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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life in Camp Iii

Updated on October 27, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

Hold The Fort: Camp in Garrison

Camp in Garrison, usually called simply Garrison Duty, was a Camp that was designed to protect and hold an area, such as a city or transportation route. These Camps could have been in friendly or enemy territory.

Troops in Garrison Duty could have recently come from Camps of Instruction, or were veteran troops, or were a mixture of both. Troops could have been on Garrison Duty for almost the entire length of enlistment, or rotated in and out of Garrison Duty and field duty.

Due to the protective nature of Garrisons, many were in fortified places or had access to natural defensive positions. The men were sheltered in underground structures (in the case of fortresses), or in buildings or tents (in the case of garrisoning towns or cities).

If within a fortified area, the men were generally fed via an indoor kitchen and mess hall, which was established when the fortifications were constructed. If there were no fortifications established, then indoor or outdoor kitchen and mess arrangements alternated with individual outdoor cooking, dependent on the garrison situation. Large buildings within an occupied town could have served as barracks and dining halls just as easily as could any constructed fortifications. The lack of such buildings often made outdoor cooking inevitable, though mess arrangements were still possible.

These Camps were usually not in immediate contact with the enemy. However, due to their strategic locations, the enemy was often desirous of conquering these Garrisons, so a state of Camp very easily reverted to a state of combat in almost an instant.

Garrisons, as was seen in the case of Fort Sumter, often had many advantages of defense, especially if fortifications were constructed. However, there were many disadvantages as well. Chief among them was the commonplace situation where the Garrison was either isolated, to a certain extent, from reinforcements, or was isolated by enemy forces that occupied adjacent towns or dominant terrain features. The enemy then blocked roads and waterways, and tore up rail lines. Once isolated, it was usually just a matter of time before enemy forces compelled the surrender of the Garrison unless reinforcements or relief columns somehow came to its aid. If the Garrison was ordered to fight to the last extremity, the defensive positions often made the difference between victory and defeat. There was a substantial risk in prolonged resistance, however. If enemy forces eventually proved to be overwhelming and the Garrison was overrun, the results were sometimes dire. Enemy troops, enraged at a lengthy and costly engagement, could have carried out a slaughter of the Garrison, whether surrendered or not, after the final assault. In fact, it was not uncommon for enemy commanders to demand the surrender of Garrisons, before initiating attacks, while including threats of “no quarter” (meaning they would accept no prisoners).

A well-ordered Regimental camp in garrison by a small town. Note the very elaborate entranceways to each Company Street. The larger tents in the foreground are for the officers of the Regiment
A well-ordered Regimental camp in garrison by a small town. Note the very elaborate entranceways to each Company Street. The larger tents in the foreground are for the officers of the Regiment
Sketch of Fort Negley at Nashville, TN
Sketch of Fort Negley at Nashville, TN
A garrison of a fort stands ready by its artillery
A garrison of a fort stands ready by its artillery
A mess hall inside Fort Macon
A mess hall inside Fort Macon

On To Richmond: Camp In The Field

Troops from Camps of Instruction could have immediately been assigned to any of the armies in the field. When they did not actively seek to engage the enemy in battle, usually due to prolonged inclement weather or the need to rest and refit, the field armies were in Camp in the Field.

As field armies were mobile forces, the Camps could have been in different areas of the country each time the army stopped. Just as easily, the army could have encamped in the same areas, time and again, if they were nearby strategic positions (ie. the 100 mile (~161 km) corridor between Washington City and Richmond).

Due to the proximity to enemy forces, this type of Camp was often more active, where units moved around from time to time. Reconnaissance-in-force missions (to determine where, and how strong, were the enemy forces) or the occupation of more defensible positions were two such examples of active movement while in Camp. Guard duty was more important than ever, and any perceived moment could have resulted in imminent action.

The time a unit spent in this Camp, as was the case with all other Camp types, could have been brief or perceived as without end.

For shelter, the troops employed tents in the spring, summer, and fall. The types of tents varied throughout the war, which I’ll illustrate in the next article. In wintertime, in the cold weather climates, ramshackle, handmade huts were constructed.

The layout of Camps in the Field ranged from haphazard to a structure similar to Camps of Instruction, though this was always dependent on terrain and discipline and the wills of the commanding officers. According to regulations, each Company’s shelters were to be on both sides of a designated Company road, though often the Company was arranged on only one side of it. The “road” itself was little more than just an elongated area, parallel with the Company, with no shelters or other obstructions in the way of the Company’s ability to form upon it. Officer shelters were positioned at the head of the road. Unless given permission, or otherwise led by the officers, the men were not allowed into this “Officers’ Country”. They, instead, needed to walk around the back of the campground to get in and out of their unit’s position.

The Company’s fire pit, for the cooking fire, was dug near the head or foot of the road, or otherwise out of the way of where the Company formed and marched. Dependent on the size of the Company, more than one fire pit may have been needed to give each man a reasonable opportunity of space at the fire in which to cook. The wood, to fuel the fire, was stacked nearby.

New troops, often called “Fresh Fish” by veteran troops, that reported for field duty for the first time often needed to adjust from the life they knew previously. Experience is a very valuable teacher, and the experiences in the field eventually taught soldiers to do many things very differently from how they did them in other types of camp. Exposure to much more enemy attention taught men to do everything with more alertness and less tolerance to incompetence or lack of cohesion.

Officers were often less formal in the field since they shared the same privations and dangers as the troops in their command. Each came to respect the other enough to ignore petty indiscretions.

The 5th Vermont Volunteers at Camp Griffin in late 1861, outside Washington D.C.
The 5th Vermont Volunteers at Camp Griffin in late 1861, outside Washington D.C.
The 6th Vermont Volunteers at Camp Griffin
The 6th Vermont Volunteers at Camp Griffin
Troops lounge on a hillside above a Union Army camp in the field
Troops lounge on a hillside above a Union Army camp in the field
An illustration of a well-ordered camp with well-defined Company Streets
An illustration of a well-ordered camp with well-defined Company Streets
An illustration of an orderly camp with officers' quarters clearly marked
An illustration of an orderly camp with officers' quarters clearly marked
A camp in the field on the Virginia Peninsula
A camp in the field on the Virginia Peninsula
The effects of an army in camp on surrounding woodlots
The effects of an army in camp on surrounding woodlots
A Pennsylvania regiment lines up to march to the parade grounds for drill
A Pennsylvania regiment lines up to march to the parade grounds for drill
An infantry regiment prepares to march ou to the parade grounds for drill
An infantry regiment prepares to march ou to the parade grounds for drill
An orderly camp with tents on one side of each Company Street
An orderly camp with tents on one side of each Company Street
Stacks of muskets indicate a camp of infantry nearby
Stacks of muskets indicate a camp of infantry nearby
An infanry unit poses for a photograph just outside of their camp in the field
An infanry unit poses for a photograph just outside of their camp in the field

Afterword

The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life in Camp IV; Home Away From Home: The Shelters.

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