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Soldiers' Lives

By Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

Abraham Lincoln called for troops when the southern states opened hostilities by firing upon Fort Sumter in April of 1861. The United States Army had been organizing for potential hostilities for several months, but fielded far too few troops to address an insurrection by eleven states. In the Civil War's early years the Union raised troops primarily through the recruitment of volunteers; only in 1864 did Illinois experience a military draft. Most states also organized their own military units, which worked with the United States Army's regular units in the field.

In the surge of outrage and patriotism that accompanied war's outbreak, Illinois quickly produced more volunteers than immediately required. One man walked over twenty miles to enlist. Another volunteer recalled how the people of his community greeted secession with indignation. Local men organized public meetings, where speakers "blew the fife and beat the drum and exhorted the men to rally 'round the flag." The men of his unit "left home burning with desire to wipe treason from the earth." 1

Many of Illinois' original recruits proceeded to state military training camps located near Springfield and in southern Illinois at Alton, Caseyville and Cairo. These installations placed training troops nearer to the anticipated theater of conflict, but they also cast a long shadow over potential secessionist activities in the state's southern tier. One area farmer opined "them brass missionaries has converted a heap of folks that was on the anxious seat." 2

Men volunteered to serve for a number of reasons. Some evoked the spirit of the American Revolution when discussing their choice to enlist. One soldier wrote "Freedom is just as dear to us now as it was to our forefathers in revolutionary times." Another soldier decided "If our country and our nationality is to perish, better that we should all perish and not survive to it a laughing stock for all posterity, to be pointed at as the unsuccessful trial of republicanism." Others feared that the South's secession was somehow related to their shrinking sense of individual autonomy. One man informed his wife that if the Confederates triumphed, she and their children would become "perfeck slaves," and that all their property would be seized to pay the war debt. 3

While most Union soldiers were by no means abolitionists, few harbored any great love for the peculiar institution, either. Slaveholders and their representatives in Congress had long manipulated the federal government to protect their interests, and often appeared as pompous grandees singularly out of place in a democratic political order. One dismissed southern leaders as "an Aristocratic set of Slave Drivers and outlaws." 4

This sectional identity drew in part upon a shared Christian faith, a belief in a free man's right to the fruits of his labor, and republican institutions. But Civil War soldiers fought for local communities as well as their section and nation. Thus the men of Illinois joined locally recruited military units, many of which sported nicknames like the "Rock River Rifles" and the "Lead Mine Regiment."

Soldiers also enlisted and fought on behalf of their families. One informed his father that he had volunteered to save the Union "your ancestors and mine helped to make." The metaphor of family informed military units and the entire idea of Union as well. Officers believed that they acted like fathers to their men. One's fellow soldiers became like brothers. President Lincoln won the nickname "Father Abraham," the patriarch of a nation. 5

Occasionally the Civil War crossed and strained family ties. One Illinois soldier described an Arkansan who had left his family behind to fight for the Union as "formerly a southerner." When the unit's marches took the man near his old home, he saw his brother standing on the porch of his homestead and cursed him as "a d---d purty sesesh." He refused to enter the home and invited his comrades "to go in and take what ever they wanted for he said that he knew they were rebs for they wer his parents." 6

Most communities saw their troops off to the fight with a ritual flag presentation. In this ceremony, leading citizens and company commanders provided speeches at a large picnic or banquet. Local women provided a hand-sewn flag to the soldiers, who vowed to defend it as a vestige of all that they were fighting for. For many the flag represented the women and families they protected by their participation in the war. 7

The young United States had developed into two very different regional economies tied together by a shared history and common political ideals. Yet Americans' legacy and ideals remained ambiguous, seeming to support both rebellion and union. Thus soldiers and partisans on both sides struggled both to define their own cause and demonize their opponent, so recently a fellow American.

Most soldiers convinced themselves that their enemy had somehow become un-American and, indeed, inhuman. Since their earliest encounters with Indian tribes, white Americans had perceived their rivals for dominance on the continent as savages, somehow undeserving of the rights they so cherished themselves. In June of 1861 Union soldiers spread a story reporting that the women of Richmond wore jewelry made of the bones of Union soldiers. Others reported home that "The cruelty of the Rebels to our wounded has no parallel in history." 8 Confederates, for their part, often characterized their opponents in blue in grim terms as well. One termed Union troops as "a ruthless horde of marauders professing to be Christian." A rebel officer surveying the field at Chancellorsville reveled in the "glorious heaps of Yankee dead." 9

Despite these parallel, if rival, mythologies, Union and Confederate troops occasionally fraternized with one another at the margins of military life. War-weary troops often slipped out of camp in the evening to share a cigarette or a drink with their opponents. Most times soldiers agreed that "if the settlement of this was left to the Enlisted men of both sides we would soon go home." Often these soldiers found a common bond in their service and experiences. One reported that the Union soldiers wanted to "thrash" their Confederate counterparts "in order to end the war and get home but they do not seem to hate them in the least." 10

Military service often encroached upon soldiers' sense of individual freedom and autonomy. Army discipline could seem capricious and random. Many compared their experience to slavery. One complained that he was "tired of being bound up worse than a negro. 11 "Many soldiers also complained about the indignity of the indignities that characterized all military camps. On the march soldiers were unable to launder their uniforms. Even in camp, men proved unable to escape the consequences of living so near comrades with divergent standards of personal hygiene. Military camps became hotbeds of disease. Hospitals were the worst offenders. One soldier reasoned "I had rather risk a battle than the Hospitals." 12

For young men, the Civil War often represented a coming of age. Sidney Little of Illinois wrote to his mother that "my coming into this war has made a man of your son." For most able-bodied men, failure to enlist represented a lack of courage. One soldier demanded that drafted men who hired a substitute immediately "wear petticoats." 13

The battlefield tested many young men. Some found the poise necessary to thrive amidst chaos and death. Others began to doubt themselves after panic under fire. Still others came to a new understanding of masculinity and its conventions after holding martial ideals up to the reality of war.

Some soldiers escaped small town morality to a world of brothels, camp followers, drink and even the opium dispensed in field hospitals. But others reasoned that they fought the war for this very sense of civilization. Military life instilled a sense of virtuous self-discipline familiar to the evangelical Protestant Whigs of the North. Trained soldiers always obeyed orders, and did not flee under fire. Many struggled to extend this discipline to their hours and days away from battle. One Illinois soldier wrote to his parents "some of the soldiers have not pride enough to keep themselves halfway decent. Some of them seem to think that being a soldier is a license for a man to make a brute of himself." 14

Combat also asked men long a part of the northern culture of domesticity, and often workers in offices and stores, to face up to violence and death. Military discipline demanded that soldiers in combat turn away from wounded comrades and keep fighting. This directly countermanded an American sense of civilization increasingly built around the development of a tender conscience and isolation from the realities of suffering. 15

Even the Illinois Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll found the slaughter worse than he could bear. Ingersoll, who led troops at Shiloh, admitted that "he never saw his men in the fighting line without thinking of the widows and orphans they would make, and half hoping they would miss their aim." He summed up his view in an 1862 letter: "War is horrid beyond the conception of man…. It is enough to break the heart to go through the hospitals. Old gray-haired veterans with lips whitening under the kiss of death – hundreds of mere boys with thoughts of home- of sister and brother meeting the dark angel along, nothing but pain, misery, neglect, and death around you, everywhere nothing but death – to think of the ones far away expecting the dead to return –hoping for one more embrace – listening for footsteps that never will be heard on earth – for voices that have grown still and forever – it makes one tired – tired - of war." Overcome by the spectacle, Ingersoll resigned his commission and turned to a career as a public opponent of religion. 16

While battlefield encounters produced violence and gore, the Civil War's prisons proved an equally fatal environment. Men confined in close quarters proved highly susceptible to the spread of disease. Both sides attempted to keep their prisons well supplied, but as the Confederacy withered and died, its prisons often failed to provide captives with adequate provisions. Most prisoners complained of bad treatment by guards, but many had their fellow prisoners to fear as well.

At the Confederacy's Andersonville, Georgia prison Commandant Henry Wirz made little attempt to maintain order. Many of the Union soldiers held there fell into a state of depravity, robbing the new arrivals and devoting their time to gambling and fighting. Finally the more conscientious of the prisoners organized to discipline the marauders. Working with Wirz's permission, they policed the camp and eventually hanged six of the robbers' ringleaders. 17

Many soldiers came to identify themselves with the dead all around them. One described how his company came to camp on a field that had just witnessed a large battle: "We arrived on the battlefield about 10 PM and again slept among the dead and wounded who were so numerous that it was difficult to talk in the dark the scene was horrifying." Most simply adapted to their situation by denying the full gravity of the situation and the humanity of the dead. Another soldier reported that his company "cook and eat, talk and laugh with the enemy's dead lying all about us as though they were so many hogs." 18

Despite the Civil War's toll upon the intellectual mainsprings of evangelical Protestantism in northern public life, religion became a staple of camp life for many soldiers. Many organized revivals, prayer meetings and hymn sings to leaven the drudgery of the camp and strengthen their cultural ties with home. When in the South many northern soldiers took advantage of their opportunity to visit African American prayer meetings. Some believed that the war had come as punishment for their nation's sins. One wrote "this war is sent by our Lord and if the People are punished enough for ther national sin that it will soon be settled." Others, like Ingersoll, found the war corrosive of religious faith and rejected it. 19

Many volunteers angrily noted that those who had stayed behind were making fortunes supplying the war while soldiers risked their lives. One wondered "why should I care so much of what is my duty to my country? Why not do as others, stay at home and fatten in purse on the blood of the land?" 20

One Union soldier, James T. Miller, summarized the contradictions in soldiers' lives. He noted that before a battle soldiers waited, their faces pale and hands trembling. But once the fight had begun, and they could "see the solid columns of the foe advance in plain sight every man seeming to step as proudly and steadily as if on parad and even while the artilery tears large in their line still on they come hardly faltiring for a moment." The battle left participants "looking more like fiends than men." Upon the order to charge, they sprinted "in to the very jaws of death and never for one moment faltering but yeling like devils up to the mouths of the Canon and their to hear the wild triumphant cheer." Yet in a few moments the same men would be attending to those fallen in the fray "with the kindness and tenderness of a woman." Miller concluded that "by the time you have seen this you will begin to think that a soldier has as many carackters as a cat is said to have lives." 21


1. Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers (New York: Viking, 1988) 17.

2. Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991) 2, 13.

3. Mitchell 12, 14.

4. Mitchell 33.

5. Mitchell 17.

6. Mitchell 16.

7. Mitchell 19.

8. Mitchell 23, 25.

9. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973); Mitchell 26.

10. Mitchell 37.

11. Mitchell 58.

12. Mitchell 61.

13. Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 12.

14. Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers 69.

15. Mitchell, The Vacant Chair chapter 1.

16. George Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) 85-6.

17. Mitchell Civil War Soldiers 51-2.

18. Mitchell Civil War Soldiers 63-64.

19. Mitchell Civil War Soldiers 120, 186.

20. Mitchell Civil War Soldiers 68.

21. Mitchell Civil War Soldiers 72.


©2002 Illinois During the Civil War Digitization Project.