William Tippett, Belle Island, and the Foods of War

UPDATE: As of March 2015, this letter, complete with transcripts, is available on our website for digitized collections, Special Collections Online! Check it out here: http://omeka.lib.vt.edu/items/show/2827


In May 2012, we bought a Civil War letter–certainly not the first, nor that last. However, it was one of those rare occasions in which I had to hoard a collection to process, all for myself. You see, Sgt. William S. Tippett had something to say–quite a bit, in fact–on the subject of food. I love Civil War letters and diaries. I also love food history. So, when the two subjects meet, I’m hooked.

Tippett’s letter to his wife Maggie is surprisingly lengthy, at 8 pages. However, Tippett was a Confederate POW for more than 7 months and during that time, his letters home, if he wrote them, would likely have contained limited information. Once in the parole camp, he would have had more freedom in what he could write to her. His letter begins and ends with news: news about her receiving his pay, about the location of people they knew, about his transition to a parole camp, and his current situation. But the middle pages focus on food. Over the course of the months, supplies were fewer and fewer:

 When we first came to this place they were giving six ounces of bread and 1 ½ ounces “meat” – beef in the morning and for supper we got four ounces bread and a pint of bean or rice soup…

We had nothing only what we had on, and at night we would lay down just on the sandy ground about twenty in a tent just like a lot of hogs. – not as good as some hogpens I have seen – in this way we would try and sleep but our sleep would be disturbed by dreams of something to eat and we would dream that we were at home just agoing to eat such a nice meal, when we would waken up and find that we were nearly starved – Some nights just about dark when we laid down I would think of home and just imagine that you were about eating supper and wish I could just drop in and help you…

Well I wish you could see one piece of the Confederate corn bread, issued at Belle Isle.  It aint such bread as you make.  It is made of white corn meal water and a very little salt.  Made in 2lb loaves, and about half baked.  The inside was all raw. – Then meat got scarce and they gave us Raw sweet potatoes and no wood, to make a fire with…

on my birth day (14th November) I shall allways remember it I got nothing to eat.  Christmas we got no diner only a little piece of corn bread in the morning – but I had a friend who was working in the new bakery their building on the Island and he brought me something to eat from the outside…

Since New Years we only got meat three of four times and very little then.  They only allow 10lbs meat and bones to a Hundred men which is a small piece when it is divided…

In February they quit making soup for us and gave us dry beans sometimes and we had to cook them as best we could but they did not give us enough wood to do that – we saved the wood and beans and used to cook them every second day in this way I stood it until the 6th of March…

as soon as we got on our boat [transportation to the parole camp] supper was ready, coffee meat and good wheat bread.         Oh but wasn’t it good – we had seen wheat bread since November and no meat since Crismas – and no coffee since we were taken prisoners. – I thought this the best meal I ever eat in my life.

Tippett’s experiences would not have been unique, as conditions for soldiers, and especially POWs, deteriorated as the war progressed. Other soldiers recount receiving moldy bread or no bread at all. Some lived on only soup and beans for months. Prisoners would share food rations, request money and food from home, and rely on just about any animal they could get their hands on to supplement limited supplies (including rats and, in one case, the pet dog of the officer in charge of the POW camp).

You can see the finding aid for the William S. Tippett Letter online. Now that the letter is scanned in full, I hope to be posting it online soon, and will add links to the images and transcript in the finding aid when that is complete. If you’re interest in Civil War food history, we have a number of resources, aside from Tippett’s letter, in Special Collections, and you’re always welcome to visit.

One thought on “William Tippett, Belle Island, and the Foods of War

  1. Pingback: There’s Something about Mary…or rather, James or Eleanore or William | Special Collections@Virginia Tech

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