People of the Civil War: A Soldier's Life

Of the 2.75 million soldiers who fought in the civil war about two million fought for the north, and 750,000 fought for the south. Most soldiers were between 18 and 29. The majority of the soldiers on both sides had been farmers before the war, though many other professions were represented including northern accountants and southern dentists. There were mechanics merchants, lawyers, blacksmiths, painters, carpenters, cobblers, and surveyors. Nearly all the men on both sides were deeply religious and believed firmly in their causes. The cause of the civil war is very complex and not easily explained in modern times, but every soldier in both the Union and Confederate army believed his side was right.

The experiences of Civil War soldiers were widely varied in some ways, but they all held a few common elements. The Confederates had counted on an early victory, and likewise the Union troops were confident that the war would end soon. Most of the soldiers involved in the civil war on both sides were very young, and quickly fell victim to a hastily made and ill thought out preparation for what proved to be a very long war. As the war continued, well beyond the expectations of both sides, supplies ran short, and soldiers were forced to eat filthy maggot ridden rations, hunt and forage for additional food, and depend on the hospitality of farms near their camps and battle fields.

Unfortunately the crop and storage building burning strategy of the invading northern army worked to starve out the farms which the Union army’s raided and the Southern armies also received their rations from. The blockades set up by the US navy successfully turned away the rations, medical supplies, weapons and financial assistance the French were providing to the South, but this prevented any supplies from coming into the area, effectively starving out both armies. Northern Supply lines often failed, and Southern farms failed due to the fact their land was a battlefield frequently set fire by the north. Both Union and Confederate armies were reduced to starvation, under grubby conditions, and frequently disease ridden camps.

If the soldiers were starving, the prisoners of both sides surely suffered worse and history makes it clear that the suffering in both Confederate and Union prison camps was due to lack more than cruelty. Both sides sent doctors to their prison camps, but it was common that sick prisoners of war all took medication from the same spoon. 26,000 Southern men died in Union prisoner of war camps, and 30,000 Union prisoners died in Southern prisoner of war camps, simply because of the filthy conditions and scarcity or in some cases total absence of food in the area. Total prisoner population was about equal, between north and south, 211,000 Union Soldiers, and 214,000 Southern Soldiers were captured.

Unsanitary conditions were another common denominator of both Union and Confederate Armies. Privies close to water supplies, and the occasion of no privies at all, led to all sorts of filth and contamination. Men staying close together, in inappropriately warm woolen uniforms led to other types of diseases and heat stress, as the hot southern sun made their uniforms vastly uncomfortable. Rations rotted, and there were no supplies to replace them anywhere so soldiers ate the rotten maggot ridden food until it was gone, and then starved, unless they managed to successfully hunt in a war zone.

Medical care during the 1860’s was not very adequate even under normal circumstances, but during the war medication was scarce, doctors were not always available and conditions were too filthy for any sort of safe medical practice. Despite the fact that there were 115 US Army trained medical officers at the onset of the war, 24 of which defected to the Confederacy, there were simply not enough medical professionals to go around. People who were not doctors at all were responsible for most of the medical practices. Soldiers died of infected minor injuries, dysentery, malaria, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and the effects of malnutrition more frequently than from serious wounds. More than 600,000 people were died during the civil war. 360,000 Union Soldiers died in the war, 110,000 died in battle, and 225,000 of various diseases. 258,000 Southern men died, 94,000 in battle and 164,000 of diseases. Many more lost limbs, due to the common necessity of amputation because of gangrene infections. Amputation was most frequently preformed without anesthetic.


Training was a widely varied experience for the various soldiers of the north and south during the civil war. The Union soldiers were officially United States Soldiers, while the South’s forces consisted of the armies of various loosely confederated states, hence the word Confederate. Even so the US Army was small at the time only a few thousand troops so the north too, was forced to rely on locally raised regiments. For this reason the training camps varied a great deal from one to another. At the beginning of the war neither side had sufficient trained soldiers, or experienced fighters to train the troops, nor much time to spend trying to train an army. Many officers and trainers had never been in a war before either, but the war had started so the soldiers trained as best they could and set out to war. Later both sides added more training camps for new recruits. Camp Vance was a post for North Carolina’s cavalry commanded by Captain James McRae, and also served as a training camp for the western NC junior reserves. Camp Randall was one of the largest of many training camps in Wisconsin, occupying 42 acres and housing 70,000 men.

There was little time for pre-training soldiers. The civil war started suddenly and troops were required to mobilize quickly. Few of these men were seasoned soldiers, and the most recent war had been the war of 1812. These men were young and in no way prepared for what was about to happen to them. Both sides rushed into war with the reckless abandon, typical of young men with a cause. Both sides felt their homelands were under attack, and they rushed to defend their homes. Most of them learned on the battlefield, and in training exercises on the way to battles. Training exercises called drills were conducted on a frequent basis throughout the war. Though the soldiers often tired of them, they were part of the routine and taught discipline and a few battle skills as well. Cavalry Tactics were a huge part of Civil War battle strategy, and so formations were very important and the subject of many drills. In addition to drills Union Troops were encouraged to play baseball together, in order to keep themselves entertained. This led to the popularity of baseball as a sport.

One thing all soldiers had in common was letter writing, and many kept journals and diaries as well. These saved letters and old diaries give us at least some idea of what the Civil War was like. Though most letters reflected a desire to keep courage, morale was a major problem for most soldiers on both sides. None of them were prepared for the harsh realities of this gruesome and grotesque war.

Infantryman’s Equipment

In the beginning of the war, most Southern Soldiers came well equipped with clothing personal belongings, horse tack, and rations from home, and an ample supply of food from army sources as well. Similarly Union Soldiers came from home well equipped and well fed, and the army generously supplied them with all manner of equipment. Unfortunately clothing and many of the personal belongings were abandoned along the trails and near battlefields as possessions became too much of a burden to carry.

Confederate Soldiers were paid $11 a month, as were the Union Soldiers. Later Confederate wages increased to $18 to compensate for the falling value of their Confederate Currency. Sadly soldiers from both sides frequently did not receive pay, especially towards the end of the war. In addition rations which started out plentiful became hard to deliver. Soldiers on both sides complained of not receiving wages for months on end, but the Confederates towards the end were receiving nothing.

Union Soldiers were typically issued a gun eighty rounds of shot, and a pound of gunpowder. (Civil War weapons were muzzle loaders and cannons.) They were given a knapsack a heavy wool blanket, a rubber blanket, a tent, winter wool clothing and uniforms, a mess kit, sewing kit, shaving kit, and assorted toiletries. Every single article of clothing was part of the uniform they were to wear. They were also expected to carry a journal, a bible, and stationery. There were many other standard and special issue Union equipment and uniform items. Union troops also carried a three pint canteen and a Haversack, which was a 12” x 12” canvas bag with a waterproof lining and a buckled flap. This bag was intended to carry three days rations. It is not surprising that much of this equipment was left in the field, and that Union soldiers would prefer to eat all three days of rations at once than carry them.

At first Confederate Soldiers were similarly equipped  at least in most cases. Confederates were however responsible for bringing their own shoes, socks, shirts, hats and basic toiletry items. The Confederacy was a new and not as accustomed to providing for troops as the United States Army. This was no problem for the Southern army since their families sent them with more things than they could carry anyway. 

Body Armor, Headgear and Soldier’s Shoes

Union Soldiers wore complete Union Uniforms, including kepis hats which helped to designate rank. Even though there were specially designed Confederate caps which are today considered part of the Confederate uniform, most Confederate soldiers wore hats they brought from home. There was little standardization in Confederate uniforms, especially in the west. In the east, standard uniforms were more commonly provided but varied by state.

Confederate Soldiers wore their shoes from home which were already broken in, and which they were accustomed to. Generally these were brogans formerly used for farming. The Union Soldiers were provided with Jefferson bootie brogans. These shoes had no right or left, and were intended to take the shape of the soldier’s foot after being worn for a while.

The northern armies did experiment with metal body armor but it was not popular among the Union troops who felt it was both cowardly and heavy to wear. Body armor was available to some units but rarely used.

The mid 1800’s were a difficult time in history for many people and nations. It was a tremendous era of change. None of those changes were easy, and America suffered greatly during the war, and after for a long time. It was not a happy ending for anyone, even though the war was over. Lincoln was assassinated, most of the freed slaves returned to their former masters to keep from starving in the war gutted countryside. They planted crops and somehow pulled through the devastation together. The loss of life during the civil war represented a substantial percentage of the male population in both the northern and southern the United States. Because regiments on both sides were locally based, many towns and communities lost most of their male population. The man shortage was felt sharply, and many women were left spinsters, and widows. The entire generation suffered immeasurably for the rest of their lifetimes due to the war.