On The March: Introduction

For the 160th Anniversary of the American Civil War, Emerging Civil War has been creating series around historical themes that loosely tie into the anniversary happenings. This spring we are excited to kick off a new series called “On The March.” Joining On The Eve of War, Recruiting The Regiment, and First Experiences Under Fire, this new series will explore the experiences of soldiers, officers, regiments, and armies as they marched to battle or in campaigns. As usual, the blog posts will cover any year of the war, but we’ll have a few featured posts connected to the spring campaigns or battles of 1862.

In Hardtack and Coffee, John D. Billings gave a colorful description of soldiers preparing for a march and we’ll use it to set the stage for upcoming posts:

When it was officially announced to the men on line at night that marching orders were received, and that at such an hour next morning tents would be struck and the men in place, equipped, and provided…those men who had not already decided the question retired to their huts and took an account of stock in order to decide what to take and what to leave. As a soldier would lay out two articles on the bunk, of equally tender associations, one could seemed to hear him murmur…as he endeavored to choose between them, knowing too well that both could not be taken. The “survival of the fittest” was the question, which received deeper and tenderer consideration here in one evening than Darwin has ever given it in the same time. Then, there was the overcoat and the woollen blanket which should be left? Perhaps he finally decided to try taking both along for a while. He will leave the dress-coat and wear the blouse. He has two changes of flannels. He will throw away those he has on, don a clean set and take a change with him. These flannels, by the way, if they were what he drew from the government stores, were often as rough to the skin as coarse sand-paper, which they somewhat resembled in color.

From the head of his bunk he takes a collection of old letters which have accumulated during the winter. These he looks over one by one and commits to the flames with a sigh. Many of them are letters from home; some are from acquaintances. Possibly he read the Waverly Magazine, and may have carried on a correspondence with one or more of the many young women who advertised in it for a “soldier correspondent, who must not be over twenty,” with all the virtues namable. There was no man in my company – from old Graylocks, of nearly sixty, down to the callow “chicken” of seventeen – but what felt qualified to fill such a bill, “just for the fun of it, you know.”….

An occasional letter from such a quarter would provoke a smile as the soldier glanced at its source and contents before committing it to the yawn of his army fireplace. This rather unpleasant task completed, he continues his researches and work of destruction. He tucks his little collection of photographs, which perhaps he has encased in rubber or leather inside a pocket, and disposes  other small keepsakes about his person. If he intends to take his effects in a knapsack, he will at the start have put by more to carry than if he simply takes his blankets (rubber and woollen) rolled and slung over his shoulder. Late in the war this latter was the most common plan, as the same weight could be borne with less fatigue in that manner than in a knapsack, slung on the back.

I have assumed it to be evening or late afternoon when marching orders arrived, and have thus far related what the average soldier was wont to do immediately afterwards. There was a night ahead and soldiers were wont to “make a night of it.” as a rule, there was little sleep to be hand, the enforcement of the usual rules of camp being relaxed on such an occasion. Aside from the labor of personal packing and destroying, the rations were to be distributed, and each company had to fall into line, march to the cook-house, and receive their three or more days’ allowance of hardtack, pork, coffee, and sugar, all of which they must stow away as compactly as possible, in the haversack or elsewhere if they wanted them….

After this routine of preparation was completed, camp-fires were lighted, and about them would gather the happy-go-lucky boys of the rank and file, whose merry din would speedily stir the blood of the men who had hoped for a few hours’ sleep before starting out on the morrow, to come out of their huts and join the jovial round; and soon they were as happy as the happiest, even if more reticent. As the fired died down and the soldiers drew closer about it, some comrade would go in his hut, and with an armful of furniture, the stools, closets, and tables…reillumine and enliven the scene and drive back the circle of bystanders again.

The conversation, which, with the going down of the fire, was likely to take on a somewhat sober aspect, would again assume a more cheerful strain. For a time conjectures on the plan of the coming campaign would be exchanged. Volumes of wisdom concerning what ought to be done changed hands at these camp-fires, mingled with much “I told you so” about the last battle….

When this slight matter of the proper thing for the army to do was disposed of, some one would start a song, and then for an hour at least “John Brown’s Body,” “Marching Along,” “Red, White, and Blue,” “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” and other popular and familiar songs would ring out on the clear evening air, following along in quick succession, and sung with great earnestness and enthusiasm as the chorus was increased by additions from neighboring camp-fires, until tired Nature began to assert herself, when one by one the company would withdraw, each going to his hut for two or three hours’ rest, if possible, to partially prepare him for the toils of the morrow. Ah! is not that an all-wise provision of Providence which keeps the future a sealed book, placing it before us leaf by leaf, as the present? For some of these very men, it may have been, whose voices rang out so merrily at that camp-fire, would lie cold and pale ere the week should close, in the solemn stillness of death.

But morning dawned all too soon for those who gave up most of the night to hilarity, and all were summoned forth at the call of the bugle or the drum, and at a time agreed upon The General was sounded….

At this signal, every tent in the regiment was struck. It was quite an interesting sight to see several acres of canvas disappear in a moment, where before it had been the prominent feature in the landscape. As a a fact, I believe the General was little used in the latter part of the war. For about two years, when the troops were sheltered by the Sibley, Wedge, and Wall tents, it was necessary to have them struck at an early hour in order that they might be packed away in the wagon-train. But after the Shelter tent came into use, and each man was his own wagon, the General was seldom heard unless at the end of a long encampment; for, when marching orders came, each man understood that he must be ready at the hour appointed, even if his regiment waited another day before it left camp.

No more provoking incident of army life happened, I believe, than for a regiment to wait in camp long after the hour appointed to march. But such was the rule rather than the exception. Many a man’s hearth-stone was then desolate, for if the hour of departure was set for the morning, when morning came and the stockade was vacated, it often suffered demotion to increase the heat of the campfires, as previously noted. But as hour after hour wore on, and men still found themselves in camp with nothing to do and plenty of help, they began to wish they had not been so hasty in breaking up housekeeping and tearing down their shanties, else they might resort to them and make their wait a little more endurable. Especially did they repent if rain came on as they lingered, or if night again overtook them there with their huts untenable, for it would have been the work of only a moment to re-cover them with the Shelter tents. Such waits and their consequences were severe tests to the patiences of the men, and sometimes seemed to work more injury to their morals than the average army chaplain could repair in days.

But there is an end to all things earthly, this being no exception. The colors of corps headquarters borne at the heels of the corps commander, and followed by his staff, are at last seen moving into the road. The bugler of the division having the lead sounds the call Attention…. At this signal the regiments take “right shoulder shift,” and the march begins….

It is growing warmer. The column has now got straightened out, and for the last hour has moved forward quite rapidly. The road is evidently clear of all obstructions, but the heat and speed begin to tell on the men. Look at the ground which that brigade has just vacated after its brief halt for rest. It is strewn with blankets, overcoats, dress-coats, pantaloons, shirts – in fact, a little of everything from the outfit of the common soldier…. This lightening of the load began before the columns had been on the road an hour. A soldier who had been through the mill would not wait for a general halt to occur before parting with a portion of his load, if it oppressed him; but a recruit would hang to his until he bent over at an angle of 45[degrees] from a vertical, with his eyes staring, his lower jaw hanging, and his face dripping with moisture. If you were follow the column after, say, the first two miles, you would find various articles scatted along at intervals by the roadside, where a soldier quickly stepped out of the ranks, sat down, unslung his knapsack or his blanket-roll, took out what he had decided to throw away, again equipped himself, and, thus relieved, hastened on to overtake the regiment. It did not take an army long to get into light marching order after it was once fairly on the road.

I have been dealing with the first day out of settled camp. On subsequent days, of course, the same programme would not be enacted. And, again, if a man clung to his effects till noon, he was likely to do so for the day, as after noon the thought of shelter for the night nerved him to hold on. But men would drop out in the afternoon of the first day for another reason. They blistered or chafed their feet and sat down at the first stream to bathe them, after which, if the weather admitted, they could be seen plodding along barefooted, their pantaloons rolled up a few inches, and their shoes dangling at the end of their musket barrel….

It was an interesting sight to see a column break up when the order came to halt, whether for rest or other reason. It would melt in a moment, dividing to the right and left, and scattering to the sides of the road, where the men would sit down or lie down, lying back on their knapsacks if they had then, or stretching at full length on the ground…. When the halt was expected to continue for some considerable time the troops of a corps or division were massed, that is, brought together in some large open tract of territory, when the muskets would be stacked the equipments laid off, and each man would rush for the “top rail” of the nearest fence, until not a rail remained. The coffee wold soon begin to simmer, the pork to sputter in the flames, and, when the march was resumed, the men would start off refreshed with rest and rations.

But if the halt was for a few minutes only, and the marching had not been relieved by the regular rests usually allowed, the men stiffened up so much that, with their equipments on, they could hardly arise without assistance, and, goaded by their stiffened cords and tired muscles and swollen or chafed feet, made wry faces for the first few rods after the column started. In this manner they plodded on until order into camp for the night, or perhaps double-quicked into line of battle.

Excerpts selected from: John D. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee, 1887, Pages 332-349.

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1 Response to On The March: Introduction

  1. Billings never disappoints for a good telling of soldierly life.

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