A POOR MAN'S FIGHT
by William Marvel
Initial response to President Lincoln's call for troops proved so
enthusiastic that all the volunteers could not be accommodated. Men were
turned away whom the government would have welcomed two years later, and
in April of 1862 the War Department actually closed its recruiting
offices. Within weeks it became evident that this was a mistake, and the
summer of that year saw massive enlistment drives, but by autumn the
reservoir of purely patriotic recruits had been effectively
The U.S. government answered this lapse with financial inducements
and the threat of conscription. Since the early months of the war,
volunteers had been rewarded with a bounty of $100, most of which was
deferred until the soldier was honorably discharged, but the bounty
seems to have been a significant lure for men from poorer families. The
Militia Act of 1862 required individual states to draft men if their
enlistment quotas fell short, and in the spring of 1863 Congress passed
the first national conscription law, authorizing the central government
to select reluctant recruits. In 1863 the federal bounty was also
increased to $300, in an effort to boost volunteering and reduce the
number of men who might have to be drafted. The men who responded to
these bounties hailed principally from the lower economic strata of
HEADQUARTERS OF BLENKER'S BRIGADE. THE BRIGADE WAS MOSTLY
COMPRISED OF FOREIGN-BORN SOLDIERS. (LC)|
The Conscription Act of 1863 also permitted two means of escape for
those drafted men who could not obtain an exemption for health or hardship.
Anyone who paid a commutation fee of $300the yearly wage
of a common laborerwould be excused from the draft call in which
he was chosen, though he night be drafted again in the next levy. The
man who wished to secure permanent exemption could simply hire someone
who was willing to enlist as a substitute in his place. These clauses,
and particularly the commutation provision, provoked many to object that
the conflict was "a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight."
The same complaint arose in the South, which instituted a national
draft months earlier than the North." Confederate conscription began in
April of 1862, and that law
also allowed the hiring of substitutes. While it permitted no one to
buy his way out of service with a cash payment, the Southern draft did
excuse men on other grounds, most notably for the ownership of a certain
number of slaves: that number was changed during the war, from twenty to
fifteen, but it was never reduced to a level consistent with moderate
economic status. As late as the summer of 1864, when Confederate
manpower had ebbed critically, the owner of fifteen slaves could also
pay what amounted to a commutation fee of several hundred dollars to
retain the services of one white overseer.
State and local government officials were also exempted from
Confederate service. In Georgia, for instance, Howell Cobb complained
in 1864 that the governor suffered thousands of justices of the peace,
court clerks, sheriffs, and deputies to continue in office when the
limited business of the courts would permit all those officials to he
replaced by far fewer men who were over the military age. Thousands of
other political favorites had also received exemptions through militia
commissions, Cobb charged.
"RECRUITING FOR THE WAR." ILLUSTRATION FROM
FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER,
MARCH 1864. (LC)|
The Richmond government offered only token bounties to its volunteers, but in the North
the bounty system expanded with each successive draft call. The federal
bounty of $300 was frequently augmented by state, county, and town
bounties as these municipalities competed for the dwindling supply of
men willing to serve. In some communities volunteers could demand $800
or more just from town officials who dreaded a draft of local citizens,
and many towns paid the commutation fee for their drafted
residentsor funded the cost of substitutes, after the obnoxious
commutation clause was eliminated. By the autumn of 1864 an enlistment
could bring as much as $1,200 to $1,500 dollars.
Ironically, more of the poorest volunteers had already responded to
the lower bounties of 1862, and it was they who did most of the
fighting. The bigger bounties of the war's final months tended to draw
more affluent recruits who might not have volunteered at all without the
prospect of such a windfall, and few of these later troops suffered any
of the privations or dangers endured by their predecessors.
While wealthy and politically connected Southeners frequently
managed to avoid military service through the entire war, their poorer neighbors usually
escaped conscription only by physical flight. The mountains of Virginia,
Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas teemed with deserters and draft
evaders, and thousands of Confederate troops had to be diverted to hunt
for them, or to curb their depredations. Isolated regions of
Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida also hosted whole communities of
fugitives. Northern officials complained of similarly troublesome
enclaves in the Midwest or along the Canadian border, to which many draft-age
Union citizens fled as a last resort.
For all the incentives and coercion employed to mobilize armies North
and South, it was the early volunteers who bore the brunt of the war on
both sides." Despite the intellectuals, professionals, and planter
aristocrats who so prominently officered the legions blue and gray, it
was those of the least means who more often shed their blood and
PRIVATE O.W. CHIPMAN, CO. E 75TH NEW YORK REGIMENT. (USAMHI)|
Civil War soldiers in the early stages of the war went into the army
under the twin motivations of patriotism and enthusiasm. They were
volunteers and proud of it. Yet they proved insufficient in numbers to
satisfy the demands of a rapidly burgeoning war. Hence, in April 1862,
the Confederate States of America enacted the first conscription act in
American history. The Union followed suit eleven months later. Men
forced into the armies by conscription were suspect in loyalty and
behavior. As a result, officers entrusted with getting them to their
units often transported the recruits as if they were prisoners of war. A
veteran New England soldier looked at one bunch of conscripts arriving
at the front and snorted that "such another, depraved, vice-hardened and
desperate set of human beings never before disgraced an army." When a
similar group joined Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army in 1864, a
Virginia artillerist commented: "Some of them looked like they had been
resurrected from the grave, after laying therein for twenty years or
In too many instances as well, a different kind of enlistee came
forth in the latter half of the war. Some joined to escape the onus of
being termed conscripts; others entered the service under pressure from
relatives and friends. An officer in the 70th Indiana sneered early in
1863 that nine-tenths of the new recruits "enlisted just because
somebody else was going, and the other tenth was ashamed to stay at
THIS POSTER URGED SOUTHERNERS TO "AVOID CONSCRIPTION." (LC)|
Every Civil War soldier had something to say about
camp lifeand it was generally negative. An Ohio volunteer
expressed shock at the lack of morals in his camp. "I shall try to come
out of the army as I went into ita Christian Man," he reassured
his father, "but I can hardly describe it to you the temptation and
wickedness w'h surrounds a man in camp: Drinking, Swearing, &
Gambling is carried on among Officers and men from the highest to the
A Louisiana private in camp near his home solemnly informed his wife:
"Dont never come here as long as you can ceep away, for you will smell
hell here." An Alabama recruit asked his brother to visit him in camp,
but to bring a shotgun with him for his own protection.
Camp shelters varied with the supply and the season. In warm weather
or on the march, most soldiers preferred to sleep in the open to take
advantage of any breeze. For inclement weather, tents were far more
available on the Union side. Yet there never seemed to be enough for
the number of men in need of them.
Three basic types of canvas shelters existed at the time of the
Civil War. The largest was the Sibley tent, bell-shaped and supported
by an upright center pole. It could hold as many as twenty soldiers at a
timeso long as they slept in position like the spokes of a wheel,
with feet to the center and heads toward the tent edge. The "A" or
wedge tent had a horizontal ridge pole and was tall enough to
accommodate a man in standing position. This was a favorite type with
officers. By the end of the war, the dog tent was the most popular shelter. Designed for two
men, it too had a horizontal crossbar at the top but was much more
shallow than the wedge tent.
SIBLEY, WALL, AND "A" TENTS AT FEDERAL ENCAMPMENT AT
CUMBERLAND LANDING, VIRGINIA (LC)|
When armies went into winter quarters, troops on both sides
constructed two kinds of dwellings. One was "bombproofs," consisting of
excavations with roofs built a foot or two above ground level. Most soldiers
spent the cold months in log huts reminiscent of the homes of frontier pioneers.
Often soldiers gave their winter shacks a bit of individualism by
affixing boards over the entrance with house-names scrawled thereon.
"Growlers," "Buzzard Roost," "Sans Souci," and names of famous hotels
were among the favorites.
"BOMBPROOF" QUARTERS OF MEN IN FORT SEDGWICK, ALSO KNOW AS
AS FORT HELL. (LC)|
Homesickness, foul weather, filth, crime, lack of privacy, stern
discipline, and a general absence of godliness quickly produced
criticisms of life in camp.
Homesickness, foul weather, filth, crime, lack of privacy, stern
discipline, and a general absence of godliness quickly produced
criticisms of life in camp. Further, oppressive heat and stifling
humidity prevailed during the months of campaigning; mosquitoes and
flies swarmed at every movement; every army
camp in the field had an overpowering stench because of lack of
attention given to latrine procedures and garbage pits. Drinking water
was not always plentiful; when available, it tended to be muddy and
The winter months were the worst time for many troops. Inactivity
and boredom prevailed. Soldiers no longer found jokes funny. Manners of
compatriots that once were comical became contemptuous.
Conversations lagged simply because the limited subjects had been
exhausted. Discipline became strained as men balked at officers whom
they disliked more with each passing week. Tempers, resentment, and
impatience ran high. Surprisingly large numbers of soldiers actually
came to look forward to springtime and battle as a relief from the dreary and
despairing routine of winter quarters.
FEDERAL SOLDIERS AT WINTER QUARTERS. (LC)|
Officers sought to get around the negatives of camp life by keeping
the men as busy as possible. This meant drill, drill, and more drill,
especially during the first months in the army. The main exercises which
new units practiced were learning to do turns and facings while standing
still and marching, performing the simple rudiments of close-formation
drill, the proper handling of arms, and similar routines. Men learned
how to salute amid stern commands from sergeants to stand erect. New
soldiers struggled with the intricacies of loading weapons "by the
numbers." For some, it was an education; for others, it was total
Even the simplest of army maneuvers was a problem for many enlisted
men who were untutored farmboys with an ignorance even of the difference
between their left and right feet. A Pennsylvania enlistee remarked on
his first day's attempt at drill that "when the order 'Right face!' was
given, face met face in inquiring astonishment, and frantic attempts to
obey the order properly made still greater confusion."
One exasperated Georgian swore to a companion that "if he lived to
see the close of this war he meant to get two pups and name one of them
'fall in' and the other 'close up' and as soon as they were old enough
to know their names right well he intended to shoot them both, and thus
put an end to 'fall in' and 'close up.'"
Marches were also considered a necessary
part of drill, and they tended to be a sore trial in every sense.
In the mountains of western Virginia during the war's first summer,
Private John Hollway recounted a march to his Georgia sweetheart: "We
slept on the ground for four nights with only one blanket apiece, and
what was the worst thing that happened to me was that in going up the
mountains I lost one of my shoes in the mud and it was so dark that I
could not find it and then of course I had to carry one until I came
back to camp. You must wonder at soldiers having to do without shoes and
blankets sometimes. I believe men can stand most anything after they get
used to it. The hardest part is getting used to it."
CONFEDERATE REGIMENT DRILLING NEAR MOBILE, ALABAMA. (MC)|
Private Ted Barclay of the 4th Virginia seconded that belief.
Following a severe march in the war's first winter, Barclay jokingly
informed his sister: "Well, here I am at the old camp near Winchester,
broken down, halt, lame, blind, crippled, and whatever else you can
think ofbut I am still kicking."
Since the majority of officers and men were starting out the Civil
War as novices (the U.S. Army numbered but 16,000 men at the outbreak of
the war), drill was often akin to the ignorant leading the uneducated.
Green officers giving correct instructions while scores of men were attempting to maintain lines and
proper cadence could be nerve-racking. It was for Captain Daniel
G. Chandler, who was marching his company one day when the men
began rapidly approaching a fence. Chandler could not think of the
proper command to give; and the closer the company got to the fence, the
less Chandler's thinking processes functioned. Finally the frantic
captain bellowed: "Gentlemen, will you please halt!"
The column came to a stop only a few feet from the barrier. Chandler
then shouted: "Gentlemen, we will now take a recess of ten minutes. And
when you fall in, will you please reform on the other side of the
Late in July 1861, the 3rd Iowa had one of its first dress parades.
A private in the unit confided in his journal that "the new Adjutant
Laffingwell acted most supremely awkward. The whole Regiment as far as I
noticed, was amused. I could hardly keep a straight face. Take the
Major's blunders together with the adjutant's, and the parade tonight
was a fizzle."
DRESS REHEARSAL OF COMPANY K, 4TH REGIMENT, GEORGIA
VOLUNTEER INFANTRY. (PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGIA DEPT.
OF ARCHIVES AND HISTORY) |
Little sympathy existed down in the ranks for unknowledgeable
superiors. The greener the officer appeared, the more difficult time he
had at the outset with his men. A young and thoroughly inexperienced
lieutenant was assigned to a new company of rough-hewn soldiers. The
lieutenant was small, seemingly inept, and weak of voice. When he rode
out in front of his troops for the first time, out of the ranks came a
shout: "And a little child shall lead them!" Raucous laughter
The officer calmly went about the day's duties. Early the next
morning the men were aroused from sleep by an order to prepare for an
all-day march. The announcement ended: "And a little child
shall lead themon a damned big horse!"
In the first weeks of
any unit's training, accidents with weapons were so commonplace as to
be inevitable. Cavalrymen drilling with sabers regularly pricked their
mounts and frightened the horses into stampedes. Recruits trying to
master the basics of artillery fared little better. Gunners in a
Massachusetts battery one quiet day decided to test their marksmanship
at a large tree on a hilltop 1,000 yards away. They clumsily set
the sights at 1,600 yards and almost annihilated a village on the other
side of the hill.
Even though the bayonet was rarely used in combat (less than half of
1 percent of Civil War battle wounds resulted from blade weapons),
drills with the weapon were an integral part of camp life. The exercises
were apparently wondrous to behold, if a New Hampshire soldier's
account is reliable. He watched his regiment go through the various
steps and lunges. To him the troops looked "like a line
of beings made up about equally of the
frog, the sand-hill crane, the sentinel crab, and the grasshopper;
all of them rapidly jumping, thrusting, swinging, striking,
jerking every which way, and all gone stark mad."
UNION SOLDIER'S POSES WITH MUSKET AND BAYONET. (USAMHI)|
And then, of course, there was the musket, which was the most
important item in a soldier's equipment. Nevertheless, mobilization of
troops too often occurred before units could receive their arms. The
77th Ohio left for war completely unarmed. At the first major engagement
in the western theater, the 16th Iowa arrived on the field with muskets
but without its first issue of ammunition.
The Union armies initially used eighty-one types of muskets. They
ranged in caliber from .45 to .75, and several models antedated the War
of 1812. Soldiers for understandable reasons called the larger caliber
guns "mules" and "pumpkin slingers." When a man prepared to shoot one of these antiquated
pieces, he gripped the weapon as hard as he could, braced himself as
tensely as possible, took aim, shut his eyes tightly, and then pulled
A number of new Union regiments received huge .69 caliber
smoothbores which had been popular for generations. An Iowa newspaperman
examined a shipment of these blunderbusses and concluded: "I think it
would be a master stroke of policy to allow the [Confederates] to steal
them. They are the old-fashioned-brass-mounted-and-of-such-is-the-kingdom-of-Heaven
kind that are infinitely
more dangerous to friend than enemywill kick further than they
"A YANKEE VOLUNTEER" SKETCH BY EDWIN FORBES (LC)|
The .577 caliber Springfield rifle-musket was the most prevalent
shoulder arm of the Civil War. Next in popularity was the English-made
and extremely similar Enfield. Yet the general prohibition against
firing live ammunition for practice, the tendency of all soldiers to aim
high, and the heavy smoke from the gunpowder of that day reduced
accuracy in battle to a minimum. One authority on logistics asserted
that each Johnny Reb and Billy Yank on an average expended 900 rounds of
lead and 240 pounds of powder in taking out one of the enemy.
During the two-thirds or three-fourths of each year when the men of
blue and gray were in camp, morale underwent severe testing. Late in
1862, Constantine Hege of the 48th North Carolina confessed to his
parents: "Would to God this war might end with the close of the year and
we could all enjoy the blessings of comfortable house and home one time
more. I never knew how to value home until I came in the army."
Furloughs were rare commodities in Civil War armies, largely because
of the distance and time involved in a man getting to and from home.
Confederate General D. H. Hill advocated greater leniency in the granting
of leaves. "If our brave soldiers are not occasionally permitted to
visit their homes," he warned, "the next generation in the South will be
composed of the descendants of skulkers and cowards."
"A SOLDIER'S DREAM OF HOME" LITHOGRAPH PUBLISHED BY CURRIER AND IVES.
Applications for leave flowed steadily through any regimental
headquarters. Most of them were denied. However, in December 1863, a
Maine sergeant used a distinctive approach. He justified his petition on
the basis of holy scripture, citing Deuteronomy 20:7: "And what man is
there that have betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? Let him go and
return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take
her." The strategy worked: the sergeant spent Christmas at home.
Soldiers' letters, diaries, and reminiscences make it clear that a
constant search occurred for diversions to overcome the tedium and
monotony of army routine. Neither government was of any assistance in this regard. Unlike
today, no army service agencies, post exchanges, lounges, or libraries
existed for the men; telephones, radio, television, and movies, of
course, were unknown; newspapers were a rarity in camp. Few
entertainment groups ever visited troops in the field. In sum, the
soldiers were left to themselves to combat their own loneliness. That explains why
letter-writing was the most popular occupation of soldiers. It is only during war that
the plain people become articulate to a degree comparable to the upper
classes. Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks wrote about camp life, battles,
sickness, the weather, and anything else they
had seen or thought. Interspersed throughout the letters would be
questions about conditions back home: the health of family members, the
progress of the crops, and the like. Some of the letters were models of
literary excellence; others were so badly composed, especially with
phonetic spelling, as to be impossible to translate. The great majority
of Civil War letters lay between those extremes, with tendencies toward
the more illiterate side.
"NEWS FROM THE FRONT" ILLUSTRATION BY EDWIN FORBES. (LC)|
A LETTER FROM DYING SOLDIER J. R. MONTGOMERY TO HIS
FATHER IN MISSISSIPPI. (MC)|
In October 1861, Private Charles Futch told his brother, who was
serving in another unit: "John I want you to write to me more plainer
than you have bin a writing." Charles added that he had carried a
bundle of John's letters through two regiments but that "they was not a
man that could even read the date of the month."
An Alabama soldier likewise rebuked his wife mildly for her
handwriting. "I had not a like to maid out half of yourre words," he
informed her, "theare is some that I hant maid out yet."
When a Federal army was undergoing reorganization, a Billy Yank
stated: "They are deviding the army up into corpses." Medical terms
always proved troublesome for many writers. "Tifoid feaver" was a
better-than-usual rendition for one of the war's most dreaded diseases.
Pneumonia once appeared as "new mornion," and hospital was often "horse
pittle." The most prevalent of all soldier illnesses, diarrhea, produced
the greatest variety of spellings. One Union soldier got both his
spelling and his meaning confused when he told his wife: "I am well at
the present with the exception I have got the Dyerear and I hope these
lines will find you the same."
A letter was the sole contact with loved ones. One soldier stated to
his cousin: "I never thought so much of letters
as I have since I have been here. The monotony of camp life would be
almost intolerable were it not for these friendly letters." A
Connecticut private expressed a similar sentiment more dramatically:
"The soldier looks upon a letter from home as a perfect God
sendsent as it were, by some kind ministering Angel Spirit, to
cheer his dark and weary hours."
UNION OFFICERS OF COMPANY C, 1ST CONNECTICUT ARTILLERY. (LC)|
This was also the first time in American history that so large a
percentage of the common folk had been pulled away from home. Soldiers were seeing
new things and living in an unusual environment. They were in a
flashing, strange world whose sights they wished to share with the
homefolk. So they wrote letterstens of thousands of themand
they commented on every possible subject with oftentimes pointed
MEMBERS OF "RICHMOND GRAYS" ARTILLERY (MC)|
A young Billy Yank described his first encounter with the enemy in a
direct and forceful way. "Dear Pa," he wrote, "Went out a Skouting
yesterday. We got to one house where there were five secessionists, they
broke & run and Arch holored out to shoot the ornery suns of biches
and wee all let go at them. They may say what they please, but godamit
Pa it is fun."
Less-than-pleasant campsites always provoked sharp observations. One
foot soldier summarized the sparseness of his regiment's surroundings
and concluded: "To tell the truth we are between sh-t and a sweat out
here." At the same time, men in the ranks were especially sensitive to
unfavorable home front gossip. In June 1864, young John Evans responded
to alleged criticism in his community by writing his wife: "The people
that speaks slack about me may kiss my ass. Mollie, excuse the vulgar
language if you please."
Far more pleasing to the soldiers than writing home was hearing from
home. Mail call took precedence over anything, including food. It was
the only tonic for the chronic homesickness that plagued most men of
blue and gray. In March 1863, a soldier told his wife that he "was
almost down with histericks to hear from home," and later in the war,
when a Minnesota private at last received a letter from his family, he
confessed: "I can never remember of having been so glad
before. I sat down and cried with joy and thankfulness."
More than American servicemen of any other age, Civil War troops
were singing soldiers. Next to letter-writing, music was the most
popular diversion in the army. Men left for war with a song on their
lips; they sang while marching or waiting behind breastworks; they
hummed melodies moving into battle; music swelled from every nighttime
bivouac. That is the
major reason why the conflict of the 1860s sparked more new songs than
any other event in American history. The first Civil War song appeared
three days after the firing on Fort Sumter started the struggle. Four
years later, over 2,000 melodies had been added to the national heritage
and to denominational hymnbooks.
SHEET MUSIC COVER FOR "TENTING TONIGHT," A POPULAR SONG FROM
THE CIVIL WAR (LC)|
Among the best-known songs were "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the
Republic, "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Marching Along," "Listen to the
Mocking Bird," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," "Yankee Doodle,"
"Pop Goes the Weasel," "Maryland My Maryland," "Aura Lee," "Sweet
Evalina," and "The Battle Cry of Freedom." Favorite hymns were "Amazing
Grace," "Rock of Ages," "Nearer My God to Thee," "How Firm a
Foundation," "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow," "All Hail the
Power of Jesus's Name," and "O God Our Help in Ages Past."
The truly popular tunes in camp were not stirring airs that folks
back homeand generations of Americans thereaftersang
inspirationally. The soldiers' favorites of the Civil War were songs of
the heart and soul: "When This Cruel War Is Over," "All Quiet
along the Potomac," "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," "Auld
Lang Syne," and the most endearing of all war songs, "Home Sweet
THE BAND OF THE 48TH NEW YORK VOLUNTEER INFATRY PHOTOGRAPHED
AT FORT PULASKI. (NPS)|
Regimental bands were few, which may have been a blessing. The
scarcity of instruments, the limited talent among band members (more
than one colonel "punished" soldiers for misdemeanors by assigning
them to the band), and weariness from campaigning often resulted in
inferior renditions of the most simple tunes. Fortunately, in any
sizable group of soldiers could be found at least a banjo player, a
fiddler, or a man proficient with the Jew's harp. That sufficed to keep
men entertained with such foot-stomping melodies as "Arkansas Traveler,"
"Billy in the Low Grounds," and "Hell Broke Loose in Georgia."
Civil War soldiers tended to be habitual teasers. Practical jokes
and barbed one-liners were the favorite weapons. Covering a chimney top
so that the occupants of the hut would be smoked out was a regular
practice. Terrifying a recruit on his first nighttime picket duty by
impersonating ghosts was an enjoyable but potentially dangerous prank.
Loading firewood with gunpowder produced some spectacular displays in
Visitors to an encampment were favorite targets for the jibes of
soldiers. In a rare instance, the civilian might enjoy the last laugh.
Men in the 7th Virginia one quiet day spied an elderly minister, long
white beard flowing in the wind, riding into camp. A good-natured
Virginian immediately called out: "Look out, boys! Here comes Father
"Young men," the cleric replied quietly when the chortles subsided,
"you are mistaken. I am Saul, the son of Kish, searching for his father's asses,
and I have found them."
Physical contests were a regular part of camp life. Boxing,
broad-jumping, wrestling matches, foot-races, hurdles, and sometimes
free-for-all scuffles all were popular pastimes. Of the competitive
sports, none gained more popularity during the war years than a new game
called baseball. The ball was then softer, but the base runner was out
only when hit by a thrown or batted ball. High scores were therefore the general rule. A
Massachusetts regiment once trounced a New York unit by a 62-20
score. The Texas Rangers loved the sport and played whenever possible
for about six months. They gave up baseball because of Frank Ezell. A
burly Texan with a mean disposition, Ezell pitched and, in the words of
one observer, "came very near knocking the stuffing out of three or four
of the boys, and the boys swore they would not play with him."
THIS PHOTOGRAPH FROM FORT PULASKI IS ONE OF THE FIRST SHOWING
A BASEBALL GAME BEING PLAYED (IN BACKGROUND). (NPS)|
Snowball fights always followed a winter storm, and they did much to
break the tedium of camp life. These engagements usually occurred among small groups, although they might
involve large numbers of men. One such contest erupted between the 2nd
and the 12th New Hampshire. In the action, wrote one bystander, "tents
were wrecked, bones broken, eyes blacked, and teeth knocked out-all in
PLAYING CARDS KEPT THE TROOPS OCCUPIED. (COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS,
An Iowa soldier, writing to his father in 1863, philosophized: "There
is one thing certain, the Army will either make a man better or worse
morally speaking." This Midwesterner was pessimistic in the overall
picture of soldier conduct. "There is no mistake but the majority of
soldiers are a hard lot. It would he hard for you to imagine worse than
they are. They have every temptation to do wrong and if a man has not
firmness enough to keep from the excesses common to soldiers he will
soon be as bad as the worst."
Gambling and profanity were natural by-products of camp life.
Dominoes, checkers, and chess were well-liked diversions, but they were
not in the same class with card games. Poker, twenty-one, euchre, and
keno were in evidence any night at any camp. As for profanity, a Billy
Yank observed of his first encampment: "There is so much swearing in
this place it would set anyone against that if from no other motive but
disgust at hearing it." Army life of the 1860swith all of its
inadequacies and hardshipslent itself to men venting frustrations
in salty language. Few had any hesitation in doing so.
MEN OF COMPANY B, 170TH NEW YORK INFANTRY, RELAX IN THE FIELD BY PLAYING
CARDS AND CHECKERS OR READING. (LC)|
Every army in the Civil War contained some degree of lawlessness.
Theft was the most common offense. It was often stated that no farmer's
henhouse was safe when the 21st Illinois was encamped in the vicinity.
The 6th New York also acquired an unsavory reputation. One officer
described this New York City unit as "the very flower of the Dead
Rabbits, creme de la creme of Bowery society." Rumor circulated that
before a man was accepted in the 6th New York, he had to prove that he
possessed a jail record.
Just before that particular unit departed for war, its colonel gave
the men a pep talk. He held up his gold watch and proclaimed that
Southern plantation owners all had such luxuries which awaited
confiscation by Union soldiers. Five minutes later, the colonel reached
in his pocket to check on the time and found his watch gone.