Winter was gruesome for soldiers - there was no Winter Wonderland!
It is January. We all sit in the comfort of our heated homes. Some enjoy winter as much as any other season. Others can't wait for spring and summer to touch our fruited plains. Re-enactors and Living Historians can't wait for the new campaign or season to start! For most of us, the greatest time of the year starts some time in April and lasts until late October. And then we store our gear and uniforms, to spend the dark and cold season with hot beverages, a comfy house, the holidays, and time with our loved ones. But how was it during the civil war? How did the brave souls on both sides get through the winter? Were they comfy and warm, in the midst of their loved ones? For most enlisted men the answer was: NO. The campaign season for a soldier during the civil war was brutal. Full of deprivation. Food shortages, sanitary circumstances that led to sickness of 60+ percent of all enlisted, the daily uncertainty if one would see the light of another day. Or lose a limb or be severely injured hours from the last meal. But winter......winter added a whole different dimension to the horrors of war...... Imagine spending winter like this:
The freezing cold. The mud, or snow and ice. No matter whether you were a Confederate or Union soldier: the elements were as brutal. There were "installed winter camps", on both sides. Those consisted of very primitive small log cabins. Or enforced tents. Those had at least a small "fireplace/chimney" added to them. But these "cabins" were so primitive, that they hardly protected the men from the elements. The only insulation were leaves that were collected late fall, or straw. These materials rotted and got moldy with the dampness, over time:
The elements do not discriminate, based on which side of the battlefield one fought. The soldiers were in dire straits. The winter months were not a time of "recharging relaxation". For both sides. But especially for Confederate enlisted men. Federal Soldiers had more provisions and more materials. Account by Confederate Soldiers of the 11th Alabama:: George Griggs and Lem Harris, soldiers in the 11th Alabama, agreed that it was a harsh winter. Griggs wrote in his diary that it was very cold and that it snowed and sleeted often. Harris wrote home that he was doing "as well as could be expected in this polar region." On January 16 he reported,
'"We have not got into our houses yet the weather being so that we could not work much outdoors but we are cold all the time just having our tents and at this time there is a coat of snow and sleet over them three inches thick. . . . We carry all the wood that we burn about a mile and then it is not plentiful. It is a dull hard time here now."
McClelen also complained about the cold, especially when he had to do picket duty, "where we would be exposed to the bleak winds. It is sure enough cold weather during the winter in Northern Virginia." The cold weather worsened the sickness that stalked all camps in the war; Colonel Lamar of the 19th Mississippi complained that his regiment "has suffered severely from sickness; had improved greatly until out on picket in bad weather without tents or fires, the number of sick increased again." Beyond a few comments about food, whisky, and the frozen drudgery of picket duty, the soldiers left little record of what they did during the winter. Hunger was prevalent! On both sides. But more so on the Confederate side after the blockades of 1863 were implemented. While Federal troops could at least partially rely on federally appropriated rations (never enough), the Confederates were hit hard after the sea blockades preventing European allies/sympathizing nations to provide goods. The South had many partners in Europe. Trade and exchange of goods were essential for an independent Southern Nation. The Union's efforts of blockading the transatlantic routes started to have severe impacts on the CSA in late 1863: The blockade had a negative impact on the economies of the CSA and many European countries. Textile manufacturing areas in Britain and France that depended on Southern cotton entered periods of high unemployment, while French producers of wine, brandy and silk also suffered when their markets in the Confederacy were cut off. Although Confederate leaders were confident that Southern economic power would compel European powers to intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederacy, Britain and France remained neutral despite their economic problems, and later in the war developed new sources of cotton in Egypt and India. Although British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, was personally sympathetic to the Confederacy, and many other elite Britons felt similarly, strong domestic abolitionist sentiment in Britain and in his cabinet prevented Palmerston from taking stronger steps toward assisting the Confederacy. Napoleon III of France was also sympathetic to the Confederacy, but wanted to pursue a joint policy with Britain regarding the U.S. Civil War, and so remained neutral. Moreover, Napoleon III’s chief concern during the Civil War years was France’s intervention in Mexico.
As the war progressed and more territory came under Union control, the blockade became more effective, but less of an international issue. However, until the capture of Fort Fisher in 1865, the Confederate Army was still able to obtain some supplies via blockade running ships. And then, there is the more human and emotional aspect of the winter during the civil war. Hundreds of thousands of men were not only away from their farms and professions. Which in most cases were the only source of income for family and loved ones. Families left behind, on both sides, suffered greatly. Anxiety, poverty, fear, and despair took a firm hold of so many families. And never was it felt more deeply than during the holy season around Christmas:
So tonight, when you snuggle up in your warm house, under your blankets or a comforter, next to you loved one, or alone, think about what those brave men in gray and blue had to endure during the most crucial and brutal time in American history! God bless you and everyone you care about. And we are looking forward to seeing you at our events in 2022! Respectfully, 4th Maryland Light Artillery C.S.A. Sources, used under FAIR USE rule, education and teaching: Library of Congress National Archives State Department American Battlefield Trust