The Life of the Soldier

MILITARY LIFE FOR the vast majority of the young men, North and South, who went off to war in 1861 began by joining friends, neighbours, and schoolfellows in the informal assembly that would make a company or a regiment. Those who joined included almost none who knew anything of the soldier’s trade: no drill, no manual of arms, no habit of obedience to orders. There were few to instruct them, at best a militia officer or two, perhaps a veteran of the Mexican War or a recent immigrant who had served in a European army. Everything had to be learnt, from any available drill book. Learning began with forming ranks and marching in step, turning left and right, advancing, retiring. If there were weapons available, the recruits then progressed to handling whatever muskets or rifles were to hand, basic drill movements at first, followed by the steps necessary to load and fire a round, though live firing would come later.

In the early stages of forming the company came the appointment of officers, usually chosen either from anyone with military experience or from among the local worthies who had taken the lead in forming the unit. Election was a common means of appointment, though it could often lead to trouble if those who thought they had a claim to rank were not chosen. The trials of service could lead to the supersession of early appointees who proved unsuitable.

As the unit learnt the rudiments, other practical matters assumed importance: acquiring uniforms and shelter, making cooking arrangements. In the North the government soon began to supply standard blue coats, caps, and trousers, often to replace privately chosen outfits, which were sometimes a version of fashionable foreign dress, such as the French Zouave costume, the chasseur style, or the Garibaldi feathers and pantaloons. Southern units outfitted themselves or were clothed at state expense, at first where possible in cadet gray, later as supplies ran out in locally dyed homespun in a brownish colour that came to be called butternut.

At the outset soldiers lived in whatever buildings were available, public halls or schools, mills, taverns; some early arrivals in Washington in 1862 were accommodated in the capital’s museums. As quickly as possible, however, the new regiments tried to acquire tents and set up orderly tented encampments. The standard dwelling was the so-called Sibley tent, a bell-shaped structure accommodating sixteen men. More common, because handier in the field, was the dog or pup tent, made by stretching the soldier’s waterproof shelter half on a pole or rope. It could house four or, at a squeeze, six. Inside the soldier bedded down in the blanket which he carried folded in his haversack. Since the war began in early summer, skimpy bedding kept him warm enough. During the first winter the armies learnt to improvise portable stoves.

Supply is the first prerequisite in war and has always been at the forefront of a commander’s preoccupations. Wellington, both in India and in the Iberian Peninsula, wrote constantly about the need for bullocks, which, driven forward with the army on the march, provided meat on the hoof and could also be used as beasts of burden. Even when he had animals to carry provisions, however, the perishability of foodstuffs was a constant concern. As a result, commanders have historically often succumbed to the temptation to live off the land, which means in practice pillaging the local population, an unsatisfactory expedient since it poisons relations with civilians yet is an undependable source. Armies rapidly eat out a campaigning area; cavalry armies eat it out at lightning speed. By the nineteenth century ministries of war were investing heavily in means to preserve food. Margarine was developed in response to a competition organised by the emperor Napoleon III to find a substitute for butter for his armies on campaign.

Fires were also necessary to cook, which from the outset soldiers did, very badly, for themselves. Because of the abundance of food in agricultural America, there was rarely a shortage at the beginning, though the diet was monotonous. The armies of the Civil War, and particularly the Union army, benefited from recent developments in food preservation, particularly canning. The Union army, in consequence, rarely went short. The Northern soldier, benefiting from remarkably efficient supply arrangements, could depend on a steady ration of staples. Indeed, it was calculated by comparison of his regulation rations with those of the British, French, and Russian armies that the Union soldier was the best fed on record. Regulations in the Union army prescribed a daily individual issue of twelve ounces of pork or bacon or twenty ounces of fresh or salt beef, together with six ounces of soft bread or flour or a pound of hard bread or twenty ounces of cornmeal. To every hundred rations was added fifteen pounds of beans or dried peas, and ten pounds of rice, ten pounds of coffee beans, fifteen pounds of sugar, four quarts of vinegar, about four pounds of salt, thirty pounds of potatoes, and one quart of molasses. Everything except meat and bread was known as “small rations.” The Confederate soldier fared worse than the Northerner except at the start of the war. There was plenty of food in the South, but the Southern distribution system was poor and erratic. Northern soldiers could count on regular supply brought by railroad and wagon. Confederate supply was much more chancy and often arrived spoilt after waiting beside the railroad too long for onward movement. Staple diet was much the same as in the Union army, but corn bread substituted for wheat and rapidly palled, and while the Union soldier’s ration was increased during the war, the Confederate’s shrank.

In practice, the soldier lived on salt meat, hardtack, coffee, and hard biscuits, called by the men “crackers,” which they pounded up and recooked. The most common supplements were dried vegetables, beans, split peas, or desiccated potatoes. Once food was procured, the next problem was to cook it. The soldiers cooked in messes of six or eight, each taking a turn. Flour was usually turned into flapjacks, dough paste baked in the flame wrapped round a bayonet or ramrod. Cooking utensils were in drastically short supply because they were the first stores to be discarded on the eve of battle and were the means by which soldiers dug entrenchments. As a result the cooking was even worse than the cook’s lack of skill could make it. Meats, and many other foods, were fried. Indeed frying was often the only culinary technique soldiers had, though the result, soaked in grease, was unappetising. One of the reasons for the resort to frying seems to have been the shortage of cooking utensils; frying pans or skillets were the most frequently available, perhaps because they were easily carried on the march. Most soldier dishes were rough stews of crumbled hardtack and dried vegetables with scraps of issue meat thrown in, often known as “cush” or “hoosh.”

Food parcels from home, on which Confederates depended to a surprising degree, often arrived spoilt or in broken containers. Northern soldiers got parcels from home also, as well as fresh produce which they bought from the sutlers’ wagons that followed the line of march. Few soldiers starved though many, particularly Confederates, often went short. The memories of even the well fed, though, were of hardtack and salt pork in unrelenting monotony. Coffee was the soldier’s chief consolation. It seemed always to be plentiful on the Union side and was a means of barter for Southern tobacco, the South being unable to supply it in the quantities that were drunk by Northern armies.

Alcohol, though not part of the ration, was fairly freely dispensed, particularly for medical reasons, and was widely available. Officers, including some generals, were often accused of imbibing too freely, an accusation levelled at Grant. Grant undoubtedly succumbed to drink on occasion but usually when he was separated from his wife, who was a beneficent influence on him in every way. His fault was binge drinking when under strain; normally Grant was perfectly sober.

Bad cooking was a common cause of the intestinal disorders which afflicted all soldiers and were a major cause of death in the ranks. In the first months, diarrhoea or dysentery could afflict whole regiments, and though the incidence declined as the troops were hardened to the experience of campaigning, over a million cases were recorded by the Union War Department between 1861 and 1865, of which 57,000 resulted in death. Treatment was rough and ready, dosing with opium, strychnine, calomel, and whisky being the commonest resort. Many soldiers dosed themselves, often with remedies sent from home. Malaria, which caused many casualties among Northern soldiers campaigning in the Mississippi Valley in the summers of 1862-64, was also treated with whisky, together with quinine. Typhoid, common when clean water was not available, was also treated with quinine, and with turpentine, carbonate of ammonia, and a widely used pill called blue mass (mercury and chalk).

Despite improvement of treatment, both surgical and medical, the cost of the war in human life was very high, about 620,000 between 1861 and 1865, of which 360,000 were Union deaths, 260,000 Confederate. Among these, deaths from disease occurred in the proportion of two to one, against death from wounds—figures that contemporaries would have accepted as perfectly normal. Indeed, the incidence of fatal sickness was somewhat lower in Civil War armies than in those of the Crimean War and much lower than in the Napoleonic Wars.

Sickness consistently depressed the numbers available for duty, often by as much as half of a regiment. The prevailing below-strength state of regiments in both armies was largely the result of disease. Desertion and absence without leave were also causes, most noticeable during periods of demoralisation, increasingly common from 1863 onwards. Soldiers left the ranks if unsupervised or overstayed their leave or did not return from furlough at all. That had the effect of deterring commanders from granting furlough, though in principle it was a soldier’s right, often generously conceded. Southern soldiers, who often served in their home districts, might get as much as forty days’ leave. Some Union soldiers got no leave at all throughout the war. As the war situation worsened for the South, some deserters combined in armed bands, hiding in the woods, to resist return to the ranks. Desertion seems to have been less common in the Union army, which organised a system of severe punishment for those caught, including the death penalty. During 1865 desertion became endemic in the Confederate army, with as many as 100,000 absent without leave at any one time. The numbers rose as defeat approached.

There was little material inducement to remain obedient. Union pay was thirteen dollars a month, at a time when the war economy boomed. The Confederate soldier was paid less, eleven dollars, in paper currency which began to depreciate in value in 1862 and by the end of the war had lost its value altogether. Moreover, Confederate pay was usually in arrears, by as much as six months or a year.

Duty and devotion to comrades were therefore the motives that kept men in the ranks. Personal reputation counted in units where men came from the same locality and had known one another at home. A good name was particularly powerful in Southern regiments and was maintained by, among other means, letters home, which travelled with remarkable promptness.

Immaterial motives were also important. Many Northerners were outraged by rebellion and held it a high duty to put it down. Some Northerners were also principled abolitionists, though even abolitionists expressed different views when confronted with the spectacle of the black way of life in the South. Southerners, at least at the outset, were strong in their denunciations of Northern oppression, and most remained horrified right to the end at the prospect of black liberation, which for many supplied the strongest reason to fight.

Religion reinforced sentiment. Nineteenth-century America was a deeply religious nation. At the beginning of the century, a powerful revival, the Second Great Awakening, had swept the country and inspired church building, sectarian college founding, and evangelising everywhere. The North-South divide had split churches, particularly over the issue of whether blacks and whites might worship together. The Baptist and Methodist churches both splintered off Southern factions, which fell out of communion with their Northern brethren. Though denounced as unchristian, Southerners continued to insist on the authenticity of their Christian faith, which they often practised fervently in small-town and rustic churches. Both Yankee and Rebel soldiers took their religion to war with them. The fervently pious may have appeared to be odd men out, but the decently observant were commonplace and unbelievers probably the exception.

The coming of the war coarsened religious feeling. Pious young men were shocked at the profanity of army life, the bad language, the gambling, drunkenness, and abandonment of Sunday observance, and Christian worthies who visited the armies were outraged by the sexual licence all too visibly on view. The Civil War armies, as was the case with armies everywhere in all times, rapidly attracted a following of prostitutes and fell victim to the diseases of sexual promiscuity. Yet sin was not the distinctive mark of the Civil War armies, which remained religious in a way distinctive to the America of the period. Both armies, despite a great deal of profanity, drinking, and recourse to loose women, were also deeply affected by the contemporary practice of religion. Regiments both Northern and Southern had their regimental chaplains, some of whom exerted a powerful hold over their parishioners. The chaplaincy of the regiment, like the surgeon’s post, was authorised by the War Department and usually filled by election by the officers. Chaplains were expected to conduct regimental services at which they preached, with prayers and hymn singing. In the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening, religious practice was enthusiastic and widespread both North and South, in exclusively Protestant form outside the cities, where Catholics were growing in numbers. Soldiers underwent conversion experiences in the ranks, held Bible classes, prayed, and sang hymns with an unaffectedness which would be found startling today. Letter and diary writers noted the devotion shown by comrades in arms. Some soldiers “got religion” in the ranks, perhaps responding to the revivalists who roamed the armies as they did all American communities of the period, and returned home far more observant than they had joined, though in general army service encouraged lack of observance rather than its opposite.

Hymn singing was popular in camp, as was singing generally. Favourites included “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Just as I Am.” Popular secular tunes, often taken up across the lines so that the armies seemed to be serenading each other, were “Lorena,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” and “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground.”

A distinctive feature of service in the West was the regularity with which Union regiments were entertained by the singing of ex-slaves and displays of dancing. An Illinois soldier wrote from Virginia, “There were five negroes in our mess room last night, we got them to sing and dance! Great times. Negro concerts free of expense here … hope I shall not be obliged to leave.”1 The West proved to be not only one of the most hard-fought theatres of the war, but one in which fighting was most protracted. The final surrenders there did not take place until May 1865.

The Christian Commission, a church-based equivalent of the Sanitary Commission, was a potent force for observance and revivalism throughout the Union army and provided much material as well as spiritual comfort to the troops. Its representatives were held in regard, and not just for the coffee and writing paper they distributed on their visits to the regiments.

Their generals invoked the Almighty freely in exercising their powers. Several were notable for their religious practice, including Leonidas Polk, who was an Episcopalian bishop. Religious observance depended greatly on the example set by officers. McClellan and Burnside both issued orders for the holding of religious services while General Oliver O. Howard of the Army of the Tennessee led divine services, and Colonel the Reverend Granville Moody, who commanded the 74th Ohio, regularly preached to his own and other regiments. While Lincoln seems to have been no more than a deist, Robert E. Lee was a devout Episcopalian, and Stonewall Jackson was a Presbyterian of formidable piety. General Rosecrans was a devout Catholic and therefore an odd man out, since in both North and South the temper of the armies was overwhelmingly Protestant, though particularly in the North they included many Catholics. Rosecrans’s co-religionists in the North were notable, however, for their lack of enthusiasm for the war. Most were German or Irish and had left their homelands to escape the power of government and therefore resisted conscription. Distinctively Protestant, in a revivalist manner, was the widely held belief that the war was God’s punishment of America for its sins, the sin of slavery to many Northerners’ way of thinking, the general sinfulness of the nation’s habits to many puritan Southerners. To the idea of punishment was linked the belief that, in a millenarian fashion, one great event, a decisive battle on a monumental scale, would bring the war to an end.

Many soldiers, North and South, did not live to see the war’s end but were already dead and buried before it was over. Both sides tried if possible to give their dead Christian burials, usually a matter of the time available and who inherited the battlefield. Even before the war was over the North was creating impressive national cemeteries for their dead heroes. Abraham Lincoln would of course speak at the inauguration of the Gettysburg cemetery in November 1863. The Federal government did not, however, confer the dignity of a decent burial on the rebels, who were held not to merit it. The Southern dead, outside the South, were either left in their hasty battlefield burial places, if interred by comrades, or bundled into mass graves, if disposed of by the Northerners. Hence the character of Civil War cemeteries to this day. This apartheid is evidence of how deep the division of secession bit. Even during the world wars, the British and French buried the German dead, and the Germans buried their enemies. It was left to Stalin to obliterate the German cemeteries on Soviet soil. The Union treated those who died in rebellion against it as non-people. One searches in vain for Confederate gravestones at Arlington or Gettysburg.

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