A Soldier's Life Overview

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A Soldier's Life Overview

During the course of the Civil War more than three million men served as soldiers in the armies of the North and South. For them, daily life during the conflict consisted of a multitude of new experiences, many of them unpleasant and most of them much different from anything the men would have encountered had they remained at their peaceful homes. For nearly one in ten Americans during the four years of the war, their status as a soldier was the prime factor that determined the contours of day-to-day existence.

The largest demographic cohort of the Civil War soldiers was composed of young white men born in the United States who had grown up on farms before the war. The typical soldier—if the concept of "typical" can even be applied to a group as diverse as the Civil War combatants—was in his early twenties. Yet those who wore the blue or the gray (or sometimes butternut and a variety of other colors, particularly in Confederate uniforms) varied broadly among themselves, and significant groups of soldiers differed in some notable way from the demographic profile of the majority of soldiers.

The most notable of these varied groups, by all odds, were the African Americans. They had a special motivation to fight because the war had come about as a result of the enslavement of their ethnic group and had become, by the time it was two years old, an open and direct struggle for the freedom of their people. More than 160,000 of them served exclusively in the Union Army and Navy. A handful were inducted into the Confederate Army in the closing weeks of the war, but the Confederate authorities never issued them rifles, and it remains highly debatable whether they would actually have fought for the Confederacy. The African Americans who did see combat with the Union Army showed just as much aptitude for soldiering as their white comrades—much to the surprise of some whites, whose racist assumptions had led them to believe that blacks would not fight. Nevertheless, black soldiers' experience of daily life during the war differed in a number of ways from that of their white counterparts.

Another notable group of Civil War soldiers were the immigrants. Of course, all Americans spring from immigrant stock, whether their ancestors crossed the Atlantic or Pacific by ship or walked across the Bering Strait during the Ice Age. These soldiers, however, were much more recent arrivals, having been born overseas or being the first generation born on American soil to immigrant parents. Especially numerous among them were the Germans, many of whom had come for economic opportunity in the New World, while some, especially the more prominent, had fled the repercussions of the unsuccessful German revolutions of 1848. A number of Union regiments were almost completely ethnically German; they marched and fought to orders given in the German language. The Union Army's Eleventh Corps, numbering in the neighborhood of 10,000 men, contained enough Germans to be known collectively as the "Dutch Corps." Its hard-luck reputation reinforced the prejudice in some nativists' minds that Germans made poor soldiers; however, the performance of many individual German regiments both in and out of the Eleventh Corps proved that idea to be mistaken.

The Irish also fought for the Union in large numbers; unlike the Germans, however, a smaller but still noticeable contingent of the sons of Erin also soldiered in the Confederate ranks. No one ever doubted that the Irishmen would fight, but their wartime service helped win them a little higher measure of respect than a nati-vist-influenced prewar society had shown them. The special circumstances of these German and Irish soldiers, and those of a smaller number of immigrants from such other countries as Italy or Poland, made their daily life during the war significantly different from that of the typical Civil War soldier.

While the Germans, Irish, and other nationalities in the Civil War armies represented the most recent immigrants to North American, another unusual group among the Civil War soldiers consisted of the descendents of the earliest arrivals. American Indians served on both sides during the war. In some cases, they were able to put to use their special skills in woodcraft and scouting. At other times, especially in the region known as the Indian Territory (what later became the state of Oklahoma), Union Indian fought Confederate Indian, and the struggle took on all of the vicious characteristics that usually accompany internecine warfare among people of any ethnicity. Like the recent immigrants, American Indians had to ask themselves whether the conflict then dividing the continent was their own fight or someone else's.

Yet another group of Civil War soldiers who experienced daily life in ways that differed from the majority were the child soldiers. These could include boy musicians, especially drummers, or the large number of teenaged youth who successfully lied about their age in order to get themselves inducted into the army and experience the great adventure of war. Alonzo Woodworth was a strapping lad of fourteen in the fall of 1861 when he succeeded in convincing the mustering officer in his northeast Indiana community that he was four years older than he was. Duly inducted, he went to war as a member of the Forty-fourth Indiana Volunteer Regiment. His youth, however, made him particularly susceptible to the many diseases that afflicted Civil War soldiers, and he spent most of the war in and out of army hospitals and felt the effects of those years on his health for the rest of his life. The daily life of a soldier could be a different matter when a lad of tender years found himself in uniform.

As had been said of the soldier's lot in other wars, so the men who served in the Civil War armies experienced long periods of intense boredom punctuated by brief interludes of stark terror. A few of them wrote vivid accounts of their experiences in battle, but the daily life of the Civil War soldiers had much more to do with the mundane realities of camp, march, and drill. It was with details of such matters that the soldiers filled their diaries and their many letters home. Writing the letters themselves was one of the chief ways the soldiers beguiled the time and assuaged their often intense feelings of homesickness.

In the letters one reads of food and how it was prepared—such curious culinary creations as hardtack and salt pork fried together in grease or an item in the Union ration known as desiccated vegetables, sometimes referred to by the soldiers as "desecrated vegetables." Oddly enough, perhaps, desiccated vegetables became quite a favorite of many of the Union soldiers, rating just behind the highly esteemed ration of navy beans—or army beans, as that service preferred to call them. The most vital component of the ration as far as the soldiers were concerned, however, was coffee. Issued in the bean, coffee was ground with rifle butts and boiled in whatever container was handy. If constraints of time completely forbade the few minutes necessary to build a fire and make the liquid beverage, the soldiers would, on occasion, chew their coffee beans. Overall, the monotonous and unpalatable nature of army rations predisposed some of the troops to engage in foraging—the taking of food from enemy civilians—and that in turn provided another pungent aspect to the daily life of those both in and out of the army.

The everyday lives of the soldiers also included such elements as drill—the seemingly endless hours of military exercises necessary for their units to maneuver effectively on the battlefield. Keeping reasonably warm and dry in inclement weather was another frequent concern of the men in blue and gray. Their ability to do so depended much on the equipment their armies issued them. Both sides usually had tents, and Union soldiers might also receive a poncho or a rubber or oilcloth sheet. Confederates usually had to obtain their supplies of such waterproofing equipment by capture.

For the long hours of idle time in camp, after they had written every word they could think of to the folks back home and had attended to the many chores involved in keeping fed and sheltered and maintaining military discipline, the soldiers resorted to a wide array of pastimes. Music, either informal from individual soldier-musicians or the more regular if not more skillful efforts of the regimental bands, helped keep spirits up, as did an assortment of mascots. Many regiments had dogs, but one Union regiment had an eagle, and one Confederate regiment, a camel. The new game of baseball, which the soldiers sometimes called "driveball," gained popularity from its frequent play in the camps, though it was not, as legend would have it, invented by General Abner Doubleday.

The daily life of the Civil War soldiers represented a mixture of the homely and the exotic, the boring and the terrifying, which made it strikingly different from that experienced by civilians before, during, or after the war. The essays that follow delve into some of the most interesting and important aspects of the circumstances the soldiers faced every day.

Steven E. Woodworth

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A Soldier's Life Overview

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