Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia - Part Two

Let's continue with Private Carlton McCarthy's account of life in the Army of Northern Virginia.

It is amusing to think of the follies of the early part of the war, as illustrated by the outfits of the volunteers. They were so heavily clad, and so burdened with all manners of things, that a march was torture, and the wagon trains were so immense in proportion to the number of troops, that it would have been impossible to guard them in an enemy's country. Subordinate officers thought themselves entitled to transportation for trunks, mattresses, and folding bedsteads, and the privates were ridiculous in their demands.

Thus much by way of introduction. The change came rapidly, and stayed not until the transformation was complete. Nor was this change attributable alone to the orders of the general officers. The men soon learned the inconvenience and danger of so much luggage, and, as they be came more experienced, they vied with each other in reducing themselves to light-marching trim.

Experience soon demonstrated that boots were not agreeable on a long march. They were heavy and irksome, and when the heels were won a little one-sided, the wearer would find his ankle twisted nearly out of joint by every unevenness of the road. When thoroughly wet, it was a laborious undertaking to get the off; and worse to get them on in time to answer the morning roll-call. And so, good, strong brogues, or brogans, with broad bottoms and big, fat heels, succeeded the boots, and were found more more comfortable and agreeable, easier on and off, and altogether the more sensible.

A short-waisted and single-breasted jacket usurped the place of the longtailed coat, and became universal. The enemy noticed this peculiarity, and called the Confederates gray jackets which name was immediately transferred to those lively creatures which were the constant admirers and inseparable companions of the Boys in Gray and Blue.

Caps were destined to hold out longer than some other uncomfortable things, but they finally yielded to the demands of comfort and common sense, and a good soft felt hat was worn instead. A man who has never been a soldier does not know, nor indeed can know, the amount of comfort there is in a good soft hat in camp, and how utterly useless is a "soldier hat" as they are generally made. Why the Prussians with all their experience, wear they heavy, unyielding helmets, and the French their little caps, is a mystery to a Confederate who has enjoyed the comfort of an old slouch.

Overcoats an inexperienced man would think an absolute necessity for men exposed to the rigors of a northern Virginia winter, but they grew scarcer and scarcer; they were found to be a great inconvenience. The men came to the conclusion that the trouble of carrying them on hot days outweighed the comfort of having them when the cold day arrived. Besides they found that life in the open air hardened them to such an extent that changes in the temperatures were not felt to any degree. Some clung to the overcoats to the last, but the majority got tired of lugging them around and either discarded them altogether, or trusted to capturing one about the time it would needed. Nearly every overcoat in the army in the later years was one of Uncle Sam's captured from his boys.

The knapsack vanished early in the struggle. It was inconvenient to "change" the underwear too often, and the disposition not to change grew, as the knapsack was found to gall the back and soldiers, and weary the man before half the march was accomplished. The better way was to dress out and out, and wear the outfit until the enemy's knapsacks, or the folks at home supplied a change. Certainly it did not pay to carry around clear clothes while waiting for the time to use them.