Perhaps it is needless to say, but I will anyway, that the Newton County Historical Museum has been closed, and will remain so until we can actually see some ground again.

Perhaps it is needless to say, but I will anyway, that the Newton County Historical Museum has been closed, and will remain so until we can actually see some ground again.

Oh, rocky, brown Ozarks soil, how I long to see thee!

As Todd Higdon and I trudged through the snow on our way to work at different times this past week, a recurring thought revolved around like a carousel in my head: Man, I’m sure glad I’m not camping in this stuff!
Now, the fact is, I have camped in winter weather on various occasions in my Civil War reenacting past. But as far as I can recall, I always had a canvas tent to huddle in. And though there may have been a little of the white stuff falling, it was never like this, of course. Cold, yes. Blizzard, uh, no.

What I have envisioned on these recent morning and evening walks, as my breath came up from my muffled face to turn into ice on my eyelashes, is the sheer misery of having to sleep on the ground, if on campaign, with a single blanket and then march 12-15 miles in frozen leather shoes — if I had shoes at all. It might just be rags wrapped around my feet. This is after a day of marching on the energy of a puny diet that would make Jenny Craig draw the line and say “hey now, this is going way too far!”

All real facts of life from our War Between the States. It makes me shiver just to imagine. Maybe that’s why I do. This way, I can appreciate my comfort even when it doesn’t seem like such.  

Actually, during “the War” (my family’s simple designation for what most people refer to as the Civil War) most armies called a time-out for the winter. The soldiers built crude, cramped log shelters and there they lived, several men to a cabin, until springtime. It wasn’t high living, that’s for sure, but beat sleeping on the frozen ground.

It was also very boring. Capt. Eathan Allen Pinnell, of the Confederate 8th Mo. Inf., described in his diary one such winter spent in Arkansas as one of dullness, monotony and discomfort.

He writes on March 16, 1864:  “Weather cold, too cold to drill. Rations — salt beef and cornbread. Employment — none. Amusements — none. And last but not least, my mess [group of men he is living with] is out of wood, no wagon to haul any and have to carry it four hundred yards after chopping with a very dull ax.”
There were many other times, though, that the armies were on the move — or “on campaign” — in the dead of winter, as generals cunningly took advantage of the unofficial break to maneuver their armies into eventual battle and hopeful victory (the nearby Battle of Pea Ridge, fought March 7-8, 1862, is one good example).

And the common soldier, as always, suffered. Pinnell was a captain, and so may have had it a little better than the enlisted men. But he did document his company’s situation as it stood just after the Battle of Prairie Grove, Ark., in December 1862.

“Many of my men are sick, the greater part of them half-naked and barefooted. Many of my men have not had a shoe on their feet since last summer. It is one of the most distressing things which I have ever had to endure, for me to walk through my camp and witness the sufferings of my brave and devoted boys. To see them sitting around their fires with their bare feet covered with cold December, with their clothes in rags and the sick, poor fellow!, lying on the ground covered with perhaps but one old ragged blanket in their old tattered tents with nothing but beef and bread to tempt their appetite, poor fellows!”

On Jan. 27, Pinnell wrote that the regiment had been on the march 44 days at that time, walking an average of 15 miles a day.

“This march has been made by men, barefooted, half naked and much of the time without the sufficiency of food, coarse corn meal and poor beef the men have,” he jotted.

Union drummer boy William Bircher, 2nd Minnesota Inf., wrote in his own diary on Sept. 16, 1862:  “We marched 22 miles. I had no shoes. I tore up my shirt to wrap around my bleeding feet, which were so sore I could not march without great pain.”

Much later in the war it was said the path of the Confederate Army of Tennessee while on winter campaign was marked by the bloody red footprints left in the snow.

One time many years ago I wanted to try and experience that feeling and trod out barefoot into a snow much like we see outside today. Yes, it was stupid. And I think I lasted less than five minutes. But it made me better appreciate — as has walking to work and back those times last week — what far more resilient men once suffered through.

And that I have little to complain about.

Wes Franklin is director of the Newton County Historical Park and Museum, 121 N. Washington, in Neosho. He is also a staff writer for the Neosho Daily News. He can be reached at 658-8443.