Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Southern Rats

There's a scene in the film Gettysburg where Tom Chamberlain asks some Tennessee Confederate captives to explain what motivates the southern soldier's fight. "Ahm fah-tin' fo mah rats. All of us heah, that's what we-uhs fah-tin' fo," says one (w/ typical Hollywood indulgence). Chamberlain looks very confused and asks, "For your what?" "Fo ouwah rats," repeats the man. Viewers are meant to laugh at Chamberlain's inability to realize the soldier is fighting for his rights. Or is he?

Following is an anecdote from a real Tennessee veteran. In his famous memoir, Company Aytch, Private Sam Watkins of the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry writes:

"While stationed at this place, Chattanooga, rations were very scarce and hard to get, and it was, perhaps, economy on the part of our General and commissaries to issue rather scant rations.

"About this time we learned that Pemberton's army, stationed at Vicksburg, were subsisting entirely on rats. Instead of the idea being horrid, we were glad to know that 'necessity is the mother of invention,' and that the idea had originated in the mind of genius. We at once acted upon the information, and started out rat hunting; but we couldn't find any rats. Presently we came to an old outhouse that seemed to be a natural harbor for this kind of vermin. The house was quickly torn down and out jumped an old residenter, who was old and gray. I suppose that he had been chased before. But we had jumped him and were determined to catch him, or 'burst a boiler.'

"After chasing him backwards and forwards, the rat finally got tired of this foolishness and started for his hole. But a rat's tail is the last that goes in the hole, and as he went in we made a grab for his tail. Well, tail hold broke, and we held the skin of his tail in our hand. But we we were determined to have that rat. After hard work we caught him.

"We skinned him, washed and salted him, buttered and peppered him, and fried him. He actually looked nice. The delicate aroma of the frying rat came to our hungry nostrils. We were keen to eat a piece of rat; our teeth were on edge; yea, even our mouth watered to eat a piece of rat. Well, after a while, he was said to be done. I got a piece of cold corn dodger, laid my piece of the rat on it, [ate] a little piece of bread, and raised the piece of rat to my mouth, when I happened to think of how that rat's tail did slip.

"I had lost my appetite for dead rat. I did not eat any rat. It was my first and last effort to eat dead rats."



  1. That exchange in the movie Gettysburg always makes me laugh. But that anecdote makes me cringe. You have to be near starvation for a rat to look good enough to eat.

  2. Other Civil War writings speak of eating mule meat but I have never read or heard of any comments on eating horse meat despite of its availability.

    Historians I've asked agree that they never have come across comments about CW soldiers eating horseflesh and agree that for most soldiers and civilians horses were perhaps viewed as comrades or pets perhaps akin to todays dogs and cats in the U.S.

    Any thoughts?


  3. Larry,

    Now that you mention it, I don't recall coming across that either.

    Of course, live horses were far too valuable to consider for emergency sustenance.

    As for scavenging horsemeat, my first reaction is to think of the bond between horse and owner, as you stated. Even if the owner is long gone, others may have respected that relationship, too. However, people have resorted to incredible measures when faced with starvation. I'm not sure I'm satisfied entirely with that explanation.

    Finally, I wonder how many dead horses were available to the starving, common footsoldier when he was not on the march (and hungry enough to resort to horsemeat).

    You've raised an interesting question, Larry! I'd be curious to know what you learn of this in the future. If I come across anything, I'll be sure to post what I find.