Life In A Civil War Army Camp
"If there is any place on God's fair earth where wickedness 'stalketh abroad in daylight' it is in the army," wrote a Confederate soldier in a letter to his family back home. Indeed, life in the army camps of the Civil War was fraught with boredom, mischief, fear, disease, and death.
Army regulations called for the camps to be laid out in a fixed grid pattern, with officers' quarters at the front end of each street and enlisted men's quarters aligned to the rear. The camp was set up roughly along the lines the unit would draw up in a line of battle and each company displayed its colors on the outside of its tents. Regulations also defined where the mess tents, medical cabins, and baggage trains should be located. Often, however, lack of time or a particularly hilly or narrow terrain made it impossible to meet army regulations. The campgrounds themselves were often abysmal, especially in the South where wet weather produced thick mud for extended periods in the spring and summer; in the winter and fall, the mud turned to dust.
In summer, troops slept in canvas tents. At the beginning of the war, both sides used the Sibley tent, named for its inventor, Henry H. Sibley, who later became a Confederate brigadier general. A large cone of canvas, 18 feet in diameter, 12 feet tall, and supported by a center pole, the tent had a circular opening at the top for ventilation, and a cone-shaped stove for heat. Although designed to fit a dozen men comfortably, army regulations assigned about 20 men to each tent, leading to cramped, uncomfortable quarters. When ventilation flaps were closed on cold or rainy days, the air inside the tent became fetid with the odors of men who had scarce access to clean water in which to bathe.
As the war dragged on, the Sibley was replaced with smaller tents. The Federal armies favored the wedge tent, a six-foot length of canvas draped over a horizontal ridgepole and staked to the ground at the sides with flaps that closed. off one end. When canvas became scarce in the South, many Confederates were forced to rig open-air beds by heaping straw or leaves between two logs. In autumn and winter, those units that were able to find wood built crude huts, laying split logs on the earth floor and fashioning bunks with mattresses of pine needles.
When not in battle, which was at least three quarters of the time, the average soldier's day began at 5 A.M. in the summer and 6 A.M. in the winter, when he was awakened by reveille. After the first sergeant took the roll call, the men ate breakfast then prepared for their first of as many as five drill sessions during the day. Here the men would learn how to shoot their weapons and perform various maneuvers. Drill sessions lasted approximately two hours each and, for most men, were exceptional exercises in tedium. One soldier described his days in the army like this: "The first thing in the morning is drill. Then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly drill."
In the few intervals between drill, soldiers cleaned the camp, built roads, dug trenches for latrines, and gathered wood for cooking and heating. Finding clean water was a constant goal: the lack of potable water was a problem that led to widespread disease in both armies. At the outset of the war, the soldiers on both sides were relatively well-fed: the mandated daily ration for a Federal soldier in 1861 included at least 20 ounces of fresh or salt beef, or 12 ounces of salt pork; more than a pound of flour, and a vegetable, usually beans. Coffee, salt, vinegar, and sugar were provided as well. Supplies became limited when armies were moving fast and supply trains could not reach them in the field.
When in the field, soldiers saw little beef and few vegetables; they subsisted for the most part on salt pork, dried beans, corn bread, and hardtack-a flour-and-water biscuit often infested with maggots and weevils after storage. Outbreaks of scurvy were common due to a frequent lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.
By far, the most important staple in the minds of the soldiers was coffee. Men pounded the beans between rocks or crushed them with the butts of their rifles to obtain grounds with which to brew the strong drink. Although most Federals were well-supplied with coffee, the Confederates were often forced to make do with substitutes made from peanuts, potatoes, peas, and chicory.
Most armies were forced at some point to live off the land. The Confederates, who fought mostly on home ground, tried harder to curb pillaging, preferring to request donations from townspeople rather than steal supplies or take them by force. Attached to most armies was the sutler, a purveyor of all goods not issued by the army, including tobacco, candy, tinned meats, shoelaces, patent medicines, fried pies, and newspapers. Sutlers were known for their steep prices and shoddy goods, but soldiers desperate for cigarettes, sweets, and news from home were willing to use their pay for these treats.
Boredom stalked both armies almost as often as did hunger. When not faced with the sheer terror of battle, the days in camp tended to drag endlessly. The sheer tedium of camp life led the men to find recreational outlets. "There is some of the onerest men here that I ever saw," wrote a new recruit, "and the most swearing and card playing and fitin [fighting] and drunkenness that I ever saw at any place."
When not drilling or standing guard, the troops read, wrote letters to their loved ones, and played any game they could devise, including baseball, cards, boxing matches, and cockfights. One competition involved racing lice or cockroaches across a strip of canvas. As hard as most commanders attempted to control vice in camp, both gambling and drinking were rampant, especially after payday. Confederate General Braxton Bragg concurred: "We have lost more valuable lives at the hands of whiskey sellers than by the balls of our enemies."
Army regulations prohibited the purchase of alcohol by enlisted men, and soldiers who violated the rule were punished, but men on both sides found ways around it. Members of a Mississippi company got a half a gallon of whisky past the camp guards by concealing it in a hollowed-out watermelon; they then buried the melon beneath the floor of their tent and drank from it with a long straw. If they could not buy liquor, they made it. One Union recipe called for "bark juice, tar-water, turpentine, brown sugar, lamp oil, and alcohol."
When not drinking or gambling, some men escaped the tedium of daily army life by enjoying "horizontal refreshments," as visiting prostitutes became known. Thousands of prostitutes thronged the cities in the war zones and clustered about the camps. By 1862, for instance, Washington, D.C., had 450 bordellos and at least 7,500 full-time prostitutes; Richmond, as the center of prostitution in the Confederacy, had about an equal number. Venereal disease among soldiers was prevalent and largely uncontrolled. About eight percent of the soldiers in the Union army were treated for venereal disease during the war and a great many cases were unreported; figures for the Confederacy are unavailable, but assumed to be about equal in proportion. With the invention of penicillin more than 70 years away, treating venereal disease with herbs and minerals such as pokeweed, elderberries, mercury, and zinc sulfate may have eased symptoms but did nothing to cure the disease.
Even more pervasive than boredom, gambling, or venereal disease was homesickness. Men spent more time writing letters and hoping to receive them than any other leisure activity. Furloughs were rarely granted, and most soldiers had few opportunities to spend extended periods of time away from the army. Federal troops were often stationed too far from home to have time to get home, while Southern armies, short of manpower, needed every available soldier to fight. For better or worse, Civil War soldiers were forced to call camp home for the duration of their terms of service.
Source: The Civil War Society's "Encyclopedia of the Civil War"
This Page last updated 02/10/02
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR ARMIES PAGE