“I Cannot Fare Equally with Other Soldiers”: A Vegetarian Union Soldier

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Nathan Marzoli

Edwin Forbes sketch titled “Beef for the army – on the march.” It is labeled as at
Rappahannock Station, Virginia, in February 1864. Source: Library of Congress

It is no secret that Civil War soldiers consumed a lot of meat. For the majority of the war, the standard daily allowance for a soldier in the U.S. Army, for example, consisted of “twelve ounces of pork or bacon, or, one pound and four ounces of salt or fresh beef,” in addition to similar quantities of bread or corn meal. Pork was usually salted; soldiers prepared it in a variety of ways, from frying, to broiling, to placing it in a stew, or even eating it raw. The army most often delivered beef to soldiers in pickled form, although they also sometimes consumed it “fresh” (and not infrequently contaminated by maggots or flies before it reached the grubby hands of soldiers). Even “at its best,” writes historian Earl Hess, “the Union army’s ration was unbalanced in favor of meat and shortchanged fresh fruits and vegetables, despite its reputation as the most generous in the world.” One therefore does not have to dive too deeply into the primary sources to find soldiers writing, and often complaining, about the meat they consumed.[1]

But what about soldiers who refused to consume animal flesh? The modern vegetarian movement in America traces its roots to the era of social reform before the Civil War. Proponents of vegetarianism, many of whom were also active in the temperance, abolitionist, and feminist movements, stressed both the immorality of eating sentient creatures and the health benefits of avoiding meat consumption. One of the most prominent of these reformers was a New England Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham. He believed that stimulants, including meat and alcohol, caused irritation and debility of the body, which left one vulnerable to disease. Graham lectured widely on his ideas for consuming a more wholesome diet; thousands attended his events and countless more read his words reprinted in newspapers throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Though perhaps the most conspicuous vegetarian, Graham was certainly not alone in his crusade for a meatless diet. The father of novelist Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), A. Bronson Alcott, founded a vegetarian community in Massachusetts – named Fruitlands – in 1843. And in 1850, advocates formed the American Vegetarian Society in the aftermath of a well-attended convention in New York City. Graham and his associates clearly reached a sizable audience with their message in the decades prior to the Civil War, even if vegetarianism never became mainstream.[2]

Edwin Forbes sketch titled “Beef for the army – on the march.” It is labeled as at
Rappahannock Station, Virginia, in February 1864. Source: Library of Congress

Perhaps these prewar proponents of vegetarianism swayed Lindon Park (also sometimes spelled as Linton), a man drafted in September 1864 into Company F of the 2d Regiment, District of Columbia Infantry, to adopt a meatless diet. At the New Hampshire Historical Society, buried in the personal files of former 2d D.C. regimental surgeon George Woodbury, is an affidavit of Private Park as he appeared before a County of Alexandria (Virginia) Justice of the Peace. Park claimed that he suffered terribly under the monotonous and meat-centric diet of the common U.S. soldier.[3]

Private Park asserted that “his instincts, digestive functions, and all his senses, are inimical in the extreme to animal food, and were so constituted from his birth by an immutable decree of nature, and that all other materials compounded or having contact with animal elements, are to him unpalatable and repulsive.” In other words, his health – and his life – depended on maintaining a “purely vegetable diet.” The soldier said he had been able to partially subsist through purchases from a sutler, at his own expense. But these avenues were not always available to him – even in a regiment like the 2d D.C., which mostly served in the defenses of Washington – so Park requested “some special accommodation or to draw an extra allowance of bread or other vegetable elements in lieu of the animal food.”[4]

Was Private Park honest in his request for dietary accommodations, or was the draftee just looking for an escape from typical soldier life? His proposition to the Justice of the Peace that he was “willing to serve the government” and sustain himself at his own expense, “if detailed to special duty either as a soldier or a first class mechanic at any place” where he could secure “food at market prices,” certainly makes one at least somewhat suspicious of the latter.[5]

But there is additional evidence of Park’s wartime claims of vegetarianism; thankfully, Park does not have the same historical anonymity as thousands of other Civil War soldiers. Born in 1826 in a small town in western Pennsylvania, Park had relocated to Washington by the Civil War and was employed as a painter before he was drafted into the Army in 1864 (although there is no direct proof, descendants claimed he worked on the Capitol itself). Family members apparently knew him as somewhat of an eccentric. Park never married, and the relative rarity of vegetarianism at the time furthered his image as a social outcast. A nephew wrote family members soon after the war to tell them that Park was living “in an old loft by himself as hermit-like as ever.”[6]

Park maintained his idiosyncratic reputation when he returned to Pennsylvania after the war. He became an inventor, and patented “improving ventilating blinds,” similar to venetian blinds, which won first prize at the centennial exhibition in Philadelphia. Park also invented a type of hat rack, vegetable peeler (for his own use of course), and a device to clean the feather stuffing in pillows and mattresses. He became most renowned for his artistic paintings, however. Although first exhibited at county fairs in Pennsylvania, these gained popularity after his death in 1906 thanks to an article in Antiques magazine. Two of his paintings, Flax Scutching Bee and The Exhumation, are held by the National Gallery of Art.[7]

The Exhumation, one of Lindon Park’s most well-known paintings. Originally titled
The Burial, art historians have recently determined that it more likely depicts a family recovering
a fallen soldier’s body from somewhere in the South. The broken wooden gravestone reads “J
NORIS CO H. 45 Pa Vols.” Source: National Gallery of Art

A fanciful account of Park’s dietary restrictions during the war also made it into numerous newspapers the year of his death in 1906. “Mr. Linton Park, who is now an inmate of the Soldiers’ and Sailors home at Erie, Pa, was among those who joined in the chorus, ‘We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more’,” the article began (conveniently ignoring that Park was actually drafted late in the war). He was “then, as now, a vegetarian,” the piece continued, and “while he could assimilate everything connected with his answer to the call of duty from the stand of patriotism, he could not assimilate the army pork.”[8]

But this version of the story made no mention of bringing his dietary request to Surgeon Woodbury and the Alexandria Justice of the Peace. Instead, he took his complaints directly to President Lincoln himself. Park compared himself to “the children of Israel after they set out from Egypt,” and told Lincoln that he “could not forget the leeks and onions” back in his home in Pennsylvania. Lincoln smiled. “You want me to turn you out to graze like Nebuchadnezzar,” the President slyly asked Park. To which the vegetarian soldier replied: “it would beat salt pork.” The article claimed that Lincoln proceeded to write a note dictating that “the bearer, Linton Park, is herewith granted permission to browse wherever he chooses” – which the former soldier still had in his possession. Did Surgeon Woodbury keep Park’s affidavit due his knowledge of Lincoln’s intervention? Or was the newspaper article merely an apocryphal exaggeration of the slips of paper that the surgeon only mundanely preserved? Perhaps we will never know, but the story, regardless of how it ended up in newspapers across the country, does point to Park’s pride in his vegetarianism.[9]

Although his service records do document periods in which he was absent with leave from the regiment, suggesting that he may have been allowed to serve in locations more amenable to his dietary needs, we unfortunately do not know the true results of Park’s request. His vegetarian affidavit, however, calls attention to the soldiers’ diet – a topic that most historians put to rest many years ago.[10] It does not negate the fact that most soldiers did eat meat and endured a monotonous and atrocious diet. But it does emphasize the individualism of each Civil War soldier, a fact that often gets lost in the desire to paint a portrait of the “typical” Civil War soldier. Soldiers did not exist in a historical vacuum. Lindon Park brought his lifestyle views, perhaps influenced by social reform movements in the decades before the war, with him into the army. He could not have been alone.[11]

Nathan A. Marzoli is a staff historian at the Air National Guard History Office. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he completed a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in history
and museum studies at the University of New Hampshire. His primary research and writing interests focus on the U.S. Civil War draft, specifically the relationships between civilians and Federal draft officials. He is the author of several articles in journals such as Civil War History and Army History, as well as numerous blog posts.

[1] Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 224, 239-240; James I. Robertson, Jr., Soldiers Blue and Gray (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 64-67; Earl Hess, “Meat-Eating in the Civil War: A Vegetarian Perspective,” in Earl Hess ed. Animal Histories of the Civil War Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022), 150-158.

[2] Karen and Michael Iacobbo, Vegetarian America: A History (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004), 1, 19, 21; W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 120-122; Hess, “Meat-Eating in the Civil War,” 156-157; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 471-472.

[3] The 2d D.C. served in the Defenses of Washington its entire service, except for a brief stint in the Army of the Potomac V Corps during the Antietam Campaign. See Frederick Dyer, Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines: Dyer Publishing Company, 1908), 1019; Lindon Park Service Records, accessed via Fold3; Washington Evening Star, “The Draft in the First Ward,” September 20, 1864; Capt. Henry Sheetz, Provost Marshal, District of Columbia, Draft Enrollment, July 25, 1863, accessed via Fold3.

[4] Affidavit of Lindon Park to Court of Alexandria, State of Virginia, Justice of the Peace, November 8, 1864, George Woodbury Papers, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, N.H.

[5] Ibid.

[6] National Gallery of Art, “Linton Park Biography,” https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1770.html#biography.

[7] National Gallery of Art, “Linton Park Biography,” https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1770.html#biography.

[8] The Colorado Statesman, “Permit was Broad Enough: War-Time Reminiscence Illustrative of the Humor of President Lincoln,” June 9, 1906.

[9] The Colorado Statesman, “Permit was Broad Enough: War-Time Reminiscence Illustrative of the Humor of President Lincoln,” June 9, 1906.

[10] The exception being Earl Hess, in his very recent essay “Meat-Eating in the Civil War: A Vegetarian Perspective.” Hess asserts that Civil War soldiers would have been a lot better off had they consumed a more balanced diet, if not one entirely consisting of fruits and vegetables.

[11] Lindon Park Service Records, accessed via Fold3.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!