Soldiers in the American Civil War

John M Sacher. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In the aftermath of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln asked for 75,000 90-day volunteers to suppress the rebellion. The following month, the Confederate Congress authorized President Jefferson Davis to accept as many volunteers as he felt necessary to repel the Union invasion. In the wake of these calls, young men from both the North and the South, not wanting to miss any of the action, rushed to join the war effort. Ultimately, the combination of volunteering and drafts produced armies whose numbers would have seemed inconceivable in 1861. At that point, 16,000 men served in the U.S. army. By the end of the Civil War, approximately 3 million men—slightly more than 2 million Billy Yanks in the Union Army and slightly fewer than 1 million Johnny Rebs in the Confederate Army—had donned uniforms. In the North, 35 percent of the white, male military-age population served, while in the South an even greater percentage of eligible soldiers, possibly as high as 61 percent, participated in the contest. These men, even if they possessed some prior militia experience, generally were not professional soldiers but were instead volunteers representing a cross-section of American society. For most of them, military service lasted longer and included greater hardships than they could have conceived at the outset of the Civil War.

The Call to Join

In the summer of 1861, a patriotic fervor swept across the entire nation with units forming faster than their respective armies could supply or employ them. Unlike soldiers in later wars, Civil War volunteers joined companies composed almost entirely of men from their own community. Throughout the summer, Northern and Southern enlistment operated similarly. Signs, newspaper advertisements, and word of mouth publicized meetings. At these events, local dignitaries and sometimes aged veterans would publicly call on men to sign up for the local company. Preachers exhorted men to join the ranks, and single women provided an additional impetus by declaring that they would only marry soldiers. Peer pressure and appeals to masculinity helped propel men into the service. Approximately a week or two later, a second public ceremony would be held during which politicians and newly minted officers would give speeches to the town’s new military company, and this oratory would be followed by a picnic or dance. Generally, the highlight of the day occurred when the locality’s women presented the company with a flag that they had sewn. These flags reminded soldiers that they fought not just for themselves, but also for an entire community. Army organization generally reinforced this community identification as 10 local companies—ideally with 100 men each—from the same state combined to form a regiment, which then received a designation such as the Twentieth Maine or the Eleventh Alabama.

Many factors motivated men to volunteer. In the rage militaire of 1861, some men joined the army because their friends were enlisting, because of community pressure, or because of a desire for excitement beyond the bounds of their community. Most Civil War soldiers, however, enlisted because of sincerely held ideological beliefs. Ironically, Northern and Southern soldiers who reflected on their enlistment shared common motivations: to preserve their liberty, their self-government, and the heritage of the American Revolution. An Illinois soldier recognized this common sentiment and admitted to his wife that “they are fighting for the same thing that we are, Liberty” (Shannon 1947, 25). Although both sides used similar language and considered themselves true Americans, Confederate and Union volunteers ascribed vastly different meanings to American ideals. Confederates placed themselves in the role of the nation’s founding fathers, who, according to Southern interpretation, in 1776 had thrown off the yoke of an oppressive British government and established a nation dedicated both to states’ rights and the preservation of slavery. A Georgia soldier succinctly contended, “We will have to fight like Washington did” (Hagan in Robertson 1988, 9). To preserve their rights, these ancestors had rebelled, and Confederates saw themselves as following this precedent. In their eyes, Republican president Abraham Lincoln represented a modern-day King George III, threatening to destroy Southern liberty. Liberty was held sacrosanct, for its opposite was slavery. As men who lived in a slave society, Confederate soldiers knew what it meant to be denied one’s liberty, and they frequently vowed not to become slaves to the North.

Union soldiers saw themselves preserving the heritage of the founding fathers. In their view, these leaders had established a perpetual republic, which Southern secession threatened to undermine. If Northerners allowed Southern states to secede, the Union would crumble, and the world’s greatest republican experiment would fail. Lincoln’s election had been constitutional, and consequently Southern secession set the precedent that any state that disagreed with the federal government could flee the Union, a surefire formula for anarchy and destruction of the Union that would negate the handiwork of their ancestors.

Although both sides spoke of liberty, the motives of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank did not precisely coincide. To win the war, the Union Army had to invade the Confederacy, and thus Southerners had the added incentive of literally fighting for their homes and, according to a Louisiana corporal, “driving the envading host of tyrants from our soil” (Lee in McPherson 1994, 11). They also repeated Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s contention that they did not desire to conquer any territory, but just wanted to be left alone. In contrast to these defensive goals, a minority of Northern soldiers wished to wage a war for the abolition of slavery. Nevertheless, in 1861, most Northern soldiers did not enlist to fight slavery; instead, they focused on preserving the Union. Although Southern soldiers could unite in their desire to defend slavery, the slavery issue proved divisive for Union soldiers who initially could not agree on whether emancipation would aid or hamper their efforts to restore the Union. Only in the aftermath of the January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s emphasis on abolishing slavery as a way to help end the war did most Northern soldiers accept emancipation as a goal.

Camp Life

Regardless of their motivation to enter the army, most volunteers had an overly romantic picture of combat and eagerly sought to enter into battle or as they phrased it, “see the elephant.” If men desired to participate in a grand battle immediately, they quickly became disabused of this notion as they discovered that soldiers spent more time in camp than on the battlefield. At first, camp provided its own excitement, for many men had never been so far from home before, nor had they ever met so many new acquaintances their age. Soldiers, especially Northerners, took the opportunity to have their pictures taken, most likely for the first time in their lives. A camp’s early thrills soon disappeared as men settled into the monotony of army life. According to one Yankee’s sarcastic description of a typical day at a camp of instruction, “The first thing in the morning is drill, then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly drill. Between drills, we drill and sometimes stop to eat a little and have roll-call” (Robertson 1988, 48). Officers intended drills to prepare men for marching and fighting as a unit and to ensure that soldiers would follow orders during combat. Although the armies drilled to improve their cohesion in battle, they spent surprisingly little time practicing tactics or even shooting at targets.

Not only could drilling be dull—and frustrating for those who did not know left from right—but it also meant following orders. If volunteers on both sides fought for their own liberty, they quickly discovered that preserving their liberty in the long run meant sacrificing it in the short run. Soldiers had lived in societies that preached equality, independence, and a democracy of white men. When entering the army, volunteers did not easily give up their democratic leanings, and they initially followed them by electing their officers. Yet an army operated from the top down, and officers, whether appointed or elected, gave orders that had to be followed rather than debated. Soldiers in both armies united in their repeated complaints about officers who abused their power. Southerners had an easy reference point for men who lacked independence and were subject to the orders of another—slaves. These white men resented treatments that smacked of slavery, such as having to wake up to the sound of a horn at 5:00 A.M., facing corporal punishment for violating orders, and having to carry a pass to leave camp. Northern volunteers also recognized that officers’ treatment of their men had a parallel with the South’s peculiar institution, with one succinctly noting, “yesterday a freeman—today a slave” (Geer in Mitchell 1988, 58).

Despite these complaints, there was more to camp life than sacrificing one’s independence and drilling all day. Soldiers had a significant amount of free time, and they took advantage of it. As young men asserting their masculinity, they enjoyed such sports as racing, boxing, and baseball, which saw its popularity grow as a result of the Civil War. Additionally, responsible young men attended religious meetings or wrote letters home, with the typical thousand-man regiment sending out hundreds of letters per day. Others spent their time running camp newspapers or participating in debating societies. More commonly, they sang many of the songs that have become synonymous with the Civil War, including “John Brown’s Body,” the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Home Sweet Home,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “When This Cruel War Is Over.” Young men with free time, however, did not limit themselves to engaging in worthwhile endeavors. Some soldiers showed their maturity by practicing self-restraint, but others enjoyed the opportunity to practice the masculine vices of drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes.

In camp, Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs alike discovered that military service not only struck at their autonomy, but it also struck at their health. In addition to introducing soldiers to new diversions, camp life introduced them to unfamiliar microbes. Soldiers, especially those from small, isolated communities, lacked immunity to many common maladies. Additionally, in 1861, volunteers did not face a medical screening before enlistment and as many as 25 percent of the men, according to a Union government report, should have been rejected as unfit for duty. Compounding this error, officers chose campsites based on strategic rather than health considerations, and widespread ignorance regarding the transmission of diseases led soldiers to drink polluted water, place latrines in bad locations, and practice poor sanitation and personal hygiene habits. Soldiers multiplied these mistakes by eating a diet deficient in vitamins and minerals. Epidemics of measles, mumps, and chicken pox debilitated many units in the early weeks at their camps of instruction. Many units lost more than one-third of their soldiers before entering into combat. The average regiment at Shiloh in April 1862 contained only 560 men rather than the 1,000 originally recruited. More deadly diseases, including malaria, typhoid fever, and dysentery, decimated the ranks, with the Union Army reporting more than 1 million cases of malaria alone. The ever-increasing presence of fleas, lice, mosquitoes, flies, and other pests further exacerbated the problem. Overall, soldiers justly feared these diseases for they killed many more men than combat did. Of the 360,000 total Union deaths, an estimated 250,000 stemmed from disease, with dysentery alone killing 57,265. Poor Confederate recordkeeping makes it impossible to know how many Southern soldiers died in this manner, but some historians estimate that as many as three-fourths of the 260,000 Confederate deaths resulted from disease.

In considering their health, soldiers justly blamed their rations, which they regarded as inferior in terms of both quantity and quality, with the absence of vegetables being the most significant detriment to their health. In both armies, men generally ate in a “mess with three to eight of their comrades. Northern soldiers subsisted primarily on coffee, bacon, and half-inch thick crackers called hardtack, although they often referred to the latter by more creative names such as “sheet iron cracker,” “tooth duller,” or “worm castle.” Army regulations specified beans, rice, and potatoes, but these foods were less prevalent. Initially, the Confederate Army stipulated that it would supply the same rations as the Union Army. This goal quickly proved unobtainable, and by the spring of 1862, the army had reduced the standard ration, and it would reduce it again in 1864. Confederates lived on cornbread and pickled beef and considered captured Yankee coffee to be a luxury. Occasionally, Johnny Rebs cooked their meat and cornbread together in grease to form a concoction they termed “cush.” Living in a land of plenty, Southern soldiers’ diets worsened as the war dragged onward, primarily because their army’s supply system collapsed. In both armies, soldiers on the march or in combat received less food than those in camp with soldiers in besieged garrisons, such as Confederates in Vicksburg and Port Hudson in 1863, who were compelled to eat boiled weeds and, in rare cases, mules and rats.

Both sides tried to find ways to supplement their inferior diets. Some soldiers received food from home, and others purchased food from sutlers, civilians who followed the army selling a variety of goods to soldiers. Sutlers’ exorbitant prices, however, made them extremely unpopular and made their wares inaccessible to many. Foraging represented the most common way that both Union and Confederate soldiers augmented their diets. Foraging ranged from picking berries and nuts to stealing chickens and hogs to taking food at gunpoint. Later in the war, soldiers from both sides expanded the pillaging aspect of foraging. Union soldiers had come to see taking the war to Southern civilians as a method of defeating the Confederacy, and consequently, the interests of their stomachs and their nation coincided. In contrast, Confederates felt that they deserved the full support of Southern civilians and that this support should include access to civilian food supplies.

Heading Off to Battle

When not in camp, soldiers spent much of their time marching. During a soldier’s first march, he generally “simmered down,” meaning that he shed his excess baggage, including overcoats, blankets from home, and other luxuries. A soldier might have started the war carrying as much as 80 pounds of material, but by the time of Sherman’s March to the Sea in late 1864, Union soldiers had reduced their load to the essentials—a rifled musket, a bayonet, 80 rounds of ammunition, a haversack with a blanket, a canteen, a tin cup, a knife, and possibly playing cards or some paper and a pencil or ink. Regardless of their load, soldiers on the march suffered. They often wore ill-fitting or worn-out shoes, and occasionally Confederates lacked any shoes at all. When it was wet, their water-logged and muddy packs were even heavier than usual, and infantry men had to help move wagons stuck in the mud. When it was hot and dry, marchers suffered from thirst and from dust kicked up by thousands of tramping feet. A Union Army of 100,000 men could be accompanied by 2,500 wagons, 35,000 animals, and 600 tons of supplies. Armies on the march clogged roads ill-equipped to handle this volume of traffic. Given the choice, soldiers preferred to be at the head of these columns. The lead units got their choice of campsites at the end of the day, did not swallow as much dust, and arrived at the destination many hours before troops bringing up the rear. When Civil War armies moved, they moved slowly, averaging only approximately 2.5 miles per hour, although when necessary, units could move much faster. Most famously, in its 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry” marched 650 miles and fought five battles in less than two months.

Witnesses to a march would have quickly perceived that there was nothing uniform about soldiers’ uniforms. In 1861, the same local women who had sewn a company’s battle flag often made their uniforms as well. Wealth, the color of available cloth, and personal taste dictated early uniform choices with men wearing green, yellow, or red in addition to the stereotypical blue and gray. At the outset of the war, even the wearing of blue or gray did not necessarily identify one as a Union or Confederate soldier. In July 1861, in the smoke and confusion of the battle of Bull Run, Union soldiers mistakenly opened fire on a gray-clad unit from Wisconsin and allowed blue-clad Virginians to approach their lines unmolested. Similar battle flags added to the confusion and led to the Confederacy’s adoption of what is today considered the Rebel flag. The following month at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, Union troops allowed gray-uniformed Louisiana soldiers to almost overrun their positions because they mistook their attackers for an Iowa unit that also wore gray. Not until early 1862, after several incidents like these, did the Union Army adopt the standard dark blue coat and light blue pants that are most commonly associated with its forces. With the Union blockading textile imports from England, the South never truly succeeded in cladding all of its soldiers in gray. In reality, butternut, a yellowish brown dye made primarily from walnut hulls, was a more common sight among Confederates than gray. Even some degree of uniformity, however, did not guarantee that a uniform fit well, and complaints, especially regarding shoes, abounded. Tattered Confederates could not always even rely on their government to provide adequate clothing and instead used clothing sent from home, acquired by their state governments, purchased from their fellow troops, or pilfered from dead Yankees to supplement their official uniforms.

Ultimately, all of this training and marching led to combat. Here, soldiers used the discipline that they had learned in drill to face the enemy. Generally, the attack involved either a frontal assault or an effort to flank—go around the left or right end of their lines—the enemy. These traditional tactics had become superseded by equipment, particularly the employment of rifling, which represented a major advancement in both accuracy and distance over the traditional musket. The musket, the mainstay of pre-Civil War armies, had an effective range of 80 to 100 yards. Rifling its barrel and using a new bullet, the minié ball, increased the range to approximately 400 yards. A soldier loaded the gun through its muzzle and with practice could fire three shots in a minute, although in the stress of combat one shot per minute was more common. The North, with a greater industrial might, quickly armed its soldiers with Springfield rifles, eventually producing more than 2 million of these guns. Southerners more commonly relied on Enfield rifles imported from England and used Springfield rifles taken from Union soldiers.

Not only did defenders wield rifles, they also increasingly fired from trenches or behind fortifications. In 1861, many officers believed that digging in was cowardly, and Robert E. Lee earned the derisive nickname, “The King of Spades,” for ordering his troops to entrench. As the war progressed, opposition to entrenching disappeared, and the extent of these earthworks steadily increased, culminating in the Petersburg campaign of 1864-1865, in which armies constructed elaborate networks of trenches, presaging the trench warfare of World War I. Attacks against defenders protected by walls or trenches became heroic failures, with Pickett’s charge on the third day of Gettysburg representing the classic folly of a head-on attack. Of the estimated 12,500 Confederates who charged three-quarters of a mile alongside Pickett, 54 percent (almost 7,000 men) were killed, wounded, or captured. Although both attackers and defenders possessed bayonets, they were much more likely to use them to heat their dinner than to stab their enemy, with only 0.4 percent of all Civil War casualties resulting from bayonet wounds.

For the ordinary soldier, whether charging or defending, the battlefield contained a bewildering and frightening array of sights and sounds. Soldiers repeatedly contended that one had to face battle to understand it. In attempting to explain their participation in battle, most soldiers would agree with a North Carolinian’s succinct assertion, “I can’t describe a battle to you” (McPherson 1997, 12). Based on their accounts, even participating in a battle did not ensure knowledge of what had happened. Limited visibility negated both comprehension and much of the distance advantage provided by the new rifles. Civil War soldiers generally did not fight in open fields but in forests or forest clearings. Not only did trees hinder one’s vision, but also during battles smoke was ubiquitous. Thus, soldiers might not have exaggerated in claiming to have fought entire battles without ever seeing their opponents. Instead, men fired where they suspected the enemy stood, where they saw muzzle-bursts, or where they heard the enemy. With most battles fought in the summer months, soldiers, in addition to having limited vision, suffered from heat and thirst. Additionally, they recounted hearing a great number of deafening and disorienting sounds, including artillery shells bursting, drums and bugle calls, bullets whizzing by, cursing, wounded men crying out in pain, and, when Confederates attacked, the infamous rebel yell.

The rebel yell represented one way that Confederates boosted their courage during terrifying battles. Civil War soldiers viewed battles as a test of their manhood, and they expected themselves and their comrades to act bravely. When time permitted, officers offered an inspirational speech before the battle during which they stressed the importance of the war and appealed to the soldiers’ manhood. To fortify their nerves, some soldiers prayed while others drank alcohol. The charge, where men had to hold their fire until ordered to do so, represented a supreme test of this courage. All units contained men who shirked their duty during battle by feigning illness, intentionally straggling behind the unit, volunteering to take wounded comrades to the rear, or simply running from the fight. Civil War soldiers castigated those who “showed the white feather” and abandoned their comrades. Most men, however, did not forsake their duties. Instead, they retained their courage because they felt the cause, their reputation, or their fellow soldiers, whom they literally stood elbow to elbow with, should not be let down. That did not mean that men relished combat, and after having “seen the elephant” once, few expressed an eagerness to see it again soon.

Not all soldiers emerged from combat unscathed. Despite the confusion of battle, some shots hit their mark. When struck by a minié ball, a man’s suffering had only just begun. Wounded soldiers were expected to maintain their courage, but this proved difficult as they lay, possibly in excruciating pain, for hours and perhaps even for a day or two before being attended to. The screams of the wounded and smells of the dead helped create a situation that horrified the eyes, ears, and noses of witnesses to the carnage. Civil War ambulances, generally two- or four-wheeled wagons, provided men a bumpy and painful trip to the field hospitals. There, the wounded encountered overwhelmed Civil War doctors, who had a reputation for being quacks who did more harm than good. In reality, these doctors did the best they could to treat the wounded, but they lacked both the medical knowledge and the technological expertise to provide much relief. Neither army had any hospital system in place when the war began, and neither ever possessed a sufficient number of doctors, although the Union with 11,000 surgeons was better off than the Confederates with only 2,600 surgeons. At Gettysburg, where inundated Union doctors faced more wounded men than they could handle, they first divided the men into two categories: those they had a chance to save and those they did not, offering no treatment to the latter group.

For soldiers, receiving treatment frequently meant simply more pain. Doctors employed unsanitary equipment, often not wiping the blood off of knives as they moved from patient to patient, and hospitals were infested with flies and maggots. Infections from both these unsanitary procedures and from minié balls, which generally carried bits of clothing and hair into the body, were common. For arm and leg wounds, amputation, often without anesthesia or with whiskey serving in its place, represented the most common procedure, with Union doctors alone amputating more than 30,000 arms and legs. In contrast, wounds to the torso generally meant death. If a soldier survived a field hospital, he might be sent to a more permanent hospital, most commonly in the North or South’s respective capital cities for recovery, if he was lucky, or for a slower death, if he was not so lucky. Overall, 18 percent of wounded Confederates and 14 percent of wounded Yankee soldiers died.


Although the exact figures are impossible to discover, approximately 3 million men fought in the Civil War. Most soldiers served in the infantry—80 percent in the North and 75 percent in the South—with smaller percentages joining the cavalry or artillery. Although few of these men had experience in the U.S. Army, which included only 16,000 men in 1860, many had served in local militia organizations, which varied from well-trained units to glorified social clubs. Most soldiers volunteered, although both the Confederacy and the Union resorted to conscription when the pipeline of volunteers dried up. The majority of these men were literate, native-born, white Protestants. Approximately 30 percent were married. Soldiers in both armies were most likely in their early to mid-20s at the time of their enlistment, with Confederates slightly older than their Union counterparts. They averaged between five feet five inches and five feet nine inches in height and were of slight build, which, because of their inadequate diets, became slighter over the course of the war. Not all soldiers, however, shared these traits. The Union Army in particular housed a diverse array of soldiers. Approximately 200,000 Germans and 150,000 Irish fought for the Union, often in regiments consisting almost entirely of members of their ethnic group. Foreigners also served in the Confederate ranks, but because the South had not attracted many immigrants during the 1850s, they numbered fewer than 100,000 men.

Additionally, after the Emancipation Proclamation made the Civil War a war to end slavery as well as to restore the Union, more than 180,000 African Americans, mainly former slaves, volunteered for the Union Army. They battled both for their race’s emancipation and to demonstrate their worth to society. From the beginning of the war, Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African American in the 19th-century United States, had recognized that the Civil War would become a war to end slavery. He also asserted that for African Americans getting “upon his person the brass letters, U.S…. and a musket on his shoulder” (McPherson 1988, 564) would contribute to gaining rights in both the North and the South. Serving as the U.S. Colored Troops, African Americans did not immediately gain much respect or many rights. Instead, they served under white officers in otherwise completely segregated units, initially received lower pay than white troops, and were assigned to a disproportionate amount of fatigue duty. Their performance at battles such as Port Hudson and the assault on Battery Wagner, led by the 54th Massachusetts, the most famous African American unit in the war, contributed to an equalization of pay and ultimately to the ending of slavery and the granting of citizenship rights in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Although African Americans in the army may have earned themselves some respect from Northerners, white Southern soldiers viewed them in a much different light. The Confederacy refused to recognize armed blacks as representing anything other than a slave revolt, and thus, they threatened to enslave all captured African Americans and to execute their white officers. Though these threats were not officially carried out, they played a part in stopping the exchange of prisoners of war. Also, they contributed to the attitude that led some Southern soldiers to provide no quarter to African American troops. In addition, evidence indicates that in some battles, particularly the Confederate assault on Fort Pillow (Tennessee) in April 1864 and the Battle of the Crater (Petersburg, Virginia) in July 1864, Confederate soldiers killed African Americans who had attempted to surrender. These executions led to Union retaliation as “remember Fort Pillow” became a battle cry for many units regardless of their racial composition.

The Draft and Desertion

Some African Americans as well as foreign- and native-born men volunteered, but others entered the ranks through the operation of the Union and Confederate drafts. The outnumbered Confederacy needed every man it could get into its ranks, and consequently, it adopted conscription in April 1862 with the Union following suit in March 1863. Soldiers already in the army endorsed the draft as a means to make service in the war more equitable, but they expressed skepticism regarding the fighting ability of men forced into the army. The precise impact that conscription had on the size of Civil War armies is debatable. For instance, incomplete records indicate that of the 776,000 Union men drafted, only 46,000 shouldered weapons. Yet the Union draft could still be considered a success as a stimulus to volunteering. Avoiding the stigma of being branded as a conscript, a volunteer often had a greater choice of units and, if he played his cards right, could receive local, state, and federal bounties totaling as high as $1,000 (at a time when the average worker earned $460 a year). Conscription did not affect all citizens equally, and many Northern and Southern soldiers concurred that the exemptions in their respective drafts had made the conflict into a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. Both sides provided means for legally avoiding the draft, which, in the North, included the long-standing military tradition of providing a substitute in one’s place or the payment of a $300 commutation fee. The South also allowed for substitutes and exempted men in key occupations—generally those judged essential for the war or for society. Most controversially, the Confederacy exempted one man for each plantation comprising 20 or more slaves, leading a Johnny Reb to voice the common complaint that the poor had to bear the burden of fighting, while the rich were “living at home enjoying life because they have a few negroes” (Mitchell 1988, 160).

Nevertheless, despite these class-based exemptions, evidence regarding the assertion that the conflict represented a poor man’s fight is not entirely clear-cut. Unquestionably, farmers accounted for the largest group in both armies, and some of these men undoubtedly resented the idea that their wealthier neighbors had found ways to avoid military service. Studies of the Union Army indicate that white-collared workers were slightly underrepresented in the army, but this can be explained by the relative youth of the soldiers. In fact, more likely laborers, the group most often associated with the lower class, and immigrants did not serve in numbers corresponding to their presence in society. In the South, evidence indicates that slaveholders actually served at a rate higher than their percentage of the population would indicate, and of the 30,000 men eligible to gain exemption based on the “20-negro law,” only 4,000 to 5,000 did so—a figure that represented only 3 percent of all men who obtained exemptions. Regardless of the precise figures, many common soldiers retained the perception that this conflict was a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight, and they continued to begrudge the message sent by these class-based privileges.

For angry soldiers who could not legally avoid service, desertion offered a possible escape route. Again, figures are imprecise, but estimates contend that 200,000 Northerners and 100,000 Southerners deserted. On both sides, substitutes, draftees, and those enlisting simply to earn a bounty—”bounty jumpers”—were considered the most likely to desert. Desertion hurt the Confederacy more than the Union, for the Confederate total represented a higher percentage of its army, and with a smaller pool of potential soldiers, they were less easily replaced. Partially owing to the effects of desertion, Confederate War Department figures in 1865 depict an army with the strength of almost 360,000 men on paper but with only 160,000 present for duty. Given the perceived hopelessness of the cause, however, this speaks as much to the dedication of those who remained as it does to the infidelity of those who deserted. A few deserters headed toward enemy lines, but home communities represented a far more likely destination. Receiving plaintive appeals depicting starvation and other privations on the home front, some Confederate soldiers concluded that the army had abandoned them, that the Confederacy was doomed to failure, and that they could better protect their families by returning home rather than by remaining on the front lines. By 1865, the destitution on the home front and the inability of the Confederate government to provide for soldiers’ families led one North Carolina private to conclude that for most people on the home front, “desertion now is not dishonorable” (Robertson 1988, 136). Poorer soldiers also justified their decision to desert with the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” complaint, contending that if their slaveholding neighbors could remain at home, then they should not have to risk their lives for the cause either. Aware that news from home could contribute to desertion, Confederate officials requested that women use their influence to persuade their soldier-relatives to stay in the army, and some women did remind their kinfolk that allegations of cowardice would damage their family as much or even more than material deprivation.

Both armies used a combination of the carrot and the stick to solve the desertion problem. Promises of amnesty mixed with threats of punishment succeeded in returning at least 80,000 Union and 21,000 Confederate deserters to the ranks. Deserters and others who violated military rules risked punishment if caught. Penalties varied based both on the offense, with some of the most common infractions being insubordination, drunkenness, theft, and absence without leave, and on the whim of the officer in charge. Nevertheless, for soldiers in both armies, the punishments increased in severity over the course of the war. These could include public humiliations such as having one’s head shaved or having to wear a placard describing one’s crime to more painful treatments. Convicted soldiers could be forced to wear a ball and chain or a barrel or ride a saw horse for hours. Being bucked and gagged—which meant having a bayonet inserted in one’s mouth, being put into a seated position with one’s knees drawn to one’s chest, having a stick run between the legs, and then having one’s arms placed beneath the stick and one’s hands tied in front of the legs—produced terrible cramping and pain over a number of hours. Other men could be hung by their thumbs, branded, face hard labor, or in the most extreme cases, face execution. Of the 267 Union soldiers executed during the Civil War, 147 had been convicted of desertion. Confederate records do not provide a total number of executions, but circumstantial evidence indicates that the South executed more men than the North. In addition to the men executed, other men sentenced to die received last-minute reprieves as a reminder not to repeat their crimes. With punishments designed to deter soldiers from repeating their comrades’ mistakes, commanders compelled soldiers to either witness or participate in these public affairs.

Punishments inflicted by one’s own army paled in comparison to some of the treatment of prisoners of war. More than 400,000 soldiers—slightly more than 200,000 Confederates and slightly less than 200,000 Union men—headed to prison camps. In the early part of the war, these stays could be tolerable and brief as the Union and Confederacy regularly exchanged prisoners. If the numbers to be exchanged were not equivalent, men could be paroled until an official exchange occurred. When the Confederacy announced that it would not treat black soldiers as prisoners of war, the North ended the exchange program in 1863. This cessation contributed to prison overcrowding, most infamously at the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. At one point, 33,000 Union soldiers there lived in a 26-acre enclosure meant to hold only 10,000 men. The combination of overcrowding, lack of shelter, inadequate food, poor sanitation, and guards with itchy trigger fingers led to the death of almost 30 percent of the inmates. Soldiers who survived emerged in horrible physical condition, and undoubtedly the publication of pictures of these survivors added fuel to Northern hostility and contributed to the postwar execution of the camp’s commandant, Henry Wirz, the only man executed for war crimes during the Civil War.

Confederates countered complaints about their prisons with the assertion that Southern prison problems resulted from the collapse in the Confederate supply system but that poor treatment in Union prisons resulted from malice. The Union did reduce the rations in their prison camps 25 percent in response to reports of the conditions in the South, but the overall conditions in Northern prisoner-of-war camps did not descend to Southern depths—only 12 percent of Southern prisoners in the North died in contrast to the 15.5 percent of Northern prisoners of war who perished. Nonetheless, the closeness of those figures and the deaths of 25 percent of the Confederates housed at a camp in Elmira, New York, demonstrate that the South did not have a monopoly on prisoner mistreatment.

Despite these prison atrocities, the Civil War still can be described as a brother’s war. This phrase has many meanings. In some cases, relatives joined opposing sides. Even President Lincoln saw four of his brothers-in-law take up arms for the Confederacy. Additionally, with the Union serving as a family writ large, Southern secession metaphorically represented the splitting up of a family. Also, soldiers, particularly since they had come from the same community and often had relatives in their unit, saw their comrades as a band of brothers. This solidarity, which historians have termed small-unit cohesion, helped them maintain their commitment to their respective causes. Finally, Civil War soldiers often viewed their supposed enemies as brothers. They shared not only a common language, culture, and religion, but also faced similar experiences, which forged a common bond between Union and Confederate troops. On occasion, opposing troops dined together, and most soldiers adhered to a gentleman’s agreement not to shoot men on picket duty. Overall, these men recognized that, as soldiers, they shared an attachment that united them in a way that civilians and even most officers could not understand. By the time of the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865, Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs, in four years of fighting, had grown accustomed to similar hardships such as poor food and terrible medical care, had together seen the elephant at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg, and they had persevered.