The life of a soldier during the civil war wasn't easy. Not only did soldiers face the possibility of getting killed in battle, their daily lives were full of hardships. They had to deal with hunger, bad weather, poor clothing, and even boredom between battles.
Engineers of the 8th New York State Militia in front of a tent from the National Archives
A Typical Day
Soldiers were woken at dawn to begin their day. They had drills in the morning and afternoon where they practiced for battle. Each soldier had to know his place in the unit so the army would fight as a group. Fighting together and quickly obeying the commands of the officers was a key to victory.
Between the drills, soldiers would do chores such as cooking their meals, fixing their uniforms, or cleaning equipment. If they had some free time they might play games such as poker or dominoes. They also enjoyed singing songs and writing letters to home. At night some soldiers would have guard duty. This could make for a long and tiring day.
The soldiers of the civil war had to deal with terrible medical conditions. Doctors didn't know about infections. They didn't even bother to wash their hands! Many soldiers died from infections and disease. Even a small wound could end up infected and cause a soldier to die.
The idea of medicine during this time was very primitive. They had little knowledge of pain killers or anesthetics. During major battles there were far more wounded soldiers than doctors. There was little doctors could do for wounds to the torso, but for wounds to the arms and legs, they would often amputate.
A Regimental Fife-and-drum Corps from the National Archives
How old were they?
There were soldiers of all ages that fought during the war. The average age for the Union Army was around 25 years old. The minimum age to join the army was 18 years old, however, it's thought that many young boys lied about their age and, by the end of the war, there were thousands of soldiers as young as 15 years old.
What did they eat?
The soldiers of the Civil War were often hungry. They mostly ate hard crackers made from flour, water, and salt called hardtack. Sometimes they would get salt pork or corn meal to eat. To supplement their meals, soldiers would forage from the land around them. They would hunt game and collect fruits, berries, and nuts whenever they could. By the end of the war, many soldiers in the Confederate army were on the verge of starvation.
Winter quarters; soldiers in front of their wooden hut, "Pine Cottage" from the National Archives
Were they paid?
A private in the Union army made $13 a month, while a three star general made over $700 a month. Soldiers in the Confederate army made less with privates earning $11 a month. Payments were slow and irregular, however, with soldiers sometimes waiting over 6 months to get paid.
Facts about Life as a Soldier During the Civil War
During the fall, they would work on their winter camp where they would stay at one place for the long winter months.
Soldiers were drafted, but the rich could make a payment if they wanted to avoid fighting.
If life as a soldier was bad, life as a prisoner was worse. Conditions were so bad that thousands of soldiers died while being held as prisoner.
By the end of the war around 10% of the Union army consisted of African American soldiers.