Seasoning the Civil War Soldier

This entry is part 15 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Seasoned soldiersThe American Civil War marked the first use of mass armies on the North American continent. At the start of the war the United States Army had about 16,000 officers and men who were positioned in forts and bases throughout the country. The new Confederate States had no army other than militia forces from their component states.

In the first full year of the war both sides had an enormous task on their hands. They had to recruit hundreds of thousands of men. These recruits needed to clothed, armed and trained. Officers needed to be selected and trained along with their men.

The new Union Army needed to expand their quartermaster corps in order to provision their new army. The ordinance corps also required expansion in order to arm and supply their expanded army. The procurement of such mundane items as tents, wagons, horses and mules was required. Artillery needed to be ordered and routed to the new formations.

Meanwhile, on the Confederate side the military establishment needed to be established. All of the departments that were needed to create and supply an army needed to be created and staffed. Fortunately, the Confederacy had a number of officers who had been trained at West Point and had served in the United States Army. Still, it was a daunting task for both military establishments.

Both sides used their component states to raise, equip and train troops. Officers were very often local notables with little or no military experience. Regiments were raised by them who then appointed themselves colonels, lieutenant colonels or majors. In addition, governors appointed colonels and lieutenant colonels to state-raised regiments.

Needless to say, it was a very confusing system. States and regiments created their own uniforms. Many Union regiments wore gray while a number of Southern regiments wore blue. At the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run) friendly fire was caused by confusion caused by this. The idea that uniforms were actually uniform was laughable. Then, of course, both sides had regiments who were dressed as Zouaves, emulating French North African regiments.

In the early fighting both sides were no more than armed mobs. Expecting poorly trained recruits to maneuver and fight as a fluid unit was too much to ask. During the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles, officers on both sides were confused by the complex battle plans that may have looked good on a paper map but were too complex for the early armies to execute. The early Civil War battles were confusing and in many cases inconclusive due to complex battle plans.

The battlefield is two parts boredom and one part sheer terror. The boredom is from the marching and countermarching. The expression ‘hurry10th New York Zouaves up and wait’ is most fitting for military service. Troops marched for days before a battle. They they waited for the order to advance, Finally, they were ordered to attack a position, very often by frontal assault. Untrained or unseasoned troops very often broke and ran at the first shots of combat.

Soldiers required a period of seasoning before they became veterans capable of withstanding the rigors of combat. Most Civil War soldiers came from rural America. They came from the farms, villages and towns of America. The idea, for instance, that most Northern soldiers came from the cities is false. Antebellum America was mostly rural.

Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had a greater population than every Southern city than New Orleans (168,000). On the other hand, New York was the largest city in the North with 813,000 in 1860 followed by Philadelphia with 565,000. The city of Brooklyn was third with 266,000. It should be noted that the majority of immigrants arrived at Norther cites and generally settled there. There was more work available for them in Northern factories.

Soldiers needed to learn how to live in their camps, cook for themselves and most importantly take care of their physical well-being. military medicine on both sides remained rudimentary and principally concerned with rooting out malingerers. Principal responsibility for maintaining physical and mental health, as well as combat effectiveness, devolved to the soldiers themselves.

Over time, they acquired the skills required to look after their bodies and stave off melancholy, rendering themselves “seasoned soldiers.” Their respective armies depended on such men, even if they did not always understand or approve of their methods. What officers interpreted as desertion or straggling, the men often considered essential sojourns—necessary to mend bodies, augment diets, or restore nerves.

Soldiers were either in camp, marching to and from battle or fighting, two parts boredom and one part sheer terror. They were subjected to the harsh elements of the weather. Roads were dusty and quite often primitive. Sanitation facilities were almost non-existent.

In the summer they had to withstand the heat and high humidity of the South. In the winter, even though they were encamped, they were subjected to cold temperatures and snow, sleet or cold rain. It was very easy for the civil war soldier to contract diseases. In fact, more men died of disease than bullets or shrapnel. Many of the rural soldiers had never strayed far from home. They had never built up the immunities that we have today.

Gradually, soldiers became seasoned. They learned what was most necessary in terms of equipment and the best way to carry it. They became experienced at cooking and cleaning their utensils. The Civil War soldier learned to forage for food that was outside the normal supply lines. They gradually learned how to set up their camps quickly while on the march and break camp in the shortest amount of time.

The majority of private soldiers had never been under a doctor’s care at any time during their pre-military lives. Therefore, they already possessed a foundation of self -care when it came to treating sickness and maintaining general health. 

By 1863, soldiers on both sides of the conflict could be described as veterans. They had survived sicknesses in camp, learned how to take care of themselves and survived the terror of combat.

In the second half of the war, the seasoned soldier learned to entrench when they stopped for the night. They learned to fight behind their entrenchments. Their officers learned the value of the flank attack and advancing using all available cover. By 1864, both armies were composed for the most part with seasoned soldiers who fought with tenacity and courage.

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