The Soldiers

While the leaders of the two armies were plotting and planning, the soldiers in the camps were waiting for their orders. The required age to join the military was eighteen, but recruiters were under pressure to fill the rolls, and there were plenty of underage men who saw the war as a great adventure in which they could participate and return home as heroes after banishing the enemy. Some boys would write the number ‘18’ on a slip of paper and tuck in under their heel inside their shoe so that when a recruiter asked if they were over eighteen, they could honestly reply yes.

Not all who joined enlisted directly though. As troops marched across the countryside, men were known to drop their farm tools, pick up their rifles, and fall in with the ranks. Those without rifles would follow the others into battle and when a soldier fell, they would take up their weapons and continue the fight.

Those who enlisted were issued uniforms, weapons and accoutrements. A uniform usually consisted of a white cotton shirt, French blue woollen britches, and, for Union troops, a dark blue jacket called a fatigue blouse. In the Confederacy, the uniforms issued were similar, except that the blouse was the same French blue as the britches. Later, Confederate troops would turn to a tan woollen uniform called butternut, giving the ranks a ragtag appearance. But the butternut uniforms had one advantage over the blue: the brown blended more easily into the natural background of a soldier’s surroundings, making concealment easier.

Soldiers were identified as cavalry, infantry or artillery by the piping and trims on their uniforms. Officers and cavalrymen wore uniforms trimmed in gold. The infantry’s colour was French blue while artillerymen wore uniforms trimmed in red. Cavalrymen wore boots while other soldiers wore shoes that laced up to the ankle. Such shoes were designed with soles to fit either foot.

Boots for Confederate cavalrymen were often custom-made and paid for by the owner, as with all their uniform and gear. While the North provided what was needed for the men in their cavalry ranks, a Confederate cavalryman was required to provide everything, beginning with two horses (rather than one), all their tack, feed and seeing to any care that was needed. If a Confederate cavalryman lost both horses, he was reassigned to the infantry.

The britches and fatigue blouse of a soldier’s uniform were made of 100 per cent wool. It is a material still used by the military to this day because of its practicality; while the fabric may prove hot and uncomfortable in warm weather, wool retains 70 per cent of the wearer’s body heat, even when the fabric is wet. For men firing weapons that threw sparks as black-powder weapons did, wool was safer, as it simply smouldered rather than catching fire.

Weapons varied. The only common factor was that they all had to be loaded with a black-powder charge topped with a lead ball, and used a primer cap to fire the weapon. Henry, Sharp, Thompson, Colt, Remington, Smith and Wesson, and Springfield were just a few of the names found on the rifles, carbines and pistols that found their way on to the battlefields.

The manufacturers of rifles were unprepared for the sudden demand for so many arms at once, and the government purchased rifles from whoever could supply them. Combined with the men who came with their own rifles in hand, it made for a wide variety of weaponry. Most, whether pistol or rifle, had one thing in common: they were usually muzzle loaders – rifles that were loaded with black powder and a lead bullet through the end of the barrel, rammed down, and fired once before reloading. Soldiers were drilled to complete the entire process three times per minute. Speed in loading and firing in battle was crucial.

Once a rifle was empty, it was still an effective weapon, especially in close-quarter fighting. Most battles began with shooting across an open field and ended with the one side being overrun by the other. At that point, loading a weapon was something the soldier didn’t have time for. But the bayonets issued and fitted around the end of the muzzle were like having a spear to ward off an attacker. Officers usually carried pistols, or edged weapons such as swords or sabres, or both. Cavalrymen usually had carbines as well as edged weapons and sometimes carried pistols as well. Infantrymen were armed with muzzle-loading rifles. Most rifles carried by the typical infantryman weighed about 9lbs and, with bayonet fixed, were taller than the average 5 feet, 8 inches.

Accoutrements were the items that a soldier needed to march into battle. A leather belt with a brass buckle around the waist or over the shoulder usually carried a large pouch called a cartridge box. Made from leather, the cartridge box held the hand-rolled cartridges used to load a rifle. Inside the cartridge was a measured charge of black powder with a lead ball set in the top. A well-trained soldier could load and fire up to three times per minute. Soldiers were expected to carry forty rounds and they seldom ran out of ammunition during the course of a day’s fighting.

For personal items, soldiers carried a haversack, a bag usually made of heavy cotton and slung across the chest by a long strap. Inside might be found food, an eating utensil, possibly a tin frying pan, or a ‘sweetheart’, a small, handmade sewing kit, usually made by the soldier’s wife or girlfriend. Food was usually hard tack, a large cracker so solid that soldiers usually had to soak it in coffee in order to eat it. Coffee and tobacco were rare, especially in the South after supplies were cut off by the Union blockade.

A sweetheart and a deck of cards came in handy during the long hours soldiers spent in camp. Free time was spent mending clothing, gambling, foraging for food to supplement the hard tack rations, and if a soldier was lucky enough to find paper and had some education, he might write a letter home. Some even kept journals which have provided priceless insights into their lives.

A few personal accounts of the American Civil War in the form of letters and journals, as well as official documents, have survived, each providing their own unique perspective. Common soldiers on both sides wrote of the harsh conditions of living in tents and losing friends and family in battle or, more commonly, to disease. Women left behind to hold a home together and feed a family wrote of the difficulty of acquiring goods due to the Union blockade that ringed the South and cut off supply ships. They also told of encounters with enemy soldiers, and how some left them in peace while others took everything they could carry and destroyed what they couldn’t.

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