Sunday, April 24, 2016

"The Tired [USCT] Solider"

There was a time I could play basketball all day and then stay up watching television all night. But sadly those days seem gone. Now, on my days off, I often seek opportunities for both mental and physical rest. When I was a teenager I never thought I'd actually enjoy an occasional nap. I suppose this phenomenon has everything to do with the aging process, but in those moments when I need to push through to get something done, I try to think about those in the past whose lives were much more physically taxing than ours of the present.

Whenever I lead tours, I attempt to convey to visitors the sheer amount of physical effort it took to get things done in everyday nineteenth century life; whether that was cooking, laundry, or just getting from one location to another. Preparing a meal took hours, laundry was backbreaking, and even if a person rode a horse to get somewhere, that animal needed cared for, saddled, and harnessed. And when back home it needed additional care and fed. Today, we just park our cars and go inside.

Life as a Civil War soldier while on campaign must have been exhausting. Edwin Forbes's sketch (above) of a Union soldier after the first days of fierce fighting at Petersburg (June 15-18, 1864), illustrates the results of the taxing nature of soldier life.

When I first saw the image I wondered if Forbes just sketched a dead soldier, but the inscription plainly tells that this soldier was attempting to regain some energy by catching a few winks. Forbes wrote about this particular incident in his book Thirty Years After: An Artist's Memoir of the Civil War, and speculated that the fatigued soldier was a member of a United States Colored Troop regiment. He wrote:

"I came upon a most pathetic picture of an exhausted soldier as I was riding along a road to Petersburg during its siege, whose attitude suggested utter abandon, and whose pallid face caused me to think him dead. I dismounted and found him motionless upon his back, with bare feet and legs hanging over a bank. His old grey blanket was around his body, a gun was slung over the left shoulder, and his haversack containing untouched rations rested on his hip. I began to sketch so interesting a subject, and at first supposed him to be a white man; but as I carefully drew his lineaments I noticed the unmistakable fullness of feature and wavy black hair which showed him to be a mulatto, and probably a member of a negro regiment in the Eighteenth Corps.

As I continued my work I was suddenly startled at a trembling of the eyelids and the languid opening of his eyes. He looked at me in a dreamy fashion, the drowsily closed his eyes again as if too exhausted to interest himself in anything, and remained motionless. I finished my sketch and left him in the care of those who would look after him."

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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