Mobile library forged in fires of war

Booknotes looks at reading starvation in the American Civil War

Mike Selby

At the time, the American Civil War was unlike any other war in history.

The soldiers weren’t an invasion force, bent on stripping another country of its natural resources and wealth. They weren’t fighting for land, or religious reasons, or because royalty had simply ordered them to.

They also weren’t fighting a war of aggression, expansionism, or one of ethnic cleansing.

As Colonel Chamberlain told his men on the eve of Gettysburg, “We are an army out to set other men free.”

The U.S.A. began to tear itself apart in the spring of 1861, and by winter of that year another wholly unique aspect of this unusual war began to emerge. The soldiers were beginning to starve, but not for food (that would come later). They were starving for something to read.

Up until this point, literacy had not been a huge concern of the American military. Provisions and artillery were always colour-coded, as many soldiers were illiterate. This status quo of non-readers changed almost immediately, as the Union Army grew from 16,000 members at the beginning of the war, to 1,000,000 members by its end. Many of these were volunteers, and like Colonel Chamberlain mentioned above (a college professor), many were educated.

It began that winter, with Union troops rushing towards passenger trains, holding up signs that read “Please Drop Papers.” A newspaper was worth its weight in gold at a winter camp. A camp located nowhere near a railway line had no chance of getting a newspaper, creating a desperate situation. How desperate? All one camp had to read was a pamphlet on the female menstrual cycle, which each soldier read and reread about 36 times per day.

The largest relief agency at the time, The U.S Christian Commission, was the first agency to address to the literary needs of the troops.  They took up collections and held book drives, and began to send crates of much needed reading material to the soldier camps.

A crate of books was a welcome site indeed, but the soldiers were unable to contain their disappointment. While the relief agency’s intentions were good, the reading material they sent was not. The majority of the donations were children’s bibles, Sunday-school readers, and hyper-religious tracts. One officer wrote to thank the Commission for their hard work, but mentioned that the members must be “under the delusion that the army was composed entirely of men thoroughly bad.”

As the majority of soldiers used the donations to start fires and light their pipes, a man named J.C. Thomas felt he had the solution. An army chaplain, Thomas systematically assessed the reading levels and tastes of the soldiers through a series of interviews, and concluded only one thing could properly address their needs.

A library.

Thomas then sat down and drew the crude designs of a mobile library. It would have to be the size of a large steamer trunk, and capable of holding 125 volumes. Each one would need two hinged doors for access, which would display a catalogue of the library’ s holdings when opened.

While Thomas sent off his designs off to Washington for approval, he submerged himself into library work. He spent every free moment consulting books lists and author biographies, until he had completed a list of 1,500 titles covering the widest range of subjects possible.

The government quickly approved his designs, and built 285 mobile libraries. Publishers agreed to provide books at cost. The mobile libraries were stocked and sent out to camps, hospitals, and naval vessels.  From dense scholarly tomes to basic readers, the libraries became a bright spot amid the horrors of war.   “No estimate can be made of the good it is doing” wrote one  officer in his weekly report.

Of course these libraries suffered the same problems as all other libraries. Books were returned late, frequently damaged, or not at all.  A large number of books went missing with discharged hospital patients and deserters.

The Civil War ended in 1865, with the surrender of the Confederate Army. The mobile libraries that hadn’t been abandon, stuck in mud, stolen, or blown to smithereens during the war were taken apart, with the collections being sent to military bases and schools.

Before the war ended, one of the biggest users of the libraries were former slaves. Since learning to read was previously a death sentence, the former slaves made great use of the mobile libraries. One camp chaplain reported that they stay up all night sounded out words and reading aloud from the primary spelling books and readers. Although this practice prevented the entire regiment from getting any sleep, not one soldier ever complained.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library