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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign 1

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).

With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,

With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip, and now an irregular volley,

The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on,

Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun – the dust cover’d men,

In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,

With artillery interspers’d – the wheels rumble, the horses sweat,

As the army corps advances.

- Walt Whitman, An Army Corps On The March


This is the third series within American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman. This series is called Life on Campaign.

The Army is an instrument of war, and in the case of the American Civil War, this instrument was played in about 384 major battles and thousands of smaller engagements. As mentioned in Life in Camp, total deaths in the war were at least 620,000 and were possibly as high as 850,000. With this in mind, deaths from battle, on both sides, numbered at least 200,000, with the probability to reach 300,000 not unreasonable. At least 400,000 more were wounded, perhaps maimed for the remainder of their lives.

In this series, we will learn what Union Infantrymen experienced during campaigns as well as the various functions and operations of the field army as it attempted to subdue and destroy its foe.

I shall detail for you in this series:

Marching Orders: Impending Movement

The March Begins / Alternatives to Marching

Order of March

Experiences on the March

Route of March: The Roads, Barriers, and Obstacles

Day’s March Done

Imminent Collision: Contact with the Enemy and Communications

Innovations and Getting Into Position

Deploying the Battalion

The Weapons and Ordnance


Taking Cover and Hampering Enemy Attack

Just Before the Battle Mother: Eve of Battle and The Battle Joined

The Fallen: Casualties

Prisoners of War

Close of Day

The Next Day / The Day After

Sketch - Troops enter bivouac while on campaign
Sketch - Troops enter bivouac while on campaign

Marching Orders: Impending Movement

“We have received marching orders every three or four days, but they are always countermanded before we start.”

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

The Long Roll

If the possibility of a battle or a movement was immediate, while the army was in camp, at rest, or otherwise not in line of battle and fully prepared for combat, a drum beat known as the Long Roll sounded out. This steady, rolling rhythm called the men to fall-in to form their Companies with full equipment and weaponry. Once in line, if there was time, the commanding officers hurriedly informed the men of the goings-on. Afterward, the men either marched out of camp to take positions in the army’s line of battle, or were ordered to pack up all belongings within a short period of time (perhaps a few hours or less). This preparation was needed for the campaign upon which they were about to partake.

Drummer training in the 31st PA Volunteers
Drummer training in the 31st PA Volunteers

Best Laid Plans

If the army was not in immediate danger, then upcoming campaigns generally started out with some lead time, which the men used to make more careful preparations.

At some point during the day, when notice of the campaign was to be announced to the troops, the men were called into line. This was either as part of ordinary camp routine (like one of the roll calls or dress parade) or as a special requirement. The commanding officer then read the orders, which normally included information like the day and hour to be ready to start, how many days’ rations and the required quantity of ammunition to take, etc.

110th PA Volunteers at Parade
110th PA Volunteers at Parade
Company A, 30th PA Volunteers at Parade
Company A, 30th PA Volunteers at Parade

Take It Or Leave it

Upon dismissal of the formation, each soldier returned to his shelter and, more or less, thoroughly reviewed all of his possessions. He needed to decide what to take with him on the campaign and what to dispose. A soldier that had little or no experience on the march often attempted to take everything with him, certain all of it was necessary. A more experienced soldier, however, learned to take only essentials in order to ensure a lighter and easier march.

If the order to move came after a short encampment, or while the army was already on campaign, there was usually little in the soldier’s belongings that needed to be changed. However, if the order to move came after a long encampment, especially a winter encampment, there was usually an accumulation of various items that needed to be reviewed for usefulness. Letters from home or newspapers that piled up during the encampment were normally thrown into the fire. Maybe one or two of the most cherished letters were retained, to read over and over again during the campaign, until the normally spotty mail service made new deliveries. Overcoats were retained by some of the men, and taken along in case of fickle weather during the march, while other men took them back to the Quartermaster to pack into storage. Gambling and pornographic paraphernalia were also normally destroyed, or discarded along the march. As the personal effects of each soldier who died was recovered from the body (if possible) and sent home, most men decided to purge themselves of such items rather than let their loved ones know, posthumously, of their indulgences in such vices.

Thus divested, and with a little space in his haversack and knapsack again, each soldier then re-invested himself, but only with campaign-essential items. Two new and clean sets of undergarments (shirt and drawers) were often requested, and received, at the Quartermaster’s depot. One set might have been worn right away, the other set packed up for the march, and the clothes worn by the soldier until then – well, who wanted to do laundry just before a big movement? – were usually discarded.

Campaign Issuances

The day before the march, the troops needed to draw their marching rations. The troops were thus assembled by the officers and marched to meet the Commissary Sergeants in order to receive their rations. Usually the allotments were of three days, though there were larger allotments at times.

Rations issued to troops on the march were different from camp rations due to the need for the marching rations to travel well. A soldier, about to go on the march, generally received:

· 16 oz (~453 g, or 9 “crackers”) Hard Bread

· 12 oz (~340 g) Salt Pork OR 20 oz (~567 g) Fresh Meat

Various allowances of Sugar, Coffee, and Salt were also issued, dependent on the quantity on hand at the time of the commencement of the campaign.

If needed, ammunition was distributed by the Quartermaster. Any ammunition still inside a soldier’s cartridge box, during the encampment, was checked by the NCO’s to see if it appeared ready for use. If not, it was discarded and buried in favor of a new, and more reliable, supply.

The amount of ammunition issued per man was originally 40 rounds, but was often increased to about 60 rounds after experience taught the officers that a man could rarely have too much ammunition. In notable cases, troops were issued 80 to 100 rounds per man, indicating the literal cauldron into which they were about to enter.

Ammunition for rifled muskets was packaged as ten cartridges and twelve percussion caps (wrapped similarly to a cartridge) per packet. Forty rounds, which equated to four ammunition packets, were stored in the tins of the Cartridge Box. Two unwrapped packets were placed in the tops of the tins, while the percussion caps were poured into the Cap Pouch, and two wrapped packets were stored in the bottoms of the tins. If more than 40 rounds were carried, the extra ammunitions packets were generally kept in the trouser pockets, or in haversacks or knapsacks, or wherever a soldier found room and ready access for them.

Sketch - Troops draw rations
Sketch - Troops draw rations
Sketch - Troops line up to draw rations
Sketch - Troops line up to draw rations
Sketch - Ladies make cartridges
Sketch - Ladies make cartridges
Package of ten cartridges and twelve percussion caps
Package of ten cartridges and twelve percussion caps
Ammunition crate
Ammunition crate

The Night Before

Now supplied and equipped for the campaign, the next logical step for each soldier was to secure some rest. The time of day at which the troops needed to be ready was often in the very early hours of the morning or the very late hours of the evening, so it was prudent for each man to allot some time to sleep before the march. However, most of the troops were young men – not known for prudence – and they, too often, stayed awake a majority of the remaining time. Either through nervousness, or through the adrenaline and joy brought by the word of a new movement, sleep was just not a priority.

It was easy to see why a soldier wished to go on a march. Long encampments of large military forces usually all but destroyed the surrounding countryside. Trees everywhere were chopped down, and fields were trampled to swampy quagmires or barren pastures. Garbage piles and latrines lied about in great numbers and were always within range of smell. Water sources were often dried-up or fouled, etc. The opportunity to move again, while more dangerous in terms of enemy contact, was the chance to go to less spoiled areas, as well as to return to a healthier state of conditions for the Army. Sickness was always less prevalent among forces in motion rather than among those in static positions like camp.

The ramshackle furniture inside a Log Hut was often destroyed via bonfires in the camp’s fire pits that evening, as the troops often “made a night of it”. Songs around the fires were often heard, along with great conversations on the strategy to be adopted by the army for its upcoming campaign. Those who thought such outward and noisy displays helped to give away any advantage of surprise possessed by the Army over the enemy were few in number. They, perhaps, were soon comforted in the notion that, though the enemy was alerted to a pending movement, they did not know the intended destination or purpose. Of course, if absolute secrecy was essential, the officers and NCO’s quickly squelched any such festivities, but even that was often superfluous. Enemy scouts and elevated enemy observation posts usually noted such things as rations and ammunition distribution, or increased levels of mounted courier communications, etc. These were all pretty sure signs of impending movement.

Eventually, whether they “celebrated” or not, a few hours of rest were secured by the troops, but… The appointed hour to rise came all too soon!

Troops dance in camp the evening before a campaign
Troops dance in camp the evening before a campaign
Abandoned log hut after the commencement of a new campaign
Abandoned log hut after the commencement of a new campaign


To novice rookies or to jaded veterans, the notice of a new campaign was usually received with much enthusiasm, or at least not with much despair. Even though the prospect of battle - with its concomitant death or maiming - loomed for the army, the chance to go on campaign was such that the men viewed battle as a worthwhile risk to this welcome change in routine.

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

Sketch - new clothing did not always fit so well!
Sketch - new clothing did not always fit so well!

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