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."
For Civil War soldiers, receiving a package from home was exciting. It would have broken up the monotony of day-to-day service, while offering the promise of a special treat or other items from home. In fact, even packages addressed to a comrade would have offered a certain excitement. John L. Hebron, private in the 2nd Ohio Infantry, wrote to his mother from Kentucky in early 1862, saying:
"We have been living high for the last week or so it comenced [sic] with my box and before it was gone Joel Ferres got 3 boxs [sic] one as big as mine and 2 more big shoe boxs [sic] full and before that was half gone Ed Maxwell from Bloomfield got a big store box full the freight on it was 10 dollars"
The care packages didn't last for long, though. Just one week after multiple soldiers in Hebron's regiment received packages, Hebron wrote: "But it is about all gone now." Even so, the delectable treats and exciting goodies were cherished while they lasted, reminding those in the field that their families were still concerned for their safety and expectantly awaited their return home.
As if being wounded during the Civil War wasn't bad enough, injured combatants also had to contend with thieves. These plunderers would scavenge the battlefield, seeking valuables which could be easily stolen from wounded or deceased soldiers. Ed Abbott, member of the 4th Indiana Battery who was wounded at the Battle of Stones River, wrote, "The next feature of the day was the appearance of the stragglers that will be found in all armies looking for VALUABLE PLUNDER which he finds in the pockets of the dead, and sometimes the living but wounded soldier." Abbott, with $40 dollars, a watch, and Smith and Wesson revolvers, "...thought I had better put my wits at work if I expected to save anything although I had made up my mind not to let any one man rob me while I had my pistols at hand. I therefore took my holsters off and dropped them empty at my side and placed the pistols under my back out of sight." For a time, Abbott's plan worked, and "Several stragglers passed giving a glance at the empty holsters and passed on to my perfect satisfaction." Eventually, though, Abbott continues a:
"...fellow who came along asked me if I had a watch. I asked him the same question. He said he had and assured me he did not wish to take my watch but that he wanted to trade. He put his watch in my hand. I went down into my boots which artillery-men use, and produced the watch."
Abbott and the man were able to agree on a trade, in which Abbott paid the fellow $5; the bill was soaked in blood, though. While Abbott's cleverness must have saved his money and revolvers, he later lamented, "If I had the bill today I would value it highly, also the watch; but I let them go as common property, not thinking how they might be valued as relics in later years."
Even an uncle of mine, Eli Skipworth (11th KY Infantry) who was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, wrote that he received one pair of shoes and one blouse, having "lost my own at battle of Pittsburgh [sic] Landing." Realistically, these items were not "lost" in the sense that they were misplaced, but were possibly stolen by a soldier who couldn't resist stealing a shirt/shoes that were in better condition than his own.
I love finding these tidbits of lesser-known Civil War information! While this information may not alter one's overall perception of battles won or lost, it does give us a better glimpse into the every day lives of Civil War soldiers. By learning how Civil War soldiers lived, we're gaining a more complete look at the war--through the eyes of the combatants themselves.
Various National Park Service Documents - W.E. Preston, Elbert Miller, and Ed Abbott (Records the Author Transcribed)
"John Ransom's Andersonville Diary" by John Ransom
"Co. Aytch" by Sam Watkins
Letters written by Charles Henry Howe, John L. Hebron, and Albert Jenkins Barnard (Housed in Author's Personal Collection)
Eli Skipworth's Civil War Records (Found on Fold3)
About the Author: Kass Cobb is a genealogist, history enthusiast, and college sophomore who is majoring in history. Kass first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eleven Civil War veterans, ranging from an "excellent soldier" and Andersonville Prisoner of War to a "patriotic Kentuckian" and United States Colored Troops soldier. Kass is passionate about sharing the stories of United States veterans, specifically those who fought in the Civil War. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kass isn't busy planning historical events for her community, placing signs at cemeteries, decorating her ancestors' graves, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, studying her Bible, reading, singing, and enjoying nature with her many pets.