Life of a Soldier During the U.S. Civil War: Confederate & Union

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

In the American Civil War, the United States was divided and people who had once been citizens of the same country were now on opposite sides of the battlefield. In this lesson, learn about the similarities and differences in the daily life of soldiers in the Confederacy and the Union.

Uniqueness of Civil Wars

Civil wars, which pit part of a country against another part of the same country, are unique from all other types of war. Soldiers fighting the war are, overall, more similar than different. The beliefs of soldiers on opposite sides of the battlefield may be different, but at the end of the day, it is often brother pitted against brother. This could not be truer of the three million soldiers who fought with courage and sacrifice in the U.S. Civil War. On both sides, these soldiers came from all walks of life. Let's talk about what daily life was like for soldiers on both sides of the war.

The Typical Soldier

On both sides of the battlefield, young men fought for their country. Of the three million soldiers who fought in the war, 2 million of them were under 21 when they enlisted. Most of these young men were Christian and farmers. More Confederate soldiers were farmers than Union soldiers. Soldiers from the North and South were organized into companies based on geographic areas. This meant that the soldiers knew each other well before the war and had grown up together. For all soldiers, the decision to enlist was typically not because of strong political beliefs about the war. In most cases, soldiers joined the fight to identify with their state or community.

Daily Life in Camp

Soldiers spent more time in camp than anywhere else. On average, soldiers fought one day out of every thirty! Can you imagine the surprise of many soldiers when they found out they would be spending significantly more time in camp than on the battlefield? Most of this time was spent practicing drills since soldiers from both sides were not professional soldiers. They learned how to fight, march, and move as a team. They also marched from camp to camp and sometimes had guard duties.

In the camp, soldiers lived in rudimentary tents that provided little cover from the elements. For Union soldiers, these initially resembled teepees and were similar to tents pioneers used to explore the West. Later, they realized these tents were too cumbersome and created smaller tents that were easier to carry and were shared by a few men. Confederate soldiers rarely had the luxury of real tents--unless they stole them from Union soldiers! Two soldiers would sleep together on a tarred or rubber blanket and cover themselves with two blankets. Sleeping together helped keep them warm in the winter! Unfortunately, as time passed, many soldiers on both sides got rid of their tents, and even blankets on long marches, so that they did not have to carry the extra weight. This proved problematic when winter came and increased disease throughout the camps.

In their free time, soldiers on both sides played music, card games and gambled. Letters and care packages from home were often causes for celebration.

Life in camp was similar whether you fought for the Union or Confederacy. Because the Union had more factories and economic support, those soldiers received supplies that were slightly better and more abundant than soldiers in the Confederacy.

Health

On both sides of the battle, health issue was the largest cause of death. In fact, disease killed two times as many people as battlefield casualties. Disease spread rapidly within the camps because so many people were living in the same area. Lice, dysentery (from bad drinking water), typhoid, malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis were the most common diseases. On both sides, the number of people affected by illnesses was higher in the cold winter months.

By the end of the war, Union soldiers were less affected by disease because of the help of Union Sanitary, the American Red Cross, and Christian Commissions. These organizations worked to both help sick soldiers and prevent the spread of disease by providing better access to clean water and helping with sanitation around camps. On the Confederate side, soldiers learned better sanitation practice by the war's end and had developed stronger immune systems, but they did not have the same aid as Union soldiers had.

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