Camp Life in the American Civil War Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Camp Life in the American Civil War

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A great deal of attention is paid to the battles and politics of the American Civil War, but less is known of the day-to-day life of the ordinary soldier.


The soldiers fighting for the Union were the best-supplied in the world at the time. They had better food, clothing and bedding than any previous army. Their food mostly consisted of bread, meat, coffee and 'hardtack', a hard, square cracker. There was a short supply of fruit and vegetables, and when in enemy territory soldiers foraged for fruit, potatoes, hogs and other edibles. When the war began the Union soldiers were supplied with 'shoddy' clothing, which fell apart in the rain. By the second year the uniforms were supplied by Britain. They were of better quality, but made of wool, which made them incredibly hot in the southern summer.

One of the primary enemies to be fought in the many camps was boredom. After performing camp duties the soldiers filled their days with wrestling, boxing, running, singing classes, and reading and debating clubs. Every regiment had its own chaplain, and the soldiers built chapels and held temperance meetings and prayer groups. Besides these activities, many soldiers partook in 'horizontal refreshments', either in tents set up for the purpose or in a nearby town.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers deserted from the armies of both sides of the conflict. Faced with hardships such as relatively poor food and clothing, unbearable cold or heat, homesickness, forced marches, harsh discipline, delays of up to a year in pay, the boredom of camp life versus the fear and panic of the battlefield, and faced with the knowledge that their families were starving at home, desertion lost its stigma. By the end of the war, entire Confederate regiments were returning home without orders. Many soldiers who deserted did so from hospitals.

Medical Care

The American Civil War was fought at the end of the medical 'dark ages'. Advancements were being made in Europe, and the 'germ theory' of medicine and 'bacteriology' were becoming more widespread. By 1920 doctors generally knew what they were doing, but the Civil War doctors knew nothing about sterilisation and cleanliness.


Diseases killed twice as many soldiers during the Civil War as wounds did. Diseases such as measles, mumps and tonsillitis spread in the crowded camps. While these generally weren't fatal, an outbreak could cripple an entire unit. Due to the large number of camp followers, there were more cases of venereal diseases1 than of measles, mumps and tonsillitis together. Foul drinking water led to diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid and pneumonia, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.


The poor medical care at the makeshift hospitals in camps demoralised troops. Soldiers tended to avoid doctors and hospitals because they knew that they had more chance of dying in hospital and recovering outside hospital than the other way around. On the battlefield, large-calibre and low-velocity bullets caused horrendous wounds. Because of limited medical knowledge, stomach wounds were always fatal and gangrenous limbs were amputated in an amputation 'assembly line'. Dead bodies and body parts were dumped in mass graves or large piles, which had the effect of dehumanising the soldiers.

During surgery, ether and chloroform were used as anaesthetics when they were available, but they were in short supply. Often the only painkiller available was whisky and a bullet to bite on. Therefore the best doctors were the fastest hackers. Some could hack off limbs in 30 seconds. The medical knowledge of the time was so undeveloped that soldiers who complained of anything, including minor conditions such as a common cold, were given calomel, emetics or laudanum to induce vomiting and diarrhoea. The overuse of laudanum led to opiate addictions among veterans.


Knowledge of the day-to-day life of the average soldier is vital in understanding the reasons behind their actions during and after the war. Some soldiers deserted because of the conditions in the camp, rather than fear of battle. The conditions of the army camps go a long way to explaining how so many men died in Prisoner of War camps, the commanders of which had far worse problems to deal with than the commanders of the army camps. The inclusion of black soldiers in camp life, although segregated, at least started the process of acceptance. The Civil War was not just about battles, it was about people, and it is therefore necessary to understand more about the place where they spent a great deal of the war.

1Sexually transmitted diseases (or STDs) such as syphilis and gonorrhea.

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