When the call to arms was sounded in 1861, thousands
of young men rushed to volunteer, swept along by boyish dreams of
glory and excitement. But once they reported to duty, the recruits
quickly realized army life was not exactly the thrilling adventure
they had expected. They were issued scratchy woolen uniforms and
heavy knapsacks to carry, and each morning a bugle call roused the
ranks at dawn. Then, for the next twelve hours, the volunteers spent
most of their time on the drill field, struggling to master the
basics of soldiering.
Some officers held as many as five sessions of drill
each day, barking out orders and pushing their troops through a
wearisome routine of marching exercises, bayonet practice, and rifle
instruction. In between drill sessions, the soldiers were expected
to perform a long list of chores. There were roads to build, trenches
for latrines to dig, equipment to repair, and endless rounds of
inspection and guard duty.
Officers designed a variety of punishments for soldiers
who refused to obey the strict system of rules. For minor offenses
such as drunkenness or leaving camp without permission, a soldier
might be sentenced to wear a knapsack full of bricks or straddle
a sawhorse all day, much to the amusement of his fellow soldiers.
Even more humiliating was "the barrel shirt." The offender
condemned to this punishment was forced to waddle around camp in
a large wooden barrel, with his arms sticking through holes cut
in the sides and his head poking from a hole in the top.
The stiffest penalties of all were reserved for deserters,
men who stole away from their units hoping to escape their military
duties forever. Those who were caught faced stiff prison terms and
in some cases death by firing squad.
Sooner or later most men learned to accept the drudgery
and discipline of military life. As one Massachusetts volunteer
wrote, "It takes a raw recruit some time to learn that he is
not to think or suggest, but obey. I acquired it at last, in humility
and mud, but it was tough."