell screaming and bursting too near for the comfort of the ‘man up a tree.’ As he did not care to be seen in precipitate retreat, he thought to wait a little, but a second shot admonished him that hurry, if less graceful, might be more wise than deliberate retreat. Acting under pressure of the situation, his legs, to the amusement of the men on both sides, soon brought him to safe cover. When night closed in over the belligerents this soldier went to work on a scheme by which he hoped to get even with the Yankees. He carefully constructed and equipped a full-sized man, dressed in a new suit of improved “butternut” dry-goods, and, in due form christening him “Julius Caesar,” took him to the platform, adjusted him to graceful position, and made him secure to the framework by strong cords. A little after sunrise, “Julius Caesar” was discovered by some of the Federal battery officers, who prepared for the target — so inviting to skillful practice. The new soldier sat under the hot fire with irritating indifference until the Confederates, not able to restrain their hilarity, exposed the joke by calling for “three cheers for Julius Caesar.” The other side quickly recognized the situation, and good naturedly added to ours their cheers for the old hero.”

Wednesday: Part 13 — Charge of the 99th N.Y. Infantry