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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Beef: A Regular Subject In Letters to Home?

by Gordon Thorsby

Painter Conrad Wise Chapman, CSA 1861-65

Private John A. James, a soldier in the Army of Tennessee in Winter Camp at Dalton, GA wrote to his parents in Greenville, SC in January, 1864:

Times is hard here and worse a coming. I want a pair of drawers, pants, two pair of socks, a pair of gloves, a hat and coat. Please do not bring a scarf.”

John seemed to be in a very poor clothing condition. He was desperately in need but clothes were not the worst. He continued,

“If you come, fetch some 15 pounds of flour, some dried fruit, butter, some chickens, and I will pay for the flour. I have to pay one dollar for a pound of flour here and we get one small sack each day for that we each at once.”

He capped off his letter with his unvarnished comment on the meat.

“I want you to bring red pepper …for we cant cook good here. The beef we draw they have to lean it up against a tree to shoot it or prop it up with rocks. It is one pound of beef and ten pounds of bones.”

These may not have been the most reassuring words to send his Mom and Dad but he certainly motivated them to load the wagon as full as possible. The letter was real. Private James was starving and so was the Army of Tennessee. Yet, it was a problem that was shared in both Northern and Southern Armies.

James' story is reminiscent of a poem. Penned by Confederate Colonel Alfred Marmaduke Hobby (1836-1891) in Galveston, Texas. It went like this:

“A Funeral of a Gentlemen Cow.

Died in the butcher-pen, at Galveston, on Saturday night, 27th

inst., an ancient gentleman cow in the 129th year of his age.

Disease: poverty. His remains were issued to the troops, and by

them buried in the public square with the honors of war.

The Sabbath sun shone bright and fair,

The earth rejoiced in gladness;

But soon, ah, soon! the balmy air

Was pierced with sounds of sadness.

The measured tread of feet was heard;

Then came the mourning column;

And hearts of all were deeply stirred

At sounds and sights so solemn.

The dead came first, a mangled mass.

A poor old cow's fore shoulders;

(Who died, they said, for want of grass,)

It frightened all beholders.

Some rushed away in wildest fright,

And all agreed in saying

They ne'er had seen just such a sight

And some fell down to praying.

The muffled drum its mournful tale

Breathed o'er this beefy Mummucks;

But sadder, deeper, came the wail

From soldiers' empty stomachs.

Then next came on, with arms reversed,

The troops, all thoughtful, slow and sad —

No money in their hungry purse,

No dinner to be had.

Their manly tears fell at their feet;

(The dead was not a sinner,)

But tears will flow o'er bread alone;

no MEAT For supper, breakfast — dinner.

They buried the dead with sober brow,

And thought of to-morrow's fast —

Thus rests the ancient gentleman cow,

(His fatless ribs) at last.


Letter- John A. James to John James and mother, January 18, 1864.

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