For soldiers, leaving home and entering a world far different from civilian life, change would come rapidly and without mercy. Soldiers went through a psychological evolution from civilian to volunteer to soldier as they coped with the challenges of war, each step changing them more and taking them further from their civilian lives. This process included suppressing pre-war identities and creating new ones, identities based on professionalism and a certain amount of callousness in order to survive the war. The gateway to this process was what historian Gerald Linderman called a “simmering down” that manifested itself in several forms.
As volunteers entered into the service, they discarded unnecessary equipment and non-essential items to make their gear as light as possible on the long marches. In addition, the first casualties of most regiments were from disease, a “simmering down” process that thinned out the ranks. Initially, soldiers welcomed this process for they saw it as ridding the army of the weak and the cowards: New Yorker George Newcomb noted in 1862, “Eney [sic] new Regt has to go through the culling process before it will become a good and efficient Regt.” As the process continued, however, and even the bravest men died, soldiers felt their own vulnerability.
In addition, these men faced what Eric Dean called “a destroying manner of living.” Soldiers primarily marched from place to place, sometimes ten or more miles a day, with few or no breaks, often for many days in a row. Impending battle created the necessity for forced marches, with increased length and speed and no room for exhaustion. The elements were another factor as soldiers were often exposed to the weather without enough protection while on the march or being transported, in camp, and in battle. Clothing and tents were sometimes in short supply or bad condition, and at times fires were forbidden for fear the enemy would spot them, depriving soldiers of warmth and hot food. The presence of a fire did not necessarily mean comfort, however, as evidenced by a October 1862 diary entry by Cyrus F. Boyd who complained, “Had no blankets with us and we suffered much last night in the cold rain[.] We could not sleep and had to stand up about all night around a little fire which we tried to keep alive.” Charles Wright Wills also complained of the soaking rain and the cold turning his fingers blue, but the consolation was that it stopped the chiggers from biting. Conditions in camp led to uncleanliness and insect infestations, a humiliation for men accustomed to better circumstances. In addition to the chiggers, the “ants also have an affinity for human flesh and are continually reconnoitering us,” wrote Wills, “I kill about 200,000 per day. Also, knock some 600 worms off of me . . . I pick enough etomological specimens off me every day to start a museum.” These conditions facilitated the spread and ravages of disease.
Men adapted to their changed lives at different rates, some defining themselves as soldiers quickly, others becoming frightened by the changes they saw in themselves. Men transgressed against their normal behavior and the wishes of family members as the dull experiences of camp life and long winter encampments led some to try many of the vices and entertainments they had staunchly opposed at the beginning of the war. In battle, soldiers welcomed the hardening that allowed them to withstand horrific experiences, but there came a point when they no longer seemed to care about human life. “We passed around, among the dead bodies and wounded soldiers,” said Henry C. Lyon of the 34th New York, “apparently no more affected than would we be if we saw a number of Dead Beavers.” When writing about artillery fire, O.W. Norton was glad there were no women around for “[e]very time a shell exploded they would jump and think ‘there goes death and misery to some poor fellow.’” He and his fellow soldiers no longer thought that way for “we have grown so careless and hardened that we don’t heed them.” Death was ever-present in the lives of Civil War soldiers and they became indifferent to it, sometimes to the point at which they could function normally, joke, and enjoy pranks in battle or even live among the dead on the battlefield. “The scenes of blood and strife that I have been called to pass through during the months that are passed, and my ‘baptism in blood,’” admitted infantryman Warren Freeman, “have nearly destroyed all the finer feelings of my nature.”
Kathleen Logothetis graduated in May 2012 with an M.A. in History from West Virginia University. Her thesis, “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army,” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. After a third summer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, she will be continuing at West Virginia University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in History. Her research interests include the Civil War and American Revolution, military history/soldier experience, and commemoration/memory/monuments. ©