Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 02/November/Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life

Southern Historical Society Papers, November 1876

Detailed Minutiæ of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia.

By Carlton McCarthy,
Private of Second Company Richmond Howitzers, Cutshaw's Battalion.

Paper No. 2.—Romantic Ideas Dissipated.

To offer a man promotion in the early part of the war was equivalent to an insult. The higher the social position, the greater the wealth, the more patriotic it would be to serve in the humble position of a private; and many men of education and ability in the various professions, refusing promotion, served under the command of men greatly their inferiors, mentally, morally, and as soldiers. It soon became apparent that the country wanted knowledge and ability, as well as muscle and endurance, and those who had capacity to serve in higher positions were promoted.

Still it remained true, that inferior men commanded their superiors in every respect, save one—Rank; and leaving out the one difference of rank, the officers and men were about on a par.

It took years to teach the educated privates in the army that it was their duty to give unquestioning obedience to officers, because they were such, who were awhile ago their playmates and associates in business. It frequently happened that the private, feeling hurt by the stern authority of the officer, would ask him to one side, challenge him to personal combat, and thrash him well.

After awhile these rambunctious privates learned all about extra duty, half rations and courts martial.

It was only to conquer this independent resistance of discipline that punishment or force was necessary. The privates were as willing and anxious to fight and serve as the officers, and needed no pushing up to their duty.

It is amusing to recall the disgust with which the men would hear of their assignment to the rear as reserves. They regarded the order as a deliberate insult, planned by some officer who had a grudge against their regiment or battery, who had adopted this plan to prevent their presence in battle, and thus humiliate them. How soon did they learn the sweetness of a day's repose in the rear!

Another romantic notion, which for awhile possessed the boys' was that soldiers should not try to be comfortable, but glory in getting wet, being cold, hungry and tired. So they refused shelter in houses or barns, and, a "like true soldiers," paddled about in the mud and rain, thinking thereby to serve their country better.

The real troubles had not come, and they were in a hurry to suffer some. They had not long thus impatiently to wait, nor could they latterly complain of the want of a chance to "do or die."

Volunteering for perilous or very onerous duty was popular at the outset, but as duties of this kind thickened it began to be thought time enough when the "orders" were peremptory or the orderly read the "detail."

Another fancy idea was that the principal occupation of a soldier should be actual conflict with the enemy.

They didn't dream of such a thing as camping for six months at a time without firing a gun, or marching and countermarching to mislead the enemy, or driving wagons and ambulances, building bridges, currying horses, and the thousand common-place duties of the soldier.

On the other hand, great importance was attached to some duties which soon became mere drudgery.

Some times the whole detail for guard—first, second and third relief—would make it a point of honor to sit up the entire night, and watch and listen as though the enemy might pounce on them at any moment, and hurry them off to prison. Of course they soon learned how sweet it was, after two hours' walking of the beat, to turn in for four hours! which seemed to the sleepy man an eternity in anticipation, but only a brief time in retrospect, when the corporal gave him a "chunk," and remarked, "Time to go on guard."

Everybody remembers how we used to talk about "one Confederate whipping a dozen Yankees." Literally true sometimes, but generally speaking, two to one made hard work for the boys. They didn't know at the beginning anything about the advantage the enemy had in being able to present man for man in front and then send as many more to worry the flanks and rear. They learned something about this very soon, and had to contend against it on almost every field they won.

Wounds were in great demand after the first wounded hero made his appearance. His wound was the envy of thousands of unfortunates who had not so much as a scratch to boast, and who felt "small" and of little consequence before the man with a bloody bandage. Many became despondent and groaned as they thought that perchance after all they were doomed to go home safe and sound, and hear, for all time, the praises of the fellow who had lost his arm by a cannon shot, or had his face ripped by a sabre, or his head smashed with a fragment of shell. After awhile the wound was regarded as a practical benefit. It secured a furlough of indefinite length, good eating, the attention and admiration of the fair, and, if permanently disabling, a discharge. Wisdom, born of experience, soon taught all hands better sense, and the fences and trees and ditches and rocks became valuable and eagerly sought after when "the music" of "minnie" and the roar of the "Napoleon" twelve-pounders was heard.

Death on the field, glorious first and last, was dared for duty's sake, but the good soldier learned to guard his life, and yield it only at the call of duty.

Only the wisest men, those who had seen war before, imagined that the war would last more than a few months. The young volunteers thought one good battle would settle the whole matter; and, indeed, after "first Mannassas" many thought they might as well go home! The whole North was frightened, and no more armies would dare assail the soil of Old Virginia. Colonels and brigadiers, with flesh wounds not worthy of notice, rushed to Richmond to report the victory and the end of the war! They had "seen sights" in the way of wounded and killed, plunder, &c., and according to their views no sane people would try again to conquer the heroes of that remarkable day.

The newspaper men delighted in telling the soldiers that the Yankees were a diminutive race, of feeble constitution, timid as hares, with no enthusiasm, and that they would perish in short order under the glow of our Southern sun.

Any one who has seen a regiment from Ohio or Maine knows how true these statements were. And besides the newspapers did not mention the English, Irish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese and Negroes, who were to swell the numbers of the enemy, and as our army grew less make his larger. True, there was not much fight in all this rubbish, but they answered well enough for drivers of wagons and ambulances, guarding stores and lines of communication, and doing all sorts of duty, while the good material was doing the fighting.

Sherman's army, marching through Richmond after the surrender of Lee and Johnston, seemed to be composed of a race of giants, well-fed and well-clad.

Many feared the war would end before they would have a fair chance to "make a record," and that when "the cruel war was over" they would have to sit by, dumb, and hear the more fortunate ones who had "smelt the battle" tell to admiring home circles the story of the bloody field. Most of these "got in" in time to satisfy their longings, and "got out" to learn that the man who did not go, but "kept out" and made money, was more admired and courted than the "poor fellow " with one leg or arm less than is "allowed."

It is fortunate for those who "skulked" that the war ended as it did, for had the South been successful, the soldiers would have been favored with every mark of distinction and honor, and they "despised and rejected" as they deserved to be.

While the war lasted it was the delight of some of the stoutly built fellows to go home for a few days, and kick and cuff and tongue-lash the able bodied bombproofs. How, coolly and submissively they took it all! How "big" they are now!

The rubbish accumulated by the hope of recognition burdened the soldiers nearly to the end.

England was to abolish the blockade and send us immense supplies of fine arms, large and small. France was thinking about landing an imperial force in Mexico, and marching thence to the relief of the South. But the "Confederate yell" never had an echo in the Marsellaise, or "God save the Queen," and Old Dixie was destined to sing her own song without the help even of "Maryland, my Maryland."

The "war with England," which was to give Uncle Sam trouble and the South an ally, never came.

Those immense balloons which some body was always inventing, and which were to sail over the enemy's camps dropping whole cargoes of explosives, never "tugged" at their anchors or "sailed majestically away."

As discipline improved and the men began to feel no longer simply volunteers, but enlisted volunteers, the romantic devotion which they had felt was succeeded by a feeling of constraint and necessity, and while the army was in reality very much improved and strengthened by the change, the soldiers imagined the contrary to be the case. And if discipline had been pushed to too great an extent, the army would have been deprived of the very essence of its life and power.

When the officers began to assert superiority by withdrawing from the messes and organizing "officers' messes," the bond of brotherhood was weakened; and who will say that the dignity which was thus maintained was compensation for the loss of personal devotion as between comrades?

At the outset the fact that men were in the same company put them somewhat on the same level and produced an almost perfect bond of sympathy, but as time wore on the various peculiarities and weaknesses of the men would show themselves, and each company, as a community, would separate into distinct circles as indifferent to each other, save in the common cause, as though they had never met as friends.

The pride of the volunteers was sorely tried by the incoming of conscripts—the most despised class in the army—and their devotion to company and regiment was visibly lessened. They could not bear the thought of having these men for comrades, and felt the flag insulted when claimed by one of them as "his flag." It was a great source of annoyance to the true men, but was a necessity. Conscripts crowded together in companies, regiments and brigades would have been useless—but scattered here and there among the good men, were utilized. And so, gradually, the pleasure that men had in being associated with others whom they respected as equals, was taken away and the social aspect of army life seriously marred.

The next serious blow to romance was the abolishment of election and the appointment of officers. Instead of the privilege and pleasure of picking out some good-hearted, brave comrade and making him captain, the lieutenant was promoted without the consent of the men, or, what was harder to bear, some officer hitherto unknown was sent to take command. This was no doubt better for the service, but it had a serious effect on the minds of volunteer patriot soldiers, and looked to them too much like arbitrary power exercised over men who were fighting that very principle. They frequently had to acknowledge, however, that the officers were all they could ask, and in many instances became devotedly attached to them.

As the companies became decimated by disease, wounds, desertions and death, it became necessary to consolidate them, and so the social pleasures received another blow. Men from the same neighborhoods and villages, who had been schoolmates together, were no longer in companies, but mingled indiscriminately with all sorts of men from anywhere and everywhere.

Those who have not served in the army as privates can form no idea of the extent to which such changes as those just mentioned effect the spirits and general worth of a soldier. Men who when surrounded by their old companions were brave and daring soldiers full of spirit and hope, when thrust among strangers for whom they cared not and who cared not for them, became dull and listless, lost their courage and were slowly but surely "demoralized." They did, it is true, in many cases, stand up to the last, but they did it on dry principle—having none of that enthusiasm and delight in duty which once characterized them.

The Confederate soldier was peculiar in that he was ever ready to fight, but never ready to submit to the routine duty and discipline of the camp or the march. The soldiers were determined to be soldiers after their own notions, and do their duty for the love of it as they thought best. The officers saw the necessity for doing otherwise, and so the conflict was commenced and maintained to the end.

It is doubtful whether the Southern soldier would have submitted to any hardships which were purely the result of discipline, and, on the other hand, no amount of hardship clearly of necessity could cool his ardor. And in spite of all this antagonism between the officers and men, the presence of conscripts, the consolidation of commands, and many other discouraging facts, the privates in the ranks so conducted themselves that the historians of the North were forced to call them the finest body of infantry that was ever assembled.

But to know the men we must see them divested of all their false notions of soldier life, and enduring the incomparable hardships which marked the latter half of the war.