George L. Beal
November 12, 1861
Colonel George Lafayette Beal was not a happy man when he penned a letter to E.K. Harding, Assistant Quartermaster General for Maine.
Beal's 10th Maine Infantry Regiment was at the time guarding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Beal, the regimental commander, was upset about the quality of the blankets provided by the Quartermaster’s office. He contends that they were "miserable things," and were soon condemned by U.S. officials.
In a word, they were "shoddy." The term shoddy came into common use early during the Civil War to describe uniforms that had been made from inferior fabric. The uniforms did not last for any reasonable time, provided little protection from the elements, and fell apart at the slightest stress.
Although first applied to uniforms, shoddy began to be used to describe any materials or provisions such as rifles, tents, horses, shoes, blankets, or anything that was unfit for use, as well as food that was unfit to eat. Contractors and suppliers, when they could be identified, drew the wrath of officers, government officials, and the media.
Col. Beal had no trouble fixing blame for the blankets. "H.J. Libby & Co. furnished them and they ought to suffer as it is damnable in having men suffer these cold nights sleeping in tents with such blankets as those," Beal writes.
From the earliest days of the war, periodicals such as Harper’s Monthly and newspapers such as the New York Tribune blasted and belittled manufacturers and providers of "shoddy" goods. The New York Herald, in October of 1863, editorialized: "The world has seen its iron age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of shoddy."
Soldiers cold from thin blankets and poor clothing, or wet inside porous tents, or ill from moldy food, found small solace in a Harper’s Weekly cartoon, or in the verse of a contemporary poem, "The Government Horse":
Base contractors! Army of leeches! I’d draft them to lead a forlorn hope; Force them to march where equity reaches, And contracts are bound with a strong rope.
In 1863, Congress passed the False Claims Act (or the "Lincoln Law") whereby private citizens, and not just government officials could file lawsuits against contractors they say are defrauding the government. The False Claims Act and associated whistleblower's laws that protect the rights of insiders who report government and private corruption remain active.
George Beal Transcript Head Quarters Tenth Maine Regiment Maine Volunteer Militia Relay House Nov. 12th 1861
We have this day received 500 blankets from the government which we shall give to our men to make good those miserable thing you furnished us. We understood at the time you was to give the men 2 so as to make the poor ones good but like every thing else they did not come so to keep our men from freezing I made a requisition on the gov. and got 500.
I suppose you have charged the Reg. with a full set we shall recognize only the good ones as we have showed the sample we were furnished with to Genl. Dix and other U.S. officials and they gave us the new ones by condemning the old.
H.J. Libby & Co. furnished them and they ought to suffer as it is damnable in having men suffer these cold nights sleeping in tents with such blankets as those we have never heard anything from the requisition made by our Qt. master about 4 week ago those things we are suffering for and if we are to have them we should like to know it as you must be aware it is very annoying not to know anything about the matter. We shall represent the case to the powers that be and see if we can get anything out of them as we have whole companies who have no change of clothing.
More blouses what splendid things & those are for men in November.
We are guarding the Rail Road from here to Annapolis Junction keep 5 companies on the road and 5 at headquarters.
If you wish to communicate direct letter to Baltimore or Relay House St. Denis Md.
Yours Respectfuly G.L. Beal Col. 10th Maine