A Civil War Soldier’s Life

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A Civil War soldier’s life was one of almost persistent monotony and labor broken up by a few hours of extreme violence in battle. The typical soldier probably had a background in agriculture, in his late teens or early 20’s and had probably never traveled more than 50 miles from his home.

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In the field a soldier usually dined on primarily a large, cracker-like wafer called ‘hardtack.’ Soldiers also consumed coffee. The civil war saw the first use of dehydrated vegetables called ‘desiccated’. or ‘desecrated’ by the men. Salt pork, rice or beans, with the occasional swap of salted beef for the pork was standard food for the soldier. Scavenging helped fill out the dietary needs for dairy and fresh produce, and such niceties as canned peaches and tinned oysters could be purchased at ridiculous prices from the sutlers (A sutler is a civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters).

After the initial shakedown period, the soldiers usually slept on the ground crowded together in groups to save body heat. Many soldiers were issued one piece of canvas that buttoned to another making a simple shelter for two that was called a ‘dog’ or ‘pup’ tent. Often soldiers just rolled up in their shelter half, along with their blanket and rubberized or painted ground cloth, if they were lucky enough to have them. In summer months on the march, soldiers would literally throw away all but the basic gear for relief from the heat and then be under stocked for the winter month marches. If the soldiers went into winter encampments for a lengthy stay, they would build tent-sized cabins topped by their dog tents. Complete with a chimney and fireplace this was one way to keep out of the elements. Other soldiers-built shelters made of cut poles, covered with evergreen limbs.

After the initial start of the civil war, soldiers carried as little as possible. Their weapon and accessories, meaning things a soldier would need for his weapon like a cartridge box, cap box, along with the bayonet and the belt and sling to carry it all. When marching, they also carried a rucksack containing 3 days rations, hardtack, coffee beans or instant coffee (called ‘essence of coffee’) making its first appearance during the civil war. Mess gear, a tin cup (useful for drinking and cooking in), and 40 rounds of ammo. The soldier carried a canteen, he may carry a Bible, a deck of cards, some stationary, chewing or smoking tobacco, or a pocket knife to whittle with. The soldier carried his bedding and shelter in a knapsack, progressively less used as the war went on. 

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