I Have Entered the Ranks


“May the Good Lord take care of the poor soldiers.”

—A Civil War soldier on the march, 1863

Members of the 10th Veteran Reserve Corps were deemed unfit for combat due to wounds or illness, but they were still able to play in the corps’ band.

Soldiers North and South Rush to Arms


Ready to make the move from civilian life to military service, a crowd of volunteers lined up outside a Northern recruiting station.

Johnny Reb” and “Billy Yank” rushed to war with notions of heroic charges and battlefield bravado. Yet as the newly made soldiers were assembled in training camps throughout the North and South, the reality of military life quickly lost its romance. “We are locked up just like Prisoners,” a youthful Yankee wrote home from camp, “and can’t get no chance to get out.” One of his Rebel counterparts shared his outlook: “This is the damnest place that I ever seen,” he wrote.

Many, however, considered military service to be their duty to their country. “Camp life I find to be hard,” wrote a Southern recruit, “[but] I will make the best of it.” Some gloried in their newfound soldier’s life. “I am well and well satisfied,” wrote an enthusiastic Rebel. “I weigh one hundred and 40 [and] I am much of a man.”

Patriotism, Duty, and a Military Draft

Duty was not the sole motivation for military service in the Civil War. Some Northerners joined the ranks in order to earn government enlistment bonuses. Some Southerners volunteered as paid substitutes for wealthy slave owners.

When the bloodshed drained the manpower, both sides enacted unpopular draft laws. Southerners denounced conscription as a violation of states’ rights. The 80 percent who owned no slaves bitterly resented draft exemptions granted to large slave owners.

In the North, the draft was so controversial it sparked riots. In 1863, there was a three-day uprising in New York City that resulted in serious destruction and dozens of deaths.

Many soldiers, however, were genuinely motivated by patriotism or devotion to a cause. For some, ending slavery or defending it was reason enough to enlist. In their letters, Northern soldiers generally cited a heartfelt duty to preserve the Union, while Southerners were mainly motivated to defend home and family and to help achieve Southern nationhood.

As the war continued, many soldiers North and South came to see war itself as the enemy. They battled, but merely to survive. As Northern victory became increasingly imminent, Southern soldiers shared both their determination and their despair in their letters home, while Northern troops often expressed a renewed sense of purpose. “I can see for myself what this army is for,” wrote a young Federal officer, “and what it really does. . . .”

A copy of a military certificate given to soldiers in the Union army.

Music played a very important role during the war from providing a diversion in camp to rallying troops in battle.

Keeping Count

Who was a “Typical” Civil War Soldier?

About 2,000,000 men served in the Northern army, while 750,000 to 1,000,000 fought for the South. Armies on both sides were overwhelmingly white, although the North accepted black soldiers midway through the war and the South tried to do so at war’s end.

Three brigades of American Indians fought for the South, and three regiments for the North. The ranks on both sides included many German, Irish, English, and Canadian immigrants, and the Confederacy’s Texas regiments included numerous Hispanics.

Most soldiers appear to have been between 18 and 46, although the manpower-short South fielded teenagers and old men.

Soldier Age


Number of Soldiers

Age 13


Age 14


Age 15


Age 16


Age 17


Age 18


Age 19


Age 20


Age 21


Age 45


Age 46


Age 50+


Soldier Height



5'8 ¼"


6'10 ½"



Soldier Weight



143 pounds

Origin of Foreign-born Soldiers




35 %


30 %


10 %


10 %


15 %

“No Two Keep the Same Step”


Most Northern soldiers, like their Southern counterparts were volunteers.

In camp, soldiers faced daily duties that were often more boring than demanding: There were mind-numbing stints of guard duty, repetitious chores, and seemingly endless hours of drill. But the exercises were vital to train both officers and the rank and file, the vast majority of whom were volunteers with no experience in the military.

For most, their initial performance on the field ranged from comical to deplorable. “Totally undisciplined and undrilled, no two of these men marched abreast,” a volunteer officer later recalled. “No two kept the same step; no two wore the same colored coats or trousers.”

All Men Are Expected to be in Line

In both the Confederate and Federal armies, the three major branches were infantry, artillery, and cavalry—with most troops serving in the infantry. Some soldiers served in support branches, such as the signal corps, quartermaster department, or engineer corps. All had to adjust to a daily camp routine.

“At daylight in the morning the chief bugler of the regiment sounds the assembly and all the men are expected to be in line to answer to roll call,” a Northern cavalryman wrote his sister. “Then another call & we feed & clean horses & get breakfast. At seven comes sick call. At eight comes guard. At noon there is another roll call. At four o’clock, water & feed call again. At sunset dress parade & roll call . . . and at eight o’clock in the evening another flourish of bugles sounds lights out.”

Whenever ordered to break camp, infantry troops moved by foot, often on dust-choked roads, in downpours, or through numbing snow and sleet. “It was so dreadful Hot that nobody hardly could Stand it,” a Federal drummer wrote home. “I was sunstruck . . . but I got over it.” A Southern private wearied from time on the march in debilitating weather simply penned, “May the Good Lord take care of the poor soldiers.”

Eventually, the enlisted made the transition from civilian to soldier: By war’s end, 750,000 to 1,000,000 Southerners had served in the Confederate armed forces, and more than 2,000,000 Northerners had worn their country’s uniform.

Almost a million Southerners served in the Confederate forces.

Military Discipline Does Not Come Easily


Their fixed bayonets glinting in the sun, Federal troops drilled outside their camp on a winter day. Marching and fighting drills were a daily part of life.

Federal troops in Tennessee lounged outside their winter huts on a sunny day. Temporary camps of makeshift tents were set up most of the year except in winter when soldiers built log huts with small fireplaces to keep warm.

Wall tents and pine bough shelters added a degree of comfort to this early Confederate camp.

Northern soldiers awaited their turn on a camp rifle range. The most common weapon used by both sides was a rifle musket fitted with a bayonet, an improvement over earlier muzzle-loading muskets.

Military discipline was a new and unusual experience for most Civil War soldiers. Many took to soldiering readily, but others resented authority, and—especially at the beginning of the war—did not hesitate to argue with their officers. Most eventually acquired a passable martial bearing. Some, however, had difficulty submitting to authority—as revealed in a diary entry recorded by Private Edward Burgess of South Carolina:

Quarreled with Capt about breakfast. Said if I got none it would be my fault. Replied it would be his fault, that he never troubled himself to see that the men were properly provided [for]. On inspection said my rifle was dirty. Replied it was clean, having cleaned it three days ago and had not used it since. Gave me an hour to clean it in. replied I would think of it and laughed at him. ordered Lieut to report me. I finally went to him for things to clean it if the State furnished. Said it did not. Would lend me an oiled rag. I did not borrow. However I soaped over the rust and carried it to him. said rifle was in first rate order. I replied that it was no cleaner than before, only soaped over. Went off laughing at him.

Federal army camp cooks worked at a company kitchen in Virginia. Official biweekly rations included 16 ounces of salted beef and 22 ounces of biscuit.

A Northern army farrier prepared to shoe an officer’s mount. In Northern and Southern armies alike, camp chores were endless.

At a camp in Florida, Southern soldiers whiled away some rare free time.

With mules and supply wagons standing ready, Federal troops underwent training drill.

An Army Marches on its Stomach

The official standard biweekly ration for Federal troops consisted of 16 ounces of salted beef or 12 ounces of pork, 22 ounces of biscuit, and 8 quarts of beans, along with coffee, sugar, and vinegar. Official Confederate rations were similar, but were seldom available in the war-stressed South, leaving Confederate troops to feed themselves by foraging. Common Confederate fare was “sloosh”—cornmeal fried in bacon grease.

Disease: The War’s Most Lethal Enemy


In close-quartered camps, such as this one occupied by the 1st U.S. Cavalry, contagious illnesses spread quickly, causing staggering loss of life among troops on both sides.

More Civil War soldiers died of illness than bullets. In the confined conditions of the huge camps of the era, contagious diseases spread quickly, especially among the ranks of men from rural areas who had never been exposed to urban illnesses.

The biggest killer was dysentery, which was often caused by inadequate camp hygiene, contaminated drinking water, or poor diet. Other ailments also proved lethal, including measles, pneumonia, typhoid fever, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis, and a mysterious ailment known only as “the fever,” which was later discovered to be mosquito-borne malaria. Most of the war’s military operations were in the South, where insect populations were ferocious. “[Of] all the nights I ever spent in the neighborhood of museketoes last night was the worst,” wrote a soldier posted to the coast of North Carolina. “No sleep visited my weary eyes until very late.”

A Federal burial detail prepared to inter soldiers at a wartime camp near Washington, D.C.

Outside a post chapel in Virginia, fresh graves swelled the size of a soldier cemetery. Of the approximately 620,000 casualties of the Civil War, two-thirds were from disease.

A 17-year-old soldier known only as S. Wires was discharged with typhoid fever, weighing only 90 pounds, after 100 days of service. This photo was taken three weeks after he had returned home.

There is but Six Now Able for Duty

“Hugh has got the measles,” wrote a Texas cavalryman from camp. “He has a very bad cold and cough. . . . We carried two from our mess today. There was twelve of us at first. There is but six now able for duty. Four has the measles, one has the chills, one the typhoid newmonia. . . . None of our boys have died yet as I have heard of.” Continuous exposure to severe weather and the stress of life in the field also took a toll.

Major Joseph J. Dimock of the 82nd New York Infantry died of disease in June of 1862.

New Technology and Old Tactics Reshape the Battlefield


Huge stocks of field artillery, siege mortars, and ordnance were amassed at riverside to arm Federal forces invading Virginia.

An old soldier would later observe that war was composed of long periods of absolute boredom, interrupted by brief interludes of sheer terror. For many shot dead on the field, their first battle was their last. Survivors, however, could boast that they had “seen the elephant,” comparing combat to seeing the highlight of the circus. “The ball was opened,” they would say afterward.

Exposure to the horrors of combat could produce a range of emotions: anxiety, fear, excitement, anger, shock, depression, relief, and—for many—even pity for the enemy. “I thought it would do one some good to see dead federals,” wrote a Confederate soldier after his first battle. “But I had not seen many until the sight became sickening. I gave my canteen of water to a Federal soldier who was badly wounded and felt glad I was able to relieve him.”

A Southern soldier with a converted flintlock musket.

A Northern cavalryman armed with a rapid-fire, breech-loading Sharps carbine.

A heavily armed Northern soldier photographed with a standard-issue 58-caliber Springfield rifle and three Remington revolvers.

The Civil War was fought on the opening edge of the Industrial Revolution, and technology had made weaponry much more efficient at killing. Shorter-range smoothbore muskets were being replaced by much more accurate, longer-range rifles, and similar advances also revolutionized artillery.

Yet the common battlefield tactics of the day lagged behind weaponry. In many ways, the Civil War was a 19th-century war fought with 18th-century tactics against 20th-century firearms. Almost 21,000 troops were killed or wounded in a single day at the Battle of Antietam. More than 35,000 were killed or wounded in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. In eight minutes at the Battle of Cold Harbor, an estimated 7,000 Northern troops were killed or wounded. Such shocking losses made the Civil War—for Americans—the bloodiest war in history. A Confederate general observed, “It wasn’t war; it was murder.”

State-of-the art breech-loading Whitworth rifled cannons were imported in small numbers from Britain for the Confederacy.

Northern rifles stood in a row after the fall of Petersburg in 1865. Soldiers stacked their arms in neat pyramids when not in use to keep them off the ground and easy to retrieve.

Heavy artillery, such as these Confederate smoothbore Columbiads, defended the Southern coastline.

Marching elbow to elbow in double-rank lines made large numbers of soldiers an easy target for the superior firearms of the day. This resulted in mass casualties as forces faced off.

“There Is No End to These Horrors”


A Federal surgeon prepared to operate on a wounded soldier following the Battle of Gettysburg.

In 1865, 18-year-old Robley Evans, a Northern seaman, was shot through both knees at the Battle of Fort Fisher while making a ground assault with a brigade of naval volunteers. Days later, the ensign found himself in a Federal military hospital facing a drunken surgeon who insisted Evans undergo a double amputation of his legs. After being told that he had no choice, the young sailor reached under his pillow and produced a loaded Colt revolver. “I told him that there were six loads in it,” Evans later recalled, “and that if he or anyone else entered my door with anything that looked like a case of instruments I mean to begin shooting.”

Evans kept his legs and later recovered. His case was unique: Most soldiers who faced amputations died soon afterward. The state of medical care during the Civil War was enough to make wounded men like Evans resort to desperate measures.

Many doctors and nurses worked heroically to save lives during the war, but they were hampered by the crude state of medical care in the mid-19th century. Effective technologies for treating infectious diseases and trauma injuries did not exist, nor did safeguard practices such as sterilization of instruments. Records show, for example, that one New Hampshire soldier was shot in the shoulder at the Battle of Cedar Creek and received no medical treatment for more than twelve hours. When he finally saw an army surgeon in a field hospital, the doctor jammed a bloody finger in the soldier’s entry wound, then poked another bloody finger in the exit wound. When his two fingers touched, the doctor declared his patient fit and sent him on his way.

Of course not all wounded men received such treatment, and in spite of difficult conditions, medical personnel advanced the standards of the day and provided care on an unprecedented scale. The Confederacy constructed the largest hospital at the time, the Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, which treated 76,000 patients in 150 buildings. The Federal hospital at City Point in Virginia could handle 10,000 patients a day, and boasted a steam laundry.

A Northern surgeon consulted a wounded soldier before amputating one of his limbs.

Tent quarters housed many Federal wounded at City Point, Virginia, where Northern forces established numerous military hospitals.

Still, the enormous casualties frequently left caregivers overwhelmed. “I have been busy all day,” wrote a Southern nurse following a major battle, “and I can scarcely tell what I have been doing. I have not taken time even to eat, and certainly not time to sit down. . . . I was going round as usual this morning, washing the faces of the men, and had got half through with one before I found out that he was dead. . . . There is no end to these horrors.”

A Southern physician

A double amputee. Few soldiers survived amputations.

Women on both sides Step In to Care for Soldiers in Need

“I saw for the first time what war meant,” wrote Cornelia Hancock, a young Quaker nurse who volunteered to tend wounded soldiers following the Battle of Gettysburg. Hancock was one of approximately 50,000 nurses and attendants who ministered to the wounded and found herself pushing the boundaries of a woman’s expected role.

“A woman must soar beyond the conventional modesty considered correct under different circumstances,” pronounced Phoebe Yates Pember, who became one of the Confederacy’s best-known nurses.

Southerner Sally Thompkins so impressed the Confederate congress with her efforts that they commissioned her as an army captain. Leaders in the field for the North were Dorothea Dix, a middle-aged healthcare reformer who was appointed by the U.S. surgeon general to oversee female nurses, and Clara Barton, an independent nurse whose work led to the establishment of the American Red Cross.

Nurses tended wounded and ill troops at a Federal field hospital. Around 3,000 women served as nurses for the Union army.

Wounded Northern soldiers crowded a Federal field hospital during the Seven Days Battles in 1862.

On both sides, troops who were seriously wounded or ill were moved from field hospitals to larger, better camp hospitals, such as this.

A battlefield station operated by the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Wounded Northern troops werere transported by rail after fighting in the Eastern Theater in 1862.

Medical personnel gathered outside their tent in Camp Letterman, at Gettysburg. Camp Letterman was named after the medical director of the Army of the Potomac, Jonathan Letter, who created the first Ambulance Corps.

Among the Wounded

The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer organization, promoted improved care for Northern troops, but the work of comforting the sick and wounded fell to female nurses, many who were unprepared for what they would witness.

Alabaman Kate Cumming, who gained renown as a Southern nurse, vividly recorded the shock of her first encounter with a field hospital amputating table: “A stream of blood ran from the table into a tub in which was [an] arm . . . and the hand, which but a short time before grasped the musket . . . was hanging over the edge of the tub—a lifeless thing.”

Northern nurse Cornelia Hancock recorded a similar horror in a makeshift federal field hospital at Gettysburg: “Hundreds of desperately wounded men were stretched out on boards laid across the high-backed pews [of a church] as closely as they could be packed together. . . . Thus elevated, these poor sufferers’ faces, white and drawn with pain, were almost on a level with my own. I seemed to stand breast-high in a sea of anguish.”

Clara Barton


A five-foot-tall dynamo from Massachusetts, Clara Barton was working as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office when the war broke out.

She would soon earn the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” for her nursing work. She later launched a massive soldier relief effort with donated supplies stored in her Washington, D.C. apartment. The nursing activities she organized to aid countless wounded soldiers and Northern prisoners of war led to the establishment of the American Red Cross.

Witness to War: The Reality of the Battlefield


Private Samuel “Sam” Watkins of Company H, 1st Tennessee Infantry, wrote excellent accounts of battles in his memoir Company Aytch.

In this fanciful, romanticized 19th-century artwork, row upon row of soldiers heroically advanced in lockstep motion.

Mid-19th century Americans commonly held a romanticized image of warfare, popularized by novelists like Sir Walter Scott. They imagined great ranks of uniformed young men emitting excited cheers as they dashed shoulder to shoulder toward the enemy line in an irrepressible charge. Such notions of glory quickly disappeared in the face of the horror and gore of combat. Private Sam Watkins, a Southern soldier, recorded an account of a Confederate assault during the 1864 Battle of Atlanta:

We rushed forward up the steep hillsides, the seething fire from ten thousand muskets and small arms, and forty pieces of cannon hurled right into our very faces . . . piling the ground with our dead and wounded almost in heaps. It seemed that the hot flames of hell were turned loose in all their fury . . . The continued roar of battle sounded like unbottled thunder. Blood covered the ground, and the dense smoke filled our eyes, and ears, and faces. The groans of the wounded and dying rose above the thunder of battle. . . .

I was shot in the ankle and on the heel of my foot. I crawled into [the enemy’s] abandoned ditch, which then seemed full and running over with our wounded soldiers. . . .

While I was sitting here, a cannon ball came tearing down the works, cutting a soldier’s head off, splattering his brains all over my face and bosom, and mangling and tearing four to five others to shreds. . . .

It was the picture of a real battlefield. Blood had gathered in pools, and in some instances had made streams of blood. ’Twas a picture of carnage and death.

The reality of war: Confederate dead piled following the 1862 Siege of Corinth.

The dismembered body of a Northern solider awaited burial following the Battle of Gettysburg.

Immigrants in the Ranks

Robust immigration led both sides to build field military units that were predominantly or entirely composed of Irish or German immigrants. Major General Franz Sigel, top, was the highest-ranking German-American officer in the Northern army, A German language recruitment poster, middle. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the North’s famous Irish Brigade, bottom, engaged Irish-American troops of the 24th Georgia Infantry.

Turning to God


Led by a Catholic chaplain, Federal troops attended mass in the field.

Confederate Chaplain Robert B. Sutton ministered to soldiers in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Northern Chaplain Thomas Quinn served in the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery.

Established by the YMCA, the U.S. Christian Commission distributed Bibles, gospel tracts, and songbooks to Northern troops.

As combat wore on, religion came to play an increasing role in soldiers’ lives, and Biblical faith was openly expressed in the ranks on both sides. In a single year, the U.S. Christian Commission distributed more than a half-million Bibles to Northern troops.

Commanders routinely mentioned God in official reports, and many publicly shared their faith. General Oliver O. Howard, for instance, often preached on Sundays to his Northern soldiers, and Flag Officer Andrew Foote led worship services for Northern sailors aboard ship.

We Also Have Prayer Meetings Every Night

When Federal forces under his command achieved a victory in 1865, Major General E.R.S. Canby issued an official proclamation urging his troops to set aside the upcoming Sunday as a day of thanksgiving. Prayer meetings, Bible studies, Sunday schools, evening worship services, and baptism services became commonplace. “We have preaching twice every Sunday,” a Southern soldier wrote home. “We also have prayer meeting every night.”

General Stonewall Jackson personally handed out gospel tracts in camp. General Robert E. Lee issued orders excusing Jewish troops from Saturday duty so they could participate in Sabbath worship, and officially called for periods of prayer and fasting in his army. Said Lee: “I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation.”

An Impromptu Blue and Gray Choir

Huge revivals swept through the Southern armies in 1862 through 1864, sometimes drawing open-air crowds numbering in the thousands.

Although the wartime revivals were largely a Southern phenomenon, Northern and Southern soldiers were generally linked by a common faith. For instance, when Confederate soldiers gathered on a Virginia riverbank for a baptism at one point, Northern troops appeared on the opposite side to watch—then spontaneously joined the Southerners in a familiar hymn. When the impromptu blue and gray choir finished singing, troops on both riverbanks quietly returned to duty.

“They Met Death Coolly, Bravely”


The 54th Massachusetts Infantry was the first Northern regiment of black troops. The 54th earned enduring fame for its costly assault on Battery Wagner in 1863.

Black Americans were among the first to volunteer for military service in the Civil War but neither government welcomed them initially.

In New Orleans in 1861, more than 1,100 African-American freedmen responded to the Louisiana governor’s call for volunteers, and formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard to fight for the Confederacy. But the state declined to provide arms and equipment, and when the freedman provided their own, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting black regiments. The Native Guard was disbanded, then re-formed after Federal troops captured and occupied New Orleans in 1862—this time to fight for the Union. Confederate officials remained still uninterested in fielding black troops.

The Union was only slightly more enthusiastic. President Lincoln was initially reluctant to allow African-Americans to serve in the Federal armies, fearing it would offend border state slaveholders who were loyal to the Union. Eventually, he changed his mind, and in 1863, the U.S. Army aggressively began recruiting black Americans into a segregated force that was officially known as the U.S. Colored Troops. They were organized into 166 black regiments, including thirteen artillery regiments, seven cavalry regiments, a regiment of engineers, and 145 infantry regiments.

Untold numbers of “body servants” and other slaves accompanied affluent Southerners to war. Silas Chandler, right, a family slave, was photographed with Sergeant A.M. Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Infantry.

A slave known only as “Marlboro” accompanied Major Raleigh S. Camp to war with the 40th Georgia Infantry and was photographed in a Confederate uniform.

An unidentified young black recruit in the 103rd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops stood proudly for a photograph.

Brave Company

By regulation, Northern black troops were led by white officers, and for much of the war they received less than half the pay issued to white soldiers. Many Union commanders questioned blacks’ ability to participate in combat, and used them mainly to clear brush or as backup reserves.

When they were placed in battle, however, African-American troops quickly proved themselves. “I never saw a braver company of men in my life,” reported Captain M.M. Miller, who commanded U.S. Colored Troops at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend in 1863. “They met death coolly, bravely,” he stated. “All were steady and obedient to orders. . . .” Black troops in the Federal army and black landsmen in the U.S. Navy made significant contributions to the eventual Northern victory, and more than twenty African-American soldiers were awarded the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor.

Confederates Finally Open the Ranks

Not until 1863, when the war was bleeding away Southern manpower, did the Confederacy begin to consider recruiting black troops into the ranks. A group of Confederate officers informally made the suggestion, but it was ignored. The idea was officially proposed, then shot down by the congress in 1864. Finally, in March of 1865, under pressure from General Robert E. Lee, Confederate lawmakers authorized the organization of 300,000 freed slaves into Southern military service.

“It is however of primary importance,” Lee advised, “that . . . they should be so treated as to feel that their obligations are those of any other soldier. . . . Harshness and contemptuous or offensive language or conduct toward them must be forbidden. . . .” In Richmond, African-American recruits began drilling for service. However, the South’s effort came too late. The war ended before black Confederate regiments could be fielded in combat.

Their names lost to history, a soldier posed with his wife and daughters for a wartime family photograph.

A young black sailor in the U.S. Navy.

By 1865, more than 90,000 black Americans were serving in the Northern army.

Black soldiers of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops assembled for drill. The North’s black regiments were all commanded by white officers.

Sergeant Thomas Strawn served in the 3rd Heavy Artillery, a regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops that was recruited in Union-occupied Tennessee.

A black Northern non-commissioned officer

Soldiers of the 107th U.S. Colored Troops were recruited in Federal-occupied Kentucky, and served in North Carolina and Virginia.

“Jackson,” a drummer in the 79th U.S. Colored Troops

Northern black troops “met death coolly,” it was said.

At war’s end, the 4th U.S. Colored Troops manned the defenses protecting Washington, D.C.

Capture Is As Deadly As Combat


Northern guards assembled for a photograph at Indiana’s Camp Morton, where more than 1,700 Southern prisoners of war died of illness and exposure.

For soldiers in the Civil War, becoming a prisoner of war could almost be as risky as entering combat. An estimated 56,000 troops died in captivity during the course of the war, about 26,000 Southerners and 30,000 Northerners. Illness—especially dysentary—killed the most prisoners, while many died from exposure and others starved.

In the South, Confederate troops were often short on rations, and their prisoners of war fared even worse. “I recollect some half a dozen naked forms, out of which the likeness of human beings had been starved away,” recalled a Union survivor of South Carolina’s Florence Stockade. “[They were] groping around in prison without a shirt to their backs, with chattering teeth, their gaze idiotic, and their speech confused and incoherent.”

News of the deadly conditions in Southern prison camps led the Lincoln administration to retaliate by reducing rations for Southern prisoners of war, causing increased suffering and death. “The poor fellows died rapidly, despondent, homesick, hungry and wretched,” recounted one Southerner at New York’s Elmira Prison. “I have stood day after day watching the wagons carrying the dead outside to be buried. . .”

Conditions worsened on both sides in 1863, when Northern authorities halted prisoner exchanges in an attempt to cripple Southern manpower and to protest the Confederacy’s refusal to recognize captured black troops as POWs. When the exchanges stopped, the Confederacy was overwhelmed by the logistical challenge of feeding a larger prison population. At the Salisbury Prison in North Carolina, where prisoner deaths had once been rare, more than 3,000 Northern POWs perished over the course of a year. Other prisons also recorded grievous death rates.

Georgia’s Camp Sumter, infamously known as Andersonville Prison, was the deadliest of all Civil War POW camps.

More than 12,000 Northern soldiers died in the crowded confines of Andersonville.

The day’s dead were buried in a trench at Andersonville. Approximately 26,000 Southern prisoners perished during the war, and 30,000 Northerners died in prison.

Newly released from captivity in the South, a Northern soldier was examined by U.S. Army doctors.

Prisoners at Camp Douglas. Southern POW camps could not properly care for their swelling populations.

Who were Sutlers?

War profiteeers or merchants of comfort?

Sutlers, merchants authorized to trade with soldiers, were a fixture on Northern army posts, naval stations, and in camp and field. They were both loved and hated by the troops. While the men were glad to obtain tobacco, toothbrushes, postage stamps, newspapers, molasses, dried fruit, canned meat, pies, and cakes, they despised the inflated prices the sutlers charged.

Civil War Photography


Northern photographer Samuel A. Cooley and his assistants posed beside their camera and equipment wagon. Cooley accompanied Northern forces into the U.S. Army’s Department of the South, which included South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

The Civil War’s most famous photographer, Mathew Brady, leaned against a pine tree, far right, and observed Northern officers in a field conference.

A respected and award-winning photographer before the war, Mathew Brady set out to document the conflict in pictures. His photographs of the carnage would shock the nation.

At his own expense, Brady set up teams of staff to follow troops into battle, acting as the first field photographers.

“I had the chance to go to town yesterday evening to have my picture taken,” a Southern soldier wrote his wife in 1861. “I am going to send it to you.”

Photography was a new and popular technology in the mid-19th century, and the Civil War became the first conflict in history to be thoroughly recorded by the camera. Photographic field equipment was expensive and bulky and had to be transported by wagon. When a photograph was made, any movment would cause an image to blur, so capturing battlefield action was almost impossible. Even so, an enterprising handful of photographers took their cameras to the field and masterfully recorded pictures of armies, fortifications, troops, artillery, and other stationary subjects.

Thousands of images were taken. Some photographers published theirs on inexpensive cardboard and sold them as “cartes de visite,” which became immensely popular with the public. Others held public exhibitions of their photographs that included images of battlefield dead, leaving viewers both fascinated and shocked.

Brady & Co.

The most famous Civil War photographer was Mathew Brady, who had studios in New York City and Washington, D.C. Brady’s reputation and his location in Washington gave him easy access to many of the war’s leaders and to the battlefields in Virginia. Other leading Northern photographers were Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and George N. Barnard, all of whom had worked for Brady at some point.

Southern Photographers Capture the War

In the South, photographic equipment and chemicals were hard to come by, but some Southern photographers still managed to record the war. George S. Cook of South Carolina, also a former Brady man, settled in Charleston on the eve of the war. Cook captured early images of Fort Sumter, and later drew fire from Federal warships while taking photographs of coastal fortifications. New Orleans photographer J.D. Edwards also took his camera into the field, and recorded early images of Southern troops, camps, and fortifications at Pensacola, Florida.

Photographer George N. Barnard, who was embedded with Northern forces in the field, recorded daily life in the army, such as these soldiers protecting their encampment.

Barnard eventually embedded with General William T. Sherman and his troops. Among their stops was Fort Sumter, South Carolina, pictured here after its capture by Union forces.

Capturing action on the battlefield was impossible with early photography equipment, so photographers turned to still subjects. The horse and rider here had to freeze for several seconds while the shot was taken.

Photographer George Barnard was with General William T. Sherman’s army when it captured Atlanta. He published these photos in Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign.

Portrait Photographers Also Visually Recorded the War, One Person at a Time

Meanwhile, portrait photographers created an equally important record of the Civil War by capturing countless individual soldiers and civilians across the country.

Loved ones at home wanted keepsake photographs of the menfolk going off to war, new recruits were eager to be photographed in uniform, and soldiers wanted images of sweethearts, wives, and children to carry with them into battle. Photographs were produced in a variety of formats—including the inexpensive cartes de visite, costlier tintypes, and pricey daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. Quite small in size, daguerrotypes captured an image directly onto a polished silver-coated copper plate, giving it a mirrored appearance. To prevent tarnish, daguerrotypes were always stored in protective cases. Cheaper to produce were ambrotypes, which were printed onto emulsion-coated glass and required a painted or fabric background to frame the image. The small size of these early photographs made them ideal, portable keepsakes for soldiers.

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was an apprentice at Mathew Brady’s gallery in New York. He then joined Brady’s team of photographers when the Civil War started. Later in the war he teamed up with Alexander Gardner’s studio, which published his work.

In 1865, O’Sullivan traveled to North Carolina to document the siege of Fort Fisher, shown here after being crushed by Union forces.

George S. Cook, an adventuresome South Carolina photographer, captured numerous rare photographs of Southerners at war, including this image of Confederate artillerymen at their post near Charleston.

Louis Daguerre


Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was a French designer, painter, and inventor. He became known in the 1820s when he helped develop the Diorama Theater, but today is best remembered for creating a more efficient method of developing photographs known as daguerrotypes.

At the time, the process could take multiple hours, but using Daguerre’s solution of silver, mercury, and salt, a photographer could develop a daguerreotype in only twenty or thirty minutes. His name is inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

Inexpensive cartes de visite—albumin prints on paper backed by cardboard—such as those above, were popular with civilians and soldiers in both North and South. Lightweight and the size of a business card, they were easy to send by mail, and people often collected them like calling cards.

Due to the naval blockade, photographs were significantly more expensive in the South. As a result, there are fewer portraits of Confederate soldiers and their families than there are Union ones.

A Rare Comfort in War Time

Having one’s image captured by a photographer was seen as an important, serious event. The subject had to hold an unflinching pose to avoid blurring the image, and the powder flash that provided lighting could be startling—few smiles appeared in Civil War photographs.

For soldiers and civilians alike, however, having a picture of an absent loved one was worth the trouble and expense. “I look at your likeness and fear it is the last time I shall see you,” a wife wrote her soldier husband in 1862. Their toddler, she reported, “will look at it and kiss it all the time.” In camp and on the battlefield, the image of a familiar, beloved could bring rare comfort. For some soldiers, looking at a photograph was a final act. “Splinters flew from fences and rocks,” recalled a survivor of an enemy artillery barrage. “One young soldier was killed with the portrait of his sister in his hand.”






Photography and printing techniques evolved during the late 1800s to become easier, faster, and cheaper. Tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerrotypes, photographs printed on paper were in high demand.

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