Monday, July 30, 2007
A Soldiers Life
Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. - a battle scarred Civil War veteran - recalled that "War, when your at it, is horrible and dull."
No doubt many old soldiers would have agreed with him. The typical Civil War soldier spent more time battling boredom that he did the enemy. The monotomous drudgery of army life, with its ceaseless round of drills, guard duty, and fatigue details, tested the morale of even the most pattiotic volunteers. One Pennsylvania soldier, in a letter to his family, informed them that soldering was "a very slow business."
Officers encouraged a variety of sporting events as an antidote to boredom and a healthful alternative to the temptations of cards and alcohol. Baseball was a popular pastime. In winter camp snowball fights would somtimes escalate to epic proportions. "It reminds one of a real battle, to see a thousand or two men standing face to face throwing the white balls is truly exciting as well as amusing," claimed one Union recruit.
Many units formed regimental glee clubs to entertain the troops, and amateur theatricals proved so popular that most winter encampments included several theaters. Lacking a female presence, enlisted men would sometimes hold stag dances, with soldiers dressed in women's attire.
Photo above: Pvt. Edward Collidge and drummer William Clarke, two members of the Engineer Battalion pose in character for a play they were about to perform. Tickets were sold for 26 cents each.
Irish units in the Army of the Potomac, celebrated St. Patick's Day with a steeplechase, foot and wheelbarrow races, climbing a greased pole, and what one officer described as "running after the soaped pig - to be the prize of the man who holds it."
Boxing was also a favorite pastime. Soldiers would square off for a bareknuckle boxing match at the drop of a hat. Enthusiasm for boxing grew with the arrival of prominent British professional boxers who immigrated when their sport was outlawed in much of Great Britain shortly before the Civil War.
Musical emsembles were also popular. Groups similar to the one above helped while away hours in winter encampments and provided accompaniment for amateur theatrical performances and minstrel shows.
Inevitably the time would come to sling knapsacks and shoulder muskets, as the armies prepared for battle. With mingled excitement and apprehension soldiers would abandon their camps and march off to resume the terrible business of war.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Answering the Call
When President Abraham Lincoln put out the call for 75,000 troops (16 Regiments) to defend the Nations Capital, most people of the North believed that the rebellion would last less than ninety-days. The initial militia units that responded had enlisted the men for only ninety-days. And indeed, the men in those int ital militia units were discharged at the end of their 90-day enlistment and allowed to return home.
Many of the men from those militia units, however, knowing that the Union needed them, reenlisted with nine-month regiments or later on, three-year regiments. Ultimately, the Nation resorted to a draft to fill the ranks.
While the Federal government professed to fight for the preservation of the Republic and sought to restore the Southern states to the Union by force of arms, the South viewed the struggle as a battle for survival. The South felt that they were waging war purely for self-defense.
Over the course of the war, there were dozens of bloody battles, nine of which occur ed in the Eastern theatre and seven of the nine were fought on Virginia soil. And although there were many epic and ferocious battles, the common soldier was not engaged in battle on a sustained basis.
For most of the naive young men lured to war by fifes and drums and patriotic entreaties, the introduction to military service was not the adventure that they anticipated. For all of their dreams of glory, they found themselves to be a small insignificant piece of a mighty army. But they would, in time, begin to learn the ins and outs of soldering, often from an older and wiser comrade who had already "seen the elephant," the soldiers euphemism for the baptism of fire.
Some three million Americans took up arms during the four years of the Civil War, with Northern armies holding more than a 2-to-1 advantage in numbers over their Southern opponents. The Civil War was a young man's war, with 18-year olds composing the largest single age group. The average Yankee recruit was a 25-year old farmer who stood five feet, eight and one-quarter inches tall, weighed 143 pounds and had dark hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion.
Farmers made up 48 percent of the Federal enlistees, mechanics 24 percent, laborers 16 percent with eight percent in commercial or professional pursuits. A fair number of the Federals were foreign born, principally Irish and Germans.
The vast majority of Yankee volunteers were impelled to take up arms not from a hatred of slavery but from a belief in the integrity of the republic. One Pennsylvania officer believed that by vanquishing the militant proponents of states rights, the North would "save to liberty and freedom the life of the best government the world ever saw." Another soldier bidding farewell to his family noted, "I want you to remember that it will be not only for my country and children, but for liberty all over the world that I risked my life; for if liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of human progress anywhere else?"
Many immigrants who had fled oppression and found a better life in America linked their family's future with the preservation of the Union. A civilian in New York upon seeing a militia unit parading down Broadway commented; "There was something thrilling in the thought that these brave young fellows were going to battle bravely for what they believed to be right." And as "the glorious old flag," carried by a stalwart color sergeant, these individual indicated that he " shouted and yelled until I was hoarse. Tears gushed into my eyes and I turned away firmly resolved to defend that flag against any that would raise their hands against it, whether they were my countrymen or not."
Not all volunteers were motivated by patriotism, however, political convictions, or regional pride. Many signed on for the adventure and the chance to travel. They sought relief from the stifling routine of civil life. Many enthusiastic volunteers feared that the fighting would be over before they arrived. Even before the first tentative forays were made against the enemy, the troops began to realize they had yet to learn of the ways of soldering. They quickly learned that the great cumbersome knapsack, heavily loaded with everything they thought a soldier might need, soon became a thing of the past. Sweltering in wool uniforms as they trudged down dusty roads, the soldiers cast aside all but the bare necessities, and the waysides were strewn with surplus clothing, shoes, blankets, and family keepsakes.
The first battles of the war made it clear to all that victory would never be won by troops whose enthusiasm failed to disguise the fact that they were little more than armed mobs.
Accepting the grim realities of a protracted and costly struggle, the Union and Confederacy strengthened their forces with hundreds of new regiments and in most cases mandated at least a three-year term of enlistment. Discipline was tightened, punishment was meted out for even the most minor infractions of military decorum, and officers began to put their companies and regiments through a seemingly endless round of drill.
One Union soldier grumbled to a companion, "They give us drill for breakfast, drill for dinner, drill for supper, and roll call for sleep at night." Another of his comrades, full of fight when he enlisted, was inclined to agree with his comrade. "It is enough to take the enthusiasm out of any young man to wait for two or three months cooped up in some small camp ground, fed on the coarsest of food, and drilled to death." He further declared himself "sick and tired of the monotony of the life we are leading," and professed his impatience "to be about the business for which I left home and friends."
Art by Paul Salmon; The painting depicts a typical winter camp for a Federal regiment.
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