Life in a Civil War 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
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
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
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"
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