Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter in the Confederate Camps Around Centreville, Part II: Sickness, Leave, and Reenlistment

Weather was not the only enemy that the Confederate soldiers confronted during the first winter of the war in Centreville.  The cramped, unsanitary conditions in camp were the perfect breeding ground for disease.  The men suffered from measles, mumps, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and other illnesses.  As Tom Goree, an aide to Gen. James Longstreet, wrote to his relatives at the start of January 1862, "[a] great many of our troops are off on sick furlough, many are sick here and not in condition for a fight. . . ."  (in Cutrer 66).  Doctors struggled to treat the large numbers of sick, and disease claimed many lives as the winter progressed.

Because the soldiers usually hailed from rural areas where they were less exposed to germs than those who lived in cities, they had never developed immunity to diseases, and the infection rate was even higher than it might otherwise have been. (Glatthaar 50-51.)  As Gen. John B. Gordon recalled in his memoirs:

There was much sickness in camp. It was amazing to see the large number of country boys who had never had the measles. Indeed, it seemed to me that they ran through the whole catalogue of complaints to which boyhood and even babyhood are subjected. They had everything almost except teething, nettle-rash, and whooping-cough. I rather think some of them were afflicted with this latter disease.  (Gordon 49.)

Gen. John B. Gordon was a lieutenant colonel of the 6th Alabama at the start of 1862 (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Gordon himself dealt with a severe bout of diarrhea throughout February and March 1862.
While sickness diminished the army's effective strength, the Confederates dealt with other threats to their preparedness.  On January 14, 1862, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Department of Northern Virginia, wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin:
Since the supply in the neighborhood was exhausted the Quartermaster's Department has been unable to furnish full forage. Hay and fodder are rarely to be had, consequently our horses are in wretched condition. (OR, 1:5, 1028.)
Goree likewise worried that "many of our horses are very poor, and almost too weak to draw heavy artillery." (in Cutrer 66.)

Given the monotony of camp life, the cold and muddy weather, and the prevalence of disease, it is not surprising that some men decided to take leave without permission.  Soldiers from nearby towns were particularly susceptible to the lure of family and friends back home.  The 8th Virginia, for example, was comprised of men from Leesburg, Virginia, about 25 miles from Centreville.  Several soldiers of the 8th disappeared so that they could spend time in their home town, away from the misery of winter in camp.  The situation apparently became so bad that the regimental commander published an order in the Richmond, Leesburg, and Warrenton papers:
All officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers, belonging to the 8th Virginia Regiment, who have not been detailed, by special order emanating from General Headquarters, and who are not actually disabled by sickness for duty, will immediately join this Regiment.

It is an outrage now, become too apparent, that whilst the brave and faithful are suffering all the hardships incident to camp life, the trifling and self-indulgent, are to deselect to their duty, as to absent themselves from their companies, thus throwing all of the work upon the few good soldiers who maintain their posts, to the scandal and disgrace of the fair name of the 8th Virginia Regiment, won on the fields of Manassas and Leesburg.  (Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 25, 1862.)
The Confederate government offered soldiers a legitimate alternative to taking unauthorized leave.  Most men had volunteered for twelve months terms, which would expire in the spring.  Gen. Johnston estimated that about two-thirds of his command was composed of "one year" regiments. (OR, 1:5, 1058.)  Facing a potential manpower crisis, the Confederate Congress passed the so-called Bounty and Furlough Act in December 1861.  The law offered soldiers a fifty dollar bounty and a maximum 60-day furlough, with transportation expenses covered to home and back, if they would reenlist for two additional years, or the duration of the war.  Soldiers could even switch branches of the service, or change companies.

The law worried Johnston, who thought that the promise of a furlough would drain his ranks to dangerous levels.  He argued to Benjamin in January that it would "be unsafe to allow any large number of men to leave here; and without sustaining such a loss I do not see how the object of the law can be accomplished."  (OR, 1:5, 1037.)  Benjamin urged Johnston to understand that "the eager desire for a furlough during the inclement season will form the strongest inducement for your men, and thus afford the best guarantee of you having under your orders a large force of veteran troops when active operations recommence." (OR, 1:5, 1045.)  Johnston was told to "go to the extreme verge of prudence in tempting your twelve-month's men by liberal furloughs, and thus secure for yourself a fine body of men for the spring operations." (OR, 1:5, 1045.) 

Excerpt of the Bounty and Furlough Act from The Statutes at Large of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America (1864) (courtesy of Google Books).

The camps around Centreville were predictably abuzz with talk of reenlistment and the associated inducements.  Some men rushed to reenlist, while others struggled with the decision and decided to wait things out.  In the 1st Maryland, Randolph McKim was apparently the first to sign up again, even though "not many followed his example."  (Howard 65.)  According to messmate McHenry Howard, McKim reenlisted "not for the sake of the furlough, but animated by high patriotic motives."  (Howard 65.)  To hear McKim tell the story, however, the furlough might have had a little something to do with it.  He wrote:
Words cannot express the delight a soldier felt at the prospect of a return to "civilization" for the space of thirty days. To have the opportunity of a daily bath, or at least a daily "wash up"; to change one's clothes; to sleep in a bed; to hear no "reveille" at four in the morning; not to be disturbed in the evening by the inevitable "taps"; to sit down at a table covered with a white cloth; . . . . — yes, to feast on the "fat of the land " before the land had grown lean and hungry, as it did in another twelvemonth; to bask in the smiles of the noble women of the Confederacy; to enjoy once more their delightful society; to be welcomed and feted like a hero wherever you went by the men as well as the women. . . .(McKim 62-63.)
In mid-February, Goree told to his uncle that "[t]he men are re-enlisting much more readily than I supposed they would.  Before spring, I think that the majority of the 12-mo's men will re-enlist."  (in Cutrer 74.)  Johnston, trying to preserve some semblance of military strength, limited the furloughs to the "rate of 20 per cent. of the men present for duty."  (OR, 1:5, 1065.)  Johnston, however, remained concerned that the army was "much weakened by loss of officers from sickness and soldiers on furlough. . . ."  (OR, 1:5, 1075.)  Soon the Confederacy would take another approach to raising and maintaining an army.  Virginia enacted a state draft law in February 1862, followed by the new Confederate Congress' Conscription Act in April.

The Confederates would remain in Centreville until March 1862.  The men endured many hardships, including weather and sickness, although they managed to find some comfort in little things like reading, writing letters, or playing cards.  Whiskey made life a little more tolerable, even if it led to trouble.  More than a few men got to visit home under the new bounty and furlough law, while others decided to take a leave of absence without asking.  The upcoming spring campaign would try the soldiers in battle as many of them had never been tried before.  Perhaps camp life wouldn't seem so bad after all when matched up against the horrors of warfare on the Peninsula and beyond.

For Part I of this series, see here.


Aside from the OR the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

"Civil Liberties in Virginia during the Civil War," Encyclopedia Virginia; Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Major Thomas J. Goree (1995); "Desertion (Confederate) During the Civil War," Encyclopedia Virginia; Charles L. Dufour, The Gallant Life of Roberdeau Wheat (1985); Ralph Lowell Eckert, John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American (1989); Joseph T. Glatthaar, "Confederate Soldiers in Virginia, 1861," in William C. Davis & James I. Robertson, Jr., Virginia at War 1861 (2005); John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (1904); McHenry Howard; Recollections of a Maryland Confederate Soldier and Staff Office Under Johnston, Jackson, and Lee (1914); Robert Howison, "A History of the War," Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. 38, No. 3 (March 1864); John J. Kundahl, Confederate Engineer: Training and Campaigning with John Morris Wampler (2000); Lawrence R. Laboda, From Selma to Appomattox: The History of the Jeff Davis Artillery (1994); James M. Matthews (ed.), The Statutes at Large of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America (1864); Randolph H. McKim, A Soldier's Recollections: Leaves from the Diary of a Young Confederate (1921); Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jan. 25, 1862; Emory Upton, The Military Policy of the United States, 64th Cong., 2nd Session, Senate Doc. No. 329 (1916); Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry (1990).


CathyL.Logan said...

Great article, thanks.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Cathy. Glad you liked it.