Many of the volunteers who joined the armies of the North and South did so more as a means of escape than because of patriotic pride. A great many had spent their lives on family farms and in small towns, and they saw the war as an opportunity to experience some excitement and see the rest of the country. In their fantasies, the war was a clean, bloodless affair that would be over in a matter of months with nary a bullet fired. The reality, unfortunately, was much different.
Many soldiers were sent into battle with weapons they barely knew how to use, a situation made worse by the terror of battle. On the field at Gettysburg, Union ordnance officers collected thousands of muskets loaded with up to ten charges. In the fever of the fight, many of the soldiers had apparently loaded and reloaded without actually firing.
While camp life was filled with interminable boredom, the battlefield was filled with gut-wrenching terror. Once a battle commenced, the scene was usually one of chaos. The noise was deafening as cannons roared and hundreds and sometimes thousands of soldiers fired on each other. Officers would try desperately to rally and guide their troops in the throes of battle, but the smoke and the noise made the task difficult, if not impossible. In addition, as many as half of the soldiers typically had little knowledge of the terrain, and it wasn't unusual for entire units to get lost.
The Instinct for Panic
Many soldiers, especially those experiencing their first battle, panicked at the first sounds of gunfire and fled to the rear. One common tactic was to help a wounded comrade to the medical tent and then not return to the fighting. Commanding officers quickly became wise to the ruse and ordered cavalry officers in the rear to challenge fleeing soldiers with the cry, “Show blood!” Those who could not were ordered to take up arms and return to the front.
Most of the soldiers on both sides were raw recruits, inexperienced teenagers, or young men barely out of their teens who had never been involved in a gunfight in their lives. In most cases, their only experience with firearms was hunting with friends. Now they were being ordered to face an often-unseen enemy and attack, knowing full well that there was a chance they might not survive.
Feats and Acts Beyond the Everyday
Every battle was different. The terrain changed, as did the weather and even the number of men available to fight. Officers did the best they could under these ever-changing circumstances, and many of the most skilled officers managed to pull off some spectacular feats in the face of overwhelming odds.
Different too were the leadership styles of commanding officers. Some were skilled tacticians and strategists, others were exceptionally skilled at leading their men, and a few could do both. Generals tended to stay toward the rear lines during a battle, guiding the action with the aid of subordinates who would carry orders down to unit leaders. But a few reckless generals liked to lead by example and were out in the front of the charge. Both sides lost a great number of talented leaders as a result.
Battlefield deaths weren't always the direct result of enemy bullets. Many wounded soldiers perished in raging brushfires that were ignited during heavy fighting in dry fields and forests. A number of battles were temporarily halted while both sides struggled to save their wounded from brush-fires that threatened to engulf them.
During major battles, it wasn't uncommon for soldiers to fight nonstop for hours, fueled by pure adrenaline and completely unaware of the passage of time. Only when the sun went down and the battle ceased did their rhythms return to normal, as did their need for food, drink, and sleep. This was the battlefield experience for hundreds of thousands of Civil War soldiers, sometimes for days on end, battle after battle. Those lucky enough to return home never forgot the sights, sounds, and smells of combat.
Amazingly, once the shooting stopped, opposing forces often put their differences aside in order to barter for various goods. There are innumerable examples of Union and Confederate soldiers meeting in a truce zone to tell jokes and swap food, coffee, tobacco, newspapers, and other goods. Occasionally, even the officers joined in. In one notable incident, a Union officer was invited by his Confederate counterparts to attend a country dance at a farmhouse near the area where both armies were camped. The officer accepted the invitation, enjoyed the dance, and was safely returned to his lines by his hosts before daybreak.