Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gems from the Regimental Books of the 26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry (1862-1865)

A few weeks ago, I took a day trip down to Washington, D.C., to pick up a printing press. That's a long story in itself, and one I'll save for a later post. But, I also spent some time at the National Archives doing research. Among other things, I pulled the regimental and company books of the 26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, a unit in the Union army during the Civil War. Company A (approximately one hundred men) of this regiment was composed in part of men from my home town, Traverse City, Michigan, and dubbed by locals the "Lakeshore Tigers."

This exceptional cased tintype, sold by Cowan's Auctions, shows a federal soldier holding a hand-tinted red apple next to his knapsack with unusual stenciling indicating his membership in Company A of the 26th Michigan Infantry.

This personal connection and my own research interests prompted me to take a quick look at the books of this regiment, now held as part of Record Group 94 at the Archives and which comprise four volumes:
  • A volume containing a list of officers, a descriptive list of enlisted men, consolidated morning reports (daily numerical counts of soldiers present) recorded between April 29, 1863, and November 3, 1864, and the regimental order book (in which clerks copied army orders with some bearing on the unit)
  • A volume containing descriptive rolls and details remarks on the men in Companies A-K
  •  A volume of company orders (similar to the regimental order books, but bearing on the company level) for Companies A, D, and F, and rosters of Company F from the fall of 1862
  • A volume of morning reports for Companies A-K from April 1864 through May 1865
Although most of these records consist of rather dry statistical data and various rosters, announcements of promotions and demotions, and brief notes about desertions, disease, and casualties, interspersed among this paperwork are intriguing details about life in this Union regiment. I wanted to record and discuss some of them here, because they show how uniform regulations and commanders' wishes often butted up against the idiosyncrasies and personal tastes of private soldiers in the Civil War. Most the orders below came from regimental and division commanders, the men whose decisions about the minutiae of uniforms and accoutrements most impacted the individual soldier. In the following transcriptions, I have left spelling intact but altered punctuation and accompanying capitalization in a few places for readability. 

In camp near Alexandria, Virginia, on April 12th, 1863, the regiment prepared for a summer of marching:

"1st Captains will at one make requisitions for one Shelter Tent for each Commissioned Officer, and one for every Two Non-Commissioned Officers and Private needed for their Companies.
2nd Officers baggage will be limited to blankets, a small Valise or carpet bag and reasonable mess-kit,
3nd All extra baggage, Arms, and Private baggage, will be neatly packed and marked and turned over to Quarter-Master."

Similar concerns about weighty baggage persisted in April 1864, even though  26th and other regiments in the First Division, Second Corps were veteran marchers by then. The First Division headquarters still felt it necessary to issue a general order (number 104)  regarding marching that month. As recorded in the 26th's order books, it read:

"Comd'g Officers should see that the Surplus clothing of the me is sent to the rear under Par. 1. Gen Order No. 17, A of P. It is the old clothing rather than the new, which should be sent to the rear each man being provided with a new suit to begin the summer campaigne with, each man should be allowed to carry in addition to the suit he wears, only a change of under clothes, a woolen and Rubber Blanket an extra pair of shoes, and a few of under light articles as can be carried without materialy increasing his burden.
"In view of the fact that much of the falling out from exhastion on a march is owning to heavy Knapsacks. The Provost Guard of the Division will be instructed that when a man falls out of the ranks upon plea of exhaustion his Knapsack will be searched and all extra woolen Garments of heavy articles not authorized by orders will be thrown away upon the Spot. The name of the Commanding Officer of the Company who allowed such overloading of Knapsacks to which the belongs will be taken and reported to the Brigade Commander for his Action. This Order will be read three times at the head of each Company, and thoroughly brought to the notice of the any Commanding Officers will take care to have on hand a sufficient number of Shelter tents to fill places (when the Army moves) of the worthless ones now covering the wooden huts."

That same April, in 1864, the First Division reminded its various constituent regiments that "Men who leave the ranks to attend the calls of nature must leave their guns with their Comrades. Company Commanders may allow a sufficient number of men to leave the ranks with the canteen of the company to search for Watter. Three or four men will be enough to fill the canteens of a company. The Men will leave their guns with their Comrades. No man must be found out of the ranks with his gun or a single Canteen."

The 26th's regimental orders also offer interesting insights into how the men were supposed to carry their equipment. Commanding the regiment on January 14, 1865, Major Nathan Church instructed the soldiers to appear for an inspection with their knapsacks "carefully packed, over coats neatly rolled and strapped on the Knapsack, Canteens and Haversacks on the left side the Canteen over the Haversack." On April 19, 1865, Church prepared the men for another inspection, instructing that "Knapsacks will be neatly packed with woolen blankets rolled inside of the rubber and strapped on the Knapsacks, and in the absence of Woolen blankets, Great coats will used." Again he felt the need to remind the men that "Haversacks and Canteens will be worn on the left side, canteen over the Haversack." This last part is especially interesting, because every image with which I'm familiar shows soldiers wearing their canteens over their haversacks (see the modern photos below). If this was the universal practice, why prescribe it at all? I'm unaware of any images of or any other documentation for soldiers wearing their canteens under their haversacks. Because of the size and shape of these accoutrements, such an arrangement would seem uncomfortable, pressing the hard round metal canteen into the hip, and would also make the canteen difficult to access for drinking and refilling because it would be wedged under the haversack. And yet, Church's reminder indicates that even at the very end of the war, some men must have been wearing their accoutrements this way, necessitating the specific order.

As for other aspects of the soldiers' appearance and uniforms, a few hints appear in the orders. On December 23rd, 1862, a circular from the "First Provisional Brigade," Union Mills, Virginia, copied into the order books of the regiment reads:

"In answer to inquiries made at these headquarters how to were accoutrements of the men and to insure uniformity the following will be observed. The coats jackets or blouses will be at all times buttons and hooked and only the cap as precibed worn. No citizens hat or [unclear] covering etc. will be endured. The pantaloons and over coats light blue. Men in possesion of dark blue pants will will wear them only in camp. As regards the dark blue over coats of the 128th N.Y.V. and the black ones of the 29th N.Y.V. an exchange must be affected to given them either to Musicians and Sergeants or to the flanking companies. Enlisted men will under no condition be allowed to carry pistols or knives on their belts. To Regiments not haveing shoulder belts to support their cartridge boxes it would be suggested to make requisition for them. Every soldier leaving camp for leave of Absence or going to head-quarters or to a superior officer will wear always his side arms."

The order continues, and I'll break it down to better illustrate the distinctions it mentions (click on the modern photos for larger views):

"The haver Sack will be worn under the belts hanging on the left side so far back upon the hip that it can hardly be seen when standing before the man. The canteen over it.) In Regiments haveing the Shoulder belts.}"

Two views of the prescribed arrangement of accoutrements. Technically, I messed up a bit - the haversack strap should be underneath the cartridge box shoulder strap. Oops.

"Those without shoulder belts will wear the canteen on the right side) also back upon the hip for guard mount parade & review. Upon marches it will hang over all the belts so as to be convenient for use."

Although soldiers seem to have preferred carrying their canteens over their haversacks, this arrangement places it on the right side because the cartridge box, now connected to the waist belt rather than a shoulder belt (the box is constructed to accommodate either setup), sits closer to the center of the back. The cartridge box could weigh quite a bit, with forty rounds of lead bullets and powder, but soldiers did sometimes remove the shoulder strap in favor of this means of carrying it. 

"The shoulder belt with cartridge box will hang from the left shoulder to the right hip the box as far back as posible and the cartridge box ought never to be drawn the waist belt when carried on the shoulder belt."

So, NOT like this. Why a soldier would do this eludes me. It does help distribute the weight of the cartridge box between two straps, the belt and the shoulder strap, but it also means that to remove it you have to first undo the waist belt (with its other hanging accoutrements) and then pull the shoulder strap over your head while it dangles everything else. Again, however, this prescriptive order instructs against something only because it was obviously a problem.

"There ought to be a distance of an inch or two between the upper edge of the cartridge box and the lower edge of the waist belt. The waist belt to be sufficiently tight so as to hold the before on it. The latter will set in the same position as above designated vice touching the right waist button on the back."

A view of the cartridge box sitting under and below the waist belt.

"The waist belt plate to cover the 9th button. The bayonett frog to be behind the left hip. The cap box close to the waist belt plate [buckle] and on the right of the latter."

This front view shows the arrangement detailed above, although in this case depicts a four-button sack coat instead of a nine-button uniform coat. The bayonet "frog" is the leather throat piece, strung on the belt, which connects to the leather socket-like bayonet scabbard.

"The Knapsack above all ( and no breast straps to be worn optional on the Knapsack slings. Great coats when not worn to be folded under the flap. Blanket wraped in the india Rubber one neatly foled on the top of the Knap sack. Commanders of Regiments and companies will require their Noncommissioned officers to wear badges of their Ranks."

Albert H. Davis, Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry. In this image from the Liljenquist Collection at the Library of Congress, Davis wears a full set of accoutrements, including a knapsack (although his blanket is not rolled in an "india Rubber" one, issued for use as a groundcloth and rain protection, as described above). His haversack and canteen hang quite low, indicating that he hasn't done much marching yet, and he wears a regulation uniform coat, complete with decorative brass shoulder "scales." Keep in mind that this image is reversed from life, meaning we are actually viewing his left side.

The men of the 26th apparently had dress ("frock") coats like the one worn by Davis above, in February, 1865, when Major Church instructed them to wear them when on guard duty, along with white gloves. Nevertheless, the commanders of the 26th struggled to maintain uniformity among their troops. Major Lemuel Saviers reminded the regiment on April 16th, 1864, that "All Officers and men of this Regiment will be required to wear, either in Camp or on duty, the uniform Clothing prescribed by Regulations."

Although the 26th was complimented on April 21, 1864, for "the prompt manner in which they have they handle their pieces [guns] during the drill in the manuel and for their Steadiness while in the ranks on Parade," other aspects of their appearance sometimes raised concerns. On January 12, 1865, the regiment was cited for violating certain paragraphs of the army regulations (you can read them in their entirety here): 100 (grooming and hair), 125 (requiring men detailed as officers' servant to still dress and drill as soldiers), 255 (saluting while carrying arms), 256 (saluting when not under arms), and 257 (saluting when an officer approaches a sitting or standing soldier). Hair continued to be an issue for the 26th, and Major Church called attention to paragraph 100, "requiring the hair to be kept short and beard neatly trimmed," on January 14, 1865. Again, on the 16th, he instructed company commanders to "cause the evil complained of to be remedied at once." 

Given the variety of hair styles among soldiers, one wonders just how unkempt the men of the 26th had become by early 1865. Would this typical but unidentified man (tintype from eBay), for instance, have passed inspection or not?

One last, humorous anecdote. On March 11th, 1863, Major Lemuel Saviers issued a stern warning, explaining the punishments that would be meted out to any man who did not "make proper use of the sinks [latrines]" or was "caught committing any nuisance on the parade ground of the immediate vicinity of the Camp." He concluded with this rebuke:

"Common decency would require men to make a more proper use of the sinks and not allow reports to be going to Army Hdqrs that the men of this Regt do not know what a sink is made for."

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