The daily struggles and the mundane details of Civil War soldier life allow us to relate to (and learn from) these men across a span of 150 years.
The risk of falling ill was highest for new recruits, with each passing year in service affording growing immunity. Common viruses and infections included typhoid fever, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, pox (both small and chicken), scarlet fever, measles, mumps and whooping cough.
Camp provided a soldier’s first test of survival, especially for men from rural precincts. A Civil War-era encampment was not known for its wide-open spaces and fresh air. It took little time for an army to alter a landscape by the sheer mass of its presence. Verdant pastures became a muddy mess in no time under the feet of thousands of soldiers and horses. With little understanding of sanitation, camps were notoriously nasty abodes; lice were rampant, and dysentery, often caused by impure drinking water, killed more men than enemy bullets.
Once enlisted and encamped, a recruit soon learned that his time was no longer his own. Day and night, he was under orders, a shift that required constant practice and discipline.
In the course of this process, men learned the particular brand of patience known to soldiers today as “hurry up and wait.” A Civil War soldier would find that modern axiom very familiar. In his work The 1865 Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers, August V. Kautz writes that a soldier “should learn to wait: a soldier’s life is made up in waiting for the critical moments.”
The soldier spent a majority of his time in camp drilling, with the occasional stint at guard duty or a long march. The diaries of Robert Watson document such an existence repeated tens of thousands of times in both North and South:
“Drilled in the afternoon….Inspection of arms.…Commenced drilling.…Drill as usual morning and afternoon…. Drilled and…inspected our arms, quarters, etc….” Theodore Gerrish writes of his first experiences as a soldier: “It was a most ludicrous march. We had never been drilled….An untrained drum corps furnished us with music; each musician kept different time, and each man in the regiment took a different step….We marched, ran, walked, galloped, and stood still, in our vain endeavors to keep step.” All of this practice and repetition helped soldiers to survive on the battlefield when those “critical moments” arrive.
And those moments arrived year after year, longer than anyone in 1861 could imagine. Noble ideas and grand visions suffer greatly under the weight of bloody warfare, and yet the fighting men on both sides endured as best they could.
The common soldiers of the Civil War shared typical weaknesses of the human condition. They were not without fear, panic and indecision. Still, we cannot help but look at their service with admiration and draw lessons and inspiration from their endurance, sacrifice and ideals.
Always Safe, Always Prepared