Civil War Soldiers
The History Cat Classroom
Until 1863 blacks volunteered in the US Army but were not allowed to do any of the actual fighting. Instead, they were assigned servants tasks such as cooking and cleaning.
Read the letters that soldiers on both sides left behind.
Life of a Soldier
At the start of the war, the United States had a regular army (barely) of just 16,000 troops spread across 29 forts located mostly in the west to protect western settlers against hostile Indian nations. After Fort Sumter, both sides drummed up volunteers with speeches, bands, and parades to get that patriotic blood flowing. And it boy did it work. The Union hoped for 75,000 new recruits and the Confederacy was shooting for 100,000; both sides were flooded with eager boys ready to whip the enemy. Being a soldier was part of being a man, and many men who were too sick or too young to fight simply lied- nobody bothered things like fact-checking in those days.
If these recruits thought that the life of a Civil War soldier was all about shooting the enemy in some heroic battle they had another think coming. Most of these young eager beavers were undisciplined and didn’t take too kindly to some officer telling them what time to eat, sleep, and wake up. The first step both sides faced with their new soldiers was getting them to act like soldiers.
Of course, this required drilling- lots and lots of drilling, which the soldiers hated. Waking up at 5 a.m. and marching for hours with a 40-pound knapsack and a 12-pound rifle sure seems to get be the quickest way to get everyone in a cranky mood. A short break for lunch, and then more drills until evening. Oliver W. Norton, a Yankee volunteer put it this way: “The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, and a little more drill. Then drill and lastly drill. Between drills, we drill and sometimes stop to eat and have roll-call.”
Life for the average soldier was spent drilling and marching more than actual fighting. Most men amused themselves by singing camp songs like Home Sweet Home. We thought it was cute too. Some of the officers did not. Especially after one particular round got the soldiers so homesick they all began crying. After that ‘Home Sweet Home’ was banned from his camp. Mostly, soldiers gambled played cards and drank illegal liquor.
The soldier’s life was often dull and filled with hardships, especially as the war dragged on. Rationing food is common in every war and the Civil War was no exception. Many soldiers adjusted to the reality of bad home cooked meals that consisted of hard tack- a thick biscuit so hard that it sometimes had to be boiled down to soften it. As if eating hard tack wasn’t bad enough, most soldiers ate wormy hard tack. Pork rations and pork fat were the most common source of meat for both sides and coffee was a must have. Soldiers often crossed enemy lines to get those hard to find items like southern tobacco or coffee beans that the Yankees were able to import. The Union blockade of southern ports made shortages common for pretty much everything that a Confederate soldier might need.
As the war dragged on, Rebel soldiers were so desperate for food, shoes, and clothes that they resorted to robbing the corpses of dead soldiers.
The life of a Civil War soldier was often short-lived. The number of soldiers killed on both sides during all four years of the war was around 200,000. However, life in the camp was far more hazardous to their health. Overcrowding, bad sanitation, and poor diets are a recipe for disease. More than 400,000 soldiers died of nasty illnesses like typhoid, measles, smallpox, and cholera. Most of these diseases are contracted from contaminated drinking water. Of course, if bacteria didn’t kill you off then you had to live with those pesky gray lice that infested everything from the soldier’s blankets, hair, and even their underwear. One Alabama soldier accused the Yankees of intentionally bringing fleas to torment the south.
Battle did its fair share of damage too. Many soldiers had an overly romantic view of what battle was really like. After stories of the first battles of the Civil War got back home about men’s heads being blown off, missing limbs, battlefields littered with the groans of dying men- that sort of thing- the volunteers began drying up on both sides. This was called “seeing the Elephant” and once a man experienced the hardness of battle they often reported being changed forever.
Soldiers pass the time with
a friendly boxing match.
Talk About a "Crappy" Job
The Confederacy was short on pretty much everything... everything that is except bat guano.
The high nitrate content found in bat excrement is a key ingredient in making gun powder. Many Rebel soldiers were given cave duty to collect it.
Civil War Medicine
In 1862, French chemist Louis Pasteur was conducting an experiment that would change the world. He was coming to realize that when liquids like milk were boiled, bacteria were killed in the process and this stopped the decomposition process that leads to spoiled food. This process known as pasteurization was was the beginning of germ theory- or the understanding that bacteria cause certain diseases.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, the Americans were locked in a bloody civil war as thousands of soldiers died on battlefields like Shiloh and Antietam- not to mention all those nasty wounds that often led to amputation and infection. Unfortunately for the men on the battlefield, medical application of germ theory was still a few years off and doctor's still using methods straight out of the medieval ages. Medical doctors weren’t the highly trained professionals that they are today. Back then they received about two years of university training- tops. Harvard Medical School didn’t even own a single stethoscope.
On the battlefield, army doctors and nurses had to work with whatever they got. Churches, tents, schools, and homes would be converted into military hospitals. Because doctors didn’t understand that bacteria caused disease, they didn’t bother to sterilize the surgical tools or even wash their hands in between surgeries. Doctors’ aprons- caked in blood and pus- often looked like they worked in a butcher shop rather than a medical facility. Surgeons had to work so frantically that amputated body parts were just tossed into a pile nearby the operating table. Of course, these unsanitary practices led to infections (doctors believed that pus in a wound was a sign of healing, they called it laudable pus.
One out of every five patients died of their wounds. A common misconception is that Civil War surgery patients had to do it without anesthetics. Doctors had a few options like opium and chloroform- that is unless you were a southern soldier who had no hope of getting a hold of anesthetics because of the Union blockade. Rebel soldiers might be plied with whiskey and told to bite down on a leather strap.