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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life in Camp 11

Updated on February 3, 2019
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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).

Home Sweet Home: Furlough

A man who needed to go home, or otherwise desired to be absent from the army, was required to obtain a furlough. Army regulations specified that a furlough needed to be granted by a commander that was actually quartered with the soldier's Company or Regiment. Therefore, the soldier most likely sought out his Company commander first before even attempting to proceed further up the chain of command. As with all things, the request could have been denied by the commanding officers for any reason.

A furloughed soldier's arms and accoutrements remained behind, turned over to the First Sergeant most likely. The soldier carried furlough papers, from the granting officer, which gave a detailed description of his physical appearance, return and departure dates (total furlough time included travel time), unit designation, and any pay and subsistence allowances furnished. Furlough papers further warned the soldier to rejoin his unit by the return date specified "or be considered a deserter."

Furloughs were freely abused. Many troops returned late (if ever) or even departed early. The Army thus had occasion to cancel all furloughs in order to account for the “considered” deserters.

Late in 1863 and into the first few months of 1864, the promise of furloughs was used as an incentive to get troops to reenlist. Thousands of three year Volunteers, whose enlistments were set to expire sometime in 1864, were made the promise of 30 day furloughs if they re-enlisted. About half of them did. Later in 1864, the national birth rate in the United States increased dramatically; a veritable 19th century Baby Boom. It takes no statistical genius to figure out that troops on these 30 day furloughs (as well as those who permanently mustered-out) had a little something to do with that phenomenon!

Furlough pass
Furlough pass
Medical furlough pass
Medical furlough pass
Illustration of troops' arrival home on furlough. The weapons and ammunition would have been left behind with the Company, however.
Illustration of troops' arrival home on furlough. The weapons and ammunition would have been left behind with the Company, however.
Illustration of a family gathered around the fire by a furloughed soldier
Illustration of a family gathered around the fire by a furloughed soldier
Illustration of a Christmas furlough. Note one of the earliest renditions of Santa Claus.
Illustration of a Christmas furlough. Note one of the earliest renditions of Santa Claus.

“Dear Sister, It is a beautiful Sabbath morning and I am on guard. I suppose you are now at church, but have you thought of me this morning and wondered where I was and what I was doing, whether I was well or sick, and how long since I heard from you, and when you meant to write to me again?”

- Oliver Wilcox Norton, 83rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861

The Homefront Contribution: Agencies

Hardships suffered by the troops were pretty plain to see based on many of their letters home. As a result, special agencies were created, or called-for, by concerned citizens, and several were confirmed by the U.S. government.

United States Sanitary Commission

The United States Sanitary Commission was an agency, created by legislation in 1861, to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women who wanted to contribute to the Union’s war effort.

The USSC Volunteers collected donations from private citizens to buy much needed materials and equipment (almost all of which was for comfort or relief of the troops, rather than of the weapons sort). Many worked as nurses, or ran kitchens in the Army camps. Others served aboard hospital ships, or worked in soldiers' homes, lodges, and rest stops for traveling or disabled soldiers. Those USSC Volunteers skilled as seamstresses made uniforms. Those in higher positions of authority and administration in this agency organized Sanitary Fairs – large, public gatherings, similar to war rallies - in which they sought donations of money and useful supplies for supporting the Federal army.

The Sanitary Commission was divided into three departments, each one unique in terms of its function:

The Department of Preventive Service was created to draw attention to, and resolve if possible, the dangers of disease, exposure, extreme rigors of army life, and inadequate supplies or transportation, to the troops. Within the Department were employed squads of medical inspectors who visited camps, hospitals and transports of each Army Corps in the field. It is no exaggeration to say that they brought a level of care, informative data, and preventative measures that helped troops stay healthier than might otherwise have been possible.

The Department of General Relief was the busiest, if not biggest, department in the Sanitary Commission. It was tasked with supplying food, clothing, bandages, hospital furniture, and medicines to the wounded on the battlefield and to the sick and wounded in camp and in hospitals. As can readily be seen, this Department had the most hazardous duty. Providing for the wounded on the battlefield carried great risk. To aid themselves in not becoming targets of hostile activity, these USSC Volunteers sewed Sanitary Commission pennants onto their tents and ambulances, indicating to the enemy that they were not combatants. According to Dr. Herschel L. Stroud in a recent article on flags of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, "the manner of getting the wounded from the battlefield to an aid or dressing station, and thence to a field hospital, was made possible by the use of flags." The pennant was 24 inches by 12 inches in size, and was sewn onto a tent indicating the Sanitary Commission station in the field. The risk was still great, however. On the field of combat, stray shots flew everywhere. Also, the pennants were not always seen clearly by the enemy, so more accurate firing came as often as not.

The Department of Special Relief administered Soldier Homes. These homes furnished shelter, food and, medical treatment to troops that “fell through the cracks”. These were troops that were on furlough or sick leave, were new recruits or stragglers, or were left behind by their Regiments or permanently discharged from hospitals. In other words, this department provided for these men when the government could not. If these troops were with their units, they received their needs via their Quartermasters. If they were at home, their families took over the provisioning. Rather, these men were in some sort of temporary “limbo” status until they got to their ultimate destinations, and the Special Relief made that limbo much more comfortable and manageable.

US Sanitary Commission encampment
US Sanitary Commission encampment
US Sanitary Commission wagon
US Sanitary Commission wagon
Poster that advertised a Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati
Poster that advertised a Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati
Sanitary Fair in Chicago, IL
Sanitary Fair in Chicago, IL
Soldier's Aid Society house
Soldier's Aid Society house

United States Christian Commission

Another agency, the United States Christian Commission, was created in response to the suffering resulting from the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run. The Union made little provisioning that was necessary for a longer war, believing the conflict would be won within a few months and in one great battle. That battle, Bull Run, instead became a catastrophe, and the war then continued to grind on. These inadequate preparations for the wounded, the sick, and the traumatized magnified into a problem that needed resolution, and quickly.

The Christian Commission was an important agency of the Union, designed to offer religious support, but it also provided numerous social services and recreation to the troops. It provided the men with the services of Protestant chaplains and social workers. It even collaborated with the U.S. Sanitary Commission to provide medical services.

The YMCA and Protestant ministers formed this agency, with the original plan to help the priests of the armed forces in their daily work. At the time, the Chaplaincy program was in its infancy, with only about thirty members. They were quickly overwhelmed by the need for their Samaritan and spiritual services due to the scale of battles and casualties. They were especially flooded by the rapidly increasing number of deaths due to wounds and, more so, to disease.

USCC volunteers were called “Delegates”; some were seminary students, but many were just ordinary, concerned Christians. Five thousand USCC Delegates served during the war. From donations during church services and rallies, they gathered and distributed millions of dollars of goods and supplies in hospitals, camps, prisons and battlefields.

As civilians on the battlefield, they did not have weapons but were sustained by sharing the love of Christ with soldiers and sailors.

Women also participated in the Christian Commission. A national movement started in May, 1864 with a view to organize a Ladies Christian Commission, auxiliary to the USCC, in each evangelical congregation of the North. These ladies increased the network of collection, fundraising, and support in order to meet a growing demand to serve the troops as they served the nation.

US Christian Commission location
US Christian Commission location
US Christian Commission house and those it serviced
US Christian Commission house and those it serviced
US Christian Commission nurses and attendants at City Point, VA
US Christian Commission nurses and attendants at City Point, VA

Many smaller relief committees were formed during the war. They were often temporary, and were formed usually in response to certain events, such as battles or other disasters. They were too numerous to mention in-depth here. However, regardless of how small or temporary was any relief agency, they all did their part to ease the burdens of troops, however lightly, in the field.

Clara Barton - a one-peson relief agency
Clara Barton - a one-peson relief agency
Illustration of efforts made by the ladies for the Union during the war.
Illustration of efforts made by the ladies for the Union during the war.

Dear Sister,

Have you known how close I am to the rebel rifles, and how many times I have been ordered to be ready to go at a moment's notice, and how many nights I have slept on my gun with my equipments buckled on, to be ready to fall in instantly? Have you thought of my standing guard at night in the rain when my clothes were soaked and my shoes full of water, and so tired I dare not stop walking lest i should fall asleep, which would be certain death? That is the way I live…

- Oliver Wilcox Norton, 83rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861


For my next series in this realm, I will keep the attention on the Union Infantryman. My next series of articles is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life On Campaign.


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