Lesser-Known Civil War Occurrences

During my time as a student of Civil War history, I've read numerous facts about the war. After poring through thousands of primary documents and volunteering as a National Park Service document transcriber for Stones River National Battlefield, I've also uncovered a slew of lesser-known Civil War occurrences. So if you're ready to learn about sham battles, a variety of Civil War shoes, and more, in which all of the information comes from primary sources, continue scrolling!

Brogans and boots were worn by many Civil War soldiers, but according to W.E. Preston, soldier of the 33rd Alabama Infantry, these weren't the only style of shoes worn by combatants. In fact, Preston says that some wore moccasins, and "Daniel McCook (Co. B’s skillet wagon) said he could march with more ease in moccasins in dry weather than in hard shoes..." However, though moccasins might have been easier to march in, they weren't totally effective in rain. The men who opted for moccasins versus brogans or boots, "had a deal of trouble when they got wet, until they could dry them by the fire."

Snowball fights aren't just a winter activity enjoyed by those of recent decades. In fact, there are numerous accounts of Civil War soldiers taking part in the game! W.E. Preston of the 33rd Alabama Infantry says they began, "snowballing each other, a sport we had been practicing freely while confined while there was any snow on the ground..." The snowball fights weren't just for privates; even officers took part in the snowy engagements. In fact, Preston notes:

"...the regiment formed in line with Col. Sam Adams in command..."

After "filling our haversacks with snowballs," Preston and his comrades "charged the 16th Alabama., the 32nd and 35th Miss and three Confederate regiments..." Even Sam Watkins mentions the snowball fights, also noting that generals would participate. However, these snowball fights could be brutal--Watkins says there could be an "ugly wound," a result of where "some mean fellow had enclosed a rock in his snow ball."

"Quarantine" is a word that we've all become familiar with. Even though the idea of quarantine may feel relatively new to some, it's actually not. During the Civil War, disease ran rampant, which isn't surprising. Men lived in close quarters and under conditions that were none too healthy; because many combatants hadn't traveled far from their homes and were not exposed to various diseases in the past, their immunity to illnesses was quite low. According to W.E. Preston, soldier in the 33rd Alabama Infantry:

"In January 1863 when the sick reported to the doctor at 8:00 a.m. one morning, the doctor found one of Company I broken out with smallpox..."

After discovering the case, a guard detail was placed around the company, but Preston continues, "None cared to visit Company I and especially the smallpox mess." After quarantine was lifted three or four weeks later, Preston relays, "...our sensations and actions may be compared to the action of a confined chicken turned out of a coop..."

If you thought inoculations were a fairly new medical advent, think again! W.E. Preston (combatant in the 33rd Alabama Infantry), in reference to the smallpox epidemic mentioned above, notes that the soldiers were vaccinated for the disease. In fact,

"All were vaccinated and when the virus did not make our arm sore and inflamed, it was repeated."

This isn't the only account of Civil War vaccinations. John Ransom, prisoner of war at Andersonville, even wrote that there was "Talk that all are to be vaccinated any way, whether they want to or not."

Marching for miles a day, while shouldering a rifle, knapsack, and other accouterments would prove difficult, hence why some Civil War soldiers would actually discard their supplies. Charles "Charley" Henry Howe (36th Massachusetts Infantry) relayed in a letter to his parents, "We made twenty miles in all and most of us came in considerably lighter than when we started." What might a Civil War soldier throw away? Howe says:

"I, for one, threw away my overcoat, two pairs of drawers, a pair of mittens, about half of that paper that you sent me, and twenty rounds of extra cartridge, besides a box with a pound of (melted) butter in it."

Howe notes that he discarded these items so that he could "keep up if possible." Even though discarding such items might have seemed wise at the time, there were also risks involved with doing so. Howe was later captured and became a prisoner of war at the notorious Andersonville prison, where he perished in August 1864. Had he kept his extra supplies, perhaps his chances of survival would have increased, an illustration that every decision could have lasting consequences.

Sam Watkins shares a similar occurrence in his memoirs, noting that as troops marched over the Allegheny Mountains, "First one blanket was thrown away, and then another; now and then a good pair of pants, old boots and shoes, Sunday hats, pistols, and Bowie knives strewed the road." In fact, Watkins further notes:

"Old bottles and jugs and various and sundry articles were lying pell-mell everywhere."

Images, like the one shown right, illustrate the sheer brutality of the American Civil War. Even though authentic battles of the conflict produced deadly results, this failed to bar some soldiers from creating mock battles. W.E. Preston of the 33rd Alabama Infantry said,

"One day we had a sham battle when we used blank cartridges in shooting."

This means that the first Civil War reenactments took place during the actual war!

Not only did Civil War soldiers have the enemy and disease to contend with, but they also had a force that was uncontrollable and unpredictable...weather. When we think of the Civil War soldiers who died in the conflict, we often only consider those who perished from wounds and disease. Weather, however, also killed some combatants. W.E. Preston (33rd Alabama Infantry) said that one soldier went to "hang his haversack on his stack when lightning struck the guns, killing him and shocking others." Elbert Miller, soldier of the 34th Alabama Infantry, had an experience with lightning as well. Miller noted in his diary:

"Whilst the men were preparing to camp, building fires, &c, in a forest, a tall oak was struck by lightning in the midst of the encampment."

While four men were knocked down and "stunned," no one was killed in the incident. On the same day, Miller says:

"A stack of guns near the tree was also struck & three or four of them shattered."

Like Miller wrote, "Twas a wonderful escape from a sudden death." Sam Watkins, in his famed "Co. Aytch" memoirs, discussed a tornado that killed one soldier and wounded others. These accounts serve as a reminder that some casualties weren't because there was a storm of bullets, but rather meteorological storms.

Just as weather was a formidable foe in the Civil War, there were other ways soldiers could become wounded or killed. Some might perish from animal attacks, like snake bites, or even drowning. Others, however, were injured because of locomotives. Elbert Miller (34th Alabama Infantry), noted a train incident in his diary. He wrote:

"About 6 A.M. our train came in collision with a wood train 2 miles above Enterprise. Engines & Several Cars injured."

While Miller didn't mention that any soldiers were killed, he did note that one man broke his thigh and yet another had a fractured collar bone. In the words of Miller, it was a "Wonderful & fortunate escape!!"

Hardtack and coffee...we view these as a Civil War soldier's dietary staple, along with the occasional supplement of rice, beans, or salt pork. While many soldiers did experience less-than-adequate meals, this wasn't always the case. In fact, some soldiers ate foods that are similar to those we consume today, like ham, baked potatoes, and dried fruit. Captain of the 116th New York Infantry, Albert Jenkins Barnard, wrote the following while stationed in Baton Rouge in April 1863:

"We live very well now as the commissary has most all the necessaries. we can draw from him, on tick, rice, beans, potatoes, meal, tea, Coffee, sugar, ham, salt pork, tongues, molasses, vinegar, salt, dried peaches or apples, and soft, or hard bread; so you see we can live high. This morning we had for breakfast, baked potatoes, fried ham, milk toast, and coffee. for dinner boiled ham, boiled potatoes, and a bread pudding; for supper, fried potatoes, fried pork, and rice pan cakes. Aint [sic] that pretty high living for soldiers?"

While coffee was a liquid staple for Civil War soldiers, combatants could also satiate their thirsts with a glass of lemonade. Captain Barnard, when writing in regards to his brother Lewis's 20th birthday, said:

"John, and I, drank your health in a glass of lemonade, his treat. he bought the lemons here in camp. We drank it in two “secesh” goblets, which some of the men captured, (that’s the word now,) at Monteseno Bayou."

Though Captain Barnard received better sustenance because he was an officer, realistically any soldier who had money for added luxuries could purchase such foods from the commissary, a sutler, or even a shop in the town where they were stationed. Even so, Barnard's meals, compared to the food many soldiers ate, was "pretty high living" indeed.

Another way Civil War soldiers could eat better food than the standard fare of hardtack and coffee was by being invited to dinner by civilians. Some civilians would graciously share their bounty with Civil War soldiers, as Sam Watkins relays:

"There was no one there but an old lady and her sick and widowed daughter. They invited us in very pleasantly and kindly, and soon prepared us a very nice and good dinner."

Care packages--even today, we mail them to military members, college students, and even the elderly. Civil War soldiers were also the recipients of such packages, which could range from foodstuffs to personal items. While stationed in Baton Rouge in 1863, Captain Albert Jenkins Barnard (116th New York Infantry), wrote to his brother:

"I think possibly a box might reach me if you sent immediately and I want a few little things that I cant [sic] get here. I have tried hard to get a rubber coat; but there are none here or in New Orleans. If you can find one of the light kind I wish you would send it to me. some are very heavy. I think the difference is in the foundation one being cotton, and the other linen; though in this I may be mistaken. don’t get one unless it is light, and long, so that it will come down to my boot tops. I would also like three towels, a black neck tie, (narrow,) and two pair of those thin woolen socks such as I wore last spring. I know of nothing more unless Mother has a spongue [sic] cake that she can tuck in, or any thing else in the eating line."