If you are reading this post – timed to go online one minute after the Mayan end of the world prediction – something good must have transpired. This date of December 21st is also the beginning of winter, and so the topic of this day seems appropriately fitting.Mayan-Weather-Forecast-630x472

It may sound crazy, but the part of Civil War life that I think I would most dislike – perhaps more than the fighting itself – was the experience of winter quarters. Unable to navigate easily on alternately frozen and muddy roads, the armies in the east – as in Virginia particularly – would largely settle into winter living arrangements. The encampments became virtual towns, as the soldiers gave their full energies into making life as comfortable as possible while essentially living outside for the winter.

I’ll return here to some of my oft-referenced writers for a description of winter life over the cold months of 1862-1863. Here are three brief excerpts:

1.  From Frederick Hitchcock – of the 132nd PA and his book “War from the Inside” …

The weather was now getting very cold, and we set about making ourselves as comfortable as possible in camp. The men were allowed to fix up their tents as best they could without much regard for architectural beauty or regularity. Some of them dug cellars four to five feet deep, made puncheon floors, that is, floors made of split logs smoothed off and laid the flat side up, whilst the sides were made of logs plastered up with mud. Mud fireplaces were made with old barrels for chimneys. The roofs were canvas, of course, but fairly waterproof.

A favorite bit of horse-play of the men at this time was to watch when the occupants of some tent were having a good time, and smoke them out by throwing a wet blanket over the top of their barrel chimney. In about a second the smoke would be almost dense enough to suffocate, and every fellow would pile out and hunt for the culprit. Woe be unto him if they found him. A favorite ruse on the part of the culprit was to plunge into his tent and be placidly snoring when the victims began their hunt. Sometimes the simulation would be too sonorous, and give him away, and then he had trouble on hand for the next hour. The ingenuity of these sons of Belial in their pranks was beyond description. I have laughed until absolutely exhausted many a time. How did I know so much about them? Well, I had two of the liveliest of these boys in my office as clerks, and, as they were generally in the fun, I was kept posted, and to tell the truth, as long as it did not seriously transgress, and there was fun in it, I knew nothing about it “officially.” … I speak of these things, for they were the oases in army life and drudgery. Except for them it would have been unendurable. Seldom were things so bad but that some bit of raillery would relieve the strain and get up a laugh, and everybody would feel better.

4166105425_f666a62a33_zI have spoken of the men’s winter-quarters. We officers had our wall tents, and had them fixed up with puncheon floors also, and sheet-iron stoves, so that as long as we kept a fire burning all were fairly comfortable. But wood fires would last but an hour or so without replenishing, and so during the night we had great difficulty in keeping warm. Some of the coldest nights my clerks and myself took turns in keeping up our fire. I rather prided myself on the construction of my bed. It was made of two springy poles held in place by crotched sticks driven into the ground. On the poles nailed crosswise was a bottom made of barrel-staves, the hollow side down, and on these was laid a bed of hay, kept in place by some old canvas sacking. On cold nights the only article of clothing we took off was our shoes or boots. Then rolling ourselves in our blankets, with gum blanket outside tucked well around our feet and the whole surmounted with our overcoats, we managed to sleep pretty well. These puncheon floors were all the proceeds of foraging. No lumber of any kind was furnished by the government. The men cut the trees and split the logs wherever they could find them. Most of them were <brought> into camp anywhere from one to four miles.

2.  From George Noyes – Doubleday’s staff – from his book “The Bivouac and the Battlefield …

As the troops had now abundant leisure, they exhibited a good deal of taste and skill in the building and decoration of their huts. A good wide fireplace at one end, bunks for beds, carpets of cedar twigs, cracker-box tables, and pork-barrel armed chairs, with neat racks for their muskets and other equipments, made these winter houses almost luxurious. The rebels had passed the last winter here, and left behind them two villages of substantial log houses, to which our boys now fell heirs, and valued them accordingly.

From A.P. Smith – Historian of the 76th New York …4166984372_86d9e9060d_z

(near Belle Plain) Camp was regularly laid out, and building again commenced, when another march of two miles up the river brought them to a thick, tangled wood. This proved to be the real “winter quarters” which the men had so much desired. They set briskly at work, and soon a city of log houses, surmounted with canvas, rewarded their industry. The troops were now hid away in the woods which cover the rough and broken grounds lying between Aquia Creek, Belle Plain and Fredericksburg.

A vast change had come over the men since they first went into camp at Meridian Hill, less than a year before. Then the cloth tents went up awkwardly, the smoke of their sheet iron stoves wonderfully disturbed the equanimity of their owners, and fresh bread was considered a necessity. Now, stoves were not thought of, but the men were evidently as much at home, if not as happy, while sitting around their little fireplaces in their log huts, as when they used to sit in their quiet Northern homes on a winter evening. And hard tack had become a fixed institution.

The men were, for the first fortnight engaged in erecting their tents, and clearing the drill grounds, policing and preparing generally for winter. Then came the drill, interspersed with court martials, until the soldiers, even in winter quarters, found their time well employed.

Between my hatred of cold, and a terrible life-long case of attention deficit disorder, I would have never been able to stand such a winter ordeal! Just one more thing to be impressed about Civil War guys!

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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