Friday Fun: A Commissary Sergeant, Foraging, and "Mountain Rabbit."

Mar 25, 2022 by Jason Baker
A Civil War regimental company would have a First Sergeant that saw to ensuring the orders of officers were carried out by the enlisted men, and was more or less responsible for the company's equipment. He would be assisted in this endeavour by a quartermaster for items such as uniforms, shoes, weapons, etc, and a commissary sergeant who focused on the men's rations.

One such commissary sergeant was the 39th Illinois' Charley Frisbie. In the 1889 regimental history by their surgeon, Doctor Charles Clark, there are a couple of stories of Sgt Frisbie's attempts to keep his men fed. Frisbie details stories of needing to get creative with army rations, procure canned goods from the sutler, and put in some effort to hunt, fish, trap and (when allowed, or being sneaky if not) foraging for items. in South Carolina, he came about some aligator that was cooked up for regimental officers to their bewilderment. His most entertaining story, however, came at Rice's Station VA while the regiment was part of XXIV Corps' pursuit of General Lee towards Appomattox.

General Thomas Osborn, originally the founder and colonel of the 39th, was now in command of First Brigade, First Division of XXIV Corps. He tracked down Sgt. Frisbie during one of the very brief lulls in what was a week of hard marching.

"Charley, I  haven't had a mouthful to eat for twenty- four hours, except a hard-tack or so. Can't you scare up something in the eating  line?"

Frisbie wrily replied that with no foraging allowed, there wasn't much he could do, hoping his former regimental commander and now brigade commander would give him the wink and nod to figure it out. Osborn delievered, telling Frisbie he "thought he had been a soldier long enough to know how to get around orders."

Frisbie set off into the countryside where he had recently saw some sheep in a field while the army marched, bringing a comrade along for assistance. Using the other man to run the sheep towards a small gully, Frisbie hid in waiting, grabbing one as the animals trotted through, and proceded to dispatch and skin it. He quartered up the sheep and sent some with the other man, and returned to Osborn's tent with the hindquarters. 

Upon entering, however, he was startled and made nervous by the presence of unexpected guests. With Osborn, also looking for a meal, were Army of the James commander Edward Ord, and First Division Commander Robert Foster. "What have you got there" Osborn asked Frisbie.

Panicking at interacting with the trio of important men, and nervous about his foraging being found out, Frisbie blurted out "mountain rabbit." Frisbie quickly dismissed himself, handed the meat off to the cook, and asked it be prepared nicely for the generals. A leg of lamb was eventually brought out, and the men ravenously dug in. 

At one point, Ord gave Foster and Osborn a wink and deadpanned "this mountain rabbit has a remarkable leg!"

"Yes," replied Foster, "and remarkable feet as I noticed when it was brought in. The rabbits in Virginia must be quite different than any that I have heretofore seen."

Osborn stayed quiet, no doubt just glad his superiors were overlooking the foraging, but perplexed by Frisbie's mountain rabbit explanation. When the two men left, Osborn pulled Frisbie aside and asked why in the world he called a sheep a mountain rabbit.

Frisbie simply answered that he had become flustered when he saw the group, and did not want to get in trouble so he said the first thing that came to his mind--very much not considering the dissimilar nature of the two animals. 

As I assume was often the case when no harm was done, superiors were happy, and everyone got what they wanted, Osborn said nothing else about the matter.

For more "lighter" stories and asides of the 39th Illinois, keep an eye out for future blog posts. For the detailed story of the 39th's Civil War journey, and the impacts they made, and had made on them, by the war; be sure to get your copy of Chicago To Appomattox at Amazon or McFarland Books.