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

Updated on July 22, 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).

The Burdens of the March

As specified in The March Begins, the day’s march often started very early in the morning, under cover of darkness. In this way, the army could be well on its way to the day’s objectives before the enemy took notice and moved in response. Troops thus started the day tired, and needed to wake up while on the march.

Unfortunately to wake up, while on a march, was a dubious proposition at best. Campaigns were generally launched in the hot and sunny southern summers. American Civil War troops were dressed almost entirely in wool, a rather heavy material. They each carried about 19 pounds (~9 kg) or more in the knapsack and haversack, along with several more pounds / kilograms in weaponry, ammunition, and accoutrements. Marches were often many miles / kilometers in length, over roads in various stages of condition (dry and dusty or wet and mud-churned). Under such adversity, a soldier was easily exhausted regardless of how much he rested prior to the march.

Sketch - Union troops on Campaign
Sketch - Union troops on Campaign

Jettison of Equipment

In the event a soldier decided he can no longer continue with his current load, he fell-out of the line of march (with or without harassment from his unit’s officers or NCO’s). He un-slung his knapsack if he carried one, took a quick inventory of his burden, and discarded those items he believed he no longer needed or wanted to carry. He then strapped-on his remaining gear and hurried to rejoin his place in the line. This routine was repeated by thousands of other troops during the course of a march. Roadsides were thus cluttered with thousands of blankets, overcoats, other clothing, and even knapsacks, haversacks, and canteens.

Sketch - a fully equipped soldier
Sketch - a fully equipped soldier


For soldiers that simply couldn’t continue the march at all, they fell-out of line and asked one of their officers for a pass. This pass gave the soldier permission to drop out of the march and to catch up with the unit later that day. These men were referred-to as Stragglers. As a somewhat general “rule”, stragglers stopped at the side of the road, usually built a small fire, boiled and drank some coffee, and probably took a nap. When they felt rested enough, they got back on their feet, perhaps jettisoned some clothing or equipment they believed was expendable, and then attempted to overtake their units before they got lost (or worse).

Sketch - a straggler, most likel with blistered feet
Sketch - a straggler, most likel with blistered feet
Sketch - a straggler bathes his feet
Sketch - a straggler bathes his feet
Sketch - Stragglers and walking wounded
Sketch - Stragglers and walking wounded

Rest Breaks

While on the march, the commanders occasionally halted their units and allowed the men time to rest. Sometimes these breaks were very orthodox, such as ten minutes rest for every hour. More often, the rest breaks were determined by whether or not the intended pace and schedule of the march was acceptable to the commander and that the day’s objectives were, or would be, met on schedule. During these breaks, the men halted their march, broke ranks, relieved themselves more or less out of sight, and lounged on, or at the side of, the road. They were not permitted to wander, due to the normally short time period of this break, unless there was a need to send a canteen detail for water. Small fires were started, and coffee was boiled - nearly every halt was a time to make coffee – and drunk. When the break was over, the men were ordered to fall-in, and the march resumed.

Painting - troops on a rest break and boil coffee
Painting - troops on a rest break and boil coffee
Troops on a rest break, near enemy lines
Troops on a rest break, near enemy lines

Dinner Halt

As with temporary rest halts, Dinner halts were dependent on circumstances. Yet, unless extraordinary situations developed, Dinner was allowed. At this time, the men were marched off the road to some sort of clearing, or other area that was somewhat inviting, and halted. Arms were stacked, accoutrements were hung from the musket stacks, and the men settled down to have their afternoon repasts (which were not always in the afternoon!) and more coffee. Dinner consisted of whatever the soldiers carried in their haversacks or picked up along the way. Unless great haste was needed, the men were given an hour or more for this Dinner break. At the end, the men fell-in again, marched back to the road, and resumed the day’s movement.

Painting - troops on a dinner break
Painting - troops on a dinner break


As mentioned in the previous article, Order of March, refugees were often encountered during the march. As a very rough and simplified description, refugees were civilians displaced by, or that fled from, disaster. In the case of the American Civil War, the destruction caused by military operations was akin to disaster. These refugees were frequently entire families. A refugee family may have suffered nearly total loss of its house and belongings. Army officers often destroyed homes that were near, but outside, their lines for fear they would become nests for enemy sharpshooters. Sometimes, houses were dismantled for materials needed in bridge or fortifications construction. Other times, hostile fire from skirmishes or battles, either aimed or stray, damaged houses and other buildings within range, sometimes too extensively for families to continue to live in them.

In many cases, houses were confiscated, either by the military or by government authorities, and the families were not allowed to stay. In a few cases, due to suspicions of enemy sympathies or other “impediments”, families were ordered to leave the area forthwith. Subsistence was often destroyed or commandeered by the armies, and this left too little on which a family could live. Many families even needed to beg for food from the armies. In lieu of forced displacement, many families fled from the approach of military forces and the assumed destruction and robbery that would occur. If enemy forces approached, forced repatriation was also a threat. Families, thus, were forced to travel to live elsewhere, with other relatives or friends if at all possible. Wagons, perhaps personal carriages or farm produce carts, were packed with as many belongings as the families could take. They were drawn by whatever harness animals they still possessed, or by animals discarded by the armies due to poor health.

As was also mentioned in Order of March, the refugees were sometimes escaped slaves that sought to reach Union lines or Union territory and be freed (more or less). At first, Union troops returned escaped slaves to their owners. However, later in the War, many slaves were aided in their escape by Union troops, and many became “contraband” to the Union cause. Contraband, interestingly enough, means “illegal goods”. Slavery was NOT illegal in the United States during the American Civil War. However, since the Union believed the act of secession was illegal, and since the Union saw slavery as the reason behind secession, a natural conclusion eventually came about! Escaped slaves that reached Union lines were thus considered to be contraband. The contraband went to work for the Union as laborers for the armies and, in return, received rations, shelter, and clothing. Unfortunately, wage payments were minimal, if at all.

Sketch - a refugee family seeks help at an army depot
Sketch - a refugee family seeks help at an army depot
Sketch - refugee families set up a camp. Note the tents in the background, which indicate possible army or relief agency assistance
Sketch - refugee families set up a camp. Note the tents in the background, which indicate possible army or relief agency assistance
Escaped, refugee slaves
Escaped, refugee slaves
Sketch - escaped slaves follow alongside an infantry column
Sketch - escaped slaves follow alongside an infantry column
Contraband teamsters
Contraband teamsters


Every army movement was somewhat unique in the experiences offered to the participants. However, there were also many similarities - early starts, late endings, delays and jams, refugees, etc - so that each soldier, after a number of such events, was able to prepare himself better for the next time.

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

Sketch - troops make a nighttime march
Sketch - troops make a nighttime march


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