The Turnips Were Not a Peace Offering

Gage’s Letter to McKethan

Recently, I came across an interesting letter on UNC-Chapel Hill’s “The Civil War Day to Day” website. The letter was from Brigade Commissary R. S. Gage to Colonel Hector McKethan, commanding Clingman’s Brigade. Gage informs McKethan that the turnips and cabbage he recently issued to the brigade’s soldiers were not in response to the “late mutiny.”

Office T.L. Clingman Brigade
November 27th 1864


I have to day issued to each man of your Brigade, one and a half pounds of turnips and about one fourth pounds of cabbage.

This extra issue of vegetable coming at this particular time may lead the troops to believe that it was made in consequence of the late mutiny, but I have had the purchase in progress for some days, and had made arrangements previously to issue them today. I had no way of keeping the vegetables on hand, or I should have done so, for a few days in order to have dissipated any idea of the kind entertained by the troops.

I would therefore respectfully suggest that you let the troops know that this is not intended as a peace offering; but it is only such as I would be glad to give them oftener if I could – by so doing you will probably destroy the seed of any similar riot that may be brewing.

I am, Col., very respectfully
Your obdt. servt.

R.S. Gage
Maj. & CS

Comdg. Brigade

The original letter can be found by clicking HERE.

I searched official records and newspapers for this period of the brigade’s history and could not find any mention of a mutiny, riot, revolt, etc. I imagine the men were unhappy with their rations and did something similar to the bread revolt at Fort Macon early in the war. Whatever happened, Major Gage was less than pleased. But the Commissary had a history of bad blood with the 51st Regiment.

Gage vs. McKethan in Charleston

In April 1863, the 51st North Carolina was suffering on James Island, just outside of Charleston. Wind, sand, and insects tormented the soldiers 24 hours a day. But even worse was the four-ounce daily ration of beef. One soldier noted that the quality of the beef was “so poor that the men bury it rather than eat such stuff.”1 Captain Nathan Ramsey of the 61st North Carolina described the ration as “a very scanty supply of devilish poor beef, that a respectable Charleston buzzard would not eat.”2

Then the meat ration was cut to two ounces per day, but only for the 51st Regiment.  Poor quality or not, the soldiers expected to receive a reasonable quantity of meat. The reduction resulted in “a thousand honest but empty stomachs.” The blame for the reduction was placed on the Brigade Commissary, Major R. S. Gage, “the man who has so sorely tested our abilities to live without eating….”3

Gage defended himself by saying he was injured in a fall from a horse, and a servant had taken over doling out the daily ration. Colonel McKethan was also partly at fault.  McKethan had relieved the regiment’s Assistant Commissary shortly before the Fifty-First arrived in Charleston. He did not appoint a replacement.  With no one responsible for requesting the regiment’s food, the regiment had to depend on the Brigade Commissary to determine the amount of the daily ration.  The other regiments in the brigade requisitioned their rations and did not see any reduction in the quantity of the food they were issued.3

Colonel McKethan quarreled with Gage, and then escalated the issue to General Clingman.  Eventually, Major Gage realized his “mistake” and issued 500 pounds of bacon to the regiment as a “back ration.”4 After the dispute was resolved, the men received four ounces of bacon, and portions of sugar, rice and corn meal for their daily ration.5

Robert Samuel Gage

Robert Samuel Gage was born in Henderson County, NC in 1833. He enlisted in the 6th North Carolina Volunteers (16th Regiment NCT) as a private on May 5, 1861. He served with the regiment until July 10 of the same year, when he was transferred to the Commissary Department in Raleigh. Shortly after the 51st North Carolina transferred to Charleston in February 1863, Major R. S. Gage was appointed Commissary for Clingman’s Brigade. He served with the brigade at least until the end of 1864.

After the war, Gage returned to North Carolina and worked as an attorney and as a merchant. He died in 1883.

1 “The Rations of Our Soldiers at Charleston,” Fayetteville Observer 30 Apr. 1863.

2 Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, 5 vols. (Goldsboro: Nash Bros., 1901) 3:  510.

3 “The Soldiers’ Rations,” Standard 5 May 1863.

4 “The Rations of Our Soldiers at Charleston,” Fayetteville Observer 30 Apr. 1863.

5 Fayetteville Observer 27 Apr. 1863.

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