THE GREAT ADVENTURE
It was the same either side of the Mason-Dixon line, citizen soldiery paraded with their Militia Company's each Sunday decked out in their gaudy uniform's to impress the locals especially the ladies. Rivalry between villages occurred, as each tried to outdo each other in mastering the complicated drill movements of the time.
Then came the day that they were called out to defend their country. It was the same either side of the line, some viewed it with dread, some with a sense of pride, all with the conviction that God was on their side.. Be they Reb or Yank both would experience the same things over the next few weeks.
First they would muster at the village square, then march to the county town to be mixed with their old rivals to form larger companies and then onto the State Capitol where they were sworn into Federal or Confederate service at their rendezvous camps.
From then on it was drill, drill and more drill (remind you of anything?). During this time they would elect their officers (this practice was later abandoned).
It was then on to the camp of instruction, where it was (you guessed it) drill, drill and more drill. They practiced drilling in squads, in companies, in regiments, battalions and even brigades (shuss don't tell Cpt. Walton). If they got from A to B it was considered a miracle as lots of them would have to re-learn from a different manual than had been used when they paraded each Sunday to impress the girls.
They would have to learn commands given by Drum, Bugle as well as voice, and all within a very short space of time.
Somehow they got through it, and were sent to join the rest of the Army they had been assigned to.
Camp life for soldiers throughout time has been the same, large periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of feverish activity.
When soldiers are bored, that is when the trouble starts, fights break out, home sick boys think of running away. Veterans from earlier wars were always a steadying influence and would be interspersed throughout the regiment.
Entertainment of any kind was found to alleviate the boredom of camp life. There was always at least one soldier in a regiment who could play a musical instrument of some kind, who would be called upon to entertain the troops. Even dances were laid on with the soldiers drawing lots to see who would take the ladies' part.
But what the soldiers looked forward to most was mealtimes (which is strange when you consider what they had to eat!). In both Armies, the standard rations were terrible! As we all know, the staple diet of a soldier at that time was hardtack, called other names by the boys such as, "Sheet-iron crackers and teeth-dullers". Although it did have plenty of protein, being filled with maggots. The time honoured practice of tapping the biscuit to remove the trespassers was still used.
Grease was also a staple part of the diet, as whatever they ate was usually cooked in lard or fat of some kind. Fresh vegetables were in short supply and were usually issued in dehydrated blocks referred to as "desiccated vegetables". Even worse was the meat ration which was very rarely issued fresh. It generally came as pickled beef or pork in brine which had to be washed thoroughly to rid it of its salty taste. it was usually rotten and unfit to eat which resulted in the men suffering from stomach and bowel disorders. No wonder they looted anything remotely edible.
Disease was another problem they had to face. Many died before they even got to the battlefield from measles, typhoid, cholera and malaria which were spread by being in close confinement as they were.
There is one positive note in all this gloom. They made friendships that would last a lifetime. (It's exactly the same in the Society - we've all made friendships that will last forever!)
Through weeks of training and many visits to the surgeon, Billy Yank and Johnny Reb were ready to fight. From being ordered to the front line to firing the first shot can seem like an eternity. A time when all sorts of things go through a soldier's mind. Fear, not the fear of death, but the fear that he will let his comrades, his family and his country down. Then the first shot is fired and all is forgotten as he gets on with the business at hand. Later back at camp around the fire he will listen to the braggarts as they recount their heroic deeds and bemoan the fact that had they been in command they would have done things differently and the war would be over. (some things never change)
There were genuine heroes as well as the self proclaimed kind. In 1862 the war department established the Medal of Honour. It was awarded to both officers and men who it was considered, had gone beyond what was normally required of a soldier in the face of the enemy. The Confederates also authorised a Medal of Honour, but it was never issued. Instead, their names were added to a "Roll of Honour" that was published in the Southern press.
The Civil War did teach soldiers both blue and grey a valuable lesson in a time not noted for its tolerance. Heroism came in all colours and nationalities, be they Irish, German, Polish, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, White, black or Red. The colour of the blood was the same.
Several thousand American Indians served in both Armies during the war, as did Mexican Americans. One thing was common to them all, devotion to their regimental colours. Many died defending them, with the life expectancy of the colour bearer being the shortest of all.
If he survived through to discharge, the Civil War soldier would have had many adventures to recount to his family and friends, as well as mourning his lost comrades.
Pvt. S Munro, Bty B, 2nd US Art.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, June 2001.