Soldiers On the Go
A Civil War army on a march must have been a site to see: soldiers stretched out for miles, with horses and mules pulling large cannons, and followed by wagon trains. Beloved music and songs, especially after a victory, were heard coming from the troops. But what about the things they brought from home and carried with them on the march? Also, what of the injuries and other medical problems that soldiers acquired from marching? We know what bullets and disease did to the human body, but what about the strenuous and exhausting marching?
This page is a collection of additional information, pictures, quotes, and sources to accompany the “On the Go” Exhibit at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
“When we aint fighting we are marching.” –John W. Chase, First Massachusetts Light Artillery. Signed “Jack” written to his brother. “In the field, Near Mechanicsville, VA. May 31, 1864.”
Yours for the Union: The Civil War Letters of John W. Chase. Ed. John S. Collier and Bonnie B Collier, 2004, 338.
The average for a march was between 8 and 13 miles per day, with 20 or more miles being more exhausting and less frequent. Also, the armies usually walked less after a battle, unless in retreat or in pursuit.
“The 5th Regiment of Infantry (Maryland) traveled the following distances during the Civil War: By boat, nine hundred and twenty-three miles; by rail, six hundred and seventy, three miles; on foot, five hundred and sixty-seven miles; or a total of two thousand one hundred and sixty-three miles.” –(Archives of Maryland, Volume 0367, Page 0180. History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-6, Volume 1.)
Soldiers marched between dawn and dusk, and rarely at night because of the risk of accidents and injury. They would make breakfast before sunrise, pack up camp, set out on the march at daylight and marched through the day, then make camp before sundown, and usually fix and eat dinner after it was dark. The armies marched in any kind of weather: heat, cold, rain, snow. Soldiers hated marching long distances in the heat while wearing a heavy wool uniform, and through the dust that accompanied the heat. Marching did not always occur on nice roads as troops had to march through mud, snow, water, on uneven roads, and over mountains.
Joel Cook was a Special Correspondent of the Philadelphia Press who was with Union General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular Campaign and wrote down his observances and opinion in his book, The Siege of Richmond, in 1862. Cook wrote about marching, “No hardships were harder than those of the march, if we are to trust the voluminous testimony of the foot soldiers. The roads were dusty in the summer, muddy in the winter; the soldier was dressed in heavy woolens, loaded down with fifty or sixty pounds of equipment, often without food for long stretches of the day. It is no wonder that straggling was almost universal, or that literally thousands of men fell out of line and got lost. It is difficult to know whether the Confederate or the Federal soldiers suffered most from marching. More Confederates than Federals were country bred, and therefore more accustomed to cross-country hiking; on the other hand the Confederacy was low on shoes, and there are any number of stories of Southern soldiers marching barefoot, even in the winter months.” (Joel Cook, The Siege of Richmond, 1862. )
Both armies trained in camp for battles and marching. Soldiers learned how to dress and what to carry, how to march correctly, and what to do when different marching orders were given to the troops. The order of “heavy marching” was given a couple hours before the march, and soldiers carried all they had with them. While the order of “light marching” was given with short notice where soldiers only carried their musket, ammunition, canteen, and haversack. Marching was usually four abreast in a neat order. Though after the first half-mile on heavy marches, soldiers would become lax and walk out of order and all over the road. A march into battle (light marching) was of course stricter than the longer heaving marching. Soldiers would follow the band and drum corps, along with the colonel in the lead. The surgeons and chaplains would bring up the rear of the march with the wagon trains. There would be halts during the long marches, lasting around an hour and a half, to allow men to rest, take off their heavy knapsacks, and search for water. Scarcity of water became a problem during the hot summer marches, making the marches even more exasperating and sunstroke imminent.
A soldiers’ uniform was usually made of wool, which made soldiers hot in the summer and created a more exhausting marching as well. A uniform consisted of a shirt, pants, coat, stockings, kepi, belt, boots or shoes, and sometimes a poncho or a “gum blanket” used as a poncho. For the Union soldiers, the uniform was consisted and was described in full with extensive details in “Regulations and Notes for the Uniform of the Army of the United States, 1861,” a manual for Union soldiers. The manual described badges, sashes, epaulettes, shoulder straps, and swords distinguished rank and job in the Union army. Also the manual described that, “The hair should be short; the beard to be worn at the pleasure of the individual; but when worn, to be kept short and neatly trimmed.” Confederate soldiers were known to wear out their shoes on marches and sometimes could not receive another pair for a while and marched barefoot. Soldiers carried extra clothes in their knapsack and occasionally tossed out their extra clothes on marches because of weight, but they would later sometimes regret that because of colder weather in the winter.
On marches, soldiers had to carry 30-50 lbs. of equipment, which included:
- Held the blanket, tent, extra clothes, personal items
- Some soldiers hated it, while some tolerated it, and it is often referred to as “dead weight,” especially during rain.
- More well liked than the knapsack, in constant use and was a necessity for the foot soldier
- Hung lose from the shoulder on the soldier’s hip
- Held food and table furniture
- A tin cup was usually tied onto the haversack
- Canteen- The canteen was probably the most essential piece of equipment that the soldiers carried on marches because soldiers needed water to drink on the long marches. Canteens usually held 2.5 or 3 pints of water, and refilling during a march was a necessity.
- 60 rounds of ammunition: 40 in the cartridge box, 20 usually in the knapsack
- Muskets, including the Enfield M1853 rifle and the Springfield M1863 rifle
- Pistols and a sword if an officer
- Cartridge box, bullet Case, gun powder flask
- Gun tools-cleaning jag, ball screw
- Smoked Meat
- Eating Utensils
- “Jack-knives”-a folding knife
- Bowie Knife
- Cups, Plate
- Oil cloth, “gum blanket”
- “Dog Tent”
- The Handy-book for the U.S. Soldier: On Coming Into Service
Surgeons that marched with the army carried several different items, including:
- Traveling surgical kit
- Traveling apothecary kit
- With vials of Chloroform, morphine, and quinine
- Bandages and tourniquets
- Needles, thimble, and cotton
On long marches, soldiers carried all that they brought with them from home and what they were given by the army.
If you would like to learn more about what soldiers carried with them and to see the artifacts that we have in the marching exhibit, click the button below for an interactive educational experience!
Civil War soldiers also carried personal items from home to remind them of loved ones, family, and friends. Soldiers carried pictures of loved ones from home on their body. Union soldiers were also known to carry a picture of President Abraham Lincoln as well. When the soldiers reached their camp, they would write a letter home or write in their diaries about their marches, camp life, and battles during the war. Their letters and diaries are important for historians to learn more about the everyday life of a soldier during the Civil War. Other personal items of soldiers included:
- Bible/prayer books
- Letters-paper and envelopes, stamps
- Money: coins, paper currency
- Brass horns, drums, fifes, harmonica
- Guitar, banjo
- Song books
- Shaving Kit
- Mug and Brush, Razor
- Soap and Soap box
- Housewife-Sewing Kit
- Bone Dice, Cards, Dominoes, Checkers
- Clay or wooden smoking pipe, chewing tobacco
- Comb, lice comb
- Personal Medicine Kit
- Candles, Brass Candle Holder, Matches
- Family, Hometown
- Identification disk, with chain
- Whiskey Flask
- Fishing pole
Injuries and other Medical Problems
Soldiers obtained injuries from marching nearly countless miles over up to four years of service. Thousands of miles of marching with heavy equipment caused wear and tear on soldiers’ bodies. Knee problems were probably the most common “wear and tear” injuries from marching during the Civil War. Also marching through new regions with new diseases not yet immune to, and marching in the cold and rain or in the heat led to soldiers contracting diseases. Surgeons took care of sick and injured soldiers in camp. A soldier carrying around 30-40 lbs. of equipment for thousands of miles for four years of marching could acquire multiple injuries, diseases, and other health problems including:
- Back pain
- Blown-out knees
- Chronic coughs
- Joint pain, including arthritis and osteoarthritis, in knees, hips, ankles, and the spine
- Torn or loss of cartilage in knees and hips
- Nerve damage
- Bruises, cut, and scrapes
- Muscle soreness and tear
- Bone degeneration and bone spurs
- Leaking fluid sacks in knees
- Sun stroke
- Common cold
- Typhoid fever
- Infection from blisters and cuts
Some of these injuries including rheumatism and knee problems continued to be a problem for soldiers after the war, causing complications with physical labor resulting in missing work and trouble finding a job.
The war caused Asher Chase’s, of the Seventh Massachusetts Light Artillery, health to gradually deteriorate. During the war Chase, who joined at the age of twenty, had Typhoid Fever, believed rheumatism, and “pain and dizziness of (the) head.” Rheumatism left Chase almost paralyzed in his right leg, as the pain was so bad because of what Chase’s wife Jane wrote, “seemed to be a heaviness in the right leg.” Asher Chase had a bad limp, which caused him to miss work ‘one or two weeks at a time.” He took “Kennedy’s Rheumatic Liniment” for his Rheumatism, which helped his leg. But Chase died in January of 1875 at the age of 33 of “slow paralysis and softening of the brain.” (Source: John W. Chase, Yours for the Union: The Civil War Letters of John W. Chase, First Massachusetts Light Artillery, ed. John S. Collier and Bonnie B. Collier (New York: Fordham University Press) 2004. Pgs. 433-451)
Personal diaries and letters are extremely important and helpful sources in understanding how difficult, tiresome, and potentially harmful marches were during the Civil War. Here are some of the quotes from diaries and letters that were influential for the exhibit on Civil War marching at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine:
Lieutenant Charles Denoon of the 41st Virginia in a letter of advice for his brother who was going to enlist said, “…all he needs is one pair pants, one coat, tow shirts, tow pair drawers and two pair socks…, haversack, canteen, tin cup, one blanket (small), oil cloth or piece of Yankee tent… You may put your shirt and drawers in your blanket and roll them up in a round roll, tying the two ends together and place it on your shoulder as you would a game bag or horn with strings around it to keep it from unrolling…” (Source: Gregory A. Coco, The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, on the March, and in Battle (Gettysburg, PA, Thomas Publications) 1996, pg. 49)
W.A. Keesey described a march in the Shenandoah Valley on July 8, 1862 as, “The heat was so intense that the dust burned us. Many of the men were falling out by the way-side, overcome by heat. The officers put leaves, dipped in water when it could be had, into their hats as a precaution against sun-stroke. The very atmosphere was aglare with the blazing sun and it was sad to see so many men collapsing under the blasting heat; many strong men with the look of despair upon their faces, with ‘death by sun-stroke,’ soon to be written after their names upon the roll…The scene on this terrible, hot march was as appalling as battle itself.” (Source: Gregory A. Coco, The Civil War Infantryman: In Camp, on the March, and in Battle (Gettysburg, PA, Thomas Publications) 1996, pg. 86)
“The knapsack…is an unwieldy burden with its rough, coarse contents of flannel and sole leather and sometimes twenty round of ammunition extras mixed in with these regulation essentials, like beatitudes, are photographs, cards, huswife (housewife), Testament, pens, ink, paper, and oftentimes stolen truck enough to load a mule. All this is crowned with a double wool blanket and half a shelter tent rolled in a rubber blanket.”
–Abner Small, Officer of the 16th Maine. Gregory Coco, The Civil War Infantry Man, pg. 51.
“If a man wants to know what it is to have every bone in his body to ach with fatigue, every muscle sore and exhausted, and his whole body ready to sink to the ground, let him…shoulder his knapsack, haversack, gun and equipments, and make one of our forced marches, and I will warrant him to be satisfied that the duties of war are stern and severe… (especially) when every spark of energy seems about to be extinguished and the last remnant of strength gone (and he is), tired, hungry, sick and sore…”
– Private Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont. (Source: Gregory Coco, The Civil War Infantry Man, pg. 86)
“Since I wrote…you will perceive we have been on the march again. We came…to this place yesterday, six miles the way we came but only making us four miles nearer Richmond…The reason we do not march farther in a day is because of our supply trains not being able to move farther than that in a day. It is truly said that large bodies move slowly. Some people think we might be able to march 20 or 25 miles a day instead of what we do. If the whole country was one gravel road, it might be accomplished but without something of this kind is impossible.”
—James Graham of the 62nd Pennsylvania in a letter to his aunt Ellen Lee on May 20, 1862 about his march to Richmond. (Source: Gregory Coco, The Civil War Infantry Man, pg. 84)
Sergeant Marion Fitzpatrick described the damage that marching could do to a soldier’s body, “it wore the ends of my toenails down to the quick, blistered my feet, and (made) them sore generally.” And Private Wilbur Fisk also wrote about the damage from marching on another soldier writing, “ one boot in one hand, and the other stuck on his gun, while his stockings were nearly worn off his feet by the dirt and hard travelling. His feet were swelled and he had several large blisters on them. He was a new recruit, and one of the veterans asked him how much of his town bounty he had paid for that day.” (Source: Gregory Coco, The Civil War Infantry Man, pg. 89)
“It took all night to march about seven miles, the roads so clogged with teams and other things to hinder. Marching by rods is like dying by inches, and it gets an impatient man into a hell of a misery. Scolding and swearing is dispensed at an awful rate when a regiment is compelled to halt and wait every few rods, if the road is good and the journey long….The road was continually blocked up by some obstructions ahead, so that we had to halt three minutes where we could travel one. It was vexing beyond all control to stand there and hold our arching knapsacks, with (a) gigantic, never-ending hill looming in front of us, and the long hard journey in prospect. We rarely halted long enough to sit down, but if we did the column would invariably start just as we were fairly seated.”
—Private Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont on a march from Winchester, VA to Gettysburg, PA. (Source: Gregory Coco, The Civil War Infantry Man, pg. 85)
Pictures and Sketches
Click here to see pictures taken during the Civil War and sketches drawn during the war:
Sources and Further Research
Gregory Coco, The Civil War Infantryman: In camp, on the march, and in battle (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications) 1996.
John W. Chase, Yours for the Union: The Civil War Letters of John W. Chase, First Massachusetts Light Artillery, ed. John S. Collier and Bonnie B. Collier (New York: Fordham University Press) 2004.
Roland E. Bowen, From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg … And Beyond: The Civil War Letters of Private Roland E. Bowen, 15th Massachusetts Infantry 1861-1864, ed. Gregory A. Coco (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications) 1994.
On important marches during the Civil War
And for the full experience of the history of Civil War marches and the medicine that accompanied them, please visit our exhibit at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.
See AlsoLinks will be added as more related Quick Facts become available.
Compiled By: Michael Kozier