What Life Was Really Like For Civil War Soldiers

If you're reading this, you probably didn't fight in the Civil War, and if you're writing this, you definitely didn't fight in it. So let's just go ahead and acknowledge that this article is a little like trying to explain how you'll feel after you're dead. If you've fought in a modern war, perhaps you can grasp what life was like for Civil War soldiers, though the conditions differed in terms of technology, geography, and the ideologies involved. Obvious caveats notwithstanding, here's a portrait of what life was like in a time of dying. 

Pain by numbers

PBS writes that 2.1 million soldiers served in the Union while 880,000 joined the Confederacy. Of those nearly three million people, 180,000 were African Americans fighting to decide the fate of the nation's four million slaves. Life for those soldiers was grim in the Reaper-est sense of the word. Approximately 2.5 percent of America's population died over the course of the conflict, which averaged a staggering 504 deaths a day. About 50 percent of those fatalities happened in the final two years of the war. Two-thirds of those deaths resulted from disease rather than battle. And because the plague of racism spread from civilian to military life, illnesses killed black soldiers at a ratio of nine to one.

These millions of men weren't monoliths, and not every man fighting in the Civil War was actually a man. According to History, more than 400 women posed as men and entered the fray. But amid the differences, there were four commonalities, three of which were Horsemen of the Apocalypse: pestilence, famine, and death, plus the non-Horseman, boredom. (The fourth Horseman, of course, was war itself). Gary Helm of the American Battlefield Trust writes that "only a tiny fraction of any soldier's time was spent in front line combat." They spent a large fraction battling dysentery. 

Soldiers also had to grapple with repetition. "During the fair-weather campaign season, soldiers could expect to be engaged in battle one day out of 30." The rest of their days were filled with drilling with brief bouts of entertainment. Meanwhile, lice had a blast infesting the soldiers, who lived in extremely unsanitary conditions and were often exposed to the elements. Food shortages, foraging, and other major obstacles arose as well. In other words, it was hell.