LeCLAIRE, Iowa — Visitors toured the Buffalo Bill Museum’s new Civil War camp exhibit Sunday and listened to re-enactor Todd Meyer highlight the life of “Billy Yanks,” a slang term for Northern soldiers during the Civil War.
Soldiers would wake up at the crack of dawn, or before, clean utensils in dirt and tote heavy packs while heading to the next battle or stop. Soldiers spit-polished brass buttons and rarely had a private moment. Museum director Bob Schiffke constructed the exhibit, which is furnished with replica Sibley button-together tents, uniforms and items toted by infantry soldiers. Sunday’s program commemorated the 150th anniversary of the war that divided the United States over the issues of states’ rights and slavery.
“At least 33 men from LeClaire died in the Civil War. Not all in battle,” Schiffke said, adding that some probably died in the hospital or from disease.
LeClaire Civil War veterans included John Lancaster, who was taken prisoner in the South and completed his long walk home from Nashville, Tenn. He weighed 85 pounds when he returned.
August Stonebraker, also from LeClaire, served as a spy for the Union army. John Huntington, the first LeClaire resident to enlist, died in the Battle of Corinth in 1862, according to information compiled by Jackie Stepaniak of Bettendorf.
Those young men-turned-soldiers carried sections of tent along with cartridge boxes and weapons, underclothing, stationery and photographs in those heavy kit bags. Relatives at home in LeClaire waited long weeks or months to receive letters from their loved ones in those pre-Twitter days.
LeClaire residents watched barges of soldiers being transported down the Mississippi River toward Camp McClellan in the Village of East Davenport. There, the untrained troops got bugle-rousing introductions to the rigors of camp life that began daily at 5 a.m.
Meyer said the new troops had a few minutes to get up and stumble, sleepy-eyed, to the first roll call of the day. Soldiers would sling a blanket around themselves or show up wearing long underwear. Breakfast — referred to as “peas on a trencher” — consisted of coffee and hardtack, a teeth-rattling biscuit. The day got under way after that with morning drill, where the neophyte warriors learned about marching, salutes and using their weapons.
“They learned how to fire at will,” joked Meyer, a resident of State Center, Iowa. “Now, I don’t know who will was, but they fired at will.”
The early afternoon meal was the heartiest repast of the day with whatever dead animal the cooks found and more hardtack.
“The best way to clean off your fork and knife and cooking gear was to stick them in the dirt to remove leftover food and grease,” Meyer said. Thusly cleaned, the items were considered good to go. Drill continued through the afternoon followed by the dress parade and supper. “Lights out” at 10 p.m. meant just that.
“All this was the life of an infantryman during the quiet time,” Meyer said. The more experienced soldiers learned to winnow the contents of their kit bags during the long marches. About 50 pounds would grow heavy on 10- or 15-mile marches over rutted dirt roads.
States rights ontinues to be a bone of contention even today, Meyer said, adding that people of 2011 can apply the lessons of the Civil War to today’s political scene.