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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Common Soldier



The American Civil War, like all such uprisings, was slow in conception and subtle in development. Political commissions and omissions lay at the roots of the explosion. The existence of slavery in a new nation that proclaimed liberty for all, the role of the previously sovereign states in a central government yet to be clearly defined, the growing industrial might of the North competing more and more with the "Cotton Kingdom" agriculture of the South, a general lack of understanding and communication between the sections of a country that was a United States in name only—these were the major issues that neither time nor statesmen could resolve. So in December 1860, the shouting turned to shooting, the politician gave way to the soldier, and war replaced uncertainty.

In a conflict that was the largest in the history of the Western Hemisphere, the Civil War brought unprecedented suffering in every form. Yet the greatest tragedy of all was that both sides were fighting for the same thing: America, as North and South each envisioned what the still-ripening republic should be.

Young men of the Union and Confederacy alike went to war to defend the same Constitution. A Louisiana recruit wrote in June 1861 that he and his friends were Confederate soldiers because "the Magna Carta of liberties, the constitution," had "fallen entirely into the hands of [Northern] fanatics." Another Confederate put it succinctly: "We are fighting for the Constitution that our forefathers made, and not as old Abe would have it." A few months later, an Ohio private asserted that "the strength of the nation is to be tried here, whether we have a country or not; whether our constitution is a rope of sand, that it may be severed wherever it is smote."


In America's eighth decade, preserving the Union and preserving a way of life had somehow become incompatible ideals. The most effective motivation for Northern recruits was "the Union" and all that it denoted. Many remembered their grandparents relating thrilling stories of the 1770s and the fight for American independence. Again and again in the letters of Billy Yanks, one encounters the phrase "fighting to maintain the best government on earth."

Southerners saw the outbreak of civil war in a different light. A North Carolinian explained: The Southern States passed ordinances of secession for the purpose of withdrawing from a partnership in which the majority were oppressing the minority, and we simply asked "to be let alone."


Protection of home and hearth also became fundamental aims of both sides. One Southern enlistee in 1861 explained why he was joining the army: "If we are conquered we will be driven penniless and dishonored from the land of our birth.... As I have often said I had rather fall in this cause than to live to see my country dismantled of its glory and independence—for of its honor it cannot be deprived."

A Wisconsin private felt essentially the same way two years later. To his sweetheart he wrote: "Home is sweet and friends are dear, but what would they all be to let the country go in ruin, and be a slave.... I know that I am doing my duty, and I know that it is my duty to do as I am now a-doing. If I live to get back, I shall be proud of the freedom I shall have, and know that I helped to gain that freedom. If I should not get back, it will do them good that do get back."

In 1861 tens of thousands of American youths on both sides rushed to answer the call to arms. They became soldiers because they had been caught up in the heated atmosphere and angry words of the day, or they had been emotionally moved by swaying oratory, inspiring music, patriotic slogans, the sight of a flag waving defiantly in the air. Youthful innocence and dreamy passion swept them onward. A Confederate veteran later recalled: "I was a mere boy [in 1861] and carried away by boyish enthusiasm. I was tormented by a feverish anxiety before I joined my regiment for fear the fighting would be over before I got into it."

Those recruits were ready to fight, but few of them knew how to fight. The War of 1812 was history, the Mexican War a vague childhood recollection to most of the youths drawn into the struggle of the 1860s. They had no conception of drill, life in the open, following orders unhesitatingly, mastering weapons, digging earthworks, and eating unfamiliar food. They would confront the novelty of living in company with thousands of strangers. They would face diseases they had never known and wounds they had never imagined. And through it all, these common-folk-turned-soldiers would endure homesickness to a degree none of them had ever envisioned.


About 3,000,000 soldiers fought in the Civil War, with the North having a 2 to 1 ratio. The men of blue and gray were far more alike than unalike. Mostly products of rural backgrounds, they spoke the same language and shared the same heritage. They had common hopes; they endured common hardships. The majority of soldiers knew the basic rudiments of reading and writing. Billy Yanks tended to be better educated because most Northern states had better school systems. In some units formed in the rural South, illiteracy was pronounced. Thirty-six of 72 privates in one North Carolina company made a mark rather than a signature at the muster-in; 27 of 100 recruits in another Tarheel company did the same.

Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks were also highly independent-minded. They went off to war as citizen-soldiers: volunteers who tended to remain more citizen than soldier. Very seldom did these men became fully regimented and militarized. Many of them retained in large measure an ignorance of army life and an indifference to army discipline. In camp, on the march, and in battle, they fought with a looseness that no amount of training could remove. Soldiers on both sides demonstrated that they could be led but they could not be driven; and any officer who attempted the latter was bound to encounter at least resistance and at most rebellion. The individualism of the Civil War's common soldiers was but a reflection of the societies that spawned them.

Typical human beings in mid-nineteenth century America, the army volunteers of North and South performed as one might expect. Many of them became outstanding soldiers, some of them had rather poor records, a few were shirkers and cowards; most of them, however, were just average. Yet for four horrible years those representatives of the nation's common folk bore on their shoulders the heaviest responsibilities that have ever been placed on the people of this land. And they carried that burden so well that we still marvel at their strength and endurance.

Their story is a mixture of hardship, humor, and heroism—which are doubtless the ways in which Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks would like to be remembered.

On enlistment, a man's physical condition received little attention from contract surgeons or anyone else in attendance. Then came about two weeks in which recruits at a rendezvous camp went through the awkward process of learning the basic rudiments of camp life, drill, and the use of arms. By the end of that period, the various companies were organized into regiments.

The clothing and equipment distributed to each recruit might have seemed bulky to Northern soldiers, who tended to he abundantly supplied at the outset. Confederate enlistees often had to rely on individual efforts to clothe and equip themselves. One Virginian wrote with assurance: "Wisdom is born of experience, and before many campaigns have been worried through the private soldier, reduced to the minimum, consisted of one man, one hat, one jacket, one pair pants, one pair draws, one pair socks, and his baggage was one blanket, one gum-cloth, and one haversack."


Regulation uniforms were dark blue for the North and light gray for the South. However, cloth—like everything else—quickly became scarce in the embattled Confederacy. The principal source for Southern soldier apparel soon became captured Union uniforms. Johnny Rebs sought to alter the color by dying the clothing in a mixture of walnut hulls, acorns, and lye. This changed the tint to a light tan which Southerners labeled "butternut."

The introduction to government-issue attire could be a shock. Federal uniforms came in four basic sizes. A New England recruit saw a messmate "so tightly buttoned [that] it seemed doubtful if he could draw another breath." Over in the 10th Rhode Island, a soldier told of a friend who was less than five feet tall: "His first pair of army drawers reached to his chin. This be considers very economical, as it saves the necessity of shirts."

Of course, with some troops no quality of clothing and equipment could improve their appearance. In 1863 Louisiana soldier Robert Newell watched 400 Texas Rangers ride into camp. Newell was repulsed at the sight. "If the Confederacy has no better soldiers than those we are in A bad roe for stumps, for they looke more like Baboons mounted on gotes than anything else."


Quite often, at the end of basic training, a local delegation (dominated largely by women) bestowed an ornate flag upon the regiment. The lady presenting the standard would implore the men in a flowery speech to love their country and to fight for it with their lives. Accepting the flag, an officer would respond with an equally glowing address pledging that his men would never disgrace the sacred banner.


On more than one occasion, a foulup made this ceremony ludicrous. Such was the case the afternoon the women of Fayetteville gave a flag to the 43rd North Carolina. None of the good ladies was willing to make the presentation speech, so they invited a local orator of some reputation to do the honors. The man, a bit nervous at the starring role he was to have, fortified himself beforehand with a drink, then another, and another. He managed to stumble to the speaker's stand, and he somehow got through his address in a halting manner. Then, momentarily oblivious to everything, he proceeded to give the same speech all over again—after which he sat down and cried, to the mortification of the ladies and to the amusement of the soldiers.


Proud recruits who left for war had strong opinions about the shirkers who remained behind. Private Henry Bear of Illinois gave a typical expression. From camp in Tennessee, Bear instructed his wife: "You must tell evry man of Doubtful Loyalty for me, up ther in the north, that he is meaner than any son of a bitch in hell. I would rather shoot one of them a great deal more than one [Southerner] living here."

Unique regiments abounded on both sides during the Civil War. The 1st New York, under Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, was recruited largely from the New York Fire Department ranks and was known to contain several dangerous criminals. The average age of all officers and men in the 23rd Pennsylvania was nineteen. In contrast was the 37th Iowa, known as the "Graybeard Regiment" because all recruits for this home guard unit had to be at least forty-five years of age.

Faculty from the Illinois State Normal College so dominated the 33rd Illinois that it was known as the "Teacher's Regiment." Its officers were often accused of refusing to obey any order that was not absolutely correct in grammar and syntax. The "Iowa Temperance Regiment" gained its sobriquet because its entire membership vowed that it would "touch not, taste not, handle not spirituous or malt liquor, wine or cider." Some of the Iowans later in the war violated the pledge, but they were excused on the grounds that "it has only been at such times as they were under the overruling power of military necessity."

Civil War armies were young in composition. Ages ranged from lads with smooth faces to old men with gray beards. The largest single age group was eighteen, followed by soldiers twenty-one and nineteen. Unknown numbers of children served in the armies. Edward Black was nine years old when he entered an Indiana regiment. Among the youngest Confederate soldiers was Charles C. Hay, who joined an Alabama regiment at the age of eleven. John Mather Sloan of Texas lost a leg in battle at the age of thirteen.

The most famous of the dozens of young drummer boys was Johnny Clem of Newark, Ohio. He went to war at the age of ten. In Clem's first battle, a shell fragment ripped his drum apart. He became known as "Johnny Shiloh." Gallantry in action two years later brought him promotion to sergeant. Clem made the army a career, and he retired in 1916 with the rank of major general.


Three "boys" had extraordinary careers in the Civil War. Pennsylvania's Galusha Pennypacker received promotion to brigadier general a month before his twenty-first birthday. William P. Roberts became the Confederacy's youngest general at the age of twenty-three. Arthur MacArthur, father of the famed World War II commander, won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Missionary Ridge, Tennessee, while only eighteen. Months later, MacArthur became colonel of the 24th Wisconsin, and after the war he rose to lieutenant general in the army.


At the other end of the age spectrum was Curtis King, who served four months in the 37th Iowa before being discharged for disability. King was eighty. One of the oldest of the Confederates was F. Pollard. In the summer of 1862, the 73-year-old North Carolinian enlisted as a substitute. Pollard was shortly discharged "for rheumatism and old age."


Civil War soldiers came in every size. The shortest service man was from Ohio and stood 3 feet, 4 inches tall. In contrast, David Van Buskirk of Indiana was 6 feet, 11 inches in height. Van Buskirk had a ready reply for those who gawked openly at his stature. When he left for war, he would say, each of his six sisters "leaned down and kissed me on top of the head."

Occupations of the soldiers were not as varied as would exist in a troop call-up today. A survey of 9,000 Civil War soldier occupations contained 5,600 farmers. The next vocations were students (474), laborers (472), and clerks (321). Some of the remaining occupations given were unique. One man termed himself a rogue, another listed his status as convict, and several recruits put down their occupation as "gentleman."

The greatest flood of immigration in the nation's history occurred in the decades just before the Civil War. New England and the Midwest became home for the vast majority of those new citizens. As a result, one of every five Billy Yanks was foreign-born. In contrast, one of every twenty Johnny Rebs was born outside the country. Every nationality had representatives in the Civil War.



No foreign group on either side in the war gained greater renown—positively as well as negatively—than the Irish. They quickly earned a reputation for overindulgence in whiskey and an overfondness for fighting, whether it be the enemy or themselves. To an Indiana soldier stationed near Vicksburg in 1863, the arrival of some reinforcements was hardly reassuring. "The 90th Ill., the Irish Regiment," he wrote in his diary, "came into camp just back of us this morning. And such a time as those fellows did have. They got into a row about putting up their tents and had a free for all fight and were knocking each other over the head with pick handles, tent poles, and any thing they got hold of. Pretty soon their Colonel, O Marah, came out of his tent with a great wide bladed broadsword that is said to have belonged to some of his ancestors. And the way he did bast those Irish fellows with the flat of it was a caution. He stopped the row, and they settled down. His Regiment adore him."

Felix Brannigan of the 75th New York offered a personal explanation of how he and his fellow Irishmen thought. "As we rush on with the tide of battle, severe sense of fear is swallowed up in the wild joy we feel thrilling thro every fibre of our system. . . . There is an elasticity in the Irish temperament which enables its possessor to boldly stare Fate in the face, and laugh at all the reverses of fortune . . . and crack a joke with as much glee in the heat of battle as in the social circle by the winter fire."


Germans, Italians, English and Canadians also served in large numbers with the Union armies. Union encampments often sounded like "a babel of tongues."

Germans, Italians, Englishmen, and Canadians also served in large numbers with the Union armies. Union encampments often sounded like "a babel of tongues." A Mississippi surgeon once listened to a long line of Union prisoners pass. He then turned to a colleague and said despairingly: "Pierce, we are fighting the world."

Representatives of fifteen different countries served in one New York regiment. Fortunate it was that the Hungarian colonel of the unit could give orders in seven different tongues. Scandinavians were especially visible in units from the upper Midwest. The 15th Wisconsin was predominantly Norwegian. Identity in the unit must have been a problem for 128 men had the first name of Ole and in one company were five men named Ole Olsen.

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