Stevens Thompson Norvell (1835 -1911) enlisted in the army on January 23, 1858 as a private in Company A 5th U.S. Infantry.
One of his first assignments was as an infantryman in the West; later he would fight with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, commanding a unit of Buffalo Soldiers — but that is a story for another time.
A letter from 1859 that he wrote to his sister Emily Virginia Norvell details life in camp – and is a classic account of how military life can be filled with boredom when there are no battles and also how inventive soldiers can be.
Camp Floyd, Cedar Valley, U.S.
January 12, 1859
My Dear Emily,
Your letter of November 28th  came to hand on the 3d instant- with incredible quickness for this season of the year, but wonders will never cease…. I am sorry to see that you -and from your account, the rest of the family are ins such low spirits, you should try to be more cheerful. I have no doubt , but that your trip to Virginia will do you good; and if it does not – and I can easily tell from your next letter- I shall immediately desert, and go to Virginia and give you fits: so look out….
I am in great hopes that we shall go back to the States next summer; although rumor has fixed upon Mexico as our destination – one thing is certain that there will be a scattering in the spring, and the 5th is bound to go somewhere. Uncle Sam will never allow this large force to remain idle here.
So far, the winter has been very mild – at least it has in this valley-although, ten miles from here, there is two feet of snow – if you will take three thousand men and throw them into a wash basin and you will have our situation exactly. We have drills and parades constantly, besides school at which , we non-commissioned officers -study tactics three times a week. So that our time is entirely occupied. The officers occupy themselves in gambling, and other innocent amusements such as drinking and getting court martialed – you have my idea of how dull it is. The same thing over and over every day – and – and what shall I write about next week.
Oh yes, we have a theatre capable of holding two thousand persons, and at which Shakespeare and the English language are murdered every night. Private soldiers are the “stars.” Richard III cooks for Lieutenant Stith, Hamlet has a situation in the Post bake house, King Lear is engaged in tailoring for his companions, and I actually saw Henry IV and Cardinal Woolsey mixing mortar for the masons.
I wish you could send me some papers ; if you get a chance. It is seldom I can to look at one, and when I do, it is sure to be six months old . When you write to mother give her my love and the rest of the family. Congratulate Isabella on her marriage [ to Capt Angus Keith] … send this letter to Grosse Isle, that mother may know I still live. Be sure and write soon.
Your affectionate brother,