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.
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.
FOOD: Rations for a Union soldier in 1861 were generous. They might have included 20 ounces of fresh beef, 22 ounces of bread or flour, a pound of potatoes three times a week, 12 ounces of bacon, plus tea, coffee, sugar, and more. Late in the war, though, many meals consisted of salt beef or pork and hardtack. Hardtack is a flat, hard biscuit made of flour, salt, and water. Soldiers dubbed it "sheet-iron cakes," or "worm castles" (Meat and hardtack were often spoiled or infested with maggots and weevils.) Vegetables were scarce. Soldiers ate beans or desiccated vegetables. Desiccated vegetables had been cooked, compacted into blocks, and dried.
A Union soldier's pay was $13 a month. With it, they bought goods from the sutler, a camp merchant who sold everything from pot pies to shoelaces. Soldiers often spent all their pay at the sutlers.
SHELTER: When the war started, most men slept in conical Sibley tents, named after Confederate Gen. Henry Sibley. They were designed to sleep 12 men, but 20 usually slept in them. (The smell, even by 19th-century standards, was powerful.) The soldiers slept on straw, wedged together on the floor of the tent like spoons. When one yelled "Spoon!" they all would roll over together. Six-man "wedge tents" and two-man "dog tents" were introduced later. Tentless soldiers, often Confederate troops, would make open-air beds by piling straw or leaves between two logs. Soldiers built crude huts for winter quarters. Some dug "gopher holes" into hillsides or ravines to stay warm.
HyGiene: Soldiers were supposed to bathe weekly and wash their face and hands daily. Sometimes they did neither. This led to lice infestations - not to mention mice and ants - in the camps.
Soldiers picked lice off one another. Or, in desperation, men boiled their clothes. But if they found a fast louse, they might keep it. Lice racing was a popular pastime. Lice would be placed in the center of a plate. Whichever reached the outer edge first was the winner.
Drummer boys (perhaps as young as 9, as old as 18) set the cadence on a march and helped boost morale. They stuck close to the general to drum his orders to the men. During battle, a drum might signal the soldiers to commence firing. Later, it might "beat a retreat." Drummers also helped feed the horses, brought water to the men, and cooked meals. Some gave haircuts. One famous Union drummer boy, Johnny Clem, reportedly fought in battles. He was later captured, exchanged for another prisoner, and returned to the front.
literate pastimes: Letter-writing helped to pass the time. A soldier might enclose a picture taken by one of the visiting photographers who passed through camp. Some camps set up small libraries with novels like Alexandre Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo" and Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe." Men played cards. Theater was also common.
Baseball: Before the war, baseball was a gentleman's game, played by wealthy people who had leisure time. But when soldiers got bored, baseball got popular. Competition was fierce, and some regiments had first- and second-string teams. On Christmas Day 1862, about 40,000 soldiers watched a game in Hilton Head, S.C., between the 165th New York Volunteer Infantry and a team made up of other Union regiments. After the war, professional baseball prospered because of all the new fans the war had created.
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