Thursday, December 11, 2014

Life in Camp

     Though our first thoughts of Civil War soldiers are probably of them in battle, the reality is that they spent much more time in camp than in battles.  So, in addition to their uniforms and weapons, they needed items for life in camp.  At the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, we have an exhibit which is dedicated to these items.  Let’s take a look at some of the things from the Everyday Life of a Soldier exhibit. 

This display contains some typical items which would have been used by the soldiers in camp.  Many of them were probably brought from home, but others could have been sent by their families, or even purchased from the sutlers that followed the armies.

Most of the soldiers were far from their homes, so it is not surprising that many of them carried pictures of their families.  Though the little girl in this carte-de-visite is not identified, no doubt she had a proud father who carried her picture.  CDV on loan from the collection of Robert Gearinger.

Soldiers often wrote letters while in camp, and looked forward to receiving letters from home as well.  This letter was written by J.B. Foster from a camp near Fredericksburg to his brother in Rhode Island.  In this letter he asks for money, socks, and medicine for dysentery.  Diarrhea and dysentery were unfortunate parts of camp life as well, but I’ll save that topic for another post!  Letter on loan from the collection of Mark Quattrock.

Civil War soldiers usually only had one uniform, though sometimes they had extra clothing items from home, like these socks.  Their clothes took a lot of wear, so another item commonly found in camp was a “housewife,” or small sewing kit, for repairing their clothes.  You can read more about these kits here.  Socks on loan from the collection of Gordon Dammann.

Soldiers in camp used candles or small oil lamps for light at night.  Do you recognize the candle holder here?  Bayonets were very useful items to have in camp.  They could be stuck into the ground and used as a candle holder, or as a tent stake, or for picketing a horse.  They made a good pry bar, knife, can opener, or even a meat spit.  Bayonets were really the Civil War version of a multi-tool!

Camp life could be boring, and reading a newspaper, book, or Bible was a common pastime.  Some soldiers even kept diaries of their time in service.  This is a diary kept by a surgeon – you can read more about it here.  Diary on loan from the collection of Cathie Deadrick.

Soldiers also needed personal care items with them in camp. Shown here are a small mirror, a shaving mug and brush, a straight razor and strop, a small comb, and a washbasin.  Pictured artifacts on loan from the collection of Gordon Dammann.

Other camp pastimes including smoking and drinking.  Cigarettes were not very common; cigars and pipes were the most popular form of smoking at the time.  Alcohol was usually not allowed in camp, but often the men found ways around this restriction!  Pictured above are a ginger beer bottle, whiskey flask, a twist of leaf tobacco, two cigars, and a pipe.

     I hope you’ve enjoyed this small glimpse into the camp life of Civil War soldiers!    

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Hokies in a Museum

     This recent Thanksgiving holiday was quite busy for me.  In addition to spending time with friends and family for the traditional dinner, I also took a trip back to my alma mater, Virginia Tech, to attend the big football against the University of Virginia.  If you are not familiar with these colleges, they are big rivals.  If you are not familiar with college football, Virginia Tech has beaten UVA in the big rivalry game for the past ten years.

It was a cold night for being in an outdoor stadium, but I was glad to see our winning streak extended to eleven years!  Go Hokies!  But it turned out that I found some other Virginia Tech connections after the game.   Image from 

Normally on our trips I’m the one who finds museums to visit.  However, on our trip home my husband took us to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, Virginia.  This building was formerly the Norfolk and Western Freight Station, so even though the museum deals with many forms of transportation, it has a lot of trains.  For a rail fan and former train dispatcher like my husband, it is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon!

     Once inside, we headed to the showing of a short movie about the 611 steam locomotive, and a presentation by a very informative and animated docent.  Afterwards, my husband and the docent, who turned out to be a former train conductor, started talking and comparing past train careers.  I was eager to see the exhibits, so I wandered away to the galleries.  

The largest “gallery” is the outdoor display of train engines and cars.  You could easily spend the entire time looking through everything on display out here! 

Storing large artifacts, like this train car, outside presents some challenges which I am glad I don’t have to deal with at my museum!

It’s not all trains though.  There are many other modes of transportation on display.

Back inside the museum, I found a display which compared pistons from various engines.

I also found that the automobile section was pretty popular.

Back to the Future, anyone?!

Look what else I found – a robotic car built by Virginia Tech students!  In November 2007, this self-driving car called Odin placed third in a 60 mile Urban Challenge race.  According to the label, computers control Odin's throttle, brake, steering, and shifting while relying on input from cameras, laser sensors, and a GPS system.

     I wanted to show my husband the robotic car, so I hurried back to where I had left him, expecting to find him still discussing trains.  Instead, he found me and excitedly told me that he’d just gotten a behind-the-scenes tour of some train items.  A behind-the-scenes tour – and I love getting to see the artifacts that aren't out on display.  I’d missed it; guess I shouldn’t have left.

This is one item I didn’t get to see in person, an old US&S CTC machine used in dispatching trains.  Notice that this one controlled the trains which ran through Antietam – not far from the Pry House Field Hospital Museum!

In addition to the full-sized trains, there is a large model train display.  I liked that they placed some viewing windows down low for the kids.

In fact, many of the displays were good for kids (and Hokie fans) of all ages!

In the aviation section, I finally found a Civil War connection – a model of the gas balloon, or aerostat, Enterprise. 

     The Enterprise was built by Thaddeus Lowe, and was part of Lowe's plan for a transatlantic flight.  In April of 1861, he took it on a test flight from Cincinnati, bound for Washington D.C.  He instead landed in Unionville, South Carolina, where he was promptly captured and accused of being a Union spy!  He was ultimately able to convince his captors that he was on a scientific mission, and was released and sent home.  He then offered the use of his balloons for reconnaissance to the Union Army.  The Enterprise was used to observe the Battle of First Bull Run, and paved the way for the use of balloons in the Civil War.

     You never know what kinds of connections you will find when visiting different museums.  Just don’t wander away from your group or you might miss something!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Few More Missing Soldiers Office Artifacts

     This weekend I took some artifacts out to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in Washington DC.  While we do have the space open to the public on weekends, we’re still raising funds for display cases and a security system for the building.  Until then, we cannot put any long-term artifact displays there.  I was able to take a few artifacts out for a specific tour though. 

     A group of teachers from around the country came to the CBMSO with a tour from Brightspark Travel. On their tour they heard about Clara Barton’s life in Washington DC, and her work in forming the Missing Soldiers Office.

Here, Tom tells some of our visitors about Clara Barton’s private room. 

We also now have an area for our visitors to take selfies – complete with a writing desk similar to the type Clara Barton would have used, reproductions of the Missing Soldiers Office forms she sent out to families, and a life-sized cut-out of Clara!

     The members of the tour were also able to view a few of the artifacts which were found in the building.  The teachers on the tour seemed very interested in them, and I enjoyed being able to tell them a little more about the artifacts.

     All the items I took to display were found in the building – most of them packed in boxes in the attic.  Some of the boxes contained items which belonged to Clara Barton, while other boxes belonged to her friend and landlord, Edward Shaw.   

On display were a portfolio of envelopes from a writing set, a man’s slipper; the original tin sign Clara Barton posted on the front of this building to advertise her Missing Soldiers Office; a bent Enfield rifle bayonet which could have been used as a pry bar or could have been part of her relic collection from Andersonville Prison; and two socks which she was probably having mended to send back out to the soldiers.

Here you can also see a small steel sewing thimble and a portion of conserved gas line from the building.  Also on display was a panel from a wooden crate, addressed to the Commissioner of Patents.  On the opposite side it is labeled "Shaw", with the address, "488 1/2 7th St. over Steens." It is likely that Clara reused such crates to send supplies to the soldiers on the battlefields.

     The artifact display was quite popular!  I’m looking forward to the time when we can have artifacts on display out there more permanently!  In the meantime, the CBMSO will be closed starting November 24, 2014 through January 15, 2015 and will reopen on January 16th.  We’re also planning a re-dedication of the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in the spring of 2015.  I hope you can come out for a visit!  

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.