“The Strawberry Movement.” Once the Civil War ended in 1865, Union soldiers poured northward out of the military. I’m currently researching an Army camp near my home that helped handle the vast flow of manpower, and this has led me to read Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Author Brian Matthew Jordon chronicles how northerners turned out to shower their returning boys in blue with gratitude. In one memorable example, a freelance humanitarian in New York named Vincent Colyer parlayed the gratitude into fresh food. Using funds from benefactors, Colyer gathered up “strawberries, cherries, radishes beets, cabbage, and lettuce that he had purchased from local street vendors,” Jordan writes in Marching Home. When military transport ships sailed into the harbor, Colyer and his helpers were there at the wharf to welcome the returning troops with fresh bounty–hundreds of baskets of it. What a treat this was for soldiers who had just endured years of unappetizing hardtack and salt pork. The fresh fruit proved a particular hit and Colyer’s lovely campaign was dubbed the Strawberry Movement.
“The Empty Sleeve.” Once the postwar pomp and gratitude died down, the boys in blue returned to civilian life, sometimes easily but often not. Men who had lost limbs faced special challenges. This is where another friend of the war veterans, a publisher named William Bourne, is featured in Marching Home. In late 1865, Bourne sponsored a penmanship competition for the thousands of vets who had lost their right arms in combat and were learning to write left-handed. Skilled penmanship, Bourne said, could be their avenue to “lucrative and honorable positions.” Bourne offered cash prizes and publication in a special gilded book. The response was an overwhelming 300 entries, causing Bourne to sponsor a second round the next year. And although the submissions were to be judged not on content but aesthetic appearance, many entrants wrote from the heart. “Union amputees keenly understood that they had been afforded an opportunity to speak to the public–and to posterity,” according to Marching Home. Many proudly referred to themselves as “empty sleeves” whose losses bore witness to the cost of what one called an “ungodly conflict.” Historian Jordan quotes one as writing “There is a strange history connected with each of these empty sleeves. A history of hardships such as only the soldier knows of long marches now through the rain and cold…of fearful conflicts amid roaring shells and hissing bullets, rattling of musketry and thunder of cannons, shouts and yells of excited men and groans of the dying and wounded.”
Book News. Two Embattled Freedom author talks are on tap in the next month. First up is to the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, next Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Radisson Hotel, 2400 Old Lincoln Highway, Trevose, Pa. 19053 . Then the Lancaster History Center is bringing me in as a Regional History Colloquium speaker on Thursday, March 7, at 4:30 p.m. The center is at 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster, Pa. 17603.