What Was It Like To Be A Civil War Soldier?


We’ll put it bluntly– the life of a Civil
War soldier sucked. Sure, all war is hell,
but if you signed up to be a Civil War
soldier, it was essentially the equivalent
to signing your own death certificate. Today, we’re exploring
what life was really like to be a Civil War soldier. But before we get started,
this is a good time to subscribe to our
channel, Weird History. Leave us a comment or tell us
what weird phenomenon, person, or event you’d like
us to cover next. Now, let’s go to the 1860s. [MUSIC PLAYING] Of the 2.7 million soldiers
who fought in the Civil War in over 237 named battles
along with a bunch of smaller, albeit bloody face-offs
and confrontations, they all weren’t brawny, bearded
adult men with wives and slaves back home. Approximately 420,000
were Northern boys under the age of 17, and the
South had an estimated 100,000 soldiers under the age of 15. These boys weren’t landowners
and they definitely didn’t own slaves. As a matter of
fact, it’s reported that the teens on
both sides of the war had neutral feelings
toward slavery. The reason why these
kids joined the war was simply that they wanted
to escape their dull farm lives at home. Thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s
call for a short 90 day tour of duty, a Union
soldier could enlist, put in his combat
time for a few months, and then return home for
accolades and a hero’s welcome. What the Northern soldiers
couldn’t have predicted was that the Civil War was
going to drag out for years. After the Union was driven out
of Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862,
the Confederate army began to march on to Washington. The South was starting
to look like they had a chance to win this thing,
thanks to their Peninsula win. That’s when Lincoln issued a
call for 300,000 more Union soldiers with three
year commitments. Only a fraction of those
300,000 Union soldiers would last their three
years of brutal combat. [MUSIC PLAYING] How desperate were the underage
boys to join the Civil War and begin living life? Well, they’d bend a
lot of rules to get in. For example, they
relied on semantics. Because the rules
of combat stated that a soldier must be over
18 to join the military, an underage kid would
write the number 18 on the sole of his shoe,
or stuff a piece of paper with the number 18 scrawled
on it and hide it in his boot. Then when the recruiter would
ask if the boy was over 18, the future war hero
would technically be telling the truth by
answering, yes, I am over 18. If that didn’t work, the kids
would just lie about their age because social security
numbers, driver’s licenses, and Spokeo didn’t exist. If all else failed, the teens
just asked their fathers to vouch for them. That said, not all
teens carried arms. A lot of the kids
signed up for noncombat, roles like joining the band as
a drummer, flautist, or bugler. These noncombat
roles also included being the kid to carry canteens,
bandages, and stretchers. Some of the more
skilled soldiers even assisted surgeons and
nurses with the wounded and acted as a carrier
pigeon by relaying orders on the battlefield. [MUSIC PLAYING] William Sherman
coined the phrase war is hell in 1879, 15 years
after the Civil War, where he served as a
general for the Union Army. Sherman knew a great deal
about death on the battlefields because he saw a lot of it. For example, on July
1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg,
Confederate soldiers marched onto the battlefield
in straight lines toward their enemy. Union soldiers decimated
the Confederate soldiers. According to the south’s
general, Alfred Iverson, his soldiers died
an honorable death. They nobly fought and
perished without a man running to the rear. No greater gallantry and
heroism has been displayed. The Confederate
soldiers weren’t as romantic about death on the
battlefield as Iverson was. In fact, it sounded
like they were fighting two different wars. Iverson’s soldiers would
recall huddling in the mud as bullets whizzed above them. One of Iverson’s men
described the moment when 79 of his fellow soldiers
were slain in one volley. “Great God, when
will this stop?” [MUSIC PLAYING] According to the book Hardee’s
Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, soldiers from
the North and South were supposed to be taken
care of while issued the following– pork, bread,
beef, vegetables, potatoes, peas, hominy, roasted
coffee beans, sugar. Unfortunately, both
sides of the War struggled to supply
their soldiers with these basic necessities,
the Confederates much more than the Union. Johnny Reb rarely sign any of
the aforementioned rations. Instead, the
Confederate soldiers subsided on cornbread, coffee,
cigarettes, and anything they could steal. Any food the soldiers did
get their hands on often became infested with insects,
especially rice or grain, within days. All this meant that the soldiers
had to rely on their cunning to survive. Soldiers would supplement
their meager rations by foraging on the
land, receiving boxes of food from
their families, or trading items
with other soldiers, even if they traded
with the enemy. Yep, it wasn’t uncommon
for Union soldiers to trade their coffee with
the Confederate soldiers in exchange for tobacco,
away from the eyes of their officers. [MUSIC PLAYING] Civil war soldiers
didn’t have much of a chance to live if they were
seriously wounded in battle. Picture it– you’re
keeping the enemy at bay by shooting one round
every 20 to 30 seconds, but as you pack your
musket with gunpowder, you get hit in the
stomach by enemy fire. In the 1860s, injured Civil
War soldiers on both sides had to just sort of
lie on the grassy knoll and play dead where
they were shot in the hopes of
an ambulance wagon coming by and tending
to their wounds. If they were lucky,
they had a flask full of sipping whiskey
to numb the pain from the hole in their belly. If these soldiers
were extra lucky, a horse-drawn
ambulance wagon would come by with medical
supplies and patch him up. If an ambulance wagon wasn’t
able to reach a wounded soldier out on the battleground, they
would most likely perish. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’re not going to sugarcoat
it– getting shot by the enemy with a Springfield Model
1861 musket was bad. But you know what was worse? Disease. The thing is, you might
have lived if you were shot, but if you got sick,
caught a disease, or developed an
infection during what’s been called the bloodiest
war in American history, you were as good as dead. To put it in
perspective, the Union suffered the loss
of 44,000 lives from dysentery and diarrhea. To put it in
perspective, the Union suffered the loss of 44,000
lives from dysentery. That’s the equivalent of
10 Gettysburg battles. More men died from
disease than anything else during the Civil War. Union Private Theodore Gerrish
wrote this of the Civil War conditions he faced, “One of
the most disastrous features of the gloomy situation
was the terrible sickness of the soldiers. Men were unused to the climate,
the exposure, and the food, so that the whole experience
was in direct contrast to their life at home.” Infection was a major
problem because doctors didn’t sterilize equipment. During the course of the
conflict in its entirety, hospital workers performed
amputations on 60,000 men, with at least one in four
dying from infection. [MUSIC PLAYING] We all remember why the
Civil War happened, right? What we don’t
understand is how they thought black Americans were
going to help and pitch in to destroy the Union. Because the Confederates
were rightly concerned about
arming their slaves, southern black men were
enlisted mostly for camp labor. The closest the Confederacy
came to recruiting slaves to the ranks came in the last
few desperate weeks of the War. In fact, when the Union began
enlisting black soldiers, Confederate President
Jefferson Davis declared that captured
black soldiers would either be enslaved or executed. When a Confederate general
suggested enlisting slaves, Confederate leaders scoffed. On March 13th, 1865,
the Confederate Congress allowed black
soldiers to enlist, without promising their freedom
after the conflict ended. Their desperate move
made no difference. The War would be over in
less than a month later. [MUSIC PLAYING] As a Civil War
soldier, if you weren’t firing your musket at
the face of your enemy on the battlefield
or sleeping, you were running drills
with your troop. Soldiers spent a majority
of their waking hours preparing for active conflict
by cleaning their firearm and learning drills
and combat formations, with the occasional stint at
guard duty or a long march. Private Theodor
Gerrish of the Union explain how unprepared
soldiers were at the very start of the War. “We had never been drilled. An untrained drum corps
furnished us with music; each musician kept
different time, and each man in the regiment
took a different step. We marched, ran,
walked, galloped, and stood still, in our vain
endeavors to keep step.” If you were a black soldier and
you proved yourself reputable, discrimination in
pay was still par for the course in
the early 1860s, even if you were
defending the Union. Unfortunately, the Union
didn’t enlist black soldiers until 1862. But recruitment grew further
after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued
on January 1, 1863. While they were getting paid,
according to the Militia Act of 1862, black
privates were still getting paid a lot
less for equal work. Black soldiers
receive $10 a month with a $3 optional
clothing deduction. While in comparison, white
privates started at $13 month and received a clothing
allowance of $3.50. [MUSIC PLAYING] If you were one of the hundreds
of thousands of soldiers on the frontlines stuffing
your musket with bullets and gunpowder and firing every
20 seconds, if you were fast, there’s a good
chance your arms were useless by the end of the day. The rifle muskets that
soldiers on both sides used weighed up to 10 pounds and they
would recoil with such force, just firing the thing could
put your arm out of commission. Confederate Private
Sam R. Watkins described the experience,
“After undressing, I found my limb all battered
and bruised and bloodshot from my wrist to my shoulder,
and as sore as a blister. I’d shot 120 times that day.” These muskets also
regularly overheated, making them hard to reload. Watkins continued,
“My arm became so hot that frequently the powder would
Flash before I could ram home the ball, and I had frequently
to exchange my arm for that of a fallen comrade.” [MUSIC PLAYING] We forgot to mention one
thing that soldiers did when they weren’t
fighting, sleeping, or cleaning their rifle– they read and wrote like
it was going out of style. It was really
important for soldiers to read everything they could
get their hands on and write to their loved ones
as often as possible. The soldiers
struggled to describe the horrors of the conflict
in their letters home. Many thought they could not
relate their experiences to civilian audiences,
but some tried. Charles Carroll Morey,
a captain for the Union, described one skirmish
in stark terms, “Soon after we arrived on
the ground, we were firing, and just after I had discharged
my piece at a Johnnie’s head, I turned to reload. I saw a Reb who had got sight
of me across his musket, and I can assure
you my legs grew very short in a very
short space of time or else there was
a joint in them. That is to say, I dropped
down out of his sight just in time to hear his bullet
whistle over my head. Then knowing the
danger had passed, I straightened up and
finished loading.” Morey felt lucky to
be alive, writing, “I don’t know what to
say first, but will say praise God for his
goodness in sparing my life while so many of
our brave comrades have fallen victims
to the enemy’s shots.” So what do you think? Would you want to be a
soldier in the Civil War? Let us know in the comments
below, and while you’re at it, check out some of these other
videos of our weird history.

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