Soldier Pastimes

Boredom — The Invisible Enemy

Think about the last time you were bored. Maybe you were surfing the channels, but there was nothing good on TV. Perhaps you were staring at the computer at work and the clock just would not move.

Sweet Escape

With the availability of the internet, smartphones, and social media, we should never get bored! Right? Whatever your preference, these outlets offer a diversion from the stress and routine of daily life. No such luck in 1846.

Chores were time-consuming and tedious without the help of today's technology. Quick and convenient escapes, such as the TV and the internet, did not exist. Gasp! Just how did soldiers deal with the monotony of their daily routine?


Battling Boredom

In 1846, thousands of U.S. and Mexican soldiers left the comforts of home to fight in the Mexican War. Many came looking for action and ended up battling a different enemy –boredom. Instead of live combat, they engaged in hours of drilling and repetitive fatigue duty. Boredom from the monotony of camp life soon set in.

U.S. soldiers were first stationed at the small trading post of Corpus Christi, Texas. Second Lt. George Meade called Corpus a "dull and stupid place, nothing but drill and parades . . . nothing is seen or heard but the regular sound of the drum." His fellow soldiers longed for an escape.

Where There's a Will

Resourceful U.S. soldiers created ways to amuse themselves. With no immediate threats from the enemy, men had time to build a makeshift theater. These soldier/actors did their best. Although, 2nd Lt. James Longstreet called 2nd Lt. Ulysses S. Grant's portrayal of one of Shakespeare's leading ladies "less than convincing."

The Mexican Army of the North was stationed in the northern city of Matamoros, a fortified town with beautiful gardens and farms. In the evening, soldiers watched "fair señoritas gracefully flitting their fans" in the balconies. Matamoros also had several churches and a cathedral which offered soldiers an escape from daily worries.


Reading Respite

Most U.S. and Mexican officers were well-educated. They often spent their time writing and reading letters. Paging through copies of hometown newspapers brought memories of home. Letters were read around the campfire fire "so that one letter gave pleasure to half a dozen or more." During these tranquil moments, "all minds reverted to scenes of home."

An avid reader, 1st Lt. Richard Graham asked to bring a small case of books. Col. Whistler balked at the request, stating they "couldn't encumber our [wagon] train with such rubbish as books." Another officer, claiming to be sick, asked permission to bring a keg of whiskey as a "stimulant." Whistler granted permission, as whiskey was "within reason." Whistler was later court-martialed for drunkenness.

Song & Dance

Singing was another popular pastime. Some U.S. soldiers formed glee clubs. Popular songs included "Hail, Columbia!" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me."

In Mexican camps the "Clarín de Campaña" or Bugle Call for Battle was popular. The corrido (Mexican folk song) called on soldiers to forget their sorrows and remember the life's joys for today may be your last.

During this gentleman's war, some Mexicans invited U.S. soldiers to dinners and dances. Curiosity of this foreign culture led many U.S. soldiers to accept these invitations. The bright colors and beauty of the popular fandangos attracted U.S. troops. Major Benjamin L. Beall exclaimed they were "all fun and frolic" - a "brilliant night" with "brilliant girls.

Image of Mexican playing cards
U.S. troops found Mexican playing cards strange.

Basquetteur (public domain)

Know When to Fold Them

Cards were another popular pastime for soldiers of both armies. After the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, U.S. troops occupied the Mexican city of Matamoros. They seized over 4,000 decks of Mexican playing cards from the government stores and distributed them among the troops.

Soldiers were surprised to find swords, clubs, cups, and coins instead of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Lt. Dana marked the cards he mailed to his beloved wife Sue so she could "tell the suit." Mexican prisoners passed the time playing monte and tresillo. Many of these games have stood the test of time, such as poker, blackjack, cribbage, and pinochle.

For some, cards and kegs of whiskey were gateways to more dangerous diversions. Traders lured soldiers into bars, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and gambling halls. Lt. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock described this darker side of Corpus Christi - "the day will go as other days - drinking, horse-racing, gambling . . ."

Traders followed the soldiers deeper into Mexico, profiting the entire way. Captain Furber of the Tennessee volunteers stated "gambling rooms, where roulette tables, chuck-a-luck, faro, and monte‟ banks were constantly going."

Gambling Knows No Borders

In Ciudad Victoria, Furber witnessed U.S. soldiers and Mexican citizens "crowded together, the Mexican in his serape and the American in his uniform, around the roulette, rondo, or billiard tables (for in every town there were fine billiard rooms) . . . all freely bet." In Santa Fe, many U.S. soldiers squandered their pay to the "goddess" Doña Tules –the "most expert monte dealer in New Mexico."

Image of the Scott Building at the U.S. Soldier’s Home
Scott Building at the U.S. Soldier’s Home

Historic American Buildings Survey (public domain)

Vice to Virtue

One officer did not partake - General Winfield Scott. To Scott, gambling and all its vices was a curse. So, Scott turned a vice into a virtue.

During the U.S. occupation of Mexico City, anyone - soldier or civilian - caught gambling was fined. Scott raised over $9,000 in gambling fines that he later put to good use by building the Soldier's Home, "an asylum for old and disabled veterans."

After the war, U.S. Army regulations strictly prohibited cards and dice. However, these regulations were rarely enforced. Maryland volunteer John Kenly contemplated "why was this gambling suffered? . . . The answer is plain; what else were they to do? If forbidden to play, order could not have been enforced."

Kenly recognized the power of a pair of dice to make you forget you were thousands of miles away from home. He understood arguing over cards was an escape from the monotony of drilling and fatigue duty.


Learn From the Past

Just like Mexican War era soldiers, people need an escape from daily stress and routines.

Some things have changed. Instead of singing around a campfire, we sing along to the car radio during our morning commute. Video streaming services, DVDs, and multiplex theaters have mostly replaced the traditional theatre.

Letter writing seems to have become a lost art in our text-happy era. Our friend, Lt. Graham, definitely wouldn't need to bring a case of books with him—they'd be on his tablet or smartphone. And although many still enjoy poker nights, video games have become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Unplug & Unwind

The next time you need a break, try ditching your smartphone and entertain yourself 1840s style. Play a card game, read a book, or go catch a play at the theater.

Try writing a letter…on actual paper...with a real pen. When you've finished, notice how quickly the time passed. More important, ask yourself how you feel. Are you refreshed, relaxed? Congratulations! You've found your escape.

Last updated: June 21, 2018

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