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William R. Townsend Civil War Diary: Camp Life

EXCERPTS from the Civil War diary of William R. Townsend, 42nd Illinois Infantry, Co. E -- plus contextual narrative.

Camp Life

            Toward the end of May, 1863, William Townsend resumed his position as a Captain in the 42nd IL Infantry after having been paroled from Libby Prison in April when his diary begins.  In the interim he went home on furlough and became engaged to a girl named Sarah Fitch.  The entries below are typical of Townsend’s routine, relating daily duties, the weather, health, pay, etc.:

May 23, 1863 “Arrived at camp . . .  found 42nd Regt all O.K.   my boys all right and glad to see me   found several letters from Sarah and two or three from home”


May 24, 1863 “Wrote to Sarah No 6   Wrote to Sister Mollie   was presented with a beautiful sword & belt by the members of my company this morning . . .”


May 26, 1863 “Took command of Co this morning and went on Picket [ a detachment of soldiers serving to guard an army from surprise attack]”


May 28, 1863 “Wrote to Sarah No 7   worked on my Returns [regimental paperwork] of last fall”


May 29, 1863 “Went out in Salem Pike to do out Post duty   our Brigade all went out   took our dog tents [slang for small tent, usually two-man]”


May 30, 1863 “Went on Out Post this morning   we have to go on every other day while we stay out   letter from Sarah”


June 7, 1863 “Had Co Inspection this morning   there was about 30 of the boys of the Regt out today   Wrote Sarah No 10    have Dress Parade this Eve   are still under marching orders”


June 11, 1863 “Had Brigade drill today in the morning   Co drill this afternoon   rained in the middle of the day   wrote to Sister Mollie  also to Sarah No 11    Also had Montgomery write a lawyer at Springfield about my recruiting  money . . .  if I can get it it will be a good thing   about two hundred dollars”


 June 13, 1863 “No Drill this morning   was detailed as Officer of the Day   had charge of about one hundred to do police duty   had a xxx of the Brigade this afternoon   very hot   four Officers of our Regt fainted     several of the other Regts were reviewed Gen Sheriden    I expect we will go on Out Post tomorrow    no letters today”


 In the course of events, it became necessary for Union troops to parole prisoners, just as Captain Townsend had been paroled earlier:

June 5, 1863 “. . . We received an order today to send all men who have been paroled and not exchanged   15 head gone to be sent to paroled camp   I have six men to send . . .”


June 16, 1863 “I had to go into camp today to make out xxx Roll for the men we sent to the paroled camp   two of my men came back today who have been prisoners   John Ryan & George Henderson”


            Sickness was a common companion for the Civil War soldier.  Food was scarce, much of it foraged by the men, leaving them weak and susceptible to illness.  Sick soldiers had to move with the camp, march, or be left behind.  Good news from the battle lines always lifted spirits, however:


July 5, 1863 “. . . heard good news from Virginia yesterday  also from Vicksburg . . . I am quite unwell today but hope it will be nothing serious   we still hear good news from the East  hope it may all be true . . .”


July 6, 1863 “Was detailed for Picket but was not well enough to go   was quite sick all night   It rained very hard during the night  Our Regt & the 51st I V [IL Volunteers]  were detailed to go out with the train foraging  they started at Eleven oclock   I did not feel well enough so I did not go   After the Regt left the Qr. Master had orders to move his team so we packed up our duds and moved about one mile where we are going to camp  we have a very pleasant place and are moving to another camp   looks as if we did not intend to go on at once”


July 7, 1863 “Feel better this morning   the boys got some mutton and we had it for breakfast   also plenty of Black Berries   it rained a little last Eve  rained very hard to day  The Regt came in from foraging about one Oclock   awful tired   I am detailed for Picket tomorrow”


July 10, 1863 “Left camp at five Oclock   marched about seven miles and went into camp   our teams are expected up tonight with prisoners   I don’t know what we will do if they don’t come as we have not a Single Cracker   I am quite sick with the bloody Piles [chronic diarrhea] which makes me very weak   the boys have picked a good many Huckle Berries  here they are very nice . . .  went down to a creek about one mile from camp and had a good wash  . . .  some of our Boys have killed two or three Rattle snakes around here  one had 22 rattles   one of the biggest I ever seen”


The “Secesh” (Confederate or “secessionist” troops, also referred to as “Rebels”) were an ever-present threat:


July 11, 1863 “Staid on Picket today  has been very warm   the 27th went ahead to clear out the road which the Secesh filled with timber   the 22nd I V [Illinois Volunteers] went out scouting   have nothing to eat as yet only

what we beg of others  . . .  we had about third rations issued to the men   it is pretty hard getting along on such small rations   there was several men came in today from the Mountain around where they have been hid away from the Secesh  . . .”


July 14, 1863 “. . . our teams have come up from Owen Station so we have our mess chest again   I have been quite sick again today but managed to get along with the Co [company]   the Dr gave me some very strong medicine to use I pass clear blood at every passage I have [chronic diarrhea was a very common ailment during the Civil War]”


July 15, 1863 “Was quite sick all last night and this morning   the Dr has been giving me injections today and I feel easier tonight but I have kept my bed all day  have been taking medicine  the Black Berry detail brought in enough for all the boys in the Co. . . . they brought in about six or eight qts Berries   Our cook xxx found some potatoes  I also had a present  of some liver & mutton so that there is no danger of starving but the Dr says I must have milk and live on milk & Flenn porrage for a few days”


            Brief moments of beauty amid the “routine” of war . . .


July 21, 1863  “I got awful tired coming up the Mountain  it is very steep and two thousand two hundred feet high  after we got up we went out on a Point where you can look all over the valley  it is one of the grandest sights I ever beheld   Co’s F. D. & C & H were on Picket today   Atwater came back from Murfreesburo today and brought my two socks and also Muster & Pay Rolls and we are very busy making out the Rolls as the pay master will be here tomorrow and we want to be ready for him   it is an awful job without our papers, and we have to do a good deal by guess   rained very hard last night and looked like rain all morning”


            And means of respite for battle-weary soldiers . . .

 July 23, 1863 “. . .Ed has been making Blackberry wine he made about three Gal . . .” 


July 28, 1863 “. . .  made Pies today as none of our cooks knew how made about two dozen  some Black Berry  Huckle Berry & apple  Had very good success as they were very good  Made two dozen. . .”


Payroll was often late, but when it did come, soldiers often sent some of it back home, paid their debts, or purchased much needed supplies:

July 24, 1863received our pay this afternoon I drew $478. 39/100 in full to first of June . . .”


July 25, 1863 “I sent to Father two hundred & seventy dollars by Capt Rose of the 51st Ills Inft to be Expressed from Chicago to Niles rained today paid sutler [ civilian selling provisions to the army]. . . my own account to date  . . . Lent Leon Norton $40.00 to send home to deposit.  Wrote Father & Sister Hattie   Sent two dollars in letter to get postage stamps with and send me”


July 26, 1863 “. . .  I paid my mess account at Brgd [headquarters] owe $8.75 and Bought due Bill of ten dollars  better than making change every time   Ed Hurson went into the valley to day but did not get any thing but some onions . . .” 


            Townsend makes an uncharacteristic (for him) mention of National politics.  Though not much is written in his diary, many soldiers did their best to keep apprised of news from Washington and back home:


October 18, 1863 “Commenced raining this morning  very cold and unpleasant  we rec news this morning that Ohio  Penn [Pennsylvania] & Iowa were all right and had repudiated copperheadism [The “Copperheads” were a group of Democrats in the North who opposed the Civil War].


          After grueling battles on and around Lookout Mountain, TN, and elsewhere through the fall and into December, 1863, Townsend’s regiment was ordered to make camp and stay put for a while.  Winter camp proved challenging with scant supplies.  Townsend was detailed as Quartermaster [military officer responsible for distributing supplies]:


December 14, 1863  “. . . received orders to fix up our quarters as we will stay here a week at least . . . we fixed up our little tent  built a chimney . . . I was detailed to act as Q.M. for the present   drew 16 axes and receipted for them of Lt. xxx . . . 2 axes Capt Atwater  2 to Capt Richards   3 Leuit Grey   3 Self   2 Let. McClelland  3 to Lt Parshall   1 HeadQuarters


December 17, 1863  “Commenced raining about midnight  very hard   I got up and built a shed with our Rubbers   did not move today . . . very windy in the eve   smoke [from rigged chimneys] is awful”


December 18, 1863 “. . . smoke is awful no news   our waggon came up   got our mess chest   not much to eat  also our little tent”


December 19, 1863  “. . . very smoky & got some clothing to day at Brigd HdQt  I drew 77 Prs shoes and nine shirts for the Regt   It is going to be very cold to night   cannot draw any rations but flour . . .”


          William Townsend describes “great excitement” in camp at the call for veterans to re-enlist voluntarily.  Note that Christmas comes and goes without comment:


December 24, 1863  “. . . great excitement in the Regt about veteran volunteers   if ¾ of the Regt go will probably go home this winter on furlough and to recruit  over eighty in the Regt I believe are willing . . .”


December 26, 1863  “. . . three fourths of the Regt have declared their willingness to reenlist  if they stick to it we will have to stay until the close of the war. . .”