Drills and training were an integral part of Civil War military life, especially in the opening year of the conflict when both North and South were seeking to mobilize armies out of their respective civilian populations. Neither side distinguished itself in this regard, in part because each army was saddled with a large number of inexperienced officers who knew little or nothing about drill or military tactics. This was a vexing problem for both the Union and the Confederacy. Another complication in drill and training was the strong individualistic streak of many Yankee and Rebel soldiers. Accustomed to a hefty measure of independence and self-direction in their everyday lives, many enlistees chafed at the tedious hours spent at drill.
The Drill Routine
In both the Union and Confederate armies, drill exercises and other training were interspersed throughout the day at camp. By day's end, several hours had typically been devoted to drill (the amount of time spent on drill diminished significantly as the war intensified, however). Fighting formations were generally linear and had to be practiced to ensure that the soldiers could function in the necessary combat structures.
Company sergeants usually conducted the drills with supervision from company commanders and field officers. Veterans of the Mexican-American War and regular officers who had already been in the federal army prior to the war tended to be the biggest sticklers for training. These men had a greater appreciation for the importance of efficient movements on the battlefield, and they also saw drill as a way of building discipline and obedience. But even in units led by these men, training was often halting and haphazardly executed.
Whether directed by knowledgeable military veterans or novices appointed as a result of political connections or recruiting skills, drilling routines elicited reactions from the rank and file that ranged from patient understanding to fuming indignation. The latter reaction was particularly evident in the South, where many equated being forced to submit to military discipline with being reduced to the status of a slave.
Similar sentiments were also evident within the Union ranks. "We are almost drilled to Death now," complained one Pennsylvanian volunteer in a letter to a friend. "My Dear Boy, Playing Soldier and Soldiering in reality is two very different things I can assure you" (Sutherland 1989, p. 8). Writing to his sister, a private from Indiana cited drill as a perfect example of how [a] soldier is not his own man[;]…you fall in and start. You here feel your inferiority, even the Sar-geants is hollering at you to close up, Ketch step, dress to the right, and sutch like, the man in youre reer is complaining of youre gun not being held up. Perhaps you will let this [cause you to] make some remark when you will be immediately tolde by a Lietenant to be silent in ranks or you will be put in the guard house. (McPherson 1997, p. 47)
The Importance of Drill
Most companies, whether marching under the Stars and Stripes or the Confederate flag, did not spent much of their time on target practice or other firearms-related drills. This decision was based on a widely held assumption that most soldiers were frontier types who were already proficient with the muzzle-loading rifles that predominated in the war. In reality, however, many enlistees came from urban areas in which hunting was not a widespread pastime, and some green soldiers did not even know how to load their muskets upon reporting for duty. The South, which had a more rural character than the North and a higher percentage of hunters and trappers in its ranks, was not hurt as badly as the North by this misconception, but even it fielded companies that were woefully undertrained in shooting and weapon maintenance.
Most drill activity was instead focused on marching and fighting formations. Specifically, a great deal of attention was paid to teaching soldiers how to efficiently switch from a marching formation (which was generally serpentine in character) to a fighting formation (which often required assumption of box-like or shield-like forms). Because these maneuvers involved the complex coordination of large numbers of men, and often had to be achieved under fire, few commanders ever considered their men to be adequately drilled and emphasized extensive practice.
Catton, Bruce. The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, rev. ed. Ed. Bruce McPherson. New York: Viking, 1996.
Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers. Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War. Chicago: Open Court, 1996.
McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.
Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860–1876. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.