“The Most Destructive & Inconvenient Things”: Lieutenant Hadley’s Opinions about Women in Winter Camp

Winter encampments could be cold, dreary, and boring for many Civil War soldiers. However, some officers had a rather lively experience, especially when the female flirts came to visit. During the Winter of 1863-64, twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant John V. Hadley wrote regularly to his fiancée, detailing many of his interactions with civilian visitors to the military camp near Culpeper, Virginia. The details and the criticism are unique in this part of his letter collection, suggesting that he may have been venting about the situations and also trying to avoid rumors or secrets from his fiancee. Hadley had originally enlisted in the 7th Indiana Infantry, but by that winter, he was serving at Brigadier General James Clay Rice’s headquarters. The excerpts from Hadley’s letters about winter civilian visitors are both humorous and a rather distressing picture of some women causing trouble or uncomfortable scenes.

John V. Hadley, post war photograph

The winter started with great satisfaction. Hadley wrote on December 27, 1863, that they had set up the general’s headquarters “at the home of Hon. John S. Pendleton, who was six years in Congress & five as Minister to South America…. The only good thing in my opinion he ever did for the world was to build his excellent house for our HdQs. We are as nice here as bugs in a rug. All have our rooms & featherbeds, our carpets & myrors [mirrors].” Chairs and sofas completed the good housekeeping scenario in his view, and the house had been a happy scene for Christmas with a “feast of Turkies & flow of wine.”

Hadley left headquarters on furlough early in January 1864. Returning to Indiana, a strange sequence of events is alluded to in his later letters. He did not go to see Mary, his fiancée, and may have stayed with his family due to illness or weather. Apparently, he had been planning to get married during his furlough, but clearly that didn’t happen, and he later offered vague excuses and plenty of frustration. Neither Hadley nor Mary had left the other at the altar or ended their relationship. They just didn’t meet and didn’t marry at that time. On January 28, he wrote to Mary, detailing his return to headquarters:

Be it sufficient to say further that I reached the Army at 3 P.M. on the 25th one day after the expiration of my leave. I found my faithful groom waiting at the depot with my horse & after a five minute gallop met the boys & the Gen on the veranda of our H.Q.

I lifted my cap as gracefully as I was able when Gen Rice said — Lt. Hadley permit me—Mrs. Rice allow me—Mrs. Rice, Lt. Hadley. The first question the Gen. asked me was “did you get married?” & as the sluggish “no” crawled out I felt guilty & no doubt looked guilty of leaving undone something which I knew to be my duty. Dear, I wish I had my 15 days to spend over. I think my circumstances in life would be materially changed. As two happy husbands go galloping by my window with their laughing brides “my heart yearns to be one of those.”

Hadley kept busy with headquarters paperwork and business and found time to attend the theater every night to see the comedies. However, his quiet winter of military duties and romantic regrets was about to change. On January 31, he wrote to Mary:

We at present have two ladies on the Staff & are expecting five more from Baltimore tomorrow. Also expecting to reinforced in about a week with five more from Albany, N.Y., making 12 in all. When they all arrive the women will be the controlling power of these H.Q. & what measures they will adopt for the prosecution of this war is very hard to conjecture. But I am not apprehensive that they will do anything unfavorable to “Union right or wrong”. Surrounded by this multitude of uncompromising women I fear I shall be in mortal terror least I be forced into a policy of warfare very different from the one at present sustained.

But, darling, have no fears. My heart is iron-clad & locked & there is but one key in the universe that can unlock it & that you hold….

A winter camp in Culpeper County, 1864 (Library of Congress)

Three days later, Hadley wrote in distress:

Dearest Mary, Crinoline has crowded me out of the house & I am now in my tent shivering with cold. The most hard hearted man in the world could hardly wish his enemy a more disagreeable day than this. A painfully cold wind is blowing a hurricane. The flys of our tents are beating the long roll & the smoke of our fires is distressing. There is no comfort anywheres today. In the fireplace of my tent is blazing a big fire, but so successfully does the cold wind perforate our canvass walls, that I am nearly frozen with my coat on sitting two feet from the fire. It is on such occasion as this that men become discouraged with military life. As I sit here trembling with cold & with eyes smarting & dropping smoked out tears, I am almost forced to exclaim “Soldiering you’re a humbug.”

Hadley told Mary that he had been invited to two balls, but he had declined. Uninterested in finding or flirting with another lady, he preferred to stay close to headquarters and even offered criticism on the morals of his commanding general. “Gen Rice goes & leaves his lady at home. Lt Chisman…says such treatment may indicate a faithful husband among blooded Yankees, but in the West where he was raised it always speaks better for the husband to take the wife along….”

General James C. Rice, 1864.

By February 11, the lieutenant’s winter mood had not improved. He and Chisman (his roommate and good friend) stuck together; both young men were engaged to girls back home and got quickly annoyed with the headquarters’ guests. “I shall not attempt to enumerate the number of our guests present. (I say ours but I mean the Gen’s) but will say that we are expecting eight more tomorrow. I find ladies in the Army to be the most destructive & inconvenient things in the world. They have driven Lt Chisman & me, who have no interest in a million of them, out of our room—have taken half our blankets & rode our horses nearly to death. They eat amazingly, want more riding whips & letter paper than a dozen wives.”

Whether by intention or just coincidence, Valentine’s Day unfortunately embolden these female “guests.” Again, Hadley explained the whole scenario:

“I took Mrs Rice’s sister, Miss Thorpe, to see a cavalry Review yesterday—went in an Ambulance—Driver let the horses run off—Miss Thorpe scared—screamed very naturally—got weak—tried to throw herself out of the Ambulance—I gallantly fled to the rescue—with extended arms saved her—concluded she would rather fall into my arms than into the road. Took her some time to recover but when she did seemed satisfied with her choice…. These poison creatures will be the death of me yet I expect.”

Four days later, on February 18, the winter winds around Culpeper threatened to blow the tent down, and smoke choked the shelter. “Four more young ladies & two gentleman” had arrived. Gloomily, Hadley confessed to “my dearest” that “I cannot wish for any more—nor wished for these [guests]. Think if I had the blankets I loaned them tonight I should enjoy them about as well as I will enjoy the ladies society tomorrow.”

A few more days passed, and Hadley did manage to find some pleasant company. He “hitched a piece of calico to my arm” and took Miss Libby McClure to a church service. His appearance with a lady caused some whispers among the other officers and soldiers. Afterwards, he took her walking at sunset on an “enchanting evening” that February. However, he hastened to assure Mary that “while out I thought a dozen times of you, dear, wondering whether you were out walking with some agreeable company or whether you were sitting in the parlor writing to me. I could but wish the former & hope the latter.”

A winter camp near Brandy Station, Virginia, 1864 (Library of Congress)

The good feelings and genuine company did not last long. On February 29, 1864, Hadley returned to his annoyance with the civilian guests, writing perhaps one of his most scathing (and humorous) descriptions of the women visiting at headquarters. He had been busy getting ready for a military reconnaissance and march.

The ladies have been in some consternation, but this has given me no trouble inasmuch as I have horse this time & will not have to stay behind & serve them in their panic. Officers’ wives I regard as having a perfect right to come to the Army, tis a nice thing & would like to have one here myself, but for New England to belch forth all her old maids & husband-seeking girls, into our rooms, to take our beds, & eat up our savings—is, I think, a questionable right.

We’ve had one of those dear creatures here now for more than four week[s] & she insists upon not leaving until some of us agree to marry her. Chisman says he wouldn’t mind it & would do it if she were only 35 but being two days more, think’s he’ll wait….

Being a gentleman, Hadley did not reveal the names of the annoying women, making it difficult to figure out who they were or to find out if they ever did “catch husbands.” As for Lieutenant Hadley, he survived the winter in the freezing, smoky tent and avoided the old maids. Happily, he also survived the 1864 campaign and eventually returned to Indiana where he married his fiancee.

Civilian and military interactions during the American Civil War ranged from accidental or intentional violence to some of the kindest, most innocent scenes. These winter camp interactions as described by Lieutenant Hadley are probably best categorized as annoying or humorous, but they do provide a perspective on some Northern society women and the insensitivity of their actions as they put a social, logistic, and monetary strain on the military officers at headquarters. Pleasant winter quarters turned into an uncomfortable scene in many different ways, leaving a young officer to even briefly question his devotion to soldiering for his cause. Although he wanted to see “his dearest,” the lieutenant had a strong aversion to the “poison creatures” who had no duty and no proper role at a military headquarters.


James I. Robertson, Jr. and Jane Hadley Comer, “An Indiana Soldier in Love and War: The Civil War Letters of John V. Hadley”, published in Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 59, No. 3. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963). Accessed through Jstor. Reference letters by chronological date as noted in the article.

2 Responses to “The Most Destructive & Inconvenient Things”: Lieutenant Hadley’s Opinions about Women in Winter Camp

  1. Colorful piece. Something tells me that “he doth protest too much” and may have withheld certain details of his interactions with these women to avoid a jealous reaction from his fiancee.

  2. “…My heart is iron-clad & locked & there is but one key in the universe that can unlock it & that you hold….”

    Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3:
    Laertes: “Farewell, Ophelia, and remember well What I have said to you.”
    Ophelia, to her brother Laertes: “Tis in my memory lock’d, And you shall keep the key of it.”

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