Thinking About These Photographs

Compared to the number of Civil War photographs of soldiers, civilians, camps, and battlefields, posed photos of horses are rare. Clicking through Library of Congress’s online archives, though, I found some real photographic gems in this category.

Looking closer at these photographs, I noticed some of them had one thing in common. In about half of the posed equestrian photos, a black man or boy controlled the horse or sat aside the animal. Honestly, I felt a little uncomfortable when I first made the observation. Was it a reminder of the racism and evolutionary comparisons plaguing the country that these men and boys were photographed with the animals?

However, as I continued thinking about this troubling subject I came to several conclusions as a researcher.

Labeled as Captain Beckwith’s Horse, 1863 (LOC)

First, horses – particularly in the military setting prior to the mechanized age of war – were considered noble and magnificent animals. Warriors and generals liked to be depicted on war steeds in classic military art and photography. (Just look up some paintings of Napoleon or other famous commanders to see what I mean). These photographs are posed. These are magnificent animals on display for the camera, and in three of these four photos there isn’t a white officer in the foreground.

Which leads to the next points…

An 1863 photo by Matthew Brady (LOC) Note: There are white officers in this photo, but the horse “on display” is controlled and steadied for the photograph by two African American men in the foreground.

Second, these photographs show Union officers’ horses. Thus, it is a reasonable conclusion that the men and boys caring for these horses were freedmen, possibly even Contrabrand (escaped slaves who took refuge in Union lines) who were able to find steady work as horse grooms. On some of the Southern farms and plantations, some slaves were skilled horse trainers, talented riders, and careful horse grooms. It would be natural for an escaped slave who had equestrian experience with horses to seek a job looking after horses, and a Union officer might be pleased to hire someone to look after his animal(s). Still, it’s in only one photograph that I found that a Union officer decided to officially get in the photo with his horse and groom.

Third, as a historian I’m not blind to racist attitudes prevailing during the Civil War era. However, I think an argument can be made: why didn’t the Union officer have his hired man prepare the horse for portrait and then come take the reins for the grand photographic moment? Answers likely vary in each situation. However, drawing on the projected images of warriors on horseback, that type of posed photograph might have appealed to the officer. And yet – the groom or trainer – stands or rides in the photographs…

Colonel M. Miller, 18th Missouri Infantry with his horse and horse groom (LOC) This is the “exception photo” in this set where an officer is prominently posed with the horse.

Fourth, there is nothing humiliating about the stances and poses of these freedmen. They stand proudly beside or in front of these horses, exerting a firm power over the animal. They aren’t crouching or tucked behind the animal. Likely, they groomed the animal for the photograph session. Animals – horses especially – often have a way of winning human friendship. Perhaps in a fast-changing and often cruel world, these horses were a steady friend and un-answering listener to these men and boys.

The young man who rides the horse takes a warrior’s stance. No, he doesn’t gesture grandly the way Napoleon does in the paintings. Rather, he is calmly in control, exerting his independence by working and managing the horse. In the photograph, this young man seems ready to take on the world and conquer his future.

General Rawlins’s horse taken at Cold Harbor, Va. LOC

Fifth, there is a strong possibility that these photographs of freedmen with the horses are the only images of these men. There is something wonderful about that. Their work was with the horses, and just like others, they were photographed proudly doing their jobs. At least we have photographs of these brave souls. If only we knew their names, where they were from, what struggles they had overcome, what challenges lay ahead of them… Some of the questions might be answerable with considerable research. Too often, the answers are forever lost, but at least we see their faces.

I don’t know what the photographer’s original thoughts or feelings were, but I know how I feel. Thinking it through, I’m glad we have these photographs. Without them, it would be easy to forget the incredible stories of freedmen and contraband who found work alongside the Union armies. Paid for their labor, these men cleaned, brushed, fed, watered, and saddled these horses. And one fine day they led the horse in front of the photographer’s camera. Perhaps they were surprised to be included in the image. Perhaps they expected a white officer to come and take the place of honor beside or astride the horse. Instead, they stayed and were photographed with the steeds, creating an image of men who worked hard and confidently hoped to take a traditional place of honor alongside the fabled military horses – ever ready to conquer life’s struggles and build a better world.

Charles Dickens, America, & The Civil War

Charles Dickens, 1858

If you look at lists or letters or diaries mentioning reading material from the mid-19th Century in America, you’ll likely find a book or two by British author Charles Dickens – if that reader enjoyed novels. Popular on both sides of the Atlantic, Charles Dickens penned numerous short tales, serialized stories, and novels during his life, many delivering commentary on social struggles, reform movements, and life’s dark side through entertaining stories.

I’d always wondered about Dickens’s tales, had read an excerpt or short story here and there in high school and college classes, and realized his stories were popular during the Civil War with soldiers and civilians. However, it wasn’t until 2016 when I had a book-signing at Riverside Dickens Literature Festival that I got brave and started really exploring these stories. I wasn’t disappointed… So far, I’ve enjoyed reading or listening to several unabridged stories by Dickens – including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and (currently) A Tale of Two Cities. Film adaptions have introduced me to Our Mutual Friend and David Copperfield, and I hope to enjoy those books in the future too.

This year, as I was preparing for another year at Dickens Festival, I wondered what Charles Dickens thought about the American Civil War and his views on the American struggle for abolition and social reforms.

A trip to the library to retrieve three huge biographies and a couple hours later, I’d found some interesting answers. Since my initial questions revolved around the American Civil War and slavery, I’ll focus there, and this is far from a comprehensive study on this famous 19th Century author or his works. His journeys to the United States and his opinions about the Civil War lend some interesting perspectives though, illustrative of how some Europeans viewed the American conflict.

Charles Dickens, 1842

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) made two trips to the United States, the first in 1842 and the last in 1867-68. He had developed strong impressions of American society and democracy prior to his first visit and his experiences on that trip influenced his opinions of the United States for the remainder of his life.

As Dickens embarked for the voyage to North America in 1842, he left behind England’s workhouses, factories, grimy alleys, dark houses, orphans, prisoners, and general unhappiness that feature prominently in his literary efforts. Enthusiastically, he declared he wanted to see “the Republic of my imagination.”[i] Already, he was planning to keep a notebook of his American experiences and write several novels when he returned home; some of his touring goals included visiting prisons, bars, factories, houses of ill-repute, and police departments to see how crime and wickedness in a republic differed from his homeland. Initially, he also seemed slightly interested in American slavery, with a curiosity born of his interest in dark settings and tales and the juxtaposition of freedom and bondage in the still-relatively new nation.

American society and authors welcomed the British literary celebrity, wearying him with grand entertainments, public readings, parties, and receptions. Anxious to fete one of their favorite foreign authors, Americans overwhelmed Dickens with their opinions, handshaking, and crushing parties which were often themed after events or characters in his stories. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington City tried to out-do each other in their entertainments and literary reference. Along the way, Dickens jotted notes and made his touring visits to various factories and dark alleys, boasting in letters that he found plenty of ideas for stories.

Leaving Washington, Dickens crossed the Potomac River and rattled in a stagecoach as far south as Fredericksburg, Virginia, then caught a train to Richmond. Here, he saw slavery and visited a tobacco manufactory and a plantation.[ii] It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Unlike the orphanages, workhouses, jails, and back alleys. And yet the crowds welcomed him, often saying how his stories made them feel “a sympathy for each other – a participation in the interests of our common humanity, which constitutes the great bond of equality.”[iii] Repulsed, Dickens cancelled his plans to travel further south, instead heading for St. Louis, Cincinnati and other western cities, then going on to Niagara Falls and Canada before departing for Britain from New York.

Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia. Painted upon the sketch of 1853

Despite his popularity with the American people, Dickens irritated some – particularly publishers – with his regular public mentions of copyright issues. Many publishers who were eager to make a profit and provide readers with the latest novels had little regard for the authors and even less interest in discussing international copyright laws. This lack of respect irked Dickens, and he returned to England with the impression than many Americans were simply greedy and out to make a profit in any way they could – whether that method was right or not.

Charles Dickens did write about his trip to the United States in American Notes. Significantly, his observations on slavery were mostly quoted from a previously published pamphlet by the Anti-Slavery Society.[iv] Whether his avoidance of writing a direct, personal opinion on the South’s “peculiar institution” stemmed from shock, horror, or a pragmatic approach that offended Southerners would not buy his latest books becomes a matter of debate. Privately, Dickens wrote about the United States, “This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination.”[v] Dickens’s observations of the country would influence his thoughts on the Civil War.

A serial cover for Oliver Twist

As for America, Charles Dickens ended his 1842 visit as a celebrity, disliked by few and many of those among the Puritanical who disapproved of novels for a variety of religious or societal reasons. Still, the nation could not quite decide on one settled opinion of the British author. As one publication noted: “By one side he was pictured as the self-made man whose rapid rise in the world had not given him the time to learn all the fine points of good manners; by the other he was described as the struggling bread-winner, a man with ‘a wife and four children, whom his death may very possibly leave destitute.’”[vi] Whatever their opinions of the man, Dickens’s novels continued to sell well in the United States through the Civil War era and beyond.

Moving forward on the historical timeline, Charles Dickens watched the American Civil War unfold by following the news of the day as it reached England. Remembering his experiences and disgust over the copyright issues and greedy businessmen, Dickens implicitly supported the South, suggesting that the Northern calls for abolition merely masked a desire for some type of economic gain.[vii] Though startled by Southern slavery during his 1842 visit, he darkly suggested a lack of abolitionist fervor from the Union preservers, remarking in a private letter, “They will both rant and lie and fight until they come to a compromise; and the slave may be thrown into that compromise or thrown out of it, just as it happens.”[viii] Clearly, Dickens had formed dark opinions of the United States economically and morally – some of which had historical foundation while others were merely his impression of the situation.

Harper’s Weekly illustration of crowds buying tickets to hear Charles Dickens during 1860’s tour

Still, Dickens’s saga with the United States and the Civil War did not completely end on a dark note. From December 1867 to March 1868, he toured the country again, was received warmly, and gave so many dramatic readings to enchanted audiences that he nearly exhausted his already fragile health. Invited to the White House, Dickens met with President Andrew Johnson who was on the eve of impeachment in a difficult Reconstruction era presidency.

As Charles Dickens boarded the vessel to take him back to England, he carried with him photographs from Civil War battlefields. One way or another, he sent some of those photographs to Queen Victoria, giving her a glimpse of the tragedy of the American struggle. Charles Dickens spent the next several years making a farewell tour through the cities of Britain; in 1870 at the end of that tour, he was invited to meet the queen. She personally thanked him for sharing the photographs with her.[ix] Which photographs were they? Were they some of Brady’s work or another photographer’s? The source did not specify, but perhaps further research will give additional clues.

Charles Dickens’s relationship with the United States can best be described as tumultuous. Readers, society leaders, and literary minds loved him. Still, American attitudes, business practices, and slavery shocked the author, and as a writer who explored and relished dark stories, that is significant to note. In the end, Dickens seemed to semi-reconcile with America, visiting the country again during his final years.

It might be a stretch to say that Dickens or his writing strongly influenced any particular American cause related to the Civil War. However, like other reform-minded authors of his era, Dickens’s popularity meant that American readers explored novels and stories that made them think and feel. Perhaps Oliver Twist and his struggles seemed confined to London, but the feelings he and other Dickens’s characters evoked subconsciously built into the American minds a sympathy for the oppressed. Could it be argued that Dickens laid a mental and emotional foundation for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which helped ignite a “great war”? Possibly.

A serial cover for “A Tale of Two Cities”, 1859

However, moving from the theoretical to the concrete, Civil War soldiers and civilians read Dickens’s writing. It provided entertainment on cold nights or summer’s quiet evenings. As one Confederate officer wrote home, “In our own tent we have been reading various books together, sometimes scraps of Shakespeare, & sometimes bits of choice novels, such as the “Tales of Two Cities.”[x]

It is possible that the photographs of battlefields which Dickens carried to London contained images of dead soldiers who had read his novels. Or at least the fields where his literary fans had fought and died. A strange thought, but entirely possible that the soldiers who fought each other on those bloody American fields had read and enjoyed books by Charles Dickens.

As I speed down a California interstate, heading to a speaking engagement or Dickens Festival this weekend, the quiet voice on an audio book recording will read A Tale of Two Cities. Though separated from the Civil War by long decades, I can still hear or read the tales that entertained soldiers and civilians in that by gone era. I, too, can shudder at the darkness in Dickens’s tales and plaintively hope for reforms in my own era. Perhaps literature is a stronger thread to the past than we fully realize.


[i] Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), Page 127.

[ii] Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Page 185.

[iii] Ibid, Page 185.

[iv] Ibid, Page 177.

[v] Ibid, Page 175.

[vi] Ibid, Page 195.

[vii] Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), Page 325.

Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990), Pages 971, 1009-1010.

[viii] Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Page  506.

[ix] Ibid, Page 609.

[x] W.G. Bean, Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), Page 104.

“Because You Was Always True To Me”: A Union Soldier & His Sweetheart

Dear Friend… I should like to sean [have seen] you before I enlisted, but I thought that you had something against me. But if I have said anything against you, I hope you will forgive me, for I thought that we used to be as good friends as could be found. I hope that you will not have any hardness [of] feelings against me, and I hope we may both live to see one another once more…[i]

That’s how Peleg Bradford, Jr. wrote his first preserved letter to his sweetheart in October 1862, several months after he left home and enlisted. He had joined the 18th Maine Infantry Regiment which mustered into service on August 21, 1862, and was assigned to build and defend Washington’s fortifications. In January 1863, the regiment transformed into the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery and continued on fort duty around Washington until the Overland Campaign in 1864.

Bradford’s letters give a glimpse of a realistic “Civil War romance,” challenged by distance and threatened by physical wounds. Due to a full blog schedule yesterday [Valentine’s Day], these primary sources and observations will continue the discussion of romantic relationships during the 1860’s conflict for another day.

Age twenty when he enlisted, Peleg Bradford, Jr. had spent his youthful years working for his father on the farm, trying to make enough money to care for his mother and eight siblings. Bradford’s father struggled with alcoholism, making life difficult for the family. Throughout his Civil War letters, he tried to make sure his mother had enough money and advised her on some financial decisions. Troubles in childhood had educated young Bradford and taught him what he valued and wanted for his own future. The separation from family and friends during his enlistment, also helped him focus on his future plans.

One of his plans was to get married, but – unsure of his sweetheart’s feelings – he took his time before declaring his intention. Throughout 1862 and 1863, Bradford wrote to occasionally to his “dear friend” who was Cynthia McPherson, usually just informing her of his good health, the weather, and news about mutual friends from their hometown – Carmel, Maine.

Drawing, Army Encampment, 1862, by Winslow Homer. Camp scenes like these would have been familiar to Bradford as he wrote his letters to Miss McPherson.

In May 1863, Bradford commented on a friend’s wedding and made the observation to Miss McPherson that “I think that if the war lasts three years, theair [there] will not be any chance for me to get a woman.” In the same letter, he sends “respects” to her parents and tells her to let Mr. McPherson know how much he likes soldiering. In the saga of preserved letters, this is the first open hint at marriage and courting topics, starting by trying to impress the girl’s parents. Later, Bradford sends newspapers from Washington for Mr. McPherson. He never asked his other correspondents – Mother, Father, brothers, and sisters – about Miss McPherson, and some phrases imply they might have approved the match at first.

The letters went back and forth, and then the heartsick moment of all long-distance relationships happened in December 1863:

An 1864 painting by Winslow Homer.

Dear Friend,

As I have not written you for along [a long] time, I will improve a few moments in writing to you. I am well and hope theas [these] few lines will find you the same. I should written to you before, but I got a letter from Carmel, and they told me that you was agoing to get married, and so I thought that if it was so, I would stop writing to you, but I thought that I would write you this letter to know about it.

I always thought well of you, and had maid [made] up my mind that when I got home that we would get married, if we could make things agreeable all around. I must now close, so good by.[ii]

Bradford wrote his slightly desperate, slightly hopeful letter on December 13, and by the 27th. he had received a reply from Miss Cynthia and wrote back to her. She had clearly refuted the rumor and wanted to know who had started it; her soldier responded:

…I will tell you who wrote that you was going to get married if you will promise me that you will not tell, for it is all past now. I will not tell you in this letter, but I will tell you the next time that I wrote. I suppose why they wrote that you was going to get married was to make trouble betwixt us, but since I read your letter, I know that it is all a dam [damn] lie, and I should not believe it now if my mother should write it, because you told me that you was not and whatever you tell me, I can believe, because you was always true to me Cynth.

I alwaysed loved you, and if you will be true to me, I will be true to you, and when I get home, we will get married, and then let them say what they will. The time will soon pass away when I shall be at home. We will write often, and the time will soon pass away. It is about a year and half longer that I have got to stop out here. I wish that I was home with you this winter instead of being out here…[iii]

With their engagement informally settled, Peleg Bradford and Cynthia McPherson corresponded more regularly and clearly enjoyed their communications; his letters often included repeated promises to “be true” and that he had always loved her. He started taking her advice about not re-enlisting (though that was his preference, too) and asking her opinions. In April 1864, it seems that Bradford got leave to return to Maine after his father died, and during that visit to Carmel, they were formally engaged, if their implied new relationship stage in the letters is correct.

With just months left in his enlistment, Bradford had yet to see battle. That changed during the 1864 Overland Campaign when the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any unit in the Army of the Potomac. Bradford made it through his first skirmish with only a bullet’s “scratch,” but on June 7th, he was seriously wounded in the right knee, forcing a hospital amputation of that leg. And the future he had anticipated changed.

Drawing, Soldier Giving Water to a Wounded Companion, 1864, by Winslow Homer

The first preserved letter he wrote to Cynthia after the injury implies that she had already heard about the wounded and amputation (probably from Bradford’s mother) and had written to him at the hospital:

Dear Friend,

I now improve a few moments time in writing to you. I am sitting up, but I don’t know how long I can sit up. You wanted to know how my leg got along. It is getting along first rate…

…Oh Cynthia – God knows how much I have suffered since I lost my leg, but it is getting along first rate now. I would like to write you a good long letter, but I can’t. I can only write short letters, so goodbye for this time.

From your ever true friend[iv]

Bradford wrote at least one other short note to Cynthia before penning a longer letter on August 20, 1864, addressing a serious subject:

Love’s Melancholy by Constant Mayer, 1866

…Perhaps you think that I have forgotten you by not writing to you oftener, but I have not. I think of you every day, but I hope you will not think hard of me as where I am at the present time [the hospital], but I hope the time will soon pass away and I can be at home with you, for I shall always hold the promise that I made when I was at home last spring, but as I am not, it would be better for you to brake [break] that promise, for when I made that promise I was a hol [whole] man, but I am far from it now.

I am not speaking of this any thing more than I think it is my duty, as I will do as I say, and that you know I will not say any thing more about it this time until I get home, and then we will talk the matter over and make it all right.

Someway I am asking to leave it all to with you, whatever you say I will do. That is a fair deal, is it not[?] Don’t get angry at what I say, will you[?]…[v]

Knowing that the loss of a leg changed his future abilities to provide for and care for a wife, Bradford honestly let Cynthia know that she could break their engagement and he would not hold it against her. His suspicion that she might be angry about the subject suggests he knew she would still want to marry, but he felt honor-bound to give her a way out, if she had changed her mind.

Happily, Miss Cynthia McPherson refused to break the engagement and welcomed her soldier home when he was released to go home to fully recuperate. Recovered, he returned to Washington to finish out his service commitment, taking Cynthia’s advice to not leave the military early since it might alter future benefits.

On October 7, 1866, Peleg Bradford and Cynthia McPherson married. It seems to be the beginning of a happy life together; they had eight children. Bradford built a sawmill and was active in local government.

The account of Peleg and Cynthia’s wartime romance is simple, almost understated. But they were sincere, and through rumors, long distance, and physical injury, their relationship survived and grew stronger. Their concerns about constancy and injury reflected situations facing many couples during the Civil War, but happily their love triumphed. In a progressing, written intimacy traced through details and the names “dear friend” to “Cynth,” the preserved letters chronicle the straightforward wooing and proposal of this Union soldier. Prior to the war, in the months in camp, journey to the battlefield, and transfer into the hospital wards, Peleg Bradford was lucky (and he knew it) because his love “was always true to me.”


[i] Bradford, Peleg. Melissa MacCrae and Maureen Bradford, editors. No Place for Little Boys: Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier, Goddess Publications, Brewer, ME: 1997. Pages 9-10 – October 8, 1862

[ii] Ibid., Page 64 – December 13, 1862

[iii] Ibid., Page 66 – December 27, 1863

[iv] Ibid., Page 91 – July 13, 1864

[v]Ibid., Page 98 – August 20, 1864

A VMI Cadet Goes Ice-Skating

Cadet Stanard

On the evening of March 22, 1864, eighteen-year-old Beverly “Jack” Stanard huddled in his cold barracks room at Virginia Military Institute, writing to his mother. That particular evening he found plenty to complain about:

…Well, Mother I guess you will wonder why it is, that I am writing with a lead pencil. The reason is just this, we are upon the eve of freezing up. It has been one week since we had a particle of heat. (There not being a stick of wood at the V.M.I.) You know what a change has taken place in the weather – today it is snowing hard, and a cold wind blowing, and still we are having the same duties to attend to, both academic & military. It is outrageous, for the boys can’t study a bit…[i]

Ironically, just weeks before, this same cadet had expressed his enthusiasm for cold weather and winter sports. During winter break and a free Saturday, he had enjoyed venturing into the freezing air to go ice-skating, leaving readers (and maybe his mother) to wonder if the complaints were genuine or a series of excuses for his lack of interest in studying. A frequent plea throughout Cadet Stanard’s letters echoed a desire to leave the safety of Virginia Military Institute and join the Confederate army. Yet, understandably, his widowed mother wanted to keep her youngest son out of the conflict and away from battlefields. Reluctantly, she had enrolled him at the military school in Lexington, Virginia, hoping to further his education and prevent him from enlisting.

Interspersed with Cadet Stanard’s observations, humorous stories, requests for money, and arguments to enlist, some accounts of ice skating in the winter months appeared, illustrative of the popularity of this sport during the Civil War era.

Virginia Military Institute

At first the frozen river seems tragic to this teen and his friends who would be deprived of their food boxes from home, due to the forming ice. His reports on the Maury’s River conditions began on January 3, 1864:

I had looked forward before Xmas with much pleasure to the arrival of two boxes belonging to my roommates which were to have come by the packet boat but it has not as yet made its appearance. And judging from the looks of the river which I can plainly see from my window, and which is entirely frozen over, that it will not do so for some time to come…[ii]

Frozen river? Time to ice skate!

Then two weeks passed before he wrote to Mother again:

It has been so long since I wrote that I guess you have been uneasy about me again, thinking I might be sick – Quite to the contrary, for the last week have been having a good time skating. The river was frozen over beautifully for miles, as we were not doing any studying, the Examination being just over, we were all allowed to go. I wish you could have seen the river[.] It looked like a flock of black birds was on it. I never saw boys seem to enjoy themselves more, could play bandy, fox & goose and many other games, to afford us amusement. Sandy P & Sisters & some other ladies were down to see us. Sandy seemed to be a very awkward skater, and would get some pretty falls, sometimes, which added to my fun. I think he is Stuck up quite much. I hav’nt spoke to him yet. [iii]

While reporting on his “good time,” Cadet Stanard also shared some hints to the social aspect of ice-skating, noting some of the town civilians came to watch and participate. Certainly, it created a scene less formal (and probably a little more wild) than skating in New York Central Park, and it also gave Cadet Stanard a chance to laugh at a local war hero. Research reveals Sandy P’s identity; during January 1864 Major Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, a staff officer in the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps and the son of General William N. Pendleton, visited his family in Lexington as a destination on his wedding tour (honeymoon).[iv] Unimpressed with the officer, Cadet Stanard delightedly observed him slipping and crashing on the ice.

Happily for the Virginia Military Institute cadets, the Maury River froze again in February, offering an opportunity for winter fun and a little flirtation with the girls:

Since my last letter nothing much of interest has transpired to disturb the monotony of the V.M.I soldier boy’s life – or daily routine of exercises, save the freezing up of the river, which has afforded us a little fun skating. Yesterday being Saturday, it did not interfere with our duties or studies, so all could go that wished. I went down to the river in the morning myself, ‘though not with the intention of skating, as I had a sore back and then I was minus a pair of skates, mine being broken, but the ice was so beautiful that I could not resist the temptation, so borrowed a pair from one of the boys – and spent the rest of the morning on the ice. It was really elegant fun, could go down the river as far as you wished. There were a great many ladies on the ice, who seemed evidently to think there was more fun in falling down than standing up, but unfortunately in the hight [height] of their enjoyment, one of them (frisky) fell rather too hard and almost broke her nose. Poor girl, I guess it will spoil her beauty spot and I know will teach her a lesson how to run on ice again. The fall of this unfortunate lady, of course, intimidated and some what marred the pleasure of the remainder of the party. My friend Miss LP was among the no. [number] and was looking as rosy as usual.[v]

What better way to get attention than tumbling on the ice to look helpless and possibly enlist the sympathy or aid of some handsome teens? At least that seems to be the tactic employed by these young ladies of Lexington. Although Cadet Stanard did not seem impressed with the girls’ lack of skating skills, he enjoyed watching at his particular friend, Miss Hughella “Lella” Pendleton, one of Major Pendleton’s sisters. From other letters, it seems Miss Pendleton was Cadet Stanard’s crush, but it’s not clear if he ever said anything or if she was even aware of his interest.

Melting ice signaled spring and meant campaign season was beginning again.

Though ice-skating provided a pleasant reason to weather the winter cold and reduced the monotony of classes and exercises, the fun couldn’t last forever. As the ice melted, the ground thawed, and spring rains began, Cadet Standard impatiently wrote to his sister:

Do you not candidly think I ought to be in the Army[?] I am over 18. I think I have been very obedient in remaining here as long as I have, and only done so because I hated to go contrary to the wish of a fond and devoted Mother. I think Mother might very willingly give consent now, that the prospect of the war ending soon is very great…[vi]

He would not receive the opportunity to enlist. On May 10, 1864, the Corps of Cadets received orders to join General John C. Breckinridge as a reserve unit to defend the Shenandoah Valley from General Franz Sigel and his Union columns. Five days later, at the Battle of New Market, the Virginia Military Institute Cadets entered combat. After the battle, Cadet Stanard’s young comrades found him near the Bushong House.“We had come too late. Stanard had breathed his last but a few moments before… Poor Jack – playmate, room-mate, friend – farewell!”[vii]

And yet, on those freezing winter days of ’64, as the boy’s skates glided forward on the ice it was an exhilarating carefree moment. The war – even thoughts of it – seemed far away as he poked fun at a “stuck up” officer. The thought of battlefield death probably never crossed his mind as he spied on the girls and complained to home about the cold conditions for studying. However, after the ice cracked and conflict returned to The Valley, these moments of fun came to an end. The boy grappled with the reality of battle, finding courage to move forward into combat, alongside the friends who had “never enjoyed themselves more” than on the frozen Maury River, shadowed by the castle-like walls of Virginia Military Institute.


[i] Standard, B., edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr. Letters of a New Market Cadet, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961. Letter: March 22, 1864 (page 46)

[ii] Ibid, Letter: January 3, 1864 (pages 28-29)

[iii] Ibid, Letter: January 17, 1864 –date is possibly wrong according to the footnotes in the book (pages 31-32)

[iv] Bean, W.G. Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1959, pages 182-186.

[v] Stanard, B., edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr. Letters of a New Market Cadet, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961. Letter: February 21, 1864, (pages 40-41)

[vi] Ibid, Letter: April 8, 1864 (page 50)

[vii] Knight, C.R, Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market, Savas Beatie, 2010, page 221.

Ice-Skating in the 1860’s

An illustration of ice-skating (1859)

Ice-skating! Across the chilly regions of America, this favorite pastime created fun and energetic entertainment during the Civil War era. In city parks, the winter activity was refined as a social skill and art while on less sophisticated ponds or lakes youngsters had their ice-skating parties. Ladies participated in ice-skating, a sport that allowed them out of the decorated parlors and gave them another reason to visit the dress makers. Ice-skating created a pleasant diversion from the tragedy of war, especially during the Christmas season.

According to an article published in the New York Herald on December 24, 1864, ice-skating on Central Pond gained a happy reputation at the beginning of the decade and had increased popularity each year. A system for judging and announcing ice thickness and safety had been developed, and the citizens eagerly watched for a red ball in the park which signaled skating season had begun. On the city ponds, workmen swept away the snow and scrubbed off the rough piles of ice or frozen snow to make a smooth, glassy surface for easy skating. According to the paper’s account, the ponds were prepared for skaters by noon on fine days when the ice was safe. Skates and ice chairs were available for rent in Central Park, and the enterprising merchants set up booths to sell hot drinks and refreshments.

Central Park Lake Terrace in Winter (modern photo, public domain)

Appealing to the desires for good health, the reporter extolled the frozen winter wonderlands over the crowded and close atmosphere of the ballroom, claiming:

Skating and dance are the only two forms of recreative exercise within the reach of the gentler sex, the former being infinitely more healthful than the latter, from the fact that the rapid motion through a clear, bracing atmosphere, incident to skating, quickens the circulation and introduces the pure oxygen of nature into the system, instead of the noxious gases of the ballroom, where the atmosphere is redolent of caronic acid, frivolous tittle tattle, eau de colgne, insipid small talk, cutaneous exhalations, and simpering stupidity. The contrast, too, between the social surroundings of the skating pond and the ballroom is equally in favor of the outdoor recreation… The sanitary benefits accruing from skating are great, and especially is the exercise advantageous to females. The prominent cause of the delicate and sickly constitution of the majority of our city ladies arises from their great neglect of outdoor exercise and recreation…[i]

An illustration of a lady ice-skating, c. 1867

Many ladies eagerly took advantage of the outdoor sport. Unwilling to leave behind their fine clothes, they developed “ice skating costumes,” complete with hoopskirts. Godey’s Lady’s Book regularly featured new designs for these fashionable ensembles during the winter months. And, of course, a gorgeous hat, muff, and perhaps a fur-trimmed coat completed the classic Christmas image of an idealized lady gliding across the ice. Ice-skating gave women an opportunity to continue their feminine appearance while participating in a semi-liberating activity.

If skating gave women another social opportunity to step outside the home and enter a public arena, it also gave couples a chance to interact without close supervision in a parlor and gave singles the opportunity to meet rather casually. The New York Herald reporter even hints at this in his article: “In fact, the exercise not only brings roses to the cheeks, and imparts buoyancy to the spirits, but weaves nets to catch Cupid, and makes cages to retain him.”[ii] If eyes brightened by the exercise[iii] did not catch the gentleman’s attention, there was always the possibility of a graceful tumble to draw attention to oneself and create a need for gallantry. In an 1864 letter, a Virginian teen boy hinted that some girls skating on the frozen river kept purposely falling to continue the interactions with him and his handsome friends.[iv]

For some Union soldiers, skating and sledding were typical social activities in their small towns. Private William P. Lamson, Jr. in the 20th Maine Infantry asked his sister several times about the ice-skating parties at home and noted a major difference in the weather in Virginia and Maine: “You say you had good sleighing and skating [on] Christmas. We had neither snow nor ice after the sun got up, and have had none since. I never spent a New Year’s Day without seeing snow before.”[v]

“Winter – A Skating Scene” by Winslow Home, c. 1868

Southerners enjoyed their ice skating too – if they lived in a region that stayed cold long enough for ice to form and thicken. Miss Lucy Buck lived near Front Royal in the Virginian Shenandoah Valley and recorded her skating adventure in her diary.

January 12, 1864

Father took Laura and me down on the ice and gave us our first lessons in skating. It was a magnificent morning and I felt so invigorated by the bracing air, the bright sunshine and the run through the crisp sparkling snow. Then the ice formations at the dam were so exquisitely delicate and beautiful. We were there about two hours – Father predicting that we will make expert skaters – did not get one bad fall though Father did. Returned to the house with tired ankles but in a perfect glow…[vi]

During the Civil War era, ice-skating created a joyous homefront diversion, and many soldiers far from home associated memories of cheerful winter days with their skating escapades. Fashionable and fun, healthful and happy, this winter activity included men, women, and children, pulling them outside into the chilly winter days air and making the air ring with jolly laughter, joyous shouts, and the steady, faint swish of skates making circles on the ice.

And – for just a few moments, perhaps – the war seemed far away while the cheer of Christmas and magic of winter reigned.

Central Park skating pond, 1862

[i] “Skating at Christmastime” from the New York Herald, December  24, 1864. Published in The Civil War Christmas Album, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, (1961), page 67-68.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A reference from classic literature. In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (1813), Mr. Darcy comments that Elizabeth’s eyes were brightened by the exercise, comparing her favorably against her rival who tended to stay indoors and complain.

[iv] Beverly Stanard to his mother, February 21, 1864. Published in Letters of a New Market Cadet, edited by J.G. Barrett and R.K. Turner, Jr., (1961), pages 40-41.

[v] William P. Lamson to his sister Jennie Lamson, January 9, 1863. Published in Maine To The Wilderness: The Civil War Letters of Pvt. William Lamson, edited by Roderick M. Engert, (1993), page 49.

[vi] Lucy Rebecca Buck, Sad Earth, Sweet Heave: The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck, edited by Dr. William P. Buck, (1973), page 243.