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“A Man Could Have Got Almost Anything He Wanted:” Soldier Pickups on Central Virginia Battlefields, Part I

"Stone wall, rear of Fredericksburg with Rebel dead, May 3d, 1863." 

(Library of Congress) 

Few period photographs better capture the amount of post-battle soldier equipment debris than this one does.



During the Chancellorsville Campaign, the 53rd Georgia Infantry’s Pvt. William Stilwell took a few minutes to pen some lines to his wife Molly. Writing on May 2, 1863, Stilwell explained, “I write to let you know that I think of you and friends amidst the din of battle.” However, his present situation intruded on his thoughts. “Oh, could you but sit now where I sit and see the sight which I see, it would present to you an awful sight. While I write there are two dead Yankees within fifteen feet of me, and others nearby,” Stilwell penned. Such scenes from the war had hardened Stilwell as they had soldiers on both sides. “Dead men are so common that I get used to it though I always try to pay due respect to them,” he noted. War’s toughing process apparently benefited Stilwell materially, too, as he wrote Molly a follow-up letter on May 5 that he was able to obtain some battlefield acquisitions that potentially made soldiering a little bit more bearable. He told Molly: “I got me two blankets, sugar, coffee, paper and envelopes enough to last me a long time. In fact, I got a great many things on the battlefield, a little of most anything that I wanted.”


The Civil War often created situations where a soldier’s resourcefulness determined his level of comfort, and sometimes, even his survival. It was not uncommon for soldiers to push aside their pre-war standards of modesty, courtesy, and polite restraint if it meant that they might obtain something to help them stay armed, warm, sheltered, fed, entertained, or better remembered by loved ones at home. The war changed things. The long marches, often short and usually monotonous rations, dirty living environments, and horrific battlefield experiences eroded previously cherished civilian principles and sometimes created calloused fighting men.


In Part I of this CVBT History Wire post, we will look at a number of examples in which soldiers on central Virginia’s battlefields expressed their thoughts or engaged in practices that historians Peter Carmichael and Kathryn Shively have examined and respectively described as “pragmatic” and “self-care” approaches to their service. Examining these sources helps us better understand the mindset of some of the soldiers and the conditions in which they found themselves while fighting on the battlefields that CVBT works to preserve.


The majority of the accounts provided here come from the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. A potential contributing factor to the abundance of sources from these battles is the fact that the Confederates—who at this point in the war particularly needed supplies—held the field after these fights. In addition, following the battles, the belligerent forces separated, creating both space and time to gather battlefield items somewhat safely.  


Next month, with Part II, we will examine this topic further by looking at examples of soldiers picking up battlefield items for relics or keepsakes, army and civilian efforts at battlefield acquisitions, and the city of Fredericksburg as a prime place for picking up needed and wanted material goods.


Battlefield Acquisitions

Unidentified young Federal soldier. 

(Library of Congress)

Soldiers had to carry a significant amount of equipment. It was common for them to lighten their marching loads by discarding items temporarily deemed superfluous. Blankets and overcoats scattered along the roadsides often receive mention in their letters and diaries.

One common way for soldiers to acquire the things they needed or wanted was to simply pick them up off the battlefield or along the route of march. Some of those things ended up discarded in several different ways. Changing locations, whether advancing or retreating, and making quick movements, often resulted in things being left behind, both by accident and on purpose.


Such was the case for Corp. J. Ansel Booth, who served in the 140th New York Infantry. On May 1, 1863, he expressed his disgust in his diary: “The pickets were driven in so furiously that most of them lost everything. . . . I was minus knapsack, overcoat, blanket, poncho, shirt, stockings, towel, housewife, 5 days rations, hard tack, sugar, meat. The only friends I had left were one day’s rations in my haversack, gun, 60 rounds of cartridges, and my revolver. For the first time, I found myself in light marching order.” Losing those things probably meant that Booth would suffer the double-effect consequences of having to do without them until issued new equipment, and possibly having his pay deducted for losing them.


Pvt. Samuel Croft, 70th New York Infantry, lost his knapsack at Chancellorsville, too. Losing one’s belongings could be personally devastating. Croft wrote that “Before we went into the fight, we left our Knapsacks with the drum corps as a guard. The result was the rebs took a neare cut, and snivied them. So you see the enemy has possession of our household goods . . . Everything I valued was in the Knapsack. The result is I am utterly demoralized, and do not know whether I will ever again be wholey organized.”

"Stampede of the Eleventh Corps on the Plank Road"

(Battles and Leaders of the Civil War)

Numerous Confederate accounts note the items that they acquired during the confusion of their famous May 2, 1863, flank attack at Chancellorsville.

The retreat of the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, left lots of treasures on the field. Pvt. Jeremiah Tate, fighting in the 5th Alabama, explained to his sister Mary in a letter written about a week after the battle that “volla after volla of musketry was pourd in to them, whitch soon put them to flight, and in this way we drove them several miles through the roughfest woods I ever saw, capturing a number of prisoners, and many other valuable articals. . . .” Samuel Pickens, Tate’s 5th Alabama comrade, also noted in his diary the same day that, “All the boys had trophys fr. Bat. Field & well supplied with oil cloths, Blankets, canteens & haversacks &c.” Lt. David Champion, in Edward Thomas’s brigade remembered on May 2 that “Parts of the enemy lines were driven in two miles before dark and hundreds of men and quantities of supplies were captured. We were very hungry after an all-days march, so I cut a canteen and haversack from a dead Yankee and was sitting on a log enjoying a sumptuous meal, when a Minnie ball sang right by my head . . . I moved to a less conspicuous place and kept on eating.”


Writing to his father on May 8, 1863, Lt. Irby G. Scott, 12th Georgia Infantry penned: “Cannot give you any idea of the scene I saw of mangled bodies, the dead and wounded were lying thick everywhere. . . . I never saw as much plunder in any fight as the yanks threw away coats, blankets, oil cloths, caps, canteens, Havre Sacks &c of which our boys supplied themselves bountifully. A man could have got almost anything he wanted.”


As Lt. Champion’s account makes clear, some of the items he took came off of dead enemy soldiers. Others, like Tate and Pickens are less clear whether they acquired their spoils by picking up dropped items, took them from prisoners, or scavenged them from dead soldiers. Samuel Burney, who served in Cobb’s Georgia Legion of Gen. William Wofford’s brigade, explained to his wife that he had good fortune when they moved their camp. He wrote her that “We are at the place where the Yankees camped last night. The ground is covered with their leavings—knapsacks, haversacks, old clothes, blankets, &c.”  


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Soldiers also dropped items to lessen their marching loads. Writing to his sister, Pvt. Alonzo Searing, 11th New Jersey Infantry, described their march of April 30, 1863, at the start of Chancellorsville Campaign: “Just before starting more provisions were issued and each man had ten days’ rations to carry, in addition to all his clothing, blankets, a piece of tent, which, altogether, made such heavy loads that after going a few miles they became so fatigued that many thousands of blankets, overcoats, dress coats, and knapsacks were thrown away, the road was strewn with them, and one large mud hole was filled with blankets to help the wagons over it.”


A year later, Daniel Chisholm jotted in his journal while marching through the old Chancellorsville battlefield the sites he saw. “Our first march and we do not know where we are going, or what we are going to do. The road is strewn with Blankets, operplus [sic] Clothing, Boots, shoes, well I might say everything moveable.” The next day, Sgt. Charles T. Bowen, 12th U.S. Infantry, left part of his gear by the roadside as they marched toward battle at the Wilderness. In a letter two days later Bowen explained, “The march of [May] the 5th was very hot and we all had to throw away part of our kit. I left my overcoat on the roadside.” New York artillerist, Pvt. George Perkins, recorded in his diary the waste he witnessed on May 6, 1864. “All along the road were thickly strew the evidences of the passage of infantry the preceding day in the shape of blankets, knapsacks, clothing, & c.,” Perkins penned.


On December 17, 1862, Lt. Sanford W. Branch, 8th Georgia Infantry, wrote to his mother that “After the firing ceased, the North Carolinians returned and there was no more firing during the night. We found everything belonging to a soldier’s equipment, several hundred guns, knapsacks, canteens, &c.” About the same time, Amherst artillerists, Pvt. Henry Robinson Berkeley and Corp. Robert Winston, ventured out on the battlefield. Berkeley noted in his diary: “We got some plunder; most of it had already been carried away. I got about a dozen pairs of good drawers and an oilcloth.” Berkeley probably did not personally need a dozen pairs of drawers, but if he could sell or trade them with comrades, he might be able to swap or sell them for things he did need. 


Many of these discarded items not only ended up in soldiers’ hands; civilians in the local communities claimed them, too. Northern journalist John T. Trowbridge visited the area’s battlefields in 1865. Trowbridge’s youthful guide, Elijah, a local, related that “Many a poo’ soldier’s knapsack was emptied of his clothes, after the battle, along this road.” Trowbridge noted, “The ground everywhere, in the field and in the woods, was strewn with rotting knapsacks and haversacks, battered canteens and tin cups, and fragments of clothing. . . .” Young Elijah explained that, “Any number of families jest lived on what they got from the Union armies. . . .” The locals would “pick up what garments they could lay their hands on, wash ‘em up and sell ‘em.”


Meeting Needs

"Union Forces Burying Their Dead on the Battlefield, in Front of Stonewall Jackson's Batteries, at Fredericksburg, VA"

(The Pictorial Battles of the Civil War, published in 1895) 

Both Federal and Confederate accounts following the Battle of Fredericksburg often mention that the shoes and clothing of the Federal dead were removed. 

Soldiers especially needed items that wore out quickly. If the government or folks back home did not issue or send shoes or clothing often enough to keep pace with the rate that they wore out, the only other options were to do without or to take them. Most soldiers, believing in self-preservation over propriety, took what they needed, especially from the dead. Massachusetts soldier Pvt. Roland Bowen explained to his mother after Fredericksburg that: “I have been on the battle field since the fight under a flag of truce to bury the dead, so I have a good chance to know something about it. In one man’s garden there was 118 of our men just where they fell. The Rebs took off all their clothes that were good for any thing. I saw six in a perfectly nude state, nearly all were partly naked.” “H. D.,” of the 55th New York Infantry, wrote to the New York Sunday Mercury, what he witnessed during a truce to bury the dead: “The blankets and shoes of our dead had been appropriated by the enemy in almost every case.”


Among the soldiers in Lt. Col. William C. Oats’ 15th Alabama were several that needed shoes. Oats remembered that after the Battle of Fredericksburg, “I ordered them to help themselves to the dead men’s shoes, and they did it. I saw two . . . men watching a man who was dying, a bullet having passed through his head, and quarreling as to which should have his boots when the breath left him.” Oats solved the situation by taking the dead man’s boots and giving his old shoes to the soldier who needed them most.

"Scene in the War - Rebel Soldiers after Battle "Peeling" (I.E. Stripping) the Fallen Union Soldiers - From a Sketch by an Officer"

(Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 13, 1864)

Although where this sketch was made is not noted, it shows a scene similar to those that played out on central Virginia's battlefields.

Pvt. John Walter of the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues noted in his diary after Fredericksburg that “six or seven hundred lay strewn around, from whom our men were busily engaged in removing the clothing and other articles of value. I did a little in that line myself, and got an excellent knapsack (empty), a haversack, a canteen, and four one pound bars of yellow soap. While looking about I saw a good pair of boots on a man’s feet and as they looked to be about my size, I concluded to appropriate them, to which end I began to pull at them, but while lugging away with a perseverance worthy of a better pair, the leg came off with it just above the knee. As this was more then I bargained for, I left the boots. I had been on the field about half an hour and should have stayed longer but became disgusted on seeing two women stripping the dead men of their underclothes.” Virginia artillerist Henry Robinson Berkely noted that “All the Yankee dead had been stripped of every rag of their clothing and looked like hogs which had been cleaned.” Pvt. John L. G. Wood, 53rd Georgia wrote that “Blankets, haver sacks, knapsacks, guns, bayonets, cartridge boxes, belts, caps, hats, and etc. lay scattered in all directions. You may know that our brigade helped themselves to plunder. Some searched the Yanks pockets, and even stripped them to their skin. Nearly every one of our boys helped themselves to Yankee canteens, haver-sacks, overcoats, shoes, etc.”


Sgt. C. C. Cummings, one of Gen. William Barksdale’s men, remembered years later that, “On the morning of [December] the 15th the blue had been transferred from the forms of the dead to those of living Confederates. They had just drawn their winter clothing, the blues, and we were just off of our Maryland campaigns . . . and needed a new outfit of clothing.” Texan William Andrew Fletcher recalled that after being “sent to the front to relieve the battle line” he saw that “nearly all the dead Yankees who were in sight were naked.” Fletcher thought that the Federal clothes taken by his comrades was solely out of necessity. “It was largely done . . . by those who made a business of it, as the clothing, when washed was good stock in second hand stores and its benefit was that it supplied the wanting soldier and poor citizen at a low price,” Fletcher reasoned.  

"Body of another Confederate soldier near Mrs. Alsop's house."

(Library of Congress). 

Photographic evidence often corroborates written accounts concerning battlefield pickups. This Confederate soldier killed in the fighting at Spotsylvania is wearing a Federal "bullseye" canteen, and possibly a Federal knapsack.  

Writing to his mother on December 19, 1862, South Carolinian Lt. Richard Lewis, claimed that “I have succeeded in getting a pair of boots, and the men have provided themselves with overcoats, blankets, and all other articles that they needed.” Although initially ordered not to leave their camps, “soon the battle-field was thronged with men who thought nothing of stripping a Yankee of such clothing as was necessary for his comfort." Lewis explained the process was not much different to "drawing the hide off a squirrel . . . one fellow holding him at the head and the other at his feet, drawing off his overcoat." Impressed with the quality of the clothing, Lewis thought it was "of the very best material."  


Federal reports confirm Confederates stripping the dead at Fredericksburg. On December 17, 1862, Capt. Rufus D. Pettit, Battery B, First New York Light Artillery, “discovered them stipping our dead, and fired 12 rounds at them, when I received orders to cease firing until further orders.” Col. John R. Brooke, 53rd Pennsylvania, who led the Federal burial detail on December 17 that interred 913 soldiers and brought back five officers’ bodies, reported that “Nearly all the dead were stripped entirely naked by the enemy.”


Additionally, a New York Herald correspondent reported that on December 16 that “as soon as it was known our forces had evacuated the city, the soldiers of the enemy commenced robbing the lifeless bodies. This was plainly seen through field glasses as well as indistinctly with the naked eye.” 


Not only Confederates appropriated dead Federals’ shoes and clothing; accounts show that in some cases their own soldiers recycled dead comrades’ equipment, too. Porter Farley, 140th New York remembered that “Dead and wounded men were lying about us. Close by my company lay one poor fellow with the greater part of his head carried away by a shell. He had on a pretty good pair of shoes, however, and one of our boys who had a very poor pair, improved the opportunity to exchange with him. That was soldier all over, and was not the only time that I saw the same thing done.”

"Spare Cartridges"

Sketch by Alfred R. Waud

(Library of Congress)  

Col. David Watson Rowe, 126th Pennsylvania, related a somewhat similar story that probably involved himself as the officer mentioned in it. In the growing dark on the edge of the battlefield a human object came into view. “He stooped and rose again; then stooped and handled an object on the ground. He moved away, and then bent down again.” When confronted, the man identified himself as a private, along with his company and regiment. When asked what he was doing, the man said, “I need clothes and shoes . . . I am taking them from this dead man; he won’t need them any more.” The officer shooed the private away. “Where he had stood lay the dead man, who had fallen in the charge, stripped of his upper clothing; robbed of his life by the enemy, robbed of his garments by a comrade, alone on a hillside, in the darkness, waited for in some far off Northern home.”


Fredericksburg was not the only battle in which necessity outweighed nicety. Alexander McNeill, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, wrote following Chancellorsville that, “The ground was covered with the dead bodies of the Yankees and in many instances, they were entirely divested of all clothing except perhaps a shirt.” An example from early in the Overland Campaign comes from the diary of Joseph E. Hodgkins, 19th Massachusetts Infantry. He penned on May 18, 1864, that “The dead of our army who were killed in the last charge still lay on the field, the Rebels having buried their own, but left ours to moulder above ground. They were stripped of their clothing and had turned as black as Negro’s.”


Additionally, during combat, the ammunition of a dead or wounded friend or foe sometimes filled critical needs until more arrived. Sgt. (later Capt.) Richard W. Musgrove, 12th New Hampshire, remembered his regiment’s grueling ordeal at Chancellorsville. Fighting virtually alone in an extended position after receiving orders to hold “until the last man falls,” the Granite State men gathered cartridges as the battle raged. - “Our men had sixty rounds of ammunition when we went into the fight, and we stood in our tracks for nearly two hours and expended all of our ammunition, and then hastily gathered more from the cartridge boxes of the dead and from the hands of the wounded. Those muskets remaining whole became so foul that the cartridges could only be driven down their barrels by punching the ramrods against a rock or tree,” Sgt. Musgrove recalled.  

"Body of a Confederate soldier near Mrs. Alsop's house"

(Library of Congress)

Zooming in on a photograph of another Confederate soldier killed at Spotsylvania shows that somewhere during his service he came across a US belt plate (note that it is upside down) and a Federal smooth side canteen. 



As we started off with accounts from Pvt. Stilwell, so we will conclude. At the end of 1862, Stilwell informed Molly a couple of times about his army's supply issues. On December 7, he wrote, "Just think of so many thousand men camped in the naked woods without any tents and some barefooted, some without any blankets and living on a little beef and bread. God only knows what will become of us.” Two days later he penned that "Our clothes are still in Richmond and I don’t suppose they will be sent to us as long as we stay up here. The government is not treating us right in this manner.” When opportunities arose to obtain some things he needed and wanted he took action. On May 10, 1863, following the Chancellorsville Campaign, he wrote Molly about items found on the battlefield that provided him with some comforts: “Tore my shoes all to pieces and had to pick up some old shoes by the roadside. I suffered very much, nobody can tell, only the poor soldiers [know] what it is to march all day and night in bad weather. I never drew but a days ration of meat in nine days, but I had plenty, captured my rations from the Yankee; meat, sugar, coffee, crackers, salt, pepper, even the paper on which I write is captured. I got about fifty or seventy-five dollars worth, that is, it would cost me that to buy it. Now I’ve got paper and envelopes to last me a long time. I got me needles, thread, hair brush, comb, portfolio to keep my paper in, good canteen, two of the best blankets worth ten dollars a piece. Also I captured books, hymn and testament, but the wholesale, so I made the trip very profitable if I did suffer." 


Pvt. Stilwell, like countless soldiers during the Civil War, made conscious decisions and acted in ways that perhaps they would not have at home. In their pre-war lives, soldiers probably did not take fence rails to burn, steal chickens to eat, or appropriate items from dead people. But, as mentioned above, war changed things. One's needs to survive and find a bearable level of comfort had to be met, and if that meant breaking civilian conventions soldiers usually had few qualms about doing so. Examining these accounts serves as yet another reminder of the complicated worlds in which Civil War soldiers existed. 


Suggested Reading

Peter Carmichael. The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies. The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.


Kathryn Shively Meier. Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia. The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.


Parting Shot

"McCool's [McCoull's] House" at Spotsylvania.

(Library of Congress)

"He was a brave boy and a more gallant soldier never lived. I was told by one of the regt who was near him he threw up his hands & fell dead. He looked very natural. Some one had robbed his pockets and taken every thing of any value, even his memorandum book. We had orders to move immediately and I sent four men to bury him in a garden near by. He had no coffin but I had him wraped in a new tent and a blanket. I have since been to his grave. He is buried at the house of Mr. Neil McCool [McCoull] two miles north of Spotsylvania Court House. At his head upon a board is N.E.S., Co G 12th GA Regt.”


Lt. Irby Goodwin Scott, 12th Georgia Infantry, writing home about the death and burial of his younger brother Nicholas Ewing "Bud" Scott, who was killed at Spotsylvania on May 10, 1864. 



Lee’s and Jackson’s Bloody Twelfth: The Letters of Irby Goodwin Scott, First Lieutenant, Company G, Twelfth Georgia Infantry. Edited by Johnnie Perry Pearson.


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For additional past "CVBT History Wire" and informative articles, visit the blog section of the CVBT website.



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