Sunderland: Common soldiers suffered greatly in Civil War

Sunderland: Common soldiers suffered greatly in Civil War

August 18th, 2013 Will Sunderland in Opinion Columns

"Bullets, fragments of shell, grape and canister sing over and around, louder than songs of Southern katydids ... canister are cutting swaths of humans in the kneeling rows ... the blood-soaked earth is being dug up in chunks by ripping balls."

Chaotic scenes like this description of the Battle of Chickamauga are often what come to mind when describing the American Civil War experience.

But does this capture a complete experience?

It is estimated that Civil War soldiers spent less than one-quarter of their time in combat. What challenges did these men face as they waited, sometimes for months, between battles?

Although some fought in prior wars, most of the roughly 3 million soldiers were citizen soldiers, most just 18-21 years old. Despite their uniforms, these individuals came from civilian life and expected to return to it after the war -- farmers, lawyers, students, clerks, businessmen, and teachers. Taking civilians and readying them for battle proved a daily task, filling many soldiers' days with drilling and refining military skills. Soldiers of the Confederate Army of Tennessee recorded drilling four to five hours each day, in both summer heat and winter cold.

Indeed, during the summer of 1863, while they drilled and waited for battle, soldiers on both sides suffered from the hot sun. Dust choked their throats as they trained, their canteens often dry. Day after day, their diaries record the heat.

"Came near roasting in the tent," recorded Lieutenant Chesley Mosman of the 59th Illinois Volunteers on August 21, "hotter than I ever felt it before." Just three days before, Lieutenant Lucius Brown of the 18th U.S. Infantry wrote that after a march, 14 men of the 16th U.S. Infantry suffered sunstroke, some fatally.

The heat of summer broke in the midst of the Battle of Chickamauga, as nighttime temperatures dropped from the mid-80s to below freezing, sticking some bodies to the ground in frozen pools of their own blood. With heavy coats and blankets having been thrown by the roadside during the hot summer, now men shivered in the cold.

By early October, as both armies settled in around Chattanooga, cold rain poured down, increasing their misery. Private Joseph Brigham of the 50th Tennessee Infantry wrote his sister for socks, adding "If there was any possible chance to get anything from home I would like to have a good overcoat for this winter -- I am ashamed to ask for anything from home but such things as overcoats and yarn socks cannot be got here."

The fall rain turned the ground to muck. Wagons often became stuck on muddy roads. Food supplies to both sides around Chattanooga dwindled to a trickle. Sergeant James Cooper of the 20th Tennessee Infantry wrote, "October 1863. We were almost starved during this month." Private Esau Beaumont of the 3rd Battery, Wisconsin Light Artillery echoed Cooper's words: "We suffered with cold as the weather became severe. ... Our rations kept diminishing, and we received but a pint of corn for three days' rations..."

Yet through all these challenges, soldiers found time for companionship and to explore. Sergeant Isaac Doan of the 40th Ohio joined friends armed with "candles, provisions, and hatchets" to explore Nickajack Cave, returning with souvenir stalactites and bats captured in a can. Many soldiers wrote of climbing Lookout Mountain to enjoy the view. Others spent time in camp playing cards, enjoying music, even trading with the enemy across picket lines.

But letters from home were the most sought-after pastime. In a moving letter, Private John West of the 4th Texas Volunteer Infantry wrote home: "You have no idea what a comfort it is to stand in mud to the ankle, on an empty stomach, and read a line from sympathizers at home ... correspondents may discourse eloquently about the sufferings of the 'poor soldier' until the phrase .. fails to excite an emotion of pity, much less a tear, but I will say now (for perhaps I may not live to say it face to face in the better days to come), that the sacrifice made and the toils endured by the private soldier ... cannot be appreciated or expressed in words, nor will they ever be known except to those who have shared them."

Private West's words transcend time and place, today drawing those of us touched by experiences of more recent wars -- Afghanistan, Iraq, and others -- to realize that this great American Civil War, perhaps not so civil in practice, impacted soldiers far beyond the fields and forests of battle.

Will Sunderland is park ranger and volunteer coordinator at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or telephone LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.