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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Common Soldier


by William Marvel

The Civil War was waged not only on the battlefields and in the camps, but well behind the lines. From the New England farmer who hired a boy in place of his soldier son, to the Piedmont housewife who roasted chicory root as a substitute for her family's coffee, American civilians could not ignore the conflict.

The South obviously bore the brunt of civilian sacrifice and suffering. Even by the final months of 1861, before Federal armies had struck deeply into Confederate territory, the naval blockade had begun to whittle away at the Southern standard of living. Culinary delicacies and creature comforts quickly became scarce (and thus more expensive) for a society that had long imported most of its goods. As the war progressed, drugs and other medical supplies disappeared. Salt, which proved so essential to food preservation and the curing of animal hides, became the fore most commodity on the black market. Field armies absorbed all that Confederate industry could produce. A higher proportion of Southern farmers died or came home disabled than their Northern counterparts, and a greater percentage were taken for the army; as the remaining growers turned to speculation in cotton and other cash crops, shortages developed even among the staple foods that the agrarian South had traditionally provided for itself.

While an early lack of fine wines or dress silk afflicted only the upper classes, the resulting increase of prices struck more painfully with each step down the social ladder. Poorer Southerners suffered more, however, from the plummeting value of Confederate paper currency. Inflation spiraled in triple digits through most of the war, and by the middle of the conflict the Confederate capital was the scene of a bread riot. Decline in the production of food, a dearth of salt, and the destruction of stores and transportation by the Union armies brought some regions to the brink of famine by the end of 1864, dragging thousands of deserters out of the fight and shattering the will of many Southerners to continue the struggle.


Nearly every Northern community escaped outright want. Money, and to some extent manpower, composed the principal difficulties for civilians in the loyal states. Government contracts increased job opportunities but did not always improve the worker's economic situation. Often, wartime production meant longer hours and lower pay: even as carpenters at the Portsmouth naval shipyard finished the sloop that would sink the Confederate cruiser Alabama, the commandant announced that the workday would begin thereafter at sunrise, and wages would be cut by as much as one-quarter.

Although inflation posed a less serious problem for U.S. citizens than it did in the Confederacy, it still ate away at the workingman's ability to support himself, and the introduction of large numbers of women into the unskilled work force helped to diminish the labor demands that might have swelled wages enough to offset the shrinking value of greenbacks. Industry did lose a substantial ratio of its skilled workers to the army and navy, but New England agriculture probably felt the greatest labor shortage. For two decades New England farm families had been losing their sons to manufacturing or to the more fertile soil of the plains; geography did not adapt the rocky Yankee hill farms to the mechanical implements that supplemented scarce labor north of the Ohio, and the sudden exodus of thousands of prime farm hands forced many New Englanders to reduce crops drastically. Many such farms never resumed their former production, and the war at least accelerated the decline of agriculture in the Northeast.

Rich or poor, the male Northern citizen preoccupied himself at one time or another with the possibility that he might be drafted, but most never saw an armed rebel or endured any fear of enemy depredations against himself or his property. Even during the great raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania, Confederates did not pillage the countryside, taking only horses and provisions with little wanton destruction, whereas Southerners whose homes lay in the path of Union armies frequently lost everything they owned and occasionally suffered personal violence as well. The difference lay in the military philosophies of the contending sides. Southern forces operated largely to defeat or discourage the Union armies, after the genteel European fashion; Federal generals like William Sherman eventually realized that the swiftest path to victory was to destroy the very fabric of Southern society, striking simultaneously at the Confederacy's military might and civilian morale.



Nostalgia is always the great enemy of soldier morale. This was especially true of the men of blue and gray, most of whom were away from home for the first time. Moreover, these were young men looking for excitement and susceptible to temptations. As a Virginian told his cousin: "I have not seen a gal in so long a time that I would not know what to do with myself if I were to meet up with one, though I recon I would learn before I left her."

Prostitution thrived during the war years. From a Kentucky encampment in the spring of 1864, an Indiana soldier wrote his family in disgust: "The godlessness [of this area] is great, cursing and whoring cries to heavn. Men from our company, yes even married ones, have gone to whore houses and paid 5 and 6 dollars per night. I was astonished. If their wives would know about it, it would cause terrific fights and maybe divorce. That's why I don't want to name them."

In 1863, more than 7,000 prostitutes were working in Washington, D.C. Some of the bordellos in the Northern capital had such stimulating names as "The Haystack," "Hooker's Headquarters," and "Madame Russell's Bake Oven." Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, was hardly any better. One madam there opened a bawdy house immediately across the street from a soldier hospital. Shortly thereafter, the hospital superintendent complained angrily that the prognosis of many of his patients had taken sharp turns for the worse. Prostitutes, he explained, were appearing at their windows in various stages of nudity, and they were making highly provocative gestures. As a result, patients were sneaking and hobbling from the hospital with little thought to the seriousness of their condition.



More often than not, soldiers North and South displayed the rude strength of youth by exhibiting a terrible capacity for loneliness. Two months into the war, Captain Harley Wayne of an Illinois regiment wrote his wife that many of his lads were grieving with homesickness. "I found one crying this morning," Wayne reported. "I tried to comfort him but had hard work to keep from joining him."

Accentuating that loneliness was a sentimentality deep and characteristic of the 1860s. The Civil War brought those two emotions together and created a deep love alien to most modern generations caught in the whirlpool of life in the late twentieth century. Romance was an overpowering sentiment among the men of blue and gray.

Once in the army, acquiring a sweetheart became a triumph just short of victory in battle. Illinois soldier John Shank wrote home about his new girlfriend: "I intend to have her for my wedded wife if I ever get home safe again. She is about 16 years old. She has black eyes and dark hair and fair skin and plenty of land and that aint all." Another Billy Yank was more specific about his new love. "My girl is none of your one horse girls," he announced. "She is a regular stub and twister. She is well-educated and refined, all wildcat and fur, and Union from the muzzle to the crupper."

Soldiers and the folks back home generally maintained the most regular correspondence possible. Georgia soldier William Stillwell was a great tease; he enjoyed bantering with the home folk, and one suspects that he did so in great part to bolster the morale of all concerned. Stillwell had not seen his wife for a year when he informed her in matter-of-fact terms: "If I did not write and receive letters from you I believe that I would forgit that I was marrid. I dont feel much like a maryed man but I never forgit it so far as to court enny other lady, but if I should you must forgive me as I am so forgitful."


Husbands and wives were not as forthright and uninhibited in their letters as one might expect. Civil War generations wrote in guarded fashion. Rarely did that reserve break down. One instance occurred in April 1864, when a young Southern wife wrote her soldier-husband: "My loving John, I feel like I would squeese you and hug you to death if I had a chance. You would not sleep in a week if I got my arms around you. I will make up for lost time [when you come home], so you hold yourself in readiness."

More often than not, soldiers and wives devoted much space in their letters to an attempt to combat mutual loneliness. Indiana volunteer John Craft had never been away from home before joining the Federal army. Shortly after Christmas 1861, when his wife seemed unable to control her depression, Craft wrote back: "Eliza you must not be discouraged. Remember the Sun is never brighter than when it emerges from behind the darkest cloud. ... I have abiding faith that all will be well yet; that our government will be sustained; that we will have yet a country, a Home, and time and opportunity alloted us to enjoy them."

The ultimate test of a soldier is battle. All else in warfare is incidental to two armies closing in combat. Northern and Southern troops may have left a good deal to be desired in camp and on the march, yet they more than compensated for those deficiencies by their overall performance on the battlefield. Sir Winston Churchill once said of Civil War soldiers: "With them, uncommon valor became a common virtue."

Letters and diaries of those men reveal that the most prevalent fear they had was not the possibility of being wounded, or even killed, but of "showing the white feather": of displaying cowardice that would bring humiliation to family and friends back home. A large percentage of soldiers hoped for a battle wound ("a red badge of courage"), but uncertainty gripped all of them as they moved toward their first battle. Differing reactions occurred before hell literally broke loose. Soldiers remembered sweatiness, nervousness, praying fervently, "a violent pounding in the heart," "shaking hands with everyone around you," "losing control of bowels," and "urinating in pants."


Teenager Edward Edes of the 33rd Massachusetts wrote on the eve of his baptism in combat: "I have a mortal dread of the battlefield . . . I am afraid that the groans of the wounded & dying will make me shake, nevertheless I hope & trust that strength will be given me to stand up & do my duty." Edes performed admirably in his first battle but died of sickness a year later.

In marked contrast to Currier and Ives paintings and other orderly depictions of the Civil War, the actual fighting was not clean or visual at all. An assault tended to be an interrupted, accordion-like advance across a field with fixed bayonets. The attacking soldiers would rush forward a few yards, fire a volley, reload, dash several more yards, fire again, and then make a final run toward the enemy works. No matter how precise or meticulous the charge was designed to be, the whole situation tended to disintegrate the moment the battle began.


Feelings on going into combat were mixed. A Mississippian wrote of his initial battle action: "This was my first experience at being shot at, and I was as scared as the next man." One New York soldier who was part of an assault described his feelings to his sweetheart: "When we first started from our position, I thought of home, friends, and most everything else, but as soon as we entered the woods where the shells and balls were flying thick and fast, I lost all fear and thought of home and friends, and a reckless don't-care disposition seemed to take possession of me."

Men who had come from farms, factories, schools, and stores unanimously admitted that fighting was the hardest task they had ever performed. No time existed in battle for rest; food and water were practically nonexistent in the struggle. Anxiety, nervous energy, and exuberance all took such a toll that by midafternoon many soldiers were barely able to stand, much less to load and fire a gun.


No participant in the Civil War ever forgot a battle scene. It so exceeded anything they had ever witnessed that soldiers had difficulty composing word-pictures of it. Still, a Billy Yank came close to unloading all of his impressions with this account of the fighting at Gettysburg: "Foot to foot, body to body and man to man, they struggled, pushed and strived and killed. Each had rather die than yield. The mass of wounded and heaps of dead entangled the feet of the contestants, and, underneath the trampling mass, wounded men who could no longer stand, struggled, fought, shouted and killed—hatless, coatless, drowned in sweat, black with powder, red with blood, stifling in the horrid heat, parched with smoke and blind with dust, with fiendish yells and strange oaths they blindly plied the work of slaughter."

Chaos reigned everywhere. Thick, acrid smoke settled over the arena; and in the crash of musketry, the explosion of artillery fire, the screams of men fighting and dying, a soldier at best saw only what was directly in front of him. Officer casualties were high because it was customary for company, regimental, and brigade commanders to lead their men into action. Once thousands of troops became engaged in frenzied fighting, any firm control was impossible. The common soldiers were left to their own to wage the contest. Their courage and tenacity, both individually and collectively, often decided the outcome of the engagement.

In every army are men who can stand some things but not everything: soldiers whose feelings for survival override devotion to duty. When cowardice occurred in the Civil War, the steadfast ones viewed it with utter contempt. Sergeant Harold White of the 11th Iowa recalled at the battle of Shiloh that a frightened fugitive shouted as the Iowans moved into action: "Give them hell, boys! I gave them hell as long as I could!"

White observed: "Whether he had really given them any, I cannot say, but assuredly he gave them everything else he possessed, including his gun, cartridge box, and hat."

For every soldier who lacked fortitude in the Civil War, 100 others were quick to rise to the heights of courage. A call for volunteers for a dangerous task would bring shouts of response. When charging against concentrated musketry, Civil War soldiers were known to lean forward as if they were advancing into the face of a heavy rainstorm. Men jumped atop parapets to yell defiance at the enemy; they begged for the privilege of carrying the regimental colors; they took command without being told when all of the officers were disabled; they refused to leave the field when seriously wounded; many cheered on their comrades with their final dying breath.


Soldiers North and South came to have a mutual respect for the courage and sacrifice of their opponents. After the battle of Shiloh a Midwestern cannoneer praised the Confederates to a friend: "If we ever had a notion in our heads that those fellows couldn't shoot, it was dispelled." Another Billy Yank was even more laudatory of the Southerners in that contest. "Never did I see such men fight. When you heare . . . a man say they wont fight tell him he nows nothing bout them for wen our cannons would mow them down by hundreds others would follow and take their plase and fight like demons."

When a shell tore off both hands of a Confederate soldier, the man stared at his two bleeding stumps and mumbled: "My Lord, that stops my fighting." Major James Waddell stated in his official report of the battle of Second Manassas that his Georgia regiment "carried into the fight over 100 men who were barefoot, many of whom left bloody foot-prints among the thorns and briars through which they rushed with Spartan courage and jubilant impetuosity, upon the ranks of the foe." Before one of the bloodiest assaults of the war, Union soldiers were so convinced of the futility of their assignment that they wrote their names and units on pieces of paper and pinned them to their shirts so that the burial details could make easier identification. One New Englander hastily wrote in his diary: "June 3, 1864, Cold Harbor. I was killed." The journal was found in the coat pocket of the dead soldier.


With the end of a battle, the surviving participants soon felt a bone-deep weariness. Scores of them would begin searching the field, nearby hospital stations, and camp for a comrade who was missing. Only rarely would he be found. Soon after darkness fell, the soldiers would sink to the ground somewhere and, in spite of the screams and moans coming from the nearby battleground, sink into a fitful sleep of exhaustion.

The aftershock of battle could be traumatizing for the survivors. A soldier from Maine tried to tell his parents what part of one battle arena contained: "I have Seen . . men rolling in their own blood, Some Shot in one place, Some another. . . . our dead lay in the road and the Rebels in their hast to leave dragged both their baggage wagons and artillery over them and they lay mangled and torn to pieces so that Even friends could not tell them. You can form no idea of a battle field . . . no pen can describe it. No tongue can tell its horror." Another soldier noted: "When the fight was over & I saw what was done, the tears then came free. To think of civilized people killing one another like beasts. One would think that the supreme ruler would put a stop to it."

Sometimes the soldiers did precisely that on a momentary basis. During the war an amazing degree of fraternization took place between men of opposing armies. Pickets often shared conversation, newspapers, tobacco, coffee, even letters from home; unauthorized truces occurred more than once because of a blackberry patch or a swimming hole discovered in the no-man's land between opposing lines.

Many soldiers found it unnatural during the long periods of inactivity to shoot at an enemy who had become an acquaintance. At one point in the long siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Private George W. Buffum of Wisconsin told his wife: "We dont shute at woune a nother unles we let woune another no before we commenc fiering. We hay orders to fier wounc in a while to ceep the pickitts in snug, than we howler take care boys we are going to fier and then we lay to until we git threw."

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