Tag Archives: Henry Allen Butts

Guide to Civil War Letters from Henry Allen Butts

Henry Allen Butts

Photocopy of a picture of Henry Allen Butts from a Butts Family Photo Album given to me by Jane Butts Kilgore.

Here is a handy finding guide to Henry Allen Butts’ letters home to his wife, Anna Maria Smith Butts. Henry’s 2nd tour of duty with the Union Army as a private in Company F, 43rd Ohio Volunteers, found him marching with Sherman’s army through Georgia on the famous March to the Sea and fighting his way north through the Carolinas before the end of the war and Grant’s triumphant march through Washington D.C. Fortunate Henry, who saw men die and fall wounded all around him, returned home sound of body, and apparently unscathed emotionally.

Each letter is accompanied by a history of the troop movements and some details of Henry’s personal life.

43rd Ohio Volunteers

43rd Ohio Volunteers

Letter #1: Dear Wif

Letter #2: After a Long March

Letter #3: Water Up to Our Nees

Leter #4: Henry Loses His Temper

Civil War Recipe: Beef Stew

Stew vegetables

Same vegetables as in my root stew–substituting beef for the ham hock.

Beef stew is such a fundamental and flexible dish that I was pretty sure that the Civil War Soldiers would have eaten many versions of it. However, I recently came across a book that was published in 1862 by the Government Printing Office to give instructions to Union soldiers in the field. It includes a recipe for beef stew.

Note: Camp FIres and Camp Cooking: Culinary Hints for the Soldier is available in digital form at Google Books.

Union Army eating

Army of the Potomac the way they cook dinner in camp Library of Congress

It is a bit surprising–appalling actually, to learn that when the Civil War started, no one in Washington had given much thought to details like sanitary needs, health care and the basic feeding of the soldier in the field.  Captain James M Sanderson was chosen by the “Commission of Subsistence for Volunteers,” to write this book “Published for Districtuion to the troops, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac.” In the book, he suggested that each company should have one man designated as a cook. That might be someone who actually was trained as a cook, or someone who got on-the-job-training.  Additionally, other men would be assigned as the cook’s assistants.

How well this worked in practice, I have no idea. During the “fog of war”, during long marches and some horrible conditions, it is difficult to imagine many men actually thumbing through the Camp Fires and Camp Cooking or Culinary Hints for the Soldier to find a recipe for that evening’s dinner.  Nevertheless, for anyone who did have the luxury of time to look in the book, and the rarity of good ingredients to use, this book presents a handful of very practical recipes and hints for camp cooking.

Remember that beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder.  In cooking, more than in anything else in the world, always make haste slowly.  One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little, with rare exceptions.  A big fire scorches your soup, burns your face and crisps your temper.  Skim, simmer, and scour, are the true secrets of good cooking.

The first and last two sentences there could make it on to embroidered mottos to hang in any kitchen.  However, sentence number two reveals one of the things we 21st century diners do not like about 19th century cooking–or rather overcooking, as blessed by Captain Sanderson.  Of course, with stew, he is mostly right.

Here is Captain Sanderson’s recipe:

BEEF STEW

Take the pieces of beef reserved for frying or broiling, and cut them into pieces about two inches square and one inch thick; sprinkle them with pepper and salt, and put them into frying pans, with a little fat; place them over the fire until half cooked; then turn them into camp kettles, adding a handful of flour and six onions cut in quarters to each kettle, with just enough cold water to cover the meat; add also to each kettle two dozen potatoes pared and cut in quarters. Stew slowly over a moderate fire, skimming every now and then, for three hours and a half; then stir in each two table spoonsful of vinegar, and serve smoking hot. All kinds of vegetables—such as leeks, carrots, parsnips, and turnips—can be added to this stew with advantage.   From Culinary HInts for the Soldier (1862)by Captain James M. Sanderson.


To arrive at my version of the beef stew, I went through two updates.  The first, from the book A Taste For War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray (2003) by William C. Davis uses two pounds of beef. The author assumes that the original recipe is using about 6 pounds of beef, and therefore cuts the ingredients by one-third. Some changes are made for clarity and some apparently just because.

Cut 2 pounds of beef roast into cubes 2 inches square and 1 inch thick, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put in frying pan with a little pork fat or lard. Put them over a fire until well browned but not fully cooked, and hen empty the pan into a kettle and add enough water to cover the meat. Add a handful of flour, two quartered onions, and four peeled and quartered potatoes. Cover and simmer slowly over a moderate heat for 3 ½ hours, skimming any fat that rises to the top. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar and serve. Other vegetables available, such as leeks, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and salsify, will make excellent additions. From A Taste for War by William C. Davis

Finally, I looked at the fascinating website History Kitchen where Tori Avery dissects and recreates historic recipes.  In 2012,  she follows Davis’ version, but adds carrots, parsnips and a leek.  I followed her recipe with some changes but found the 3 quarts of water she called for for two pounds of meat was far too much liquid.

The result, at any rate, since it is only seasoned with salt and pepper, can be rather bland for today’s tastes.  The original version was not BAD–it just perked up a lot when I added a mix of Italian herbs and some celery salt and garlic. But, it is after all, army food–so as a sample of what my Union soldier ancestors Henry Allen Butts and Erasmus Anderson were eating, it probably would have ranked high on their list. It was hot. It had some meat in it. It was filling.

So here is my version, with a few suggestions for modernization if you do not want to trade taste for authenticity!

Civil War Beef Stew Updated

Serves 8
Prep time 35 minutes
Cook time 4 hours
Total time 4 hours, 35 minutes
Allergy Wheat
Meal type Main Dish
Misc Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Hot

Ingredients

  • 2lb Beef stew meat (cut in 2inch by 1 inch pieces)
  • 2 tablespoons Bacon grease
  • 2 quarts Water (Plus 1/2 for thickening)
  • 4lb Potatoes (peeled and quartered)
  • 3 Carrots (peeled and sliced)
  • 2 Parsnips (peeled and sliced thinner than carrots)
  • 2 small to medium Rutabagas (peeled and cut in pieces roughly the size of potato pieces.)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove (minced (Optional))
  • 11/2 tablespoons Mixed Italian herbs (Optional)
  • 2 Onions (Optional)

Directions

1. Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper.Brown beef pieces in bacon fat in large pan. If you are using onion, brown it in the fat also.
2. Pour 2 quarts water over meat. Mix 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup flour into a paste and stir into pot until smooth.
3. Add potatoes, carrots, parsnips and rutabaga to pot. Add water if needed to barely cover.
4. Stir in whatever herbs and spices you are using.
5. Let cook over medium heat for three and a half hours. Taste and add seasoning if needed and add vinegar.
6. Beef Stew is always better if it sets for at least a day before serving.

Note

I do not cook with onions, because I can not eat them.  THat makes a difference in the taste, but even with onions, this would have been a bland recipe without the addtional spices.

I do not usually peel potatoes, but since this is an army recipe--well what are you going to do with the grunts if there are no potatoes to peel?

The celery salt I mention in the text above is a special product that I buy at my farmer's market made with celery leaves and sea salt.

For more stew for winter meals– See Roots Stew or Venison Stew

 

 

Civil War Letter #4 – Henry Loses His Temper

43rd Ohio Volunteers

43rd Ohio Volunteers

Henry has had it up to here!  He’s marched hundreds of miles. Seen friends and relatives die and fall injured all around him. Slogged through swamps. Subsisted on minimal grub and worn rags for clothing. He has not been paid by the army since he enlisted nearly three years ago.

And those busy-bodies back home, who didn’t choose to fight the war, dare to complain about the way he treats his new bride? Henry Allen Butts is so angry when he writes this letter that his never-terrific handwriting becomes so agitated that a transcriber 100 years later has a hard time making out what he said.

Note: I am passing this letter on as the transcription reads–with lots of blanks . In a very few instances, I have filled in a blank where it seems obvious what the word is. As usual, I have added some punctuation and capitol letters at the beginning of sentences to make it easier to read. Otherwise his original syntax is left undisturbed.

Camp

April 25 1865

Dear Wife and friend,  I put myself to anser your kind letter wich I receved this week. I em glad to hear that you was well but I was [sorry] to hear that Allen ____ ____ cerriperlous but I hope he will be well of it before this letter ____ _____ to you.  You stated in your letter ____ you got no letter since the 6 of January.  I don’t no [know] mail is the reason for i wrote three letters from Goldsboro*  but i suppose ____not time to come wen you wrote your last letter. I [hope] you have got them____ before this time.

[Note: Due to some helpful crowd sourcing on Facebook, I now believe that “cerriperlous” is Henry’s version of erysipelas. It is a streptococcal skin infection that comes from conditions that might be common in Civil War rural Ohio.  A Google search will yield you more information, if you’re curious.]

I em well and I hope ____ ____ will find you the same blessing.

Watch out—here it comes. A curse for those naysayers at home.

You stated in your letter that the people was talking about me not writing to you.

Tell them who ever th[ey] may be to mind thear oune buisness – that I write wen ever I get a chance. i hope some of them will be as far from home some day as i em and see as many hardships as i have and have as littel chance as i have had and mabe th[ey] won’t write as often as i have.

Them people can set in their houses and get good grub and wen night comes stay in thear warm beds. If it rains th[ey] are in the dry but we must lay down on the ground and take what comes.  I hope if it____ _____ is ____another war th[ey] will have to come out and rain ever other day. This is all the bad luck i wish for them.

Calming down a bit, Henry gets to the good news–he is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

The weather is warm and pleasant. I am in good hart for I expect to see you soon. We ar under marching orders. We will leve in a few days for Peatersburg VA the [17th Army?] leavs first.

I will close. The boys are all well. Direct your letters to Raleigh P C Co K, 43rd OHIO 17 AC. Don’t direct your letters by way of Washington.

Hear is a five dollar bill of rebel money .

Your husband,

Henry A. Butts

As soon as i get paid i will send you some. I heve not receved my pay since i come in the army.

Confederate money

Confederate money

Henry’s 43rd Ohio Volunteers are camped near Raleigh North Carolina, as General Sherman carries on negotiations with the Confederates. Although General Lee had surrendered to General Grant on April 9th, the war dragged on here in the Carolinas and even longer in the West.

General Sherman reached an agreement with General Johnston for surrender on April 18. However, when the document was forwarded to Washington, Sherman was berated for being too easy on the enemy. Meanwhile, news of the April 14th assassination of President Lincoln had reached the army, so it was clear that the North was not in a charitable mood.

Bennett House, North Carolina

Bennett House, North Carolina

The two generals were back at the table on the day following Henry’s letter home. On April 26  Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston would sign at Bennett’s Place, a humble farm house, a final agreement marking the biggest surrender in the Civil War. Henry was right on target when he said he would soon be home.  His company was mustered out 2 1/2 months later, July 13, 1865, at Louisville, Kentucky.

Between the surrender at Bennett’s Place and the 43rd’s travel to Louisville and journey home to Ohio, they would join with all of Grant’s army in a triumphant Grand Review in Washington D.C. on May 29, 1865. It is unfortunate that we do not have Henry Allen’s description of that glorious day. (This is the last surviving letter home from Pvt. Butts.) It is said that General Sherman took special pains to have his men bathed, trimmed and well dressed, since they had the reputation of being scruffy lot.  Their long marches and constant skirmishes had not left time to worry about their appearance.

Henry was one of the fortunate ones who made it home  in good shape. 4 officers and 61 enlisted men from the 43rd were killed or mortally wounded. 2 officers and 189 enlisted men died from disease.

This year is a special anniversary. You can attend the festivities marking the 150th anniversary of the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston to General William T. Sherman at Bennett’s Place in North Carolina this coming April. Follow the link for information.

*Since two of those letters from Goldsboro survived, we know Anna got them, but the third is missing and it is possible it never got to Ohio.

See Henry’s letter #3 here.