Interaction between Soldiers and Civilians

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Interaction between Soldiers and Civilians

Relations between Civil War soldiers and civilians—both on the home front and during incursions into enemy territory—became progressively more strained as the long and bloody war dragged on. In the former case, many soldiers in both the Northern and Southern armies became angry with people back home who second-guessed strategic decisions or, in the view of some troops, did not fully appreciate the sacrifices they were making. These feelings intensified as the celebratory aspect of the war's early months faded and the comforting ties to hearth and home came to feel more tenuous.

Soldiers and Civilians Back Home

The psychological well-being of most Civil War soldiers was grounded in two beliefs that sustained them even during the grimmest moments of the conflict. The first of these beliefs was in the fundamental justness of the cause for which they were fighting. The second was the conviction that their sacrifices were respected and valued by the family, friends, and communities that they had left behind.

Visible gestures of appreciation and respect for Yankee and Rebel soldiers were in abundance in the early stages of the Civil War. Many regiments of patriotic volunteers were sent off to war with the cheers of fellow citizens ringing in their ears. Indeed, spirited public celebrations of their bravery and impending victory were commonplace in both the South and the North. Countless memoirs, letters, and newspaper accounts from the period attest to the carnival-like atmosphere that marked the departure of excited troops. And as the troops moved through the countryside, spontaneous celebrations of their progress erupted in myriad appreciative communities.

As the months passed, though, and the conflict became a grim deadlock, the novelty of the Federal and Confederate uniforms faded away in both regions. Instead, civilians quite naturally became preoccupied with daily routines and—in the South especially—the mounting challenges of providing food and other basic necessities for children and the elderly. More significantly, soldiers became increasingly cognizant of grumbling on the home front from disillusioned civilians who recognized that the optimistic assurances of imminent victory that they had heard at the war's outset had been in error. By the war's midpoint, some Yankee and Rebel troops experienced a growing sense, reflected palpably in their memoirs and correspondence, of alienation from civilians. These men, many of whom had endured horrific battles, unsatisfying rations, and exhausting months of exposure to the elements, became convinced that people back home had no conception of what they were enduring. Further, some of them came to feel that the civilians for whom they were putting their lives on the line were a singularly ungrateful and cowardly lot. "I hate and despise [the] puny cravens at home, whose fears make them tremble at shadows," fumed one Union officer with the 5th New Jersey in mid-1862. "These poltroons deserve the scorn of all true patriots" (Acton 1965, pp. 37–38).

Special contempt also was reserved for critics of the war itself (such as the "Copperheads" in the North and "Tories" in the South) and for civilians who criticized the way in which the war was being prosecuted. As one disillusioned Confederate soldier wrote in a letter home,

I saw a gentleman who left DeSoto Parish about two weeks since. He says the old men at home are all generals now—gather in groups in the little towns over there and talk about the war and discuss the abilities of our Generals—Know more than any of them—Except General Lee only—They admit him to be a great man, but all the others do wrong all the time. Our soldiers have all come to the conclusion that they have no friends out of the army except the ladies. (Mitchell 1988, p. 67)

During the last two years of the war, the alienation that some Rebel and Yankee soldiers felt from their countrymen and countrywomen back home was so profound that they felt, ironically enough, greater kinship with enemy soldiers—who, after all, had endured many of the same hardships and tribulations that they had.

Soldiers and Civilians in Enemy Territory

Interactions between Civil War soldiers and civilians of the opposition changed dramatically during the course of the conflict. During the first two years of the war, military commanders and enlisted men alike saw the civilian population as "off-limits," and foraging among the civilian population was officially prohibited in both armies.

These prohibitions proved increasingly difficult to enforce as the war progressed, however. In 1862 and 1863, when General Robert E. Lee led invasions into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Lee's troops were astounded by the wealth they encountered as they moved through the countryside—wealth in the form of vast fields of thriving wheat, long expanses of rich pastureland, and impressive buildings of stone and brick. A fair amount of foraging and "living off the land" occurred during these incursions, in part because Lee had no supply lines connecting his army to Southern supply centers. Moreover, all blacks captured by the invading Rebels were shipped south for enslavement.

Yankee troops, for their part, were unimpressed by Northerners' largely passive response to invasion. They chafed at reports that some civilians were assuring Rebel troops that they were Copperheads, as well as at accounts that most Northerners displayed greater measures of curiosity or fear than defiance when confronted by enemy soldiers. Indeed, Lee's progress through Pennsylvania was met with very little civilian resistance. By contrast, Yankee troops moving through the South during this same time had learned to be wary of guerrillas lurking among the civilian populace. The regional contrast in civilian response to invasion was both stark and dismaying to Union soldiers. "They [Confederate forces] ride through Penna. Without molestation—while we cannot go a hundred yards outside of the picket line without being fired at," complained one Union soldier (Mitchell 1988, p. 152).

Northern Soldiers in the South

The vast majority of the conflict took place in the South. Northern communities, for the most part, did not have to worry about enemy soldiers showing up on their doorstep—although occasional eruptions of violence such as the July 1864 burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, at the hands of Confederate troops under the command of General John McCausland ranked as dramatic exceptions to this rule.

In many parts of the South, meanwhile, enemy troops—or the threat thereof—became a pervasive presence. This state of affairs would not have been so frightening and unnerving for Southern civilians if the rules of military-civilian interaction were as they had been in 1861. By 1864, however, these rules had changed. The horrors of war had hardened Union soldiers and stripped away some of the inhibitions that had previously constrained their willingness to engage in looting and foraging. More importantly, Union commanders such as General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888) and General William T. Sherman (1820–1891) embraced military policies explicitly designed to punish Southern civilians for the transgressions of the Confederacy as a whole. Rather than tolerating Looting, Union armies actively encouraged it as a way to bring the secessionists to their knees and bring the war to an end.

The response of Northern soldiers to this so-called "hard war" against Confederate women, children, and elderly varied considerably. "This thing of foraging is hard for a bashful young man," admitted one Union soldier. "The old women storm, the young women cry, beg, entreat that you will not take their subsistence, but it must be done and you have to turn a deaf ear to every plea" (Mitchell 1988, p. 175). A Northern officer was even more succinct, writing that "we take everything from the people without remorse" (Kennett 1995, p. 236).

This formal sanctioning of foraging was ruthless, but it was also effective, especially as Union military victories over valiant but overmatched Confederate forces became more frequent and decisive. By early 1865 large swaths of the South had been burned or looted by Union armies, and civilian support for continuing the war had plummeted. As one resident of Columbia, South Carolina, stated to a Union officer after Northern troops captured the city in February 1865, "Sir, every life that is now lost in this war is murder; murder, sir. We have fought you bravely, but our strength is exhausted; we have no resources; we have no more men. The contest was unequal. You have conquered us, and it is best to submit and make wise use of the future" (Nichols 1865, p. 172).


Acton, Edward. " 'Dear Molly': Letters of Captain Edward A. Acton to His Wife, 1862." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 89 (1965).

Ash, Stephen. When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1860–1865. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Kennett, Lee B. Marching through Georgia: The Story of Soldiers and Civilians during Sherman's Campaign. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987.

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.

Nichols, George Ward. The Story of the Great March: From the Diary of a Staff Officer. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1865.

Kevin Hillstrom

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Interaction between Soldiers and Civilians

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Interaction between Soldiers and Civilians