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The Rifles in Winter Quarters, 1861 – 1862

By Dr. Walter Howell

After the fighting at Edward’s Ferry in October 1861, the Mississippi College Rifles went into winter quarters at Leesburg, Virginia.  Their first task was to build huts to keep out the winter cold and damp.  Saws were not available, so the men had to use axes to fell trees, then notch and lay the logs.  Walls were eight feet high and were “chinked with clay mortar and straw.”  The dirt floors were covered with pieces of canvas.  When enough bricks were secured, the men assembled crude fireplaces.  They built two double-decker bunks per hut and notched pegs into the walls to hold their weapons and equipment.

The four-man hut was a mess – a unit the Confederate army used for feeding its soldiers.  Each soldier received individual daily rations of meat and meal.  The mess received four-man rations of salt, sugar and coffee.  Hunting wildlife and foraging for chickens from nearby farms provided some variety.

The greatest burden the Rifles faced that winter was boredom.  Garrison life was a dull routine.  Reveille and roll call at 5 a. m. was followed by breakfast at 7, surgeon’s call (sick call) at 8 and then guard mounting, squad drill and company until noon.  After dinner, it was regimental drill and dress parade until 6 p. m., supper at 7 p.m. and taps at 9 p. m.  When it rained or snowed, the men kept to their huts.  Winter quarters could be dreary and depressing, but one soldier wrote home that, compared to marching and the fear of death in combat, “living in our log hut was sheer comfort.”

To fight boredom, men of the Rifles resorted to games and sports, if weather permitted.  Games started with chess, checkers and cards, but in a short time an epidemic of gambling swept the quarters.  Few escaped this vice.  The soldiers gambled using anything of value, including rations.

Nearly all Rifles were literate, and writing home was a favorite pastime in quarters.  Mail service worked well, and the Confederate and Union postal systems cooperated in the delivery of mail across lines.  Families in Clinton could ship boots, clothing and even food to their sons with confidence the soldier would receive his package.  When Rifles were captured and imprisoned by the enemy in 1862, families could mail packages and letters to them, courtesy of the U. S. Postal Service.

Living in close quarters in log huts, the soldiers of Company E were susceptible to diseases.  During that first winter, John Goldman, Lafayette York and William Thomas died of fever or pneumonia.  Henry Graff of Clinton and Henry Hartman, a Belgian, both aged 30, were discharged as being overage.  James Stokes of Clinton and John Porter were both discharged with disabilities that winter.  John Farr, an original Rifle from Clinton, was listed as a deserter in February of 1862.

A subtle name change took place over that winter.  Officers, in their official correspondence, and Rifles when writing home, began calling Company E the “Clinton Rifles,” reflecting the growing number of non-college soldiers in the company ranks.

Editor’s note: 2011 marks the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the fifth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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