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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign II

Updated on February 25, 2014
Living Historians march to the battlefield
Living Historians march to the battlefield

The March Begins

If the march was scheduled in the morning, and the enemy wasn’t in close proximity or there otherwise was no need for stealth, the bugle call Reveille sounded out to summon the men to duty. However, if a night march was intended or stealth was imperative, it was the NCO’s, not the bugle, that routed the men from their blankets or other restful locations. This probably needed to be done often enough whether bugles were involved or not!

Preliminaries To The March

The now-awakened men, droopy-eyed, hazy, and/or resentful, haphazardly emerged from their shelters and lined up for Roll to be taken. Dependent on the marching timetables set by the commanding officers, there might have been a brief period of inactivity, after the Roll, before the march began. This allowed the troops to take a few bites of food or to make and drink coffee if desired (and not too nervous or excited about the day ahead). But often, there was no time whatsoever.

Whether before or after the Roll, the men soon needed to get ready. They needed to suit-up in their uniforms and to strike their tents (if they erected them), then they needed to pack their baggage.

Men, who continued to tote along their knapsacks, stored their extra clothing and other personal effects in the interior pockets. They then rolled-up their shelter halves and blankets together and strapped them onto the tops of the knapsacks. Others preferred to carry only their blanket rolls, which were shelter halves and blankets rolled up together. Any extra clothing and personal effects were kept inside, and the loose ends were tied together with twine or leather straps from the discarded knapsacks.

The “baggage” packed, the men then put on their accoutrements, strapped on their knapsacks (and often required the help of comrades to do so) or slung their blanket rolls upon their left shoulders, took their arms, and lined-up within their Companies. The Companies then marched out to the de facto parade ground to unite into their respective Regiments, and the march of the Army began… Maybe.

Watercolor postcard of an army on the march
Watercolor postcard of an army on the march

To Begin, Or Not To Begin

Delays in the army at this time were legendary. It was the exception, rather than the rule, for movements to start on-time due to various reasons. Other units might have blocked the way. Unexpected barriers were sometimes encountered. Bad weather often intervened. Any number of factors affected when the march actually began. In the meantime, the men waited in formation, under arms, until they set forth. Sympathetic commanders might have, at least, allowed their men to stack arms and to break ranks, but delays had no set times in which they were rectified. The moment after the men were allowed to take their ease could have been the moment that the delay ended, and the unit was then expected to march immediately. Thus, commanders often needed to keep the men under arms for very long stretches of time just to be certain of stepping-off the moment they had the opportunity to do so.

Eventually, the march began. In the infantry, the units were ordered to face by the flank, then to march forth. For a short distance, regimental bands might have played (unless orders were to prohibit noise) and the men were probably expected to maintain step and to carry their arms in a certain position. After a while, though, men usually heard “Route Step” from their officers. This was the signal for the men that they no longer needed to march in step and that they were allowed to carry their arms almost at will. Generally, arms carried over either shoulder were the acceptable “at-will” positions.

Civil War-era locomotive
Civil War-era locomotive
U.S.S. Wabash, an ocean-going vessel
U.S.S. Wabash, an ocean-going vessel
Civil War-era steamboat, U.S.S. Sioux Falls
Civil War-era steamboat, U.S.S. Sioux Falls

Alternatives To A March

It should be noted that army commanders did, on occasion, consider the alternatives to marches. Armies, or portions of them, also travelled by train or boat.

Sketch - troops board a train to Washington City
Sketch - troops board a train to Washington City

Rail Travel

The US Military Railroads department made great strides in the construction and maintenance of military railroads and to commandeer other railroad lines. The transportation and supply of armies in the field, and the removal of wounded and prisoners to the rear areas, was thus accomplished in much less time and in greater efficiency than was done by wagons. The train rides were not comfortable - the men occupied boxcars or flatbed cars like they were cattle - but long distances were covered relatively quickly, as long as there was no destruction of rails or bridges along the route.

69th NY Volunteers board a ship in NY Harbor
69th NY Volunteers board a ship in NY Harbor
Sketch - troops land ashore from ocean-going vessels
Sketch - troops land ashore from ocean-going vessels
Sketch - troops embark upon a river steamboat
Sketch - troops embark upon a river steamboat
Sketch - troops march onto steamboats via long gangplanks
Sketch - troops march onto steamboats via long gangplanks

Water Travel

Boats were yet another way to travel. For sea travel, the men and equipment boarded the ships in harbor via large gangplanks. When aboard, troops often were directed to go down to the cargo holds and attempt to get comfortable during the voyage. If many troops needed to cram on to the same ship, both the topside deck and the cargo hold were utilized. As with railroad travel, most of these voyages were uncomfortable. Tight quarters, the roll and pitch of the boats in rougher weather, and exposure to all elements when topside combined for miserable conditions. When it was time to depart, the troops and equipment exited via either the afore-mentioned gangplank if in port. If not, the men clambered into rowboats that were lowered to the surf and then rowed to the beach. Heavier equipment needed to await a port or some more sturdy craft before it could be unloaded.

For travel along a river, the journey was usually a bit more pleasant as paddle-wheeled boats were often used as the transports. These ships were meant to carry large numbers of passengers, unlike frigates, which thus allowed men to travel above the waterline and to possibly be quartered in passenger rooms. Heavy equipment was also able to be loaded and unloaded, though not always easily! To embark and debark, a short gangplank onto a dock was the simple method.

Troops march and cheer their commanding general
Troops march and cheer their commanding general

Afterword

Railroad and waterborne travel, while easier on the men's feet, were not always reliable or safe at that time in history. Train and ship accidents were somewhat commonplace and, as a result. a significant number of lives were lost during the War. Nevertheless, these transportation mediums enabled large numbers of troops to travel long distances in much less time than they could do on foot, and that was crucial. Armies needed to meet their objectives, else they could be put at severe, if not fatal, disadvantages. Rail and water travel, while hazardous, were very instrumental in an army's speedy attainment of objectives, and even in its continued existence as a fighting force, during its campaigns against the enemy.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign III.

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