How did a citizen become a soldier? Once in the army, how did he adapt to military life? How and where did he sleep? In what ways did the experiences of camp and campaign transform him? As a student of Civil War soldiers, I’ve been consumed by such questions since childhood. Answers can be found in many places. There is no better overview of soldier life, however, than those offered by Union artilleryman John D. Billings in Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life and Confederate artilleryman Carlton McCarthy in Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865. I have used both sources in presentations and published materials and, more importantly, found them to be immensely enjoyable reads.
Before going further, some words of caution and explanation are in order. Some scholars have eschewed using reminiscences entirely in their work because of reified memory and after-the-fact political agendas. Instead, such authors rely solely on wartime letters and diaries when writing about the war years. Others have employed postwar writings to explore later representations of the conflict and the politics of memory. Regardless, it is certain that reading audiences of all stripes have consumed reminiscences and memoirs with a relentless appetite. Works by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, and Sam R. Watkins, to name a few, have gone through scores of editions and sold incredibly well. As with any source, though, readers must maintain a degree of skepticism. The accounts were, after all, produced years – sometimes decades – after the conflict’s end and often written to advance a post-war agenda.
Nonetheless, both Hardtack & Coffee and Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life are fascinating narratives about the soldier’s daily routine. I believe I first encountered both sources while still teenager but have returned to them year after year ever since. The accounts are structured around, in McCarthy’s words, “those little things which made” the soldier “peculiarly what he was” (p.16). They wrote with a sense of urgency. By the 1880s, the Civil War had faded from view for many Americans. An editorial in the New York Times that appeared in 1889 contended “events of the Civil War are now so far in the past that their anniversaries come and go without recognition save in exceptional cases.” In this atmosphere veterans struggled for ways to express themselves as historian David Blight explores in his book, Race and Reunion. Billings and McCarthy feared that their stories, and those of the common soldier, were being forgotten and, more importantly, not being included in the published histories being released in ever increasing numbers.
Billings and McCarthy wanted to establish a view from the ground—it was their rasion d’être. McCarthy emphatically wrote, “The historian who essays to write the ‘grand movements’ will hardly stop to tell how the hungry private fried his bacon, baked his biscuit, and smoked his pipe; how he was changed from time to time by the necessities of the service” (p. 16). Billings similarly explained, “It is believed that what is herein written will appeal largely to a common experience among soldiers. In full faith that such is the case, they are now presented to veterans, their children, and the public as an important contribution of warp to the more majestic woof which comprises the history of the Great Civil War already written” (p.12).
If the reader is used to the memoirs of famed Civil War generals such as Ulysses S. Grant or James Longstreet, the subjects of Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life and Hardtack & Coffee will strike him or her as odd. Battles are given little attention and military campaigns are not detailed (though McCarthy was more inclined to detail his service than Billings). Instead, readers will learn about camp life, military uniforms, different types of tents, everyday activities, and the routines of life in the army. These subjects are certainly found in wartime letters and diaries but the explanations of Billings and McCarthy are more complete and thorough. I believe they chose this material with great intention, for in the commonplace emerged the trappings of an entire culture.
Through the explanation of minutiae, both authors hoped to communicate the everyday experience of war—the mundane and the commonplace. From this drilled down detail emerges the material world of Civil War soldiers. Reading McCarthy and Billings is like walking through the museum exhibits at Pamplin Historical Park or the American Civil War Museum. Hardtack & Coffee includes chapters titled, “Life in Log Huts,” “A Day in Camp,” and “Corps and Corps Badges,” while McCarthy offered “On the March,” “Cooking and Eating,” and “Comforts, Conveniences, and Consolations.” Billings and McCarthy both carefully describe the things unique to army life and necessary for comfort, if not survival. Scholars have recently followed the lead of common soldiers’ emphasis on things by taking material culture seriously. As Brian Luskey and Jason Phillips observe, “We cannot study humans without encountering the accumulated stuff that made their world and shaped how they thought about it.”
In the morass of primary source materials from the Civil War era, gaining a bird’s eye view can be difficult. Although Hardtack & Coffee and Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life must be approached with caution, both accounts offer compelling narratives about the experience of war. They take the reader on a journey demonstrating how citizens became soldiers who, in turn, changed into veterans. Billings and McCarthy create tours of life on camp and campaign walking the reader through the daily routines that comprised a soldier’s day. Both accounts have informed my thinking about army life in manifold ways and shed light on the ways in which Civil War soldiers lent meaning to their military service. Most striking, though, is how both accounts forced me to pay attention to the commonplace—to take note of the everyday. Indeed, as the French historian Fernand Braudel once observed, “The mere smell of cooking can evoke a whole civilization.”
Billings, John D. Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life. 1887.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
Braudel, Fernand. 1979. The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible.
Berkley: University of California Press, 1992.
Luskey, Brian and Jason Phillips. “Muster: Inspecting Material Cultures of the
Civil War.” Civil War History. Vol. 63, no. 2 (June 2017): 103-112.
McCarthy, Carlton. Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern
Virginia, 1861-1865. 1885. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.