Ivory and Ebony (November 14, 1864)

Col. Charles Sawyer Russell (via Wikipedia).

Col. Charles Sawyer Russell (via Wikipedia).

It’s Theodore Lyman writing today. How he avoided developing writer’s cramp remains a mystery. In this letter, he writes about African-American soldiers, and Lyman’s views on that subject often create some discomfort for us here in the 21st century. Lyman seems unable to see black soldiers as anything but objects of curiosity or comic relief. Although race is obviously a major factor in his outlook, I don’t think it is the only one. Lyman tended to see Irish and German soldiers in a similar light, as subjects for jokes or condescension. Lyman was from Boston and Havard and considered himself of the best pedigree, so he would have considered most soldiers in the army to be below him in class standing. The Col. Russell he mentions is Charles S. Russell, who had commanded the 28th USCT before being promoted to brigade command in the IX Corps. In his journals back in July, Lyman had described him as “a bald headed and extremely funny man and a good officer, though coarse.”

If doctors and quartermasters had not quarrelled, I should not have come unto sorrow; thus, a hospital was placed nigh to a place on the railroad where the quartermasters would fain have a platform. “Move your tents,” said the quartermasters. “We won’t,” said the doctors. “You shall,” retorted the quartermasters. “We shan’t,” reiterated the M.D’s. The strife waxed hot. Inspectors were called: they inspected much and shook their heads; that being a negative conclusion, the Major-General Commanding the Army of the Potomac was appealed to, and he rode out to enter a fiat. In riding out he took me, and I took a chill. So confusion to all doctors and quartermasters! But the former shall be forced to cure me and the latter to make me comfortable in mine house. There came over, for a visit, the Colonel Russell, of the funny turn, who commands now a brigade of negro troops. He has always something funny to relate of their manners and customs. It would appear that his nigs were once relieved by troops of the 2d Corps, and, as both parties had just been paid off, the ivory and the ebony sat down to play poker, wherein the ebony was rapidly getting the better of their opponents. The enemy meanwhile began to fire shells over the woods, but the players were too interested to leave off. At last one cute Yankee, who, despite his cuteness, had been entirely cleaned out, wandered off and found an empty shell, which he carefully filled with damp gunpowder, adding a paper fuse. Approaching the group that seemed to have most money on the board, he lighted the innocent combustible, screamed “Look out!” and threw it into the midst of them, following up himself, to secure the greenbacks left by the fugitives. Russell said when the recruits first come down they get into all sorts of snarls. As, for example, two of them found what they call “one er dese ere mortisses,” by which they would say mortar shell. “Hullo, dar’s er mortiss: s’pose dat ar’ll ’splode?” “‘Splode! ’corse it’ll ’splode.” “No, it wun’t; how’s gwine to ’splode, when’s been shot out uv er cannon?” “Bet yer five dollars ’ll ‘splode.” “Bet yer it wun’t!” The next thing the Colonel knew was a tremendous report, and two or three bits of iron flying through his tent. He rushed forth and collared a handful of the darks, and demanded immediate explanation. Whereunto one replied, with the utmost simplicity: “Didn’t mean nuphin, Kernul; all fault er dat ar stupid nigger — said er mortiss wouldn’t ’splode!” This day was further remarkable by the erection of a stately flagstaff, which seemed to imply that General Williams thought we should stay some time; but I think it will doubtless make us move at once; just as building log huts has a similar effect.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 269-70. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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