The Pampered Louse
No one should attempt a collection of Confederate humour without including an account of the old-time "grayback" louse, or Pediculus Vestimenti. These tiny unforgiving creatures were so well known by all Civil War Soldiers, as to have become "legends in their own time." One infantry man summed up their ever-presence by declaring simply, that each louse should have had stamped on his or her back; "IFW", "In for the war."
There are hundreds of excellent primary sources that make mention of these devilish insects. One favourite which chronicles the "comings and goings" of this "depraved little pest," was recorded by Captain William 'Buck' Walton, Company B, 21st Texas cavalry. Here is his excerpted version:
I found that many of the men had been familiar with these varmints a long time - and become accustomed to their presence. So much so, that it was part of their amusement to catch big ones and bet on their fighting qualities. It is true that the grown bug, when taken from the bodies of different men - and placed together, will rush at one another like bulldogs, and fight to the death - or until one, being whipped and wounded, will scramble out of reach if his adversary. This I saw tested one day when a number of my men were gathered together, watching very intently such a fight. They had two "big fellows" on the top of a hat, smoothed out. There was considerable excitement, and the men had their Confederate money - and were flourishing it, as I have seen men do at a horserace. I walk up to see what was the matter and saw the whole fight. The bugs were just coming together - and they certainly were mad. The gladiators unarmed save with their natural weapons were joined in conflict. It was a battle royal. They stood up on their hind feet. They closed in grapple and would roll over and over. They seemed never to weary. The battle lasted five or six minutes. The blood was very perceptible on each one. Their legs were broken and there were wounds on their bodies - to such an extent that they were maimed - and neither could run from each other. The two warriors could do nothing, but lay on the field of battle and lingering die.
Actually some of the men would not molest a very fine specimen - but let him grow and fatten on his own blood until the thought he had the most robust "gladiator" in camp and then would draw him forth privately and try his powers on a smaller specimen, that he would borrow or steal from another man. When he had tested him and made him bold by whipping smaller fellows--his owner would challenge the field - having the champion--& offer to bet on him, like he owned a press that threw off Confederate money as wanted. Sometimes they made a run with their pampered louse, and became very flush. And then some man would find a still more pampered one and win all his money. Many are the ways that idle soldiers find to amuse themselves - but I really think this was one of the most unique ways that I saw in the army. I called on two boys for two of their champion "gladiators" - for a special purpose. They cheerfully gave them, and I took them & in a letter to my Captain's wife Mrs. Wm. Rust at Burnet, Texas, enclosed them to her - to see what we could do in the army. They were received - and proved of the right gender - & before she was aware of it, she was in possession of a flourishing colony, which caused much washing and disinfecting before she could get rid of them.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2006