Thursday, September 11, 2014

A grunt's experience in the Civil War - Part I

I have been reading Leander Stillwell's book, The Story of a Common Soldier of Army Life in the Civil War 1861-1865. Stillwell joined the Union army in January of 1862, after the first Battle of Bull Run, when President Lincoln called for volunteers for three years of service. He was 18 years old, a farm boy, on enlistment. He served the entire length of the war.

This book was written in the 20th century when he was an old man. He started the memoir as something his son could read to understand the war and his father's part in it, but later published the book. Fortunately Stillwell's family had saved the many letters he had written home as a soldier, and he had them to refer to in the writing. He also had a small diary he had kept during the latter part of the war.

Stillwell was quickly promoted to corporal, then to sergeant and late in the war to second lieutenant; he was promoted to first lieutenant when mustering out of the army in 1865. However, he saw most of the war in the ranks rather than as an officer. He served in the Western Campaign and was present at Shiloh and Vicksburg.

I found Stillwell's biography on the Internet. After the war he went to law school, graduated, and passed the bar. He migrated to Kansas and went into private practice, but later ran for and was elected judge. He served as a judge in Kansas for many years. One can conclude that he was quite smart and quite sensible, respected by others.

He is a good writer, and in fact includes some previously published newspaper pieces that he wrote in this book. I suspect that his writing skill came from a lifetime of reading good books, his experience as a lawyer and judge, and his native intelligence.

Stillwell served in the 61st Illinois Volunteer Regiment, and I found a brief description of its service. 37 members of the regiment were killed or mortally wounded in action, and 187 died of disease. In Stillwell's war disease was a much greater danger than the enemies' bullets. This was due to the terrible sanitation of many camps leading to lots of diarrhea, and malarial mosquitoes. He also describes one camp infested with lice. There were some 800 to 900 men in the regiment at the beginning of the war. Some men left for various reasons, but apparently there were some replacements. Still the 61st was more fortunate than other units that were decimated in battle. Still the mortality in the regiment was high enough that Stillwell could call himself fortunate in surviving the war.

I have finished the first dozen chapters of the book, and wanted to share impressions while they are fresh in my mind.

We seldom see war from the point of view of the foot soldier, and this book provides a chance to do so.  As a enlisted man, even as a non-commissioned officer, Stillwell understood little of the strategy of the war, or even of the tactics of battle. He went where he was ordered to go and did what he was ordered to do. There doesn't seem to have been much explaining in the process.

Perhaps one of the most significant impressions of his book is that a huge amount of his service must have been boring. In the first 12 chapters, he describes one day on the line in the battle of Shiloh and one skirmish in which his unit fired at a Confederate cavalry detachment which rather quickly retreated. Stillwells experience of the siege of Vicksburg was hearing distant artillery fire as his unit guarded a railway important for supply. The material he regards as interesting enough to describe includes the rare good meal, the sounds of unusual birds heard on night sentry duty, and drill in the operations of small and larger units (in some cases for movements never used in anger). There must have been hours, days and weeks of crashing boredom!

His home in south-western Illinois was located in a  region with a large population of immigrants from slave holding states. Stillwell feels that a Democrat was chosen to form the 61st Illinois because a Democrat would be likely to better succeed in recruiting from the population that had southern sympathies and would have some Copperheads who attacked Union soldiers later in the war. He notes that few officers were available with previous military service  -- some in Indian wars which was of little value in the battles of the Civil War, and some immigrants who has seen service in Europe.

He says that the men who marched off to war with him were all single. Many were boys, and the "older" men might be in their late 20s or 30s. He was eager to join the army, apparently perceiving military service as being exciting. At one point, having received a Dear John letter from a girl he liked who married a stay at home young man who clerked in a store, Stillwell expresses some disdain that man's avoiding service. At another point, Stillwell writes with admiration of an officer who encourages the troops with his own view of the importance of the purpose of the war -- the preservation of the union. It was an immigrant officer, and perhaps he had experience of the failure of the 1848 insurrections, and thus concern that the Union would remain strong enough to defend democracy. After a year in the field, and the battle of Shiloh, Stillwell writes that the boys had changed into men with serious faces.

The life of a Union soldier was hard. Food was bad (especially early in the war before the soldiers learned how to prepare it more adequately) and sometimes scarce (as when the Confederates managed to break the supply lines). While troops moved by train and steamboat for longer journeys, on railroad they traveled in box cars or flat cars, even dirtier in the latter case, and on sleeping on deck. In one case that Stillwell describes, a riverboat loaded with former paroled Confederate prisoners caught on fire, and a thousand men died, burnt to death or drowned as a result. The soldiers often slept in tents and sometimes under the sky, even in winter. They marched long distances, often in rain and mud, and early in the war commended by officers who did not understand the importance of regular rest breaks. They learned the hard way to minimize the kit that they carried with them, and lived very simply.

Stillwell describes his first battle. He was placed in a line and experienced shelling, which was almost totally ineffective. When the Confederate line appeared at their front, it quickly disappeared in the smoke generated by the black powder that was used at the time. Stillwell was looking for a target -- conditioned by years of hunting when he would never waste an expensive round of ammunition unless he was sure of a kill -- until an officer came and told him to start firing as fast as he could in the direction in which he thought there might be enemies. He describes the effort of loading and firing as fast as possible as being so demanding that he didn't think about anything else while the firing continued. (It is perhaps not surprising that so much ammunition was expended with so low a rate of men being wounder or killed in battle.) Stillwell reports that he doesn't know if his shots ever hit anyone during the war, but he supposed he must have wounded or killed.

He describes drill several times in the book, in which units of various sizes practice movements from a standard drill manual; he mentions that some of the movements practiced were never used in battle. I assume that some of the things he describes were learned in these drills, and in battle Stillwell and other soldiers could fall back on this training and do what they had reduced to a practiced skill.

I was interested that Stillwell described the behavior of someone he knew well who proved a coward in battle. The many ran to the rear at the first exchange, not to appear until the battle was over. In one battle he apparently wounded himself when he reach a safe place in the rear in order to claim the reason for his departure from the line of battle. Stillwell simply dismisses the man's behavior suggesting that he probably could not control it.

Minie ball
When the 61st was recruited, the soldiers were not immediately given guns. After moving from the base from which they were recruited (a county fairgrounds turned into a temporary fort) to their first regular army camp they were issued European made muskets that had been imported. Later in the war they were issued new Springfield rifles. I know that the military armories were the source of the techniques that made up the American System of Manufacturing, and that the Civil War saw a massive increase in the manufacturing capacity of the north; Stillwell was a beneficiary, and his Springfield rifle was a significant improvement over his musket. He describes learning how to maintain his weapon, He also describes the reasons behind his belief that the new weapon with its minie ball ammunition was much more lethal than the old muskets with the old fashion shot that it used.

There is not much in the first part of the book about the transmission of information over distance by the army, perhaps because the enlisted man doesn't usually send nor receive such information. Stillwell describes the staff officer riding to his unit, no doubt carrying orders. In the siege of Vicksburg he describes signal lamps being used extensively to send coded messages between headquarters units. Although he describes guarding railroads, he has not yet mentioned guarding the telegraph lines which we know were in use.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

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