Army Life

Page contents:

Organization of the Armies / Branches of the Army / Weapons / Discipline / Food / Camp Life / Recreation / Religion / Sutlers/ Who Were the Soldiers? / Building Defenses

Organization of the Armies

Both the Union and Confederate Armies had similiar organizations. Infantry volunteers who enlisted in the army joined a regiment, named by number and by state. The regiment was a unit of 1,000 men. Each regiment had 10 companies of 100 men each. The regiment was commanded by a Colonel and the company was commanded by a captain.

When four regiments were joined together, they formed a brigade. A brigade had 4,000 men and was commanded by a Brigadier General.

Three brigades formed a division. A division had 12,000 men. A Brigadier General or a Major General commanded a division.

Three divisions made up a corps ("core") and if it was a Union division it was commanded by a Major General and by a Lieutenant General if it was a Confederate division. A corps had 36,000 men.

The Union armies were named after major rivers,such as the Potomac, Cumberland, Ohio or James. Confederate armies were also named for rivers and for locations, such as The Army of Northern Virginia or The Army of the Tennessee. The armies at Gettysburg were the Army of the Potomac (Union) commanded by a Major General and the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by a General.

In reality, the numbers of men in the regiments, brigades, divisions and corps varied due to sickness, desertions, deaths and furloughs. When new recruits joined the armies, they were not assigned to the under-strength regiments. Instead, they were formed into new regiments. As the war went on, brigades added understrength regiments to bring up their numbers. By the end of the war, many brigades were comprised of five or six regiments.

Branches of the Civil War Armies

Both the Union and Confederate armies had the same three branches: the cavalry, the artillery and the infantry. Each had a specific combat skill.

Calvalry - The cavalry were soldiers who fought on horseback. Sometimes they fought dismounted. When they fought dismounted, every three soldiers would fight while a fourth held their horses. Another duty of the calvary was to be "the eyes and ears" of the army. They were responsible for providing information about the enemy's location and troop strength. Sometimes they conducted raids, where they would go in to enemy territory and wreck havoc. A calvary regiment had 12 troops, or companies.

Artillery - The branch of the army that used cannons was the artillery. The cannons were organized into batteries of four to six guns each. They helped the infantry.

Infantry - The infantry are soldiers that fight on foot.Usually they fight with rifled muskets.

There are other important branches of the army. The quartermaster makes sure everyone has what they need to fight and eat. The medical corps took care of the sick and wounded. The signal corps used flags to communicate messages. The engineering corps planned and built roads and bridges and sometimes planned entrenchments to protect the forts.

Infantry Weapons - see also the Technology page (firearms)

When the war began there were no factories in the South that manufactured guns. The North had many factories that produced guns. Soldiers used muzzle loading rifled muskets. The barrel of the gun was rifled. These were spiral grooves inside the barrel that caused the bullet to spin at high speeds after it was shot. The bullet traveled farther and faster than the smoothbore rifle shots. The muskets used a percussion cap to set the charge that made the gun shoot. There were nine steps to loading and firing a gun and an experienced infantry soldier could shoot 3 aimed shots in a minute. The rifles were accurate from 300 yards.

The rifled muskets used a new type of bullet developed by a French army officer named Claude Minie. The bullet was called the minie (minnie) ball and it was a conical shaped bullet with a hollow base. The minie ball caused many serious injuries because it would explode inside a soldier's body, causing bones to shatter. All soldiers had a .58 rifle and one canteen.

There were also other types of weapons used by the soldiers in the Civil War. One example is the gatling gun, which is one of the first kinds of machine guns. However, it had limited use during the Civil War.


They were not professional soldiers. Most of them were volunteer soldiers. They lacked discipline. They would assault officers. Soldiers were also known to abandon equipment and loot towns. Once it was apparent that the war would not be over quickly, many soldiers ran from their regiments and desert. This was a big problem.

The Union had 200,000 soldiers desert and the Confederacy had 104,000. Sometimes they left because their families needed them or they were homesick. Furloughs (official passes to leave the army for a short time and then come back to the army) were rarely given. Sometimes they deserted because of low morale or from fear of battle or from lack of supplies. Other soldiers were sent to find them. There was a $30 reward for turning in deserters. Some deserters hid in the attics or barns of their family. If they were found they were beaten or punished and then sent to fight again.

Punishment wasn't always administered consistently. The type of punishment depended on the offense and the officer in charge of the punishment. There were several different types of punishment, but the most severe was by firing squad. This was usually the punishment for deserters. On the way to Gettysburg, General Meade ordered any deserters to be shot. During the war, 141 Union soldiers were executed for desertion but Lincoln signed pardons for many more.


The food both the Union and Confederate soldier ate included dessicated vegetables (for the Union), hard tack, fresh vegetables (for the Confederates), meats, and molasses. Did you know the soldiers called the dessicated vegetables "desecrated vegetables" and the hardtack they called "worm castles" because of all the worms in them? They definitely had a sense of humor! Hard tack was a cracker or biscuit made from flour, water, and salt. It was inexpensive and lasted very long. The soldiers spread anything spreadable onto it or dunked it into water or anything else.

When they didn't have food, some soldiers looked for food when they were not fighting. When soldiers went looking for food, it was called "foraging." Who do you think they foraged from? Most of the time, they foraged from civilians, who were frequently left without any food when the armies moved through. One of the reasons that Lee decided to invade Pennsylvania (there were several) was because he wanted to move the war out of Virginia, where it had been fought for many years, to give Southern farmers a chance to grow crops. Lee wanted the army to live off the bounty of the North. But, he gave orders that the Confederates were to respect the property of the Northerners. They didn't always, and some of the Pennsylvania-German farmers were upset when the Confederate soldiers "invaded" their orchards.

They would cook food by either broiling it on coals or over fires. Some soldiers cooked their food in individual tin dippers and some even brought frying pains (taking turns carrying it in the march).

For more see the page on Civil War Food

Camp Life

In camp, a soldier's home was a rectangular piece of canvas that formed a small two-man tent. The soldiers called them "dog tents" because they joked that only a dog could fit in it. Every soldier was given one for use in an active warfare and for camp life. Most Confederates didn't receive tents for shelter, but if they did, it was a lower class tent. During the war, many Confederate camps were filled with Union tents that were captured. They also had Union blankets, canteens, and bags for carrying supplies. In the winter, both armies would use tree logs to make warmer huts for the soldiers (held several men).

In between campaigns, most of the time in camp was spent on drilling and rifle practice. Soldiers spent at least 75% of their time in camp. The soldiers practiced how to march in all kinds of weather, pitch tents in ten minutes and learn how to act as one body. Sometimes there were as many as five seperate drill sessions a day and each drill session lasted about 2 hours. One soldier described his day: "First thing in the morning is drill. Then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly drill." After drill was over, soldiers had other duties and chores. Obedience was the hardest lesson for soldiers to learn.

Boredom was a problem in many camps. During their free time, the soldiers had campfires, played card games, read books, and played team sports, such as baseball.The most popular game that the soldiers did when not fighting was card playing. They would also even bet, pay a nickel for raffles, or even have foot races. Other things the soldiers do is sing songs. They sang many types of music and had a lot of fun doing it. It kept thier minds off the war. As was said before, card playing was the most popular thing for the soldiers to do while not fighting. Cards were hard to get, so if they had they would be the cheap kind with just the suit on them. The soldiers would also make their own cards with pictures of generals and other pictures that they had on hand.

In the winter they would build snowmen, sled, ice skate, and have very harsh snowball fights that sometimes ended up with black eye, or even broken limbs. When the soldiers were not on duty they could do what they wanted. They would do something with whatever they had. They would take very long naps, which was the easiest thing to do for them. They could also read things they got from home. Here is a list of some of the things that they could have done: play checkers, write letters, sing in groups and gamble. The soldiers could also pay a nickel for a raffle for a prize. They also footraced, and horse raced. Soldiers always sang songs whenever they were on their way to battle or leaving battle. General Robert E. Lee said that song was the most important thing in war because if there was no war it wouldn't show that the soldiers had any spirit.


Musicians were entertaining the soldiers when they were not fighting. There were also actors that would put on a show that would entertain them. The soldiers play games when they were not fighting or singing songs. Soldiers participated in all kinds of activities such as boxing, broad jumping, wrestling matches, foot races, hurdles, mock fighting marbles, checkers, chess, dominoes, dice, fights, and the new game of baseball. Also, the soldiers would play card games, and many soldiers wrote in their diary of how drunk everyone would get and how there was always fighting.

For more, see the page on Civil War Entertainment


The soldiers held religious services by the regimental chaplains almost every night. Most soldiers had their own religion. The soldiers had many hard times on the battlefield and they prayed at night and in the morning because they believed God would protect them. They also believed that God helped them to be strong. Jewish soldiers were not allowed a rabbi as a spiritual leader in the Union army even though the Christians were allowed a priest. There were many chaplains with the armies, and some generals and officers were also ordained ministers.

At Gettysburg is a monument honoring Father William Corby. He served with the 88th New York Infantry of the Irish Brigade. When the brigade was ordered into battle on the second day, Father Corby asked for permission to delay the order for a few minutes while he spoke to the soldiers. He stood on top of a boulder, raised his right hand, and amidst the noise of the battle, administered general absolution. The brigade then went into battle. After the war, Fathe Corby was president of Notre Dame University, where there is an identical copy of the Gettysburg statue was placed on the campus.

This link provides information on the soldier's views on religion.

Who Were the Soldiers?

The army consisted of "Regular" soldiers. These were soldiers that were part of the United States Army before the Civil War began. Other soldiers were volunteers. Some soldiers were drafted. The army also consisted of criminals that would join and receive a bounty (a signing bonus), then desert and go to the opposite army and receive another bounty. Laws and customs did not permit women in wars but women did help out by caring for the sick, injured, and they helped make rifle cartridges. Some women did fight as soldiers, even though they were not permitted to enlist.

More than 3,900 boys under the age of 17 were in the Union Army. The Southern states encouraged boys as young as 15 to join the army and they also pressured elderly men into the military. They did this because they faced a shortage of manpower, which the North did not. Some families accompanied the men to camp and took care of them. Some kids ran away to join the army even though their parents would not allow them to joing the army.


Sutlers were like traveling salesmen. They followed the army and set up shop, selling items that soldiers wanted or needed. The sutlers of the war were the people who sold food and other necessities to the soldiers of war. The soldiers usually made $13 a week while at war and with that money they would buy the food and other treats the sutlers sold. The soldiers bought this food from them because they may have been tired of eating the same kind of food every day

Building Defenses

Being a soldier can be a very boring job. There is a lot of time between battles. Soldiers would train and drill, hoping to make them better soldiers. They also had to repair their equipment so they would be able to fight when called upon. And, of course, they engaged in recreation like card playing. But their leaders really didn't want the troops to be idle.

One thing that many soldiers had to do was dig. Much of the landscape that the Civil War was fought on was flat, leaving little cover for attackers or defenders. When time permitted, earthen breastworks were made by digging massive ditches. Every foot of earth removed from the flat ground was mounded up and made two feet of cliff that the attackers would have to overcome to get to the defenders. These cliffs provided shelter for the defenders and could always be taller, so this was a good way of using idle time. When the war was over, these mountainous ditches proved to be a great hurdle for farmers trying to resume farming. Where hundreds or thousands of men had dug them, only the landowner and remaining family members were left to try to knock them down so they could plant crops. Today, nearly 150 years since the Civil War began, there are still earthen breast works vWeapisible in the South.