Federal Soldiers in winter camp

Winter Camp, Union soldiers outside of kitchen
(click image to enlarge)

This would seem to be an atypical view of camp life as we’ve come to know it from living history displays and popular paintings. Though images of winter camps, like those along the Rappahannock River where the Union Army of the Potomac wintered after the disaster of the Battle of Fredericksburg, are common this one was a treat to break down into details about what we know of the men and the times.

This image was not attributed to a particular location or unit, but the corduroy pathways speak of a muddy spring or winter time. The corduroy planking was utilized over rough or winter roads and terrain. When Sherman’s army marched through Georgia, he split it into three columns at times and each would sometimes go through the most impassable wooded areas to avoid and confound attempts to block it along common roadways. Engineering regiments felled a swatch of trees ahead of the marching columns and those behind them stripped the limbs and laid the trunks down in contiguous roadways for the wagon and artillery units thus making their own roads. The road was not pleasant to march on, but as the logs sank they settled and made a passable road for wheeled vehicles.

Late 19th century of dress in polite company was that men wore a coat when out and usually with a vest for to appear in public in ones undershirt was improper. Army life being what it was has obviously trained these men not to bother much with polite decorum. Army regulation was the soldier was to always have his sack or frock coat on and a hat when out of doors (a fact of military life even today) and when on fatigue duty one was permitted to take off the coat if needed. Further regulation was that the top button was to be fixed at all times when wearing the coat as the man to the far right is showing. Fully buttoned was to the discretion of the soldier. It is possible that the two men without their sack coats are on kitchen detail, but it is mostly the exception to find men posing for images without their uniform coats on.

Another aspect, clearly seen here by the man 4th from the left is the 19th century waistline. The trousers are worn well above the hips as they are long in the crotch. With his trouser cuffs turned up there are other parts of this camp that are extensively muddy. Another way of dealing with this was to blouse ones trouser cuffs into ones socks. This is something more often seen in period lithographs like this one. Prang Lithograph of assuant during the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi

This appears to be primarily a personal style choice of the soldier. The following is from reenactor discussions on the Authentic Campaigner forums: Blousing of trousers there are images of soldiers likewise accoutered and of period woodcuts, and other artist renditions. Interestingly, like other fashions it was not universal but not just a Federal or Confederate thing. It could also be that these representations became something of an marshall image that had a visual appeal to both individual soldiers and to artists depicting scenes. At the 135th Shiloh event with the incessant rain and mud, one did find that the trouser cuffs became caked with mud, making them heavy. Often some of these questions about did they or didn’t they are answered by simply experiencing something of the soldier life and seeing what happens when one tramps through brambles.

Beards, like styles in dress, were a cultural variety as seen here. The shaggy looking mountain man look as is sometimes seen (or used to be) at reenactments is not so much supported by both the decorum of the age, military discipline, and image records.

Finally, the contraband slave in the picture, though fully uniformed in union kit, is more than likely a camp servant. Scenes like this are common in camp images and say a lot about the relationship between white soldiers and black servants. It is a point of acknowledgement that whites and white soldiers were more apt to appear with blacks in images when the relationships were of unequals, what is a sad thing to say today but a common enough thing for the time period. Even though he is in a uniform he is not a soldier judging by the attitudes of the men in the image and knowing that a scene like this, if a black regiment, would have been uni-racial. First Negro Commissioned officer from the Civil War, 54th Mass. VolunteersIf any whites were in the image they would have been officers given the organization of the USCT units. NCOs would have been from the ranks of the black volunteers but the officers were one hundred precent whites. It would not be until the end of the war that the first Lieutenant was commissioned from the 54th Mass. Volunteers, Stephen A. Swails. Swails was a veteran  of all of the 54th’s major battles, twice wounded, and for his leadership was commissioned 2nd Lt. in 1865 and was further promoted to 1st Lt. prior to the 54th being mustered out of service.

Winter camps were long term, where active campaigning was minimal. Civil War armies, depending on the area of the country, were immobile from December through February or March due to the problems of weather on the logistical needs of supply. Snow and rain, the things that produced mud on non-macadamized roads which would have been most. The longevity of a camp being based on the frequency of being moved about (even in winter quarters there was no guarantee that the hut one constructed would be the hut one was able to move into) produced such structures as seen here.

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Contraband Slaves in Union Camp, 1863

Contraband Slaves in Union Camp, Culpepper VA 1863

(click photo to enlarge)

There are several things to glean from this image.

It is winter time or late fall given the lack of leaves in the tree, the buttressing of the tent with planks for heat retention and a wind break, and a chimney visible at the left of the tree trunk. They are also in a permanent fortification given the planking that makes the high wall that their tent rests against.

They are wearing decommissioned federal army clothing, most clearly visible in the state of the trouser leg on the right. Army quartermasters had to account for everything, even articles of clothing that were changed out when an enlisted man’s clothing allowance allowed for replacement. Both men are wearing military issue foot ware, cavalry boots of rough out leather. The military vest, the shell jacket of the man on the right (short coat that comes to the waist with up to 8 buttons on the front without piping or epaulettes) and the sack coat and hat hanging on the tree to the left further indicate that these men have been fully furnished from military stores.

The wall tent is another curiosity as it is crammed with a table and other cookware. Wall tents were supplied to officers as their quarters. Enlisted men at this time would still be living in Sibley tents or would have at this time of year constructed a winter hut made of logs and covered in canvass. From their attire they are both being paid by the army as cooks or teamsters, my guess being cooks.

The refuse in front of the tent also seems to signify what role they played in the camp as cooks. The other thing to note is that in this time frame, the thought of a candid shot is unknown. One does not whip out a camera and just shoot. The table inside the tent was probably outside for normal use but stashed away. The cans on the ground splayed out by the photographer (these men, though not inducted into the military would still have had to follow decorum), the ladle given to the man on the left to hold, and the man on the right with his forage cap on the ground by his feet told to sit in a relaxed manner, the cigar being an interesting addition if posed.

As long as the army was stationary, these men had a home and or an income if they were hired to perform specific duties. Once an army or unit moved on, these men would have been homeless unless they could hire themselves to another unit. The campaign season was one of hardship for the many former slaves who managed to escape or were liberated by Union forces as the army promised no protection for families and those who could not perform some needed duty. When on the march, they would follow and camp nearby, but unless they were being utilized in some form or fashion they were on their own.

Have fun noting other things from this image, it is remarkably clear and focused.

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Contraband of War: Runaway slaves and the Union Army

Look closely at this image. What is notable are the two servants. They are not in uniform but look to be wearing Union kersey blue trousers. The tents also suggest the three other men are officers as well as some of the equipage. Enlisted men would not have had privilege, pay, or baggage to have a table, chairs, and servants.

I am currently reading about the 21st Ohio Volunteers for my next novel and the man charged with writing the unit history describes a period of time where the regiment was on garrison duty in Alabama around the Huntsville area. It was quite common for them to shelter and retain contraband negroes as servants. An officer was given a ration allowance and expected to see to his own mess. Many a runaway slave was sheltered in the Union camps in this manner as officers and men alike saw it as their duty to both deprive the southern owners of the labor and to help a fellow human being out.

Captain Canfield of the 21st describes a point where near mutiny existed over the coddling of southern civilian slave owners and the forcible return of negroes being employed as servants. The history of the 21st Ohio can be found on Google Books for free.

History of the 21st Regiment, Canfield pg. 54-55

On the 23d a planter came near camp, and meeting Captain Canfield, said he heard his servant was in his (Canfield’s) camp, and asked the captain if he had any objection to his going to see. “Oh, no,” said the captain, “not in the least;” but seeing several groups of men casting significant glances toward the stranger , he added, “You will not consider me responsible for anything that happens.”

Hearing this the stranger turned back. Shortly after the Lieutenant Colonel’s orderly came with an order dated and directed to Captain Canfield, saying:

Negro boy Pat, in your company is the property of —-. You will deliver him outside of camp lines to his master. Signed J.M.Neibling, Lt. Col Comdg Rgt.

Captain Canfield wrote in answer, acknowledging the receipt of the order, and added “I respectfully decline to obey it,” signed it officially, as Captain Commanding Company, and kept a copy of the correspondence. Nothing further was said or done about this, however.

Matters were in this condition, when for the first time in two months I was detailed as officer of the day, a duty I should often have performed before. I received my order in the evening, and that night I made up my mind that when I went on duty the next morning, I would break up the slave trade in the regiment for twenty four hours at least; and my success surprised me. The county jail was full of prisoners, chiefly fugitive slaves, who were not turned over to me, but one of my sentinels was posted there, and I assumed whatever authority I lacked to investigate the resin of their detention. I knew very well there were no charges against these black men. After my guard was fully posted and every duty performed I took a non-commission officer and file of men for escort, and reported to Lieutenant Colonel Neibling for any orders he might be pleased to give me. I found him sitting in the shade of a public house near the depot, surrounded by a number of gentleman of the town. After informing me that there were no new orders for me, I was turning away to leave him, when he called out to me, “Where are you going with that guard?” to which I answered, “I am going down to release the prisoners int he jail, against whom there are no charges.” He answered me, “Sir, I order you not to do it.” I then said with deference of manner, “Colonel, will you be so good as to have charges preferred against them.” He replied in a towering rage its as none of my damned business, and that I should go to my quarters in arrest. Of course I obeyed the order of arrest, and quite crestfallen, went to my tent, followed by the boisterous laughter and jeers of Colonel Neibling’s companions, who were sitting about him and heard all that was said.

I had up to this time been considered a severe disciplinarian, and had incurred the displeasure of many officers and mend of the regiment on that account, and their judgement at first as, that I was served right. But before sundown hat day, all of the slaves were relieved by Colonel Neibling himself, and the regiment was in rebellion against its commanding officer, and my arrest was the pretext of the mutiny.

An interesting and oft unknown look into the inner workings of civil war Union regiments in the field.