Although there was a great deal of what can only be called unusual spelling and grammar evident in their letters home, the average soldier of the Civil War on either side could read and write. Much of what is known about life in the army comes from the surviving letters written, to wives, sweethearts, parents, siblings, and friends throughout the war. The Union had a more efficient postal system, and letters to and from the troops usually found their way to their destination quickly, while in the South the mail often languished for weeks and even months. Writing letters was a popular means of passing idle time, and thousands of men kept diaries and journals, many of them still in private hands today.
23. Johnny Reb was more likely to be a draftee early in the war
The first official government conscription of troops occurred in the Confederacy in April 1862. By then it was clear to the Confederate government that there was an insufficient level of volunteers available to defend the fledgling nation and allow it to survive. The Confederate draft later exempted men who owned twenty or more slaves, and wealthy slave owners divided their slaves among sons and other relatives and friends, protecting them from the draft. The burden of conscription thus fell overwhelmingly on the less wealthy, and the draft was thoroughly resented among the poor, particularly in the Appalachian regions of the South.
24. The men of both sides wanted their pictures taken
Photography was a relatively new art form during the Civil War, and the novelty of having one’s picture taken appealed to the men of both sides. Soldiers of the Civil War were accommodated by photographers which followed the armies on the march, and many posed in their uniforms, sending the pictures home to be displayed in the parlors of their families. Many of them were later photographed as they lay dead following the battles of the war, often in photographs which were staged by photographers working for Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady and others, to be displayed in their studios revealing the horrors of the war as it unfolded.
25. Both sides sought relief from boredom in the long encampments
On average about one day in thirty saw contact with the enemy through the course of the Civil War. The remaining time was spent in finding ways to combat unceasing ennui. Drilling and the rudiments of military life led to boredom which the average soldier found oppressive. To fight it, Northern troops played baseball, held boxing matches, and fell back on the activity practiced by armies since ancient times, gambling. Their Southern counterparts did the same, as well as holding wrestling matches and footraces, as well as cockfights, though as the war went on chickens became scarce and when found usually became food as soon as a fire could be started.
26. Nearly all of the men of both sides carried a Bible
The overwhelming majority of the troops on the Southern side carried and read the King James Version of the Bible, since most were of Protestant faith. The same was true of the Union Army, though a fairly large contingent of Irish Catholics also were present. Sunday church services were mandatory in the Confederate Army, as they were in most of the Confederacy. Roughly 150,000 Confederate soldiers were converted to Christianity through revivals held among the troops during the years of the Civil War, most of them becoming Baptists. The Union Army also saw large numbers of men converted during the war, though their Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln, remains to date the only American president to have never joined a church.
27. A Confederate soldier wore no medals on his uniform
The soldiers of the Union Army were eligible for medals, including the Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor, which was first awarded during the Civil War. Their counterparts serving the South were not. Although medals were authorized for the officers and men of the Confederate Army none could be obtained, and Robert E. Lee stated that the highest honor to be accorded the men under his command was to be “mentioned in dispatches”. Over fifteen hundred men of the Union army and navy were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions during the Civil War, but not one such award was issued for the men serving the Confederacy, though many men entered Southern legend through their efforts being recorded in the reports of their senior officers.
28. Both sides practiced illegal theft of food and supplies
While on the march, the troops of both sides were admonished by their officers not to steal the produce of civilians. Both sides ignored the orders. Officially foodstuffs taken from farmers and merchants was to be paid for; unofficially the troops of both armies simply took what they wanted. Besides food, items of value were looted by the men of both armies. As Sherman marched through Georgia and later South Carolina he found many farms and towns already looted by the Southern troops retreating before him. By that stage of the war neither side had any qualms about taking whatever they wanted, despite regulations in both armies prohibiting theft from civilians.
29. Union troops read of their exploits in newspapers and magazines
The men of the Union Army read the newspapers of the day in their encampments, no doubt with frequent howls of derision at the descriptions of their travails and the activities of their commanders. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was a popular periodical in the Union camps, as was its competitor, Harper’s Weekly. Both carried often vivid descriptions of the battles fought by the contending armies, and both were staunchly pro-Union anti-slavery publications which often used words such as crusade to describe the war to end slavery. All of the Union newspapers and magazines of the day featured artwork, but not photographs.
30. Johnny Reb read newspapers and magazines as well
The most popular periodical in the camps of the Confederate Army was the Southern Literary Messenger, which was published in Richmond and which had in an earlier day been edited by Edgar Allan Poe. The Messenger continued publication until June, 1864, when it was forced to stop its presses, in part because of the situation in Richmond. The Southern Illustrated News was also popular. Also published in Richmond it was unabashedly favorable to the government of the Confederacy, and continued to publish until that government was forced to flee the capital in April, 1865, as Lee and the remnants of his army retreated towards Appomattox and surrender.
31. The majority of the soldiers of both sides had never been far from home before
Most of the men who fought in the Civil War had never been more than a few miles from their home when they entered the army. The open country through which they marched was an exotic, foreign land. It was the first time many of them had ever been on a train, or a barge, and for many men of the rural north the first time they had ever seen a black man in person. After the war nearly all of the troops on both sides returned to their homes rather than settle in lands which they had first seen during the war. The Civil War was a lesson to the men of both sides of the vastness of the country in which they lived, as well as the diverse nature of its settlement.
32. Nearly all of the troops on both sides saw combat
Unlike subsequent wars fought by the United States, in which armies developed large logistical tails of troops which never engaged in actual combat, nearly all of the men in the armies of both sides saw action during the war. The armies of the North and South were fighting armies, and the likelihood of an able-bodied soldier of either side avoiding combat was remote, up until the end of 1864. Garrisons and supply positions were usually taken up by men who had previously seen action and were no longer able, due to injury or age, to perform with the frontline troops. By the end of the war the South conscripted able-bodied men of all ages to place them with the remaining armies, up until the day Robert E. Lee surrendered.
33. A soldier from either side was most likely to serve in the infantry
In the Army of the Confederate States of America about 75% of the soldiers were infantrymen. About 5% served in the artillery and 20% in the cavalry. As the war ground down in 1864, much of the cavalry became unhorsed on the Confederate side, as animals died and could not be replaced. While the cavalry units retained that designation, many of them were indistinguishable from the infantry, forced to march on their feet rather than ride. In the Union army about 80% of the men served in the infantry and about 16% in the cavalry, though the Union army grew to be more than twice as large as that of their enemy and thus contained a larger cavalry contingent than the Confederates.
34. The odds of being wounded in action were different for the troops
A Confederate soldier had a roughly 15% chance of being wounded in battle, with about 150 of every 1,000 men being hit. The men of the Union army had a little better chance of emerging unscathed, about 11% were wounded. Given the heavy volume of fire reported by participants in all of the major battles of the war it can be inferred that marksmanship was not exemplary on either side. Many troops of both sides fired over the heads of their enemies in battle. It was the massing of troops in the face of volleys of fire which led to the heavy casualties, as officers continued to use the tactics of the Napoleonic age despite the lethality of more modern weapons.
35. The Confederates fought to defend their home state
While the Confederacy was formed over the issue of slavery most of the men of the Confederate army did not own slaves. For them slavery was an accepted fact of life, since it was the custom and law of the state in which they lived. Most of the men of the Confederate army were draftees after 1862, and served because their state compelled them to defend it from Northern aggression. Throughout the war the morale of the Confederate units was adversely affected by men being forced to serve outside of their home state, and the majority of desertions in the Confederate army were cited as being by men desirous of returning home to protect their property and families.
36. Before 1863 the troops of either army often couldn’t be distinguished from the other
The troops which responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers in 1861 responded wearing the uniforms of their individual states, creating a Union army which was clad in blue, black, gray, red, and other colors as well. Later in the war, before the Gettysburg campaign, Confederate units often wore jackets taken from fallen Union troops, or captured from their baggage trains. Friendly fire incidents were frequent and deadly early in the war. Not until 1863 were the units of the Union army clad for the most part in the famed blue uniforms, while Southern units were for the most part in either gray or homespun butternut.
Mark Twain’s career as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War, an event which led him to joining the militia in his native Missouri. He remained with the unit for two weeks before he deserted, fleeing to the west. He later wrote a fictional account of his brief period of military service, but he was considered a deserter, by himself and by others, for the rest of his life. Twain described his two week military career as a period in which he was, “hunted like a rat the whole time” and defended his desertion later in his life by describing the war and slavery as blots on the national character.
38. The Confederate Army simply dissolved at the end of the war
When Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses Grant, the man known for demanding unconditional surrender granted surprisingly generous terms. The entire army was paroled and granted leave to go home. From Appomattox the army, or rather what remained of it, fell apart as the men looked for ways to return to their homes. There was no separation, no discharges, and though a few of the men may have headed off to join the remaining Confederate Army in the field, under Joseph Johnston in North Carolina, the overwhelming majority of Lee’s veterans returned to the homes from whence they came.
39. The Union Army demobilized quickly after the end of the war
Grant and Sherman commanded huge armies at the end of the American Civil War, and there were arguments that they were still needed to contain the French intervention in Mexico, occupy the defeated South, and control the Native American tribes on the plains. The veterans of the war had other ideas, as did their families at home, and the Union army disbanded with startling speed, from over 1 million men in arms in April 1865, to about 54,000 in May of 1866. Many of the volunteers in the reduced United States Army were veterans from the Confederate Army, particularly in the cavalry units of the Western Plains.
40. The soldiers of the Civil War created the largest American Army to be seen until World War One
About two and three quarter million men served in the army on both sides of the American Civil War, roughly two million of them for the Union. Over 600,000 died from combat, disease, or accidents, and in the early 21st century estimates of the total deaths in the military of the Civil War continue to be revised upwards. Several hundred thousand more were maimed physically during the war, and thousands of the post-war veterans were plagued by what is now known as PTSD, undiagnosed at the time. About 6% of the Union troops had been draftees; a considerably larger percentage of the Confederate army was conscripted, a fact often ignored by history.
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