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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Common Soldier


by James I. Robertson, Jr.

Fear of being captured scarcely entered the minds of Northern and Southern recruits who entered the armies. Americans had never faced the problem of significant numbers of prisoners of war. In past conflicts, those comparatively few enemy troops taken prisoner received battlefield paroles and generally vanished from the scene. However, the immense scope of the Civil War broke all traditions with the past. About 410,000 soldiers fell into the hands of the other side. This figure is 4-5 times greater than the number of American soldiers captured in all of the nation's other wars combined.


Neither side had any knowledge of what to do with growing numbers of prisoners. An attempt at an exchange policy, begun in 1862, collapsed ingloriously the next year. In the course of the war, both sides were guilty of neglect and mismanagement resulting in unnecessary suffering and needless deaths.

Sickness reigned in every one of the 20 to 25 major compounds of the war. (In all, over 150 prisons came into existence.) A Confederate surgeon, after inspecting one facility, filed a report that easily could have applied to any soldier prison. From the crowded conditions, filthy habits, bad diet and dejected, depressed condition of the prisoners, their system had become so disordered that the smallest abrasion of the skin, from the rubbing of a shoe, or from the effects of the sun, the prick of a splinter or the scratching of a mosquito bite, in some cases took on a rapid and frightful ulceration and gangrene.

Soldiers unlucky enough to be captured usually went first to a depot compound such as Point Lookout, Maryland, or Libby Prison in Richmond. From there most captives were transferred to the prisons that would be their homes for the remainder of the war.

Prominent Northern prisons were Fort Warren, Mass.; Elmira, N.Y.; Old Capitol, D.C.; Fort Delaware, Del.; Camp Douglas and Rock Island, Ill.; and Johnson's Island, Ohio. In the South the major prisons were at Richmond and Danville, Va.; Salisbury, N.C.; Columbia and Charleston, S.C.; Andersonville, Ga.; and Camp Ford, Texas.

Prison routine was painfully monotonous. Soldiers arose at dawn, answered roll call, and received some kind of rations. A second meal came in the afternoon, with another roll call at sundown. During the remaining 23 hours of each day, prisoners were left to their thoughts and improvisations.

Because Andersonville was the largest of the Civil War prisons, it has received the most attention from generations of writers. It had a record that remains vile by any standard. The compound was hastily laid out late in the war and designed for 10,000 prisoners. At one point, more than 33,000 Federals were crammed into the open and barren expanse. Most of the captives sent there were "old fish," prisoners sent from other compounds. Andersonville held a total of 49,400 prisoners during its 13-month existence. Over 13,700 of those men perished from overcrowding, malnutrition, and insufficient medical care.

Closely matching Andersonville's death rate, on a smaller scale, was the Union prison camp at Elmira, New York. Of 12,147 Confederates held there, 2,980 succumbed from the same causes present at Andersonville.

Each side accused the other of atrocity, cruelty, and barbarism, yet neither North nor South made any concerted endeavor to improve conditions.

As one would expect, soldiers' opinions of prison life were consistently negative. Inmates referred to various prison administrators as "the little snotty dog," an "Ass of a Lieut." and "a most savage looking man," "a vulgar, coarse brute," and "the greatest scoundrel that ever went unhung." Speaking of a trio of officials at Fort Delaware, a Tennessee prisoner asserted: "I Dont Think Thar is any Place in Hell Hot anuf for Thos 3 men."


In the case of the guards at Andersonville, a Federal prisoner stated that "we are under the Malishia & their ages range from 10 to 75 & they are the Dambst set of men I ever had the Luck to fall in with yet."

Rations issued to Federal officer-prisoners at Libby, a New Englander stated, "consisted of about twenty-two ounces of bread and thirty ounces of meat for each week. We had something else that they gave us one week; I do not know what the name of it was." A Confederate at Camp Douglas in Chicago was explicit about some meat he received: a hunk of mule neck with the hair still attached.

No doubt exists but that all prisoners fought a constant battle against vermin. A New York officer found fleas to be particularly obnoxious. "The beasts crawled over the ground from body to body, and their attacks seemed to become more aggravating as the men became more emaciated. By daylight, they could be picked off . . . but in the darkness there was nothing to do but suffer with patience."

Literally hundreds of "memoirs" by former prisoners of war appeared in print after the Civil War. The authenticity and accuracy of the majority have always been in question. Each former prisoner who picked up pen and paper seemed to feel duty bound to present a more horrible picture of conditions than did the last writer. These accounts in most instances were propagandistic and political; they fed the flames of a controversy that rages still.

Of the 215,000 Johnny Rebs and 195,000 Billy Yanks taken prisoner in the Civil War, 56,000 died in confinement. The prison death rate is less than that of most military hospitals at the time. Yet so many of those incarcerated soldiers lost their lives through incompetence and indifference that beclouds the whole prison subject with deep sadness.

George F. Root's "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" was one of the best-known war songs of the 1860s because it was written from the viewpoint of a prisoner of war whose feelings mirrored those of the captured men of both sides. The opening lines are:

In the prison cell I sit, thinking,
Mother dear, of you,

And our bright and happy
house so far away."

And the tears they fill my eyes,
spite of all that I can do,

Tho' I try to cheer my comrades
and be gay.


Sickness and insufficient medical treatment were the worst enemies that Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks faced.

Midway through the Civil War a Southern private swore that he "had rather face the Yankees than the sickness and there is always more men dies of sickness than in battle." This soldier was tragically correct. For every man killed in action during the Civil War, two died behind the lines of illness and disease. Extant records show over 6,000,000 reported cases of sickness in the Union armies alone. Surgeon Joseph Jones tabulated that every Confederate soldier was ill an average of six times in the course of the war.

Several factors, each with major impact, accounted for the high incidence of sickness. The ease with which a man could enter the army in the first half of the war, the poor condition of many of the recruits, and the abysmal camp conditions were the first causes. Encampment sites were selected primarily for military reasons and rarely for health considerations. Such locations tended to be used repeatedly. Inadequate drainage, ignorance of sanitation practices, plus the natural carelessness of life in camp added to the setting for widespread illness. Exposure to the elements, general filth, improper diet, and always-present vermin compounded the situation. A woeful lack of medical knowledge, critical shortage of army surgeons, and total inexperience in dealing with both traumatic injuries and large numbers of incapacitated soldiers further intensified four years of human suffering. Only hints at that time existed that unseeable objects called germs played any part in sickness or infection. That flies and mosquitoes might be carriers of disease was widely regarded as preposterous.


Before they heard their first hostile shots, the soldiers encountered two onslaughts of illness. First were the so called "childhood diseases" that struck the farmboys and others who had accumulated no immunities. Chicken pox, measles, mumps, and whooping cough plowed through new regiments in epidemic proportions. Measles was the deadliest of these diseases. An Iowa soldier visited a warehouse where one batch of measles cases had been deposited. "About 100 sick men crowded into a room 60 by 100 feet in all stages of measles. The poor boys lying on the hard floor, with only one or two blankets under them, not even straw, and anything they could find for a pillow. Many sick and vomiting, many already showing unmistakable signs of blood poisoning."

While the troops struggled helplessly against the first wave of diseases, they also had to endure "camp illnesses" triggered by impure water, exposure, poor food, mosquitoes, and general filth. Such conditions produced the biggest killers of the Civil War: diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever, and pneumonia.


Diarrhea was practically a universal epidemic among Civil War soldiers. It was at the least debilitating and at the most deadly. Army physicians were never able to find any suitable cure or even to provide a semblance of relief. This led an Illinois soldier to remark on one occasion that a compatriot's bowels "needs turning ron side out and washing with soap suds." After the war an Iowa soldier noted humorously that countless numbers of men "literally had no stomach for fighting."

Medical knowledge was at such a primitive stage in the 1860s that the practice of army medicine devolved into administering drugs and potions of all known types and in heavy quantities. One New England surgeon habitually plied men suffering from any ailment (including diarrhea) with dose after dose of castor oil. As he did so, he would state cheerily: "Down with it, my boy. The more you take, the less I carry."

Most Civil War soldiers were unaware of the severe handicaps under which the doctors labored, especially during a battle. In the rude and makeshift field hospitals only a mile or two behind the battle lines, physicians toiled long hours to rescue life from the debris of war. Field surgeons performed three basic tasks only. They probed for embedded missiles (usually with their fingers), and they employed unsophisticated ligatures in an effort to control hemorrhaging. However, three-fourths of a surgeon's time was spent in amputating mangled arms and legs. Little was known at the time of the principle of setting broken bones; of greater impact was the simple rationale that the wounded were too many and the doctors too few to allow prolonged treatment of a serious injury to an extremity. It was quicker, and the prognosis seemed just as favorable, to remove the limb in question.



Any soldier who saw a field hospital never forgot it. At the first major battle of the war, Lieutenant William Blackford and his Virginia cavalry company patrolled one of the vital roads. It was early in the afternoon when Blackford observed that "along a shady little valley through which our road lay the surgeons had been plying their vocation all the morning upon the wounded. Tables about breast high had been erected upon which screaming victims were having legs and arms cut off. The surgeons and their assistants, stripped to the waist and all bespattered with blood, stood around, some holding the poor fellows while others, armed with long bloody knives and saws, cut and sawed away with frightful rapidity, throwing the mangled limbs on a pile nearby as soon as removed. Many were stretched on the ground awaiting their turn, many more were arriving continually . . . while those upon whom operations had already been performed calmly fanned the flies from their wounds. The battle roared in front . . . but the prayers, the curses, the screams, the blood, the flies, the sickening stench of this horrible little valley were too much for the stomachs of the men, and all along the column, leaning over the pommels of their saddles, they could be seen in ecstasies of protest."

Army surgeons were not miracle men: they lacked both the knowledge and the medications to curb epidemics, to stop the spread of infection, and to restore health to every man who was ailing. Hence, they were incompetent in the eyes of many sick soldiers. "Because a man had enlisted to serve his country," an artilleryman asserted, "it is no reason he should be treated like a dog by one-horse country doctors who once they mount shoulder straps, think they are Almighty." A Midwestern private worked up what he regarded as the supreme criticism when he stated that "the docterking [was] about in keeping [with] the Cooking."

The surgeons labored on as best they could in the face of such damnation. One Confederate physician put the subject in perspective (at least to his own satisfaction) when he concluded: "Medical Officers are generally the most unpopular—owing to the fact that they deal with sick men—the most unreasonable of all animals."

As for those soldiers outspoken in their denunciation of surgeons, few of them would have considered Dr. George T. Stevens of the 76th New York pausing in the midst of the 1864 Wilderness campaign in Virginia to inform his wife: "I see so many grand men dropping one by one. They are acquaintances and my friends. They look to me for help, and I have to turn away heartsick at my want of ability to relieve their sufferings. . . . Oh! can I ever write anything besides these mournful details? Hundreds of ambulances are coming into town now, and it is almost midnight. So they come every night."



Lack of adequate clothing brought misery and suffering to thousands of soldiers. Men in the Union Army of the Potomac likened the winter of 1862-1863 around Fredericksburg, Virginia, to the agony of George Washington's army at Valley Forge. A member of the 13th New Hampshire observed: "It is fearful to wake at night, and to hear the sounds made by the men around you. All night long the sounds go up of men coughing, moaning and groaning with acute pain. . . . This camp of 100,000 men is practically a vast hospital."

It is a shocking fact that at least a third of the Southern army was barefoot at any given time. Commanders worried constantly about the men suffering from want of shoes, particularly in wintertime. One Confederate brigadier sought to alleviate the situation by issuing strips of fresh cowhide to his men to wrap around their feet. The result of using untreated hide was disastrous, according to one Johnny Reb. "General Armstad sent me a pair of raw hide shoes the other day and [they] stretch out at the heel so that when I start down a hill they whip me nearly to death, they flop up and down. they stink very bad and I have to keep a bush in my hand to keep the flies off of them." However, the soldier added, "this is the last of the raw hide, for some of the boys got hungry last night and boiled them and ate them, so farewell raw hide shoes."


Unhealthy camp conditions were commonplace. Little opporunity existed for bathing. Since most soldiers had but one uniform, it appeared a waste of time to wash oneself in a river and then don the same filthy rags again. Confederate soldiers suffered harshly in this regard. Following the 1862 battle of Antietam, Lieutenant James Burnham of Connecticut told his parents of seeing Confederate prisoners of war for the first time. "Their hair was long and uncombed and their faces were thin and cadaverous as though they had been starved to death. It is of course possible that is the natural look of the race, but it appeared mightily to me like the result of short fare. They were the dirtiest set I ever beheld. A regiment of New England paupers could not equal them for the filth, lice and rags."

The use and misuse of camp latrines—long, open ditches with no sanitary aspects whatsoever—further promoted germs and disease. Many soldiers scorned the foul-smelling "sinks," as latrines were called. Thus did a Virginia soldier write in his diary in 1862: "On rolling up my bed this morning I found I had been lying in—I wont say what—something though that didn't smell like milk and peaches."

A contaminated atmosphere where tens of thousands of unwashed soldiers congregated led to an endless horde of flies, mosquitoes, gnats, lice, and fleas, which themselves became additional hazards to health. "There are more flies here than I ever saw any where before," an Alabama volunteer wrote his wife. "Sometimes I ... commence killing them but as I believe forty come to everyone's funeral I have given it up as a bad job."

Few soldiers escaped infestation by fleas. A Mississippi soldier, returning to camp from a short furlough, wrote about the onslaught of fleas he encountered. "They hay most Eate me up since I came Back her," he declared. "I was fresh to them so they pitched in." Fleas likewise plagued an Alabama private and led to an interesting commentary by that man to his wife: "I think there are 50 on my person at this time, but you know they never did trouble me. . . . May, I have thought of you often while mashing fleas."

Vermin swarmed wherever an army assembled. Battle was no deterrent. A Federal colonel once waved his men into action with a sword in one hand while he feverishly scratched himself with the other hand.

Civil War soldiers took varying degrees of refuge in religion. For most troops, religion was a personal matter. Joining the army only strengthened their conviction to follow home-learned Christian principles down the uncertain road of war. Hence, faith in God became the single greatest instrument in the maintenance of morale inside the armies. The evangelical sects of the nineteenth century were active and large. From the writings of Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks comes the inescapable conclusion that faith was more prevalent in the ranks than is the case in modern times.


A few men, of course, dismissed religion as a weakness or scorned faith after witnessing the hell of battle or experiencing the loss of friends and comrades. Some soldiers just grew weary of the loud evangelicalism present in camp. Among the latter was Sergeant James Williams of the 21st Alabama. After having to endure the noise of yet another nightly camp meeting, Williams sneered: "It seems to me that where ever I go I can never get rid of the Psalm-singers ... making night hideous with their horrid nasal twang butchering bad music, and insulting the Most High with hypocritical and 'impious prayers!'" Williams had no confidence either in the fighting qualities of the openly devout. "If I had to go off on a dangerous expedition to-night, I'd rather take an old granny than any of them—Give me a good 'sinner' to stand by me when the hour of danger comes."

Far larger numbers of soldiers found in religion a sanctuary from war and all of its uncertainties. One such Confederate, James Parrott of the 16th Tennessee, reassured his wife: "I can say thank God that I have never bin harmed, when I go into a fite I say God be my helper and when I come out I say thank God I feel like he has bin with mee."




Reading testaments was a common occurrence in camp. Chaplains usually spoke to large and attentive audiences at a field service. Religious tracts found eager takers whenever they were circulated. Many soldiers, unsure of the unknowns of tomorrow, seconded the sentiments of Abraham Lincoln, who once acknowledged: "I have often been driven to my knees by the realization that I had nowhere else to go."

The personal religion of Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks manifested itself in intimate and sometimes interesting prayers. Just before the start of one large battle, a group of North Carolinians asked a compatriot who was also a self-styled preacher to lead them in prayer. The man removed his hat, looked heavenward, and intoned: "Lord, if you ain't with us, don't be agin us. Just step aside and watch the damndest fight you are ever likely to see!"

The bulwarks of faith in the armies were supposed to be the chaplains. Yet evidence is strong that many of the initial appointees did not practice what they preached. An Englishman serving in the Confederate army termed the first group of Southern chaplains "a race of loud mouthed ranters . . . offensively loquacious upon every topic of life save man's salvation." A hospital chaplain made a habit of sitting on the edge of some soldier's cot, telling the man he looked close to death, and urging him to prepare to meet his Maker. This was too much for one recuperating soldier; he threw a plate at the cleric and told him to go to hell.

Lack of scruples characterized a number of early army ministers. Court-martial records show that some descended to horse-stealing, speculation, theft, and desertion. One rainy evening, a chaplain entered a stud-poker game in the camp of a Connecticut unit and promptly cleaned out an entire company.

Such behavior brought momentary discredit to the whole profession and a variety of nicknames to individual offenders. One chaplain remembered only for hellfire-and-brimstone sermons was dubbed "The Great Thunderer"; another who continually warned soldiers of imminent death was called "Death on a Pale Horse"; and when the chaplain of the 127th New York began charging the troops a penny apiece for each letter he mailed home for them, the soldiers contemptuously christened him "One Cent by God."

Fortunately, these incompetents eventually left the armies.

The men who remained—known affectionately as "Holy Joe" or "Holy John"—proved to be sincerely motivated, unpretentious, filled with both righteousness and patriotism, and able to bring a sense of caring in an aura of callous warfare. The good chaplains performed a wide variety of activities: holding prayer meetings and church services on a regular basis, visiting the sick in camp and hospital, counseling with individual soldiers, distributing religious tracts and testaments, writing and reading letters for soldiers, delivering mail, enduring the hardships of their men on the march and in battle, and making of themselves an example for the troops to follow. Chaplains were generally judged far more for what they did than for what they said; and if they turned out to be good preachers as well, that was an extra point in their favor.


The kindness of chaplains to soldiers was never forgotten. On a particularly trying march in 1863, Chaplain William E. Wiatt of the 26th Virginia carried the guns of several weakened men in his regiment.

The kindness of chaplains to soldiers was never forgotten. On a particularly trying march in 1863, Chaplain William E. Wiatt of the 26th Virginia carried the guns of several weakened men in his regiment. This exertion so sapped the Baptist cleric that he was confined to bed for a week. Yet Wiatt's actions won him scores of lifelong friends.

Another example was the Reverend Arthur Fuller of the 16th Massachusetts. He fell at Fredericksburg, Virginia, musket in hand, while participating in a skirmish. Two days earlier, Fuller had received his discharge from service. He had delayed his departure to remain with his friends a little longer. Similarly, Mississippi Chaplain A. G. Burrows returned to camp with the troops after a skirmish with Federals. Burrows had a four-inch gash in his skull. "It was winter and bitter cold," a fellow minister noted. "The wounded chaplain had no overcoat. His other coat was thin and ragged. All his clothing was worn out." Burrows died shortly thereafter, "his devotion to his God and his country" having "cost him his life."

Two great revivals swept through the Confederate armies in the course of the war, and lesser religious awakenings marked other armies at some point. These movements doubtless elevated faith as well as morality. Yet evidence is strong that such improvements too often were temporary. Evil seems to have remained just as persistent in an army camp as the crusade for righteousness.

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