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

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).

“Dear Sister… Have you thought that I have been gone from home just two months, and, in that time, I have had just one letter from you? Have those two months seemed long or short to you? Have you missed my society at all in that time? … and do you think I would like to hear from you often? You used to write... but lately I get no more letters. I don't know why. Can it be that... you have no time to write to me?”

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

In a posed photograph, while one soldier mends his clothing, others behind him make use of confiscated pews and write letters home. The men in the background pose by laundry or with a newspaper
In a posed photograph, while one soldier mends his clothing, others behind him make use of confiscated pews and write letters home. The men in the background pose by laundry or with a newspaper

Idle Hands: Off Duty Part II

The chores done, in the very little remaining free time he had, a soldier could have been found doing such things as writing letters home or making entries into his journal. Writing implements in those days included a pencil or a pen, and an ink well. The pens could have been quills, made of goose or turkey feathers, or they could have been short, thin wooden handles with metal “nibs” on the end. The ends of the pens were dipped into the ink wells, which were short, mostly wooden bottles of ink. When some of the ink was drawn up into a small “reservoir” within the quill or nib, it was now possible to write. The ink was usually in powder, rather than in liquid, form to minimize the risks of spills when on the march.

A quill and inkwell. Though this desk setting was either for an officer or in a home, the quill and inkwell are accurate for a common infantryman's writing tools.
A quill and inkwell. Though this desk setting was either for an officer or in a home, the quill and inkwell are accurate for a common infantryman's writing tools.
A soldier's letter on very patriotic stationery
A soldier's letter on very patriotic stationery

Letters from the Front

For the letter-writers, then as now, postage stamps needed to be affixed onto the envelopes of the letters in order for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver them. Therefore, troops that wished to send letters home needed to buy, and keep on hand, numerous amounts of stamps. Soldiers’ postage stamps were often badly damaged from the rigors of duty and weather, which thus prevented their usage on the outgoing letters. The availability of stamps, or lack thereof, while the troops were in the field, or in remote encampment areas, was also a troublesome issue. As a result of these hardships, the U.S. Postmaster eventually revoked the stamp requirement for outgoing soldier mail. A soldier was then able to send a letter home if he wrote simply “Soldier’s Letter” on the envelope, along with his name, rank, and unit (the Regiment and the Company), and marked his address as Washington D.C. This address served very well for Eastern forces, but it is unknown if another address was needed for troops in the Western forces. The soldier then dropped-off the letter to whomever forwarded the mail, which was often the Regiment’s Chaplain. The chaplain then carried the mail to the Mail Wagons when they were available for the outgoing trip. The Mail Wagons carried back the mail to a central Post Office depot, such as Washington City for the Eastern military forces, or perhaps to Cincinnati, OH for the Western troops. From these central depots, the mail would move on to the local post offices of the receivers. At some point in the mail’s travels, either at the central depots or at the local post office, such soldier mail was marked "postage due," and the postage amount indicated was collected from the addressee when he/she came to the local post office to pick up the letter.

Home postal delivery would eventually come about during the War.

A soldier's envelope. Note the postage stamp, a requirement for the troops until 1864
A soldier's envelope. Note the postage stamp, a requirement for the troops until 1864
A church service by a regimental chaplain
A church service by a regimental chaplain

Letters from Home

For those at home that sought to write to a soldier, or to send him a care package, citizens did not need an exact address. They only needed to include the soldier’s name, Company, and Regiment, and address the letter to Washington D.C. This address was definitely the case for the Union’s eastern armies; it is unknown if another specified city, such as the afore-mentioned Cincinnati, OH for example, was used for the western armies. Then the earlier described process would be reversed to send mail to the central depots.

From these central depots, the correspondence was forwarded to the Army camps by the Mail Wagons, which would deliver their cargo to the Army Post Office tents. If the Army was on the march, no mail was forwarded, and all letters and care packages stayed at, or were returned to, the central depots. If the Army was stationery for any appreciable amount of time, mail service resumed.

Care packages were often searched by officers in the camp in order to find and prevent any alcohol in these packages from reaching the troops. Besides the occasional hidden stash of spirits, care packages contained items that ranged from food like roasted turkeys, chickens, and boiled hams to special clothing to correspondence materials. More than a few perishable food items spoiled if the Army was on the move for long periods of time and delivery was not feasible.

A mail delivery wagon
A mail delivery wagon
A newspaper illustration which shows a care package, most likely made by townsfolk back home, delivered to a Company at Christmas time
A newspaper illustration which shows a care package, most likely made by townsfolk back home, delivered to a Company at Christmas time
A sketch of a soldier as he reads a letter from home
A sketch of a soldier as he reads a letter from home

Other Leisure Pursuits

A soldier could also have continued his pre-war habit of reading during his off-duty time. He read everything from newspapers brought into camp (one would have been passed around almost endlessly) to cheap novels, to pornographic material (if available), to his own personal Bible.

Newspaper deliverymen
Newspaper deliverymen
A book published shortly before the Civil War
A book published shortly before the Civil War
A whimsical cartoon of troops and a lady in a rather fetching (for the 19th century) pose
A whimsical cartoon of troops and a lady in a rather fetching (for the 19th century) pose

For the gamers among the troops, Checkers was very popular, and the popularity of a somewhat more athletic game rose during the war: baseball. A Union general named Abner Doubleday is often credited with the invention of that game. It is much more likely that troops in his command played it, which was about as close a connection to that game as Doubleday probably ever got.

A checkers set
A checkers set
A baseball game in camp
A baseball game in camp
A game of football
A game of football

For the lovers of the performing arts, minstrel shows, put on by talented soldiers or camp servants, was an amusing pastime. Sometimes entire stages and curtains were built by those thespians. Minstrel Show can be defined as: "a popular stage entertainment featuring songs, dances, and comic dialogue in highly conventionalized patterns, usually performed by White actors in 'blackface'".

An illustration of a musical concert in camp
An illustration of a musical concert in camp

Gambling was prevalent, and ranged from vermin races (lice, cockroaches, mice) to throwing dice to cards. It was not uncommon for men to gamble away all their soldier wages in single gambling sessions. As mentioned in the article For Services Rendered, wage payment was somewhat irregular, so soldiers who gambled away their wages were quite penniless for significant periods of time.

A pair of soldiers pose for a photograph while at a game of dice
A pair of soldiers pose for a photograph while at a game of dice
A posed photograph of troops as they play cards
A posed photograph of troops as they play cards

It was nearly every soldier’s past-time to smoke and drink. The quality of the smoking or drinking material, however, ranged from reasonable to extremely poor, dependent on how desperately the troops needed it and how trustworthy were the sellers. The effects of drinking, especially, ranged wildly. Some troops exhibited rowdy and dangerous behavior. Many collapsed from dehydration or intoxication during fatigue duty or marching. Incomprehensible communication was yet another result. All of this often rendered unpleasant consequences to everyone, directly or indirectly.

A whiskey flask
A whiskey flask

A soldier who wanted some time away from camp could have requested a temporary pass from his Company commander (which could have been denied for any reason). This pass allowed him to depart for a certain number of hours, perhaps up to a day, in order to visit a nearby town or something. These passes gave the men a simple enjoyment of being out of the camp for a short time and allowed them to see the sights where they served. This was no small favor since, as mentioned in my series Filling The Ranks, these lads rarely ventured away from their hometowns before enlistment. It was all too natural for them to want to see other towns that they otherwise would never visit.

Troops, if nearby their homes or towns, often tiptoed out of camp to enjoy themselves without bothering to ask for passes, or in spite of their inability to get them. Bordellos were one such enjoyable destination in mind, and they received steady visits from soldiers that longed for female companionship. Some bordellos were established immediately adjacent to army camps for even easier access, to the greater benefit of both parties (diseases notwithstanding).

If caught in the attempt to leave without permission, these wayward soldiers faced unpleasant, or even dire, punishment. But the risks for a change of the dull Army routine seemed worthwhile since there were usually fellow soldiers that designed to cover, during Roll Calls or even Guard Duty, for those who stole away.

A pass for a soldier to leave camp
A pass for a soldier to leave camp
A Civil War-era prostitute
A Civil War-era prostitute

For non-regulation supplies or other goods, essentials or luxuries, soldiers relinquished some of their off-duty time in order to visit the Sutlers. These were merchants that were specially licensed to sell goods to the troops. Each Regiment or Camp was allowed to have one licensed Sutler. The goods a Sutler carried ranged from newspapers to necessary supplies like shoelaces and oils to luxuries like frying pans, tinned meats, pies and pastries, and tobacco. In general, Sutlers often charged prices that were much higher than what a soldier was charged in a town store. However, the Sutler took all the risks of transportation and possible capture of his goods, either to the enemy or, interestingly enough, to the very troops he accompanied! With such risks, and given the greater convenience of access for the troops they supplied, Sutlers could, perhaps, be excused for the prices they charged.

A sutler's tent and lounging troops
A sutler's tent and lounging troops

There were usually men in each unit that were fairly skilled in barbering. These men provided haircuts and shaves at cost, during their off-duty hours. Scissors and long-edged razors were their implements of choice, though more crude tools were often used as well (ie. hatchets). Troops needed to take care of their own fingernails and toe nails, using files or more crude and damaging items like knives and scissors.

A sketch of a camp barber and his customer (victim?)
A sketch of a camp barber and his customer (victim?)

For the soldier that took his personal hygiene seriously, he tried to bathe as often as required by Army regulations: at least once per week, not including daily washing of hands and feet. As in doing laundry, he would have taken a bar of soap in hand and headed down to the nearest stream or pond. He then stripped himself of all clothing, jumped in, and began lathering himself. The obvious downside to this was that such bathing was generally limited to days of warm weather. In colder weather, he heated his water over the fire, in a large kettle if available, and gave himself the rough equivalent of a sponge bath in his shelter. Many chose to forego bathing altogether until the warmer weather returned.

Unfortunately, bathing was not a very popular past-time to most troops regardless of weather conditions. They seemingly had little incentive for doing so in the absence of the ladies.

Soldiers bathe (a novelty and rarity) in North Anna Creek
Soldiers bathe (a novelty and rarity) in North Anna Creek

Afterword

The next article on this topic is American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life In Camp X; More Deadly Than Battle: Hygiene, Sanitation, and Illness, and Crime and Punishment: Disciplining The Troops.

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