“Killing Time” in the Civil War

If you pick up a Civil War newspaper, you might run into this rather modern-sounding phrase: to “kill time.” At what point did this notion enter common usage? What did it mean? Did Civil War soldiers “kill time” and what did they mean? Certainly, in the Civil War soldiers entered a massive bureaucratic machine in which they often found themselves adrift, with little to do, waiting for a movement, a march, even a skirmish or a battle to relieve the doldrums of army life. Diaries and letters were themselves efforts to pass the time.

Henry David Thoreau used the phrase in perhaps one of his most well-known passages from Walden (1854): “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” Thoreau was outraged that people enslaved themselves to money, and he despised what happened “when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” He ridiculed the average “teamster on the highway” with his worries about his cargo and the inevitable trade-off between time and money along the route. These petty concerns, Thoreau thought, could never lead to “self emancipation.” Instead, they were the markers of a form of self-created prison. Thoreau’s use of the words “kill time” here, however, was sly. He meant certainly that the teamster and the “ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions” were wasting time in these thoughtless pursuits. Yet, Thoreau knew the phrase also meant passing time in leisure or play.

The phrase crops up in the newspapers even earlier, mainly in articles concerning the railroads or the leisure trips and vacation spots of the upper middle class. One of these places was Saratoga, New York, but there were others in the South, such as Warm Springs, Virginia. At these places of rest and recuperation, to “take the springs” was to literally soak in the great mineral baths there but also to meet people in the upper echelons of society and to have high conversation, dine well, walk, and get moderate outdoor exercise, all activities aimed at restoring the health of the body and mind. Nineteenth-century Americans considered such restorative times even more necessary in the world of cities and railroads, which seemed to them to break down and degrade the human body and mind.By 1860 the railroad, in fact, had given more and more people access to these somewhat exclusive resorts. At Saratoga The New York Times special correspondent reported that “those who are here do not represent so remarkably as heretofore the distinction of American society.” (July 23, 1860) What did they do at the springs? Read the newspapers, especially the advertisements, look into the latest fashions, and visit the railroad depot every day to see who might have come. They also “kill time” playing billiards or bowling. Only the relatively wealthy could actually afford to spend time in this manner.

But in the Civil War the phrase came to have a different significance as an expression of ironic detachment from the reality of war. Soldiers of all classes, not just the wealthy elite but enlisted men, began to kill time, at camp by playing games, cards, or other diversions. Although the idiom occurred somewhat infrequently, The New York Times reprinted a letter that used it and gives an indication of its wartime significance. The letter came from a Union captain who was a prisoner of war held in Charleston, South Carolina. The prison was terrible and his men and comrades were dying every week. Summer was coming, and he dreaded the hot season, the disease it would inevitably bring. One of their amusements was to sell to Confederates some trinkets and rings, literally whatever they had on them when captured. They called this the “bone business.” And this captain claimed that he had retired from that business and taken up a new diversion: “I ‘kill time’ now by writing.” (March 9, 1862)

If prisoners killed time by writing, soldiers killed time by killing. Basing his novel on interviews and close reading of veterans’ statements, Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage depicted the compression and warping of time that came to soldiers on the battlefield.The expression also applied to any engagement not necessarily part of a major campaign, any kind of side or peripheral activity. The Chicago Tribune reported in early 1863 that Union forces took a break from trying to capture Vicksburg and “while killing time at Napoleon . . . amused themselves” by steaming up the Arkansas River to capture a Confederate fort at Arkansas Post. They took 5,000 prisoners. But the little battle was anything but easy or bloodless, as Union forces took over a thousand casualties in direct attacks on Confederate entrenched rifle pits. The Arkansas Post expedition, led by Major General John McClernand, diverted the Union Army from its main task of dislodging Vicksburg for a while and seemed to some a waste of time and resources.

During the Civil War, the subject of who should be able to kill time became especially relevant in the South as slavery collapsed and Northern commanders attempted to convert the region to free labor. In Louisiana General Nathaniel Banks instituted a contract labor system on cotton plantations, but the results according to some observers were a failure because former slaves killed time rather than worked for their former masters.According to a correspondent for The New York Times in New Orleans, slavery had ended but the Banks experiment with free labor was a disaster. The “crying evil” was the “incorrigable [sic] indolence of the negroes, and with it the lack of power to make the niggers work.” (October 30, 1864) This summary assessment came almost word-for-word from the lips of southern planters, who all of a sudden appeared even to some Northern Republicans as wise and correct in their forceful control of black labor.

The issue of freedom was whether black southerners could control their own time. The New York Times reported that between January 1864 and October 1864 black men on the Louisiana plantations had literally “lost ten hundred and ninety days” by “killing time.” Worse, the black women too had lost time, more than the men. Given what we know now about the role of enslaved women in plantation agriculture’s success across the South, the importance of black women withdrawing their time in 1864 becomes even more significant.

Emancipation, the self emancipation Thoreau wrote about, came down to freeing oneself from the constraints of seeing time as a commodity. To live with the acute awareness of the present was to step outside of time. The time that surrounded the moment of emancipation or that came with battlefield engagement were remarkably similar in their effects on former slaves and common soldiers. Killing time, which had been the somewhat exclusive luxury of the wealthy in the 1850s, was transformed in the Civil War as more Americans participated in time set apart from commercial value. Whether this emancipation would last and what effects it would have were unclear in 1865, only the aftermath of the war would tell.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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1 Response to “Killing Time” in the Civil War

  1. Wendy says:

    I probably misunderstand your point or at best am on some sort of tangent to it–but your comments make me think of E.P. Thompson. Time becomes constraining once it (thanks to the requirements of the railroad et al) becomes standardized or rather, set by someone else. Killing time is what you do when free from others’ determining your time and disciplining you accordingly, but it seems interesting that the metaphor arises when external agents now have ownership of time.

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