Soldiers in Camp

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Soldiers in Camp


Waiting. Following Gettysburg both sides settled into camps or defensive fortifications during the long, monotonous stretch from July 1863 to August 1864. As in any war, boredom filled the everyday life of Civil War soldiers. Union and Confederate fighting men averaged fifty days in camp for every day in battle. Lulls in the fighting allowed men to bond and build up morale before the next frontal assaults decimated regimental strength and destroyed small-unit cohesion.

Northern Camps. Reveille woke Union soldiers every morning at five oclock (six in the winter). After roll call and breakfast, the soldiers spent the rest of the day drilling and marching. The daily drills were designed to break resistance to military authority and to make soldiers work as a cohesive unit. The Northern enlisted men hated it. The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill, then drill again, wrote one frustrated bluecoat. Then drill, a little more drillBetween drills, we drill and sometimes stop to eat a little and have rollcall. In the afternoon the men spent most of their time preparing their uniforms for the evening dress parade. The troops

polished boots and brass buckles and mended clothing in order to pass inspection and move on to supper call. By summer 1862 the Union army had standardized the Northern uniform. Each soldier wore a blue cap with black visor; a long, dark blue dress coat with stand-up collar; light blue trousers; and rough black shoes. The uniforms were made of wool and worn year-round. The blue coats and trousers were trimmed with stripes to signify a particular combat branch: blue for infantry, scarlet for artillery, and yellow for cavalry. Brass insignia sewn into caps also designated branch: a bugle for infantry, crossed sabres for cavalry, and crossed cannons for artillery. Unlike their Confederate counterparts, Federal uniforms were of high quality; long campaigns, rather than shortage in stock, led to brief instances of raggedness.

Northern Food. The Union enlisted mans diet consisted of three main staples: bread, meat, and coffee; fresh fruits and vegetables were available depending on the season. Throughout the war, Northern soldiers bitterly complained about the bread, commonly known as hardtack. It was a hard, stale cracker that soldiers soaked in water or coffee in order to eat; ten or twelve crackers equaled a full ration. Despite the lack of variety or texture in their diet, the Union army was well fed and, by the end of the war, the Northern soldier ate better and received more food than contemporary soldiers in the British, French, or Russian armies.

Off-Duty. After supper call, soldiers relaxed and engaged in activities that helped them to escape camp routine. They wrote letters, sang songs, and played games. The average age of the Northern soldier (by July 1863) was twenty-five, and with the arrival of payday (once every other month), the tired bluecoats turned to hedonistic pleasures such as alcohol consumption, gambling, or visiting a prostitute. Gambling was particularly hard on the losers since white Northern soldiers made only thirteen dollars a month while black soldiers received ten. By the end of the war, pay was raised to sixteen dollars a month for both races.

Confederate Camps. For the most part, Confederate camp life mirrored the Union routine. Unlike his Northern

counterpart, the Southern soldier usually did not receive a full supper ration. Poor distribution, lack of salt and preservatives, and limited access to transportation facilities restricted the Southern diet to cornbread and beef. Complaints about the bleak Southern diet dominated letters home. If any person offers me cornbread after this war comes to a close, one exasperated Southerner wrote. I shall probably tell him to------go to hell! Men under the age of twenty-five also dominated Confederate ranks, and they turned to songs, hunting, gambling, and alcohol as diversions from the war. To avoid using ammunition, the soldiers often hunted with clubs and competed with each other for extra rations. Since the Southern soldier received only eleven Confederate dollars a month (by the end of the war they were worth only half their value), troops gambled for food and used the extra rations to trade for tobacco and stationery. In addition to a lack of food, the Southern army lacked consistency in its uniforms. Although the standard issue was a gray coat and trousers, many units did not have enough uniforms in stock, and a homespun, ragged appearance became rampant in the ranks. Moreover, the Union naval blockade forced the Confederate army to use homemade dye to color uniforms. The dye was made from copperas (a green sulfate) and walnut shells which gave the Confederate uniform a yellowish brown color that soldiers called butternut. As both armies standardized their uniforms by 1862, Northern soldiers were commonly called bluecoats while Southern soldiers were labeled butternuts.


In the beginning of the Civil War, the Union and Confederate governments agreed to exchange an equal number of captured soldiers immediately following a battle. This practice left detention centers virtually empty and kept precious resources such as food and medical supplies reserved for the soldiers in the field. In 1863 the exchange policy stopped when the Confederate government refused to exchange captured black soldiers and instead re-enslaved them. By December 1863 Confederate prisons held 13,000 Federals while Northern prisons kept 26,000 Southerners under guard. Following the May July 1864 battles in Virginia, the prison population exploded for both sides, leaving many captured men without adequate shelter, food, and medical care. The results were tragic.

Although most captured soldiers exaggerate the conditions of their captivity, Civil War prisons were indeed ghastly places. The overcrowded stockades, coupled with poor sanitation and bad water, became death traps. Some prison camps offered no shelter from the elements and men were forced to build makeshift tents from rags, blankets, and uniforms. The worst conditions were at Andersonville, Georgia. At this site the Confederates housed 33,000 Northerners in a stockade built to hold 15,000. One hundred prisoners died every day, and gangs of thieves ruled the overcrowded conditions. Disease thrived in the confined area since a small stream used for drinking water also doubled as a sewer. Similar conditions like these in other prisoner of war camps produced high mortality rates: by 1865 over 30,000 Federals died in Southern prisons while 25,000 Confederates died in Northern detention stockades.

Sources: Larry M. Logue, To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996);

William Marvel, Andersonville: The Last Depot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).


Larry M. Logue, To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996);

James I. Robertson Jr., Soldiers Blue and Gray (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988);

Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978);

Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reh: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).