By Jake Smith
The American War Between the States, commonly referred to as the Civil War, is well-known as the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. This clash between North and South consumed the souls of over 700,000 soldiers and countless civilians. You have undoubtedly read accounts of the horrific combat and carnage perpetrated and endured by the brave men who fought on both sides, but what you probably haven’t heard much of is how these men lived their day to day lives throughout the war. Contrary to popular belief, a soldier’s life on campaign consisted mostly of activities other than fighting. Between long marches, dangerous picket duty, poor diet, camp diseases, exposure to the elements, and plain old homesickness, the boys in blue and gray faced much more adversity and hardship than we can even begin to understand.
The old Napoleonic adage of “an army marches on its stomach” still rings true to this day. Today’s troops eat from pre-packaged and vacuum-sealed meals that they take in the field from which they can somewhat procure the nutrients and energy they need. This was not the case in the 1860’s. Canning was not yet in common practice and soldiers were supplied with enough rations to last for several days. To prevent food spoiling, rationed meat would be heavily preserved with salt, and armies would often be followed by long supply trains of wagons carrying food and supplies for the troops. The typical rations issued to a federal soldier consisted of mostly hardtack, coffee, and pork that was so heavily covered with salt that it had to first be scraped and boiled before it was even remotely palatable. Other supplementary items included sugar, salt, rice, vinegar, and sometimes fruit or vegetables that they would forage to break up the monotony of their diet. The Confederates were much less well-fed than their northern counterparts. There is no typical Confederate diet per-se as they ate what they could get, but most Southern soldiers’ diets consisted in large parts of cornmeal and bacon, rarely a vegetable, as well as tobacco and peanuts, as these items were plentiful in the Southern states.
Because of these differences in supplies, there are many documented cases of Confederate and Union soldiers trading southern tobacco for U.S. Army issued coffee. Soldiers on both sides often cooked their meals in small frying pans or improvised skillets made from damaged or surplus canteens. Troops would usually form into small groups of around five to seven men called “messes”. These messes of men were usually comprised of close friends who cooked and ate together, and sometimes combined their rations into larger pots to make meals such as stews. These larger pieces of cookware were somewhat cumbersome and were often left behind in the wake of a rapid advance or retreat. In many such occurrences, after a routed Union army had abandoned their camps, the famished Confederates would often give pause to eat their enemy’s meals and acquire whatever food and supplies they could.
This poor diet was a major contributor to diseases contracted by troops on both sides. Over the course of the war, disease would take the lives of over 388,500 fighting men, or approximately 55.5% of the estimated 700,000 deaths. This deadly scourge did not discriminate between Federal or Confederate, nor veteran from recruit. It was impartial in its selection and affected both armies immensely. Dysentery was perhaps the most common of these plagues and was brought about by contaminated drinking water and the overall filth in the camps. In comparison to modern medical knowledge, the people of the time had a significant lack of understanding of pathogens and the transmission thereof. Therefore, latrines would be placed near streams, contaminating the water and poisoning those who drank of it. Some men with severe diarrhea from dysentery or typhoid would not be able to reach the latrines in time and would inadvertently turn the camps into an absolute cesspool of germs and bacteria. It was in this putrid combination of mud and excrement from men and animals alike that the soldiers slept, cooked, and drilled every day for long periods of time.
The conditions of hospitals were not much better. The concepts of blood types and cross contamination had not yet been discovered, and the horrendous health of patients was a true testament to this lack of knowledge. Doctors would probe wounds with bloody fingers and use the same instruments on numerous men without washing them. This led to intense fevers suffered by the patients in the hospitals as well as a high death toll for amputees. Other common ailments of the time include, but are not limited to, malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and pneumonia, to which General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson notably succumbed after his mortal wounding at the battle of Chancellorsville. Once we look at the appalling conditions in which these men lived, we can begin to understand the reason that the death toll from sickness is so high, and why this supposedly glorious war wasn’t so glorious as it was cruel and horrific for the men who endured it.
In the modern military, there is a saying “Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain.” There is another, seemingly contradictory to the first, “Pack light, freeze at night.” These statements are both equally true. For the soldiers of the time, as well as for our modern soldiers and marines, a balance has to be struck between these two realities. When you live entirely out of the pack on your back, you have to sometimes make hard decisions on which items you bring for comfort and convenience in camp, and how much weight you want to carry, bringing you inherent bodily discomfort. This was especially true during the 1860’s when men would be in the field for years on end. From burning heat and stifling humidity, to freezing rain and snow, the elements played a large role in the misery of the men who endured them. To quote one soldier from the film Gods and Generals during a scene when two men are camping under a starry sky in the summer of 1861, “That’s fine for now. You’ll be humming a different tune when it’s raining, you’re all covered in frost, or you need me to dig you out of a snow drift.”
In addition to mostly adverse climate conditions, soldiers had their daily responsibilities such as picket duty, fatigue duty digging trenches or latrines, as well as daily drill and often long marches. The men would be drilled in their units, often in excess of twelve hours daily. This included marching and maneuvering drills as well as weapons drills. All of these were essential to combat and crucial to the survival of the soldier. One famous example of the long and arduous forced marches carried out by the troops is of General Jackson’s very own Stonewall Brigade. Often referred to as “Jackson’s Foot Cavalry,” these men would often march in excess of 26 miles per day, and earned their nickname for their ability to move faster than all other infantry units. More often than not, the Stonewall Brigade would wake up before sunrise, march over 20 miles and go straight into battle without stopping for a meal until their night-time positions. This mobility was pivotal to many of Jackson’s victories in the Valley Campaign of 1862, but did not come without a cost. Due to moving at such brutal speed, many footsore men, either injured or just plain dead-tired, fell out of the ranks as stragglers. Because of this, Jackson went into combat many times without his full troop strength as well as having his regiments all beyond the point of exhaustion.
Fast forward to modern-day times. I have been reenacting for a few years now, and have recently been getting into the campaigner aspect of the hobby. For those who are unaware, there are two main types of civil war reenacting. These are mainstream and campaigner, also known as progressive. On the campaigner side of reenacting, you are often issued rations, stand picket or fatigue duties, go on marches, and sleep on the ground. The only things you have are what you carry on your back, and overall it is a more immersive experience. Although I understand it is not for everyone, one of the main reasons I have been recently re-enacting in more of a campaigner style is so that I can more accurately experience what the soldiers went through. Although I don’t wish to contract diseases or be away from home for years on end, I am able to march the distances they marched, go hungry and sleep deprived, stay out in the cold or the rain, and sleep on the uncomfortable ground. Even if only for one weekend, I am able to understand a fraction of what these men endured on behalf of their nation and each other. When you briefly learn about the war in school, it is two dimensional: just names and years on a page. But when you reenact, the people and places jump out of the book and become real. Once you read the actual letters and correspondence of the men who were there, and you understand their thoughts and relationships, you realize that these were real people just like you and me. They loved, feared, had a sense of humor, and everything else that makes someone human. When you realize this, suddenly they’re not so far away in the past. When you put on the wool and literally walk a mile in their shoes, you can begin to understand their lives and the sacrifices that they made. It truly gives you an understanding of the era and the ability to look at it in the same way that you look at our own day and time: as a participant.