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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life In Camp VIII

Updated on September 8, 2018
garytameling profile image

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).

Chores: Off Duty Part I

I could find no mention anywhere of troops getting the weekends off while in camp, so there is reason to believe that a soldier was on duty every day of the week. With this in mind, it is easy to see that having time off was no small luxury, even if the time off itself was not luxurious.

With all of the drilling and fatigue duty per day, the soldier did not have a lot of free time, and certainly not much all at once. The little free time he had was during the meals or in the small intervals of time between drills or fatigue duty.

While not on-duty, there were personal chores that soldiers needed to do, such as maintenance of his uniform and other clothing, and maintenance on his firearm and equipment.

Uniforms and clothing needed to be cleaned somewhat often in order to abide by regulations for cleanliness. Fatigue duty, weather, and camp conditions all combined to make cleanliness of clothing a challenge. Resultant perspiration, dirt, mud, contact with abrasive and staining surfaces, etc all targeted one’s clothing for a certain degree of sartorial mischief.

Uniforms and clothing tended to wear out before new issuances, so troops often needed to mend their clothing in the meantime.

The rigors of army life and exposure to the elements also took a toll on the soldiers’ equipment.

Each man needed to maintain his firearm, so it was necessary to clean it after every use. Black powder, used in the ammunition, was very corrosive. The residue left behind in the musket barrel, after each firing, made subsequent re-loadings more and more difficult. Then misfires could occur, when powder would not ignite, or only partially ignite, due to wetness from residue. The brass percussion caps, smashed by the musket’s hammer during firing, also left residue in, and around, the gun cone. Each firing left more such residue, which eventually caused the cones to clog, and resulted in powder ignition failures.

Like the firearm, frequent maintenance was needed on each soldier's leather goods to ensure the proper functionality and normal lifespan of the items.

Much of the accoutrements and shoes were made of leather, or had leather straps. Thus, these items needed to be cleaned and oiled regularly. The nearly constant exposure to sun and rain caused the leather to lose its oil and, thus, become dry and brittle. Dried leather would then crack and tear.

Soldiers needing to do laundry often took soap in hand and did so in streams and ponds (if nearby) or in large kettles over the fire. These kettles often were used for food preparation as well, so launderers needed to clean out the kettles afterward.

To mend the uniforms and clothing, many troops carried sewing kits called “housewives” which contained needles and threads. Rips and tears in clothing were then sewn shut with varying degrees of success. Some men became very proficient at this practice of mending and helped out their less skilled comrades.

Sketch of a soldier that does his laundry in a nearby stream
Sketch of a soldier that does his laundry in a nearby stream
A soldier cleans his clothes in a metal tub
A soldier cleans his clothes in a metal tub
A "housewife" - a sewing kit carried by many troops in the war in order to mend their clothing
A "housewife" - a sewing kit carried by many troops in the war in order to mend their clothing
A postwar photograph: a former soldier shows how he mended his clothing
A postwar photograph: a former soldier shows how he mended his clothing

The leather in the accoutrements needed to be wiped clean by a soft, damp cloth, dried by a soft, dry cloth and then lightly oiled to keep the leather supple and less prone to dryness and cracking.

An oil can,; the oil was used on weaponry and accoutrements to protect them against the elements
An oil can,; the oil was used on weaponry and accoutrements to protect them against the elements

For the muzzle-loading firearms, there was one “cleaning bullet” per package of ten cartridges. This “cleaning bullet” was very similar to the ordinary Minie Ball except that its base was not hollow. Rather, it had filling inside it that expanded upon its firing. This forced the grooved sides outward to closely slide against the interior of the barrel as the bullet was propelled forward. A fair amount of leftover black powder residue was thus scraped out. It’s unknown how lethal were these “cleaning bullets” when they were fired in combat, but they almost certainly were at least as fatal as any other ammunition at the time, if fired at close range.

When not in combat, there were two ways to clean the firearm. One way was quick, best suited to times when the troops were on active campaign and, thus, needed to be ready at short notice. This method left the weapon fully intact. The other way was more time-consuming, but more thorough, as it required the musket to be dismounted from the stock and all separate pieces to be given some attention. This latter way was best suited to times when the troops were in a static camp environment and had a more predictable schedule of duties.

Manuals of the period preserved the recommended fashion for cleaning the piece in the field:

"It is not essential for the musket to be dismounted every time that it is cleaned . . . it can be perfectly cleaned as follows: Put a piece of rag or soft leather on the top of the cone, let the hammer down upon it: pour a gill [four ounces] of water into the muzzle carefully, so that it does not run down the outside: put a plug of wood [not tompion!] into the muzzle, and shake the gun up and down, changing the water repeatedly until it runs clear. Then withdraw the leather and stand the musket on the muzzle a few moments…”

“…, then wipe out the barrel [by screwing the wiper, sometimes erroneously referred to as the "worm," onto the end of the ramrod and putting a piece of dry cloth or tow around it, sufficient to prevent it from chafing the grooves of the barrel: wipe the barrel quite dry, changing . . . the cloth two or three times], and also wiper the exterior of the lock and the outside of the barrel around the cone [sometimes erroneously referred to as the "nipple"] and cone-seat, first with a damp rag, then with a dry one, and lastly with a rag that has been lightly oiled. In this way, all the dirt from firing may be removed without taking out a screw…”

“If, however, the hammer works stiffly or grates upon the tumbler, the lock must be immediately taken off and the parts cleaned and touched with oil"

- Rules for the Management and Cleaning of the Rifle Musket, Model 1855, 1862, p. 24

Two other maintenance steps worthwhile to mention:

After the interior of the barrel was dry, another cloth patch, with a light coating of oil, was wrapped about the wiper and pushed down the barrel to coat the interior of it and to help protect the insides from future threats of rust.

The gun cone was partially cleaned by the water down the barrel. However, a cone pick (from the Wool in the Cap Pouch), little more than a thin wire, was needed to scrape out the residue in and about the interior and exterior of the cone.

The oil that was used for all of the accoutrement and firearm maintenance was generally lamp oil or some vegetable or animal-based oil.

On occasion, especially if the army was in a static camp, the rifle would need to be dismounted for more thorough maintenance, where each part would be cleaned and oiled. When disassembled, the musket had many small pieces, including the musket sling anchors, two or three bands and screws, lockplate and screws, cone, barrel and end-screw, and wooden stock.

The oil that was used for all of the accoutrement and firearm maintenance was generally lamp oil or some vegetable or animal-based oil.

Rust was a never-ending problem, and troops soon learned what steps to take to guard against it before it happened.

Consider the experience of Leander Stillwell, 61st Illinois, who commenced to clean his musket in a soggy bivouac while en route to Bolivar, Tennessee, mid-July, 1862. He wrote:

"We were required to keep all the metal parts (except the butt-plate) as bright and shining as silver dollars. I have put in many an hour working on my gun [an Austrian rifle-musket] with an old rag and powdered dirt, and a corn cob, or pine stick, polishing the barrel, the bands, lockplate and trigger-guard until they were fit to pass inspection. The inside of the barrel we would keep clean by the use of a greased wiper and plenty of hot water…”

“In doing this, we would ordinarily, with our screwdrivers, take the gun to pieces, and remove from the stock all metal pieces. . . . We soon learned to take care of our pieces in a rain by thoroughly greasing them with a piece of bacon, which would largely prevent rust from striking in"

Leander Stillwell, 61st Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, July 1862, The Story of a Common Soldier pp. 90-91

A "cleaning bullet"
A "cleaning bullet"
A cone pick
A cone pick
A rammer attachment called a Wiper; it was used to scrape away at the residue inside a musket barrel
A rammer attachment called a Wiper; it was used to scrape away at the residue inside a musket barrel
A combination screwdriver and wrench tool to dismount muskets
A combination screwdriver and wrench tool to dismount muskets

If a soldier was fortunate, he was in a Regiment that had one or more Vivandieres. The Vivandiere, which was a French term for “hospitality giver”, was a young lady that was attached to a Regiment. These ladies performed tasks such as laundry, tailoring, and meal preparation. They also cared for the sick and wounded, and provided creature comforts. Vivandieres also tended to carry small casks with them, filled with brandy and wine, to give to wounded troops but, as often as not, may also have been for the amusement of the officers!

There are some accounts which stated that a few Vivandieres stayed with their Regiments during campaigns, and even fought alongside the men in rare cases. However, a majority of them went home after the first year of the war or served only during the non-winter months. These ladies earned little or no pay.

Vivandieres were mostly attached to Volunteer Zouave Regiments, which often closely adhered to French military customs, and were known for their distinct uniforms. These were patterned after the uniforms of Algerian troops in the French Foreign Legion: loose, baggy trousers with waist sashes, short jackets, and fezzes or turbans for headgear. Vivandieres wore uniforms similar to the men, though they wore knee or calf-length skirts over their trousers.

A Vivandiere - "French Mary" Tippe, 114th PA.
A Vivandiere - "French Mary" Tippe, 114th PA.
A Vivandiere poses for a photograph with one of her most important accessories - the canteen
A Vivandiere poses for a photograph with one of her most important accessories - the canteen

Soldiers also could have arranged to have wives and/or families stay with them in camp Families in camp were not there for vacations, however. They essentially did in camp what they normally did at home, just like the vivandieres. Families either stayed in nearby towns or with their soldiers in their own tents or other lodgings in camp. When campaigns were to begin, the families were sent home.

A wife and three children join a soldier in his camp. The wife holds a basket of laundry, so this was no holiday outing for her
A wife and three children join a soldier in his camp. The wife holds a basket of laundry, so this was no holiday outing for her

Officers could have taken recently freed slaves for usage as camp servants. When campaigns began, these camp servants usually stayed with their officers or with the regiment as a whole.

Some servants might have been granted a salary of sorts but, generally, their payment was inclusion in the meals and the lodging of the Regiment. This might have been only marginally better than what they received as slaves, but now they received such things as (more or less) free persons.

A camp servant poses for a photograph with troops in his Company
A camp servant poses for a photograph with troops in his Company

Afterword

The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life In Camp IX; Idle Hands: Off Duty, Part II.

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    • garytameling profile imageAUTHOR

      Gary Tameling 

      4 years ago from Islip, NY

      Hi Ron and D.A.H. Thanks for the Comments!

      Ron, from the bits that I read over the years, I believe that most troops took pretty good care of their firearms, though the other equipment was probably neglected somewhat. To your point, their lives often depended on well-maintained weaponry so, while knapsacks, blankets, cartridge boxes, etc. probably "came and went", the muskets were the weaponry equivalent of the Minutemen in the Revolution - they needed to be ready at a moments notice!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      You give a very interesting account of life in camp for the soldiers, especially in maintaining weapons and gear.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Interesting! I never knew they used “cleaning bullets.” Soldiers of all times being what they are, though, I wonder how thorough the average trooper was in keeping his equipment clean, even knowing his life might depend on it.

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