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

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 duration of a march was dependent on many things, foremost among them the day’s objectives to be met. As a result, marches lasted a few hours or all day.

Sketch - troops in a nighttime march
Sketch - troops in a nighttime march

Bivouac

At the end of the march, the units of the army that reached their objectives, or were not expected to continue even if the objectives weren’t reached, were guided to areas to ”bivouac”.

A “bivouac” was a temporary camp. It was not expected to last beyond a few days before the Army moved again. Often, the bivouac lasted only one night, or even as little as a portion of a night.

As they neared the site of the bivouac, the men often made little preparations for encampment. If the men traveled on main thoroughfares, there were often rail fences that bordered the sides of the road. Men grabbed the rails of the fences as they marched by, and carried them into the campsite for uses that will soon be described.

Depending on the rigidity of the commanding officers and the proximity to the enemy, the campsites for a unit could have been as ordered as that of a Camp of Instruction, or disordered and haphazard. As the campsite was not expected to be occupied for very long, a great degree of orderliness was probably not thought to be critical since the next day or two would bring about the abandonment of the campsite.

Sketch - troops march into bivouac
Sketch - troops march into bivouac
Sketch - bivouac of an Indiana regiment
Sketch - bivouac of an Indiana regiment

Vittles

After they broke ranks and selected spots to sleep (orderly or not), the troops’ thoughts turned to food and / or coffee. Cooking fires (if allowed by the officers) were then started. Small holes were dug and the recently pilfered fence rails, along with twigs and brush, were piled into them. The practice to start fires ranged in from the scientific to the expeditious. Some men used pieces of flint that, when rubbed together, created sparks to ignite the inflammables in the fire hole. Others broke open cartridges, spread the gunpowder on the kindling, and fired a loaded musket into it. This ignited the gunpowder which, in turn, set afire the kindling. In wet weather, it was considerably more difficult to start fires, and may not even have been attempted. If the campsites were in close proximity to the enemy, campfires were often forbidden so as to not give away their locations or to avoid enemy artillery fire.

If / When a fire was started, coffee was once again at the forefront of items made in it. If the men had any energy left for other cooking, they dug into their haversacks and heated some rations for their evening meals. Most decided to forego such exertions and ate their food cold, if they had any desire to eat at all.

Sketch - troops make coffee around the new campfire
Sketch - troops make coffee around the new campfire
Sketch - a soldier fries his hardtack
Sketch - a soldier fries his hardtack
Sketch - troops broil their meat (beef or pork) over the fire via rammers or bayonets
Sketch - troops broil their meat (beef or pork) over the fire via rammers or bayonets

The Foraging Art

If what was in their haversacks wasn’t appealing or satiating, those men with the energy and the talent went off to forage. This was the art to procure food outside of the normal lines of the commissary, often via theft from nearby farms. In the early days of the war, to forage was prohibited or, if needed, done with promises of compensation to the affected families by way of certificates. The reason behind this was that the Union did not want to anger those civilians in rebel lands that possibly retained sympathies for the Union or, perhaps, were undecided on which side to support. Otherwise, these citizens could choose to side with the rebels. However, as time went on, it became more and more obvious that the great mass of civilians in rebel lands were very much rebels themselves. They aided their own forces, and some even hindered Union forces. At the very least, whatever was raised on those farms was liable to be foraged by enemy forces regardless of the sympathies of the owners, so it made military sense to deprive the enemy of such opportunities. As a result, to forage not only became more tolerated, it was also often expected.

Foraging was somewhat commonplace in a static camp environment. However, after a moderate period of time in the same place, the surrounding countryside, within a reasonable distance to travel, was soon picked fairly clean. This limited the usefulness of continued foraging until the countryside “recovered”. On the march, it was also common to be in the same areas time and time again, but there was often a fair chance for the army to be on new or recovered ground. In this case, the chances were also good that the surrounding countryside enabled successful and plentiful opportunities to forage. Teams of men or individuals, sometimes with, and other times without, the consent of their officers, went out into the countryside. They pilfered chickens, pigs, eggs, butter, smoked and cured meat, etc. The fare of foraging parties was dependent on the area, the activities of the enemy (who also foraged considerably as well as patrolled for Union foragers), and how well the landowners hid their valuable assets. However, whatever was found and could be hauled away on foot, horseback, or wagon was taken. In some cases, entire armies “lived off the land”, where the only sustenance was whatever was foraged from the country. Entire counties were swept almost clean if foraging was done on an army-wide basis.

Sketch - a soldier forages for a chicken
Sketch - a soldier forages for a chicken
Sketch - troops forage through a farmyard
Sketch - troops forage through a farmyard
Sketch - troops chase after farm animals
Sketch - troops chase after farm animals

Sleep

In most cases, in orderly encampments or not, the day’s march was so fatiguing as to cause many men to forego the erection of tents. If the weather was mild, the men simply unrolled their rubber blankets upon the ground and lied upon them with their woolen blankets over them. This was known as Sleeping Under The Stars. In cases of rainy or otherwise inclement weather, the men often pitched their tents, though some simply slept BENEATH, or rolled-up in, their rubber blankets. In cooler weather, the men sometimes dug small holes into the ground and lied in them for greater warmth, rolled-up in their blankets. However, many found this method to sleep to be all too similar in appearance to occupied graves.

Sketch - troops try to sleep in the rain
Sketch - troops try to sleep in the rain
Sketch - troops settle down into bivouac and prepare to sleep
Sketch - troops settle down into bivouac and prepare to sleep

Afterword

The rigors of the day, and the lack of sleep the previous night, might have caused troops to sleep more easily after the first day's march. However, most troops probably never got as much sleep as they needed or wanted. The same could also have been said about the rations. After a long march, whether hungry or not, the troops could have been better served had their rations been altered to satiate the greater exertions on campaign than those in camp. It is little wonder that foraging was, once again, a means to this end.

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

Sketch - troops in their bivouac
Sketch - troops in their bivouac

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