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Gone for a Soldier

Gone for a Soldier

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Published by Bob Andrepont
National Park Service Brochure on the life of Civil War soldiers.
National Park Service Brochure on the life of Civil War soldiers.

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on May 11, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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National Park ServiceU.S. Department of the InteriorVicksburg National Military Park
“I am now very comfortably situated for the winter,”
a Confederateprivate wrote his mother in 1863,
“having a very nice chimney attached tomy tent, and everything that tends to make this unhappy life pleasant and agreeable.”
Millions of fighting men, North and South, made the best of life in camp, finding what comfort they could amid the hardship andtedium of soldiering.
Gone For ASoldier
A Soldier’s Life
Like soldiers of all ages, Civil War troops werehuman, rarely speaking in praise of things.Quick to criticize, their writings tend to be morenegative and sarcastic than one might expect.However, they had much to criticize. The warengendered an almost endless array of hardships – disorganization, filth, bad food(when it existed), boredom, primitiveconditions, disease, little opportunity to gohome, and sporadic mail delivery, often asoldier’s only contact with loved ones.Patriotism was deep-rooted, and over 600,000men would die in pursuit of two opposingdreams. These sacrifices collectively formed themost severe trauma in our nation’s annals.Nobody was ready for the conflict, least of allthe 3,000,000 citizen-soldiers who went off towar with dreamy enthusiasm and youthfulinnocence. A nationwide belief existed in thespring of 1861 that one or two battles foughtsomewhere in the border states of Virginia andKentucky would settle the whole issue. Initialenlistment periods were only three months inthe North and one year in the South. Thepatriot’s overriding fear was that peace wouldarrive before he got his first taste of battle. Menand boys flocked to enlist with an excitement of the unknown. Years later an Iowa officerunknowingly replied to these sentiments,stating,
“And thus they went to war. Only a short time was needed to teach them what war was. It took a longer time to make them soldiers.”
 The appeal to arms began with advertisements,posters, and word-of-mouth announcements. Amass meeting or rally was the usual vehicle foractual recruitment. Such gatherings would beheld on the community’s courthouse lawn or ina meeting hall. Bands would set the mood atthese assemblies, playing
“The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Dixie,” “Red, White, and Blue,” “TheBonnie Blue Flag,”
and similar patriotic airs.Leading citizens gave florid oratory and madeimpassioned pleas for men to come to the aid of their threatened country.Most of volunteers, from both sides, were farmboys who brought with them the language, ideas,and customs of rural America. Friends usuallyenlisted together, with companies originating inlocales. Neighborhood associations andattitudes were merely transferred to an armyframework.
“It took a longer timeto make them soldiers.” “The knapsack was aterror…” 
afterwards. The knapsack was a terror, loaded with thirty to fifty pounds of surplus baggage…Hishaversack, too, hung on his shoulder, and alwayshad a good stock of provisions, as though a marchacross the Sahara might at any time be imminent.”
Many units from affluent communities left forwar loaded down with every imaginable item.The
“volunteer of ’61,”
one of their numbersadmitted, eagerly went off to war and
“carried more baggage then, than a major-general did 
A member of the 4
Rhode Island gave thisinventory of his gear:
“There was a full supply of underclothing, woolen blanket, rubber [blanket],three or four pairs of socks, half a dozen nicehandkerchiefs, dress coat, fatigue cap, supply of ink, letter paper and envelopes, portfolio, photograph album, Bible, the journal in whichthese notes are kept, tobacco, drinking tube, comband brush, shaving tools, two or three pipes, pinsand needles, thread, buttons, etc., and otherthings that went to make up a soldier’s kit in thosedays.”“Add to these the regulation equipment,haversack with rations, mostly obtained fromhome, and consisting of cold meats, bread and butter, cheese, pie and cake, and other food. Thenthere was the canteen, filled with – well, saycoffee; and then there were the patent water filters,knife and fork, spoon, cup and plate, shoe brushand blacking, various kinds of medicine, and  flannels for sudden change of climate or weather, a pair of warm mittens for the coming winter, and other things carried in our pockets. Everything stated here was thought to be necessary to our newlife as a soldier…”
The same soldier later added,
“What a differenceone year in service made…A woolen blanket and  piece of shelter tent twisted together, and thrownover our shoulders; haversack loaded with a dozenhard tack and a small piece of ‘salt horse’; little bag of coffee and sugar, mixed together; …little to eat,but plenty of ammunition; dirty, ragged, …But wewere veteran soldiers then.”
Although the ages of soldiers covered a broadrange, the typical recruit was a white, native-born farmer, Protestant, single, and in the 18-20age bracket. Statistics on height are fragmentary,and only skeletal conclusions can be determined.However, most men of the blue and gray were inthe range of 5’5” to 5’9”. Balanced diets,enriched foods, and other basics of goodnutrition were unknown at the time,resulting in soldiers of the 1860s tending to beslight of build. And the war was never a conteststrictly between white Anglo-Saxons. A visit toany Union camp would reveal a plethora of foreign tongues. The overwhelming number of immigrants (mainly German and Irish) who hadsettled in the North because of cheap land andwork-for-wages was clearly evidenced.The army camp was where the recruit ceased tobe a civilian and learned how to be a soldier. Hewould spend more time in camp than inmarching and battle, combined. Here he wasintroduced to the mysteries of the army – buglecalls and drum beats, the military chain of command, discipline, the necessity of takingcare of equipment, and obedience to orders. Hedrilled as best he could and learned how to pitcha tent and use a weapon.Field camps were the places where,
“…we were fairly initiated into the mysteries and miseries of asoldier’s life,”
as stated by a Louisianan. The firstcamps gave every appearance of orderliness,with army regulations prescribing theencampment’s systematic grid pattern. Officers’quarters lined the front of each street; enlistedmen’s quarters aligned precisely to the rear.Streets were a specific width; locations of kitchens and latrines responsibly pinpointed;and picket lines formed a symmetrical perimeteraround the area.However, adherence to regulations worked ininverse proportion to the length of the war.When war became drudgery, latrines and horsepens often were located upstream – which at theleast affected the taste of the coffee. Throughoutthe war, the opposing armies tended to retrace orcross previous routes of march as theycampaigned; all too often troops would camp inplaces that had held bivouacs before. The oldcampgrounds, with their accumulation of ruinedstructures, stripped vegetation and heaps of garbage, were always uninviting and oftendangerously unsanitary. Even at new campsites,the presence of thousands of men rapidlyovertaxed the land. In wet weather, the groundwas converted to a muddy quagmire. In summerthe mud turned to dust. Moving about camp inhot weather, remarked a Connecticutinfantryman, was like tramping through an ashheap. If a grasshopper jumped, observed anartillery man wryly, it raised such a cloud of dustthat the Confederates thought the Federal Armywas on the move.Within the boundaries of these makeshiftcommunities, the regiment quickly became thecenter of the new recruit’s friendships andloyalties, and the source of his knowledge of army operations. Men of both sides tended tobe volatile, fun-loving, and sociably engaging. Intheir new surroundings, they at first reacted withpleasure. This was only a description of the firstdays of camp, however. Recruits quickly foundthemselves confronting a number of adversities.Excess and ill-fitting equipment becameapparent. One example was the fancy-lookinghavelock, a particular dislike of which soonemerged. Made of white linen, it was
“to be wornon the head as a protection from the rays of the sun. As it was made sufficiently large to cover the neckand shoulders, the effect, when properly adjusted,was to deprive the wearer of any air he might otherwise enjoy.”
Bugle Calls and DrumBeatsYoung and Slight ofBuildHome Away fromHome
“What a difference one year in servicemade….” 
Havelocks quickly became used as dishcloths andcoffee strainers.
When One Rolled Over,the Rest had to FollowSuit…
A tent was the soldier’s home away from homeduring the spring, summer, and autumn months.Beginning in the war’s second year, the standardabode for soldiers was the shelter tent. It rapidlybecame known as the dog tent or dog shantysince
“it would only comfortably accommodate adog, and a small one at that.”
Men learned toelevate the tent in sultry weather, so that aircould circulate around the bottom, but, as onesoldier of the 17
Virginia noted,
“…during theearly part of the [summer day] and until the latenoon, the heat inside was worse than that of theblazing sun without; the canvas seemed only todraw the rays to a focus and keep them there in onewhite blaze. And to add to the discomfort, swarmsof flies infested the tents and could never be induced on any account to leave them; they seemed to thinkexposure to the outer air not at all conducive totheir health, while anything like a walk abroad would be positively fatal.”
When the quarterswere shared, space was so cramped that whenone man rolled over, the rest had to follow suit.The normal camp day began with reveille near 5a.m., with the assembled troops possibly havinga short drill before receiving a summary of theirduties for the day. The men were then dismissedto prepare breakfast, either individually or ingroups known as “messes.” The 8 a.m. drum orbugle call summoned guard details to their postsand alerted the sick to report to the regimentalsurgeon. Activities for the rest of the campincluded building roads, policing the camp,making pathways of pine logs, extending latrinepits, gathering firewood and water, andrepairing equipment, just to name a few chores.Most recruits who had rushed to enlist wereunprepared for such menial tasks as these.Soldiers from all walks of life now foundthemselves as privates in the ranks, subject toorders from superior officers, doing the work of porters and laborers in all kinds of necessarydrudgery.A noon call announced lunch, then regimentaldrill occupied two or three hours. Men thenreturned to their quarters, cleaned weapons, andgot uniforms into inspectable condition, for dressparade (if held) around 6 p.m. After retreat, themen had supper, with free time prevailing until 9p.m., when the lights-out call was sounded.However, one Union soldier left no doubt abouthis feelings in regard to the principal activity thatfilled most of the soldier’s first weeks in camp.
“The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill,then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill.Then drill, and lastly drill. Between drills, we drill and sometimes stop to eat a little and have roll call.”
“Drill, drill, a little moredrill…” 
Thoughts of Home
A soldier had little opportunity to spendextended periods of time away from the army –leave was seldom granted. Federal troops wereoften stationed too far from home to get muchuse from a furlough, and Southern soldiers weretoo few and badly needed to be permittedgenerous leaves.Many men had not been away from home much,and to say they were homesick was stating itmildly. Others acted like wild colts. Themajority, however, were steady and reliable, anddevised different ways to spend their spare time incamp. Reading (for those who could) was atreasured pastime, particularly of the Bible,followed by novels and newspapers of the day.Troops enjoyed periodicals such as the
New YorkIllustrated News, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Harper’s Weekly,
and the
SouthernIllustrated News
. Some regiments even producedtheir own newspapers, one being the Southern
, whose satire aimed to mock the Yankeesand entertain the troops.
Almost 600 Letters ADay
In camps of both sides, no diversion occupied asmuch time as letter and journal writing, whichalleviated some of the homesickness suffered bythe majority of soldiers. The volume of soldiermail in the Civil War was staggering, with anaverage of 600 letters mailed daily. The majoritywere examples of phonetic spelling and crudehandwriting reflective of the limited educationalstandards of that era. Many soldiers took pridein improving their letter composition throughpractice, yet it was difficult because of theirenvironment.
“I am sitting by a camp fire writing on my knee and am unable to see the lines by thedim light,”
Virginian Green Samuels wrote,
“and consequently write very crooked and I supposescarcely intelligibly to you.”
Henry Orendorff of the 103
Illinois once apologized to his sister,
“Sarah please excuse my poorly composed & badlywritten letter. I would like to know how any bodycould write good or compose where there is somuch confusion and fun
 going on.”

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