Saturday 4 May 2024

Make me a better writer: Using the Research Arsenal to find out about Life (And Eating) in Camp during the American Civil War.

Life (And Eating) in Camp
By  the Research Arsenal 

Using primary documents of the time, it is possible to gain an understanding of what life in camp was like for soldiers during the Civil War. An understanding of camp life can also be a window into what life was like in the mid-19th century more generally. Through general orders, letters, diaries, and photographs, researchers can reconstruct a detailed picture of camp life and gain insight into how people lived over a century and a half ago. All of the documents and photographs in this article were pulled from the digital archives of the Research Arsenal.

General and Special Orders

Regiments kept records of all orders they gave or received, and these orders can be an excellent starting point for understanding the basic details of what camp life was like. The general order written below from the 1st Minnesota Infantry was issued in August 1861 and outlines what a basic day of camp life looks like, even down to what happens at each hour.

In accordance with orders from Brig Genl Stone, the following calls will be sounded daily in this command.

1st Reveille Sunrise
2nd Company Police immediately after Reveille
3rd Coffee ½ hour after Reveille
4th Drill 7 o’clock A.M.
5th Breakfast 8 o’clock A.M.
6th Sick Call 8 ½ o’clock A.M.
7th Guard Mount 9 o’clock A.M.
8th Drill 10 o’clock A.M.
9th Adjutants Call 12 o’clock M.
10th Dinner 1 o’clock P.M.
11th Drill 4 o’clock P.M.
12th Supper 6 o’clock P.M.
13th Retreat Sunset
14th Tattoo 8 ½ o’clock P.M.
15th Taps 9 o’clock P.M.

The Company roll calls will be superintended by a Commissioned officer of the Co.
The Company tents, streets, and guard tents will be thoroughly policed [cleaned] immediately after Reveille, by the company police parties and guards. The whole camp will be thoroughly policed immediately after guard mounting by the old guard, the members of which will be excused from 10 o’clock drill.

Drill will be 45 minutes long exclusive of rests.
There will be no drill on Sundays and instead of drill Saturday afternoon, there will be a general police of the camp.

In favorable weather there will be a dress parade at Retreat for which the first call will be sounded 20 minutes before sunset.

Perfect silence must be maintained in the camp between taps and Reveille.

Negro servants of officers will not be permitted to wear uniforms or to bear arms.

From just this single order you can begin to piece together what life was like. Other orders from the 1st Minnesota give further hints about what the regiment was doing, usually through orders to stop doing certain things. One amusing example is the following punishment for “causing a nuisance” (defecating) in camp.

“Any nuisance found committed within the limits of the Park, will have to be cleared up by the police parties and any person found committing a nuisance will be confined under guard for one week and made to walk before a sentinel four hours daily with a placard of “Nasty” on his back.”

There are many more tantalizing details to be found in the 1st Minnesota’s orders book and it’s a valuable starting point to get the official requirements of how a camp should be run.

Letters and Diaries

While general orders give you an overview of what camp life was supposed to be, letters and diaries give you a clearer picture of what actually occurred in camps, which depending on the regiment could be very strict and orderly or barely controlled chaos.
One popular subject in letters home was what kind of food the soldiers were eating in camp. This included rations, the special treats they purchased for hefty prices from sutlers, as well as whatever they foraged from the wild (or nearby farms in some cases).

Basic rations included food such as beef, pork, bacon, hard bread, beans and coffee. Sutlers, who were salesmen who traveled with the regiments, offered a selection of food that was hard to otherwise find, like fresh fruit and pies. Their pricing was almost always exorbitantly high, and many soldiers saw most of their paycheck going directly to pay off their sutler bills. 

Soldiers foraged often for berries and other crops, but set their sights on more unusual food as well. Writing to his father, Charles Bradley of the 32nd New York Infantry informed him, “I am well & hearty. We have lots of oysters. The shores are lined with their beds. You fellows can content yourselves with eating them out of cans but we have them out of the shells.” Oysters proved to be a particularly popular delicacy for soldiers stationed along the coastlines, with many harvesting them during their free time, or buying them from sutlers.

Finally, many soldiers relied on care packages sent to them from their friends and family at home. These packages, frequently mailed through Adam’s Express, were full of food, clothes and other goods and frequently shared amongst the soldiers. Charles Bradley gave his brother a list of some of the items he wanted in an October 1861 letter. 

“I have written to father for some things & there were some that I did not think of before. I want some turkey, rhubarb, & if you have any pickled tomatoes, ripe or green, or cucumbers that you can put in tin cans & there is room in the box put them in. You need not send that tippet with my name. Have mother collar my drawers & put loops on them to hold them up. Put in a little camphor. I don’t want any shirts of any kind but be sure & put in two pairs of good stockings.”

Beyond food and daily drilling, soldiers occupied their time with various other activities. Cards, and sometimes gambling, were popular pastimes, as was letter writing. James Drolsbaugh of the 171st Pennsylvania mentioned whittling rings using his bayonet. “Now I send a ring for Mother. Give it to her after [a] while. I will send one for Brother John in the next letter. I whittle them out with the bayonet and my knife.”

A pair of brothers, Judson and Amos Quick, both serving in the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote a long letter about an alligator hunt they went on during their service. The full letter can be read at the Research Arsenal, (please link to but this short excerpt reveals the climax of the hunt.

“I cocked my gun and ordered the guide to turn his pole and draw his head toward me which hid thus exposing the eyes and the top of the skull a good mark. I quickly took deliberate aim and fired. There was a loud repost a cloud of smoke and a breathless suspense when the smoke cleared away and there lay before us the quivering and dying forme [form] of a monster aligator [alligator] nearly 8 ft. in length. I will not attempt to relate any more particulars but suffice it to say the natives brought it home skinned and ate the tail of it which they say is superior to beefsteak.”


Photographs can also reveal some of the more mundane details of camp life. Details that were too commonly known at the time for people writing letters, orders and other correspondence to mention but would have been lost to time were it not for photographs. This image of soldiers using a stove to cook, for example, is very illustrative for modern audiences but would have been nothing extraordinary at the time it was taken.

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1 comment:

  1. I have just signed up. I love reading old letters, they are so insightful of the time.


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