Heading Off to Battle

When not in camp, soldiers spent much of their time marching. During a soldier's first march, he generally ''simmered down,'' meaning that he shed his excess baggage, including overcoats, blankets from home, and other luxuries. A soldier might have started the war carrying as much as 80 pounds of material, but by the time of Sherman's March to the Sea in late 1864, Union soldiers had reduced their load to the essentials— a rifled musket, a bayonet, 80 rounds of ammunition, a haversack with a blanket, a canteen, a tin cup, a knife, and possibly playing cards or some paper and a pencil or ink. Regardless of their load, soldiers on the march suffered. They often wore ill-fitting or worn-out shoes, and occasionally Confederates lacked any shoes at all. When it was wet, their water-logged and muddy packs were even heavier than usual, and infantry men had to help move wagons stuck in the mud. When it was hot and dry, marchers suffered from thirst and from dust kicked up by thousands of tramping feet. A Union Army of 100,000 men could be accompanied by 2,500 wagons, 35,000 animals, and 600 tons of supplies. Armies on the march clogged roads ill-equipped to handle this volume of traffic. Given the choice, soldiers preferred to be at the head of these columns. The lead units got their choice of campsites at the end of the day, did not swallow as much dust, and arrived at the destination many hours before troops bringing up the rear. When Civil War armies moved, they moved slowly, averaging only approximately 2.5 miles per hour, although when necessary, units could move much faster. Most famously, in its 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson's ''foot cavalry'' marched 650 miles and fought five battles in less than two months.

Witnesses to a march would have quickly perceived that there was nothing uniform about soldiers' uniforms. In 1861, the same local women who had sewn a company's battle flag often made their uniforms as well. Wealth, the color of available cloth, and personal taste dictated early uniform choices with men wearing green, yellow, or red in addition to the stereotypical blue and gray. At the outset of the war, even the wearing of blue or gray did not necessarily identify one as a Union or Confederate soldier. In July 1861, in the smoke and confusion of the battle of Bull Run, Union soldiers mistakenly opened fire on a gray-clad unit from Wisconsin and allowed blue-clad Virginians to approach their lines unmolested. Similar battle flags added to the confusion and led to the Confederacy's adoption of what is today considered the Rebel flag. The following month at Wilson's Creek in Missouri, Union troops allowed gray-uniformed Louisiana soldiers to almost overrun their positions because they mistook their attackers for an Iowa unit that also wore gray. Not until early 1862, after several incidents like these, did the Union Army adopt the standard dark blue coat and light blue pants that are most commonly associated with its forces. With the Union blockading textile imports from England, the South never truly succeeded in cladding all of its soldiers in gray. In reality, butternut, a yellowish brown dye made primarily from walnut hulls, was a more common sight among Confederates than gray. Even some degree of uniformity, however, did not guarantee that a uniform fit well, and complaints, especially regarding shoes, abounded. Tattered Confederates could not always even rely on their government to provide adequate clothing and instead used clothing sent from home, acquired by their state governments, purchased from their fellow troops, or pilfered from dead Yankees to supplement their official uniforms.

Ultimately, all of this training and marching led to combat. Here, soldiers used the discipline that they had learned in drill to face the enemy. Generally, the attack involved either a frontal assault or an effort to flank—go around the left or right end of their lines—the enemy. These traditional tactics had become superseded by equipment, particularly the employment of rifling, which represented a major advancement in both accuracy and distance over the traditional musket. The musket, the mainstay of pre-Civil War armies, had an effective range of 80 to 100 yards. Rifling its barrel and using a new bullet, the minie ball, increased the range to approximately 400 yards. A soldier loaded the gun through its muzzle and with practice could fire three shots in a minute, although in the stress of combat one shot per minute was more common. The North, with a greater industrial might, quickly armed its soldiers with Springfield rifles, eventually producing more than 2 million of these guns. Southerners more commonly relied on Enfield rifles imported from England and used Springfield rifles taken from Union soldiers.

Not only did defenders wield rifles, they also increasingly fired from trenches or behind fortifications. In 1861, many officers believed that digging in was cowardly, and Robert E. Lee earned the derisive nickname, ''The King of Spades,'' for ordering his troops to entrench. As the war progressed, opposition to entrenching disappeared, and the extent of these earthworks steadily increased, culminating in the Petersburg campaign of 1864-1865, in which armies constructed elaborate networks of trenches, presaging the trench warfare of World War I. Attacks against defenders protected by walls or trenches became heroic failures, with Pickett's charge on the third day of Gettysburg representing the classic folly of a head-on attack. Of the estimated 12,500 Confederates who charged three-quarters of a mile alongside Pickett, 54 percent (almost 7,000 men) were killed, wounded, or captured. Although both attackers and defenders possessed bayonets, they were much more likely to use them to heat their dinner than to stab their enemy, with only 0.4 percent of all Civil War casualties resulting from bayonet wounds.

For the ordinary soldier, whether charging or defending, the battlefield contained a bewildering and frightening array of sights and sounds. Soldiers repeatedly contended that one had to face battle to understand it. In attempting to explain their participation in battle, most soldiers would agree with a North Carolinian's succinct assertion, ''I can't describe a battle to you'' (McPherson 1997, 12). Based on their accounts, even participating in a battle did not ensure knowledge of what had happened. Limited visibility negated both comprehension and much of the distance advantage provided by the new rifles. Civil War soldiers generally did not fight in open fields but in forests or forest clearings. Not only did trees hinder one's vision, but also during battles smoke was ubiquitous. Thus, soldiers might not have exaggerated in claiming to have fought entire battles without ever seeing their opponents. Instead, men fired where they suspected the enemy stood, where they saw muzzle-bursts, or where they heard the enemy. With most battles fought in the summer months, soldiers, in addition to having limited vision, suffered from heat and thirst. Additionally, they recounted hearing a great number of deafening and disorienting sounds, including artillery shells bursting, drums and bugle calls, bullets whizzing by, cursing, wounded men crying out in pain, and, when Confederates attacked, the infamous rebel yell.

The rebel yell represented one way that Confederates boosted their courage during terrifying battles. Civil War soldiers viewed battles as a test of their manhood, and they expected themselves and their comrades to act bravely. When time permitted, officers offered an inspirational speech before the battle during which they stressed the importance of the war and appealed to the soldiers' manhood. To fortify their nerves, some soldiers prayed while others drank alcohol. The charge, where men had to hold their fire until ordered to do so, represented a supreme test of this courage. All units contained men who shirked their duty during battle by feigning illness, intentionally straggling behind the unit, volunteering to take wounded comrades to the rear, or simply running from the fight. Civil War soldiers castigated those who ''showed the white feather'' and abandoned their comrades. Most men, however, did not forsake their duties. Instead, they retained their courage because they felt the cause, their reputation, or their fellow soldiers, whom they literally stood elbow to elbow with, should not be let down. That did not mean that men relished combat, and after having ''seen the elephant'' once, few expressed an eagerness to see it again soon.

Not all soldiers emerged from combat unscathed. Despite the confusion of battle, some shots hit their mark. When struck by a minie ball, a man's suffering had only just begun. Wounded soldiers were expected to maintain their courage, but this proved difficult as they lay, possibly in excruciating pain, for hours and perhaps even for a day or two before being attended to. The screams of the wounded and smells of the dead helped create a situation that horrified the eyes, ears, and noses of witnesses to the carnage. Civil War ambulances, generally two- or four-wheeled wagons, provided men a bumpy and painful trip to the field hospitals. There, the wounded encountered overwhelmed Civil War doctors, who had a reputation for being quacks who did more harm than good. In reality, these doctors did the best they could to treat the wounded, but they lacked both the medical knowledge and the technological expertise to provide much relief. Neither army had any hospital system in place when the war began, and neither ever possessed a sufficient number of doctors, although the Union with 11,000 surgeons was better off than the Confederates with

A surgeon at a field hospital prepares to amputate the arm of a wounded soldier (1861). (Library of Congress)

only 2,600 surgeons. At Gettysburg, where inundated Union doctors faced more wounded men than they could handle, they first divided the men into two categories: those they had a chance to save and those they did not, offering no treatment to the latter group.

For soldiers, receiving treatment frequently meant simply more pain. Doctors employed unsanitary equipment, often not wiping the blood off of knives as they moved from patient to patient, and hospitals were infested with flies and maggots. Infections from both these unsanitary procedures and from minie balls, which generally carried bits of clothing and hair into the body, were common. For arm and leg wounds, amputation, often without anesthesia or with whiskey serving in its place, represented the most common procedure, with Union doctors alone amputating more than 30,000 arms and legs. In contrast, wounds to the torso generally meant death. If a soldier survived a field hospital, he might be sent to a more permanent hospital, most commonly in the North or South's respective capital cities for recovery, if he was lucky, or for a slower death, if he was not so lucky. Overall, 18 percent of wounded Confederates and 14 percent of wounded Yankee soldiers died.

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