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

Updated on April 2, 2014
Sketch - a sunrise at Maryland Heights, MD
Sketch - a sunrise at Maryland Heights, MD

When darkness gave way to the light of morning the army, dependent on how it fared the previous day, found itself in one or more of these scenarios:

  • in battle again
  • in pursuit of a retreating enemy
  • in a movement that sought a strategic objective ahead of the enemy
  • in retreat from the enemy
  • in place to await developments

A courier, behind Antietam Creek, scans the battlefield as an artillery battery remains limbered and ready to move
A courier, behind Antietam Creek, scans the battlefield as an artillery battery remains limbered and ready to move

The Battlefield Situation

If both forces remained on the field the next day, but battle was not renewed, then a state of stalemate existed. This was not an unheard-of occurrence. Several battles in the American Civil War were inconclusive, with no clear-cut victor in terms of campaign objectives or battle outcomes (ie. Antietam, Wilderness, Spotsylvania). Other battles were won decisively, but the victorious armies did not drive the defeated enemy from the field (ie. Fredericksburg, Stone’s River, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor). In such cases, the contending armies usually remained in place for a time - days, weeks, or even longer - while the commanders pondered their next moves.

Sketch - a truce is declared at Antietam. Note the white flags that were used whenever one side wished to halt the combat and parley
Sketch - a truce is declared at Antietam. Note the white flags that were used whenever one side wished to halt the combat and parley

Truces

On occasion, in stalemate or not, truces were declared. In the terms of these truces, agreed upon by the commanders of each force, the combat ceased for a certain number of hours for the purpose of the armies’ to retrieve and care for their wounded and perhaps to bury their dead. Generally, to police the field for arms and equipment was not part of the truce, though that practice was surely done on any number of occasions. Truces, however, did not occur very often. The army that requested the truce was traditionally considered to be the defeated army – not good for its morale while VERY good for the morale of the enemy – so in the cases of stalemate, truces were not foregone conclusions. Truces also gave to the enemy time to rush up reinforcements and to improve its positions. As a result, declarations of truces were often delayed or not declared at all. Thus, any wounded on the field, that could not otherwise be reached, were left to suffer and/or die for lack of care. In some cases, individual commanders held truces in their own sectors of the field. These were not sanctioned actions, and the officers involved were at risk of reprimands (or worse), but such truces surely saved the lives of many wounded troops that were caught between the lines.

Map of a strategic movement after the stalemate of the Battle of the Wilderness; Union forces disengaged, abandoned the Wilderness battlefield, and attempted to reach a position to the southeast to threaten the enemy flank
Map of a strategic movement after the stalemate of the Battle of the Wilderness; Union forces disengaged, abandoned the Wilderness battlefield, and attempted to reach a position to the southeast to threaten the enemy flank
Sketch - unburied dead at the battlefield of Groveton, VA
Sketch - unburied dead at the battlefield of Groveton, VA

Strategic Movement

Stalemates were sometimes resolved when one army or the other initiated a movement other than a retreat. In these movements, the army sought to reach objectives, away from the battlefield, where the enemy would be put at a disadvantage. In such cases, the speed and the strength of the participating units was of utmost importance. The enemy would still have significant forces upon the battlefield, so no units were left behind for battlefield recovery efforts. Or such units were in place for a very short time before they needed to abandon the field, whether completed with recovery or not, lest superior enemy forces approach. In these cases, the dead of both sides thus remained unburied for lengthy periods of time.

If civilians were nearby, they sometimes took over the macabre task of battlefield recovery, but civilians often fled from prospective battles. Therefore, few civilians were normally around, and those that stayed usually took care of only the dead on their own properties, if at all. Eventually, many civilians returned to their homes, whatever their conditions, and then, perhaps, interred the dead. Other times, army units were eventually sent to the abandoned battlefields to finally bury the dead. By then, however, decomposition obliterated physical features and the elements ruined much of anything else that made identification possible. Unidentified graves thus became the final resting places for most of these dead, which was the case for nearly half of those that died in the war.

Painting - Union forces in pursuit of the retreating enemy after Gettysburg
Painting - Union forces in pursuit of the retreating enemy after Gettysburg
A burial detail at the Antietam battlefield poses for a photograph before it inters deceased comrades
A burial detail at the Antietam battlefield poses for a photograph before it inters deceased comrades

Pursuit

If the enemy force abandoned the field in obvious retreat, to disengage and escape, the victorious army was left in command of the field. Often (but not always), while the remainder of the army pushed on in pursuit or went into camp to rest and recuperate, some units were temporarily left behind in order to secure and police the battlefield. To these men were given the duties to glean the battlefield for any remaining wounded and serviceable weaponry and equipment, to round up stragglers from both sides, and to inter the dead (at least its own dead). As for the dead animals, they might have been burned or buried, or simply left alone for scavengers or for any civilians in the area to dispose. The units left behind were, more or less, free from danger from enemy forces.

Painting - Union troops retreat over a stone bridge after the Second Battle of Bull Run
Painting - Union troops retreat over a stone bridge after the Second Battle of Bull Run
Remains of unburied Union troops at the Gaines Mill, VA battlefield
Remains of unburied Union troops at the Gaines Mill, VA battlefield

Retreat

If the army needed to abandon the field in retreat, those wounded, in the field hospitals, that could be moved were loaded into every available ambulance and wagon and sent away. The wounded still upon the fields at the time of retreat, or those in the hospitals that could not be moved, were left in place, along with a certain number of medical personnel, to be captured by the enemy. Habitually, the enemy immediately paroled the wounded and the medical personnel, though they often confiscated the medical supplies. The dead were left to the care, or lack of it, of the enemy. For obvious reasons, no friendly units could be left behind for such duty!

Union dead at Gettysburg, PA. By the time of this photograph, these corpses were on the field for about three days. Note the blackened skin and bloated conditions of the abdomen, limbs, and faces
Union dead at Gettysburg, PA. By the time of this photograph, these corpses were on the field for about three days. Note the blackened skin and bloated conditions of the abdomen, limbs, and faces

The Slain

Immediately after death, the bodies of men and animals alike began to decompose. If the weather was warm, the decomposition process accelerated. Soon, the air about the battlefield and the surrounding areas for miles / kilometers was filled with the putrid stench of decay.




Enemy dead in a V burial formation at Gettysburg, PA
Enemy dead in a V burial formation at Gettysburg, PA
Sketch - Union troops dig a burial trench for their slain comrades under a flag of truce, with enemy artillery at watch on the hill. Note the scavenged condition of the corpses
Sketch - Union troops dig a burial trench for their slain comrades under a flag of truce, with enemy artillery at watch on the hill. Note the scavenged condition of the corpses
Contrast - a grave of a Union soldier, and the yet unburied body of an enemy soldier beside it. Note the board that served as the headstone
Contrast - a grave of a Union soldier, and the yet unburied body of an enemy soldier beside it. Note the board that served as the headstone
Erosion exposed the graves of these skeletons in the Wilderness, VA
Erosion exposed the graves of these skeletons in the Wilderness, VA

Burials

As is all too obvious, for those that remained in or near the battlefield, the need to put the dead underground was a priority.

One method of burial used on American Civil War battlefields was to line up bodies in a row, or in a V-shaped formation. The burial detail then dug a grave beside the first body, and placed the body into the open hole. Where the body originally laid became the spot to dig an adjoining grave. While this second grave was dug, the excavated dirt was used to fill the first grave. This process continued until all the bodies in the formation were interred, and then the grave-diggers moved to the next formation. Another burial method was to dig a long trench as a mass grave, place as many bodies in it as would reasonably fit, then to cover up the trench.

Burial details often took greater care of their own dead than enemy dead. Their own dead usually each got an individual grave and some sort of headboard with the dead soldier’s information if available. Enemy dead were usually interred in mass graves. In at least one case, enemy dead were thrown down a well which was sealed up afterward. In some cases, the enemy dead, or even the dead of both sides, weren’t buried at all.

All graves were fairly shallow, usually only deep enough to cover the bodies with dirt, However, rains and other erosive forces, along with the activities of scavengers, often caused graves to be partially revealed, and decomposed body parts protruded from the earth. To re-inter, or at least re-cover, the bodies was possible if there were soldiers and citizens nearby, but in many cases, the dead of the battlefield weren’t properly interred until after the war.

Sketch - Union troops move to battle as wounded stream to the rear at the Second Battle of Bull Run
Sketch - Union troops move to battle as wounded stream to the rear at the Second Battle of Bull Run

Afterword

This concludes this series American Civil : Union Infantryman - Life on Campaign. This also concludes the topic of Union Infantryman.

The Union Infantryman in the American Civil War, whether a Volunteer or a Regular, learned his trade well, despite all the trials and tribulations he endured. He was a very tough individual with few illusions and ideals, but he subsisted on patriotism, the camaraderie of his fellow troops, and the belief that what he did was right.

There are some historians who believe that the Union Army, immediately after the war, was invincible. That will be a topic for continued debate.

Regardless, the Union Infantryman acquitted himself admirably and, to this day, citizens of the United States of America owe him a debt of gratitude.

Thank you very much for reading these series of HubPages in American Civil War Life. It is my hope that I can continue to write such things, in other facets of this time period, to help facilitate your education in the American Civil War.

Sketch - a Union drummer boy plies his trade
Sketch - a Union drummer boy plies his trade

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."

- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Gettysburg Battlefield, Oct 3, 1889

Sketch - A Christmas Stag Dance in a Union encampment
Sketch - A Christmas Stag Dance in a Union encampment
With Union troops on the beach as spectators, the ironclad New Ironsides (far right) fires on enemy defenses in Charleston Harbor in SC
With Union troops on the beach as spectators, the ironclad New Ironsides (far right) fires on enemy defenses in Charleston Harbor in SC
Union troops relax near the ruins of a house in VA
Union troops relax near the ruins of a house in VA
Union Zouave troops relax within fortifications outside Centreville, VA
Union Zouave troops relax within fortifications outside Centreville, VA
Union Zouave troops pose by a musket stack
Union Zouave troops pose by a musket stack
Sketch - Christian Commission volunteers tend to wounded troops
Sketch - Christian Commission volunteers tend to wounded troops
1913 Reunion of Veterans, Union and Confederate, of the Battle of Gettysburg at Gettysburg, PA
1913 Reunion of Veterans, Union and Confederate, of the Battle of Gettysburg at Gettysburg, PA

Books and other Reference Materials Without Which These Articles Could Not Be Written

Hardtack and Coffee, by Josh Billings

Time Life Series: The Civil War

The Civil War, by Bruce Catton

The Army of the Potomac trilogy (Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, A Stillness at Appomattox), by Bruce Catton

National Park Service (www.nps.gov)

The Civil War (www.sonofthesouth.net)

The Civil War Homepage (www.civil-war.net)

Civil War Trust (www.civilwar.org)

Manuals of Infantry Tactics by authors Hardee, Casey, Gilham

America's Civil War magazine

Civil War Times Illustrated magazine

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