Re-enactor shares tale of Civil War soldier
PIPESTONE -- With the biennial Civil War Days event planned in Pipestone this summer, the Pipestone County Historical Society invited a Civil War re-enactor to speak at its annual meeting Saturday at the Calumet Inn.
Bill Hoskins has spent the past 23 years doing re-enactments of Civil War battles across the country. In addition to working at the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls, S.D., he speaks to civic organizations and shares his knowledge of the Civil War with school children in the region.
On Saturday, Hoskins detailed the life of a Civil War soldier before a gathering of nearly 50 people. Dressed in wool pants and a long-sleeve wool shirt that was the official uniform of a soldier, he talked of how men and boys -- from grandfathers to grandsons -- went off to battle.
"Legally, you were supposed to be 18 to join the U.S. Army," he said. However, boys as young as 14 fought in the Civil War between April 1861 and June 1865.
Telling a lie to the government was frowned upon, so those underage would often write "18" on a sheet of paper and place it in the bottom of their shoe so they could technically say they were "over 18," Hoskins shared.
Many of them had signed up for the duration of the war, but as Hoskins shared in his presentation, the life of a Civil War soldier was difficult, at best.
The U.S. Army provided its Union soldiers with clothing -- woolen garments, underpants, leather booties, caps and overcoats. They were armed, some with training and some not, paid, and given food and shelter.
A private made roughly $13 per month in 1861, but that grew to $18 per month a few years later.
With the expense of food, weapons and ammunition, clothing and shelter, the U.S. Army grew short of money by 1862. As a result, the federal government began printing its own money.
The greenbacks, as they were called by the troops, were essentially a promissory note from the federal government, said Hoskins. Printed in green ink, the paper money contained the words, "Federal Reserve Note," a phrase still printed on bills today.
Another phrase dating back to the Civil War years is pup tent, he said. The tents, adapted from the shelter tent used by the French Army, were "big enough for a puppy, but not for a dog," said Hoskins after relating a story about a soldier who crawled in his tent one night and began barking like a dog. Soon enough, the entire group of soldiers followed suit.
The tents were used when the soldiers were away from the more comfortable barracks. The less-than-ideal sleeping conditions of soldiers on the battlefield were coupled with the less-than-appealing food they were served.
"As a soldier, you were entitled to one ration a day," said Hoskins, adding that it included bread, meat, beans or rice and maybe some coffee.
Out in the field, the men were given hard bread, called hard tack, he said. The government shipped the square-shaped biscuits in 100-pound boxes that may have been three months to three years old by the time it arrived to the soldiers. As for meat, they had salted beef or pork that was stored in brine tanks.
Soldiers in the forts were fed considerably better.
"Some forts had bakeries and most forts had their own beef or swine herds," Hoskins said. "You also had company gardens if you were in a fort."
Despite some of the questionable food preservation methods and the condition of food that arrived to the soldiers, Hoskins said it was the water that caused the most illness among soldiers.
"More soldiers died from bad water than were killed by bullets during the war," he said, adding that there was a common adage to "always get your water upstream from the herd."
"They didn't know boiling water killed bacteria," said Hoskins. He often tells school kids that they know more today than doctors in the Civil War knew about cleanliness.
Between sickness, battle and the elements -- an estimated 15 percent of the Union Cavalry froze to death during the harsh winters -- Hoskins said only about one-third of soldiers serving in a company survived the first year of battle.
"Some of the nastiest fights in the war were Union boys trying to take a Confederate flag and Confederate boys trying to take a Union flag," he said.
The Civil War re-enactment planned at Pipestone this summer is not based on any particular battle during the Civil War. Instead, it offers the public a chance to view soldiers in period attire and watch as weapons of that era are fired.
Pipestone's Civil War Days are slated for Aug. 14-15.