Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Camp Life

By Matthew Pizzolato

The typical day for a soldier during the War began at 5 A.M when the bugler played Reveille. If you've never heard the tune, it's not something that can be slept through.

Soldiers actually spent very little of their time fighting.  The primary activity for a soldier was drilling. They would drill as many as five times a day, often for an hour or two at a time.  One soldier described his day in the following manner. "The first thing in the morning is drill. Then drill, then drill again. Then drill, drill, a little more drill. Then drill, and lastly drill."

Of course, there was the normal activity of camp life, such as cooking and chopping firewood and other routine tasks.

When they weren't drilling, they had to find ways to entertain themselves and for young men who were restricted to a military camp, there wasn't much to do.  Therefore, they had to find ways to alleviate their boredom. 

The number one activity was writing letters to their loved ones at home or reading letters they had received.  Sometimes they found distraction from their boredom by playing card games, mostly whist or euchre, or even having boxing matches.  One activity involved staging races between lice or cock roaches across a strip of canvas.

Alcohol was forbidden, but many managed to smuggle it past the guards.   If they couldn't buy liquor, they made their own.  Sometimes men would seek "horizontal refreshments." By the second year of the War, Washington, D.C. had 450 bordellos and more than 7,500 full time prostitutes. Venereal disease was a common ailment among soldiers. 

A lot of soldiers suffered from homesickness and many of them left their regiments, a crime that was severely frowned upon.  During the War, the Union Army executed 141 men for desertion.  

On the other hand, camp life for a reactor involves a lot less drilling.  We drill on occasion, practice different marching commands or go through the manual of arms to keep ourselves sharp, but we don't do it nearly on the scale the soldiers did.   

During the day and evening when we are not on the battlefield, we tend to relax as much as possible.  We cook our meals and tell stories around the campfire.  We will leave camp for a while to visit the sutlers for supplies to augment our reenacting gear. On Saturday nights, dances are held where we put on our best bib and tucker and the ladies wear ball gowns and hoop skirts. 

Sometimes during the afternoons, I have been known to take a nap because when we march to battle, it tends to be uphill both ways.  

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction featuring his antihero character, Wesley Quaid, that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw

Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato


  1. Matt, all that lack of sleep and drilling for hours brings back memories of when I was in Naval bootcamp. I'm glad it is a distant memory. I think the re-enactment you participate in would be fun.

  2. Matt,
    I'm glad you don't spend that much time drilling! That might take all the fun out of being a re-enactor! LOL It sounds like you just have a ball doing this, and you have painted some very vivid pictures for us in these posts both of what life was like then and how the re-enacting groups try to preserve and imitate the reality. I am really enjoying your insights!

  3. Isn't it wonderful that boredom led the soldiers to write so many letters home? The best part is that so many of them survive to this day!

  4. You lost me at 5am. That's about the time I go to bed.

    I love your reenactment column. Nothing like having fun while you're learning something useful.

  5. What fun. We get to live vicariously through these informative post. (And I think vicariously is the best I can do these days. *Smile*) Thank you. Doris

  6. Good grief...5 AM would have been sleeping in when I was in boot camp. Those boys had it easy...LOL. But, other than that incredibly late wake up call, it sounds like much hasn't changed in the military--long periods of intense boredom followed by harsh burst of mind-numbing panic. (Can't remember who originally said that, but it's appropriate.)

  7. UPHILL both ways and at least TEN miles each time! LOL... Don't forget the bugs and heat, which is why I don't camp. B&B all the way. But it sounds amazing. Glad you're having such fun!

  8. Went to the 150th of Gettysburg. Great-grandfather was assistant surgeon for 11th PA. He was up at Seminary Ridge until the line broke on July 1st and ran to Christ Lutheran the 2nd division hospital. Held as prisoner while caring for 30 wounded in the church. Went back up on July 3rd (probably with pass) to care for wounded (they had started triage in the Union Army the year before) and was in the midst of Pickett's Charge when that happened. A great thrill to be there, real time 150 years later. Met some great reenactors portraying surgeons, many real doctors in life. Many in the Reb unit came from England and Denmark!