RETURN TO HOW THE CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS LIVED PAGE
Here is another example of what now would seem to be the primitive conditions of warfare in the sixties. There was no organized barber service; the soldiers arranged for their own haircuts and shaves--or went without. The popularity of beards actually antedated the Civil War by a year or two-- witness Lincolns growing a beard after his nomination--hut the exigencies of wartime service helped make beards fashionable.
William Dame was a Maryland Confederate, a student of theology who entered the ministry after the war. His volume of memoirs is particularly valuable for its pictures of daily life in the army.
There was only one man in the Battery who could cut hair--Sergeant McCreery--and he had the only pair of scissors that could cut hair. So every aspirant to this fashionable cut tried to make interest with Van to fix him up; and Van, who was very good natured, would, as he had time and opportunity, accommodate the applicant, and trim him close.
Several of us had gone under the transforming hands of this tonsorial artist, when Bob McIntosh got his turn. Bob was a handsome boy with a luxuriant growth of hair. He had raven black, kinky hair that stuck up from his head in a bushy mass, and he hadnt had his hair cut for a good while, and it was very long and seemed longer than it was because it stuck out so from his head. Now, it was all to go, and a crowd of the boys gathered round to see the fun. The modus operandi was simple, but sufficient. The candidate sat on a stump with a towel tied 'round his neck, and he held up the corners making a receptacle to catch the hair as it was cut. Why this--I don t know; force of habit I reckon.
Van stood behind Bob and began over his right ear. He took the hair off clean, as he went, working from right to left over his head; the crowd around--jeering the victim and making comments on his ever-changing appearance as the scissors progressed, making a clean sweep at every cut. V/e were thus making much noise with our fun at Bobs expense, until the shears had moved up to the top of his head, leaving the whole right half of the head as clean of hair as the palm of your hand, while the other half was still covered with this long, kinky, jet black hair, which in the absence of the departed locks looked twice as long as before--and Bob did present a spectacle that would make a dog laugh. It was just as funny as it could be.
Just at that moment, in the midst of all this hilarity, suddenly we heard a man yell out something as he came running down the hill from the guns. We could not hear what he said. The next moment, he burst excitedly into our midst, and shouted out, "For Gods sake, men, get your guns. The Yankees are across the river and making for the guns. They will capture them before you get there, if you dont hurry up."
This was a bolt out of a clear sky--but we jumped to the call. Everybody instantly forgot everything else and raced for the guns. I saw McCreery running with the scissors in his hand; he forgot that he had them--but it was funny to see a soldier going to war with a pair of scissors! I found myself running beside Bob McIntosh, with his hat off, his head half shaved and that towel, still tied round his neck, streaming out behind him in the wind.
Just before we got to the guns, Bob suddenly halted and said, "Good Heavens, Billy, it has just come to me what a devil of a fix I am in with my head in this condition. I tell you now that if the Yankees get too close to the guns, I am going to run. If they got me, or found me dead, they would say that General Lee was bringing up the convicts from the Penitentiary in Richmond to fight them. I wouldnt be caught dead with my head looking like this. ..
In the meantime, the enemy guns across the river opened on us and the shells were flying about us in lively fashion. It was rather a sudden transition from peace to war, but we had been at this busines before; the sound of the shells was not unfamiliar--so we were not unduly disturbed. We quickly got the guns loaded, and opened on that Infantry, advancing up the hill. We worked rapidly, for the case was urgent, and we made it as lively for those fellows as we possibly could. In a few minutes a pretty neat little battle was making the welkin ring....
The battle ceased, the picket line was restored along the river bank, and all was quiet again. Bob McIntosh was more put out by all this business than anybody else--it had interrupted his hair cut. When we first got the guns into action, everybody was too busy to notice Bobs head. After we got settled down to work, I caught sight of that half-shaved head and it was the funniest object you ever saw. Bob was No. 1 at his gun, which was next to mine, and had to swab and ram the gun. This necessitated his constantly turning from side to side, displaying first this, and then the other side of his head. One side was perfectly white and bare; the other side covered by a mop of kinky, jet black hair; but when you caught sight of his front elevation, the effect was indescribable. While Bob was unconsciously making this absurd exhibition, it was too much to stand, even in a fight. I said to the boys around my gun, "Look at Bob." They looked and they could hardly work the gun for laughing.
Of course, when the fight was over McCreery lost that pair of scissors, or said he did. There was not another pair in camp, so Bob had to go about with his head in that condition for about a week--and he wearied of life. One day in his desperation, he said he wanted to get some of that hair off his head so much that he would resort to any means. He had tried to cut some off with his knife. One of the boys, Hunter Dupuy, was standing by chopping on the level top of a stump with a hatchet. Hunter said, "All right, Bob, put your head on this stump and I'll chop off some of your hair." The blade was dull, and it only forced a quantity of the hair down into the wood, where it stuck, and held Bobs hair fast to the stump, besides pulling out a lot by the roots, and hurting Bob very much. He tried to pull loose and couldnt. Then he began to call Hunter all the names he could think of, and threatened what he was going to do to him when he got loose. Hunter, much hurt by such ungracious return for what he had done at Bobs request, said, "Why, Bob, you couldnt expect me to cut your hair with a hatchet without hurting some"--which seined reasonable. We made Bob promise to keep the peace, on pain of leaving him tied to the stump--then we cut him loose with our knives.
After some days, when we had had our fun, Van found the scissors and trimmed off the other side of his head to match--Bob was happy.
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger, From William Dame's "From the Rapidan to Richmond."
This Page last updated 01/17/04