The Daily Life of a Union Soldier
The nation was split in two over the concept of slavery. The Northern abolitionists felt strongly against slavery while the Southern plantation owners were set on maintaining slave labor. South Carolina paved the way for Southern states to secede from the United States of America. Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas soon followed in early 1861 (Roark, 455). Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed in the secession of fellow southern states following the attack on Fort Sumter (Roark, 464).
From this point on, the Union and the Confederacy were set in stone. This was the root of the bloody Civil War.
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Millions of Americans enlisted in the army to support their beliefs and half of the nation. Soldiers faced harsh conditions not only on the battlefield, but also in their camps. The daily life of a Union soldier consisted of hours of drills, minimal food rations, and harsh conditions while fighting to end slavery. The Union soldiers shared many similarities. To enlist as a soldier the boy had to be at least 18 years old.
Most were in their late teens and early twenties though boys as young as 15 reportedly enlisted and lied about their age (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). Bell Wiley described the solders as “white, native-born, farmer, protestant, single, and between the age of 18 and 29. ” The average soldier was 5’8” tall and weighed 143 pounds (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). These men came from a variety of places since the North featured an industrial economy. Most of the soldiers were farmers, but hundreds of previous careers were recorded. Some men were accountants, locksmiths, masons, painters, etc. (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1).
The youth and variety of occupations of the enlisted featured inexperienced soldiers. According to “Civil War Soldiers,” out of the 2. 75 million soldiers that fought in the Civil War, 2 million of them were from the North. Of these 2 million, ¼ were immigrants. 200,000 came from Germany, 150,000 were Irish, 45,000 were English, and 15,000 came from Canada (1). By the end of the war in 1865, 10% of Union troops were African Americans (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). These men were not only fighting to support the Union but also for their freedom.
Since white soldiers were fighting to support the Union the majority of the time, some financial compensation was provided to bring in more troops. The average wage for a Union soldier was $11 per month (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). These payments were irregular, though. Sometimes a soldier would wait six months before receiving even a single month’s earning (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). In 1864, the Confederacy raised their payments to $18 a month, and not long after the Union raised theirs to $16 (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1).
While soldiers were bringing in little money, a three star general could have earned as much as $700 per month (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). The earnings of each type of soldier demonstrate the diversity in their roles in the war. While some men only fought to make money for their family, some men fought to preserve the Union and to abolish slavery (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). This quote demonstrates the pride soldiers had in what they were fighting for and showed some men would go to extreme lengths for what they believe in. “It has rained for a week and the roads are muddy.
After marching for 20 miles it is not pleasant to lie down at night in the wet without any cover. I am tired- in fact I never was so tired in my life. But Hurrah! It is all for the Union! ”-Elisha Rhodes The soldier’s pride was also shown through their standardized uniforms. The Union uniforms were more standardized than the Confederacy’s though some wore European style clothing or no uniform at all (“The Life of a Union Soldier”, 1). The dark blue uniforms were made from a heavy wool and worn with leather billed caps and stiff shoes (Winthrop, 1).
The soldiers may not have been comfortable but they were easily recognized through their regulation uniforms. Along with the uniforms, the soldiers also carried many necessities with them. According to (Winthrop, 1), they had knapsacks with extra clothes, rolled up wool, and rubber blankets. They carried haversacks with foods such as sat pork, coffee, sugar, dried peas, or pressed sheets of desiccated vegetables. A small canteen was carried over each man’s shoulder (“The Life of a Union Soldier”, 1). A Union soldier’s uniform can be seen in Figure 1.
Another item required for all soldiers was guns. Arms were in short supply, though, and they would sometimes have to wait months before a new shipment would arrive (“The Life of a Union Soldier”, 1). This lack of arms led to soldiers having to be conscious about what they do with and how they use their weapons. Knowledge of how to use weapons was taught during a camp’s daily routine. Soldiers would wake at the crack of dawn for roll call to ensure no one had tried to run during the night (“Comparing Confederate Soldiers and Union Soldiers, 1”). After role call, daily duties were assigned.
Some men would be assigned to kitchen duty while others may have been in charge of arms for the day (“Comparing Confederate Soldiers and Union Soldiers, 1”). Breakfast came next which was followed by drills. Soldiers would spend hours in the hot sun wearing their wool uniforms practicing battle formations or combat skills. The men would return to camp drenched in sweat and extremely tired (Alstyne, 1). After a hard day’s work it was not uncommon to find groups of people surrounding fires cooking and singing songs along with talking about the latest camp news (“Comparing Confederate Soldiers and Union Soldiers, 1”).
Union soldiers favored songs like the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Red, White, and Blue,” and the “Star Spangled Banner” (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). At 10:30 P. M. on the dot it was lights out so everyone could get some rest for the next day or exhaustion (“Comparing Confederate Soldiers and Union Soldiers, 1”). Although soldiers hoped to get a good night’s rest, the sleeping conditions were not the best. Most camps had a single blanket on the ground with another as a cover (Alstyne, 1). Some lucky men got to sleep on straw mattresses (“Comparing Confederate Soldiers and Union Soldiers, 1”).
The soldiers were exposed to nature at night due to the lack of cover provided by the tents. Muslin was drawn over a pole 3 feet from the ground and open at both ends (Alstyne, 1). This was considered “home” to the typical Union soldier. If it was raining, they had to sleep on the wet ground. Bugs and rodents were also common nighttime visitors at camp (Alstyne, 1). Most men did not get the rest they required from hours of strenuous drills during the day, leading to extreme exhaustion throughout the army. Not only were sleeping conditions undesirable, but the food the soldiers ate was not the best, either.
The most common meal was salted meats, “hardtrack,” and coffee (“The Life of a Union Soldier,” 1). Hardtrack was a term coined for the tasteless, hard crackers men became accustomed to eating. The feeling of being full was a sensation that was practically unheard of in the Union army. Food rations were small and far between so sometimes the soldiers would resort to foraging for fruits, berries, and game animals to satisfy their hunger (“Comparing Confederate Soldiers and Union Soldiers, 1”). Although food on the camps had little to no taste,
everyone scraped their tin plates clean (Alstyne, 1). The starving soldiers would have eaten anything if it meant their stomach pains would temporarily subside. When the men were not doing drills or eating meals, they often found themselves bored. Some men would do chores like cook or clean (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). Games or dominoes, poker, or baseball often broke out in camps (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). With the increasing literacy rates, many men could write home during free time (“The Life of a Union Soldier,” 1).
Along with writing, more and more men would read newspapers and journals. Although the soldiers had some time to themselves, they still had to be ready at a moment’s notice. Cycles of marching and intense fighting were included in the lives of soldiers in the North (“The Life of a Union Soldier,” 1). Periods of fighting led to mass injuries in the Union army. 360,000 men died during the Civil War from the North- about 110,000 in battle and 225,000 of disease (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). The massive spread of disease through the army was linked to unsanitary conditions (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1).
Water sources were fouled so not only were the soldiers affected but also the environment and the residents in that area (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). The injured did not fare much better than the ill. Doctors could do little for torso wounds, so these men were often doomed to die. Injuries to the extremities were often amputated (“Life as a Soldier During the Civil War,” 1). Life as a Union soldier was not easy. It involved hours of strenuous training on a daily basis paired with poor sleeping conditions.
These men gave their lives to fight for what they believed in and supported: the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. A soldier never knew what the following day would hold. Would they be playing a friendly game of baseball at camp, marching to their next battle site, or be greeted with a day of intense fighting? 360,000 of the 2 million soldiers were killed during the war (“Civil War Soldiers,” 1). Fear did not stop soldiers from enlisting, though. Thousands of men signed up and left the lives they knew for small tents and tasteless hardtrack.