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Between The Battles

July 2024
3min read

Far from home and in the face of every kind of privation, the Civil War soldier did his best to re-create the world he left behind him

The men North and South who went for soldiers in the hectic spring of 1861 tended to think of war as being all marching and fighting. But it soon became clear to these recruits that for every day on the firing line, they could expect to spend fifty in camp. Perhaps the ultimate mark of the true veteran was a canny ability to make himself comfortable in the harshest surroundings. The best camps were those that offered the most amenities of the towns the soldiers had left, and some did very well indeed; the small wooden shed at the bottom far left, for instance, houses the 13th Massachusetts’ lending library, and no village common would be disgraced by the trim church directly left, put up by the 50th New York Engineers before Petersburg. The less formal aspects of worship for the 69th New York above are compensated for by Father Thomas H. Mooney’s full vestments. Home ties were kept fresh by the postal service—which fielded mobile post offices like the one at top left—and were profited on by the news vendors who regularly made the rounds of camp and hospital. These photographs, and the others in this portfolio, have been selected from The Guns of ’62 , the second volume of the “Image of War” series. Edited by William C. Davis, the book will be published in February by Doubleday & Company.


If their letters are any indication, the soldiers thought most about food; as a subject, it crowded out even the perpetual reports on the state of the weather. Theirs was a meager enough diet to support such exegesis—at the beginning of the war both sides received a daily allowance of twelve ounces of pork or twenty ounces of beef and twenty-two ounces of soft bread or sixteen ounces of hard bread. This last came packed in boxes stamped “B.C.,” which may have stood for “Brigade Commissary,” but which the men who ate it said had to be the date of manufacture. Of a regional counterpart, a Louisianan wrote, “If any person offers me cornbread after this war comes to a close I shall probably tell him to—go to hell.”


Men of the quartermaster’s department stand ready at left to dole out the requisite amount of meat and, since this is the army, to make careful note of who took it and how much they took. The meat itself, long in cask, was no more appetizing than it looks here. But the monotonous diet of army life could be supplemented by foraging—the standard military euphemism for stealing. Both sides were good at it, but Billy Crump (below), orderly to Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, must be credited with some sort of preeminence in the art. In February of 1863 he took Hayes’s horse and pistol and struck out from camp near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Two days later he came back carrying fifty chickens, two turkeys, a goose, perhaps three hundred eggs, and upwards of twenty-five pounds of butter.


Foraging wasn’t the only way to pick up the occasional delicacy. Sutlers—government appointed merchants—followed the armies wherever they went, selling the troops everything from pickles to stationery. The articles of war stated that “persons permitted to sutle shall supply the soldiers with good and wholesome provisions or other articles at a reasonable price,” but the soldiers invariably thought their prices exorbitant. And in fact any sane man would be a little leery of doing business with the marvelous group at far left. When the campaign came to a halt for a while, the sutlers could set themselves up in fine style, as they did near Petersburg, above. Here the soldiers could dine in a real restaurant, buy cakes from Mr. Shuz and boots from his neighbor, have cigars and soda water, and make a wholesome purchase in the condensed milk “depot.” The wagon at center belonged to a New York City merchant named Bates, who attached himself exclusively to the 1st New York. That ubiquitous midnineteenth-century fixture, the oyster house, also followed the men into the field. Although the example at left looks as though it would be worth a mans life just to step inside, it undoubtedly did an enviable business. However the “5 Drons” generated Fun and Fury in their remarkably comfortable quarters, music clearly played a major role. And in fact, music was vital to the spirits of both armies. One Rebel private found a concert—doubtless performed by a band like that of the 26th North Carolina below—so inspiriting that he said, “I felt at the time that I could whip a whole brigade of the enemy,” and after hearing a similar concert in 1864, Robert E. Lee remarked, “I don’t believe we can have any army without music.” Less ennobling diversions included cockfighting; the bout shown opposite was staged by former slaves named George (left) and John at the headquarters of Brigadier General O. B. Willcox—that’s Willcox holding the letter—at Petersburg in 1864. The long, idle stretches of camp life made it a rich breeding ground for the sort of horseplay at far right, where soldiers toss a freedman in a blanket. When diversions got too gamy, the offenders were punished. Serious infractions meant court-martial, but minor ones could win the perpetrator a humiliating and uncomfortable ride on the wooden horse.


Now the earth begins to roll its wheel toward the sun, The deep mud gullies are drying. The sluggish armies That have slept the bear-months through in their winter-camps, Begin to stir and be restless. They’re tired enough Of leaky huts and the rain and punishment-drill.… “We might as well git— Fight the Rebs—and the ‘Yanks—and finish it up.…” But when they git, they are cross at leaving the huts, “We fixed up ours first rate. We had regular lamps. We knew the girls at the Depot. It wasn’t so bad. Why the hell do we have to git when we just got fixed? Oh, well, we might as well travel.” So they go on, The huts drop behind, the dry road opens ahead.…


—Stephen Vincent Benét, John Brown8217;s Body

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