From Citizens to Soldiers

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." 

Dear Sister Emma | A Principle of Duty | Sickness and Suffering | Please Write Soon
I hope some day to return | Take good care of it...

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Last updated:
October 14, 2003

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