Life of the Civil War Soldier – Ranger John Nicholas

Good afternoon, my name is John Nicholas, welcome to Gettysburg National Military Park. On the night of June 2nd, 1864, just slightly
over 150 years ago, the night before the big battle of Cold Harbor, where the Union army
is going to make an attack at 5:30 in the morning, and the Union army will lose somewhere
between 4000 and 7000 men in the space of about an hour. The night before that attack, one of General
Grant’s aides, Horace Porter, is riding through a Union brigade camp, actually a Union regimental
camp. He sees a bunch of men sitting around sewing,
he thinks this is a strange thing to do the night before a big battle, sitting around
sewing. If they’re facing a big battle the next morning
you think they’d be doing a lot of other things, maybe praying, writing last letters home,
looking at their equipment, trying to get some sleep, anything but sewing. As he gets closer he discovers what they’re
really doing; these men have taken pieces of paper, and this would not be the first
time or the last time that this would happen, and they had written their names on those
pieces of paper, and their addresses. They’re sewing them to the backs of their
uniform coats, so the next morning when they’re killed, their bodies could be identified. I’ve often wondered, “how could these men
do this?”, how could they go almost willingly to their deaths. So this is the program, this is their story,
who these men were, why they joined the army, how they experienced army life and combat,
and finally what happened to them after the Civil War. And oftentimes that’s not a happy story. At the start of the Civil War, the regular
United States army only numbered 16,000 soldiers, they’re spread all across the continent, they’re
only increased in strength to about 28,000 over the war, yet 2.2 million men will serve
in the Union army during the war, and over 950,000 will serve in Confederate armies during
the war. For the most part, they’re state volunteers. They’re joining the army for a lot of different
reasons, and I think it’s very important for you to understand that the reason for why
men are joining the army is sometimes different from the cause of the war. Sometimes they’re two different things, and
sometimes the reason why they’re joining has nothing to do with the causes of the war at
all. At the start of the Civil War a lot of men
are joining the army to preserve the Union, we think that’s kind of a strange concept
today, why are you gonna fight to preserve the Union? It wasn’t a strange idea to these men at all. A lot of these men are immigrants, and in
1860 almost every country in the world has a king, a queen, and emperor or a dictator,
this is the way it’s always been, this is the way it’s supposed to be. The United States of America is the only place
in the world at the time, pretty much, where you could elect your own government, your
own leaders. Many of these people are refugees from the
revolution of 1848, where people had risen up back in Europe to try and overthrow the
old aristocracy, and all those revolutions had failed. They’re coming to the United States and they’re
joining the Union army to restore democracy. They realize that if people aren’t content
to wait around for the next election to elect their own president, they’re going to take
states out of the Union, which the founders believed was supposed to be founded in perpetuity,
then democracy in America has no chance to survive. These men understood exactly what they’re
fighting for; a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. So strong is this idea, this concept of Union,
that over 200,000 Southerners will serve in the Union armies all throughout the war from
every Confederate state. Most people don’t realize there’s a lot of
Southerners in the Union armies. When you consider 950,000 men served in Confederate
armies, 200,000 Southerners serving in Union armies is a big number. At the start of the war, a lot of men are
not fighting to end slavery, there are some who are joining the army to end slavery, but
others, while they’re opposed to slavery, they’re really mainly opposed to the expansion
of slavery. They’re fine with where it is, but they don’t
want it to be expanded. As Union soldiers move into the deep South,
they see what a brutal institution slavery is, they realize that slavery somehow caused
this war and in order to win this war slavery has to die. In the Confederacy, only 20 to 25% of Southerners
actually own a slave, yet large numbers of Southerners are going to fight a war to support
slavery. That doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why are you going to fight a war to support
slavery when you don’t have a slave? Well there’s lots of reasons why men would
fight in a war to support slavery, and I think after I explain them to you it’ll make a lot
of sense. First, for the most part slavery has existed
for the last 250 years, this is the way things have always been, this is the way things are
supposed to be, people hate change. If slavery’s gone, this is going to change
everything. Imagine what our lives would be like today
if suddenly every car and truck and bus and vehicle, or every computer in the entire world
disappeared. You may not like computers, you may not like
cars, but your life is affected by those things anyways. If slavery is gone, that changes everything. If you own a slave, congratulations! You’re making it, you’re making it big. A slave in today’s dollars is going to cost
you somewhere around 20 to 30,000 dollars. That’s a lot of money, that’s like buying
a car. Think how you felt when you got your first
car, ‘yeah I’m somebody now”. And if you got a slave, you’ve got that slave
to work in the fields, you’re somebody, and your neighbors gonna notice. So if you own a slave you’re making it big. But suppose you’ll never get any money to
buy a slave. You’re never gonna be able to afford a slave,
there’s still reasons why you’d fight in a war to support slavery as well. First of all, if you think of the South as
a big high school- at the top are the seniors, the slave-owners, yeah you may not like them,
but secretly you’d really like to be one of them because they’re at the top, they’re calling
all the shots, they’re governors, congressmen, all the big landowners in the South, even
presidents of the US. You may not like them, but secretly you’d
like to be one of them. Just below them, is the middle class. Middle class, even in the 1850s, barely exists. These are people that are lawyers, doctors,
mill owners, they work on railroads and in factories, you may only know a couple people
in that middle class. The next class, a huge class, that sophomore
class. These are poor white Southern dirt farmers
who are just getting by year after year, they’re barely making it but the big thing they can
say is at least they’re not in that freshman class, where the slaves are, Nobody ever wants
to be a freshman ever again. If slavery is gone, then some of the freshmen
are going to move up into your class. Some of them are gonna move even higher, and
some of you sophomores are going to be moving down. I once asked some 5th graders how they would
feel if suddenly the next day they came to school and there were a bunch of 3rd graders
in their class. Some of those 3rd graders might even move
up into the 6th and 7th grade ahead of them, and some of those 5th graders are gonna move
down to the 3rd and 7th grade. How would they like that? They didn’t think it was too good of an idea. This is the way it’s always been, you don’t
like to move down. Nobody ever likes to move down in the world. But finally, this is one big huge reason why
Southerners would fight to support slavery. There have been slave rebellions in the South
in the last 150 years, brutal slave rebellions, you had Mark Vesey’s rebellion, Gabriel’s
rebellion, Nat Turner’s revolt, and in 1859 there’s John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. White northerners want to raid Harper’s Ferry
and arm slaves, to lead them in a slave revolt. This is like Pearl Harbor, this is like 9/11,
for Southerners this is absolutely terrifying. For Southerners slavery is a social institution,
an economic condition, a cultural condition, but finally at the very bottom it’s a life
and death condition. For the last 200 years every month you served
on a slave patrol, patrolling the South to prevent these slave rebellions. As I said, there’s lots of reasons why men
are joining the army as well. Some of them are not volunteers, some of them
are drafted into the army. The Confederacy starts the very first draft
in April of 1862, and in the March there’s sort of an unofficial draft. There’s a stigma against being drafted, you
don’t want your neighbors to know you had to be hauled into the army, my own Confederate
ancestors joined the draft 4 days before the battle, so I kind of think it wasn’t quite
voluntary. But the draft takes in everybody. First they’re drafting 18-35 year olds, then
they’re drafting 18-45 year olds, and in the last year of the war they’re gonna be drafting
17-70 year olds. From mid 1862 on one quarter to one third
of the Confederate army is made up of draftees. And the draft in the Confederacy is very unpopular,
there’s a great deal of draft resistance especially in the areas where slavery doesn’t exist and
the Confederacy is very unpopular. In the North, they have their own draft, and
it’s very unpopular there too, surprisingly. There’s draft riots in New York City and in
other Midwestern cities, there’s a great deal of resistance, but the draft in the North
doesn’t really take in that many people. Only about 50,000 Northerners are drafted
into the army, there’s supposed to be another 70,000 that should have been in the army but
somehow they have gotten out of the draft. There were ways to get out of the draft. If you were rich, you could hire a substitute
to go in your place, pay that man and he would go in your place and he would collect a state
bonus, a couple hundred dollars or so, and then he’s probably gonna desert. Also, if you’re a rich Southerner, you owned
20 or more slaves, means you’re worth over 10 and a half million dollars, that’s gonna
get you out of the army. In the North, if you pay 300 dollars, that’s
about 66,000 dollars today, that will get you out of the army. So there’s those who say this was a rich man’s
war, and a poor man’s fight. There’s other reasons why guys are joining
the army; at the start of the war there’s a lot of young men who are joining the army,
they don’t make a lot of money. If you worked in a factory you’d make 10 or
20 dollars a month, if you’re on a farm you may make 30 or 50 dollars a month, and then
the next month you may be out of work. In the army, if you’re in the Confederate
army it will make you 11 dollars a month, the Union army will pay you 13 dollars a month,
you’ll collect a state bonus, that’s not a lot of money but you’ll do this for a couple
months and then you’ll have a good nest egg for when you get out of the army. A very big reason when men are joining the
army is girls. A lot of guys don’t think this war is going
to last for very long, and they’re going to join the army to impress a girl. At the start of the Civil War, there’s a very
popular song in the North “I’m bound to be a soldiers wife or I will die an old maid”. A lot of these guys don’t think the war will
last long, it’ll be over in 6 weeks, 4 months, i’ll be in one big battle, come home a hero,
maybe i’ll even get wounded. Nothing too disfiguring, you don’t want to
lose an arm or a leg, you definitely don’t want to lose your head, but if you come home
with a nice bandage on or your arm or a sling, Jenny, she’s going to be looking pretty good
at you. And so you want to impress a girl. Girls are a big reason why men are joining
the army. In Alabama there’s been one young man who’s
been reluctant to enlist, he gets a package from his fiancé, inside the package is a
dress and a note that says “either join up, or put this on”. Women are a big factor in getting men to join
the army, and women are going to be a big factor in getting men to desert from the army. Finally there’s one huge reason why men are
joining the army; that’s because everyone is doing it. Their friends, their neighbors, their fathers,
their sons, their cousins, their brothers, they’re all doing it, and they want to get
in, they’ve never been more than 25 miles away from home, this is going to be exciting,
they’re going to follow in the footsteps of their grandfathers in the revolution, they’ll
come back big heroes, and they’re gonna get all the girls when they come back home. You’re joining up because everybody you know
is doing it. You want to join the army, the first thing
you gotta do is you have to go up to a recruiting officer and enlist. At the start of the war, nobody thinks the
war is going to last for very long, they think it will be over in 3 months, and they realize
someone is going to get hurt but it’s not going to be them. They believe that if you have lived a morally
upright life, you don’t drink, you don’t gamble, you don’t smoke, if you’re a good churchgoing
man, nothing’s going to happen to you. All the bullets are gonna fly past you, and
hit some of those sinners back there. Most of the sinners are on the other side,
so you don’t have to worry about it. Nothing’s going to happen to you. People don’t think this war is going to last
that long, they don’t think that anyone is going to get hurt that bad. You want to get into the army, and people
think the war is going to be over soon, and there’s a lot of guys who are 17, 16, 15,
14, even 13, they want to get into this big thing before it’s all over. But you have to be 18 to be in the army. You’ve been told it’s a sin to tell a lie,
so how are you going to get into the army if you’re not 18? They figured out a way to do this. What they’ll do is take a piece of paper,
they’ll write the number 18 on it, they’ll put it in their shoe and they’ll walk up to
the recruiting officer and he will ask “are you over 18?”. You can say “why yes, I am definitely over
18”, so that’s gonna get you in. You’re in the army now, but now you have to
pass a physical examination. We know it wasn’t too strenuous, at least
240 women served in the Confederate army during the war, and 400 will serve in Union armies
during the war. A lot of times these men did not know that
women were in their ranks. They would be disguised all throughout the
war, sometimes they wouldn’t be found out until they were wounded. After the war, they’re going to veteran’s
reunions and one private, private Halbert Cashier, is going to the reunions year after
year, always showing up, smartly wearing the uniform. One year private Cashier shows up wearing
a dress, which caused a great deal of confusion at the reunion. Now sometimes men did know that there were
women in the ranks. There was one Union general who wrote his
wife one night, “This morning, one of my sergeants just gave birth to a baby boy. And that is against all the laws of war that
I know of.”. So the physical examination wasn’t too strenuous. First you had to be able to see, not out of
both eyes but at least out of one eye. You had to be able to hear, to have most of
your fingers, not all of them, but you had to have most of them. As private Barney Fifel will tell you, if
you lose this one, you’re gonna be out of business. You have to be able to march, and to move
around and things like that, and finally you have to have at least 2 teeth. One has to be on the top, and one has to be
on the bottom. Lemme look at your teeth mister, okay you’re
gonna make it. So you pass the physical examination, you’ve
joined up with all your friends and neighbors from the same town or village or county, and
you’re sent along to a camp of instruction with people from the other state and you’re
usually going to be put in a regiment. Right away people are going to start getting
sick. People don’t know about infectious diseases
back then, if you’re on a farm you might get sick or even if you’re from in a city you’re
gonna get sick. Disease is a big killer in the Civil War. A lot of men will die of malaria, dysentery,
typhoid, diarrhea, the flu, the measles, the mumps, chicken pox, if you’ve ever watched
gone with the wind, Scarlett O’ Hara’s character’s first husband never fires a shot in the battle,
he actually dies of the measles, hard to imagine today. So large numbers of men are going to die from
disease. Then, you go to this camp of instruction and
people are yelling at you, they’re telling you what to do. These people are people you’ve elected as
your sergeants, your lieutenants, and your captains and your colonels. These people are called officers. You’ve elected them and now they’re telling
you what to do. If you go up on the farm, nobody tells you
what to do. How dare Jim tell me what to do, who does
he think he is, I’m not gonna do it. Well if you don’t wanna do what Jim tells
you, what Colonel Jim tells you, the army has ways to encourage you to do what the colonel
wants. If you straggle, lag behind, you may find
yourself riding the wooden pony, for several hours, up to 10 or 12 hours at a time. not gonna be too comfortable. If you want to fire off your musket, waste
valuable army ammunition, or to commit other crimes you could be strung up by your thumbs
for 10 to 12 hours a day, where your feet are barely touching the ground. This was a very popular punishment during
the Civil War. It’ll dislocate your shoulders, in your thumbs
the blood vessels are bursting, very painful. If you want to go out and steal some farmer’s
chickens, you may find yourself wearing a wooden overcoat. Kind of embarrassing, huh? You may be wearing this barrel for a while. And if you talk back, well you could be bucked
and gagged, seated in this position for 10 or 12 hours a day for up to 2 weeks at a time. You sit like this for 2 weeks, you’re not
gonna talk back anymore. There may be a reason why you want to go out
and steal a chicken or something like that. That’s because the food in the army isn’t
really that great. You might get canned food if you’re lucky,
canned food was starting to become cheap in the Civil War. Prior to the Civil War only rich folks could
get good canned food like canned milk. Gail Borden came up with canned milk, he’s
selling it to the army, and Gilbert Van Camp has figured out how to can beans, he’s selling
that to the army. Prior to the Civil War you had to be rich
to afford good stuff like this, but the army can buy it cheaply now, so you can get some
canned beans. You’re gonna get some hard bread, something
called hardtack. I want you to pass this around, don’t break
it or i’ll string you up by your thumbs. I don’t want you to try and eat it because
I cannot be responsible for your dental bill. So pass that down the line. And you can pass this down the line- now you
can make hardtack yourself. All it is, is 6 parts flour, 1 part water,
a little bit off salt, you’re gonna roll it out into a dough. You’re gonna put it into a pan, cut it into
4 inch squares, poke some holes in it, put it in the oven, bake it for an hour, it will
last you for 100 years. Soldiers have another name for hardtack, they
call em’ jawbreakers, teethdollars, sheet iron crackers, oftentimes they’ll sit outside
and get bugs in them. They call them wormcastles, you ever had a
wormcastle for breakfast before? How’s it sound? Not too good, huh? Hardtack is so hard, one day an elderly soldier
was talking to a friend of his, and he said “this morning, I bit into a piece of hardtack,
and I bit into something soft”. His friend said “did you bite into a weevil?”
and he said “No I bit into a nail”. So that’s how hard hardtack is. You’re also gonna get some other food, you’re
gonna get vegetables, but not vegetables you really recognize. You’re going to get something called desiccated
vegetables. Peas and carrot and cabbage, shredded and
formed into a brick and dehydrated. You’re gonna cook and boil it in water for
hours, it has no nutritional value, and one soldier said it tasted like a dirty mop. At least the army’s giving you vegetables. Then, you also get some meat. You’re gonna find yourself eating a lot of
bacon in the army. It’s gonna be something called salt pork. This salt pork has turned a little bit of
bad, hopefully the soldier would trim off the bad parts, and hopefully he wouldn’t be
in the hospital for too long. Food didn’t always come like this, usually
it was supposed to come fresh but if it sat out for a few hours and it came out in this
condition some soldiers would be having funerals for their salt pork, the salt pork would be
keeping the army on a very high cholesterol diet. So most of the food you’re going to be getting
in the army is not very tasty. There’s one particular item that soldiers
are going to get that it turns out that they like an awful lot. That item is called coffee. Before the Civil War most Americans did not
drink coffee, but the army has always issued coffee to soldiers and as these men are getting
coffee for the first time they find out they like it, they like it a lot. The first thing you’re gonna do when you get
up in the morning is make some coffee, for breakfast you’re gonna have some coffee, before
you go on a long march you’re gonna have some coffee, you’re gonna steal some fence rails
you’re gonna have some more coffee. You’re going to have some coffee with dinner,
you need to go on guard duty, before you go you’re gonna have some coffee, and then before
you go to bed you’re gonna have some more coffee. These soldiers have a real drinking problem
here. One Union soldier will write home “I can drink
3 or 4 quarts of coffee a day”, a whole gallon of coffee a day. So nobody can drink that much coffee, and
then we have another account where a Union soldier said “I can drink 4 to 6 quarts of
coffee a day and I always want more”. The Confederate army, after the first year
of the Civil War, they can’t get the good stuff anymore, they can’t get real coffee
anymore so then they’re going to have to come up with substitutes for coffee. Coffee make from chickoree, pine tree park,
green apples, green peas, green corn, potatoes. Stonewall Jackson’s favorite coffee wasn’t
the real stuff, he like coffee made from parched corn. On the 3rd day of this battle just prior to
Pickett’s charge Edward Alexander watching the Confederate artillery fire out here was
drinking a mug of sweet potato coffee; which for some reason Starbucks still doesn’t sell
yet, I don’t know why. After the war is over these guys go home. They say, “Wow, I sure did like that coffee
I had when I was in the army, I liked the way it made me feel all excited and jumpy”
and so Americans start drinking more coffee, and more coffee, and soon they’re going on
about building Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks and getting hooked on lattes and cappuccinos
and espressos. It’s all because we got hooked on caffeine
during the Civil War. Well these men didn’t join the army, at least
most of them didn’t join the army, to drink coffee. They joined the army to become soldiers, and
they wanted to look like soldiers. At the start of the Civil War everybody thought
it would be a great idea to show up with your own uniform. This caused a problem at the battle of the
First Manassas, where Confederate soldiers showed up wearing blue uniforms and were being
shot at by their own people, and Union soldiers showed up and were wearing grey uniforms and
they were being shot at by their own people. So they had to settle on a standard uniform. The first thing you’re gonna do is get some
underwear, which for some of these boys was kind of a novelty. It’s going to be important later on after
they’re killed in order to identify the bodies. If you go into the National cemetery you’ll
see that half the soldiers that are buried there are buried as unknowns. In some cases complete unknowns. The way they were identified was by their
underwear, because Confederate soldiers wore cotton or linen underwear, and Union soldiers
wore wool underwear, which couldn’t have been too comfortable in July. You would be issued a linen shirt, nice shirt,
you’re gonna get some wool trousers, and you’ll see that these trousers are blue so you might
think that they’re for Union soldiers. They could be for a Union soldier, or they
could be for a Confederate soldier. Florida issued their soldiers blue trousers,
Confederate officers, a lot of them wore blue trousers. Robert E. Lee always, all throughout the Civil
War wore blue pants. So you’re gonna get some trousers, and because
it’s so incredibly cold in July and August, you’re gonna get a wool jacket as well. Now, a lot of people think “How could they
wear wool in the summertime?”. I’ve been told by a lot of re-enactors that
this isn’t quite so bad. What happens is, wool’s a breathable fabric,
you build up a layer of sweat. It won’t be quite as hot with that on. You’ll get a few additional items. You’ll get some shoes called brogans, and
some wool socks. This soldier’s a lucky soldier, because he
has a left and a right shoe. Most shoes weren’t made that way, most shoes
you put on either foot and you just had to make it work for you. The term “shoddy” comes from the Civil War,
it actually applies to the shoes because they’d fall apart so much. So you got some shoes, and then you’re gonna
get a few additional items. I was told by a boy the other day that this
is a “man purse”. This is not a man purse, this is a cartridge
box, this is what you’re going to carry your ammunition in. 40 rounds of ammunition, you’ll carry that
in here, it’s a cartridge box so you’ll have that slung over your shoulder. You’re going to get a belt, and on that belt
will be a cap box, so here’s the munitions system for your musket and you’re also going
to get a bayonet. Now I usually ask kids, do they think these
hurt a lot of people during the Civil War. They always say “Oh yeah, lots of people had
to be hurt by these”. No, a lot of people are not hurt by bayonets
during the Civil War, and i’ll show you why. If you got 100, 200, 300, 400 people running
at you like this, are you going to stick around to find what happens next? No, you’re not. So bayonets hurt very few people during the
Civil War. They do have other uses. You can use it to cook your salt pork over
the fire, you can use it to stake down a horse, or a tent, you can use it as a shovel, and
at night when you’re in your tent writing letters about how much you love army life
it also makes a very attractive candle holder. So bayonets also have other uses besides poking
people. You’re going to get a few other items because
you’re a traveling man, you’re gonna get a suitcase, before that you’re gonna get a canteen,
inside of that you’re gonna have water, or coffee, or milk, or other things you don’t
want your officers to know about. This is a Union made canteen, tin stamped,
these were very popular with the Confederate army, the reason why is they had drum canteens
that actually held more liquid, but these were more popular because you could take them,
cut them in half and turn them into frying pans. You’re gonna get a combination junk drawer
and lunchbox, something called a haversack here. You can place some rations in here, a bar
of soap, letters from home, maybe a bible. You’re gonna have something called a shovel
that you’re gonna eat off of, something else called a shovel that you’re gonna use to drink
coffee out of. You’re gonna use these sometimes as trenching
tools. Then you’re gonna get a suitcase, and something
called a knapsack which is very heavy. It has about 40 pounds of equipment in it,
soldiers often carry too much stuff, and it’s gonna get wet and become even heavier. So they’ll throw them away and take a rubber
blanket and a wool blanket and wrap all their belongings up into something called a horse
collar bedroll, right over the shoulder. Finally, they’ll get a nice little cap called
a cappie, very popular during the Civil war, doesn’t do a lot to keep the rain or sun out
of your eyes so a lot of soldiers will switch them for a slouch hat like this, a lot nicer
and more sophisticated looking as well. Finally you will get a single shot, muzzle
loading rifle. Very complicated piece of machinery. I’m often asked why do soldiers stand in long
lines, why they stand shoulder to shoulder. Well part of the Civil war, you had a smooth
bore musket, could fire maybe 1 to 3 shots a minute, and it fired a round musket ball
that looks just like a marble. The maximum effective range of the smooth
bore musket was maybe 50 or 60 yards, not that far away at all. So you fired a couple shots like this, then
you went to the bayonet and you chased the enemy away. Now they knew that if you cut spiral grooves
in the barrel it would cause the musket call to spin, you could shoot a lot farther, up
to 400 or maybe 1000 yards. The problem was after you fired 4 or 5 shots
the gunpowder residue built up in this barrel so much you couldn’t ram anything down the
barrel. So rifled muskets weren’t very effective. Prior to the Civil war, a French army captain
by the name of Claude Monet invents a new type of ammunition called the Monet ball. I’m going to pass this around so you can see
what it’s like. Pass them down the line, look at these Monet
balls right here. This is not round, but it’s conically shaped,
it’s got 3 rings around the back and a cup in the back of it. Think about the Monet ball; this could be
made smaller than the barrel. Americans would call these mini-balls. Smaller than the barrel, so now you can ram
it down there- and when you fire the musket the explosion of the powder will cause that
cup in the back to expand, those 3 rings will catch the grooves in the rifle and now you
can shoot up to 1000 yards. Generally soldiers were not going to shoot
at something 1000 yards away. Even today with a modern M-16, a modern M-4,
on an army qualification range the furthest target away is about 400 yards away. Most soldiers will not shoot at a target that
far away because they cannot hit it. They won’t start shooting at targets until
they’re probably at about 200 meters or less. Now you have something that’s a lot more accurate,
you’ve got a better chance of hitting the target. There’s also something else that makes the
min-ball so deadly. The old round musket ball, when it struck
bone, caused the bone to break. Nobody ever dies, generally, of a broken arm
or something like that. The minie-ball has a lower muzzle velocity,
and it brings dirty cloth and everything else that’s out there into the wound. Thing about the minie ball is when it hits
a bone it flattens out and causes the bone to shatter. A shattered bone means amputation. You may survive the minie ball the first time,
then you have your arm or leg amputated. You may survive that, but infection may set
in. Surgeons don’t know about infectious diseases
so they’re using the same surgical tools over and over again. You survive the amputation but the infection
sets in, that requires a second amputation. Infection may set in again, there probably
won’t be a third amputation, you probably won’t live long enough. Fortunately, these could only have caused
a lot more casualties if soldiers had been better trained. People want to know why soldiers are walking
in big long lines, firing this, as I said you can only shoot 50 or 60 yards. The only way you could hit somebody was by
lining men up shoulder to shoulder, and by shooting with 100 guys maybe 5 or 6 of them
would be hitting over 100 yards away. So that might cause some casualties, and the
minie ball might be causing some casualties. But these guys have very little training in
loading the musket, it’s a very complicated process to load a Civil war musket. It takes 9 steps, and the first step is you
take the musket and you put it in front of you, like this. Not like this because you could shoot your
face off. Then you pull out a cartridge, this is where
your ammunition is. Remember when I said you need to have 2 teeth
to be in the army; you take the tail in your teeth and you tear it off. You expose gunpowder, then you put the gunpowder
and bullet down the barrel. You pull out the rammer, and you ram all that
stuff down the barrel really good. The next step is very important, and something
that soldiers often forgot to do. You have to take the rammer back out. A lot of soldiers often forget to do this,
they would shoot off the rammer and would have to find another musket again. There’s actually one solider at Gettysburg
killed here who had a rammer shot through his chest. Now you just poured gunpowder and a bullet
down a hot barrel, you don’t wanna put your hand over the barrel unless you want to shoot
your hand off, then you push the rammer back down with your pinky. You pick up the musket, cock the hammer back
halfway, and I can pull the trigger right here and you can see that the musket will
not go off half cocked. That’s where that phrase comes from. Pull out a cap, the percussion cap, a little
brass cap from the cap box. Put it underneath the hammer, cock the hammer
back all the way, at full cock, and now you’re ready to fire. Very complicated piece of machinery. Oftentimes soldiers forget the steps. On this battlefield, after the battle’s over,
they found 28,000 muskets on the battlefield. Of those, 24,000 were still loaded. Of those 24,000, 12,000 had more than one
load in them. 6,000 had between 3 and 12 loads in them,
and one musket found on this battlefield has 23 loads in it. The soldier kept loading and loading, he forgot
to put his cap on, and didn’t realize he wasn’t shooting. Sometimes this caused problems. At the battle of Antietam, still the single
bloodiest day in American history so far, where 23,100 men will be killed in the space
of 12 hours. There was a brand new regiment, the 16th Connecticut,
they were formed in mid-August 1862, they leave Hartford at the end of the month to
go to Washington DC. September 7th they leave Washington DC to
march towards Sharpsburg Maryland, and Antietam creek. The day before the bloodiest day in American
history, the 16th Connecticut is going to load their muskets for the very first time. They’re going to fight on the Southern end
of the battlefield, they have 840 men. They’re attacked by a South Carolina brigade;
they actually outnumber the South Carolinians by a good large margin, the South Carolinians
are all veterans and the Conneticitians loaded their muskets for the first time just the
day before. They fire all of 1 or 2 shots and effect maybe
5 or 8 casualties on the South Carolinians, South Carolinians fired back, in the space
of about 5 or 10 minutes the 16th Connecticut will lose 300 soldiers. It was a disaster for them, 2 soldiers are
so scared after Antietam they run back to Washington DC, they hop on a train to go to
New York city, hop on a ship for London England and will spend the rest of their lives in
England; that was their experience on September 16th, 1862. Well, you have been in the army now for a
little while, hopefully you’ve had a couple months of training, usually it’s only a couple
of weeks. You’re getting very little sleep, you’re eating
bad food and not even much of that, you’re tired all the time, you’re dirty all the time. You learn to live with fleas, ticks, lice,
flies, mosquitos. You see friends go into the hospital with
malaria, dysentery, typhoid, diarrhea, and they don’t come back. Then, in the days leading up to the first
battle you have the rain, the snow, the heat, and the mud. You march along dirt roads with thousands
of men on them- oftentimes if it’s raining the roads will turn to mud and become several
feet deep and may become impassible. If the roads are dry huge clouds of dust are
going to hang over your head, you can barely see or breathe. You may be marching 10, or 15, or 30 miles
a day. It’s very hot, men are passing out from the
heat. Alongside the road you see dozens, sometimes
hundreds of men in the woods. Some have fainted, some are dying of heatstroke,
some of them are already dead. You’ll notice a lot of the men in your own
regiment are dropping out as well. You march along day after day, you’re hearing
hundreds of rumors, after a while you become sick of them; you don’t know what to believe. You get tired of hearing them, you don’t know
where you’re going, neither does anyone else. One day you hear what sounds like thunder,
maybe you try to convince yourself “yeah that’s what it is, it’s thunder”, but you know what
it really is, it’s cannon fire. You start searching for some other explanation
but you know it’s cannon-fire. Now your heart begins beating faster. As you get closer the officers tell you to
pick up the pace, as you get closer to the battlefield the cannon-fire gets louder and
louder and your heart is beating faster and faster. Adrenaline is shooting through your body. Now you’re beginning to see stragglers; men
that have left the regiments for some reason or another, some claim to be wounded but look
unhurt, others are sick, others are helping a wounded friend to a hospital, but you can
tell that they’re not gonna come back. And some of them have just left, and you notice
that a lot of them men in your own regiment have just left, but you’re staying with your
regiment, you’re heading towards the battlefield, and more adrenaline is shooting through your
body. As you get closer, you’re seeing something
that’s kind of disturbing. You’re seeing destroyed farms, and dead farm
animals. If you’re a farm boy this is a pretty bad
sight to see. As you get closer to the battlefield you’re
seeing some things you’re not prepared to see. You’re seeing wounded men, men that are somehow
still alive who’ve had an arm shot off, jaw shot away, eyes shot out, somehow they’re
still alive though, and then you see the dead. Bodies cut in half by artillery fire, bodies
without heads, heads without bodies, bodies that are mangled and pulverized in every possible
condition. There seems to be blood everywhere- the ground
is slippery with it, you didn’t know a body had that much blood in them. As you get closer- you come under artillery
fire. The enemy isn’t aiming at you, they’re aiming
at the front lines, but they’re overshooting and shells are dropping in your ranks and
there’s nothing you can do about it. The officers tell you to lie down, you hug
the earth, and wish that you could get underneath it. Finally the shelling stops and you get up
and get moving again. You stop, and you wait, and you wait, and
you wait and it seems like forever. Finally the officers tell you it’s time to
move up the line. Now your heart is really racing, adrenaline
is shooting through your body. You think “this is it”. They tell you to load and cap your muskets,
and fix bayonets, but you’re having problems because with all this adrenaline shooting
through your body it’s messed with your coordination, but finally you’re ready to go and the order
“forward march!” is given. You move forward and you move up in the line,
it’s not like you imagined it would be. There’s noise, the noise is deafening, so
loud you can’t hear your officers. There’s so much smoke you can’t see more than
70 or 80 yards in front of you. The one thing you can see is your colors,
your battle flags. These flags were made by the people back home
to represent your regiment in a big ceremony, so not only do they represent your regiment
and your connection to your comrades, they also represent the people back home. It was an honor to be selected as the color
guard or to be a color bearer, but at the same time it’s also a death warrant because
the enemy knows that when those flags go forward, so will the rest of your regiment. So the color bearers and the color guard become
targets right away. Finally you move up onto the battlefield. You get on the battlefield and you can’t see
anything; the officers give you the order to halt, then through the smoke you see them. Indistinct dark forms, and you’re told that’s
the enemy. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Wouldn’t be the first time that a regiment
fired on their own people, and with so much smoke it’s almost impossible to tell. Officer gives you the command “Fire by volley-
ready, aim, fire!” you fire your musket, you pull the trigger, the musket slams into your
shoulder and you see some of those dark figures fall. The order is given to reload, and as you reload
a sheet of flame comes from that dark mass in front of you, and men are knocked out of
the ranks by the dozens. You reload as fast as you can, the orders
are given to fire again, you pull the trigger and fire your musket, more dark forms fall
and then more men are being killed and wounded around you, the firing command is given to
“fire at will”. You’re reloading and firing as fast as you
can, now your training is taking over, now everything is done by reflex and by adrenaline. You’re loading and shooting as fast as you
can, men around you are yelling, some are screaming, some are not making a sound at
all or are dying, other men are cursing, some are even laughing. You’re loading and shooting as fast as you
can, and more men are being killed and wounded all around you. These are your friends, these are your neighbors
back home, you don’t have much time to think about this at all. You’re loading and shooting as fast as you
can. Finally, after 20, 30, maybe 45 minutes this
is all over. The enemy has retreated, or maybe your regiment
has retreated, or maybe because you’ve run out of ammunition, or likely because your
regiment has suffered so many casualties it’s no longer combat effective. You’re pulled off the line, as you come off
the line your body’s shaking, and you can’t make it stop. You absolutely cannot make it stop as hard
as you try, you cannot stop. Finally the adrenaline wears off, and you
are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. You’re stunned and you don’t quite understand
what you’ve seen. If you’ve been killed, well your battle is
over. Hopefully you’ll get a decent burial. Oftentimes the army is in a hurry and has
to move on, so sometimes even the men on your own side will be buried in a large mass grave,
sometimes as many as 200 bodies to a single grave, they’re in a hurry, they need to get
as many bodies as they can in the ground, so they will actually get in and jump on the
bodies to pack in even more. One soldier said it was just like burying
a dead dog. If you’re one of the lucky dead, you’ll get
a headboard over your grave, the headboard is made from a cracker box or an ammunition
box, it’s just a wood board with your name, rank, regiment, written on it. Usually in pencil. But then it rains and the headboards got weather-beaten
and they get hard to read, so eventually you may become one of the 46% of the men who died
in the Civil War who will eventually be listed as “missing” or “unknown”. Your family would never know what became of
you. Many soldiers considered being wounded worse
than being killed, a wounded soldier might lie on the battlefield for hours or even days,
in the rain, in the heat, in the sun, with farm animals rooting away at bodies. If you’re rescued, that means a bumpy ride
to a hospital where you may again lay for hours or days for a surgeon to look at you. if you’ve been shot in the stomach, the surgeons
won’t even look at you. Too hard to repair the damage. If you’ve been hit in the arm or the leg,
well that could mean amputation. By the end of the war battlefield medicine
had improved so much, if you make it to a hospital you have a 75% survival rate. If you make it to a hospital. But afterwards, your life is going to be pretty
difficult. Over 674,000 men will be captured during the
Civil War. Nobody ever figured on this happening- more
captured men than in any other war America has ever fought. Both sides have not prepared for this. A soldier’s chance of dying on a Civil War
battlefield is about 5%. When you’re captured, your chance of dying
in a Civil War prison is about 13%. If you’re a black soldier in the US colored
troops, your chance of dying is 35%, and that’s if you make it to a prison at all. Most will be bayonetted, shot, or hung before
they even reach that prison. To go to a prison, nobody ever planned for
this, there will be problems of overcrowding, poor planning, disease, and there’s too many
men in these prisons. Public indifference, and eventually prisons
on both sides become concentrations camps, camps responsible for the slow, agonizing
deaths of thousands of men. If you made it through this battle, well you’ve
been lucky. But what about the next one, and the next
one after that. In 1864, Atlantic combat is almost continuous. You fight in one spot and are hauled to another
to fight again. Some soldiers have taken a very fatalistic
approach to their chances of surviving. They stop sending letter to their families,
stop sending money, stop talking about what they’re going to do after because they can’t
imagine that anymore. The Union soldiers may get to go home on a
30 day furlough, when you head back the people back home don’t understand, they just say
“if you’re just brave, you’ll win this war”. But you know a lot better, you’ll come back
to your comrades and now, you may still believe in the cause, but now you’re fighting for
a different reason. You’re fighting because your comrades need
you, and because you need them. You’re now fighting for each other. The idea that somebody will survive this war. Eventually this war will come to an end. Soldiers will go home; if you’re a Southerner
the South you know was gone. The Southern economy is gone. 10,000 farms are gone. 25% of the men between the ages of 18 and
35 are dead and gone. The world you knew was gone. If you’re one of the 178,000 soldiers US colored
troops, 98,000 of them had been slaves before the Civil war, you go back home looking for
your family members and initially things are somewhat different for them. Things are a little bit better, but then as
Confederates come back and regain political power in the 1880s and 1890s you’re gonna
find out that things haven’t changed that much for you either. If you’re a Union soldier well your side has
won, congratulations, there’s going to be a big parade in Washington DC, you’re going
to go to that, and when you come back home you’re going to find out that things have
changed as well. You find out that people fear and distrust
you, they think the war has turned you into a criminal, a villain, a rapist, a murderer. By 1866 2/3 of the prison population in the
Northern states is made up of Civil War veterans, but often the veterans fear the people back
home as well wh often steal their bonuses and back pay they’re earned during the war. At the same time after the war, especially
for veterans, there’s riots going on about unemployment, there’s the great depression
of 1873, that will last for years and throw thousands of men out of work. Over half a million men will be wounded after
the war. The state of Mississippi will have to spend
1/5 of their state budget on artificial limbs for their veterans; 1/5 of their budget. Other soldiers will become addicted to alcohol
or opium, the painkillers of the Civil War. We now know that in North Carolina at least
there’s a large rise in suicide rates after the war. After the Civil War veterans in Indiana, there
was a large number that probably had posttraumatic stress syndrome, people will spend their lives
in and out of insane asylums, families would not know what to do. Worst of all these men are forgotten about
after the war, America is changing. Railroads criss-cross the country, used to
take 6 weeks to go from New York to San Francisco, now you can do it in 4 days. Factories are springing up everywhere, steel
from Pennsylvania is used to build skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, oranges from Florida
can be bought in Boston, lumber from Wisconsin is used to build homes. Corn from the wheat fields of Kansas is used
to feed the entire world. There’s widespread appointment among veterans. There’s one saying amongst Confederate veterans
after the war, a carpenter with two hands gets more work with than a carpenter with
one hand. Veterans are expected to support their family,
yet at the same time they’re forgotten by the people of America. There’s depression, economic disasters, people
are moving to cities in large numbers and the populations are exploding. It going from 6,000 people to 90,000. Chicago’s population increased 10 times in
30 years from 100,000 to 1 million. The population explosion is due to huge waves
of immigration, from Germany, Ireland, Southern and Eastern Europe, China, Japan, and Mexico. Even mid-sized cities like Lawrence, Massachusetts,
32% of the population is made up of brand new immigrants. You can walk into any city in America, through
neighborhood after neighborhood, there were dozens of languages that were not your own. By the 1880s Americans are confused and frightened
about what is happening to their country. There’s a great deal of greed and corruption
in politics and government, the first millionaires are made at the same time millions live in
poverty, there’s labor strikes, there’s put-down sharecroppers who are only a step away from
slavery. Americans are frightened about what’s happening
to their country. Looking back to the years of the Civil war
in the 1880s, Americans are beginning to romanticize the Civil war, and hold the veterans up as
the great heroes of the republic. Veterans and veterans organizations are forming
together, with Union veterans and the society of Confederate veterans, they will be powerful
lobbying organizations for these men. They will establish more monuments, more national
battlefields like the one here at Gettysburg, like Chickamauga and Antietam, and they will
establish veteran’s pensions, to take care of widows and orphans of veterans of the Civil
War. Between 1880 and 1910 one quarter of the Civil
War budget will pay for Civil War pensions. Things will gradually begin to change, two
things that are going to help veterans; public schools, and mass media. Public schools will integrate all these new
immigrant children into American society by giving them a common history of their country. They will also educate these children of Union
and Confederate veterans by giving them a politically correct rendition of the history
of the Civil War, that we can agree on. The mass media will help, they’ll begin publishing
veteran’s diaries, and their letters, from generals and privates alike, and by the movies. Between 1880 and 1930 400 silent films were
made about the Civil war, and 200 sound films were made. Unfortunately they’ll focus mainly about the
courage and bravery of both sides and leave out the brutality of the war, and even why
the war is fought in the first place. That will, even today, have a lasting effect
on how Americans see the Civil War. Gradually things begin to change; the veterans
will march in 4th of July parades, declaration day parades, and they are held up as the great
heroes of the Republic. For the last hour I’ve been trying to describe
what their lives were like, but there’s no way that I can really do that. There’s no way we can really understand what
it was like to eat the same bad food day after day after day. To see your friends go into hospitals with
disease and not see them come back. To march on dirt roads with these huge clouds
of dust hanging over you, choking and blinding you. To see your friends being killed and wounded
around you within a matter of minutes, seeing some of them mangled in the most horrific
ways. There’s no way you can really understand their
camaraderie, because it wasn’t all bad. We can’t really understand what they experienced. Fortunately for us, that’s beyond our experience. That’s beyond what we can really imagine. What we do know about these men is that some
of them were heroes, some were villains, some were cowards, some were scapegoats, some were
just unlucky. Most of them were just average people, just
like me and you. They lived in extraordinary times, and they
did extraordinary things. 150 years later they still fascinate us. We still want to know about them, and 150
years later what these men did during this war still influences our lives even today. I want to thank you for listening to me for
the last hour, if you have any questions I’ll stick around but thank you very much for coming
to Gettysburg.

36 thoughts on “Life of the Civil War Soldier – Ranger John Nicholas

  • I've been listening to and have attended NPS Ranger talks for a long time.  And these just keep getting better.  They are the best of the best.

  • Another great battle talk from GettysburgNPS!  Ranger Nicholas did an excellent job of painting a vivid picture of the horror of war during the Civil War without completely bumming out the listening audience.  Good stuff!  

  • What an excellent talk, and quite the vivid picture this Gettysburg Ranger paints of those soldiers' grueling lives in fighting that horrible war.
    It's very interesting and worthwhile listening to.
    I feel even more admiration and respect for these soldiers now.
    Some people who will listen in the future may be taken aback by the very realistic description given in Ranger Nicholas' lecture, given the idea of the 'romance' of war and 'glory.'
    The perseverance and fortitude especially shown by men who volunteered and stayed for 3 or longer years — if they were lucky enough to still be alive and reasonably healthy after that lengthy amount of time — is very impressive considering the horrid conditions and situations they had to try to deal with.

    I'd never in the past heard such a down-to-earth narration of the trials and tribulations of the everyday soldier in the Civil War, plus the details of how the 'nightmares' of that war, for them, didn't end just because the war had.

    My hat's off to ALL of them.

    Many Thanks to all the Rangers who give these talks, and to Gettysburg National Military Park for posting them.

    I really appreciate getting to see them.

  • Fantastic talk and showed the reality of soldiers. Many times, I feel visitors think of soldiers as machines led by generals and not people. The human connection to history gives the best story and personal connection

  • i am having a hard time understanding that my ancestors choose to fight to the death for a pecking order on the social status. …want you please tell the general populas about the invasion by the north. the burning of Shenandoah valley by Sheridan or the March by Sherman….all the killing and destruction. …this is far thicker than slavery, protecting their lands, towns, and families. the beginning of the war may have been powered by slavery but the ending results were to stop a northern mercenary from destroying and plundering their homes and killing and raping their families and killing all the food supply so they didn't have to watch their young children starve to death. the northern army was merciless. ..

  • The analogy to "Freshmen, sophomores, 1st grade, 5th grade" is just flat inane and simple-minded. Before the war the north controlled congress and passed tariffs taxing southern agricultural exports with Europe. This restricted legal trade with Europe. In effect the north was trying to monopolise trade and treat the south like colonies. The south rebelled. In their eyes it was the same situation as the American revolution wherein the British tried to restrict and control trade. Wake up Nicholas. You are not dealing with 5 year old kids.

  • People don't hate change. Most people understand that all prosperity comes from change.
    There's a group of people that hate change. They are called Republicans.

  • Most of these videos are good, but this guys BS mentality about the slavery issue is more than I can stand to listen to.

  • And not a single word about northern aggression, the whole reason I refuse to go on a battle walk with a yankee, they’d have one last battle over there

  • People joined the war for the Union for many reasons, but when they saw the horrors of slavery in the south in 1864-5 the horrors of war was justified as the same as the GIs realised when in Germany in 1944-45

  • Wow… this guy knows NOTHING about the causes for the war…
    and those Union motivations he made up…. they don't make sense from any perspective! riduculous.
    Just imagine being so reliant on ego complexes that you have to make up crappy motivations about indentured servitude for the south and ignore all the real ones just so that nowadays you can imagine your government was 'the good guy' …. that's sychophantic.
    And imagine standing there talking about this as your job and not knowing basic stuff like this:
    The southern States were in a long drawn out state of being robbed to death by the criminal Federal Goverrnment THAT THEY HAD EVERY RIGHT TO LEAVE.
    Thinking the South was at fault in the war is basically evidence that you want to be on the giving end of tyranny 'cause you're a coward and you choose to believe bat shit insane things to justify your choice, i.e it makes you say things like; ''it makes sense to force millions of people into your wildly disproportionately exploitative empire at gunpoint to pay taxes to an authority they don't recognize, obviously doesn't represent them and they ELECTED to not be a part of it… and you site the ''defence of democracy'' as the reasoning behind that? In what reality does that make sense!?
    Union men held their manhoods cheap… that's why they twist reality ike women to justify their submission to ilegitimate and opressive authority… and that's why through weight of numbers and mass of material they conquered the southern peoples and destroyed America in 1865… now Americans are among the most abused and opressed people in the world and definitely the worst off in the westernn sphere of influence.

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