Camping out at the Civil War
Next week marks the 137th anniversary of the most important battle of the Civil War (1861-65). Fierce fighting engulfed the rural crossroads of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. It was as far as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee got in his invasion of the North.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But a recent visit to a modern reenactment of a Civil War camp shows that a soldier's life wasn't just rushing from battle to battle. Most of his days were spent in camp. And in camp, boredom was the foe. To pass the time, officers drilled the men (made them practice). The men wrote letters, put on plays, even raced lice. Here are more glimpses of a soldier's life.
The North had the factories. The South was rich in raw materials. Economically, they seemed to be made for each other. But now they were at war. As battlefield opponents, the South had an edge in leadership; the North in the resources of war. Robert E. Lee had been Lincoln's first choice to lead the Northern troops. But Lee, a native Virginian, turned him down to command the Confederacy. Lincoln kept replacing commanders until he found an able leader in Ulysses S. Grant.
Many Southern commanders thought they would win if they could lure the Northern forces into attacking them when they were in a well-defended position, on home ground. This strategy had worked early in the war.
But Lee thought that Confederate victories in the North would shorten the war. Losses would turn the North's population against the war, and they would urge peace. On June 3, 1863, Lee invaded Pennsylvania. Six weeks later, his army was in retreat after Gettysburg.
CAMP ROUTINE: One soldier wrote: "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." Men in the camps drilled 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes going for days with nothing to eat and sleeping in barns or in the open under a poncho. Pet squirrels and dogs enlivened things. One Union regiment even had a pet eagle.
AUTHENTICITY TODAY: Grampy Grehl of the 56th Pennsylvania Infantry had just finished a meal at a reenactment of a Civil War camp in Harrisburg, Pa., recently. He'd had smoked salmon, hardtack (a kind of hard flatbread), and apples - an authentic meal. But he was miffed at some other reenactors who lacked authenticity. Soldiers here could snack on funnel cakes, hot dogs, or lemonade if they were tired of camp grub. A group of rugged-looking Union soldiers walked past with fat-free fruit smoothies. Portable bathrooms were everywhere, not at all like the latrines dug by soldiers in the 1860s.
Zouave (Union) Soldier
A French-Algerian military drill team had toured the United States in 1860. They had flashy uniforms with pantaloons, sashes, turbans, and leggings. Originally, the French had recruited Zouaves (zoo-AHVZ) from the Zouaoua tribe in Algeria. When the Civil War broke out, copycat Zouave units, with uniforms patterned after the foreign soldiers, attracted eager volunteers in both the North and South. One such unit, the 11th New York Fire Zouaves, was made up entirely of volunteers from the New York City Fire Department. As the war ground on, though, few units managed to retain their bright dress.