Mr. McKay's American Civil War Notes



To Arms, To Arms!

-       Brief General Overview of the War and Era Politics

Let us begin by looking at how the Civil War began. Buckle your seatbelts, folks, this is going to be a fast and scary ride! It did not just spring up overnight, of course, nor was there one simple political or social issue involved. The seeds were sown much earlier in our nation's history, with some elements of what grew into the bitter and often violent sectional crisis apparent in some of the earliest attempts at colonization. While the very first attempts at colonization were done purely for means of profit (by the way making the United States the only country in the world that both was created for financial purposes and whose national anthem mentions rockets and bombs!), the New England colonies soon turned into small-plot farming, trading and manufacturing centers with strong religious overtones, while the Southern colonies established their status as major agricultural producers of products requiring large numbers of workers. To turn a profit, these large plantations required the use of slave labor, or at a bare minimum, very poorly paid workers or sharecroppers.

            The period between 1830 and 1860 was a time of rapid growth that emphasized the basic sectional differences. The nation's population during these three decades increased from 12.8 million to nearly 31.5 million - an amazing 140 percent increase. The number of states grew from 24 to 34, reflecting the country's intense interest in settling beyond the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. New states emerged in every region: Arkansas, Florida and Texas in the south; Iowa and Kansas in the nation's heartland; Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 'Old Northwest'; Oregon and California on the Pacific coast. Despite the nation's growth, however, people habitually referred to the nation as "these" United States, a subtle reference to the ongoing struggle between the power of the individual states and overriding federal control.

            There were 10 presidents during these 30 years. Andrew Jackson, the first "modern" Democrat, was inaugurated as the nation's seventh president in 1829. Abraham Lincoln, the first "modern" Republican, was sworn in as the 16th chief executive in 1860. In between, there was not a single two-term president. The struggle for partisan leadership in the White House resembled a game of political badminton. Jackson and his fellow Democrats controlled presidential politics through the 1830s. A third party, the Whigs, was organized in the mid-1830s in an attempt to unite various coalitions opposed to what they considered Jackson's executive tyranny. They were remarkably successful during most of the 1840s, but party leaders never developed a strong, identifiable party program. Democrats reclaimed control of the White House in the 1850s. Republican Lincoln was elected in 1860, without even appearing on the ballot in most Southern states, an act that seemingly "proved" to secessionists that the North would not allow the South to hold or maintain any political power in Washington.


            - Slavery

            Slavery was a practice begun in the Virginia colony in 1609. From the very beginning, it was particularly identified with the South, where economics centered primarily on large scale, manpower intensive agriculture. In the North, an area with more advanced manufacturing and industrialization, the sentiment usually was against slavery, usually based on moral or religious objections. However, slavery existed in every single Northern state until the time of the American Revolution, although usually restricted to a relatively small group per owner, working in family farms or in factories and mines. In addition, the fact that Northern factories required and perpetuated a system of worker exploitation, usually of newly arriving immigrants, that in many ways mirrored the Southern slave system, is usually lost in the emotional abolitionist debates.

            As new states were admitted to the union, pro- and antislavery proponents became vocal, both fearing loss of percentage representation, and thus political power, in the U.S. Congress. The Missouri Compromise was adopted in 1820, allowing the admission of Missouri as a slave state, while Maine was cut from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state to balance Congress with an equal number of representatives from slave and free states. This compromise outlawed slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Territory, north of Missouri's southern boundary. Even at that early date, the issues evoked concern. "We have a wolf by the ears," Thomas Jefferson said, "and we can neither safely hold him, nor safely let him go."


            - Mid 19th-Century Political Debates

            As the debate over slavery raged in the 1820s and 1830s, two particular positions arose as a Southern answer to the seeming pro-Northern stance taken by Washington politics; "State's Rights" and "Nullification." States' rights was a term usually associated with South Carolina and its prominent political leader John C. Calhoun. This political position suggests a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as it relates to federal powers and state autonomy. Returning to the same territory covered in the very earliest debates over the Constitution, a "strict" interpretation means that only what is literally written into the document itself has any legal power, while a "loose" interpretation holds that the Constitution is a relatively simple framework which cannot possibly address every given circumstance, and must be used as a basic reference to infer how it holds in specific cases. By the time Calhoun became President Andrew Jackson's vice president, states' rights were a source of heated debate both in Washington and across the country.

            Nullification was another word commonly attributed to Calhoun. He, along with fellow South Carolinians and other Southerners, said individual states existed prior to the political formation of the United States under the Constitution. Therefore the states themselves could interpret the U.S. Constitution and "nullify" any action by the Federal government they considered unauthorized or unconstitutional. South Carolina put its nullification philosophy into action in 1832, after Congress passed legislation that put protective duties, also know as tariffs, on manufactured goods. Congressmen from the industrialized north and west supported the bill; Southerners, who had few manufacturing concerns, disliked it. South Carolina enacted an ordinance of nullification, which declared the national law as not applicable within the state's boundaries.

            South Carolina considered its right to nullify a federal law an issue important enough to merit seceding from the union. After South Carolina enacted its ordinance of nullification, President Jackson charged Calhoun, his own Vice President, with treason and threatened to have him hanged. To the Nullifiers, the president said, "Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right is confounding." Jackson added, "The laws of the United States must be executed. I have no discretionary power on the subject."


            Pre-War Presidents and Politics

            In 1833, as Jackson began his second term in the White House, his trusted friend, Martin Van Buren, was the new vice president. Calhoun had broken with Jackson over the tariff issue, and resigned in protest to return to a South Carolina leadership position. That same year, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay helped the nation avoid a serious crisis over the tariff issue. Clay, a native Virginian and former secretary of state, had been an unsuccessful presidential candidate against Jackson the previous year. Clay devised a new tariff law designed to lower duties over a period of years. His plan gave South Carolina enough political elbow room to repeal its nullification ordinance, and in time, Clay became known as the Great Compromiser.

            In 1840, the nation's population topped 17 million. Jackson's handpicked successor, Van Buren, faced a military hero, Whig William Henry Harrison, in his bid for reelection. Earlier in the year, Clay had challenged Harrison for the Whig nomination and lost. Clay, a presidential candidate in 1824, 1832 and later in 1844, commented, "I am the most unfortunate man in the history of parties; always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed when I, or anyone, would be sure of an election." An antislavery group called the Liberty Party also ran a candidate. Harrison won and was inaugurated the following March, but he became ill and lived just one more month.

            Vice President John Tyler, a man of more obscure political leanings, succeeded Harrison. Calhoun, meanwhile, became Tyler's secretary of state. In 1844, Clay ran for president again and lost to Democrat James Polk. Four years later, Whig Zachary Taylor, another war hero, became a presidential candidate. The frequently unsuccessful Liberty Party, with its antislavery platform, merged with the Free Soil Party and advocated that slavery be excluded in the territories and banned in new states. In another of the long list of defeats for abolitionist forces in the antebellum period, Whig Taylor won that election. He, too, died in office and was succeeded by Vice President Millard Fillmore.

            Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster was a member of President Fillmore's cabinet, and perhaps the only really bright star in that dim bunch. Webster gained national fame in 1830, when he spoke out against South Carolina's nullification principles. He served as secretary of state for both presidents Harrison and Tyler, and he was an unsuccessful Whig candidate for president in 1836. Webster was appointed secretary of state in July 1850, just four months after delivering his stirring speech in the U.S. Senate in support of the Compromise of 1850. This compromise was designed to prevent a national split over the issue of territorial slavery. In his famous Seventh of March speech, Webster said, "I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American." He urged his fellow Northerners to accept a stronger runaway slave law and Southerners to give up all thought of secession. "Peaceable secession!" Webster exclaimed, "Heaven forbid."


            Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, at 5-foot-4 and 90 pounds and known as the Little Giant, efficiently maneuvered the Clay-inspired Compromise of 1850 through Congress. The bill authorized the acquisition of the Southwest Territory after the Mexican War and again raised the issue of territorial slavery. California was admitted as a free state; the rest of the Southwest was divided into two sections, one with slavery and one without.


            While adopting the 1850 compromise legislation, Congress passed another act to abolish slave trading in the District of Columbia and help slave owners recover runaways. Known as the Fugitive Slave Act, it was a new law for an old problem. It inflamed ill feelings between sectionalist leaders as well as proponents of both slavery and abolitionism. Partially as a response to this act, Uncle Tom's Cabin was written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe and heralded by abolitionists. It avoided overtly self-righteous accusations and described slaves as victims of an evil, Southern system. It had a major impact on Northerner sympathizers. In England, Queen Victoria was said to have cried when she read it.


            Senator Clay died in Washington in 1852; funeral services were held in the U.S. Senate chambers. Four months later, Secretary of State Webster died in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Senator Douglas, meanwhile, was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. The nod went instead to Franklin Pierce, who defeated Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War. Pierce was inaugurated in Washington in March 1853. Among Pierce's cabinet members was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.


            Senator Douglas returned to national prominence in 1854, when he introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill to establish a territorial government west of Missouri, divide the region into slave and free sections and repeal the law that banned slavery north of Missouri's southern border. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the result of Senator Douglas' bill, prompted thousands of both pro- and antislavery supporters to pour into Kansas to try and overthrown the established government. There were considerable outbreaks of death and destruction (thus the term "Bleeding Kansas"), including a deadly raid in the small settlement at Pottawatomie Creek led by abolitionist John Brown. Northerners, including Douglas' own supporters, were outraged by the Kansas act. The legislation destroyed the senator's presidential aspirations and led the nation farther down the road toward an inevitable national conflict.


            "Free Soil, Free Speech, Fremont" was the slogan of the new Republican Party in the 1856 presidential campaign. The slogan was used by advocates who wanted to ban territorial slavery, end abolitionist literature and elect John C. Fremont as president. The Republicans skipped over Douglas to run Fremont against a Pennsylvania bachelor, James Buchanan, the ultimate victor. Buchanan did little to stop the widening split between the North and South. In fact, it is quite hard to uncover pretty much anything that Buchanan did during his presidency, that was actually useful in the political realms. In the Panic of 1857, a number of banks collapsed after American grain producers dropped grain prices in response to increased Russian grain exports. The South survived the 1857 panic, in large part, because of Europe's continued demand for cotton. Southerners, aware of the power of the cotton trade and convinced the North would now avoid interfering with their states' rights philosophy, proclaimed "Cotton is King" as a term of assumed triumph over Northern trade policies.


            That same year, in its Dred Scott Decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it deprived slave owners the right to take their "property" wherever they wanted. In this case, Scott, a slave, was taken into the Wisconsin Territory for a protracted length of time, where slavery was banned. A one-term Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence in 1858, challenging incumbent Senator Douglas. Lincoln, in his famous "House Divided" speech at the senatorial nominating convention, predicted "This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." Many, including conservative Northerners, took his speech as a call for abolishing slavery - a position Lincoln never openly supported prior to the Civil War. Throughout the campaign, particularly in a notable joint appearance in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln pressed Douglas on two issues; the Senator's Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the Supreme Court's Scott decision. Of Douglas, it can be said he won the battle but lost the war: He defeated Lincoln in the Illinois senate race, but he lost to Lincoln in the presidential election two years later.


            The Constitutional Union Party was a third-party faction that adopted a platform in 1860 in support of the Union and the U.S. Constitution, without regard to sectional issues. While Lincoln and Douglas were the prime contenders for the presidency in 1860, the Constitutional Union Party ran Tennessean John Bell, a former U.S. Senator and secretary of war. Bell said Americans had a patriotic duty to "recognize no political principle other than the Constitution, the Union of the States, and the enforcement of the laws." He carried his home state plus Kentucky and Virginia, where sharply divided voters clearly realized that any possible bloodshed likely would erupt in their region.

Lincoln was elected president in 1860, and South Carolina seceded a month later. Then, in quick succession prior to Lincoln's March 1861 inaugural, the union lost six more states: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Within a few months, four more states joined the new Confederate States of America: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina.


            Kansas was admitted to the union just five weeks before Lincoln's inaugural. This new state aligned with 18 other Northern, non-slave states in the Northeast, north of the Ohio River and just beyond the Mississippi River. The North included the states of California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin; and the territories of Colorado, Dakota Nebraska, Nevada and Washington. Separating the North and South were so-called border states - Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, as well as the District of Columbia and the New Mexico Territory, all of whom contained a significant population of slaves. In addition, many parts of the South were heavily pro-Union, including eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northern Georgia and Alabama, but most notably western Virginia, which was admitted to the Union as a separate state in 1863.


            - "John Brown's Raid"

            "John Brown's Raid" was an 1859 violent antislavery act that struck peaceful, prosperous Harpers Ferry, in the mountains of western Virginia. Brown, the Kansas abolitionist, plotted for months before raiding the town because it was what he described as "the safest natural entrance to the Great Black Way." According to Brown, "Here, amid the mighty protection of overwhelming numbers, lay a path from slavery to freedom." Brown, a self-described "instrument of God sent to liberate all slaves," captured the federal arsenal and refused to surrender. He was captured two days later when a detachment of U.S. Marines lead by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the arsenal. Brown was indicted and tried for treason in nearby Charles Town. To many, particularly in the North, he was a martyr. Ironically, the first man killed in the raid was a freed slave.


            - The Cause of the War

Perhaps the single greatest factor, though, behind both the cause and results of the Civil War is the fact that there were, and to some extent still are, serious and vast differences between the people who settled in the North (especially the New England states), and those who immigrated into the South (especially in the Carolinas). Grady McWhiney, in his superb work, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage, quotes numerous Northern sources, both before and after the war, displaying what appears to be widely held and quite disparaging attitudes towards their Southern neighbors:


-       " Yankees were advised to "mingle freely" with Southerners, "and strive to bring up their habits , by a successful example, to the New England standard."

-       Another Northerner commented" "I believe that the great conception of a Christian society, which was in the minds of the Pilgrims of the Mayfloweršis to displace and blot out the foul [South], šwith all its heaven-offending enormities; thatšour vast and heterogeneousšpopulation is either to be subdued and won to its principles and its blessing or to give place to the seed of the righteous."

-       Another even wrote openly in favor of genocide, "I would exterminate them root and branch. They have often said they preferred it before subjugation, and, with the help of God, I would give it to them." Perhaps carried away by his own rhetoric, he adds in a sort of lame defense, "I am only saying what thousands say every day."


These seriously deep divisions reached even into the Evangelical Protestant pulpits, formerly a place where regionalism held little sway. By the 1830s, however, the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists had all divided into Northern and Southern branches, divided primarily over the issue of slavery. The disdain the two branches displayed towards each other could not have been more stark ā many Northern evangelicals viewed their Southern brethren as irreverent barbarians, with the Southern land itself indelibly stained by the crime of slavery. For their part, the Southern evangelicals viewed their northern counterparts as practicing a dangerous heterodoxy, ignoring or deliberately misinterpreting Scripture in order to advance their own political and social reform movements. Both, however, shared the view that they themselves were carrying out God's will, and the other side was challenging it.


Perhaps most telling in the differing Evangelical views was their views on the role of the church in the larger secular society. The Northern churches saw God's holiness as touching the entire country, calling out for social reforms that would perfect both individuals and the nation, and in the end would create a Christian perfect "city on a hill," carrying out the will of God not only in this nation but the whole world. In contrast, Southern evangelicals placed emphasis only on the morality of individuals, with almost no comment on secular society. In their view, only God had the sovereign right to reform society, and to try to do so themselves would have been seen as challenging His will.



            To sum all this up, it is fairly obvious that by no later than 1850, a civil war was inevitable. I believe strongly that such a war was inevitable shortly after the Revolution itself, as evidenced by the uprising known as the "Whiskey Rebellion" of 1794. That action involved the armed rebellion of a relative handful of small-plot farmers in Pennsylvania against crippling and unequally imposed Federal taxes, and the crushing of said rebellion by a massive show of federal military force over objection from the state's governor. What this incident revealed was the real danger of the national government (or any level of government, for that matter), working in a vacuum, responding to very real needs on the one hand without sufficiently considering the negative affect their actions might have in other areas.


            I think a contemporary example of this is the "gay marriage" issue that has cropped up in the last few weeks. Putting aside the religious and moral objections to this, I still think you can see some of the same sorts of political seeds that preceded the Civil War, and yes, I do think that we are in grave danger of another national crisis in this instance. In both cases, you have one section of the political spectrum insisting it has the right, if not obligation, to perform certain actions that are not directly addressed by the Constitution, while other parts of the political spectrum insist just as violently that the other side has no such authority or right to perform those actions.



-       Introduction to Mid-19th Century Military Strategy and Tactics

Whenever the subject of Civil War combat is at hand, inevitably the question arise, "Why did they just stand there in those big lines and shot at each other, instead of hiding in or behind something?" There are two answers to this question, as battle tactics evolved very quickly in the first years of the war. First, the popular perception that Civil War era armies basically just lined up facing each other and blazed away is pretty close to the reality of it, at least in the very early stages of the war. The reason they stood in the big lines was because the prevailing military thought in antebellum times was that warfare was "linear," that is, the object of battle was to confront the opposing army in the field and force it to give ground.


By far, the most influential military strategist during the Civil War period was a Frenchman, Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini (picture). Although his early 19th-century theories were criticized even by his own contemporaries (Napoleon himself dismissed his writings out of hand, while the Duke of Wellington thought him a "pompous charlatan"), Lee, Johnston, Longstreet, McDowell and Grant all were well familiar with his work, and their initial (and sometimes late) battlefield strategies reflected this.


In short, de Jomini held that:


-       Offensive warfare was by far superior to defensive warfare

-       A great importance was placed on the establishment and maintenance of "interior lines"

-       The key to winning a battle is to discover the "decisive point" (he always held that there was only one in a given battlefield), and to place superior power there

-       War is a stage for heroes, a "great drama," and that this spirit must be developed within the armies themselves (called the "spirit of the bayonet" at the time)


This last point may well be the crucial element of determining why the war developed as it did. One of the most influential American military tacticians prior to the war was U.S. Army Lt. (later CSA Major General) William J. Hardee. His primary work, Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, is a "nuts and bolts" version of de Jomini's theories, giving practical steps to commanders on how to train and lead their troops into battle. It is worth noting that both the Union and Confederate Armies officially used Hardee's as their leading tactical manual in the early parts of the war, and that the Union Army never officially dropped it's use, despite the fact that it's author was eventually in command of a Confederate Corps.


            Hardee's most lasting influence on the war was it's heavy emphasis on "stand up and face the enemy like a man" use of close-order drill and employment of the bayonet. This two illustrations are from the Bayonet Exercises section of Hardee's, and I think they speak for themselves as to their usefulness on the battlefield.


            Most ordinary soldiers are a step or two (or ten) ahead of their commanders as to the real tactical situation on the battlefield, and turned to digging in whenever possible pretty early on. As we shall see in the evening to come, most commanders of that era had little clue on how to handle attacks on entrenched, fortified positions, and few were inclined to engage in such seemingly unmanly practices. Confederate Captain John Ellis wrote of such in 1862 to his father, "We want Stonewall Jackson fighting that hurls masses against the enemy's army. The policy of entrenching will ruin our cause if adopted here. The truth is it never paid anywhere."



            Organization of the Armies

            Both the Union and the Confederate armies were organized along the same lines, both as a result of practices in the pre-war U.S. Army. The following lists the smallest usual organization up to the largest field command, but remember that these are just the "way it was supposed to be" numbers, and that very few field units came anywhere close to these strengths. Confederate forces towards the end of the war were especially decimated - with no replacements available, desertion widespread and each battle taking a heavier and heavier toll, many regiments or brigades were represented by a mere handful of men when they surrendered.

            CSA Private Sam Watkins talked about this in his book, Co. Aytch, where he mentions that his regiment, the 1st Tennessee Infantry, left for the war in 1861 with 1,250 officers and men. Even after consolidating with the 27th Tennessee Infantry Regiment and another independent infantry battalion, and adding another 350 replacements over the next four years to a grand total of 3,200 men in the combined regiments, only 65 were still standing next to their colors at the end. Some other regiments combined with three, four or even five others towards the end, yet had fewer to surrender than Watkins regiment.

            Ranks of officers who commanded at each level were equally as irregular as the number of men they commanded. Listed below are the "book" numbers, those that at least on paper were the authorized commander's rank and number of men, but these tended to vary wildly, especially towards the beginning and end of the war. Battlefield casualties among the upper ranks were very high when compared to other conflicts; this was a war where by and large the officers took seriously their charge to lead their men into battle. Franklin is an excellent example of the danger in this; nearly half of all the Confederate regimental commanders were killed or wounded, as well as twelve general officers. Six of these generals were killed, one captured, and three of the other five wounded so badly that they never were able to command again.



            A company was the basic unit to which a soldier belonged, and was usually raised in a single county, often having a great percentage of its men related by birth or marriage. It was supposed to have 100 (sometimes 101) men and officers, and was usually commanded by a Captain. In the post-war South, it became habitual to refer to a distinguished veteran as "Captain John Smith;" some sources suggest this was a title given to the last survivor of a company, and thus the de-facto company 'commander,' but this seems highly speculative. Depending heavily on different theaters in the opposing armies, companies also had one to three lieutenants, one to six sergeants, and assorted numbers of corporals. A First Sergeant usually ran the 'nuts and bolts' of the company, and stood behind them in line of battle to help keep the lines properly formed and to make sure no one ran away.



            More usual in today's army than during the Civil War, a battalion consisted of three to five companies, usually commanded by a major. Most independent battalions were assimilated into regiments by the second year of the war, but a few stayed on as organizations of sappers, snipers, engineers or other such special duty troops.



            The central and often most important element of both side's armies, a regiment consisted of 10 companies with 1,000 men, commanded by a lieutenant colonel, or sometimes a full colonel. Almost always raised from the same geographic area, the men identified with their regiment both on and off the battlefield, and always looked to the "colors," the unique regimental battle flag, for where they should stand, fight and advance towards during battle.

            Most regiments, particularly Union regiments, had a small command staff consisting of a major as Adjunct (doing the same duties today's Executive Officer does); a Surgeon and one or more of his assistants to treat the wounded and sick; a Quartermaster, who looked after their supplies; a Commissary, who controlled the kitchens and food supplies; and one or more senior sergeants.



            Brigades were composed of two to seven (or even more on occasion) regiments, and usually commanded by a brigadier general. Some brigades had artillery or cavalry commands attached to them, particularly early in the war, and would almost always have a brigade staff very similar in size and positions to the regimental staffs. Brigades at full strength would, at least in theory, have somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 men, but most often had in the neighborhood of 1,500 to 2,000 effective troops.



            A division is composed of two to six brigades and was almost always commanded by a major general, accompanied by a larger staff than on the brigade level, but again performing almost the same tasks. Divisions were the usual maneuver organization; meaning that when an attack was planned by the highest headquarters involved in a battle, divisional level organizations were usually sent in to perform a specific task. In theory, a division commanded some 6,000 to 15,000 troops, but only rarely had more than 10,000 available at any given time.



            A corps was the largest usual maneuver organization on either side, commanded by Union major generals or Confederate lieutenant generals, and composed of two to six divisions. Again, in theory, they could field about 20,000 to 60,000 troops, but most often had in the neighborhood of 35,000 men. A very large staff was the norm for corps, with a large and ungainly staff encampment that was difficult to move swiftly. This resulted in several almost comical incidences during the war, when a fast moving attack swept through an enemy's corps headquarters, as happened at Shiloh and Chickamauga.



            Armies were generally associated with an entire theater of action in the Confederacy, while the Union generally used them as their largest maneuver organizations, as at Shiloh and on the march to Savannah. An army might consist of only one corps, such as the XIV Corps during Sherman's Atlanta and Georgia Campaigns of 1864, while other examples had as many as four corps. Union major generals and Confederate (full) generals commanded this organizational force that including widely varying numbers of men; from as few as 30,000 to as many as 120,000.


            Cavalry and artillery units were organized under the same basic structure, with a few levels known by different terms:



            The basic unit was the Troop, which was otherwise the same as an infantry Company. Some Union cavalry formations were called squadrons, which consisted of two or three troops. Both sides removed their cavalry from troops supporting infantry formations, and collected them together in all-cavalry battalions, divisions and corps.



            The basic formation of artillery was a battery, which almost always had four or six guns, usually of the same or just two differing types (this made ammunition supply easier). Initially these batteries were deployed as semi-independent units loosely attached to an infantry brigade or division, but later in the war they tended to be grouped together under one specified division or corps level artillery commander, usually a major or lieutenant colonel.


            Other Types of Commands

            Early in the war the Confederacy organized several legions, which were combined infantry, artillery and cavalry formations of between 1,000 and 2,000 men. Few, if any, actually saw any combat; most were broken up when they were assigned to an army, and reorganized into their respective branches. Other 'special' formations were Marines, heavy artillery, engineers, sappers, sharpshooters, prison garrisons and dedicated skirmishers, all of whom tended to be organized similarly to infantry companies




Second Hour: No Parched Corn Since Chickamauga: The Soldiers War

-       Uniforms and Equipment


            The average infantryman of the War was between 19 and 21 years old (although there are examples both much younger and much, much older), single, a farmer by trade, and who had never been as much as 20 miles from his home in his entire life. He was more than likely illiterate or nearly so, deeply religious, yet given to drink and playing cards when the opportunity arose (however, most would get rid of their cards and "dirty pictures" before battle, so if they were killed, it would not pain their mothers to see such things if and when their personal effects made it back home). The Confederate infantryman was, for the most part, reasonably comfortable living in the field and acceptably accurate with firearms, and almost always a volunteer. His Union counterpart tended towards these same desirable traits, but had much more of a sprinkling of city boys, foreigners and draftees among their ranks, along with a higher literacy rate. Despite all the eloquent speeches and patriotic rhetoric, both most likely joined for the adventure, and stayed because they could not desert their friends.


            When the two armies left their home bases in 1861, both were burdened heavily by three things „ inexperienced officers, gaudy, impractical uniforms, and far too much excess baggage. While many officers on both sides had trained at West Point, the majority either had no military training whatsoever, or just a smattering that they had picked up while drilling with their local militias. This did not necessarily mean they were bad officers or poor combat leaders „ one prime example is the well-known commander of the 20th Maine Infantry, USA Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Although completely unschooled in military sciences (he was a professor of "real and found religion" in civilian life), he turned into one of the most outstanding tactical leaders in the Union army, primarily by reading every book on tactics he could lay his hands on. The real weakness in the officer corps was that, by pre-war militia tradition, most field officers (company and regimental commanders) were elected into office by the men they were to lead. While the thought was nice, that men would more likely follow those they trusted well enough to vote for, this, like all other political processes, soon turned into a beauty contest. Some turned into capable leaders, some destroyed their own commands though shear incompetence, and others muddled along until the forge of combat produced the real leaders.

            Uniforms were another early-war burden on the infantrymen, whose commanders were mightily impressed with the European, and specifically French, methods of making their armies look just divine. One telling example was the adoption by both sides of so-called "Zouave" units, inspired by a troop of the French Algerian soldiers who had traveled the pre-war U.S. giving displays of their precision marching to standing-room only crowds. The Zouave uniform consisted of white leggings or gaiters, brightly colored pantaloons (very baggy, knicker-length pants), usually red or brilliant blue, white shirts under red or blue Arab-style velvet or wool vests, darker colored shell jackets, usually decorated with brass or gold trim and buttons, sometimes a short blue or red cape, and the whole affair topped off with a fez or turban. These units were noted for their esprit-de-corps and their drilling abilities, but the gaudy uniforms made them mini»-ball magnets on the battlefield (when faced with a indistinct mass of infantry, the tendency is to pick a target out of whatever stands out - a different sounding weapon, a poorly camouflaged position, or a brilliantly dressed Arab in the woods of Tennessee). Most of these units soon abandoned these outfits in favor of more standard uniforms, but a handful wore them throughout the war, most notably Wheat's Tigers out of New Orleans.


            In the collection of the Atlanta History Center is a splendid display of the junk sold to soldiers by equally unenlightened (or uncaring) sutlers, including Spanish-conquistador appearing "armor" breastplates (which could not stop or deflect rifled-musket fire), backpacks containing a sort of sling chair, that might fit the smallest of all imaginable infantrymen, early sorts of tin helmets, heavy iron pots and pans, and all sorts of smaller euphoria - daguerreotypes of loved ones, fancy stationary sets, elaborate grooming and mustache trimming sets, and even folding tables and chairs. By the end of the first year of the war, these excesses had, for the most part, been ejected by the side of some dusty road or another, or sent home for safekeeping.


            The standard infantry uniform in both armies (after all the pre-war glamour had faded) was a wool shell or sack coat, worn over a three-button white or natural colored cotton shirt, with wool trouser held up by cotton or leather suspenders, usually with the pants stuffed into the top of tall wool socks, and topped off by either a cowboy-style "slouch" hat or short brimmed kepi. Shoes were usually pegged-soled "Jefferson" bootees „ high-topped brogans made on a straight last, meaning that there was not a distinct right or left shoe. A waist belt fastened with a lead-filled buckle held a cap box on the right front, and a bayonet scabbard on the left hip. A cartridge box filled with a standard load of 60 rounds was slung over the left shoulder, resting on the right hip. A canteen and a canvas haversack was slung over the right shoulder (resting on the left hip), sometimes tarred for waterproofing „ it contained rations and small personal items.


            The differences in the two armies was reflected in two things „ the color of their uniforms and equipment, and the way they carried their bedrolls and personal supplies. The Union army almost universally wore dark blue coats and jackets over sky-blue pants, usually trimmed with brass buttons bearing letters designating their branch of service „ "I" for infantry, "A" for artillery, and so on. Their belts and other leather gear was usually black, and most infantrymen carried black-colored canvas or leather knapsacks, with their bedroll tied on top. Their Confederate counterparts wore uniforms that were by regulation, "Richmond gray," but that ranged in hue from a gray so dark it was almost black all the way to barely dyed examples that soon turned white in the sun. The late-war usual Confederate (especially in the west) color, "butternut," came from the use of plant dyes that could not truly replicate the designated gray colors, and soon turned into shades of light to medium brown. As an unintended consequence, this provided a sort of camouflage for outlying pickets and videttes. Buttons ranged from brightly polished, state-seal decorated brass, to stolen Union buttons, down to ones made of wood or bone.


            Confederate leather gear was by regulation brown in color, although equipment shortages followed by the use of captured Union equipment meant that many men had mixtures of black and brown leather gear. Unlike their Union counterparts, Confederate cartridge boxes rarely had lead filled plates attached (used both for decoration, and to help keep the unfastened flap down while running, to keep ammunition from falling out), almost never had polished brass cartridge breast strap plates attached (again, used mostly for decoration), and the fancy lead filled, brass waist belt buckles were replaced in the Western Theater by "Georgia frame" buckles „ very similar to today's minimalist belt buckles. Towards the end of the war, shortages in obtaining leather led to the use of brown or black painted canvas for belts and straps. Confederate issued canteens tended towards the thick, round, heavier wooden type, but the Union tin "bull's-eye" pattern canteens were very popular, and scavenged from the dead on battlefields whenever possible.


            Rather than the use of uncomfortable knapsacks, most Confederate infantrymen placed what little they carried „ an extra pair of socks, a "wiper" to clean their weapon, a "housewife" containing sewing supplies, tobacco tin, occasionally a wallet, and maybe a small Bible, photograph of their loved ones or a letter „ inside their single blanket, rolled it up, fastened the ends together with a thick rubber band or piece of rope, and slung it cross chest over their right shoulder.


            Once again, after the noise and fuss of the early war wackiness had settled, weapons on both sides became more-or-less standardized, and remarkably similar. The Union adopted the 1861 Springfield rifled musket, .58 caliber, weighing a bit over 9 pounds, with a 39-inch long barrel, about 56 inches in length overall, and capable of hitting targets well over 500 yards distant. The Confederacy used a wide variety of weapons and calibers throughout the war, but the most prevalent was the imported British 1853 model Enfield 3-band rifled musket, .577 caliber, weighing about 9 1/2 pounds, 55 inches long with a 38 inch barrel, and even more accurate than the Springfield in the right hands. The paper cartridge ammunition used in both weapons was interchangeable, making resupply from captured enemy ammo chests easier. Both weapons used an "angular" bayonet, that was triangular in cross-section and 18 inches long „ a fearsome appearing weapon indeed. However, it took a high degree of expertise and discipline to properly use a bayonet in combat „ imagine trying to hold a poorly balanced, 11 pound, 6 foot long stick with an off-center pointed end (the bayonet attached to the muzzle end off the weapon, and was off set from the center of mass about 2 inches, so the weapon could be fired with it attached), and try to stick it in a moving, similarly equipped and very highly motivated (to move out of the way) target, while your hands are slick with sweat and shaking with fear and adrenaline. For these reasons, the bayonet was either "lost" by the roadside, along with the fearsome looking, and equally useless in combat, huge Bowie and other such knives also carried along on the early fights, or put to use as candleholders, rammed into trees as coat hooks, use as spits to roast the evening meal, or heated and bent into hook shapes, to use to drag the dead bodies of their compatriots off the battlefield.


            Much has been made of the incredibly high casualty rate during the war „ more were killed in the single-day battle of Antietam than in all previous American wars combined (26,134 dead, wounded and missing, total) „ but the main reason was that, not only had the majority of senior officers on both sides trained together at West Point, they had learned a set of battlefield tactics that were based on the use of smoothbore, relatively inaccurate and slow to reload weapons. In the 1850s a new class of weapon emerged, the rifled-barrel muzzleloader. A series of lands and grooves cut in a spiral fashion down the inside of the barrel "grabbed" the bullet as it was fired, and gave it a spinning motion that helped stabilize it's flight, much like a football quarterback giving a spin to the ball as he releases it. This simple change not only helped stabilize the round, increasing it's accuracy, but dramatically increased it's effective range (again using the football analogy, imagine throwing a football by grabbing one end of pushing it forward - which will most likely result in the ball tumbling wildly and not going very way „ just like a ball leaving a smoothbore weapon). On top of this new rifle technology, a new bullet was designed in the 1840s by French Army Captain Claude Mini», that was elongated, with a hollow base, and slightly smaller than the rifle's bore diameter. This meant the bullet could be rammed down the barrel much faster, and the gases from discharge would expand the base, engaging the rifling and giving the bullet a very stable flight. The soft lead bullet (called a mini» "ball," in the parlance of the day), weighing 500 grains (about the same as 11 modern copper pennies), tended to "mushroom" when it struck anything solid, depleting the entire kinetic energy of the shot onto the target. For example, this meant that if an infantryman was struck in the shoulder, his arm would most likely be ripped off, or a hit in the leg would shatter the bone into so many irreparable fragments that amputation was the only option.


            Through the first months and years of the war, nicely dressed massed lines of battle drawn up 50 to 75 yards from the enemy were the desired formations, as the earlier smoothbore weapons only had an effective range of about 100 yards maximum, and massed firepower was the only reliable way to break up and enemy's line. Using this formation with the modern weapons, with their effective range of six times that of smoothbores, ability to fire about three times as fast (up to three shots a minute), and the incredible damage the Mini» ball would do to the human body made any wound life-threatening at best, and almost always rendered the victim combat ineffective. It took far too many casualties from good infantry before the powers that be woke up to the realization that a new day in combat technology had arisen.


            With all of these tactically changes, battlefield casualties were impressive, even at extreme ranges. Common infantrymen were able to pick off individual targets at ranges of 500 to 600 yards, using just their ordinary issued weapons. Special "sniper" rifles were acquired in both armies, and issued either to special riflemen units, mostly in the Union army, or to one or two of the best shots in a regiment, as was the fashion in the Confederate army. The most common of these special weapons, the British made Whitworth, had a heavy barrel and a full-length scope, weighed about 35 pounds, and in the hands of a trained sharpshooter could pick off even moving targets at ranges over 1,000 yards. One of the better-known examples of long-range sniping occurred at Spotsylvania, in Virginia. Union General John Sedgewick was walking the ramparts of his redoubts, fully exposed, looking over at the Confederate lines a good 800 yards away, nearly one-half mile. When his men pleaded for their beloved "Uncle John" to get under cover, after Confederate sharpshooters had sent several rounds their way, he merely laughed at them, "What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." About two minutes later came the crack of a Whitworth rifle fired by CSA Sergeant Grace of the 4th Georgia, from the distant Confederate trenchline. Sedgewick stiffened, then fell dead, a neat hole about one-half inch under his left eye.



-       Drill, Drill & More Drill: A Soldier's Life


Marching and fighting drill was part of the daily routine for the Civil War soldier. Soldiers drilled as squads and in company formations, each man getting accustomed to orders and formations such as marching in column and in a "company front", how to face properly, dress the line, and interact with his fellow soldiers. After an hour of drill on that level, the company moved onto regimental level drills and parades. The soldier practiced guard mount and other procedures such as the Manual of Arms, which infantrymen learned for the rifle-musket. Veterans remarked were drilled in it so well that they could recite the steps of loading and priming for many years after the war. Cavalrymen drilled with their sabers, both on foot and horseback, while artillerymen drilled with their cannons limbered up to the team of horses and unlimbered, ready to fire. Oddly enough, marksmanship on a rifle range did not take precedence over other drill the soldiers learned for several reasons- the military believed that each man would shoot accurately when told to and the war departments did not wish to waste ammunition fired on random targets.


         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."


-       Religious Life in Camp

Prior to the Civil War, chaplains were a rare presence in American military camps, and despite examples such as George Washington's Valley Forge Prayer (which was most notable because it was such an aberration from the secular military norm), very little attention was usually paid to the religious life of soldiers. As in so many other areas, the changes brought about during the Civil War with regards to religious matters in the ranks remained as permanent features of the U.S. military.


In the very earliest days of the war chaplains were present in the ranks, but primarily because they had also been present in the pre-war militias, primarily for social rather than spiritual reasons. Very few army regulations controlled their actions, and in most armies of both sides, they were considered civilian adjuncts, no different than the sutlers and other camp followers. The overwhelming violence and carnage of the first battles helped change this view, and a few commanders, Confederate general Thomas Jackson most prominently, began using their chaplains in more official roles.


Early in 1862, Union Army chaplain James Marks pondered how to help the soldiers of his 63rd Pennsylvania Regiment. Bitterness after the defeat at Bull Run gripped the army. Homesickness and boredom were rife, and cold, wet weather depressed generals and privates alike. Marks made up his mind to lift the soldiers out of their unhappiness and bring their thoughts to a higher, religious plane. Purchasing a tent to hold worshipers, he began a revival season that lasted until the spring. Hundreds of men soon were "born again."


Day-to-day army life was so boring that men were often tempted to "make some foolishness," as one soldier typified it. Profanity, gambling, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, and petty thievery confronted those who wanted to practice their faith. Christians complained that no Sabbath was observed; despite the efforts of a few generals like George McClellan and Oliver O. Howard, ordinary routines went on as if Sunday meant nothing at all. General Robert McAllister, an officer who was working closely with the United States Christian Commission, complained that a "tide of irreligion" had rolled over his army "like a mighty wave."


The situation changed, however, as the war became more serious and prolonged. After the decisive campaigns at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga in 1863, revivals became a regular feature of Union army life. By that time, tested northern veterans saw the gravity of the military task confronting them. Many sought support in religion.


For instance, in winter quarters at Ringgold, Georgia, before Sherman's attack on Atlanta, scores of Union soldiers were baptized in the Chickamauga Creek, near the site of a recent battle. An army missionary from the American Tract Society remarked that the soldiers were being united in "one baptism of blood." They had drunk together from the "cup of suffering," and some going off to fight would soon gain entrance into "the church invisible."


In the Army of the Potomac, a great religious excitement appeared during the winter of 1863ā64. Numerous brigades erected churches and chapel tents for prayer meetings. General McAllister said he had never witnessed a better religious feeling among the men. And a reporter for a religious magazine thought the piety of the Union army would win the whole nation to Christ!


Revivals in the Confederate armies may have been even more intense than among the northern troops. Like their northern counterparts, southerners became noticeably more religious as the war progressed.


Beginning in the fall of 1863, an event later called the "Great Revival" was in full progress throughout the Army of Northern Virginia. Before the revival was interrupted by Grant's attack in May 1864, approximately seven thousand soldiers„10 percent of Lee's force„were reportedly converted.


Among the troops defending Georgia that same winter, protracted prayer meetings and numerous conversions took place. Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee Regiment told about ten soldiers who died while they knelt at the mourners' bench. An old tree, which had caught fire from the sparks of a campfire, suddenly came crashing down and crushed the men. Watkins professed no concern at their deaths but was glad their souls had joined "the army of the hosts of heaven."


Even Confederate commanders came forward in this period to accept the Christian faith. General John Bell Hood, crippled by multiple battlefield wounds, was baptized in the fall of 1864. Henry Lay, Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, described the scene: Hood, "unable to kneel š supported himself on his crutch and staff, and with bowed head received the benediction." With precious little left, southern soldiers sought spiritual strength from their religious experience.


How many soldiers were converted during the Civil War? The best estimates of conversions in the Union forces place the figure between 100,000 and 200,000 men„about 5ā10 percent of all individuals engaged in the conflict. In the smaller Confederate armies, at least 100,000 were converted. Since these numbers include only conversions and do not represent the number of soldiers actually swept up in the revivals„a yet more substantial figure„the impact of revivals during the Civil War surely was tremendous.



-       Social Life in 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 pine needles.

        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.        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 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.

        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.


-       A Soldier's-Eye View of Civil War Combat

"There was no glory to be gained from fighting out of a hole on the ground."


What was combat like for the average Civil War soldier. Well, this is the $6 million question, as the last man who actually had first-hand knowledge of this died well over 50 years ago.


Actually, answering this question is the primary focus for many military historians, myself included. What was it like to be a poorly trained, ill-equipped and un-uniformed militiaman in a state "army" trying to, literally, defend your own home? What was it like to be stuffed into a dank, dark, sweltering 3-foot diameter iron tube, turning a crank to escape an enemy howling after you, all while 30 feet below the surface of Charleston harbor? What was it like to be a Creek infantryman, slowly riding in to a Union post in the wilds of frontier Oklahoma, riding under the barest threadbare rags of what had been your proud battle flag, knowing you were among the very last Confederates to surrender? What was it like to be a Prussian-born corporal, barely able to speak English, caught in the midst of a vicious street battle in Fredericksburg?


Most important of all, what was it really like, on a personal level, to be a soldier during the Civil War? What did the uniforms feel like on hot summer days, what did the food taste like, what did you do to entertain yourself over those long months in camp, how did the rifle feel in your hands when slick with sweat and gun oil, what was it like to pull the ramrod and draw a bead on an incoming enemy line, and finally, like my own great-grandfather's experience, what was it like to be a 16-year old veteran infantryman, having the remains of your shattered leg cut off while lying atop a tavern table on a lonely mountain in Maryland?


The very best we can all do is read primary sources, the letters, diaries and memoirs written by the men who "drew the ramrod and swept the company street," to quote Sam Watkins. Most repeat variations on the same story, the same story that has been recited by Mycenaean infantrymen at Troy, Spartan Hoplites at Thermopylae, Byzantinian archers, Israeli swordsmen, crusaders, knights, pike men, musketeers, cannoneers, cavalrymen, machine-gunners, paratroopers and Rangers­āsmoke, heat, and confusion of battle, flashes of onrushing enemy, overwhelming fear replaced by numbed engagement, vicious participation in the attack, followed by sick guilt at the end of battle.


I'm not really trying to be lyrical here, or evade the question through rhetoric, it's just that this is a near-impossible question to answer in the time allotted here. The best I can offer is that we will look at most of the significant land and sea battles of the Western Theater in the sessions to come, and through detailed descriptions of the tactical situations and the forces involved, I will do my very best to paint a broad picture where you can fill in the fine details from your own educated imagination.




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