Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hard Tack and Coffee (Billings, John D.)

Rating: 5/5
Date: 1887
Genre: Nonfiction; American Civil War
Read again? Yes

This is a series of recollections by Mr. Billings of his days in the Union Army in which he describes the life of the typical soldier. Lodgings, food, transportation, punishments, and recreation are described with a thoroughly entertaining storyteller's pacing.

We are shown that the chickenhawks of our time--staunchly pro-war men and women who never served when they had the chance--were no different back in 1861. We see the drumbeat to war becoming ever more fervent, dissenters being hounded and silenced, and the chickenhawks melting into the scenery when their time comes. It echoes strongly to recent years in American experience, given the number of chickenhawks roosted in a certain incompetent presidency and Congress, and fledgling chickenhawks on college campuses who have "more important" things to do than fight the war they so favor. How little things change.

"Hard Tack"-or hardtack-was the most basic food item on both sides of the war. It's a simple flour-and-water biscuit about 2 inches by 3, half an inch thick, and hard as rock. Each man got 9 or 10 of these per ration.

That might seem like punishment--but the Army knew how to punish people back then, and any little offense might get one "bucked and gagged." This involves having the soldier sit with his knees to his chest. A staff is placed under his knees, then he's made to run his arms under the staff...and his wrists are tied together just below his knees. Then he just sits there, out in the sun and rain, out in public for all to see...and if he tries to talk, a gag is stuffed in his pie-hole.

Too bad we can't do this with some chicken-hawks. Buck 'em, gag 'em, and send them to Fallujah!

Billings tells us about lodgings, foraging for food, bugle calls, clothing, horses and mules, hospitals and surgery. He doesn't say much about the horrors of war, but that's not the scope of the book.

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