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A Soldier Describes Camp Life

Author: James R. Kelly

Year: 1861

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 4197.02

Annotation: The Civil War was the deadliest war in American history. Altogether, over 600,000 died in the conflict, more than World War I and World War II combined. A soldier was 13 times more likely to die in the Civil War than in the Vietnam war.

One reason why the Civil War was so lethal was the introduction of improved weaponry. Cone-shaped bullets replaced musket balls, and beginning in 1862, smooth-bore muskets were replaced with rifles with grooved barrels, which imparted spin on a bullet and allowed a soldier to hit a target a quarter of a mile away. The new weapons had appeared so suddenly that commanders did not immediately realize that they needed to compensate for the increased range and accuracy of rifles.

The Civil War was the first war in which soldiers used repeating rifles (which could fire several shots without reloading), breechloading arms (which were loaded from behind the barrel instead of through the muzzle), and automated weapons like the Gatling gun. The Civil War also marked the first use by Americans of shrapnel, booby traps, and land mines.

Outdated strategy also contributed to the high number of casualties. Massive frontal assaults and massed formations resulted in large numbers of deaths. In addition, far larger numbers of soldiers were involved in battles than in the past. In the Mexican War, no more than 15,000 soldiers opposed each other in a single battle, but some Civil War battles involved as many as 100,000 soldiers.

Any hopes for a swift northern victory in the Civil War were dashed at the First Battle of Bull Run (called Manassas by the Confederates). After the surrender of Fort Sumter, two Union armies moved into northern Virginia. One, led by General Irvin McDowell (1818-1885), had about 35,000 men; the other, with about 18,000 men was led by General Robert Patterson (1792-1881). They were opposed by two Confederate armies, with about 31,000 troops, one led by General Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891), another led by General Pierre G.T. Beauregard (1818-1893). Both Union and Confederate armies consisted of poorly trained volunteers.

McDowell hoped to destroy Beauregard's forces while Patterson tied up Johnston's men; in fact, Johnston's troops eluded McDowall and joined Beauregard. At Bull Run in northern Virginia 25 miles southwest of Washington, the armies clashed. While residents of Washington ate picnic lunches and looked on, Union troops launched several assaults. When Beauregard counterattacked, Union forces retreated in panic, but Confederate forces failed to take up pursuit.

An Indiana soldier describes life in his camp a day after the First Battle of Bull Run.

Full Text: ...This is a dreary wet day, it has been raining all day long so hard that we cant do anything but write to our friends.... Something must be terribly wrong in the post office department, there has been but 2 letters recd in our regiment, since we left Indianapolis.... I tell you now there can be no pleasure for any man in the army, & especially while on the march. I don't know what I should do if I should take sick here in these mountains. Most of the time it has been wet & cold, especially at night, a sick man has but little chance for his life here.... The tops of the mountains have been completely enveloped in dense clouds all day--the high ranges of mountains in the distance have the appearance of a volcano in full blast, with the fog curling above the dark clouds below....

We had an alarm last night at 10 o"clock. We all expected a fight, one of the Sentinels got frightened, & fired his gun, & then the alarm paged all around the camp until some guns were fired, all the men was called out, & placed in line of battle, where we stood ready to fire on any one approaching the camp, all in the most perfect silence for three long hours. When we were told the alarm was failed, & ordered to our quarters. It was amusing to see the boys...coming out half dressed, some without their guns, others their shoes and hats....

Title: The Mood in Ohio

Author: Frederic Pearce

Year: 1861

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 66.128

Annotation: Many Northerners felt confident of a quick victory. In 1861, the Union states had 22.5 million people, compared to just 9 million in the Confederate states (including 3.7 million slaves). Not only did the Union have more manpower, it also had a larger navy, a more developed railroad system, and a stronger manufacturing base. The North had 1.3 million industrial workers, compared to the South's 110,000. Northern factories manufactured nine times as many industrial goods as the South; seventeen times as many cotton and woolen goods; thirty times as many boots and shoes; twenty times as much pig iron; twenty-four times as many railroad locomotives--and 33 times as many firearms.

But Confederates also felt confident. For one thing, the Confederacy had only to wage a defensive war and wait for northern morale to erode. In contrast, the Union had to conquer and control the Confederacy's 750,000 square miles of territory. Further, the Confederate army seemed superior to that of the Union. More Southerners had attended West Point or other military academies, had served as army officers, and had experience using firearms and horses. At the beginning of 1861, the U.S. army consisted of only 16,000 men, most of whom served on the frontier fighting Indians. History, too, seemed to be on the South's side. Before the Civil War, most nations that had fought for independence, including, of course, the United States, had won their struggle. A school textbook epitomized southern confidence: "If one Confederate soldier can whip seven Yankees," it asked, "how many soldiers can whip 49 Yanks?"

In this selection, a resident of Marietta, Ohio reports the mood in his town.

Full Text: Nothing new here in the way of war items. The people here are wide awake on the subject, and quite a number of companies are drilling, and putting themselves in a state of readiness for anything that may happen. It is not expected, however, that we shall be disturbed, as it is thought eastern Virginia will soon have her hands full without giving much attention to us. It seems now that before long a culmination point will be reached, and the battle opened-- It should and doubtless will, be the prayer of all Christians that it may be speedily terminated and the rebellion crushed.

Title: A Confederate Assessment of the War

Author: Daniel H. Hill

Year: 1863

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 2701

Annotation: By early 1863, the Civil War had begun to cause severe hardship on the southern homefront. Not only was most of the fighting taking place in the South, but as the Union blockade grew more effective and the South's railroad system deteriorated, shortages grew increasingly common. In Richmond, food riots erupted in April 1863. A war department clerk wrote: "I have lost twenty pounds, and my wife and children are emaciated."

The Confederacy also suffered rampant inflation. Fearful of undermining support for the war effort, Confederate leaders refused to raise taxes to support the war. Instead, the Confederacy raised funds by selling bonds and simply printing money without gold or silver to back it. The predictable result was skyrocketing prices. In 1863, a pair of shoes cost $125 and a coat, $350. A chicken cost $15 and a barrel of flour $275.

Defeatism and a loss of will began to spread across the Confederacy. Military defeats suggested divine disfavor. Hardships on the home front generated discontent within the ranks. In a letter to North Carolina's Governor Zebulon B. Vance (1830-1894), Confederate Major General Daniel H. Hill (1821-1889) describes his men's deteriorating morale.

Full Text: Colonel Wheeler goes up to the county of Wilkes to arrest numerous deserters. I have directed him to call upon you for orders to the Militia Officers to act in concert with him. I think that there will be no trouble with these disloyal men, when they find both state and Confederate authorities opposed to them. God help us! We seem to have the whole world against us, Yankees, Irish, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles, Italians, Tories & Negroes.

Title: The War's Human Costs

Author: George C. Burling Burling

Year: 1862

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 4921

Annotation: Almost as many soldiers died during the Civil War as in all other American wars combined. Union combat deaths totalled 111,904; another 197,388 died of disease, 30,192 in prison, and 24,881 as a result of accidents. Another 277,401 Union solders were wounded. Confederate casualties were nearly as high, with approximately 94,000 combat deaths, 140,000 deaths by disease; and 195,000 men wounded.

Over half of all deaths were caused by disease. As a result of poor sanitation, primitive medical practices, and contaminated water supplies, the average regiment lost half its fighting strength from disease during the first year. This letter underscores the war's human cost.

Full Text: Excuse the liberty I take in addressing you this letter knowing you to be a Jersey man to the core. I want you to have a thorough knowledge of the 2nd Brigade. We left our camp last April numbering near 3600 men, for duty. To day we do not number more than 1200. Where is the rest? Virginia's soil made sacred with the blood and bodies of a large number of the deficiency. The balance in Hospitals suffering from wounds or sickness. I have no fault to find with this that is what we left home and its comforts for, to sacrifice health and even life, to sustain our glorious flag and Country, and the remainder though few in numbers are brave in spirit, and are ready and willing to stand to the last man, in defense of our Common Country.

Title: A Soldier's View of Lincoln

Author: A soldier in the 12th Vermont Militia

Year: 1863

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 2617

Annotation: There can be no doubt that some northern soldiers who were willing to fight to preserve the Union were unwilling to fight to abolish slavery. An unidentified soldier in the 12th Vermont militia expresses his opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Full Text: We are going on in the same old sorts--plenty to do, plenty to eat, plenty of grumbling and plenty of damning and plenty of preaching--while the Country all together seems to be going to the devil if possible at a faster rate than ever.

Old Abe['s] stock is clear down---Stanton-Halleck-Seward and in fact all the administration are generally damned by the soldiers and their friends wherever they have any....

The Journal of Commerce editorials are more popular with the army than those of any other newspapers--it is a dreadful shame that the administration should have forced this thing or this state of feeling upon us but here it is....

[The soldiers] unanimously want to go home and let the Southern Confederacy, Negroes, our own administration, and all go to the devil together--and save what they can for themselves and of themselves.

Many are sick of fighting if is purely on the Negro question and now that really seems to be made the whole question--or to determine who shall or shall not be the next president and whose friends shall do the big stealing--or what is the same thing, manage the contract business.

Our company has...shot at the rebels...and are now only anxious to be...sent home.

You have probably heard all about Stuart's Cavalry charge upon us--it was not much of an affair as they were taken by surprise and were routed and run before they or we had time to figure much on what it was best to do next. They all did well and were deservingly highly praised by the Gen[eral] and other officers--besides which we nearly froze to death then in the woods waiting for them to come out and the brush did not last far enough to warm us. We have nobody hurt very badly wounded 14 that were left by there on their route...as of no further use.

Title: Recruitment of African American Soldiers

Author: Benjamin F. Butler

Year: 1863

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 698

Annotation: During the war, African American troops also faced a different kind of battle: a battle against discrimination in pay, promotions, and medical care. Despite promises of equal treatment, blacks were relegated to separate regiments commanded by white officers. Black soldiers received less pay than white soldiers, inferior benefits, and poorer food and equipment. While a white private was paid $13 a month plus a $3.50 clothing allowance, blacks received just $10 a month, out of which $3 was deducted for clothing. Furthermore, black soldiers were not provided with the enlistment bonuses commonly given to white soldiers, and, until the end of the war, the federal government refused to commission black officers.

Within the ranks, black troops faced repeated humiliations; most were employed in menial assignments and kept in rear-echelon, fatigue jobs. They were punished by whipping or by being tied by their thumbs; if captured by the Confederates, they faced execution. But despite these trials, African American soldiers won their for equal pay (in 1864) and in 1865 they were allowed to serve as line officers. Drawing upon the education and training they received in the military, many former troops became community leaders during Reconstruction.

One Union captain explained the significance of black military participation on the attitudes of many white soldiers. "A great many [white people]," he wrote, "have the idea that the entire Negro race are vastly their inferiors. A few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them, I think. I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those...who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation."

In the following selection, General Benjamin F. Butler directs his men to treat black soldiers with respect and declares his opposition to the government's policy of paying African American soldiers less than white soldiers. This document is extremely revealing and illustrative of the most "liberal" and "best-intentioned" values of the 1860s.

Full Text: The recruitment of colored troops has become the settled purpose of the Government. It is therefore the duty of every officer and soldier to aid in carrying out that purpose, by every proper means, irrespective of personal predilection. To do this effectually, the former condition of the blacks, their change of relation; the new rights acquired by them; the new obligations imposed on upon them; the duty of the Government to them; the great stake they have in the war; and the claims their ignorance, and the helplessness of their women and children, make upon each of us, who hold a higher grade in social and political life, must all be carefully considered.

It will also be taken into account that the colored soldiers have none of the machinery of "State aid" for the support of their families while fighting our battles, so liberally provided for the white soldiers, nor the generous bounties given by the State and National Governments in the loyal States--although this last is far more than compensated to the black man by the great boon awarded to him, the result of the war--FREEDOM FOR HIMSELF AND HIS RACE FOREVER!

To deal with these several aspects of this subject, so that as few of the Negroes as possible shall become chargeable either upon the bounty of Government or the charities of the benevolent, and at the same time to do justice to those who shall enlist, to encourage enlistment, and to cause all capable of working to employ themselves for their support, and that of their families--either in arms or other service--and that the rights of Negroes and the Government may both be protected, it is ordered: I....In this Department, after the 1st day of December,instant, and until otherwise ordered, every able bodied colored man who shall enlist and be mustered into the service of the United States for three years or during the war, shall be paid as bounty, to supply his immediate wants, the sum of ten (10) dollars.... II....To the family of each colored soldier so enlisted and mustered, so long as he shall remain in the service and behave well, shall be furnished suitable subsistence, under the direction of the Superintendents of Negro Affairs, or their Assistants; and each soldier shall be furnished with a certificate of subsistence for his family, as soon as he is mustered; and any soldier deserting, or whose pay and allowances are forfeited by Court Martial, shall be reported by his Captain to the Superintendent of the District where his family lives, and the subsistence may be stopped--provided that such subsistence shall be continued for at least six months to the family of any colored soldier who shall die in the services by disease, wounds or battle. III....Every enlisted colored man shall have the same uniform, clothing, arms, equipments, camp equipage, rations, medical and hospital treatment as are furnished to the United States soldiers of a like arm of the service, unless upon request, some modification thereof shall be granted from these Head Quarters. IV....The pay of the colored soldiers shall be ten ($10) per month--three of which may be retained for clothing. But the non-commissioned officers, whether colored or white, shall have the same addition to their pay as other non-commissioned officers. It is, however, hoped and believed by the Commanding General [Butler], that Congress, as an act of justice, will increase the pay of the colored troops to a uniform rate with other troops of the United States. He can see no reason why a colored soldier should be asked to fight upon less pay than any other. The colored man fills an equal space in ranks while he lives, and an equal grave when he falls. VIII....Political freedom rightly defined is liberty to work and to be protected in the full enjoyment of the fruits of labor; and no one with ability to work should enjoy the fruits of another's labor: Therefore, no subsistence will be permitted to any Negro or his family, with whom he lives, who is able to work and does not work. It is, therefore, the duty of the Superintendent of Negro Affairs to furnish employment to all negroes able to labor, and see that their families are supplied with the necessaries of life. Any Negro who refuses to work when able, and neglects his family, will be arrested and reported to these Head Quarters, to be sent to labor on the fortifications, where he will be made to work. No Negro will be required to labor on the Sabbath, unless upon the most urgent necessity. IX....The Commanding General is informed that officers and soldiers in the Department have, by impressment and force, compelled the labor of negroes, sometimes for private use, and often without any imperative necessity.

Negroes have rights so long as they fulfill their duties: Therefore it is ordered, that no officer or soldier shall impress or force to labor for any private purpose whatever, any Negro; and negro labor shall not be impressed or forced for any public purpose, unless under orders from these Head Quarters, or because of imperative military necessity, and where the labor of white citizens would be compelled, if present.... X....The theory upon which Negroes are received into the Union lines, and employed, either as laborers or soldiers, is that every Negro able to work who leaves the rebel lines, diminishes by so much the producing power of the rebellion to supply itself with food and labor necessary to be done outside of military operations to sustain its armies; and the United States thereby gains either a soldier or a producer. Women and children are received, because it would be manifestly iniquitous and unjust to take the husband and father and leave the wife and child to ill-treatment and starvation. Women and children are also received when unaccompanied by the husband and father, because the Negro has the domestic affections in as strong a degree as the white man, and however far South his master may drive him, he will sooner or later return to his family.... XI....In consideration of the ignorance and helplessness of the Negroes arising from the condition in which they have been heretofore held, it becomes necessary that the Government should exercise more and peculiar care and protection over them than over its white citizens, accustomed to self-control and self-support, so that their sustenance may be assured their rights respected, their helplessness protected, and their wrongs redressed; and that there be one system of management of Negro affairs....

Title: Slaveholders and the Civil War

Author: William Tecumseh Sherman

Year: 1863

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 2501

Annotation: As the war dragged on, enthusiasm faded and class tensions flared. In the North, the worst mob violence in American history took place in New York City in July 1863, two weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg. About 120 people were killed, mainly by police and soldiers. Irish Catholic immigrants and their children had been egged on by Democratic leaders who told them that Republicans wanted to free the slaves in order bring them north to replace Irish workers. During four days of rioting, mobs lynched at least a dozen African American men, destroyed draft offices, burned and looted black neighborhoods and the homes of leading Republicans and abolitionists.

In the South, the imposition of a military draft in April 1862 produced protests that this was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Although the law made all abled-bodied men ages 18 through 35 liable for three years' service, the draft law allowed draftees to pay a substitute to serve for him (the North adopted a similar draft law in March 1863). Further aggravating tension was enactment of the "Twenty Negro Law" in October 1862 which exempted one white man from the draft on every plantation with 20 or more slaves.

In the following selection, General William Tecumseh Sherman (120-1891) mentions that some slaveowners were fleeing with their slaves to Texas to avoid wartime disruptions.

Full Text: They are all moving to Texas with their Negroes. God grant all may go there and that our Government will open the Back door wide and promise to let them stay there in Peace.

Title: The Plight of Former Slaves

Author: James E. Yeatman

Year: 1863

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 1545.11

Annotation: In a letter to President Lincoln, aid workers offer a graphic portrait of the plight of wartime refugees.

Full Text: The undersigned, members of the Western Sanitary Commission, most respectfully represent, that the condition of the Freed Negroes in the Mississippi Valley is daily becoming worse, and [that there are] not less than fifty thousand, chiefly women and children, now within our lines, between Cairo [Illinois] and New Orleans, for whom no adequate provision has been made. The majority of them have no shelter but what they call "brush tents," fit for nothing but to protect them from night dews. They are very poorly clad--many of them half naked--and almost destitute of beds and bedding--thousands of them sleeping on the bare ground. The Government supplies them with rations, but many unavoidable delays arise in the distribution so that frequent instances of great destitution occur. The army rations (beef and crackers) are also a kind of diet they are not used to; they have no facilities of cooking, and are almost ignorant of the use of wheat flour; and even when provisions in abundance are supplied, they are so spoiled in cooking as to be neither eatable nor wholesome. Add to these difficulties, the helplessness and improvidence of those who have always been slaves, together with their forlorn and jaded condition when they reach our lines, and we can easily account for the fact that sickness and death prevail to a fearful extent. No language can describe the suffering, destitution and neglect which prevail in some of their "camps." The sick and dying are left uncared for, in many instances, and the dead unburied. It would seem, now, that one-half are doomed to die in the process of freeing the rest....

We now respectfully ask permission and authority to extend our labors to the suffering freed people of the South-West and South. If you will give us your endorsement in the undertaking before the people, we think we can raise large sums of money, and accomplish great good. Nor would it be only a work of philanthropy, but equally of patriotism, for it would remove an increasing reproach against the Union cause, and by lessening the difficulties of emancipation, would materially aid in crushing the rebellion. At present, hundreds of the blacks would gladly return to slavery, to avoid the hardships of freedom; and if this feeling increases and extends itself among them, all the difficulties of the situation will be increased; while, at the same time, a most effective argument is given to the disloyal against our cause.

Title: Confederate Attitudes

Author: John McKinley Gibson

Year: 1864

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 4501.94

Annotation: Initially, Lincoln and his generals anticipated a conventional war in which Union soldiers would respect civilians' property. Convinced that there was residual unionist support in the South, they expected to preserve the South's economic base, including its factories and rail lines. But as the war dragged on, the Civil War became history's first total war, a war in which the Union sought the Confederacy's total defeat and unconditional surrender. To achieve success, Union officers such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman believed that it was necessary to break the South's will to fight. Sherman summed up the idea of total war in blunt terms: "We are not only fighting hostile armies," he declared in 1864, "but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war."

A year earlier, a general order was issued that declared that military necessity "allows of all destruction of property" and "appropriation of whatever an enemy's country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the Army." This order allowed soldiers to destroy anything that might be of use to the Confederacy.

By the Fall of 1864, the Confederacy was beginning to show signs of collapse. It extended the draft age from 17 to 50. By early 1865, the need for manpower was so great that the Confederate Congress authorized arming 300,000 slave troops.

Full Text: We are both glad to hear that you were all well, and that the Federals had given you no more than the ordinary trouble. I suppose you have the same trials that you had when I was with you. There is no such thing as satisfying a Negro without slavery. They do not know their own wants and unless there is some one to teach them, they are but as little children. I hope they may in some way be made to feel that they are not the superiors of the whites....

Have you seen the "Currency Bill" passed by the C[onfederate] S[tates's] Congress at its last session. One hundred dollar notes are taxed firstly with a discount of 83 percent and there is a tax of ten cents on a dollar every month. So that in a short time they will be valueless.... I am sorry I did not bring out with me all the Confederate money I could get. I was afraid something would be done to reduce the redundancy of the currency, which would result in a great depreciation of the old issue. Follow Lee's advice as far as practicable. I do not look upon matters in exactly the same light that he does though you should be prepared for the worst.

Title: The Breakdown of the Plantation System

Author: Tobias Gibson

Year: 1864

Gilder Lehrman Document Number: GLC 2715

Annotation: Slaves played a critical role in their own liberation. Southern slaves deserted plantations and fled to Union lines. Slaves also staged a few small insurrections during the war as the slave system itself began to unravel. Planters were stunned to see trusted house slaves and field drivers lead field hands in deserting to the Union army. Eventually, 150,000 former slaves fought as soldiers in the Union army.

The following letter suggests how the plantation system of labor and discipline was beginning to break down in the face of protracted war.

Full Text: The blacks are getting worse every day & at the end of this year I think they will be intolerable in account of bad work and the condition of the crops. I told them they must work Saturday evening but they would not do it, and a dozen of the best men, Wesley at the head, went off to Thibodeux...and last night got back with a paper from Genl. Cameron requiring them to work until the Provost Marshall had investigated the matter....I have abandoned half the cotton on this place in order to save the remainder but there is a great likelihood that the caterpillar will take what is left.... So in fact our prospect is not bright by any measure.

You will see by the inclosed slip that there is to be another call on our plantations for col[ore]d soldiers. How many will be taken can not be told at present but we shall soon know. The demand for labor will be so great [in] another year that no large plantation can be carried on at the force that will work. I shall try to lease mine out if I could. Fear do so with safety. After the war if the South gains its independence plenty of slaves can be got from Africa and to let the North take what it likes and make the most of them.

...The failure of crops under the present System need to stagger the northern sympathies and lessen the speculations to a degree which must discourage the war advocates.