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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Common Soldier


by James I. Robertson, Jr.

Just as the black man played a central part in causing the Civil War, so did he play a major role in determining its outcome.

An Illinois soldier wrote of sentiments in 1861: "If the Negro was thought of at all, it was only as the firebrand that had caused the conflagration—the accursed that had created enmity and bitterness between the two sections, and excited the fratricidal strife." Quite in contrast was the observation of Pennsylvania soldier Oliver Norton. Writing from Virginia in January, 1862, Norton stated: "I thought I hated slavery as much as possible before I came here, but here, where I can see some of its workings, I am more than ever convinced of the cruelty and inhumanity of the system. It has not one redeeming feature."

The idea among Union officials of using former slaves as soldiers evolved slowly. It developed through stepping stones of hostility, discrimination, and tragedy. Federal authorities had little objection to employing blacks as army laborers, but Northern sentiment was widespread that arming blacks would be degrading for the country. Others feared that mobilization would invite insurrection. Many Northeners agreed with Southern slave-holders: blacks were inferior beings incapable of fighting with the intensity and courage of white men.

Abolitionists, patriots, and humanitarians saw compelling reasons for placing blacks in uniform. Their numbers would add tremendous strength to Federal forces; their presence would give new meaning to the concept of American democracy; military service, from the blacks' point of view, would prepare and justify them for full admission into postwar society.

When Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, it opened the door for the formal recruitment of black soldiers. Progress was slow because of reluctance on the part of large numbers of Union officials. Not until high-ranking Federal commanders underwent a change of attitude did the program gain momentum. For example, in the summer of 1863, General U.S. Grant had seen enough to write Lincoln: "By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy."

The most important factor in the final acceptance of blacks as soldiers was their performance in battle. No amount of talk or propaganda could have won the black soldier a rightful place in the Union army. He had to achieve that place himself, soldier-fashion, in bloody combat. This they did, and proudly.


In the last half of the Civil War, black troops fought in 41 major battles and scores of minor engagements. At Fort Hudson, La., on May 27, 1863, blacks made their first formal assault of the war. Some 1,080 of them were part of an attack against a 6,000-man Confederate garrison. The blacks did not flinch but literally threw themselves against the enemy works. Over 300 blacks were listed among the casualties of the unsuccessful assault. Ten days later, at Milliken's Bend, La., the tables were reversed. Southerners assailed a position manned by black soldiers. Some of the most vicious fighting of the war ensued as the blacks held their lines.

Glory came to black soldiers the following month at Fort Wagner, S.C. Close to 5,000 Federals charged across a wide expanse of open beach against a strongly fortified position. In the forefront of the attack was the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment from the North to go to war. This unit had been struggling through tangled marshland for two days, in pouring rain and without food. Yet it surged forward heroically at Fort Wagner; in the illfated attack the blacks lost 100 killed, 145 wounded, and 100 captured. The Atlantic Monthly later declared: "Through the cannon smoke of that dark night, the manhood of the colored race shines before many eyes that would not see."

Throughout the Civil War, black soldiers had to weather a host of discriminations. The Confederacy initially refused to grant them the rights and privileges accorded to white Billy Yanks seized in battle. For most of their Civil War service, blacks received only half the pay of whites. They served in completely segregated regiments and, with rare exceptions, were led by white officers. The worst duties in camp and field customarily went to black commands. Their uniforms and equipment as often as not were discards and rejects.

Constant harassment from white Billy Yanks further hampered the efforts of the blacks to attain recognition. In the summer of 1861, an Indiana lieutenant wrote his sister: "I do not believe it right to make soldiers of them and class & rank them with our white soldiers.... I do despise them, and the more I see of them, the more I am against the whole black race." A New York soldier once made the terse comment: "I think the best way to settle the question of what to do with the darkies would be to shoot them."


Many of those feelings never ameliorated, but the majority of them did. After the bloody 1864 battle of Nashville, Union General George H. Thomas looked at the battlefield strewn with bodies and exclaimed: "Gentlemen, the question is settled. Negroes will fight."

A total of about 179,000 blacks served as soldiers in the Civil War and later on the western frontier. They were organized into 120 infantry regiments, 22 artillery batteries, and 7 cavalry regiments. Cumulative losses in black units in the 1860s and 1870s were unusually high: 68,200—more than a third of the total enrolled. Of that number, 2,750 were killed in action; the remaining 65,450 perished from wounds and sickness. The number of desertions among black troops was about 7% of the total in the army. Twenty-one blacks received the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in action.

In 1892, Colonel Norwood P. Hall of the 55th Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment proudly stated of his men: "We called upon them in the day of our trial, when volunteering had ceased, when the draft was a partial failure, and the bounty system a senseless extravagance. They were ineligible for promotion, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war. Nothing was definite except that they could be shot or hanged as soldiers. Fortunate it is for [the nation], as well as for them, that they were equal to the crisis; that the grand historic moment which comes to a race only once in many centuries came to them, and that they recognized it ..."

The pronounced individualism of American generations during that era explains in great part the disrespect for authority so commonplace in the armies. Southerners and Northerners who answered the call to arms were products of a new nation dedicated to the ideal that one man was as good as another; and when many of the officers showed themselves to be at least as inexperienced as the men they were supposed to be leading, soldiers in the ranks reacted in disgust.

These were civilian armies, formed hastily by the first fires of war. Most of the men in a company had been lifelong acquaintances. Before entering the army, they had addressed one another as John, Tom, or Harry; but once in military service, several of their friends became their superior officers. Men who had never so much as doffed their hats at one another now found themselves obligated to salute each other and to obey orders without question. Relinquishing friendly informality for stuffy formality taxed the tempers of more than one private.

A North Carolinian pointedly explained the situation in his company: "The rank and file of the Anson Guards were the equals, and superiors to some of their officers; socially, in wealth, in position and in education, and it was a hard lesson to learn respectful obedience." In other words, the average soldier was willing to obey all orders that were sensible, provided the man giving them did not get too puffed up about it.

Verbal attacks on officers were frequent and involved the use of such references as "whorehouse pimp," "a vain, stuck-up, illiterate ass," "a whining methodist class leader," and one of the most classic of all time: "a God damned fussy old pisspot." Yet the phrase that got the most men hauled before a military court was the time-honored "son of a bitch."



A Southerner once classified his colonel as "an ignoramus fit for nothing higher than the cultivation of corn." One soldier from Florida was convinced that all officers were "not fit to tote guts to a bear."" Billy Yanks shared such feelings. "The officers," one Massachusetts soldier asserted, "consider themselves as made of a different material from the low fellows in the ranks....They get all the glory and most of the pay and don't earn ten cents apiece on the dollar the drunken rascals."

When a thoroughly disliked general succumbed to illness early in 1865, one of his men wrote home: "Old Landers is ded. . . I did not see a tear shed but heard a great many speaches made about him such as he was in hell pumping thunder at 3 cents a clap." Yet the choicest denunciation of all came from an Illinois private who once intoned: "I wish to God one half of our officers were knocked in the head by slinging them Against A part of those still Left."

In contrast, those officers who led with gentle persuasiveness and possessed real understanding about their men almost without exception received obedience and respect. When widely esteemed Colonel Edward E. Cross of the 5th New Hampshire fell mortally wounded at Gettysburg, his last words were: "I think the boys will miss mess." They did; the regiment was never quite the same after Cross's death.


Alcohol consumption triggered the most continual misbehavior in Civil War camps. The men drank for several reasons and usually to excess. A Louisianian stated of a compatriot: "I never knew before that Clarence was so much addicted to drinking. If he had been as fond of his mother's milk, as he is of whiskey, he would have been awful hard to wean."


Most of the whiskey brought or smuggled into the armies could be classified as "mean" even for that day. A Hoosier soldier analyzed one issue of whiskey and with a straight face adjudged it to be a combination of "bark juice, tar-water, turpentine, brown sugar, lamp-oil and alcohol." The potency of the liquor is readily evident from some of the nicknames given to it: "Old Red Eye," "Rifle Knock-Knee," "How Come You So," and "Help Me to Sleep, Mother."

The liquid surely produced some startling reactions, especially among commanders. One night in the spring of 1861, Confederate General Arnold Elzey and his staff engaged in a long and boisterous party. Whiskey flowed copiously. At one point, a fairly inebriated Elzey called in the sentry guarding his tent and kindly gave the man a drink. The revelry eventually ran its course; Elzey collapsed in bed and fell into a deep sleep. About dawn, he was aroused by the sentinel, who exclaimed: "General! General! Ain't it about time for us to take another drink?"


In February 1864, the officers of the 126th Ohio had a farewell party for their colonel. A bucket each of egg nog and bourbon came into play. The result, according to a disgusted bystander, "was a big drunk, and such a weaving, spewing, sick set of men I have not seen for many a day... Col. Harlan was dead drunk. One Capt. who is a Presbyterian elder at home was not much better."

The 48th New York, commanded by the Reverend James M. Perry, was such a model of good behavior that the regiment became known as "Perry's Saints." However, while the men were stationed at Tybee Island, Georgia, in 1862, a large cargo of beer and wine washed ashore after a storm. The New Yorkers proceeded to get wildly intoxicated. This spree may have been a leading factor in Colonel Perry suffering a fatal heart attack at his desk the following day.

On another occasion, an inebriated Union corps commander walked straight into a tree in front of his tent, then had to be restrained from arresting the officer of the guard on charges of felonious assault.


Army punishments were imperative for the survival of discipline. Yet the leading characteristics of Civil War punishments were inequity and capriciousness. The frequency and degree of army sentences depended in large measure on the whims of the commanding officer. Sometimes the most serious offenses were all but ignored, while on other occasions trifling offenses resulted in severe punishments.

Most penalties meted out in the army were exhibitionistic. Marching through camp with signs denoting "Thief" or "Coward" were common punishments. Other penalties included having to wear a barrel shirt, dragging a ball and chain, and a painful punishment called "bucking and gagging." After seeing a man sentenced to the last-named humiliation, a soldier described his plight. "A bayonette or piece of wood was placed in his mouth and a string tied behind his ears kept it in position"; then "the man was seated on the ground with his knees drawn up to his body. A piece of wood is run through his legs, and placing his arms under the stick on each side of his knees, his hands are then tied in front, and he is as secure as a trapped rat." In this posture, the culprit would undergo excruciating pain for several hours.

Long jail terms, branding, and dishonorable discharges were punishments generally reserved for deserters, flagrant cowards, or men repeatedly guilty of insubordination. Far more frequently than might be imagined was the use of capital punishment. Some 500 Civil War soldiers went before firing squads or mounted crudely constructed gallows. Two-thirds of that number met their deaths because of the single crime of desertion. Executions were not merely public; they were usually mandatory in the case of the condemned man's brigade or division. Soldiers watching one of their number put to death for a serious offense were not likely to commit the same offense, the thinking went.

Food was the worst problem in all Civil War armies. It produced the most criticisms of army life. Apparently the thinking on both sides was that if the government supplied the basic foodstuffs to the men in large enough proportions, the troops would make out satisfactorily. Such thinking worked out well in camp; but when the armies were on the move, food was almost always scarce. Every regiment in the field experienced at least one food shortage in the course of the war, while in some military theaters famines of lengthy duration took place.



As a rule, the rations varied from mediocre to downright repugnant. In the autumn of 1862 an Illinois corporal informed the home folk: "The boys say our 'grub' is enough to make a mule desert, and a hog wish he had never been born.... Hard bread, bacon and coffee is all we draw."

Meat was always in short supply—and that may have been good fortune. Beef was distributed either fresh or pickled with salt. When chewable, the fresh meat was often eaten raw because it seemed to have more taste than when cooked. Pennsylvania soldier John H. Markley observed in 1863 that his salted beef ration was so strong it could almost walk its self." An Illinois infantryman examined the meat he received on one occasion and declared that "one can throw a piece up against a tree and it will just stick there and quiver and twitch for all the world like one of those blue-bellied lizards at home will do when you knock him off a fence rail with a stick."


The standard bread ration in the Union armies was a three-inch-square cracker known as hardtack. It was shipped southward in large crates marked "B. C.," denoting Brigade Commissary. Given the toughness of the crackers, Billy Yanks were convinced that the letters actually stood for the date when they were baked. Worse, shipments of these crackers were usually so infiltrated with "wigglies" that the most prevalent nickname given to hardtack was "worm castles." One soldier (perhaps with a degree of exaggeration) stated after the war: "All the fresh meat we had came in the hard bread . . . and I preferring my game cooked, used to toast my biscuits."

Civil War soldiers had wonderful powers of adaptation, but most of them never acclimated to the quality and quantity of Civil War rations. One thoroughly disgusted private spoke for the majority when he informed his brother: "We live so mean here, the hard bread is all worms and the meat stinks like hell . . . and rice two or three times a week & worms as long as your finger. I liked rice once but god dam the stuff now."


Despite such complaints, hunger was a regular companion to several Union armies and to all Confederate forces in the field. The problem was not in supply, for both sides had strong agricultural bases. Transportation breakdowns, graft, corruption, and bureaucratic incompetence blocked tons of foodstuffs from reaching the front lines. Soldiers therefore resorted to extreme measures in an effort to calm the gnawing emptiness in their stomachs.

Some troops were known to subsist for days on green apples and unripe peaches taken from orchards alongside the route of a march. A South Carolina colonel stated after the war that he "frequently saw the hungry Confederates gather up the dirt and corn where a horse had been fed, so that when he reached his bivouac he could wash out the dirt and gather the few grains of corn to satisfy in part at least the cravings of hunger. Hard, dry, parched corn . . was for many days the sole diet of all."

A Virginian once boiled his greasy haversack in an attempt to make soup. In 1864 a South Carolina private, overcome by what he termed his "bold and aggressive appetite," confessed that he had "devoured the hindquarters of a muskrat with vindictive relish, and looked with longing eyes upon our adjutant-general's pointer dog."

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