From the Vault: Civil War Shenanigans

We can all agree that war is hell. Union soldiers finding themselves in enemy territory far from home and hearth were faced with the blast of artillery shells, unspeakable carnage on the battlefield, and primitive living conditions. In order to cope with the madness, soldiers made use of any free time in ways not always in keeping with their fine Christian upbringing.

The following excerpts are from a ledger used at a Union prison in Alexandria, Virginia, that documents the transgressions of errant Union soldiers during an active few weeks between April 13 and May 16, 1864. Each entry lists the prisoner’s name, regiment, company, charges, charging official, and remarks.

Although the ledger isn’t attributed to a specific prison, it is most likely from what was known as the Franklin and Armfield Office, which until 1861 was known as the epicenter of the domestic slave trade. Notations across the top of pages in the ledger denoting prisoners held in the “Slave Pen” further enforce the likelihood of its origin.

Alexandria slave pen, c. 1861. From courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Alexandria slave pen, c. 1861. From courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Charges noted in the ledger ranged from the popular desertion, drunkenness, and rioting to less-frequently perpetrated crimes such as insolence and forging a leave pass. Fewer still were instances in which visits to the local cathouse became unruly enough to warrant the attention of an arresting officer, as seen in this entry.


No fewer than five soldiers were accused of rowdiness in a house of ill fame on this day.

Neither were local madams immune to the law, as evidenced by two women, both named Mary Griffith, who were locked up not only for running a brothel, but for doing it on the Sabbath.


The charges for the two Marys:

The charges for the two Marys: “Disorderly House & keeping open on Sunday.”

Several pages of the ledger are smeared with mud and debris as though the pages themselves are speaking to the violence they’ve seen. One can imagine a newly-arrested and angry soldier tearing it from the recording officer’s hands and flinging it to the ground.



War is hell, indeed.

~Cheri Crist, Librarian

Published in: on July 17, 2015 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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