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

Updated on March 11, 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).

Sketch - a portable breastwork, an innovation that proved of dubious value if it ever was tested
Sketch - a portable breastwork, an innovation that proved of dubious value if it ever was tested

Innovations

A soldier that witnessed the concentration of the army before battle sometimes saw some very interesting innovations.

The camp of the Balloon Corps near Gaines Mill, VA in June 1862
The camp of the Balloon Corps near Gaines Mill, VA in June 1862
A balloon is inflated. Note the wagons to the left that provided the inflation
A balloon is inflated. Note the wagons to the left that provided the inflation
Chief Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, on horseback
Chief Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, on horseback
A balloon ascends as troops man the guide ropes
A balloon ascends as troops man the guide ropes

Innovations - Balloon

The balloon was as close to flight as any soldier ever dreamed, though the balloon was almost always tethered to the ground during its flight. One or two men stood in a wicker basket suspended underneath the hydrogen-filled balloon, which ascended to a maximum elevation of about 1,000 feet (~300 meters). From there, the aeronauts gathered and communicated intelligence on the enemy and on the state of its own army via telegraph, signal flags, hand signals, or even megaphone. Enemy artillery and sharpshooters were drawn to the balloon, but often the cannon were not able to tilt up sufficiently when the balloon was at its highest elevation. Men on the ground, that manned the guide ropes and/or pulleys, pulled the balloon back to earth when the flight was complete. During the descent, the balloon was more vulnerable to enemy artillery fire, though none were destroyed by enemy action during the War. The U.S. Balloon Corps, which once totaled seven balloons, was created in October 1861 but was eventually disbanded in August 1863, less than two years from its inception.

USS Monitor, the Union's first ironclad vessel
USS Monitor, the Union's first ironclad vessel
Battle of Hampton Roads, the first clash between ironclad vessels (USS Monitor vs CSS Virginia)
Battle of Hampton Roads, the first clash between ironclad vessels (USS Monitor vs CSS Virginia)
Monitor-class, double-turreted ironclad USS Onondaga
Monitor-class, double-turreted ironclad USS Onondaga
Casemate-class ironclad USS Essex
Casemate-class ironclad USS Essex

Innovations - Ironclads

If the soldier was near the sea coast or a major river, he probably saw a few ironclad ships among the mostly wooden fleets. These ships were steam-driven and squat, with the hulls above the waterline covered with riveted iron plates (below the waterline, the hulls were often still wooden). Ironclad vessels were nearly impervious to cannon fire and they made wooden sailing vessels obsolete. The ironclads came in a few varieties, with the two most common being the Monitors and the Casemates. The Monitors consisted of one or more revolving gun turrets, normally with two cannon each, on a deck only a few feet / meter above water level. This led to a description that a Monitor resembled a Cheesebox On A Raft. The Casemates were more rectangular in design, with sloping iron sides and broadsides of cannon that numbered perhaps four per side, and one cannon each in front and in rear. This type of ironclad more closely resembled a monstrous turtle.

Land Torpedo
Land Torpedo
Sketch - a land torpedo explodes among an infantry unit
Sketch - a land torpedo explodes among an infantry unit
Officers examine a water torpedo at a "torpedo station" on the James River in Virginia
Officers examine a water torpedo at a "torpedo station" on the James River in Virginia

Innovations - Torpedo

An invention a soldier grew to fear was the torpedo. These were mines that were hidden either underwater for use against ships, or even underground for use against the army. When a soldier treaded upon a land torpedo, the pressure immediately activated the fuse. The gunpowder within the torpedo then exploded, which sent metal fragments into the men nearby. This invention was seen as devious and barbarous, not to be used in civilized warfare.

US Colored Troops on parade
US Colored Troops on parade
Staged photo of colored troops "in combat" near Dutch Gap in VA
Staged photo of colored troops "in combat" near Dutch Gap in VA
Sketch - Battle of Milliken's Bend. Colored troops lost over half their strength, but repulsed the Rebel attack
Sketch - Battle of Milliken's Bend. Colored troops lost over half their strength, but repulsed the Rebel attack
Colored troops behind breastworks outside of Petersburg, VA
Colored troops behind breastworks outside of Petersburg, VA
Sketch- Battle of Island Mound in MO, Oct 1862. This was the first known engagement in which Unionist colored troops took place
Sketch- Battle of Island Mound in MO, Oct 1862. This was the first known engagement in which Unionist colored troops took place
Painting - 54th MA Volunteers, the most famous of all colored units, attacks Battery Wagner in SC
Painting - 54th MA Volunteers, the most famous of all colored units, attacks Battery Wagner in SC

Innovations – Colored Troops

A soldier may also have seen units in the army that might or might not have made him comfortable. Units of black troops were seen in the Union Army as early as the autumn of 1862, and their presence was controversial to say the least.

Most white troops in the Union army were indifferent, at least at first, to the plight of slaves or any black people. However, most whites, North or South, were aghast at the idea of black men shooting at white men. Blacks were still seen as inferior, and the “natural order of things” would be turned on its head if blacks were allowed to subdue white men. However, after service alongside such units for a while and the experience of their usually excellent behavior in action, white troops often came to accept the existence of black troops. At the least, they paid them no more or less heed than they did to any other fellow troops.

Sketch - general officers confer while troops in the background rush up to take their positions
Sketch - general officers confer while troops in the background rush up to take their positions
Painting - troops at the double-quick cross a pontoon bridge to move into their assigned positions
Painting - troops at the double-quick cross a pontoon bridge to move into their assigned positions
Painting - 20th ME Volunteers comes under artillery fire as it moves into position
Painting - 20th ME Volunteers comes under artillery fire as it moves into position

To Get Into Position

A unit’s initial position in the army’s line of battle was usually determined by a few different factors: the road taken by the unit, the plans of the army’s commanders, and any contingencies.

Generally, the unit took initial position somewhat nearby the very road that led them to the battlefield. If the unit was needed where another road was in closer proximity, then something out of the ordinary probably caused that to happen.

Plans of the commanding officers also played a part in position assignments. Units that proved their reliability were often assigned to occupy or attack critical locations. Less reliable units were often placed in assumed “out of the way” positions, wherever possible, to prevent collapse of these units and disaster to the Army.

Contingencies, wherein the unit was urgently needed someplace immediately in order to forestall catastrophe or enable victory, was yet another factor in area assignments. In such cases, the nearest troops at hand were moved, reliability not often a factor.

A soldier’s Regiment generally marched by the flank, either along the road or cross country, to reach its assigned place. If the soldier was fortunate, his Regiment was preceded by units in front, or by his Regiment’s own skirmishers, when it moved to take its position. If the unit was visible to the enemy during this movement, it generally came under hostile fire. Preceding units or skirmishers spread the alarm if enemy forces were nearby, so the unit stood a fair chance to deploy into a combat-ready line of battle before it received close-range small arms or artillery fire. However, the unit was quite vulnerable to longer range artillery fire. Units did not want to march by the flank if incoming artillery fire was encountered. If a unit, that marched by the flank, moved in the direction of enemy artillery, the artillerymen thus had a “deep” target at which to fire. Artillerymen preferred to fire at deep targets rather than at wide targets as there was less chance to overshoot. Enemy infantry also had an inviting target as it was impossible for the men in the marching unit to fight back. There was no possibility to safely fire when in a march by the flank. It was critical that units deployed into line of battle to face the enemy, otherwise a great deal of execution and confusion would occur without any chance for the unit to fight back.

A unit often needed to march at the double-quick, in order to minimize damage from hostile fire, until it could deploy into line of battle. The unit then marched as a line into its assigned position and got ready to fight.

Sketch - troops rush forward into position as artillery engages enemy batteries at Dranesville, VA Jan. 1862
Sketch - troops rush forward into position as artillery engages enemy batteries at Dranesville, VA Jan. 1862

Afterword

Whether new recruit or veteran, a soldier knew that his ultimate test would come very soon: the test of his courage in battle. The belligerent forces came together and to disengage now - with so little space between the contending forces and the vulnerability of the withdrawing combatant which was certain to ensue - would be likely disastrous to whichever force attempted it.

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

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