A journal following the history, design, construction and operation of Bernard Kempinski's O Scale model railroad depicting the U. S. Military Railroad (USMRR) Aquia-Falmouth line in 1863, and other model railroad projects.
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July 23, 2012

Life of the common soldiers in the Civil War

I recently finished reading two books that detail what life as a common soldier was like in the Civil War. The first was Detailed Minutiae of Soldier life in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865, by Carlton McCarthy. The second was Leander Stillwell's, The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War, 1861-1865. Both are available free on-line from various sources such as project Gutenberg here and here.

McCarthy served as a Private in the second company Richmond Howitzers, of Cutshaw's Artillery Battalion, in the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. His memoir is more a general, somewhat romanticized view of what life was like for a southern soldier. It is not  a strict chronological memoir like Stillwell's, but more a summary organized by topic, similar to the earlier book I reviewed, Hard Tack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life by  John Davis Billings, but from a southern perspective. The similarities  in camp life between northern and southern soldiers was quite remarkable, though McCarthy does at times mention how they suffered more than their Union counterparts. The part of this book I found most compelling was the description of what soldiers did after the surrender at Appomattox as they walked home and looked for work and food. He also has an interesting side discussion on the origin of the Confederate battle flag.

Stillwell's book is quite different in that it is a chronological memoir of his service in the 61st Illinois Infantry similar to Sherman's memoirs, but from the perspective of a young enlisted man and only covering the war years, not his whole life.

Stillwell is a fantastic, and brutally honest writer. Though he penned this many years after the war, the details he remembers are incredible, though he does augment his memory with cites from the Official Records. Though a self-described country farm boy barely old enough to enlist and slightly built, his leadership skills and honesty quickly lead him to promotion to corporal, first sergeant and eventually company commander as a lieutenant. His story is matter of fact, with little of the self promotion and score settling you sometimes finds in memoirs.  He later went on to become a judge and served for many years in Erie, Kansas and other locations including a stint in Washington, DC.

The story is so well written and insightful that I think most general readers will enjoy it, but it is a MUST READ for anyone interested in civil war railroads. Stillwell's military service was intimately connected with the rail roads. His unit frequently was assigned to guard railroads, he rode them numerous time (as well as steam ships) across the south during his service to places like Shiloh, Corinth, Murfreesboro to Little Rock, AK. The last engagement he fought in was a running battle with confederate cavalry as his unit tried to defend a supply train to Murfreesboro in December 1864.  This and his description of the battle of Shiloh are remarkable.

Here is an except that I found very compelling. It demonstrates his style of writing as well as his first combat.

I distinctly remember my first shot at Shiloh.  I think that when the boys saw the enemy advancing they began firing of their own motion, without waiting for orders. At least, I don't remember hearing any. I was in the front rank, but didn't fire. I preferred to wait for a good opportunity, when I could take deliberate aim at some individual foe. But when the regiment fired, the Confederates halted and began firing also, and the fronts of both lines were at once shrouded in smoke. I had my gun at a ready, and was trying to peer under the smoke in order to get a sight of our enemies. Suddenly I heard some one in a highly excited tone calling to me from just in my rear,—"Stillwell! shoot! shoot! Why don't you shoot?" I looked around and saw that this command was being given by Bob Wylder, our second lieutenant, who was in his place, just a few steps to the rear. He was a young man, about twenty-five years old, and was fairly wild with excitement, jumping up and down "like a hen on a hot griddle." "Why, lieutenant," said I, "I can't see anything to shoot at." "Shoot, shoot, anyhow!" "All right," I responded, "if you say shoot, shoot it is;" and bringing my gun to my shoulder, I aimed low in the direction of the enemy, and blazed away through the smoke.

I have always doubted if this, my first shot, did any execution—but there's no telling. However, the lieutenant was clearly right. Our adversaries were in our front, in easy range, and it was our duty to aim low, fire in their general direction, and let fate do the rest. But at the time the idea to me was ridiculous that one should blindly shoot into a cloud of smoke without having a bead on the object to be shot at. I had shot squirrels and rabbits, and other small game, in the big woods adjacent to our backwoods home, from the time I was big enough to carry a gun. In fact, I began when I was too small to shoot "off hand," but had to fire from a "rest,"—any convenient stump, log, or forked bush. The gun I used was a little old percussion lock rifle, with a long barrel, carrying a bullet which weighed about sixty to the pound. We boys had to furnish our own ammunition,—lead (which we moulded into bullets), gun-caps, and powder. Our principal source of revenue whereby we got money to buy ammunition was hazel-nuts, which we would gather, shuck, and sell at five cents a quart. And the work incident to the gathering and shucking of a quart of hazel nuts was a decidedly tedious job. But it made us economical in the use of our ordnance stores, so we would never throw away a shot carelessly or unnecessarily. And it was a standing rule never to shoot a squirrel anywhere except in the head, save as a last resort, when circumstances compelled one to fire at some other part of the body of the little animal. And so I thought, at the beginning of my military career, that I should use the same care and circumspection in firing an old musket when on the line of battle that I had exercised in hunting squirrels. But I learned better in about the first five minutes of the battle of Shiloh. However, in every action I was in, when the opportunity was afforded, I took careful and deliberate aim, but many a time the surroundings were such that the only thing to do was to hold low, and fire through the smoke in the direction of the enemy. I will say here that the extent of wild shooting done in battle, especially by raw troops, is astonishing, and rather hard to understand. 

Here is another passage detailing "taking the cars," the term he frequently uses to describe rail travel.

This probably is a fitting place for something to be said about our method of traveling by rail during the Civil war, as compared with the conditions of the present day in that regard. At the time I am now writing, about fifteen thousand United States soldiers have recently been transported on the cars from different places in the interior of the country, to various points adjacent to the Mexican border, for the purpose of protecting American interests. And it seems that in some cases the soldiers were carried in ordinary passenger coaches. Thereupon bitter complaints were made on behalf of such soldiers because Pullman sleepers were not used! And these complaints were effective, too, for, according to the press reports of the time, the use of passenger coaches for such purposes was summarily stopped and Pullmans were hurriedly concentrated at the places needed, and the soldiers went to war in them. Well, in our time, the old regiment was hauled over the country many times on trains, the extent of our travels in that manner aggregating hundreds and hundreds of miles. And such a thing as even ordinary passenger coaches for the use of the enlisted men was never heard of. And I have no recollection now that (during the war) any were provided for the use of the commissioned officers, either, unless they were of pretty high rank. The cars that we rode in were the box or freight cars in use in those days. Among them were cattle cars, flat or platform cars, and in general every other kind of freight car that could be procured. We would fill the box cars, and in addition clamber upon the roofs thereof and avail ourselves of every foot of space. And usually there was a bunch on the cow-catchers. The engines used wood for fuel; the screens of the smoke-stacks must have been very coarse, or maybe they had none at all, and the big cinders would patter down on us like hail. So, when we came to the journey's end, by reason of the cinders and soot we were about as dirty and black as any regiment of sure-enough colored troops that fought under the Union flag in the last years of the war. When the regiment was sent home in September, 1865, some months after the war was over, the enlisted men made even that trip in our old friends, the box cars. It is true that on this occasion there was a passenger coach for the use of the commissioned officers, and that is the only time that I ever saw such a coach attached to a train on which the regiment was taken anywhere. Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not kicking because, more than half a century after the close of the Civil War, Uncle Sam sent his soldier boys to the front in Pullmans. The force so sent was small and the government could well afford to do it, and it was right. I just want you to know that in my time, when we rode, it was in any kind of an old freight car, and we were awful glad to get that. And now on this matter, "The words of Job are ended."

The only railroad accident I ever happened to be in was one that befell our train as we were in the act of leaving Jackson on the afternoon of the 24th. There was a good deal of hurry and confusion when we got on the cars, and it looked like it was every fellow for himself. Jack Medford (my chum) and I were running along the side of the track looking for a favorable situation, when we came to a flat car about the middle of the train, as yet unoccupied. "Jack," said I, "let's get on this!" He was a little slow of speech; he stopped, looked and commenced to say something, but his hesitation lost us the place,—and was fraught with other consequences. Right at that moment a bunch of the 12th Michigan on the other side of the track piled on the car quicker than a flash, and took up all available room. Jack and I then ran forward and climbed on top of a box car, next to the tender of the engine, and soon after the train started. It had not yet got under full head-way, and was going only about as fast as a man could walk, when, from some cause, the rails spread, and the first car to leave the rails was the flat above mentioned. But its trucks went bouncing along on the ties, and doubtless nobody would have been hurt, had it not been for the fact that the car plunged into a cattle guard, of the kind then in use.

This guard was just a hole dug in the track, probably four or five feet deep, the same in length, and in width extending from rail to rail. Well, the front end of the car went down into that hole, and then the killing began. They stopped the train very quickly, the entire event couldn't have lasted more than half a minute, but that flat car was torn to splinters, three soldiers on it were killed dead, being frightfully crushed and mangled, and several more were badly injured. The men on the car jumped in every direction when the car began breaking up, and so the most of them escaped unhurt. If the train had been going at full speed, other cars would have been involved, and there is simply no telling how many would then have been killed and wounded.

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