Soldiers will steal anything

Thomas W. Hyde of Bath joined the 7th Maine Infantry in spring 1861 and served as that unit’s commander at Antietam. Later named a staff officer, he encountered a blue-uniformed thief during the Gettysburg Campaign. (Maine State Archives Photo)


Thomas W. Hyde would like his hat back, no questions asked.

Soldiers, both North and South, often went hungry and ill-equipped during the Civil War. Supplying troops scattered across the Midwest and South challenged even the industrialized North, where agricultural and manufacturing output actually increased during the war.

Union officials could procure food, clothing, and weapons almost effortlessly; war profiteers happily signed contracts to produce whatever Uncle Sam needed to buy. Unfortunately, troops in the field seldom received adequate quantities of food and clothing; procurement officers and quartermasters cited lousy roads (true), Confederate raids on Union supply lines (true), and other reasons as to why sufficient supplies could not reach the boys in blue.

In true bureaucratic fashion, these fine folks never blamed themselves, corruption, or war profiteering.

For ill-clad soldiers shivering in a cold Virginia rain, empty-bellied infantrymen knawing on worm-ridden hardtack, and saddle-sore cavalrymen feeding their hungry horses corn husks and other nutritionally poor food, no excuse for missing supplies made sense. So wherever circumstances permitted, troops scoured the countryside for whatever they could use.

Soldiers who pillaged farms in enemy territory called themselves “forager” engaged in “foraging.” The practice represented officially sanctioned theft; while Confederate troops often paid for confiscated cattle, hogs, and horses with worthless Southern script during the advance toward Gettysburg, Union troops raiding farms in Virginia and elsewhere usually left no money behind.

The Union forgers effectively stripped the countryside bare of all agricultural clothing. “We have devoured the land and our animals eat up the wheat and cornfields close,” Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman wrote on June 26, 1864. “All the people retire before us, and desolation is behind. To realize what war is one should follow our tracks.”

John W. Haley of the 17th Maine Infantry recalled that on May 21, 1864, while marching in Virginia, the regiment passed through “Bowling Green, a very pretty little village surrounded by beautiful farming country.” He and his comrades sprang four prisoners — evidently Union sympathizers — from jail and “found a lot of hams there” [in the village], which we appropriated for the use of the government.”

Hale and his comrades ate ham that night. They also “gutted” an apothecary shop (or pharmacy) “because we disliked the chin music of its proprietor” and because “his family had also taken the bucket from the well so that we could get no water, and refused to produce it.”

Acting like hooligans, the 17th Maine soldiers entered the apothecary shop and “stuffed our haversacks with medicines until we resembled walking apothecary shops.” Later, “Colonel Merrill reprimanded me” for stealing the medicines, so Haley mentioned that he knew about “a couple of ducks that the colonel’s cook was at that very moment preparing for his palate.

“I see no great difference between the sins of stealing medicines or ducks, but Colonel Merrill is a lawyer, and he doubtless can discriminate,” Haley commented.

Sometimes the Union boys raided their own ranks. Apparently every company mustered at least one thief, but camaraderie — and the threat of a savage beating if caught stealing from one’s own test mates — often sent a thief to ply his trade elsewhere, perhaps in another regiment’s camp.

And soldiers would steal anything. “On the night of July 1st, 1863, the Fifth Corps lay near a pretty little town, Manchester, Maryland, and some twenty miles from the rest of the army,” Thomas W. Hyde of Bath wrote home from Warrenton, Va. on Sept. 8, 1863. He had commanded the 7th Maine Infantry during its suicide mission at Antietam the previous September; by spring he became a staff officer.

“A ball was to be given that evening in the town and we were occupied in looking up our disused finery and in anticipating so unaccustomed a pleasure,” Hyde wrote. Then the corps commander, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, decided that a staff officer should ride to the headquarters of George Gordon Meade, newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, and find out where Meade wanted the Fifth Corps to deploy.

“Capt. Halstead (the duty officer) … says he is not well,” so Sedgwick “told me he wished me to go, so, reluctantly giving up the coming festivity (where Hyde would have the local jeunes filles), I mounted my white horse” and rode out “about six o’clock p.m.” with a Meade staff officer “and a couple of orderlies,” Hyde wrote.

Surviving a nocturnal ride across countryside where Confederate cavalry roamed, Hyde completed his mission and rejoined Sedgwick as the Fifth Corps marched along the wrong road early on July 2. Meade wanted the corps to approach Gettysburg via the Littletown Turnpike; acting on previous orders, the Fifth Corp was “already six miles on the wrong road and pressing on — its rear not yet out of camp,” according to Hyde.

He delivered Meade’s instructions. Sedgwick halted the column and reversed its direction. “To turn this mass was not easy, but it was soon done, and I found the right road upon which we marched in clouds of dust (and stifling heat) without halting until ten o’clock (a.m.) the next forenoon (July 2),” Hyde wrote.

By now exhausted, Hyde “lay down on top of a stone wall by the roadside and caught an hour’s sleep.” When he awoke, he discovered to his chagrin that “someone stole my cap off my head” while he slept, “and I had to wear Bennett’s the rest of the day.”

Whether Bennett generously offered Hyde his cap or grudgingly surrendered it, Hyde did not say.

So if anyone comes across a battered Union cap while tromping the fields of Gettysburg, please, return it to Thomas W. Hyde, courtesy of Bath Iron Works. He founded that famous company in 1884.


Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at