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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Risky Investment in Milwaukee Tobacco

Today marks the anniversary of the Union victory at Stone's River, Tenn., where 41,000 Union soldiers faced off against 38,000 Confederates for three days in driving rain, sleet, and fog. Thomas Ford of Milwaukee was a sergeant in the 24th Wisconsin Infantry, which lost nearly 40 percent of its men and almost all its officers at Stone's River. Years later he left this ironic account of being more worried about his black market dealing than about surviving the combat.

Fine Milwaukee Tobacco

"Just before the Battle of Stone River I received a box of fine cut chewing and smoking tobacco from an uncle of mine in Milwaukee. We got orders that night to get ready for the march in the morning. I did not know what to do with my big box of tobacco, containing eleven dollars' worth, done up in Milwaukee. A rare thing to get -- Milwaukee tobacco.

"Some of the company boys helped me to do it up in packages from fifty cents' worth to a dollar and a half sized packages, and we went around and sold all the tobacco in an hour's time to officers and privates alike, but got very little money, the regiment not being paid yet, so we had to trust until pay day.

Surrounded and Shelled

"We got into the fight, however, at daybreak… [and] the rebels came down on us, colors flying and in solid column, shouting and hollering as if certain and sure of victory. We fell back before them. They crowded us into a cedar woods, where there was nothing but cedar trees and rocks, and it seemed as if all the birds and rabbits in that large field were looking for protection around our feet. So thick and fast did the rebels send their shot and shell after us that you might think it impossible for a bird to escape them. The rebels had us surrounded for a while…

Ford's Risky Investment

"When we were in the thickest of this fight an incident took place about that tobacco I sold on time. A comrade of mine, James Mangan, formerly a school teacher in the Town of Franklin (and I was a pupil at his school myself), came near me and said, 'Thomas, this is terrible. It seems impossible for any of us to escape being killed by those shells and bullets if they continue this way much longer.'

"At the same time I noticed one of the boys that I sold some tobacco to, on time, drop. 'Yes,' said I. 'But what will I do now for the price of my tobacco? Most of those are killed that I sold it to, and I will never be paid.' 'To the devil with you and your tobacco,' said he, 'if that is what you are thinking of now, in place of your soul.'"

Sgt. Ford's soul and body both survived the Battle of Stone's River, as well as several others. He returned home with a bullet in his chest that testified to his courage.

After the war Ford farmed for 25 years near Bloomington, Ill., and then moved back to his boyhood home of Milwaukee, where he wrote his memoir. For other stories of Wisconsin soldiers, click over to our Civil War collection. New materials are added often. For example, we recently added 500 new pictures.

[Source: Ford, Thomas J. With the Rank and File: Incident and Anecdotes during the War of the Rebellion (Milwaukee, 1898), pages 8-11]

:: Posted in on January 5, 2012
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