Billy Yank and Johnny Reb at war

Although the United States was not prepared for the conflict that erupted in 1861, by the war's end it looked like a nation that had prepared for decades. By 1865, 3 million citizens, North and South, had mustered into military serv ice. Volunteers from vastly diverse backgrounds flocked to enlist. Although the war was America's first modern war, it still had an agrarian character, as farmers comprised the largest numbers of volunteers on both sides. Soldiers were typically between the ages of 18 and 24, white, single, and Protestant. Although both sides employed blacks behind the lines as laborers until mid-1863, by 1865 roughly 180,000 blacks had fought in the Union army. Immigrants, mostly Germans and Irish, also participated in the conflict. Western states contributed large numbers of immigrants to the cause.

The Civil War was a conflict fought mainly between foot soldiers. Nearly 80 percent of Union fighting men were infantrymen, with 14 percent serving as cavalry and the remaining 6 percent serving in the artillery. Seventy-five percent of the soldiers in the

Confederacy were infantrymen, 20 per cent served in the cavalry, and 5 per cent served with artillery units.

One of the reasons that the war was so fiercely contested was because soldiers of both armies came to believe they were fighting for a common cause: personal liberties, constitutional guarantees, democratic principles, and republican ideals. Still, some 630,000 soldiers lost their lives over conflicting means of achieving the same ends.

Pride in country and state induced men to volunteer, and Union soldiers often

In a typical regimental portrait, these soldiers of the 125th Ohio Volunteers reflect the worn yet determined character of the men who fought the //ar between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. iMassachusetts Commander/ Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the US Army Military History Institute)

Johnny Reb And Billy Yank

expressed their devotion to the cause by using patriotic rhetoric. 'The cause for which the majority of men now in the army have enlisted to defend is sacred,' wrote an lllinoisan. '1 consider that we should do what we can for the cause for which we enlisted and strive on until it is accomplished.' A Louisianian concluded, 'I had rather fall in this cause than to see my country dismantled of its glory and independence - for of its honor it cannot be deprived.'

Political, social, and economic reasons also inspired men to join the military. Many-men volunteered because they believed it was the virtuous thing to do to protect their local communities, their homes, families, and friends. The army also offered perhaps a more satisfying and financially rewarding life than the boredom and fatigue of struggling to till the soil. Because the nation was in the midst of a depression when the war began, army pay was quite attractive. A Union private received S13 a month and a Confederate private received SI 1 a month, and both governments provided incentives in the way of bounties or bonuses to enlist for longer periods. Because many enlistees were unmarried, the adventure of traversing the countryside and the chance of potentially becoming a hero was an additional motivation. Politics also motivated men to fight and often found expression in anti-slavery sentiments. 'Old John Brown Set this war in motion, and threw himself beneath ... as the first martyr,' declared Orrin Stebbins, 'and it will never Stop until that dark Stane of African Slavery is wiped out so dry.'

Army life

Because Civil War soldiers were extensions of their local communities, they adopted symbols, uniforms, names, and flags reflective of these prewar associations that gave a unit an identity. Several Northern units adopted the Zouave uniform worn by-French troops. It consisted of a red turban

Civil War Symbols Easy

Lew Wallace, famous after the Civil War as the author of Ben Hur, commented about the Zouave uniforms of the I Ith Indiana Regiment, which bore his name as the 'Wallace Zouaves':'There was nothing of the flashy Algerian colors in the uniform of the Eleventh Indiana; no red fez. no red breeches, no red or yellow sash with tassels big as early cabbages. Our outfit was of the tamest grey twilled goods, not unlike home made jeans - a visor cap. French in pattern, its top of red cloth not larger than the palm of one's hand: a blue flannel shirt with open neck, a jacket Greekish in form, edged with narrow binding, the red scarcely noticeable; breeches baggy but not petticoated; button gaiters connecting below the knees with the breeches, and strapped over the shoes.'(Painting by Don Troiam.

with white band and orange tinsel, a short blue jacket with gold trimming, loose red trousers and yellow buckskin leggings. The 11th Indiana Zouaves, known as the 'Wallace Zouaves' in honor of their commander, Lew Wallace, wore a midwestern variation of the uniform. Still, whatever their specific unit identities, Northerners became known as 'Billy Yanks,' and Southerners became known as 'Johnny Rebs.'

In the tradition of their democratic heritage, soldiers were allowed to elect many of their officers, while some were appointed by politicians. Of course, this presented problems as friends or enemies-turned-soldiers could find taking orders from these persons awkward. The core of military life, however, was discipline and uniformity, both of which caused problems for the typical soldier. Disrespect for authority was the first and most common offense committed by men of blue and gray. Although both governments attempted to nationalize their armies, Northerners proved more amenable to adherence to regulations and nationalism than did Southerners.

Varied uniforms and equipment became a problem, and soon the governments enforced a standardized code in both. Because gray had been the popular color of militia and cadet uniforms in the prewar years, both sides initially marched off in variations of the same color. The Union would eventually adopt blue as the official uniform color, as that had been the color of uniforms in the professional army. Confederates would eventually adopt gray as their national color.

Because most soldiers marched through landscapes that were vastly different from their local communities, soldiers were initially awed by the grandeur of their surroundings. Camps were where soldiers spent the bulk of their time, and they became both homes and training grounds, filled with excitement at some times and endless monotony at others. The discipline of drill and training could prove the difference between life and death in combat, so soldiers spent hours each day drilling and

Billy Yank

preparing for the inevitable fight. Soldiers in the Western Theater typically slept in tents or huts, depending on the weather. The shelter tent or 'dog tent,' as it was commonly known for its small size, was the standard issue by 1862. Soldiers rose at 5.00 am, assembled, drilled, ate breakfast, then went to their assigned duties. The bugle sounded lunch at noon, and regimental drill followed for two to three hours. Soldiers then returned to their quarters until dress parade at 6.00 pm, followed by dinner and free time until 9.(X) pm.

Soldiers spent their free time writing letters home, detailing their reactions to their new surroundings, politics, and emotions about missing home. When they were not writing, they were reading dime novels and newspapers from home or national newspapers, including the popular pictorial papers such as Frank Leslie's Illustrated, Harper's Weekly, and Southern Illustrated News. Soldiers frequently indulged in playing cards, horse racing, drinking, fist-fighting, storytelling, animal chasing, and other irreverent activities to escape the loneliness of army life.

When time permitted, theatrical productions gave the men immense pleasure. Bonibasties Furioso, a farce staged by the Confederate 9th Kentucky, was the hit of the 1862-63 season in the west.

Singing was as popular as letter writing, and soldiers were just as expressive in song as they were in writing. Soldiers voiced their longing for home, their patriotism to the cause, and their sentimental feeling for the fight. Billy Yank and Johnny Reb alike sang 'Home, Sweet Home,' 'The Girl 1 Left Behind,' and 'When This Cruel War is Over.' The Bonnie Blue Flag' and 'Dixie' were popular with Confederates and Federals enjoyed 'Yankee Doodle' and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' Northern soldiers passed the hours marching to the popular tune 'John Brown's Body.' At the beginning of the war, brass

Brass bands accompanied many units into the Civil War and soldiers came to greatly appreciate them. Here the 'Tiger Band' of the 12Sth Ohio Regiment poses for a picture. (Massachusetts Commandery Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the US Army Military History Institute)

bands accompanied many units into service, and they were constant sources of entertainment throughout the conflict.

The novelty of camp life soon wore off, however, and during the long indistinguishable days of boring life, preachers and camp chaplains attempted to maintain morale among the ranks. Religion proved to be the link between the home front and the battlefront. When all else failed, faith in God provided hope that life might improve. Army chaplains on both sides received officer status and substantial pay - S100 per month in the Union and $80 in the Confederacy. Still, they were forced to live a spartan life and, as the war continued, both sides suffered chronic shortages of qualified chaplains. Nonetheless, whether they attended Sunday service or not, Civil War soldiers relied on scriptures and faith to get them through combat. Pennsylvania!! Milton Ray expressed a typical sentiment to his sister: '1 hope you may continue in earnest prayer for the preservation of my life if it is God's holy will that I should be spared ... Pray that I may be a faithful soldier of the cross and of my country.'

Death and disease

If the daily routine of harsh drilling and unrelenting discipline, the indistinguishable days of boredom, and the lack of good-quality, plentiful food that made up a soldier's camp life did not kill him, then disease or disability from a battle-inflicted wound often did. Of the 360,222 Union men who died in the war, over 250,000 deaths resulted from disease; nearly three-quarters of the Confederate casualties also perished to disease. Because camp sites were chosen for military and not health considerations, soldiers suffered tremendous depredations. Inadequate drainage, ignorance of sanitary-practices, and the natural carelessness associated with army life characterized Union and Confederate camps and produced a contaminated atmosphere. 'We have had an awful time drinking the meanest water not fit for a horse i indeed 1 could hardly get my horse to drink it),' remarked a Texas surgeon.

Measles, smallpox, typhoid, diarrhea, malaria, and dysentery w-ere prevalent throughout the war. More than 1,700,000 cases of diarrhea were recorded by Federal doctors during the war, and 57,000 proved fatal. Because many soldiers were farm boys who had largely escaped a host of communicable diseases, these spread like epidemics in camp. Soldiers, uneducated about the importance of hygiene, exacerbated their problems by not bathing or changing their clothes. Army surgeons were few in number and their limited knowledge and medical supplies often combined to make the attempt to save a life as fatal as the attempt to take one. Amputations were common.

In early May 1862. Corinth highlighted the familiar consequences of war. After the bloody two-day battle at Shiloh, the Confederates attempted to recover from the devastating effects of the battle. Corinth, a small railroad junction in northern Mississippi, was in no way prepared to accommodate 20,000 sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. Residents used every building possible to accommodate the wounded men. However, more soldiers died during the seven-week stay at Corinth than had fallen in two days of battle. A Confederate nurse, Kate Gumming, was at the Tishomingo Hotel in Corinth, where she found scores of disabled soldiers, 'mutilated in every imaginable way.' She recalled that the wounded soldiers w-ere lying on the bloody floors so close together that it was difficult to avoid stepping on them.

During the siege of Vicksburg in May-July 1863, countless Confederate soldiers and civilians fell victim to disease. Despite herculean attempts to administer to the wounded, the city and military hospitals, with cots arranged even outside on the grounds, could not take care of the flow of casualties from the trenches. Scarcely a woman at Vicksburg was not involved in ministering to the wounded.

Billy Yank

Because regimental surgeons Had to perform frequent amputations of arms and legs, a krt specifically designed for amputations such as the one <n this picture was standard issue for military doctors (Painting by Don Tnoiani,

More pathetic than the soldiers in hospitals suffering from disease were the soldiers who suffered on the battlefield. Before the fight soldiers wrestled with fear, often pinning their name and unit on their shirts. Even the most seasoned veteran was routinely shocked by the grisly aftermath. The Battle of Shiloh baptized the soldiers and the country in the vast number of ways men could be killed. Before the battle, one Tennessean penned in his diary, -l shall never forget how 1 felt that day ... knowing that with the early tomorrow many of us most likely would pass away.' In many respects, experiencing combat cured the anxious soldier's desire to 'see the elephant,' as fighting in battle was commonly known. The end of a battle often brought exhaustion and the realization that the soldier's unit had suffered tremendous losses.

Because regimental surgeons Had to perform frequent amputations of arms and legs, a krt specifically designed for amputations such as the one <n this picture was standard issue for military doctors (Painting by Don Tnoiani,

The common soldiers who fought the war were the unsung heroes of camp and combat. Americans who were otherwise ordinary became heroes in many ways, simply because they endured the ordeal and penned something of their experience. The war became central to their peacetime lives and to the lives of their children and grandchildren. 'What an experience the last few years have been!' wrote a Wisconsin soldier. 'I would not take any amount of money & have the events which have transpired in that length of time blotted out from my memory.'

Was this article helpful?

0 -2


  • Cillian
    Which side did billy yank fight for?
    9 days ago

Post a comment