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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life on Campaign 17

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).

Unless the contending forces fully disengaged earlier, combat normally abated for the day when the darkness of night made it nearly impossible to move or accurately fire upon the enemy. However, it should be noted that there certainly were several night attacks, of varying intensities, made during the war.

Darkness afforded the cover needed to do a variety of things between the lines that could not be done safely during the day. It enabled troops to more safely gather in the wounded that could not move on their own, and to search for the fates of friends or relatives. For those so inclined, darkness enabled them to forage through the belongings of the dead and wounded for food and valuables. Some took advantage of the dark to desert or surrender to the enemy.

Night falls on the Wilderness in VA
Night falls on the Wilderness in VA

Night Wanderings

Anyone that desired to leave his unit for between-the-lines activities needed to gain the permission of his officers first. These requests were not always granted due to the need of the officers to keep the unit intact and as strong as was possible. If permission was granted, there were no guarantees of safety. However, attempts were sometimes made to, at least, alert the friendly skirmishers to be aware of comrades that roamed the field, and this was no small favor. Dependent on the proximity to the enemy, to leave cover, for any reason, was extremely hazardous. Nervous skirmishers of both sides, made jittery by the horrors of the day, often fired at the slightest perceived danger. This didn’t bode well for those between the lines. Torches and lanterns used by those that roamed at night, even those kept dim, were often seen by both enemy and friendly forces, unless the nature of the landscape (trees, hills, etc) somehow shielded them. Small arms and artillery fire targeted upon these lights. If no light was used, any sounds made within hearing range often drew fire, or if the moon shone brightly enough, visibility improved to where the fire was sometimes disturbingly accurate.

Living Historians fire cannon at night
Living Historians fire cannon at night

Night Preparation

Darkness also enabled commanders to realign and/or move their forces, and for troops to erect defenses, or repair or improve existing ones. Darkness also covered those who searched for, or brought up, supplies and ammunition from the supply wagons to help their units prepare for action early the next day.

Sketch - troops move at night during the siege of Petersburg, VA
Sketch - troops move at night during the siege of Petersburg, VA

Errands of Mercy

The fallen within the lines received care whenever there was time to do so. Though such acts weren’t limited to darkness, the combat during the day often left little or no time for errands of mercy until night fell. The wounded were first removed from harm’s way, often by comrades from the line of battle (as earlier noted, they removed themselves from the danger as well). However, the time to wait for removal was usually very lengthy and agonizing.

The dead were then removed from the lines and, if there was time, were perhaps buried. Often there was no such time, so the dead sometimes continued to lay within, or often in close proximity to, the front lines. As mentioned in the article Taking Cover and Hampering Enemy Attack, in extreme cases, the dead were even used as fieldworks for the protection of those still living.

Sketch - troops search at night for wounded comrades
Sketch - troops search at night for wounded comrades
Painting - Union troops crouch among their dead comrades to return fire
Painting - Union troops crouch among their dead comrades to return fire


A soldier, still unwounded and within his unit, probably found sleep at night to be a very difficult task, regardless of his state of exhaustion. The terrors of the day, and the knowledge that the enemy might still be out there ready to kill him, probably prevented him from the relaxation necessary for sleep to take hold of him. Any sounds – comrades in conversation, snores, wounded men that cried for help, rifle shots or cannon fire, etc – would have jarred, or kept, him awake through most or all of the night.

This soldier most likely would have been within his unit’s line of battle. In such case, he and his comrades all lied down in the same positions they occupied when night fell, and his firearm was kept within immediate reach. If he still retained some of his belongings, he might have unrolled his rubber and wool blankets, spread them on the ground, and laid upon them, in very close proximity with his comrades in the same rank and same file. He probably talked with his comrades immediately about him, but officers and NCO’s probably admonished them all to keep quiet. Fires by which to cook, or for heat, were almost certainly banished due to enemy proximity and the possibility to draw hostile attention down upon them. If the soldier was unlucky, he was chosen to go out on picket duty, which was of even greater hazard. Opposing skirmishers often kept up a constant fire during the night. Though most shots were wild due to the darkness, the hostile fire still served to keep the soldier jittery and unable to clearly concentrate on his duty.

Painting - a Union soldier asleep and in a dream. It is doubtful that many troops slept this peacefully on the battlefield
Painting - a Union soldier asleep and in a dream. It is doubtful that many troops slept this peacefully on the battlefield


The lack of foreknowledge of the next day, and the horrors of the day just completed, preyed upon everyone's minds during the evening. Would there be battle the next day? Would there be battle tonight? What is the fate of friends or family? It is incredible that the troops managed to maintain their effectiveness day after day with such stress upon them.

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

Sketch - a night attack upon Rappahanock Station in 1863
Sketch - a night attack upon Rappahanock Station in 1863

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