A Soldier's Life

Citation metadata

Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,443 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1220L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 


In order to understand the life of the Civil War soldier we must bear in mind that most aspects of wartime life—both at home and on the battlefield—evolved over the four years of war. In a host of ways, large and small, individual soldiers learned how to survive the conflict even as the generals and politicians were developing the tools necessary to wage this bloody war.

In many senses Union and Confederate soldiers came from different worlds and fought for different goals, but the young men who marched to battle in 1861 shared values that molded their initial behavior. These core values included a belief in the importance of courage, honor, and a general understanding of manliness. For most, it also included a strong religious faith and a confidence that that faith would help protect them on the battlefield. These values proved instrumental in shaping the recruits' relationships. Soldiers learned to respect each other, and themselves, according to how they stood up under the tests of combat. In these democratically organized armies, officers could not impose authority on their men until they had proven their valor in battle. And, most surprisingly to distant observers, enemies on the battlefield often behaved according to an unwritten code of honor. For instance, soldiers often declined to shoot enemy pickets even when they were well within range.

With the passage of time, several changes challenged this world of courage and honor. First, the character of warfare evolved in response to new military technology. Open field maneuvering and Napoleonic charges gave way to grueling battles of attrition fought in trenches with artillery. Second, the nature of wartime casualties challenged the soldiers' faith in the value of courage and godliness. Instead of dying bravely in battle, too many of their comrades had been felled by disease or died of wounds in horrific hospital conditions. And, third, the composition of the armies changed. By 1863 each side had added conscripts and substitutes to the original pool of volunteers. Meanwhile, men who had been raw recruits in 1861 had become hardened veterans by mid-war.These changes combined to replace the centrality of courage and honor with a sense of disillusionment in the minds of many soldiers.


The events on the battlefield may have presented Civil War soldiers with their greatest tests, but the majority of their time was spent in the tedium of long marches and boring days in camp. The routines of military life required new adjustments for country boys and city dwellers alike. Recruits quickly learned that their official uniforms and equipment were not always appropriate for the tasks ahead. Before they had covered many miles, marching soldiers threw away the heaviest and least useful items, leaving behind a trail of pots, tent pins, and other accessories. The varied food that volunteers received in the training camps rapidly gave way to a routine diet of hardtack (a thick square cracker that the soldiers soaked in water to soften) fried in pork grease, washed down with strong coffee. Meat rations were issued only irregularly, especially in the Confederacy, and vegetable rations were almost unheard of. Soldiers on the move in enemy territory would supplement their diets with whatever they could scavenge from the countryside or purchase from the independent sutlers—merchants who travelled with the armies, peddling their wares.

Soldiers broke the monotony of camp life with a wide range of activities. For most, letter writing represented a major form of entertainment as well as a critical link with the home front. By one estimate, as many as 45,000 letters a day were passing through Washington for the Federal camps, and an equal number were on their way to the home front. Twice that number passed through Louisville, Kentucky, each day to and from the Union troops in the West. These numbers were lower in the Confederacy, where paper was scarce and mail delivery less developed, but contact with home remained an important part of the soldier's life. Soldiers also devoted much of their spare time to reading. Newspapers were quickly passed from man to man, each eager to keep up with developments in other parts of the army and back home.

Many young men away from home for the first time were happy to experiment with gambling, drinking, and perhaps sexual liaisons with camp followers. Although the lure of vice attracted many soldiers (prompting occasional criticism when they returned home to polite society), other forces discouraged behavioral excesses. For instance, men who enlisted with their neighbors or boyhood friends knew that any misbehavior in the military was liable to be featured in their comrades' letters home. Moreover, although military life provided temptations for many, others responded to the nearness of death by turning to religion. Representatives of the U.S. Christian Commission staged large open-air services in Union camps, while religious revivals periodically swept through the Confederacy.

The hardships of military life were partially eased by visitors. Families who lived close to camps and battlefields came to see the soldiers. Agents from the United States Sanitary Commission visited the camps to investigate the state of sanitation and hygiene and also provided the troops with food, medicine, stationery, and comfort. In addition to the Christian Commission and Sanitary Commission agents, scores of volunteers and emissaries from smaller local bodies visited local regiments in the field.


In some respects the North's African-American troops lived parallel lives to their white counterparts. They, too, had to adjust to the dangers of the battlefield and the rigors of camp life. But, as in almost every other aspect of American society, the black soldier had to contend with additional barriers. Official policy required that the black regiments have white commissioned officers, denying black troops the opportunity to rise through the ranks and—even in the best of circumstances—creating a potential source of friction between enlisted men and officers. Even the committed abolitionists among the white officers approached their task with racially biased assumptions about the personalities and abilities of black soldiers. Meanwhile, black soldiers, and especially ex-slaves, viewed military discipline with a suspicion born of years of racial oppression, creating additional tensions between officers and volunteers.

The black regiments regularly received unfair treatment. Despite promises to the contrary, for most of the war the Union insisted on paying black recruits less than their white counterparts. And although they were anxious to prove their worth on the battlefield and strike a blow against the Confederacy, black regiments routinely were assigned to supporting duties rather than combat positions. When they did see action, black regiments often performed valiantly, earning the grudging respect of their white comrades.

The black soldiers who marched into battle faced additional threats from the enemy. The Confederate government was enraged at the Union's use of black soldiers and threatened to execute or enslave captured black troops and their officers. They never officially carried out these threats, perhaps because President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) promised swift retaliation, but in several controversial episodes black troops were murdered on the battlefield after the fighting had effectively ended. The Confederacy also refused to include captured black soldiers in the established prisoner exchange system. The Union responded by halting all exchanges, which resulted in horrific overcrowding in prisoner-of-war camps.


Until early in 1863, captured soldiers were exchanged, with the paroled prisoners promising not to return to uniform. At first this was only an informal arrangement, but by the war's second summer Lincoln officially agreed to a prisoner cartel (thus implicitly recognizing that the Confederacy was a separate government). Under this system, captives remained in prisoner-of-war camps only a short time, until exchanges could be arranged.

With the Emancipation Proclamation and the North's use of black troops in early 1863, this cordial arrangement fell apart, as the Confederacy refused to exchange captured black Union soldiers. Some officers continued informal battlefield exchanges, but, after late 1863, the populations held in Union and Confederate prison of war camps exploded. This situation continued until the winter of 1864-1865, when the two sides began exchanging wounded and sick prisoners without regard to race.

The experiences of men in the prisoner-of-war camps constitute the war's most tragic story. Conditions were often terrible, with men crowded into stockades with inadequate shelter, food, and medical care. Thousands died of disease and starvation. The deaths of 13,000 men in Georgia's infamous Andersonville Prison prompted the postwar execution of the prison's commandant, Henry Wirz. In fact, all Southerners suffered through terrible shortages, and many Northern prisons had their own horror stories, if not on the scale of Andersonville. The poor conditions in the prisoner-of-war camps were the result of the curtailed prisoner exchanges.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2151000191