Phew! How about a bar of lye soap, boys?

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I spent the summer of 2008 primarily working at our paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio, a facility Glatfelter purchased two years ago from another paper company (no, not Dunder Mifflin of “The Office” fame). Ironically, when Debi and I were first married, we spent the summer of 1977 living in Chillicothe while I was a college intern / summer help student working at the very same paper mill. A lot had changed in the mill and the town in those three decades, but, most noticeably, the foul, rotten egg odor that always pervaded Chillicothe was almost totally gone. It was so bad back in ’77 that we used to stash extra clothes at my parents’s house near Zanesville so we didn’t stink when we arrived as visitors.
Back in 1863, a few thousand unexpected visitors to York County could have used fresh clothes and some good old-fashioned lye soap before they arrived! Like the old Mead paper mill in south-central Ohio, they could be smelled all over town.


One of the most frequent comments one reads in many primary accounts written by Pennsylvanians concerning the Confederates during the Gettysburg Campaign is their odor.
The Rebs stank.
Very much.
Apparently, when Jubal Early’s men arrived in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, on June 22, they weren’t too bad yet, despite days on the road. Few eyewitnesses recorded any such malpleasance. However, just four days later, the situation had deteriorated badly by the time Early’s men reached Gettysburg.
Professor Michael Jacobs recorded the Rebels filled the air with “filthy exhalations from their bodies”. Several other residents commented on the foul smells emanating throughout the town. Sarah King simply remarked the visitors were “ragged and with a look of hunger in their eyes.” Fannie Beuhler “never saw a more unsightly set of men, and as I looked at them in their dirty, torn garments, hatless, shoeless, and foot-sore, I pitied them from the depth of my heart.”
By the time the long column of Southerners arrived in York, despite being coated with a thick layer of fine limestone dust from the turnpike, the Rebs still stank. Again, a few locals recorded the malodor that filled downtown York. By the time they left, the unmistakable smell of body odor still permeated the major camp sites. There are accounts of Confederates buying bars of soap from York merchants. One can believe the Codorus at times was filled with Rebels bathing the road grim and filth from their bodies. Several donned fresh clothing obtained from York retailers.
The uninvited guests from Dixie also left another unwanted remembrance — lice, and lots of them. The downtown market sheds in the town square had to be hosed out by a hired man, and the U.S. Army hospital cleansed (it had quartered parts of a North Carolina brigade).

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2 Responses to Phew! How about a bar of lye soap, boys?

  1. John says:

    What do you expect? Those opponents of the War of Northern Aggression could MARCH 50 MILES in a day. How many did they cover in those 4 days? Damn tough men.

  2. Scott Mingus says:

    Indeed they were tough. In my book on the Louisiana Tigers, I have an outstanding contemporary description of these Confederates written by a member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission who had arrived here in York during the Rebel occupation.

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