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

Updated on July 26, 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).

Family members visit a dying soldier at a hospital
Family members visit a dying soldier at a hospital
The result of lice infestation - severe itches.
The result of lice infestation - severe itches.
The vermin - lice
The vermin - lice
One of the attempts to control lice - clothing is boiled
One of the attempts to control lice - clothing is boiled
Skirmishing against the lice - the vermin is squished by the fingers
Skirmishing against the lice - the vermin is squished by the fingers
Soldiers bathe in a creek
Soldiers bathe in a creek
Troops care for a sick comrade
Troops care for a sick comrade
A Civil War-era medicine chest
A Civil War-era medicine chest
Advertisement for leeching services
Advertisement for leeching services
Punishment - Wearing a Sign that details the soldier's crime (in this case, it was theft)
Punishment - Wearing a Sign that details the soldier's crime (in this case, it was theft)
Punishment - Wearing the Barrel
Punishment - Wearing the Barrel
Punishment - Bucked and Gagged
Punishment - Bucked and Gagged
Punishment - Suspension by the Thumbs
Punishment - Suspension by the Thumbs
Punishment - Carrying the Log
Punishment - Carrying the Log
Punishment - Riding the Spare Wheel - mostly for artillerymen
Punishment - Riding the Spare Wheel - mostly for artillerymen
Punishment - Riding the Horse
Punishment - Riding the Horse
Execution by Hanging
Execution by Hanging
A firing squad awaits as the condemned man listens to a chaplain. Note that the man's Division is arrayed in the background
A firing squad awaits as the condemned man listens to a chaplain. Note that the man's Division is arrayed in the background
The execution carried out, the Division marches past the body
The execution carried out, the Division marches past the body

“My health is still good. I feel the effects of severe drill some. It is as much as I can stand, but, while many are getting sick, I am all right yet. One poor fellow in our regiment died last night. The first one that has died since we left home.”

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

More Deadly Than Battle: Hygiene, Sanitation, and Illness

More Deadly Than Battle: Hygiene, Sanitation, and Illness

Military life, for Volunteer soldiers especially, was one of poor hygiene. Dirty work and drill covered men in thick films of perspiration and dirt. As mentioned in Idle Hands, many troops did not even appear all that concerned about the need to regularly bathe. Most preferred to spend their little free time in other pursuits that were more meaningful to them. The result of all of this lack of cleanliness was infestation of vermin, primarily lice. Men were covered with them.

Men tried to “skirmish” against lice: they removed bits of clothing, in private, and squashed the little creatures against their fingernails. Others boiled their clothing in water-filled kettles hung over the fire. Some men, perhaps, bathed on more occasions, etc. In a short period of time, however, the lice reappeared. Once the infestation began, it was nearly impossible to prevent. To regularly bathe, and wash and air-out bedding and clothing, was the most successful method of lice-prevention, but those steps were practiced too sparingly by the troops during the War.

In addition to the lack of hygiene, poor sanitation practices were widespread. Trash was often disposed-of improperly, with much of it simply thrown away from the tents, if thrown away at all. Much trash accumulated within the camp confines, which led to greater vermin infestation. Cockroaches overran trash piles and made their way to food storage areas. Mice and rats gnawed their way from the trash dumps to the food storage crates and barrels to the very haversacks of the troops. Flies bred within the refuse, and mosquitoes emerged from puddles that were often found within the trash piles. Both swarmed, and bit, man and animal alike.

Human waste, normally deposited in private outhouses at home, was deposited into open air latrines used by the entire camp. Latrines were trenches dug into the earth, and were bordered lengthwise by a wooden fence on each side over which troops would sit or stand and "complete business" into the trench. These latrines were not always dug upwind, and were often found near sources of fresh water. The result was contamination. In addition, human modesty and dignity often caused men to forego the public latrines. Instead, many completed their business behind bushes or into the very water sources used for drinking water for each camp, causing even more widespread health hazards.

Thousands of men that lived closely together, and observed very lax systems of hygiene and sanitation, created excellent environments for diseases to breed and distribute. The germ theory was not a standard at the time. Most didn’t know that these poor practices led to the formation or transmission of life-threatening microbes, and that preventative, sanitary and hygienic measures would have been effective against them.

The overcrowded living conditions, however, was a problem that led to most dire results. Rural people, who lived far apart from each other, had somewhat low levels of Immunity. Their levels never got a lot of “exercise” in battling contagious illnesses, as did those that lived in the urban areas. The rural folk were simply not exposed to so many people and their illnesses. In the army, rural people now lived in very close quarters with each other. Diseases quickly took hold, and spread rapidly, very similarly to seasonal epidemics that swept through larger cities in North America and Europe in that era. Men sickened and died by the thousands in Army camps, even before they ever fired their first shots in anger. They died of diseases like Diarrhea, Malaria, Dysentery, or Typhoid Fever. Many more died of Chicken Pox or Measles that, to us today, are seen as mere inconveniences or childhood illnesses.

Medical care, during the American Civil War, was only barely above that of medieval times. Treatments mostly included drug prescriptions. The surgeons often prescribed quinine, a powerful drug that was manufactured to fight malaria. However, it was used for a host of other ailments like stomach and bowel ills, toothaches, headaches, fevers, and injuries. If one drug did not work, another was prescribed, then another, and then combinations of drugs. The results of these infusions of various counteracting or aggravating chemicals in their bodies often left soldiers worse-off than they were before seeking treatment.

Even the antiquated practice of leeching was used on occasion. Leeches were placed on the soldier’s body in the attempt to draw out the “tainted” blood. Unfortunately, this blood loss served only to weaken the soldier, which placed him in even greater dire straits.

Crime and Punishment: Disciplining The Troops

Not surprisingly, soldiers occasionally misbehaved – especially the Volunteers – and if they were caught doing so, the commanding officers meted out punishments to them. As each commanding officer was different, so too were the methods of punishment they administered. In any case punishments, as intended, served to instill discipline in the troops (and thus to waylay possible future offenses) and to bring justice upon the offender.

Common offenses committed by soldiers (and often officers as well) were:

  • Drunkenness
  • Absence Without Leave
  • Insubordination
  • Disturbances after Taps
  • Sitting or Sleeping on, or Leaving, Guard Duty, which were all counted as Dereliction of Duty

Some punishments were comparatively light: the offender may have been forced to sit in a tent, or in some other confined area, under guard for hours or days at a time, or he was assigned extra fatigue duty.

Then there were more severe punishments: the offender may have been forced to carry a log on the shoulder, or to stand on a wooden barrel. Perhaps he was forced to sit on a tall wooden horse, or to walk for hours wearing a knapsack weighted with rocks.

Some punishments were meant to humiliate: the offender may have been required to wear a sign that detailed his offense, or compelled to wear a wooden barrel. Some punishments were simply cruel, such as lashings or forcing the offenders to stand in a wooden, coffin-like box to sweat-out most of the day.

For offenses of a much more serious nature came more serious punishments. Cowardice Under Fire first called for the divestiture, from the offender, of his uniform and equipment. He was then marched, under guard, through the streets of the camp before he was thrown out of the army. The shame upon the man who suffered this punishment, in front of friends and family (those who served in the Army with him as well those back home), more than made up for the fact that he was now out of harm’s way. Assaulting An Officer resulted in the offender’s incarceration at a hard labor prison camp under ball and chain.

And then there were capital offenses. Those offenses that were military by nature, such as Desertion or Mutiny, were punishable by death, by firing squad, in front of the offender’s entire Division. Those offenses that were already foreseen by civilian law, such as Desertion to the Enemy or Espionage (both considered high treason against the country), Rape, and Murder, were punishable by death by hanging.

In extreme situations, such as complete breakdowns of discipline in the command, or being in the immediate presence of an aggressive enemy, orders for execution became more commonplace. Death sentences were thus handed down for some offenses that were not always punishable by death, or were otherwise normally commuted. Dereliction of Duty, for example, did indeed carry the punishment of death by firing squad, but this punishment was not always sentenced. Volunteers, it must be remembered, were not soldiers in the strictest sense, and good commanders recognized that fact. It served these commanders well to be a tad bit more lenient where possible so as to prevent the Volunteers in their commands from deserting en masse or otherwise becoming a much less effective combat unit. However, in the extreme situations mentioned above, the death penalty was often confirmed so as to uphold the highest degree of discipline when it was needed the most.

It is worthwhile to mention that many original sentences of death, in extreme situations or not, were commuted to lighter, less lethal punishments, by the President or by lenient commanders. Still, over 500 men in the Union Army were executed during the War, though this number was considerably less than what was originally sentenced.

Afterword

The next article on this topic is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life in Camp XI; Home Sweet Home: Furlough, and The Home Front Contribution: Agencies.

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