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

Updated on December 6, 2013
A soldier cleans his clothes in a metal tub
A soldier cleans his clothes in a metal tub
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 "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
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
A "cleaning bullet"
A "cleaning bullet"
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 cone pick
A cone pick
A combination screwdriver and wrench tool to dismount muskets
A combination screwdriver and wrench tool to dismount muskets
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
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
A camp servant poses for a photograph with troops in his Company
A camp servant poses for a photograph with troops in his Company

Chores: Off Duty Part I

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 laundry, maintenance of his uniform and other clothing, and maintenance on his firearm and equipment.

I could find no mention anywhere of troops being off-duty on the weekends, 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 time off was no small luxury, even if this time was not luxurious or even relaxing.

Soldiers that needed to do laundry often took soap in hand and did so in streams and ponds (if nearby) or in large, water-filled kettles (if they could be “borrowed”) over the fire. These kettles often were used for food preparation as well, so launderers needed to clean out the kettles afterward.

Uniforms and clothing tended to wear out before new issuances, so troops often needed to mend their clothing. Many troops thus carried sewing kits called “housewives” which contained needles and threads. Those men that were tailors back home were already experts in this task, while some others eventually became very proficient at mending and helped out their less skilled comrades, though usually at some cost.

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 until misfires occurred. 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.

Much of the accoutrements and shoes were made of leather, and the nearly constant exposure to sun and rain often caused the leather to shrink, dry out, and crack or tear. Like the firearm, frequent maintenance was needed on each soldier’s leather goods to ensure the proper functionality and normal lifespan of the items.

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.

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. 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.

To clean a musket, a soldier first needed to close-off the gun cone with a piece of leather, or wadded cloth, held down by the hammer. His next step was to pour boiled water down the barrel. He then closed-off the muzzle with a piece of wood (but definitely NOT the tompion, so as to prevent wear and tear on that item) and shook the musket up and down. This agitated the water and allowed it to work against the residue all along the inside of the barrel. After a few moments, he let the water drain out, and then repeated the afore-mentioned process until the water ran out clear. He also could have attached a “wiper” (often mistakenly called a “worm”) to the threaded bottom of his rammer and inserted it into the water-filled barrel to scrape away the more stubborn debris.

After he drained out the now-clear water, the soldier stood the musket upon its muzzle for a few moments to drip-dry. If not already done so, the wiper was then attached to the bottom of the rammer, and a small bit of cloth was wrapped around it. The wiper was then pushed down the barrel to dry and wipe clear any remaining residue. This process was repeated as many times as was needed until the cloth came out clean and dry. Lastly another cloth, 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, little more than a thin wire, was needed to scrape out the residue in and about the interior and exterior of the cone. A damp cloth was then used to wipe the entire gun lock and cone area. After drying, a lightly-oiled cloth was run over and around the cone and gun lock.

On occasion, especially if the army was in a static camp, the musket needed to be dismounted for more thorough maintenance. In addition to cleaning the barrel, each part (musket sling anchors, two or three bands and screws, lockplate and screws, cone, barrel and end-screw) needed to be cleaned and oiled. However, the afore-mentioned “quick process” was perfectly suitable for troops in the field.

The oil that was used for all of the accoutrement and firearm maintenance was generally lamp oil or some vegetable or animal-based oil. In a bit of ingenuity, though perhaps not a recommended one, a piece of bacon was often substituted for an oiled cloth. The oil and fat from the bacon worked just as well as any other oil to prevent rusting! Rust was a never-ending problem, and troops soon learned the steps to take to guard against it before it happened.

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.

In a similar vein, soldiers could have arranged for wives and/or families to stay with them while in camp, and officers sometimes retained recently-freed slaves for use as their camp servants. Families and servants in camp were not there for holidays or vacations, however. They essentially did in camp what they normally did at home, just as though they were Vivandieres.

Families either stayed in nearby towns or with their soldiers in their own tents or other lodgings in camp. When campaigns began, the families were sent home while the camp servants stayed with their officers or the Regiment as a whole.

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 image
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      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.