What Was It Like To Be A Soldier In The American Civil War?

Last updated on March 1st, 2023 at 04:55 pm

What was it like to be a soldier in the American Civil War? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. It was probably difficult to be a soldier in the Civil War. 

There were many hardships that these soldiers had to face, including death, injury, and disease. Let’s take a closer look at what life was like for the average soldier in the American Civil War.

Pickett’s Charge

The American Civil War In a Nutshell

It’s hard to imagine what it was like to be a soldier in the American Civil War. We have seen movies and documentaries about the war, but nothing can truly capture what it was like to experience it firsthand. The Civil War was fought from 1861-1865, and over 620,000 soldiers died in battle.

These men risked their lives for their beliefs and country, and many experienced significant hardships. Finally, after four years of bloody conflict, the Union soldiers defeated the Confederate states and readmitted those that succeeded back into the United States. 

The Confederate states surrendered partially due to the condition the war left the South in; the Confederacy was bankrupted. Its roads, farms, and factories were destroyed, and generations of men died, leaving many families without fathers and brothers.

The Union also experienced significant losses, but not to the same degree as the Confederacy. The North had better resources, which eventually helped them win the war. The Civil War was a brutal and bloody conflict that took the lives of many young men. The North had considerably more soldiers than the South, wealthier, and had more factories, horses, railroads, and farmland. 

These advantages worked in their favor, but the South had large, well-known territory at their disposal and some of the best ports in North America, which allowed them to remain stubborn until the end.

The American Civil War: The Typical Soldier

According to Bell I. Wiley, an early researcher of the Civil War common soldier, the typical Yankee or Rebel, was a ‘white, native-born, farmer, protestant, single, and between the ages of 18 and 29.’ 

He was a little over 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 143 pounds. Most of the troops were between 18 and 39, with an average age of about 26. These soldiers were young and abled-bodied, coming from over 300 different professions.

  • Common Union Professions – included accountants, surveyors, teachers, carpenters, locksmiths, blacksmiths, painters, masons, and mechanics.
  • Common Confederate Professions – included carpenters, mechanics, merchants, machinists, lawyers, teachers, dentists, and many farmers.

Many of these men left good jobs to fight for their beliefs but didn’t make much when they joined the fight. For instance, soldiers on either side initially earned $11 per month, but in 1864 the Confederacy raised each soldier’s pay to $18 per month. Unfortunately, despite their raise, the Confederate dollar continued to drop. 

The Union soldier’s situation was just the opposite, their pay was increased to $16 per month, and The government initially paid black soldiers $10 per month. Eventually, all Union soldiers earned the same salary, except for recently freed slaves who later joined the ranks.

The American Civil War: A Soldier’s Camp Life

Regardless of the side, the average Civil War soldier’s life was essentially the same. The average soldier’s camp life during the Civil War was far from comfortable; soldiers spent most of them in camp. 

Only a few days out of the year were devoted to battles, but that didn’t stop them from having endless drills, about five of them, each day throughout the time they spent in camp.

After their first drill, early in the morning, they would have breakfast which usually consisted of beans, dried meat, cornbread (if you were in the South), hardtack, and a flour and water biscuit (for Union soldiers.) 

Unfortunately, food shortages were common in the South, so soldiers would have to hunt and forage for food supplies. Scurvy was a primary concern whether you fought in the North or South because of the lack of fruits and vegetables.

Soldiers weren’t always running drills or practicing how to shoot their guns. They also had other tasks, like gathering wood for fires, fetching water from the nearest river or stream, and cooking their meals. 

Like many other necessities, clean water was scarce, and many soldiers suffered from ailments like dysentery. When they weren’t busy with their chores or practicing for battle, the soldiers would often sing songs, play games, and write letters home.

Although, there were moments of peace and entertainment for the men too. When they weren’t busy with their chores or practicing for battle, the soldiers would often sing songs, play games, and write letters home. 

Some camps even had boxing matches, card games, gambling, and theater performances. Gambling was so common that some soldiers even gambled on their funerals.

Hygiene was low on the list of essential things for Union and Confederate soldiers. Lice, fleas, and other parasites were common in their camps. Baths were a rarity because most didn’t have time or resources. 

The heat and humidity were unbearable in the summer, and the cold was numbing in the winter. The smell of camps was a putrid mixture of sweat, food, animals, and blood.

The stench most likely made the living situation worse. Union and Confederate soldiers lived in canvas tents packed with crowds of nearly twenty when it should be twelve per tent. 

Mess and hospital tents were also a thing in most camps. Instead, a canvas shortage forced soldiers to sleep on straw pallets or leaves piled between two logs. In winter, Confederates built wooden huts for protection from the elements.

Rain and mud were a year-round problem; the ground would turn to mud, and walking would be hard. Tensions were high between soldiers because of difficult living conditions. The disease was a problem in all camps due to the rampant outbreaks, and sanitary conditions deteriorated when armies remained in camp.

Later in the war, soldiers frequently constructed latrines upwind or upstream from camps. Over time, accumulation created an unsanitary and dangerous situation. Eventually, the ground was covered with refuse from cooking and slaughtered animals, and the local water source became polluted. 

The American Civil War: A Source of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

It is estimated that 620,000 men died in the American Civil War. Of those who survived, many suffered from physical and emotional scars. The Civil War resulted in more gruesome injuries because of the advancements in war machines. 

Amputations with unsterilized instruments were common because there was no way to save a limb that a cannon had blown off. Gangrene was also a big problem since there was no way to clean the wounds properly.

Many soldiers witnessed their friends and fellow soldiers die, which took an emotional toll. Some even killed other people in battle. The memories of what they had seen and done often haunted them for the rest of their lives. 

The American Civil War was a long, drawn-out conflict characterized by small engagements and personal encounters. In great battles, bullets rather than bombs or missiles caused over 90% of the deaths. 

By the 1860s, however, they wielded more accurate and deadly rifles and improved guns, in addition to their Napoleonic-era tactics of marching in tight formation and firing at close range.

But by the end of the century, they used better weapons that were highly accurate. As a result, units were often cut down en masse, showering survivors with their comrades’ blood, brains, and body parts. 

The aftermath of a conflict was viewed by many soldiers as even more terrifying, with regions so body-strewn that one may walk across them without touching the ground.

Disease, not bullets and shells, was the most deadly threat to Civil War soldiers. Diseases killed twice as many men as combat did. Disease, fear of dying miserably out in the wilderness away from the fighting, and starvation were all factors that men considered as they roamed about in filthy and crowded camps for lengthy periods. Diarrhea was one of the most common causes of death. 

While it is impossible to quantify this pain, many soldiers dealt with physical and emotional scars that would never heal. Others continued to live out their lives in misery before taking their own or being committed to insane asylums. 

Even so, there are notable cases of Civil War soldiers suffering from conditions comparable to today’s veterans. PTSD did not become a medical term until 1980. Still, its symptoms—including flashbacks, panic attacks, sleeplessness, and suicidal thoughts—are seen frequently among Civil War troops, particularly those committed in asylums.

The Life of a Soldier During the Civil War

The American Civil War was a turning point in the history of the United States. It resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and the destruction of property and infrastructure. It also led to the development of new weapons and technologies that would change how wars were fought.

Many who survived the conflict suffered from physical and emotional scars that would never heal. The Civil War was a long, drawn-out conflict characterized by small engagements and personal encounters. It was a war of attrition in which the Union slowly ground down the Confederate army through sheer weight of numbers.

The Civil War was fought over slavery, but it was also a struggle for the soul of the United States. In the end, the Union prevailed and reunited the country, but the scars of the war would remain for generations to come. 

It makes you wonder if the soldiers who fought in the Civil War understood why they were fighting. If they did, they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier in the Civil War. But through their letters, diaries, and memoirs, we can see what they experienced. Through their stories, we remember the Civil War and the sacrifices of those who fought in it.

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