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

You Can Do It: The Humble, Versatile Toothpick

School is starting up again, and chances are if you’re a student, you’ll have to make a diorama for a school project.  If you’re a parent, you’ll probably have to help with the diorama! As you’re planning it out, don’t forget to look around the house for humble but useful items, like paper clips, cardboard, or toothpicks.  Wait, toothpicks?

Of all the household items we use on our dioramas, toothpicks are probably nearest and dearest to our hearts. The other day we had quite a discussion about all the uses for (and types of) toothpicks. Don’t believe me?  Read on…

In our current repertoire, we have five basic types:

2018-09-13 Larry's II - guidon2018-09-13 Larry's II - Rosser1. the “big flat Larry’s II” toothpick:

These were the first ones we collected as kids. They came in the big club sandwiches at our grandfather’s favorite restaurant (Larry’s II) and are perfect for supporting clay horses. Since they’re wide, they don’t slide up into the horse and break through the shoulder like a skinny, pointy one would. They’re also useful for large-scale cavalry flagstaffs.


2018-09-13 long toothpick2018-09-13 long toothpick - arty2. the long toothpick:

Also great for large-scale flagstaffs, these are good for artillery sponge-staffs and rammers—or for lances, if you’re making knights!


2018-09-13 square toothpick3. the square toothpick:

2018-09-13 square toothpick - sailorWant to do a sailor on a ship’s deck? The square toothpick is just for you! Since their width and shape are uniform, they’re perfect for ships’ planks. 2018-09-13-square-toothpick-mon-2-1-turret-floor-check-21.jpgIf you’re making the whole ship, using a thin corrugated cardboard (which has enough of a ribbed look to pass as planking) would be better, but toothpicks are the way to go for individual sailors, such as those we sell in display domes, or small areas like the inside of USS Monitor’s turret.

2018-09-13 square toothpick - WagnerThe leftover tips that get chopped off are good for the spikes that the Confederates put in Battery Wagner’s moat, which the 54th Massachusetts Regiment had to navigate through.


2018-09-13 round toothpick4. the round toothpick:

These toothpicks make great balusters (posts) on railings, such as these balcony railings on our scratch-built stern of Santisima Trinidad (look up the battle of Trafalgar in 1805). They also work well for the inside of USS Monitor’s lanterns, where the natural color of the wood implies a flame inside glass.



2018-09-13 flat toothpick5. the flat toothpick:

2018-09-13-flat-toothpick-img_05461.jpgSaving the best for last! This toothpick is our workhorse. Fence rails, railroad ties, small-scale flagstaffs, picket fences, gun carriages, traverses and machicoulis galleries, even a ladder up a flagpole… The list goes on and on. Save the skinny ones for ¾” flagstaffs, the curved ones for rocking chairs, the blunt ended ones for fence rails… I’m pretty sure there’s nothing a flat toothpick can’t make—hence my buying a box of 2,500 of them (and then sorting them!).

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - The General

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - A Very Hell of Fire 032018-09-13 flat toothpick - quilter

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - Machicoulis galleries

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - dismounted columbiad carriage 22018-09-13 flat toothpick - flag pole 1


So there you go. The next time you need to make a diorama (or help your child make one), take another look at the humble toothpick. Although I should warn you—you might end up compulsively saving toothpicks from your sandwiches!

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - redoubts

Scavenger Hunt!

3rd anniversary - shadow

This Labor Day, Civil War Tails is celebrating its 3rd Anniversary!  As is our tradition, we will be offering discounted admission and having a scavenger hunt (with prizes) on Friday the 31st, Saturday the 1st, and Labor Day Monday the 3rd.

This year, the scavenger hunt will have an “Escape” theme.  Unlike traditional escape rooms, we will not be locking you in the museum!  But all of our questions will be somehow related to escapes, rescues, or adventures.  Come and discover stories of escape from predicaments, capture, death, and disaster—all found on our dioramas.

How would you escape when you’re backed up to the edge of a cliff, or fighting three enemy soldiers alone and disarmed, or held in a POW camp?  What do you do when your carriage breaks down and the enemy’s closing in?

Find the answers—and the people who really lived through these events—on our scavenger hunt!  Meet Capt. Spessard, Col. Williams, Pvt. Grine, Gen. Wheeler, and many more!  Our samurai cat will even make an appearance!

Saving Captain Bigelow

img_0093.jpgIn our February 2017 Mewsing, we talked about the 9th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg. Here is the rest of the story—the courage and determination of Bugler Charles Reed to save his captain’s life.

As the Union line near the Wheatfield crumbled on July 2, 1863, Capt. John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery withdrew to the Trostle farmyard. The battery had had their first taste of battle that afternoon and now hoped to reach safety before the Confederate infantry overtook them. Just then, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery galloped up. “Captain Bigelow,” he shouted, “there is not an infantryman back of you along the whole line…you must remain where you are and hold your position at all hazards, and sacrifice your battery, if need be, until at least I can find some batteries to put in position….The enemy are coming down on you now.”

Bigelow’s six guns took up a position inside the angle of a stone wall. About fifty yards ahead of them, the ground rose, blocking their view. At first, Bigelow’s men ricocheted solid shot off the rise, but since they could not see if they hit any Confederates, they finally loaded the guns with double canister and waited. When infantry appeared over the rise, the guns opened fire and continued firing as quickly as possible.

As the two guns on the left fired, their recoil brought them closer and closer to the wall, until the crews ran out of space. Bigelow ordered them to the rear, while the other four continued to fire. The first gun’s team of horses sped through a gate and wheeled into Trostle’s Lane. But the cannon overturned, blocking the gate. The only way for the second gun to escape was to go over the wall. The artillerymen took away some of the rocks to make a gap, then galloped the horses over.  Bugler Charles Reed recalled the gun “going over with a tilt on one side and then a crash of rocks and wheels”—but it made it over successfully.

Bigelow asked his men to enlarge the gap for the remaining guns. As he watched the men work, Confederates on the battery’s flank fired and wounded him in the side and hand. He fell from the saddle, and his orderly and Bugler Reed rushed to his side. Confederates swarmed over the guns, and the artillerymen fought hand-to-hand even while they still fired the cannons. Seeing that they could delay the Confederates no longer, Bigelow finally ordered his men to retreat.

Earlier in the day, Bigelow had ordered Reed to the rear, since he was unlikely to need a bugler in the thunder of battle.  Reed obeyed…but then had second thoughts. “I…might be of some use after all so I disobeyed orders by turning round [and] going up to the battery again.”  Bigelow and Reed could never have guessed what his decision would mean.

As Bigelow ordered the withdrawal, Reed recalled, he told his orderly and Reed “to leave him and get out as best we could.”  But Reed couldn’t leave his captain.  With the orderly’s help, he lifted Bigelow onto the orderly’s horse, then proceeded to the rear, controlling both horses with his left hand and steadying Bigelow with his right hand.

As they moved at a walk because of Bigelow’s wounds, some Confederates tried to pull them down and capture them.  Reed fought them with his saber and the horses kicked.  As the Confederates were about to shoot them, Reed recalled, their own officers told them “not to murder us in cold blood.”  Reed and Bigelow continued on.

Now between the hostile lines, they were approached by an officer from the 6th Maine battery, the next in McGilvery’s line of defense.  He urged them to hurry, since the battery was ready to open fire.  Bigelow explained that they could not move faster than a walk, but to “fire away.”  The battery did so, firing shell from two guns and canister from two guns. The orderly’s horse became frightened, but Reed managed to control the animal. Bigelow remembered, “Bugler Reed did not flinch; but steadily supported me; kept the horses at a walk although between the two fires and guided them, so that we entered the Battery between two of the guns that were firing heavily.” Amazingly, neither Bigelow nor Reed were harmed.

Bigelow credited Reed with saving his life, not only from capture (where the severity of his wounds would lessen his odds of survival as a prisoner of war), but from the 6th Maine’s friendly fire.  In 1895, Bigelow recommended Reed for the Medal of Honor, and Reed received the award later that year.




Campbell, Eric. “We Saved the Line From Being Broken: Freeman McGilvery, John Bigelow, Charles Reed and the Battle of Gettysburg.” Gettysburg Seminar Papers: Unsung Heroes of Gettysburg. Last updated: 17 April 2016. Last accessed: 3 August 2018.

Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg—The Second Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

The Right to Life

Several times recently, while discussing prisoners of war, a child has asked me, “Why didn’t they just kill them?” One such question came while talking about prisoner exchange and Andersonville, the prisoner of war camp in Georgia. The basis for the question came from the child’s experience with a video game where, apparently, wounded enemy fighters keep coming at you until you kill them, teaching the player to always kill the enemy no matter what.

013 GrineThe second incident came while talking about Pvt. Philip Grine of the 83rd Pennsylvania. During the fighting on Little Round Top, he ventured out between the fighting lines twice to retrieve wounded Confederates. He was killed while trying to get a third. A child asked me why he did what he did. “To get their stuff?” No, to get them to the aid station for medical treatment. “Why? They’ll just start fighting him again. I would have killed them.”

Can the ideas of treating POWs humanely and of showing compassion to injured men really be so foreign to a child? As our children grow and learn what to believe and think, we need to make sure they know what is right. If we lay the right foundation, they will be able to evaluate outside ideas (from games, books, movies, etc.) and keep them in the right context.

Let me suggest that the most basic foundation for a good worldview is a respect for life. The Declaration of Independence points out that all humans have “certain unalienable rights”—rights that we have had since the beginning of time and creation, and that are not dependent on what a king or president says. The most important one is the right to life.

If humans have the right to life, then preserving that life is the right thing to do. There are times when war is necessary, but war is not a carte blanche for going out and killing all the enemy to the last man (which is why we have the Geneva Conventions). If an enemy has given up fighting, the honorable thing to do is to preserve their life and treat them as a human being again, even if five minutes ago you had “dehumanized” them to justify shooting them in battle. Yes, war is paradoxical. In his memoirs of WWII, Audie Murphy wrote about the strange paradox of gunning down attacking Germans and then, after capturing them, treating their wounds.

Without the basic respect for life—if we do not see a defeated enemy soldier as a human being—we open the door to war crimes and atrocities:

At Fort Pillow during the Civil War, African-American soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered.

During WWII, German SS troops (not to be confused with the Wehrmacht, the German army) rounded up 80 prisoners who had surrendered, herded them into a barn, and then tossed in grenades and strafed them with machine gun and rifle fire. As if that weren’t enough, they brought out some of the POWs and executed them by firing squad. Somehow, 15 prisoners in the barn survived. This was not the only time the SS killed POWs in cold blood.

In bushido, the code of the Japanese samurai, to lose is to lose your honor (respect). This is why defeated samurai would commit seppuku (ritual suicide) to die with honor. This view meant that Japanese soldiers in WWII had no respect for defeated enemy soldiers, since the latter had lost their honor. As a result, POWs were murdered, brutally mistreated, and tortured. During the Bataan Death March, Allied POWs were made to march over 80 miles, in extreme heat, without food, with little to no water, and in constant fear of random beatings or death by bullet or bayonet. Any who fell by the roadside were shot or bayoneted, but prisoners were not permitted to help their weaker buddies (prompting prisoners to come up with alternatives, like speaking encouragement). Any attempts by local Filipinos to give food or water resulted in beatings of prisoners and locals alike.

Do we want our children to have such a mindset?

But, you say, my child doesn’t think that! But the only difference between “Why didn’t they just kill the enemy soldiers (POWs)” and the SS just killing the enemy soldiers (POWs) is a matter of degree. What our children fill their minds with will shape who they become. If they cannot see the “other side” as anything but an enemy that must be destroyed, then they are at risk of losing a heart for their fellow man. And how will they know to separate the enemy on the screen from the “enemy” in their real life? How will they respond when faced with a bully, an annoying co-worker or boss, family troubles, or people with different opinions and beliefs?

027 USwA worldview of respecting your fellow man is not a view that ignores the realities of the world we live in; it is a view that works to make the real world better. Let us foster a respect for life in our children—even for the “enemy.”