Everyday Life of the Mississippi Soldier

During the Civil War combat took up a very small part of the Mississippi soldier’s time.  For every day spent fighting, a soldier might spend weeks or even months in camp or on the march.  For the most part, soldiering was a tedious daily routine filled with hard work.

Army regulations called for Civil War camps to be laid out in a fixed grid pattern, with officer’s quarters at the front end of each street and enlisted men’s quarters aligned to the rear.  The camp was set up roughly along the lines the regiment would draw up in a line of battle.

In the summer soldiers slept in canvas tents, and early in the war very large ones were used that could hold 20 men or more, but as the conflict went on, smaller tents became more common, housing 2-4 men.  When on campaign, the soldiers often used no tents at all, sleeping under their blankets.  If the weather was bad they might build an improvised shelter from blankets and ground cloths known as a “shebang.”

Photo of the Port Gibson Riflemen, Company K, 10th Mississippi Infantry, at Pensacola, Florida, in 1861. The image was taken by New Orleans photographer J. E. Edwards. Florida Photographic Collection, Florida State Archives

When in camp the average soldier’s day began at 5 A.M. during the summer and 6 A.M. during the winter, when he was awakened by reveille.  After roll was taken to account for all of the men, breakfast was eaten and the soldiers prepared for the first of as many as five drill sessions during the day.

During drill the soldiers practiced the rigidly choreographed, close order tactics that had changed little since Napoleon’s time.  All of this drill was needed to pound the complex military maneuvers into the heads of the men so that in battle they would be able to move and fire quickly without hesitation in response to orders.

Adjutant James R. Binford of the 15th Mississippi Infantry described the process of teaching drill to the new soldiers of his regiment in the early days of the war:  “We remained in camp…about six weeks, drilling twice each day.  The officers and men all being raw recruits, discipline was very galling to them, and as they would be brought under rigid military discipline a large amount of first-class swearing could be heard every day…” – Recollections of the Fifteenth Regiment of Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A., Patrick Henry Papers, MDAH.

In between bouts of drilling, soldiers cleaned the camp, built roads, dug trenches for latrines, and gathered wood for cooking and heating.  Finding clean water was a constant problem and drinking tainted water led to disease and many deaths.

In the early days of the war, soldiers in camp tended to eat very well.  In a letter written on May 18, 1862, Sergeant James W. Thornhill of the 38th Mississippi Infantry told his wife of the rations he had been issued while in camp at Jackson, Mississippi:  “We are getting along verry well hear so fare.  We have plenty to eat we get corn meal and flour and sugar and coffee and molasses and peas and pork and some gets beef…we get vinegar and soap and salt I think we are fareing verry well although som complain mightly…” – Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags, pg. 26.

Generally there were no camp cooks, and the men were responsible for preparing their own food.  Most soldiers would band together in groups of three or more men called a “mess” to share what food they had and prepare a communal meal.  A soldier would mess with relatives or close friends, so these groups were very close, and the loss of a messmate to disease or combat was very deeply felt.

Photographer J. D. Edwards of New Orleans took this photo of a group of the 9th Mississippi Infantry at Pensacola, Florida, early in the war. From the left the men are James Pegues, Kinloch Falconer, John Fennel, James Cunningham, Thomas W. Falconer, James Simms, and John T. Smith. Kinloch Falconer went on during the war to become Assistant Adjutant General of the Army of Tennessee. Photo from the Library of Congress collections.

As the war progressed, Mississippi soldiers saw their rations reduced as the strain of the conflict made it difficult to get enough food to the troops in the field.  It was especially difficult to supply the men when they were in the middle of a long campaign.  At these times Mississippian saw little beef and few vegetables; they subsisted for the most part on salt pork, dried beans, corn bread and hard tack.  Hard tack was a flour and water biscuit that was very hard and had little taste.

Observers often commented on how lean the soldiers looked, but that the lack of food had not diminished their fighting spirit.  During the Antietam Campaign in 1862, a civilian in Frederick, Maryland said of the Confederates who marched through the town, “They were the dirtiest men I ever saw, a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves.  Yet there was a dash about them that the northern men lacked.” – Echoes of Glory, pg. 15.

To make up for their lack of rations, hungry Mississippians were often forced to live off the land.  Fighting on their home ground, the Confederacy tried hard to curb outright pillaging, and much in the way of foodstuffs was freely given by civilians to hungry soldiers.  But it was not uncommon for hungry Rebels to steal chickens, hogs, and even whole cows from farms near their camps.  One funny story involving Mississippians foraging during the Gettysburg Campaign is as follows: “When brigaded with the Fourth Alabama, Sixth North Carolina and Second Mississippi, under General Whiting, Colonel Pender, of the Sixth North Carolina, reported to headquarters that a hog had been killed within the lines of the Eleventh Mississippi. General Whiting inquired what evidence he had of this. Colonel Pender stated that he heard the report of the gun inside their lines and heard the hog squeal. ‘I am satisfied that you are mistaken, Colonel,’ replied General Whiting, ‘when a Eleventh Mississippian shoots a hog it don’t squeal.’ – “Mississippi at Gettysburg” by William A. Love.  Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 9, 1906.

One of the big problems that Mississippi soldiers faced when they did have food was the lack of proper utensils for preparing it; this was especially true when on the march during times of active campaigning, for the men could not carry much in the way of cooking implements with them.  Sergeant George P. Clarke of the 36th Mississippi Infantry described in his memoir how he overcame the lack of utensils to cook a meal:  “We found on arrival that orders had been issued to prepare three days rations, which took nearly all night owing to the lack of cooking utensils.  I remember that I had to bake my bread that night on an old broke fire shovel, hoe cake fashion.  Soldiers were often reduced to wonderful straits in this respect, for the provisions were often dished out to us when we had nothing to cook it in, and we could hunt up something, we could cook it in the ashes, or devour it raw, just as we saw proper.” – Reminiscence and Anecdotes of the War for Southern Independence.

One of the most important staples to the soldiers was coffee.  Men pounded the beans with rocks or crushed them with the butts of their guns to obtain grounds to brew coffee.  Confederate soldiers were often forced to make do with substitutes made from peanuts, potatoes, peas, or chicory.  When they could, Rebel soldiers would trade tobacco, which was plentiful, to Yankee soldiers for coffee.

Spending so much time in camp, boredom was a constant part of the soldier’s life, and the men had to find outlets to break the monotony.  The exchange of letters with family and friends at home was a very important way that soldiers overcame the boredom and homesickness of life in the army.  The Civil War began a wave of letter writing in Mississippi that has probably never been equaled, and as a consequence we have rich documentary evidence about the lives of Mississippi soldiers during the war.  It can’t be overstated how important receiving mail was to keeping up the morale of the soldiers in the field.

On June 23, 1861, Dr. Robert H. Peel of the 19th Mississippi Infantry wrote to his sister-in-law and begged her to write to him saying, “Oh! Sis, if you could only know how a soldier appreciates a letter from home, when he scarcely expects to see the dear spot again, or to grasp once more the hands of kindred and friends, you would certainly find time to write me often if you could only know how deeply I feel the disappointment, when each eavening our post-boy returns to camp without a letter or a word for me, while all others around me are made glad with kind words from the dear ones, from home, You would write something, if twas only a line per weak.” – available at the 19th Miss. Inf. Website, http://myweb.cableone.net/4jdurham/peel/ltr062361.html.

One common theme in letters sent from home to the soldiers were warnings about the evils of life in camp.  Within a Civil War camp existed every vice known to man, and for many new recruits these vices irresistible.  Gambling, drinking, and profanity were all very common, and soldiers received constant reminders from home to stay on the straight and narrow.

J. A. Gillespie wrote to her brother William Allen, a private in the 38th Mississippi Infantry, and warned him:  “Oh! William let me entreat you to beware of the sins of the camp.  Do not be tempted to join in them remember you have an angel wife in heaven and your hearts desire is to go to her.  Be a true Christian and perhaps you may influence others to do right.” – June 30, 1862.  Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags, pg. 26.

Regardless of the warnings, soldiers took part in many vices in camp, one of the most popular being gambling.  Card playing was one of the favorite modes of gambling, but soldiers were known to bet on anything, even louse races.  One Mississippi soldier who was very upset by his tentmates gambling was G. W. Roberts, who wrote to his family complaining, “I have ask them to quit playing cards in our tent or about our tent…It does not become any man to entrude upon me like they do.  If they wish to play cards let them build a house off to themselves then they could play to their own satisfaction.” – G. W. Roberts Diary, May 12 & 27, 1864.  Catalog # Z/0585.000, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Another evil in camp just as prevalent as gambling was drinking; in the 19th Century Mississippians drank a lot of liquor, and soldiers were no exception.  Although alcohol was generally prohibited in camp, thirsty soldiers found ways to smuggle it in.  “Some enterprising members of a Mississippi company smuggled a half-gallon of liquor into camp in a hollowed-out watermelon, and hid it beneath the floor of their tent.  They tapped the watermelon with a straw, and when one of them wanted a drink he lay flat on the floor and sucked the straw.  His comrades stood by to cut him off after his Adam’s Apple registered his ration of two swallows.” – Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume V, 1897, pg. 276.

Although there was certainly vice in the Civil War camps, religion was also an important part of most soldiers lives.  Each Mississippi regiment had its own chaplain, most of whom were protestant, although there were a few units with Catholic chaplains.  Religious activity in the camps increased in the spring of 1863 when a wave of revivals swept through the Confederate armies.  Pinkney Johnston, Chaplain of the 38th Mississippi Infantry described the religious fervor sweeping through the ranks:  “We have had for the past week very interesting prayer meetings.  They were well attended and the very highest interest manifested.  Souls are hungry for the ‘bread of life.’  Often in these prayer meetings there are from twelve to twenty mourners.  There have already been two or three conversions, and four have joined the church.  Sinners are being awakened, mourners, comforted, and the Christians established in the faith.” – William W. Bennett, A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies, pg. 268-269.

One cause of the great revival in the Confederate army was the series of defeats that hit the Rebels in 1863, particularly the twin defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  Both soldiers and civilians felt that God caused these defeats because of their sins, and only if they humbled themselves would he bring them victory.

Brigadier General Mark Perrin Lowrey - Photo from Wikipedia

General Mark P. Lowrey commanded a brigade of Mississippians in the Army of Tennessee.  A pre-war Baptist minister, Lowrey often preached to his men, and was known as the “Preacher General,” and in one two week period he baptized fifty men.

One of the favorite recreations that the men had was music; in camp and on the march Mississippi soldiers took comfort in the songs of the day.  Much of the singing was done informally around the campfire, but sometimes programs were staged for an audience.  There were many tunes sung by the soldiers, but some of the most popular were Dixie, the Bonnie Blue Flag, Lorena, and Maryland My Maryland.  Instrumental music was also an important part of the soldier’s life, with organized regimental bands playing on the march and giving concerts in camp.

James J. Kirkpatrick of the 16th Mississippi Infantry wrote on October 30, 1863, about his regimental band, “Camp, 2 miles South of the Rappahannock.  Drilling as usual.  Went over to the band in the evening to hear some vocal and instrumental music.  Our band is a great institution.  It always keeps its numbers undiminished, and labors with the greatest assiduity at ‘tooting.’  Their music, however, is never the sweetest nor most harmonious.” – Diary of James J. Kirkpatrick, Eugene Barber History Center, University of Texas, Austin, TX.

During the Civil War commanders on both sides tried to avoid large-scale movements of men during the winter months.  Consequently, when winter weather hit, offensive operations were often suspended and the men allowed to establish what was known as “winter quarters.”  This usually happened in November or early December, but sometimes active fighting delayed the move to winter quarters.  The commanding general would try to find a place for winter quarters that had plenty of wood and water, good drainage, and proximity to transportation facilities.

When the soldier’s went into winter quarters, they often built wooden cabins to have more protection from the elements.  The most common type built were small huts made of logs, chinked and daubed like a pioneer cabin.  David Holt of the 16th Mississippi Infantry described how his cabin was built:  “The days began to get cold and weather signs warned of snow.  We set about building our first bunks for winter quarters.  It takes two to build a bunk so cousin Jim and I worked together.  First we dug a hole in the ground.  It measured six by eight feet and two and a half feet deep.  We then cut logs and fashioned a crib about five feet in height, which gave us a room about seven feet high.  Chinking the logs, we used dirt to plaster up the cracks.  The fireplace was cut in one end of the pit and a stick chimney built over it.  Next came the roof, the hardest job of all.” – Reminiscences of a Mississippian in the Army of Northern Virginia, page 130.

When winter ended and the spring campaigning season began, Mississippi soldiers discarded many items they had acquired during the winter for comfort.  It was simply a matter of weight; a man on the march couldn’t carry very much.

During the months of active campaigning when the soldiers were constantly on the march, they suffered more hardships than any other time of the year.  The men couldn’t carry much with them in the way of food or equipment, and often the commissary was slow in getting food to the men in the ranks.  The men were exposed to cold, rain mud and blistering heat in the course of a campaigning season, with just what he could carry on his back to protect him from the elements: a ground cloth, a blanket, and perhaps a tent fly, all rolled up and worn over the shoulder in a blanket roll.

Mississippians quickly learned how to survive in the harshest conditions with very little to protect themselves from the elements.  David Holt of the 16th Mississippi Infantry described how he and his comrades survived the cold one freezing night on the march:  “At last, late in the night, we filed to the right into a heavy forest.  We were dead tired.  We made a fire first thing.  Wood was plentiful, and we made a fire at least twenty feet long beside a large log and then thawed out on the smokey side until we were smoked out.  Then we wiped our eyes and breathed on the wind side until frozen out…Cousin Jim had worked extra hard trying to keep on his feet.  He said that he just had to lie down.  He spread down a pair of linen tent flies, and we lay down on them and covered with both blankets.  We tied our handkerchiefs over our hats and under our chins and kept on all of our clothes.  Sleep came instantly.  We slept as long as the heat lasted, then got cold and awakened to find the top blanket, my blanket, frozen to the ground and covered with sleet.” – Reminiscences of a Mississippian in the Army of Northern Virginia, pg. 160-161.

Mississippi soldiers faced their deadliest foe in camp from disease.  Most Mississippi soldiers came from rural backgrounds and had never been exposed to the diseases that were common to city-raised soldiers.   Consequently, when exposed to large groups for the first time in their lives, the casualties from disease were staggering: an estimated 164,000 Confederate soldiers died of disease during the war.

During the first months of a Mississippi regiments service, it was not uncommon for half the men in the unit to be unfit for duty at one time because of sickness.  They were struck by communicable diseases such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough, and by other diseases such at malaria, and typhoid.

The 38th Mississippi Infantry is a good example of the effects that disease could have on a new regiment of soldiers.  From 1862 – 1865, 1354 men served in the 38th.  Of that number, 218 men died of disease, more than twice the number of men who died in combat.  Of the 218 who died of disease, 190 died in the first nine months of the unit’s service after the men’s initial exposure to new diseases.

Sergeant James W. Thornhill of the 38th Mississippi wrote to his wife on June 10, 1862, about the effect that disease was having on the regiment saying, “…this leaves me in tolerable health although I am not well I have something simalar to the mumps my jaws has been swelled and sore for several days but they are better now I do not think I have got the mumps.  J. J. Erwin and W. L. Owens are gone to hospital Isham has the measles this morning they are broak out right smart.  J. C. Erwin is sick and Elisha Breland is sick he has the measles…” Less than a month after he wrote this letter, Sgt. Thornhill was dead of the disease he wrote of in his letter. –  Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags, pg. 33.

Unfortunately for the sick and wounded soldiers, the Civil War came at a time when medical knowledge was sorely lacking.  Most doctors of the era got their degrees by spending at most two years in medical school, and anyone that could afford the tuition was admitted.  Others learned the trade by apprenticeship, learning the age-old myths and misapplications from watching ill-informed older doctors.

At this time germs were unheard of, as was an understanding of how to prevent the spread of infection by disinfecting instruments.  Most medicines were useless if not downright harmful, and some methods of treatment had not changed since the Roman era. A Civil War soldier was ten times more likely to die from disease and eight times more likely to die from a battlefield wound than an American soldier in World War One.

Confederate Surgeons were terribly overworked; in the southern armies there was only one doctor for every 324 soldiers, and during times of heavy fighting many men died before a doctor could see them.

Bullet wounds accounted for approximately 93% of battlefield injuries; those from artillery 6%, and those from sabers or bayonets, less than 1%.  Friends or litter bearers carried those fortunate not to fall between the lines from the field.  Casualties were taken to a field hospital near the battlefield where they were sorted, slightly wounded who could wait from those needing immediate attention, and those thought to be fatally wounded.

For Mississippians wounded in a limb, three out of four cases ended in amputation.  Usually the soldier was given some anesthesia before the operation, the preferred form being chloroform.  It was administered by putting a soaked sponge or cloth over the patient’s nose until he went limp.

Lieutenant Colonel William L. Brandon of the 21stMississippi Infantry was wounded in the leg at the battle of Malvern Hill, Virginia, and had to have his leg amputated.  He later wrote this account of the operation:

William L. Brandon

On examining the wound, he said there was no doubt of the propriety of an immediate amputation.  I asked if he had chloroform, he said yes and proceeded.  When I felt the tourniquet tighten on my leg, I called to him, I was not under the influence of chloroform.  He said he had no more, & asked should he proceed?  I replied ‘off with it!’ I supposed I could stand it.  The operation was performed in an inconceivable short time, but the pain was horrible, particularly the tying up the arteries.” – Military Reminiscences of William L. Brandon, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

When performing surgery with hundreds of men waiting to be seen, doctors often moved from patient to patient, without cleaning their hands or instruments.  Many diseases and infections were spread in this manner.

If the wounded soldier survived his time at the field hospital, he was taken to the rear to one of the hundreds of general hospitals located throughout the south.  A number of general hospitals were set up in Mississippi; some of the larger ones were Way Hospital at Meridian, Lauderdale Springs Hospital in Lauderdale County, and Semmes Hospital at Canton.  Many hospitals opened in the state to take care of the flood of wounded soldiers being sent south from the battlefield of Shiloh in April, 1862.

One of the hospitals set up to tend casualties of Shiloh was on the campus of the University of Mississippi, and in her history of the hospital Mrs. Jemmy G. Johnson described how the campus was quickly set up to receive patients from the battle:  “There was a rushing and hurrying to and from between the town and the campus.  Many of the homes were stripped of mattresses, beds, cots, bedding and everything that could be spared…The chapel building was filled with cots, and even the galleries were spread with pallets so thick that there was scarcely room for the attendants to pass between.Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 12, pg 96-97.

Southern women who volunteered their services in tending to wounded and sick soldiers aided the nursing staff of many hospitals in Mississippi.  A good example is Kate Cumming, a Scottish immigrant who lived in Mobile, Alabama.  After the battle of Shiloh Kate went to Corinth to help nurse the wounded soldiers.  On April 12 she wrote in her diary, “I sat up all night, bathing the men’s wounds, and giving them water.  Every one attending to them seemed completely worn out.  Some of the doctors told me that they had scarcely slept since the battle…I have been busy all day, and can scarcely tell what I have been doing; I have not taken time to even eat, and certainly not time to sit down.” – A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the end of the war, pg. 15.

Despite the state of medical information during the Civil War, Confederate doctors and hospitals were generally competent, and achieved results equal to their Union counterparts.

During the Civil War many Mississippi soldiers were captured and had to spend time in Union prisoner of war camps.  Life in these camps could be just as difficult as serving in combat, only in prison the difficulties were exposure, disease, and boredom.

During the first two years of the war, few Mississippians were held as prisoners for very long as most were paroled soon after capture.  Parole was a system whereby the Union and Confederacy would swap prisoners after they were captured.  In 1863 the parole system broke down, and it was at this time that large numbers of Confederates were sent to hastily-built northern prison camps.

Living conditions for Mississippians held in Union prison camps were very difficult.  The south didn’t have the resources to properly feed, clothe, and house the thousands of prisoners they held, and the north retaliated against the Confederate soldiers they held by treating them the same way.

Benjamin H. Bounds of the 4th Mississippi Infantry spent time at Fort Delaware prison camp in Delaware, and he wrote about the harsh conditions he faced there:  “Here I remained for seventeen months.  The hardships are privations endured cannot be described.  Our bedding consisted of one blanket and one suit of clothes to the man spread on the bare floor with the thermometer ranging from 103 above to 28 degrees below zero.  We had one stove to every 500 men, and one bushel of coal per day during the winter months.  The cold was so severe that men would cry like children.” – Ben H. Bounds: Methodist Minister and Prominent Mason.

With lots of spare time on their hands, many soldiers took up hobbies such as woodcarving, making trinkets to send to friends and family.  The Old Capitol has a number of these artifacts in its collections.

There was one prison camp for Confederate prisoners on Mississippi soil; in 1864 Union authorities began sending captured Rebels to Ship Island off the Mississippi coast.  The camp operated from October 1864 to June 1865, and during that time over 5,000 Confederates were held prisoner there.

Ship Island was very barren, and conditions for the prisoners were very unpleasant.  One Union soldier said of the island, “This is the most desolate place I ever saw.  Its nothing but a heap of sand surrounded by water, no vegetation on whatever I could see.” – Private Isaac Jackson, 83rd Ohio Infantry. Gulf Islands National Seashore Website.

During the course of the war, 214,000 Confederates were sent to northern prisons, and 25,976 died.  Union death rates in southern prisons were about the same; of 194,000 who spent time in Confederate prisons, 30,024 died.

Sources

     Ballard, Michael B., and Thomas D. Cockrell, Ed.  A Mississippi Rebel in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

Bennett, William W.  A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies.  Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1989.

Bounds, Charles L.  Ben H. Bounds: Methodist Minister and Prominent Mason.  No publisher, no date.

Brandon, William L.  Military Reminiscences of William L. Brandon.  Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

Clarke, George P.  Reminiscence and Anecdotes of the War for Southern Independence.  Decatur, MS: Privately Published, no date.

Current, Richard N.  Ed.  Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, Volume II.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Davis, William C.  The Fighting Men of the Civil War.  New York: Gallery Books, 1989.

Giambrone, Jeff T.  Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags: A History of the 38th Mississippi Infantry C.S.A.  Bolton, MS: Smokey Row Press, 1998.

Harwell, Richard B., Ed.  Kate: The Journal Of A Confederate Nurse.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Johnson, Mrs. Jemmy Grant.  “The University War Hospital.”  Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 12, 1912.

Prisoners of Ship Island.”  Gulf Islands National Seashore Website.  Located at http://www.nps.gov/guis/extended/MIS/MHistory/POW.htm.

Wiley, Bell I.  The Life of Johnny Reb.  Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1943.

Woodhead, Henry.  Ed.  Echoes of Glory: Arms & Equipment of the Confederacy.  Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1991.

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