For modern soldiers it may be the small bottle of Tabasco sauce tucked inside their Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE). After World War 2 Brach & Sons, a Chicago area confectioner, found that many veterans were buying their vanilla crèmes. Army soldiers had so enjoyed them as part of their C-Ration meals that they continued to purchase them long after leaving European trenches. As long as there has been war, there has been a bond between the soldier and simple battlefield pleasures, no matter what it might be. For a local Civil War veteran, it was something he wanted to enjoy for eternity.
Joseph “Dudley” Mitchell was born in Charleston, Ill. in 1836 to Dr. Arthur G. Mitchell and Anna A. Mitchell. A Civil War veteran, Mitchell served in the Mounted Infantry, Company A, 123 Illinois Regiment.
The mounted infantry were horse-mounted soldiers that actually fought on foot, but were able to respond quickly to battlefield changes by riding quickly into position.
The notorious company was known by many different names, including the “Wilder Brigade,” the “Hatchet Brigade,” and the “Lightning Brigade” and was led by Union Brigadier General John T. Wilder. The company, who at one point put up their own money to purchase weapons and wielded hatchets instead of bayonets, won key victories in Tennessee and Georgia in the closing years of the war.
Mitchell settled in Kiowa County in 1884 and spent his remaining years in Greensburg. He died in 1915 and was survived by his wife Emma (Henderson) Mitchell.
As a soldier in the last war on American soil, Mitchell experienced what many soldiers of that era experienced; hunger, freezing temperatures, very little medical treatment and harsh living conditions. More than 500,000 soldiers died or were wounded in a war that lasted nearly four years.
While modern warfare is still hard on soldiers, the experiences of an American Civil War soldier may never be matched.
Mitchell, who was known as a friendly neighbor and a man “who never complained,” always appreciated the small things.
His headstone, located in the old section of Greensburg’s Fairview Cemetery, is a unique one. In the top corner, chiseled into the massive hunk of granite is a small glass box. Inside of that box is a piece of authentic Civil War hardtack.
Transport of provisions during the Civil War took much long than it does today and food was expected to survive the long journey and stay edible in a variety of weather and battle conditions. The “Hardtack,” or “worm castles” as they were affectionately called, were very hard and very dry bread. It was a staple for soldiers throughout the war.
Page 2 of 2 - It was easy to carry, filling, nutritious and cheap to produce.
Hardtack was thought to last so long, early Civil War (1861-1865) hardtack rations were actually left overs from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).
It sustained soldiers like Mitchell and his lightning brigade when perhaps nothing else did.
Did this gesture, a clearly non-traditional headstone, mean more to Mitchell and his family than a single piece of stale bread? Did he want us to realize that the simple things, when we are among the darkest and worse days of our lives, are what truly sustains us?
Repairs have been made to the headstone over the years, to keep the original piece of hardtack from deteriorating. Former cemetery sexton Ed Schoenberger said that he had repaired the glass a few years ago and made some restorations.
Behind the thick piece of glass, which has been resealed to keep out moisture, is a brass box. The hardtack sits inside of it, though moisture from the porous granite has removed the original adhesive. “Heck, that thing might still be edible,” said Schoenberger.