Soldier-printers' interjections of encouragement on the Civil War battleground

During the American Civil War, after the capture of New Orleans in the spring of 1862, Union troops were stationed at the former Confederate fortifications north of New Orleans called Camp Parapet. Among the units stationed there was Company H of the 26th Infantry Regiment, which had been formed at Norwich, Connecticut. It's difficult to envision Civil War soldiers having time to write letters home, never mind compose and print unit newspapers containing entertaining stories about eating contests or "ditties" about the annoyance of chores like dishwashing, but that's exactly what Company H did.

The top of a page of a portion of yellowed newspaper with the title

By February 1863 "J.M. Mosher" and "C. Bennett, 2nd" of Company H began printing a camp or soldier newspaper titled The Letter H. Like many similar military unit rags it reported on military and political issues, as well as more personal issues, in an effort to entertain colleagues and help them keep up with unit and national affairs. The Letter H even established a kind of office—this issue "Vol. 1—No. 2" offers the most recent issue for sale at "the editorial sanctum, Mess No. 7."

An excerpt from an old, yellowed newspaper with black type

These newspapers are rich with primary source information that reveals what life was like for different groups of soldiers during the war. One letter to the editor records a positive description of Camp Parapet, saying, "with the exception of being encamped in the lowlands of Louisiana, we can but feel that we are favored, being furnished with good tents, board floor, and with little trouble, good corn husks are produced for beds …."

A full page from a yellowed newspaper. There are three columns and a title at the top.

Another upbeat reference, this time from the editors, titled "Wholesome Appetite," reports: "The strongest evidence that we can give that the climate in Camp Parapet is productive of an appetite, is deduced from a circumstance told us by Corporal Pierce of Co. D. A few evenings since the boys bought some sweet potatoes and a nice lot of meat, and got up a first rate supper, all supposing that they had enough and to spare; but there was one of the mess, the first two letters of whose name is A. J. Maynard, before whom the supper rapidly disappeared. The boys then anxious to see how much the 'hero of the platter' would eat, invited him to a restaurant, and told him to call on for what he wanted at their expense. His first dish was two and a half pounds of fried ham and twelve eggs, with bread and butter; this was followed by three plates of buckwheat cakes and five cups of coffee, the whole washed down with a glass of beer. The bill amounted to $1.50, which the boys cheerfully paid."

A whimsical and food-associated poem by "Sandy," recording the unit's nine-month military deployment, is also included:

A Wishy-washy Ditty.
There's one routine in our Corp's Mess
Goes furthest from my wishes,
And that is nothing more or less
Than 'turns' to wash up dishes
Oh, hoops and skirts! I can't define
How much one feels like feminine!
I dread it worse than reveille,
Drill, Drum, or even devil;
E'en 'checks' are but a source of glee
Compared with dish-wash evil;
Shades of the culinary art!
Relieve me from this Nine Months dart.
But there is consolation sweet 
'Ye gods and little fishes!'
When thoughts of home our memories greet
Where wives wash up the dishes; 
Oh, rags and mess-pans! How sublime,
When we are freed from Nine Months time.

Military units not seeing much action were those most likely to successfully produce and continue the production of newsletters. The 26th Regiment was sent north to Springfield Landing, Louisiana, in May 1863 and may not have had the opportunity to continue printing The Letter H. No later editions are currently known; this March 16, 1863, number may well have been its final issue.

A graf of an old, yellowed newspaper, using black text.

With the invention, production, and distribution of newly invented tabletop printing presses by 1862, both Union and Confederate armies and navies began to produce small, quick-turnaround ephemera such as orders, bill, paroles, and in some cases, soldier or camp newsletters. The tabletop presses were manufactured in Boston, Cincinnati, and New York and were more easily acquired by Union forces. Union forces may have found them more useful in the southern states, as Confederate forces would have been more welcome at established vicinity printing companies.

A metal object with a hand crank. There is something flat attached on one end that appears to lift and close on a block of dark metal below with white text inlaid into it in rows like the page of a book.

The Letter H's editor-printer, John M. Mosher, was mustered out of service in August 1863. He is recorded in the 1880 census as living in Andover, New York. At that time, and probably beforehand, he described himself as a printer, and by the end of his career, as an editor. He also worked at other local New York town newspapers, including the Alfred Recorder and the Belmont Post, as a foreman, by 1887. Co-editor-printer Charles Bennett II seems to have gone home to the family farm in Stonington, Connecticut, and was described as a farmer in the 1880 census and a day laborer by 1900.

Joan Boudreau, curator in the Graphic Arts Collections, has also written about Civil War Field Printing.