Camp Life in the Civil War

This entry is part 2 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Camp lifeThe American Civil War like many wars was one of sporadic combat interspersed with periods of stultifying boredom. Armies spent large parts of the war encamped waiting for the next big fight. “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.

Camps for both armies were 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. On occasion, the terrain would preclude such uniformity.

In the spring and summer months troops slept in canvas tents. At the start of the war both sides used a tent that had been invented by Henry H. Sibley, who later became a Confederate brigadier general. The Sibley tent was 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. It was designed to hold 12 men but army regulations changed that to 20 men, making sleeping uncomfortable and crowded.

As the war dragged on the Sibley tent was replaced by smaller tents. The Union army used a wedge-shaped tent that was about six feet long. It was made of canvas and was draped over a horizontal ridge pole. Staked to the ground on the sides, it was closed on one end and open on the other.

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 fighting or marching to a fight, which was about 75% of the time, soldiers in both armies rose at 5:00 AM in the summer and 6:00 AM in the winter. After roll call, the troops ate breakfast and prepared for drill exercises. During the course of the typical day there may have been as many as five different two-hour long periods of drill exercises. 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.”

During the intervals between drill exercises, the soldiers cleaned the camp, built roads, dug trenches for latrines, and gathered wood for cooking and heating. Finding clean and potable drinking water was constant goal. The lack of clean water was the chief cause of sickness among the troops. Sickness killed more men during the civil war than did battle wounds.

In a letter home Philip W. Hudson of the 1st Connecticut Infantry wrote a description of his typical day. Here it is in part:

Reveille and roll call at 4:45 A.M.; 1st drill from 5½ to 7 A.M., when we have (what we can get) breakfast. Surgeon’s call at 8 o’clock, when all those unwell who can walk call at the surgeon’s tent for medicine, advice, &c.; at 9 o’clock A.M., guard mounting, when a new officer of the day, officer of the guard, sergeants and corporals of the guard, and seven men from each company, are detailed to guard the camp for the next 24 hours, and relieve the guard that is on. 

The 2d drill is from 9 1/2 to 11 1/2 A.M., when we are dismissed for dinner; 3d drill, from 1 to 3 P.M.; 4th drill from 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 P.M.; dress parade at 6 1/2 P.M…. Tattoo and roll call at 9 1/2 P.M.; 15 minutes later there are three taps of the drum, when every light in the men’s tents must be out.

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.

Boredom was a large part of life in both armies. “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 engaged in the more military activities of camp life, soldiers engaged in different competitions to fight boredom. They 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.

Army commanders attempted to curb gambling and drinking in the camps to little avail. Confederate General Braxton Bragg wrote, “We have lost more valuable lives at the hands of whiskey sellers than by the balls of our enemies.” 

Prostitution was pervasive around camps and in both capitals. 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 was prevalent in both armies with about 8% of men in the Union army treated for the disease. Figures for the Confederacy are unavailable, but assumed to be about equal in proportion.

Men in both armies spent large amounts of their time writing. They wrote letters home and they wrote in diaries. Much of the small details of life in both armies have been gleaned from letters and diaries of soldiers.



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