Soldier's Life

The young men of both sides embarked on what they expected would be the great adventure of their lives. What they found was a life of discomfort, boredom and toil with mixed moments of great excitement and danger.

Early in the Civil war most men enlisted as volunteers. They joined the army because they wanted to take part in what they thought would be a great adventure. The waving flags, the brass bands, and the stirring speeches made it seem like a wonderful thing to be a soldier. Thousands of young Northerners and Southerners hurried off to enlist, feeling that they were lucky to have the chance to fight. Many were afraid the war would be over before they could get into action.

Every occupation, age, shape and size could be found among the three million Americans who wore the blue of the North and the gray of the South. The typical "Johnny Reb" or "Billy Yank" was a farmer, unmarried, and about 21 years old. He had only 2 or 3 years of formal education.

His writing was very crude, and he tended to spell his words phonetically (the way he spoke them). For example "git" for "get", "thar" for "there", "wuz" for "was", or "yestiddy" for "yesterday". Few soldiers paid any attention to periods, commas, or capital letters. "Rebels" and "Yankees" were "citizens in arms" more than they were professional soldiers. They never fully accepted what they called "regular army nonsense" or the discipline and devotion to duty that regular army life required. They may not have been the ideal soldiers, but their courage and determination in the face of suffering and battle rank them as some of the best fighting men of all time.

Joining the arm often marked the first time that these young men had ever been far away from home.

It did not take long for the excitement of army life to vanish.

for many the food given became their first taste of military reality. Union Army rations consisted basically of salted beef or pork (cooked in the filed by a small gathering of friends or in camp by men detailed to serve as cooks), large hard crackers for bread, beans and coffee with sugar. When Confederates were entrenched in an area they received their rations cooked from the rear and distributed daily in the form of a piece of cold meat and a pone of corn bread. At times, when the supply lines were broken, there were shortages of food in both armies. The main complaint in letters home was about the monotony of the diet.

Another transition from home was in the shelter provided. Many soldiers viewed life in a tent as more like life in a pig pen. Six men usually slept in tents designed for only four. A smaller two-man tent introduced in 1862 quickly became known as a "dog tent" because as one Federal soldier believed, it would only comfortably accommodate a dog and a small one at that."

Another activity that aroused early and prolonged complaint was having to march and drill so much, especially since they generally did so in stifling heat and choking dust or in cold rain and deep mud.

Religion played an important role in the lives of many Civil War soldiers so hymns were also widely sung.

As in any war, writing and reading letters was a major source of contact with former lives and loved ones. Many soldiers wrote very informative and entertaining letters. Others were overwhelmingly sentimental, expressing love for family and friends left behind and hoping that the war would soon end so that all could be together again.

The clothing issued to the soldier was usually heavy, durable and uncomfortable. The uniforms varied; the Union Army wore basically blue, and the Confederates wore gray or some shade of brown. Although their color and design differed, in some ways the uniforms were alike. The coats and trousers were made of wool or a mixture of wool and cotton. Shirts and underwear were usually wool for the winter and cotton for the summer. Most soldiers on both sides preferred a brimmed hat rather than a military cap. They wore shoes, not boots.

Illness and injury were major concerns for Civil War soldiers. It is estimated that each soldier was sick or wounded an average of six times during the war. The Civil War was fought at a time when weapons had become more deadly, and not much was known about the modern theories of the science and practice of medicine. The soldier got the worst of it in two ways. When he fought, he was likely to be badly hurt. When he stayed in camp, he lived under conditions that were very likely to make him sick. In either case, the lack of medical knowledge meant little chance of proper care. wounds were almost certain to become infected and the death rate from wounds was very high. Those wounded who lived often still lost arms or legs.

Conditions in army hospitals, especially those near the fighting line, were unbelievably bad. If a man did not die at a field hospital, he might be sent to a general hospital in the rear. These were usually crowded with the wounded and the sick. Diseases contracted in camps and on the march killed more men than enemy bullets. Typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia and malaria were predominant. Medical science did not know the cause nor did it know the cure, but the cause for many lay in the nature of the camps themselves. Sanitation was poor and water supplies were often contaminated. It is estimated that for every soldier who died in combat, three died of illness. In spite of these statistics, Civil War soldiers on both sides probably received the best care of any soldiers up to that time. The trouble was, the best was not very good.

The high command of the North at first refused to use black troops, They felt that this would inspire greater resistance among the "rebels" and cause a loss of political support in states like Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland. However, as the war continued and casualties increased it was decided that blacks were too valuable a source of manpower not to be used. In July 1862, the first black troops of the Civil War were organized by General David Hunter. Know originally as the First South Carolina Regiment, they were later designated the 33rd Regiment United States Colored Troops. Altogether some 186,000 Black soldiers served in the Union Army, 4,300 of whom died in battle. Many more were wounded. by war's end, about one-tenth percent of the Union's Army was black.