- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2003

Like all wars, the Civil War was not only destructive of life, limb and property, it also was very wasteful — especially in and around the nation’s capital.

Even when no battles were under way, the landscape was torn up by the presence of forts and camps, and the economy was distorted by the production of military equipment. When the nation’s four-year bloodletting was over, who cleaned up the mess? What happened to the leftover mountains of rations, shoes and shovels?

As the war wound down, the U.S. government was quick to provide some answers. Everyone knew the end was at hand when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops on April 9, 1865. The other Confederate armies would follow soon. On April 12, the War Department announced an end to the draft, slashed purchases, began mustering out the soldiers and officers, and started removing restrictions on private commerce. On April 14, Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre, and he died the next morning.

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Then, in less than a week, the government began running a series of for-sale advertisements in local newspapers. The number of such advertisements peaked in the autumn of 1865 and then slowly tapered off into 1866. It may have been one of the greatest Army-Navy sales in history.

What may have been the first such ad appeared just four days after Lincoln’s death. The April 19 papers ran an ad for a “Sale of Old Navy Guns” to be auctioned off May 2 at the Washington Navy Yard. There were 17 cannons in all, and they were to “afford an excellent opportunity for Founders and others to obtain a valuable lot of charcoal iron.”

In late April, the government began the “Sale of Condemned Horses.” Although occasional small sales of horses had taken place during the war, now there was a massive sell-off of thousands of them. The ads optimistically claimed that although the condemned horses were unfit to serve in the Army, for “road and farming purposes, many good bargains may be had.”

Another especially large and long-lasting ad series involved the dozens of forts and batteries encircling Washington. Such ads began in September 1865. Many of the sales simply involved dismantling the forts for their lumber. A typical ad in the local Daily Morning Chronicle of Oct. 6, 1865, for example, promised that the sharpened abatis spikes about the forts were “made of the tops of trees, and is suitable for firewood.” The oak, chestnut and cedar of the interior buildings “may be used for fencing or any other purpose to which common cullings are usually applied.” The hardwood stockade walls were “very valuable, and may be easily removed.”

• • •

Some of the forts had been built on private property, so the government offered to turn over the buildings and equipment of a given fort to the original owner as compensation. Some owners accepted. One example was Fort Stevens, where Gen. Jubal A. Early’s attack on Washington was repulsed on July 12, 1864. The local Daily National Intelligencer of May 3, 1866, stated that “a portion of Fort Stevens and some of the buildings were turned over to the land owners.”

In the case of the forts, at least, some figures were published later in the papers on how much money the government had made from the sales. For instance, the Nov. 24, 1865, Intelligencer listed the profits from 29 forts and batteries as totaling $19,330.74. Individual fort items could sell for such prices as $65 for a mess house, $32 for a guardhouse and $9 for a stable.

Creature comforts for the inner man were not forgotten, either. Items such as clothing, food and medical equipment were advertised for sale, again mostly in the autumn months of 1865. The Medical Purveyor’s Office sold thousands of dressing gowns, pillows and pillowcases, shirts, cots, sheets, blankets, surgical instruments and bottles of medicine. The Chief Quartermaster’s Office auctioned off surplus clothing from local warehouses. Items included coats, jackets, trousers, shirts and hats plus related camp equipment such as drumheads, fifes, leggings, axes, kettles, pans, canteens, haversacks, ropes and tents.

• • •

One local Evening Star notice of May 9, 1865, mentioned the sale of clothing described as “condemned” — but, unlike the horse ads, did not explain what that meant. Another clothing ad, hurriedly dropped, appeared in the June 6, 1865, Chronicle: “Large Sale of Deceased Soldiers’ Effects at Auction” — with “Clothing, Shoes, Blankets,” plus “Watches, Jewelry, with many other useful articles.”

The government sales of leftover food rations involved only the less perishable items in those days before modern refrigeration. A typical ad in the Chronicle of Oct. 6, 1865, announced an auction of “condemned subsistence stores” by the Depot Commissary of Subsistence, again with no definition of “condemned.” The rations involved were salt beef, hams, smoked beef, mackerel, pickles and smoked herring.

The commissary also sold off “Hard Bread” crackers, or hardtack. A Nov. 28, 1865, Chronicle ad mentioned a sale of hardtack “in boxes of fifty pounds each,” available at the Subsistence Depot in Alexandria. “All purchases will be placed on transports at the Government wharf in that city, free of expense to the purchaser,” the ad assured potential buyers.

Not all leftover rations went to civilians. The Intelligencer of Nov. 7, 1865, mentioned complaints from Union soldiers still stationed in the South. The Intelligencer speculated: “The Government is probably issuing its old stock of provisions.”

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Undoubtedly the most popular surplus item for sale was government whiskey, and it did not have to be advertised for long. During the war, whiskey had been given out to soldiers as a special treat or an incentive and for medical use. Somehow some was left after the war was over.

The whiskey ads first began appearing in local papers on Sept. 28, 1865, for an Oct. 13 auction. The sale came in five lots. Lot No. 1 had 1,067 barrels, or 42,345 gallons, of “Rectified Whiskey,” with a minimum purchase of 10 barrels required. Lot No. 2 had 460 barrels, or 18,498 gallons of bourbon whiskey, with a minimum purchase of five barrels. Lot No. 3 comprised 120 barrels, or 4,800 gallons of rye whiskey, with a minimum purchase of three barrels. The fourth lot had 63 barrels, or 2,520 gallons, of “Old Rye Whiskey,” with a minimum purchase of two barrels, and Lot No. 5 had just five barrels, or 163 gallons, of “Old Bourbon Whiskey,” with a minimum purchase of one barrel.

The whiskey even was classified according to rank: “The Rectified was designed for issue to the troops in the field, and the Bourbon and Rye for sales to Officers.” The Subsistence Department had local offices in Washington and several other East Coast cities, where “Samples of the Whiskey can be seen,” though not, apparently, sampled.

• • •

Perhaps the most universal sign that the war truly was over was a brief snippet in the Oct. 31, 1865, Washington Star: “Diminishing — the number of nymphs-du-pave in this city is rapidly diminishing, the police reporting 12 houses closed during the past month.

“A large proportion of the cyprians were from Philadelphia and New York, to which places most of them have returned,” the item continued, using esoteric euphemisms for prostitutes, often also called “soiled doves” in that era.

John Lockwood is a writer in Washington.


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