- The Meaning of a Union Soldier’s Racial Joke
The Vermont Historical Society holds the one surviving letter by 1st Lt. Stephen Spalding. It is something of a rarity, a comic outburst that lasts for seven pages. Spalding’s tone is irreverent, as befits a letter written by a twenty-two-year-old man to his senior-year college roommate. One senses that he did not mean for its contents to be shared with relatives, especially ones who were pious or straight-laced. Throughout, it is more M*A*S*H* or Catch 22 than Ken Burns. This is not to say that the letter is devoid of serious topics; when Spalding wrote to James Peck he was stationed in Algiers, Louisiana, in July 1862. His regiment, the 8th Vermont Volunteers, had just suffered its first battle casualties, and men were starting to die of disease in alarming numbers. Spalding wrote about these deaths and also about important issues such as unionist sentiment in Louisiana, the future, his unit’s combat readiness, and even homesickness.
But mostly it is a funny letter, and we can use it to explore the place of humor in the lives of a group of Union soldiers. Like most Civil War–era humorists, Spalding makes ample use of exaggeration. He writes that he drinks alcohol “700 to 800 times a day to keep my spirits up.” He says that it took him only two days, a small library of reference works, and the works of Artemas Ward, to read Peck’s latest letter. Many of Spalding’s other jokes come from merging [End Page 7] two reliable standbys, slapstick and drinking stories. Of the damage he wrought during a drunken outing on a dance floor, he itemizes wounded toes, bruised shins, torn dresses, and a scene so chaotic that it silences the band. There is much here that is lighthearted and playful, but some of Spalding’s jokes suggest the movement toward a much less breezy approach to the war. Spalding cracks an insensitive joke about the death of a young soldier in his company, and he implies that he gets what he wants from locals (only) when he shows that he has a gun. War has left him, about a year and a half into it, reluctant to sing its praises, even in jest. As he cautions his friend: “Don’t for Gods Sake enlist unless you can get the position of Major General.”1 Highly literate, thanks to his University of Vermont education, Spalding makes any reader wish that more of his correspondence survived.
Most of Spalding’s jokes enable him to voice his opinions about society and the war. While most scholars rightly emphasize the broad nature of change during the war era, especially the three crucial amendments governing race relations, Spalding found such reforms unappealing.2 He was no egalitarian, and his hierarchical views give us a chance to look into the mind of a social (but not at all religious) conservative. By examining conservative men in one place, and even in the world surrounding one letter, we can see how they opposed the social changes happening around them. Strongly opposed to racial equality, yet enlisted in a war effort that was moving in that direction, he and others used many tactics to fight for their version of the war. That they would not always succeed—that events did not turn out as they had hoped or planned—inspired a particular kind of humor that helped Spalding minimize the extent of social change and his own complicity in it.
Like many good letter-writers, Spalding included many characters and scenes. This article will focus on the opening scene of his letter, in which he receives a letter from Peck. Told as a vignette that includes two players, Spalding and his black servant, Jim, this interaction serves as our introduction to the letter-writer: [End Page 8]
Yesterday I was sitting in my room, thinking over the mutability of all things human, and making myself as miserable as the Army Regulations allow. I had just finished a mental discourse damning everybody and especially the Eighth Vermont, when the...