Monday, November 9, 2020

Civil War Soldiers and Tobacco Use


During the Civil War, almost all soldiers, both Union and Confederate, enjoyed a taste of tobacco from time to time. Many of the fighting men were unfamiliar with what all went into producing the substance they so enjoyed chewing or smoking, while others knew well from first-hand experience.

The popularity of tobacco among Civil War soldiers is evident from the large numbers of photographs showing men smoking pipes and cigars. Whether in formal studio sittings, or in candid camp scenes, soldiers proudly displayed their love for tobacco by including it in their images. Pamplin Historical Park has several of these photographs in its collections.

Tobacco’s ubiquity among Northern and Southern fighting men also comes out in their correspondence. Soldiers often wrote about the comfort that tobacco brought. One man, writing to a cousin claimed: “There seems to be a pride felt in enduring what at home we would consider hardships. But the soldier’s life is not all hardship. It is a pleasant sight to look on a group sitting round a fire in the evening, whiling away the time with stories of the past and speculations of the future. Then you would always see the pipes there. That you wouldn’t like. But for some reason a soldier does enjoy his tobacco.” He went on to explain that out of 87 men in his company 61 used tobacco. An Andersonville prisoner wrote in his diary that a friend’s gift of tobacco “’saved my life,’ for 24 hours at least.”

Other soldiers either mentioned experiencing tobacco’s ill effects or feeling a moral responsibility to stop using it. A 4th Virginia Infantry soldier wrote, “I think I shall quit the use of tobacco altogether, as I am inclined to believe that it injures me.” Another Confederate used the excuse of scarcity to halt consumption: “I have quit chewing tobacco from necessity. I can not procure the weed at any price, so I thought it was as good a time to quit as I will ever find,” he wrote. Sometimes soldiers had to trade to get the valuable substance. A soldier at Petersburg marveled watching pickets swap. “These men who take one another by the hand this minute, may the next send one another to the spirit-land. These who are now trading tobacco for coffee and sugar, may, ere another hour rolls around, be trading lead for lead,” he wrote. 

Regardless of it perceived concerns then, and known adverse health effects today, tobacco’s place among America’s soldiers predated and went long past the Civil War. Its use by soldiers from colonial times to the Revolutionary War, Mexican-American War, Spanish American War, through the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and to the present conflicts is ample evidence of its continuing appeal to fighting men.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

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