Thursday, February 21, 2013

A taste of Union army fare among friends

Though not much loved, hardtack was a staple of the soldiers' diet. 
Fall, winter and spring, Jim Kinhan and Ginny Mierens put on a weekly themed lunch for senior members of South Congregational Church in Concord. As I learned this week when I was guest speaker at the lunch, theirs is a creative endeavor.

Because my topic was New Hampshire in the Civil War, Ginny made a meal consisting of foods the soldiers ate: hardtack, old-fashioned mac and cheese, ham and apples, cucumbers cooked in a gravy of vinegar, fat, onions and flour, and a cabbage seasoned with tomatoes, onions and rendered salt pork. (The "tack" in hardtack, by the way, is British naval slang for "food"; the "hard," as we learned, needs no explanation.)

Ginny made strong coffee, enriched with chicory, and for dessert we had gingerbread.

If the Union soldiers ate this well, someone at my table remarked, no wonder the North won the war.

Edward E. Sturtevant
This group was the perfect audience for my talk. It happens that the first volunteer from New Hampshire, Capt. Edward E. Sturtevant, brought several of his recruits to South Congregational Church on the Sunday after President Lincoln’s call for the first 75,000 northern troops of the war.

Henry E. Parker, the pastor, noted their presence from the pulpit. He had been at the church for 11 years by then and had witnessed many scenes of personal and even public grief. But, he said, the tears he saw in his congregation this day sprang from “emotions the like to which were never felt here.”

The 40-year-old Parker went to war two months later as chaplain of the Second New Hampshire Volunteers. Sturtevant served out his three months with the First and then joined the Fifth. Both are important characters in Our War, and it was fun to weave their back stories together in my talk.

The two left behind many rich letters about their experiences before and during the war. Parker’s letters are available in an impressive web archive assembled by Lawrence Brown.

Here are two letters from that archive, both written by Franklin Pierce. Before his presidency, Pierce served on the South Church pastor search committee that called Henry E. Parker.

Henry E. Parker
In the first letter, written three months before the war opened, it is easy to see the pro-southern sympathies that made Pierce a target of Republicans. The “Clay” he refers to is Clement Claiborne Clay, a U.S. senator from Alabama who resigned his seat in January 1861.

Andover Mass
Jany 23, 1861

My Dear Sir—
I return here – with Mr Clay’s pleasant letter, which Mrs Pierce read with satisfaction. I did not write to him – Indeed I had no heart to do so. The telegraphic column Monday morning announced the retirement from the Senate of the Senators from Alabama, Missi, & Florida. To us, the departure of Gov. Fitzpatrick, Gov. Davis, Mr. Clay & Mr. Mallory was one of the most painful steps of this fearful march. They were all sincere, union loving men and feel, with their constituents, that they have been driven out by long continued aggression and vituperative assault, on the part of those from whom they had a right to expect fair dealing, if not paternal regard. It would be a great mistake to receive the fact that some of them retired in tears as evidence of weakness or selfish apprehension. Few men of truer patriotism, more varied learning or higher statesmanship have ever filled the vacated seats. Besides this so far as Mrs Pierce and myself are concerned they were our tried esteemed personal friends. The gun-powder talk and military preparations at the North are producing their natural results in the border slave labor states. I presume you have seen the slip which I clip from one of the evening papers. My cough continues to be more or less troublesome and wearing but I think it will pass away in a few days.

With Kindest regards to Mrs. Parker & the children

Yr. friend
Franklin Pierce

This second letter was written three days after the first Bull Run battle. Chaplain Parker took care of many wounded men on the field that day, but for all the carnage he witnessed, he was even more dismayed by the Union army’s headlong retreat to Washington. The Col. Marston mentioned in the Pierce letter is Gilman Marston, the congressman who commanded the Second New Hampshire. He was shot in the shoulder during the battle but recovered. Most of Parker’s  letters about his war experience were written to his wife Mary. The Parkers had a one-year-old son.

July 24, 1861

My Dear Sir—
The accounts yesterday and the day before would seem to indicate that the return of the Federal Army from Bull’s Run to Washington was unexpected and rapid. I hope it was not too much for your rather delicate health and that this new phase of life may on the whole rather contribute to physical vigor than otherwise. I was glad to see by the telegram yrday that Colo’ Marston's wound is less severe than was at first supposed. Will you present my kind regards to him –

I made a pleasant call on Mrs Parker, yesterday – She was looking well, but the little boy has been suffering a good deal from teething – but I should not give you domestic items as Mrs P. intended to write last evening or today. Have you met Dr Gurly and Dr Sunderland or either of them at Washington? I have great respect for them both and if you see them I wish you would present me to them most kindly –

Yr. friend
Franklin Pierce

Thanks to Jim and Ginny for setting up such a great event. And thanks to the South Church audience for your interest and good questions.

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