Hurry Up and Wait . . .


"Writing Home," from "Hardtack and Coffee" by John Davis Billings, 1887

“Writing Home,” from “Hardtack and Coffee” by John Davis Billings, 1887

July 8, 1863 – “…marched to Middleton…”
July 9, 1863 – “…marched again across the mountain toward Antietam…”
July 10, 1863 – “…Marched to the Creek …”
July 11, 1863 – “…Marched about three miles…”

Excerpts from the Civil War Journal of David Meechan

If you are like me then the image of you have of the Civil War is non-stop battles. I thought that all soldiers did was fight a battle then once it was done move on and immediately fight another one without taking a break except to sleep. I was wrong.

As evidenced in David Meechan’s Civil War Journal, there was a lot of marching. Though boats and trains could be used from time to time, infantry soldiers spent most of their time walking from place to place. Even when they were in camp they had to practice marching no matter how often they’d been marching (a little redundant if I say so myself).

There were periods during which the generals, as they tried to determine a decisive strategy, shuffled their commands around like pieces on a chess board. This involved marching and marching, sometimes back and forth across many miles for reasons that made little or no sense to the common soldier.

This was especially true 150 years ago in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). The Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were both shattered and struggling to recover in late July. In the weeks following Gettysburg, General George Meade was under pressure to pursue Lee’s retreating Confederates into Virginia. However Meade could not, given the condition of his army, make any attack.

 “This Army is all used up, more now than I ever saw it before.” –  Private David Meechan of Duxbury wrote on July 16, 1863.

When they weren’t marching they were in camp and when they were in camp, they had to drill. They practiced the skills of soldiering; marching, loading and firing their muskets, moving in formation, etc.  Although most regiments had been through a camp of instruction before taking the field, even veteran units still were made to drill constantly between battles to continuously improve their proficiency.

Another thing soldiers had to do when not on campaign was menial labor. They would build roads, bridges, dig ditches, dig latrines, build fortifications, etc. Though the armies used existing roads, there were times when these roads were mired with mud and soldiers would be forced to cut down trees which were used to create corduroy roads to keep key routes open.

August 7, 1863

…Nothing going on but the soldiers peddling among each other, all kinds of gambling to get each other’s money after pay day.

Civil War journal of David Meechan

With all the marching, drilling and chores, you would think they would be exhausted.  Well, they were but they were also bored.  Soldiers spent a lot of their time sitting in camps waiting for orders. Even once orders have been received, they may spend a lot of time in camp preparing for an upcoming battle. Soldiers would therefore get very bored. With limited communications, soldiers may wait a long time between battles for planning and regrouping.

So, in their free time did all sorts of things from doing laundry and mending, playing music, whittling , to playing games, reading, and writing letters home but the biggest thing they did was gamble.  Not just at poker and other card games but on just about anything.  Soldiers would wager on just about anything for the sake of a bit of entertainment. Horse racing was big amongst the cavalry, of course. Cockroach races and even the infamous lice races were popular with the infantry.

Clearly, soldiers would resort to just about anything to ward off tedium. And then would come orders to pack up and prepare for a new campaign. For David Meechan and the rest of the Army of the Potomac, that time would not come until mid September 1863 with the opening phases of the Bristoe Campaign.

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