Snow Day Fun

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Civil War soldiers were no different than teenagers and college students today. But many were in their teens or twenties, so it should not surprise us to learn that soldiers liked to play practical jokes on each other, particularly in the boredom of winter, when campaigning was put on hold and armies settled into winter quarters.

Of course, snowball fights were a favorite pastime. See our previous post “Snowball Fight!!” here. But simple pranks were just as much fun—for both the giver and the receiver!

In February of 1863, the 3rd South Carolina Infantry was in winter quarters near Fredericksburg, Va. On the 27th, Cpl. Taliaferro “Tally” Simpson wrote home of the fun he and his friends had after ten inches of snow fell.

2019-02-23 20190221_132539They decided to play a joke on their colonel and some of the other officers.  They went to the colonel’s quarters armed with eight or ten snowballs each, and put a blanket over the chimney.  Capt. Langston had been told about the joke ahead of time, so as soon as he realized the blanket was in place, he added more logs to the fire and went out to join the pranksters.

The tent filled with smoke, and one of the officers went out to see what was wrong with the chimney.  He was immediately bombarded with a dozen snowballs and forced back inside. Tally wrote, “then they began to smell a rat.  They laughed, halloed, and begged us strenuously to have mercy on them. But twas no go.”

They managed to pull the blanket off, but Capt. Langston fetched a saddle blanket which Tally held on top of the chimney again. By then the rolling smoke was so thick that Maj. Maffett poked his nose through a hole he cut in the canvas, and Lt. Johnson put his head under the door for air.

“They begged, threatened, and told us they would pay us back some day, all to no go. Finally they could bear it no longer, and they rushed out amid a storm of snow balls and lit in to fighting us like good fellows. But our party was too strong, and they had to knuck under. They enjoyed it as much as we did, and we all laughed heartily over it.”

May you enjoy some fun in the snow this winter, until, as Tally ended his story, “The snow is gone, and the fun is up.”




In honor of Groundhog’s Day last weekend and the squirrel inside our parents’ house this week, we’re taking a look at critter mascots and pets today.

While many regiments had dogs as mascots, some regiments had roosters, one regiment had a raccoon, one had an owl named “Minerva,” and one had a black bear. One regiment had a 30-year old goose who waddled in time with the band’s music. A Union cavalry regiment kept a lamb as a mascot for a while. A Confederate regiment in the western theater even had a camel named “Douglas.” One of “Stonewall” Jackson’s units had a pig named Susan Jane. Originally they were going to fatten her up to eat, but then the men ended up liking her and kept her.

Perhaps the most famous non-canine was “Old Abe,” the 8th Wisconsin’s bald eagle. He traveled with the regiment throughout the war, and would circle above the fighting during battle, always returning to his specially-made perch afterwards. He even learned commands and would stand at attention or “lie down” along with the men. He survived the war and became the highlight of veterans’ reunions. He lived until 1881, when smoke inhalation from a fire killed him.

Gen. Robert E. Lee even had a pet—a hen who travelled with him on campaign. Despite his own unusual pet, he nevertheless did as any good father would and constantly teased his youngest daughter, Mildred, about her own pet—a squirrel. She named the squirrel Custis Morgan—“Custis” after her oldest brother and “Morgan” after the daring Confederate cavalryman, John Hunt Morgan. In his letters to Mildred, Gen. Lee wrote, “If you would immerse his head under the water for five minutes in one of his daily baths, it would relieve him & you of infinite trouble.” He also suggested the family have “Squirrel soup thickened with peanuts,” adding that “Custis Morgan in such an exit from the stage would cover himself with glory.”

As we wait for the early spring that Punxsutawney Phil decreed when looking for his shadow last Saturday, may you enjoy watching the critters around you, inside the house and out.

2019-02-09 Kitty duchess

Kitty, Museum Cat of Civil War Tails

This Year’s Resolution

New Year’s Day is a time when many of us make resolutions. Often, they are resolutions to improve our health or lifestyles, but what about our character? Have you ever made a resolution that will improve who you are, not on the outside, but on the inside, and not for your own comfort but for the improvement of those around you?

In the past month, we have been reminded of how quickly our plans and intentions can be changed. When life hits the fan, our true character becomes apparent. When life ends, it will be our character that shapes how people remember us. In today’s Mewsing, we take a look at several men of the Civil War and how their friends and acquaintances remembered them.


Lt. Charles Hazlett: On July 2, 1863, Lt. Hazlett determined to bring the guns of his Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery, onto Little Round Top. He knew his artillery could not aim low enough to fire at the Confederates climbing the hill’s slopes, but he knew “the sound of my guns will be encouraging to our troops and disheartening to the others, and my battery’s of no use if this hill is lost.” He would be mortally wounded on the hill, but his concern for the infantry was not misplaced. A captain in the 44th New York, just down the slope from Hazlett’s guns, recalled that when the artillery opened fire, “No military music ever sounded sweeter and no aid was ever better appreciated.”

Afterwards, Gen. Gouverneur Warren recalled the young lieutenant as he brought his battery onto the crest:

There he sat on his horse on the summit of the hill, with whole-souled animation encouraging our men, and pointing with his sword toward the enemy amidst a storm of bullets – a figure of intense admiration to me… No nobler man fought or fell that day than he.

May we all have such a concern for others that we are willing to move mountains (almost literally in Hazlett’s case!) in order to help them, even if only emotionally.

1st Lt. Henry Ropes: On July 3, 1863, when Pickett’s division struck the Angle and the Copse of Trees, the 20th Massachusetts Regiment was one of the regiments that rushed to reinforce the Philadelphia Brigade at the Copse. Lt. Ropes was among those killed in the regiment. Accounts differ as to whether he was killed earlier in the day or during the fighting with Pickett’s Confederates, but those details seem secondary to the grief felt by all who knew him, even Lt. Frank Haskell, who was part of the division commander’s staff and not part of the regiment itself. Haskell recalled that Ropes was “a most estimable gentleman, and officer, intelligent, educated, refined, one of the noble souls that came to the country’s defense.”

Capt. Henry Abbott, who led the regiment into the Copse, wrote of Ropes in his report:

Never before has this regiment, in the death of any officer received one-half so heavy a blow…. Lieutenant Ropes’ behavior in this battle was more conspicuous for coolness and absolute disregard of personal danger than I have ever witnessed in any other man. He entered the service [and] remained in it until his death from the purest patriotism; not a single ambitious or selfish motive mingled with it. He would have made the noblest sacrifice where he knew that no man would even hear it as readily as if the eyes of the whole world were fixed upon him. Such perfect purity of sentiment deserves this distinguished mention; which Lieutenant Ropes himself would have been the last to expect.

May we all have the humility of Lt. Ropes, who would do the right thing, whether or not anyone was there to see him act.

Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur: On October 19, 1864, the Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley, under Gen. Jubal Early, attacked Gen. Phil Sheridan’s army at Cedar Creek, near Winchester, Va. They succeeded in routing the Union army—until Gen. Sheridan arrived from Winchester (he was en route from a meeting in Washington, D.C.) and rallied his troops. The Union counterattack drove the Confederates from the field in a stunning reversal.

Among the Confederate brigadier generals was Stephen Ramseur. Only 27 years old, Ramseur had been married for less than a year and had just learned of the arrival of his first child. During the battle, he wore a flower in the lapel of his best uniform in honor of his new baby, and he hoped for a victory, so he could request a furlough to visit his family. Instead, as he tried to rally his troops, he was shot through the lungs and captured. He died the next morning, without even knowing that his baby was a little girl. His aide, Maj. Hutchinson, wrote a simple but heartfelt tribute in a letter to Ramseur’s wife, “He told me to tell you that he had a firm hope in Christ and trusted to meet you hereafter. He died as became a Confederate soldier and a firm believer.”

Ramseur’s peace transcended the crushing disappointment that he surely felt, knowing that he would not return home to see his child and wife. But it was his confidence in his Lord and Savior that gave him the comfort of knowing that he would see them one day in Heaven, in the presence of God. May we have such peace and certain confidence when our best-laid plans and hopes are suddenly obliterated.

Col. William Pegram: On April 1, 1865, only eight days before the surrender at Appomattox Court House, Union troops launched a sudden attack that surprised the Confederates at Five Forks. During the fighting, Col. Pegram, commanding artillery, was mortally wounded. As he was taken to the rear, his distressed adjutant and friend, Gordon McCabe, exclaimed, “Oh! Willie, I did not know how much I loved you until now.”

Pegram replied, “But I did, Gordon.”

After Pegram’s death, McCabe wrote, “He died as he had lived, without fear or reproach—the truest Christian, the best friend, the most splendid soldier in all the world!”

May we be remembered as Pegram was: faithful in our friendship, exceptional at our work, living above reproach, and with our lives and outlooks shaped and anchored firmly by our beliefs.

In the daily rush of life, it is easy to lose track of what is important and who we are. Are you who you want to be? Is adding an exercise routine all you need to change this year? If the rat race were to disappear, what would remain? What would really matter?

Merry Christmas!

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Every year, we enjoy decorating for Christmas, from lights outside to garlands and trees inside. This year, half of the museum is decorated with a Civil War theme. You might think it was obvious, since our museum is about the Civil War, but this is actually the first year we have followed a Civil War theme. In today’s mewsing, we’ll explore some of the traditions that inspired our decorations at Civil War Tails.

2018-12-15 20181213_172330Christmas trees were just becoming popular, thanks to Queen Victoria adopting the German tradition. They were not the large trees that we are used to; rather, a Christmas tree in the 1860’s would be smaller and stand on a table in the center of the room. Branches would be cut out until the remaining branches formed layers. Presents were placed on the branches, with larger presents on the table. Presents during the Civil War were often handmade, such as hand-carved toys, cotton or flannel animals, hickory nut and flannel dolls, candied fruits in paper cornucopias, gingerbread cakes, needle cases, or slippers. Of course, because of the war, presents were often scarce, particularly in the South. Mothers in the Confederacy would have to come up with excuses as to why Santa wouldn’t make it to their house for Christmas. Imagine if your mother told you that Santa couldn’t get through the Northern blockade or, even worse, had been shot!

Decorations for the tree were also often handmade. Dried fruit, red bows and ribbons, chains of colored paper, strings of popcorn, and even pinecones were used. Candles would also be used, but they would only be lit on Christmas Day—with a bucket of water kept nearby! Sometimes, families were fortunate enough to have glass ornaments.

Greenery was used to decorate the rest of the rooms and was placed on all the horizontal surfaces, including pictures, window frames, doors, and mantels. Candles could be added to the greenery, particularly in the windows.

2018-12-15 20181213_172420Just as it is today, children would hang stockings for Santa to fill. They might even know the story “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” since it was written in the 1820’s. The family could also enjoy carols, such as “Deck the Halls,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “What Child is This,” “Away in the Manger,” “Joy to the World,” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” Some specifically American carols were “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “We Three Kings,” and “Up on the Housetop.” However, for all of you who have not sent out Christmas cards yet, it’s okay—cards were popular in Europe but the fad would not take hold in the United States for another decade!

Christmas dinner was as big a deal as it is today, although the war would have caused shortages. Before the war, you might expect to see ham, turkey, oysters, squash, cabbage, potatoes (both white and sweet), carrots, apples, breads, pies, puddings, stuffing, coffee, tea, and of course eggnog—and that’s a partial list!

We had a lot of fun decorating the museum along Civil War-era lines this year, and look forward to doing it again. Perhaps this Mewsing has inspired you to try it next year. It’s not hard. Artificial trees are great at making “layers” of branches. Candles now come with batteries (you just need a bucket of fresh batteries on hand instead of water!). And the kids will enjoy stringing popcorn. Kitty, our Museum Cat, enjoyed finally being allowed to eat popcorn straight out of the big bowl—until she realized it had no butter or salt!

Merry Christmas, everyone!



05.11 postcard - quilter

Here at Civil War Tails, we are sewing new Civil War dresses to replace the ones we made in high school. I say “we,” but in reality our mother is doing the sewing! Dealing with yards and yards of fabric, dozens of hooks and eyes, plus boning, ruching, piping, and lining makes us suddenly grateful for modern fashions and Walmart. And since we’re engulfed in yards of fabric and pondering the trouble that went into making clothes back then, in today’s Mewsing we are taking a look at the women who traveled with the armies as laundresses. After all, sewing the clothes is only the start of the battle—what went into caring for a family’s (or army’s) garments?

Each company of 100 men would typically have four laundresses. These women were usually wives or mothers of men in the company. The laundresses lived in a separate part of the camp from the men, and their section was known as “Suds Row” because of the soap suds they generated. Laundresses needed a lot of equipment to do their job, and usually they also brought their children with them, so some officers did not like having to take them along on the march. One officer wrote, “Transportation of all the laundresses’ paraphernalia, children, dogs, beds, cribs, tables, tubs, buckets, boards, and Lord knows what not, amounts to a tremendous item of care and expense.” But laundresses were important, so even when other women and visitors were not allowed to go with the army, the laundresses went.

Washing clothes was quite an operation. A laundress needed two tubs that could hold 25 gallons of water each and weighed 35 pounds without the water. She also needed buckets, boilers, laundry sticks, scrub boards, soap crates, starch, bluing, and much more. Washing the clothes took three days. The first day was spent mending the clothes, since any holes would get bigger when the clothes were washed. Then the clothes were soaked in warm, soapy water, and the laundress tried to get out any stains. The clothes were left to soak for a day or two, then they were put in tubs of warm water. The laundress would shave pieces of soap into the water and put extra soap on hard stains. Then she would start scrubbing it on the scrub board, rubbing each piece of clothing against the board’s ridges until it was clean. Then she rinsed the clothes and wrung them out. But the washing process wasn’t done yet.

Once the clothes were rung out, they were put in boiling water to kill any lice that still remained. After they were boiled, the clothes were taken out with a laundry stick and rinsed three times. The first rinse was in hot water, then cool water, then cold water. Then came the bluing process. A laundress dyed some water light blue, the swished the clothes in it. This was to make the clothes white again, since the soap turned them yellow.

After bluing them, the laundress hung the clothes on clotheslines or spread them out on the bushes or grass. But they couldn’t be ignored, because they had to be rolled up for ironing while they were still damp. A soldier paid 50 cents to have his clothes washed, and an extra three cents if he wanted his shirt ironed. Most soldiers saved their money for something else, but officers liked to have their shirts ironed. For example, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock always wore a clean white, ironed shirt, even in battle.

Ironing was not easy in the 1860’s. Nowadays, you just plug in the iron and turn the dial to the correct temperature. Back then, irons had to be heated on a stove. In camp, the laundresses did not have stoves, so they had to heat the iron on a frying pan over a fire. There was no way to tell how hot the iron was, and if it was too hot, it would scorch the clothes. If a soldier wanted his shirt starched, that added to the problems with the iron. Starch was made up of different things, like potatoes and flour. A laundress had to know what starch to use, how much to use, and how hot the iron could be. Getting everything just right was rather tricky.

After washing the clothes, the laundress couldn’t stop for a break, because she still had to make sure her tubs were kept damp so they would not dry out and leak. But the tubs could not be too wet or they would rot. Also, the irons had to be waxed to prevent rusting. All this makes you grateful for our washing machines and dryers, doesn’t it?

But the soldiers were glad to have the laundresses along, not just because they washed the clothes, but also because they reminded the soldiers of their own homes and families. One general noticed that his men were “more cheerful, honest and comfortable” when they had their laundress around.

So often, our daily chores are just that—chores. Take some time today to thank the mom in your life who does all the thankless chores, and recognize that without her, your life would be a good deal less cheerful and comfortable!

“This Horrible Hill of Sacrifice” – Col. Thomas and the 8th Vermont at the Battle of Cedar Creek

How would you respond? You’re a new brigade commander in the Civil War, inspecting your picket line in the middle of the night, with the uneasy feeling that a couple of “civilians” you saw looking over the Union army’s position the day before . . . weren’t civilians. You ride a little further out, into the empty area beyond your picket line. It is the night of October 18-19, 1864, but the weather’s a little milder than it has been. Perhaps the fog is already coming in.

Suddenly, as you listen and peer into the darkness, you hear a shout: “Surrender, you d–d Yankee!”

Does your heart stop? Do you surrender?

Col. Stephen Thomas’ heart may have skipped a beat, but his mind did not. He quipped, “No, sir! It’s too early in the morning!” and wheeled his horse. He spurred it up the steep ravine bank and escaped to safety, not knowing whether he had contacted an enemy picket or . . . the enemy army.

Within hours, he would find out, and would earn the Medal of Honor while leading his brigade in a desperate, bloody stalling action.


By 5 a.m., the Battle of Cedar Creek began in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, as Confederates materialized out of thick fog and hit the Union army’s VIII Corps with what a Confederate cavalryman described as, “a prolonged roll [of gunfire], without cessation, for apparently five minutes. After the volley was over the echo of it seemed to roll back and forth over the Valley a half dozen or more times.” The awakened Union soldiers scrambled, either to flee or to mount a hasty defense in pockets that could not withstand the Confederate onslaught for long.

Capt. S.E. Howard of the 8th Vermont, in Col. Thomas’ brigade, woke to a “terrific clap of thunder,” but instead of hearing the encouraging yell of his comrades in blue, he heard, “the Yi Yi Yi! of the Confederates—it seemed to me as if our whole left were enveloped, enfolded, by this cry.”

As the minutes passed and the Union army dissolved, someone needed to buy time. If the XIX Corps could retreat with enough organization, a stand might be made further north. Gen. William Emory looked to the brigade now commanded by Col. Thomas (due to restructuring after the arrest of a superior officer).

Gen. Emory ordered the brigade across the Valley Turnpike and into the face of the Confederates. All they could hope to do with their attack was to buy time – four regiments could not hope to stop the Confederates. Gen. Emory later recalled, “I never gave an order in my life that cost me so much pain.”

Across the pike the regiments went, and up a hill. The 8th Vermont had time for only one volley before the Confederates hit them from every direction. With Confederates swarming around the brigade, each regiment seemed to fight its own fight. Private Herbert Hill of the 8th Vermont vividly recalled such a vicious struggle for his regiment’s colors that men “seemed more like demons than human beings, as they struck fiercely at each other with clubbed muskets and bayonets.”

Three color bearers fell as the 8th Vermont fought and inched backward, falling back only as needed to avoid being completely surrounded. With some of the regiment on other duties that morning, 164 men of the 8th Vermont had gone into this fight. Of those, 110 were killed and wounded. Overall, half of Col. Thomas’ brigade fell, leading a news correspondent to call the area, “this horrible hill of sacrifice, where it offered itself up for the salvation of the army.”


Lewis, Thomas A., The Guns of Cedar Creek. Strasburg: Heritage Associates, 1997.

How We Make a Cavalry Horse and Cat

People often wonder how we make our cats and horses. Now you can find out! Making 200 new horses for “Come On, You Wolverines!” takes a long time, but it’s also a great opportunity to shoot a video of how we make a cavalrycat and horse. We’ve uploaded the videos on our new “Making a Cavalry Horse and Cat” pages. Enjoy!

Upon watching the videos, you might conclude that Rebecca is either really good at making horses or she drinks a lot of coffee. Both are true—she does like coffee, and between the two of us, we’ve probably made over 900 horses since 1995. However, we can’t make a horse in half an hour. Actually, Rebecca recorded the videos in 4x hyperlapse, since the entire process takes about two hours.

Our horses range from ¾” to 3” tall. As with real horses, we measure to the withers, the highest point of the shoulder. The one Rebecca is making is 3” tall.

Originally, we made our cats and horses from Plastalina modeling clay, which does not harden. Now we use Sculpey polymer clay, which is bakeable. Specifically, we prefer Sculpey III and we use our toaster oven, which is great for baking small batches. (You’d be amazed at how many cats can fit on a small toaster oven tray!)

In the videos, Rebecca is using Sculpey III for the majority of the colors, beige Super Sculpey for the horse’s “pink” hooves, and white Original Sculpey. We use telephone wire inside the legs to prevent them from drooping in the oven. Silver wire of various gauges serves for bit, girth rings, and saber.

2018-09-29 ready to bake

The horse and cat are ready to be baked. Larger horses like this take 12 minutes in the oven. A ¾” horse would take 8 minutes.

After baking, we still need to add reins (telephone wire or button thread) and a lead rope (string). Once the glue dries, the horse is ready to be installed on the diorama!


2018-09-29 finished