Notorious hotels

Old books, a coffee addiction, and the Civil War. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

In 1901, a man named William Crossley, who was then in his early 60s and who had a dry wit and a way with words, addressed the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society.

The topic: his experience as a Union soldier during the Civil War who had served only 46 days before being wounded and captured by the Confederate army.

Crossley spent 300 days, as he put euphemistically put it, “boarding with Jefferson Davis, in three of his notorious hotels,” before he was exchanged. (Then, he went back into combat, fighting at seven other battles between 1862 and 1864.)

Still later, Crossley turned his talk — which was based on his war diary — into a short book. Google helpfully scanned it more than 100 years later, and I wound up sprinting through it on my back deck yesterday, laughing out loud at parts.

Here’s how that all came to pass:

  1. I took last week off. (I’m hoping you noticed!) I was on vacation on Cape Cod with my wife, daughter, and quite a bit of my extended family. It was so great.

  2. The house we had planned to rent fell through — long story — so we stayed in a small hotel. This was totally fine, not at all “notorious,” except that with no coffee maker, I missed my habitual 2-3 cups of coffee each morning. Like everyone in else in Massachusetts, apparently, I went to Dunkin’ each morning instead.

  3. My routine reminded me of a NYT article I’d read a few years ago, about how soldiers have relied on coffee throughout history—and which briefly quoted a Civil War solider’s lament about missing out on coffee while he was a prisoner.

A few minutes later, I’d found the article, identified Crossley, and dug up his short, 120-year-old book, about his 159-year-old experience.

The Civil War started in April 1861. Crossley joined the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Volunteers in May, was mustered into federal service in June, and fought at the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21 — becoming a “guest of the Confederacy” literally the following day.

His time in captivity was tough, but if you’ve heard of the notorious Andersonville camp, it wasn’t quite that bad. For one thing, he was a POW two years before that camp opened, and for another he was eventually paroled—which wasn’t really an option later.

(When the Union formed Black units, the Confederates refused to trade Black soldiers for White ones. So soldiers who were captured later were mostly stuck in captivity until the end of the war.)

Crossley writes that he was 21 when he was captured, but he explains in the diary-turned-speech-turned-book that he quickly learned to tell the guards he was just 17, so he’d get better treatment. Other excerpts:

Monday, July 22, 1861.

“Well, here I am, a prisoner of war, a lamb surrounded by wolves, just because I obeyed orders, went into a fight, and, by Queensbury Rules, was punctured below the belt [by which Crossley meant he was shot in his thigh]. So much for trying to be good.”

For the next few weeks, he records two things: what he ate for dinner, and the names of people who died. Examples…

July 27th.

“No bread to-day, only gruel. McCann, of Newport, died.”


July 28th.

Major Ballou died this p.m. Gruel for supper, with a fierce tempest.

It starts to get a bit more amusing later, as Crossley and his fellow soldiers are carted all over the South by their captors. Eventually, there’s a dark sarcasm — describing a bleak existence, but with enough wry humor to make the reader forget just how bleak the surroundings actually are.

Next morning, taken upstairs, and ‘bless my stars,’ put on cots, and given bread and coffee for breakfast.

What was the coffee made of, do you ask? I don’t know, and, as you didn’t have to drink it, it need not concern you; and we had soup for dinner, and it’s none of your affairs what that was made of either.”

For the life of me, I wasn’t able to find out anything about what happened to Crossley after his 1901 speech. So I guess we’ll wrap up here with another passage about coffee — the one that wound up quoted on the NYT and led me on this trek to begin with.

It comes from just after Crossley’s release, when he and his surviving fellow soldiers have been turned over to the Union Army in North Carolina, and are beginning their way home.

Coffee, soup and crackers for supper. Oh! but wasn’t that coffee rich?

And can I ever forgive those Confederate thieves for robbing me of so many precious doses; just think of it, in three hundred days there was lost to me, forever, so many hundred pots of good old Government Java. …

Though I have been taught to forgive, seventy times seven is a good many, and it’s a long way back to last July. …

If you’re like me and you can get lost in this kind of obscure, old account, here’s a link to the whole thing (plus quite a few other accounts).

Otherwise, thanks for sticking around while I was gone. I’ll be writing a bit more regularly through the end of this month — maybe a few other days off — and then I have some really cool things lined up starting in September. The future of Understandably looks pretty great right about now.

7 other things worth your time

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