L i f e   S t o r i e s   o f   C i v i l   W a r   H e r o e s

December 28, 1863
near Knoxville, Tenn.

Dear D,

It has been a long time since I have had a chance to write, but I am to remain in this place for a few days without any hard duty so I will tell you all of note that has happened to me recently. Our regiment was sent off with Longstreet in November to rescue Knoxville from the yankees, but by now you have heard what a disaster that was. Many men were shot down and blown up in the ditches in front of Ft. Loudon, and we had no effect at all on the defenders. Knoxville is still firmly held in their grasp. Right after the fight we were sent back with Wheeler to the army at Dalton. When we arrived, we were surprised to hear the news that Bragg had been relieved and Hardee was now in command there. I have spent many cold hours in the saddle looking out for yankee troopers during our movement south. I believe that me and my mule have crossed and re-crossed every creek and river in between Knoxville and Dalton at least 5 times while either guarding or searching for good fords. The weather has been bitterly cold and my mule's been badly cut up by the hard crust of ice that freezes up on the top of the snow and creeks every night. Although he and I are not great friends, I decided I should wrap his legs in some burlap bags and apply some grease to ease his injuries and prevent them from getting worse. I don't have a name for my mule, for I have determined that it is not suitable to become too well acquainted. Companions of the four-legged variety seem to last even less time than the two-legged ones in this army and I don't want to form any unnecessary attachments. We are both in a dangerous profession, and if push comes to shove in a tight spot, I will leave him behind without a thought, as I am sure he would do the same to me if given the opportunity.

Although I anticipated spending Christmas on picket along the banks of some unnamed and icy stream, I instead received a pleasant surprise. Our company was called off picket duty and returned to the camp near Cassville. When riding in I passed Dave Mabry of the first Tenn. Cav.. He said that his brother Sam, who was in the infantry, had put up a first-rate shebang and had "procured" the makings for a Christmas feast. I was invited to the party. I returned to my camp to find once again no mail and no pay, but I was consoled by the promise of a good feed soon.

While I waited for Christmas to arrive it was company drill each morning and regimental drill each afternoon to pass the time. To my mind, drilling was preferred to the boredom and chilliness of the small drafty tent with the board floor that was my home. In spite of its imperfections, I had no inclination to improve upon my dwelling, as I was sure we would be sent on a ride shortly with the possibility of not returning to this same spot since the cavalry always seems to be moving, even in winter. At least the drill was enough to invigorate and bring some degree of warmth back into my limbs before I returned to the small fire constantly smoldering at the entrance to our tent. The small flames provided little heat but plenty of smoke.

With this break from picket duty I have taken time to catch up on my letter writing and on my reading. I have spent some time reading about the recent events outside Chattanooga. A newspaper from Pennsylvania has been passed around, and it is quite amusing to see how its account differs so widely from the Georgia press, neither one, of course, being accurate from my point of view. Besides reading, I have also taken the opportunity to stitch, patch, repair and reinforce all of my clothing. I've got a first-rate housewife with all the fixings sent to me by Miss C and I have put it to good use. Although my fingers are near frozen all the time, I have developed the skill to create a rather delicate and straight stitch. I have done a top-notch job of fixing the worn seat of my canvas pants. By using numerous patches with a variety of colors and patterns, I have now created a pair of britches that are suitable to match Joseph's "coat of many colors." They have generated a fair amount of amusement for my comrades and never fail to inspire a comment when I stand up and walk away from any gathering. My talent with the needle has lent me some small fame within my company and I can occasionally exchange my sewing skills for such items as this writing paper.

In between my drilling, reading and sewing duties I searched diligently for something to contribute to the Christmas festivities, but could do no better than to obtain a jar of sauerkraut of dubious appearance and origin. I traded a good fresh plug of tobacco to Joe Riddle for it, and he claimed he purchased it from the root cellar of one of the local people. I have little doubt that Joe visited that root cellar and made his purchase without the full and complete knowledge of the owner. There was no way of telling how long ago the jar had been put up, and it had turned a color I would not normally assign to cabbage. In any event, I was not too concerned about the origin or condition for I knew the evidence of Joe's crime would soon be disposed of in a suitable manner.

The day of the Lord's birth arrived and Dave Mabry appeared at my tent at the appointed hour. I attributed the vivid red tint of his nose and cheeks to something more than the bracing effects of the brisk winter air. Closer examination of Dave and his kit revealed two bottles of rye whiskey, tied at the necks by a cord, slung on either side of his saddle as if they were pommel holsters. Although these liquid offerings were meant as a tribute to our hosts, I noticed that Dave had nearly emptied one bottle and was thereby upsetting the delicate balance of his method of transport. I proposed that we solve the problem by eliminating one bottle entirely and stow the other in his saddlebag. Two long pulls at the bottle by each of us quickly dispatched the contents and put me in a fine mood to start the party. I securely wrapped the kraut inside my jacket, jumped up behind Pvt. Mabry and we set off for his brother's quarters.

About two miles behind the line we dismounted in front of a spectacular display of engineering ingenuity. Having always traveled with the cavalry, I have never had the time to construct any of the wondrous buildings that are erected by the ever-resourceful infantrymen during the cold season. The winter shanty was square in shape and measured about 15 feet along each side. The walls were composed of upright logs about 12 inches in diameter that had been buried in the ground and rose to a height of about 5 feet. The spaces in between the logs had been snugly packed with Georgia clay that provided a fine clean stripe in contrast to the dark brown shades of the rough bark on the logs. The roof was made from some stout, wide planks that had been overlapped like shingles and brought to a peak to enable the inhabitants to comfortably stand upright when in the center of the abode. The planks were milled, not hand hewn, and I suspected that they had led an earlier life as the side of a nearby barn. More of the planks had been put to good use in constructing a sturdy door and a small porch roof to protect the tenants from the immediate effects of rain and snow when entering and leaving. The front and one side of the shanty had a simple square window covered with oiled cloth that glowed yellow with a warm and inviting light from the candles and fire within. The crowning glory to this winter palace was a chimney built of flour barrels, stacked on end and chinked with more clay. The volume and velocity of the smoke sailing forth from the chimney indicated that a large and hot fire was burning inside. As a final amenity, a corduroy walkway had been made from small, stripped branches trimmed to size and laid out side by side in the ground. I suppose this was done to prevent the men from disappearing entirely in the mud when the spring finally came and they had to step out of the door of their beloved home.

A few steps up the walk brought us to the door which was flung open at the sound of our approach. The glorious blast of heated air that greeted us was no warmer than the salutations exchanged between Dave and his brother Sam. They laughed and clapped each other on the back as long lost brothers are apt to do, in spite of the fact they had seen each other just a few days previous. I was hustled inside and loudly introduced to each of the other men. I promptly forgot their names, and later found that the names were not needed anyway, as each remark or joke made during the rest of the evening by anyone seemed to be directed simultaneously to everyone present. There was no need to address any specific person. Any comment brought a prompt and deafening reply as everyone in the room tried to respond or laugh at once. Inside the shebang there were snug cots lashed together from pine branches and laced with boughs and rope with bedrolls placed on top. A table made from the remnants of a cracker crate and rough wooden stools stood before a small fireplace. The hearth had been erected from river rocks mortared with mud, and topped with one more barn plank that served as a mantel. The mantel displayed smoking pipes of various manufacture, from corncob to carved burl, tobacco pouches, and some candles. The yellow candles sputtered wax onto the plank as they burned, covering it with tiny dots of wax that mimicked the appearance of the light snowfall on the ground outside. Potatoes had been packed with mud and, along with wrapped ears of corn, were buried and roasting in the ashes in the front of the fireplace. A bright fire burned hotly within the opening, and it drew us toward the mantel while it filled the room with blissful heat.

On the table before us was a huge canvassed ham that must have been obtained at great cost or through great guile, some tinned oysters, and 2 loaves of white bread. This was a special treat as I had not seen anything made from flour for two months. Dave and I uncovered the kraut and the rye and the celebration begin. A toast was poured into tin cups and delivered in honor of the day, and then another to the Confederacy, but before the tributes got out of hand it was decided that the ham was of greater importance. All further speeches were cancelled at the appearance of the carving knife. I had not enjoyed a meal such as this since leaving Bowling Green 3 years earlier. We ate and drank into the evening and cared not a whit about the weather outside or what the rest of the world was doing. After we had fully satisfied our appetites, we sang some hymns and discovered that between us we never seemed to get much farther than the middle of the second verse in each one because no one could remember the words. However, the chorus of every hymn seemed to be well known and was shouted out with such enthusiasm as to make the muddled verses seem insignificant. I truly enjoyed the evening as I sat with these men who, like Dave and Sam, became my brothers for at least this one night. With the light and shadows from the fire dancing across our faces we sat in our snug retreat and not only shared our food and drink, but a little of our misery and our hopes for the end of the war. Much later in the evening, with the aid of Dave's brother and friends, we were placed back on his horse and sent in the general direction of our camp. Miraculously I awoke the next morning wrapped in my own blankets, safe and sound in my tent. It had indeed been a Merry Christmas.

As you will not receive this before the New Year begins, please accept my warmest and most sincere wishes for a New Year that will bring happiness and peace to all of us.

Yours truly,

Dutch Hoffmann


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