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True, the war is a cause and a struggle, a clash of ideologies and armies, but for the private soldier, it also has heft and weight and substance, a physical

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True, the war is a cause and a struggle, a clash of ideologies and armies, but for the private soldier, it also has heft and weight and substance, a physical

The Burden of War


True, the war is a cause and a struggle, a clash of ideologies and armies, but for the private soldier, it also has heft and weight and substance, a physical presence that requires muscular strength and bodily endurance, sound limbs and good wind.

The war is not simply there in the offing — up in Virginia, out at the coastal forts, west along the Shenandoah Valley — as some complete phenomenon awaiting the soldier’s participation. The war exists in pieces, each piece a part of a monumental work in progress. Every soldier must carry his part of the war to the great staging grounds and then help to assemble it.

The phrase “to make war” is literally accurate, for the war is made by men manipulating objects across a landscape through the energy of their courage, their will, and their physical strength.

Thus the soldier is a maker of war, a builder of destruction. He must carry his tools to the job site.

It falls to his lot to bear four kinds of burden: first, his own clothing and personal effects. These are both the lightest and the heaviest. Their weight depends on whether the wool coat on his back is rain-soaked or baked in sunlight, his haversack bearing a love letter from home or the news of a death in the family.

Second, he must bear the weapons with which to wage war.

Many carry 1853 model British Enfield rifle-muskets, smuggled through the blockade into Wilmington. It weighs nine and a half pounds unloaded and shoots a .577 caliber bullet more than half an inch in diameter. When he faces a Union infantryman across that close, deadly space of battle, he may find the soldier in blue shooting back at him with the same weapon, acquired in open trade by the U.S. government. A trained soldier can fire with accuracy three times per minute at targets 1,000 yards distant. The minié ball can crush a limb or smash open a chest or abdomen.

But to make it work, he must also carry powder cartridges, a belt pouch of percussion caps, and a ramrod, along with 40 to 60 rounds of bullets — three to four pounds of grooved lead.

In addition to the rifle-musket, many carry bowie knives. The officers carry pistols — of many makes and calibers — secured in flapped-leather holsters or stuck into sashes. Some carry multiple pistols. The artillerymen carry short Roman swords. Cavalrymen carry long, curved sabers. Some higher-ranking officers carry swords of exquisite design and quality, presentation pieces awarded them by their legislatures, their clubs, their own men.

The most devilish weapon any soldier carries is a socket-style bayonet that fits onto the muzzle of his rifle with the quick twist of the wrist. It dangles from his belt in a stiff scabbard. Unlike his Yankee counterpart, whose flat-bladed bayonet inflicts a sharp cut that can be stitched, the North Carolina soldier mounts a triangular bayonet. It punches a hole in a man’s flesh, makes a puncture wound that cannot be repaired.

In a war that quickly deteriorates into gruesome slaughter, the bayonet is the one weapon most soldiers on both sides cannot bring themselves to use on another man. That way of killing is a burden they refuse to bear. Fewer than one tenth of one percent of all battle wounds are caused by the bayonet.

Instead, they carry it by the blade end on dark nights as they move around a camp safe behind the lines, for its round socket makes an excellent candleholder. They stab it into the earth and fix a candle to it that lights the pages of the letters they read or write.

Third, the soldier carries provisions to allow him to survive, almost always in the outdoors, through every mean season of the long struggle. Hardtack and bully beef, cornmeal and coffee he carries in a special pouch inside his white, cotton, duck haversack, a shoulder-slung bag, one foot square, with a flap that buckles closed against the elements.

The best ones are waterproof, but these are scarce in the ranks of the North Carolina men. At the start of the war, it is typical for each man to carry three days’ rations, but many begrudge the weight and simply eat all of it the first day. And later in the war, rations are thin and spotty, and the haversacks hold wild berries, apples, persimmons, whatever they scavenge from the countryside.

The fourth burden is the one that the soldiers rarely talk about, the one they bear in their arms off the field of battle. They bear the same burden — escorted by a brass band playing the sullen death march — to the graveyard: the fallen comrade, who is always heavier in death, who is weighted with their secret fears and grief and desperation, their homesickness and failing hope.

And as the war drags on for a year, and then two, and then longer, this particular burden gathers weight and presses on them like a fact of weather, a permanent gloom that no sun can dispel, a burden of absence, the absence of their loved ones and their departed fellows, and a foreshadowing of a day when they will become the absent ones.

So the boys from North Carolina trudge off to war bearing weight.

Clothes and shoes and …

At first, they carry knapsacks on their backs, stuffed with extra trousers and shirts and underwear, blanket roll and rubber groundsheet tied neatly on top. But the backpack grates on the shoulders and wearies the back, so the soldiers lighten it gradually, heavy clothes strewn by summer roadsides. Many discard even the packs themselves in favor of haversacks. Thomas Fanning Wood, who marches out of Wilmington with a handsome patent-leather knapsack, quickly learns that the flimsy article will not hold up and leaves it under a bush in Virginia.

The soldiers wear an assortment of homespun jeans or wool trousers and cotton shirts, covered by slave-cloth or linsey-woolsey battle jackets and overcoats of brown or gray wool, supplied by the state’s 39 mills, all pressed into service making uniforms. By the second year of war, their clothes will become more standardized. They will have shell jackets with proper insignia of rank and unit.

On their heads, they wear essential headgear, either a slouch hat with a wide brim or a leather-billed forage cap, modeled on the French kepi — a quartermaster’s bargain at $2 apiece. The forage cap is often issued with a havelock — a linen cover with a long tail that keeps the sun off a man’s neck to ward off heatstroke. But most soldiers find them too hot to wear. Instead, they use their havelocks to filter coffee grounds or to clean their rifles.

Cavalrymen wear riding boots, but the infantryman who must carry himself to the war on two legs prefers low shoes with flat heels, available free from the quartermaster when he has them or for $6 in town — until they become unavailable altogether.

Shoes are the foundation of a marching army, and North Carolina, like all Confederate states, does not have enough shoes for an army that may cover hundreds of miles in a single campaign. The shoe factories, with their newly patented sewing machines for mass-producing fitted pairs, are all in the North.

Dead men soon give up the right to wear shoes.

Foraging parties scout out stockpiles of shoes and sometimes whole regiments go into battle to secure them — as at Gettysburg. Late in the war, while on their long marches, many soldiers carry their deteriorating, precious shoes in their haversacks or strung by the laces across the neck. Then, when they arrive at the place and hour of battle, they lace on their brogans for the charge.

They roll their double blankets and drape them diagonally across their bodies from shoulder to hip, the ends tied with cord or straps. They roll a spare shirt inside the blankets.

The Confederate canteen is wooden, closed with a cork stopper, based on the old U.S. Army canteen of Mexican War vintage. It holds just eight ounces of water — just half a pound of weight — never enough. Most would be willing to carry a greater burden of water. If they are lucky, they capture Union army canteens, which hold one full quart and are covered with cloth. The cloth can be wetted, and the evaporation will cool the water inside, at least for a little while. On the cloth, they write their names, or imprint the insignia of their company and regiment. Some of the Yankee canteens have reliable screw caps and are harder to spill.

Water is life, and whenever possible, soldiers plan marches to intersect with rivers and streams. Still, the men suffer for long miles on dusty roads and when maneuvering for battle. At the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, Lt. George H. Mills of the 16th North Carolina Regiment finds himself feeling parched and lacking a canteen. He writes, “I met Tom Hayden with a canteen, and … asked him for a drink. Handing his canteen he said, ‘Here is some pond water,’ and without thought I took a big swallow before I found it was the meanest whiskey I ever tasted, and of course I was worse off than before I took it.”

The men’s haversacks and pockets transport all sorts of items: corncob pipes and tins of tobacco. Paper and pencils. Inkwells and pens. Knives, forks, and spoons; plates and tin cups. Pocket diaries and Bibles enclosed in leather cases that button shut. Straight razors with ivory handles. Shaving brushes. Boar-bristle hairbrushes and combs made of ivory or wood. Soap and toothbrushes. Stubs of candles. Barlow folding knives. Pocket watches on gold chains handed down from father to son. Thick twists of good Southern chaw tobacco, looped and braided. Spare socks. Needles and thread. Playing cards. Dice, and dominoes handcarved from bone. Banjos and bugles, flutes and whistles, fiddles and bows.

Ten-dollar bills minted in Richmond and inked with the figure of Hope with an anchor. Fifty-dollar Confederate bills bearing the likeness of George Washington. Only an officer is likely to possess a $100 note, depicting a scene of slaves loading cotton bales onto a wagon — passing along their burden.

Through their letters home, they share their pay and ease the burden on their families as much as they are able. Thus the most valuable burden they bear is also the most fragile: letters from home, creased from re-reading. Caroline S. Alligood sent this letter to her husband, and he carries it with him:

I recived A letter from you yesterday morning rote the 15 of December an was glad to here from you an here that you ware well an I recived one hundred dollars in it of Confedrate. an I war glad to get it for I am in det for provision an it will take it all excepting five or ten dollars.

Sometimes the mail from home brings something more substantial than news. Lewis Warlick of the 1st Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers writes a note of thanks to his sweetheart, Cornelia McGimsey, back home in Burke County: “Tom and I got the cheese you sent us. You do not know how proud I was of it — to think that I had a friend among the fair sex of old Burke who thought enough of me to send at a distance of five hundred miles something that we poor soldiers could eat — a thousand thanks to you for it, and a long life of pure happiness is my sincere wish.”

Photographs of loved ones are tucked into pockets or safely encased in ornate silver or leather frames. These are a burden they will never cast off, except in death.

… and the wounded

After an early battle outside Richmond, the Seven Days Battle, soldiers of the 1st South Carolina Infantry find a wealth of discarded Yankee gear and trade up. Berry Benson reports, “The whole Confederate army refitted itself with blankets, rubber clothes, tent flies, haversacks and canteens, so that in the middle of the war and later, to see equipment of southern make was somewhat of a curiosity.” The “rubber clothes” include ponchos, capes, and ground cloths for the tents, godsends in the rainy seasons.

The soldiers carry the burden of war on their backs and haul it in their wagons from Asheville and Salem. They drag it aboard steamboats at Wilmington and Fayetteville and lift it onto the splintery floors of boxcars at Goldsboro. They dig it out of the ground with spades and pickaxes and pile it high around the mouths of their heavy guns at Petersburg, Virginia, and Fort Fisher. They chop it from the forests with axes and stack it into palisades, sharpen it with adzes into abatis.

As the war wears on, one part of their burden lessens: provisions, especially meat, become scarce. When they overrun the Yankee lines at Chancellorsville, they are astonished at the bounty they discover in the Yankee camp. Capt. John Cowan and Capt. James I. Metts of the 3rd North Carolina Regiment report: “Rushing on toward the enemy’s camp, the first scene that can be recalled is the abundant supply of beef and slaughtered rations cooking.”

As the Confederate supply of beef, clothing, and shoes runs out, it has consequences on the battlefield. At Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley in October 1864, it proves decisive. Capt. V. E. Turner and Sgt. H.C. Wall of the 23rd North Carolina Regiment write in their after-action report, “Meanwhile the tide of battle, so strongly in our favor in the morning, finally turned. The Confederate commands had been greatly weakened by men who left the ranks to loot the captured camps, so tempting to ill-fed, ill-equipped soldiers. … Then came disaster quick on the heels of disaster.”

In March 1865, when William Tecumseh Sherman’s battle-hardened army of 60,000 men marches into Cheraw, South Carolina, approaching the North Carolina border near Laurinburg, it moves like an army of ghosts in blinding sheets of rain. The men haul the war in their knapsacks and in 2,500 quartermaster’s and commissary wagons drawn by 10,000 laboring mules. Their 68 wheeled guns are harnessed to 272 big horses, their wooden caissons filled with canisters of black powder and cannonballs weighing up to 18 pounds each, atop two-wheeled limbers.

The cavalrymen thunder in advance on 4,400 horses, which also carry their McClellan saddles, saddlebags, carbines, cartridge boxes, bedrolls, sabers, pistols, and personal effects. The buglers carry their instruments on cords slung across their shoulders or tucked into saddlebags. The officers carry brass field glasses and telescopes in stiff, leather cases, and many of them also carry fat cigars buttoned into the pockets of their coats and strong whiskey in dented silver flasks.

The burden includes the wounded, who will ride in the 600 ambulances drawn by 1,200 horses. The ambulances also carry the medical corps, doctors and stewards and assistants and their boxes of bandages, saws, knives, tourniquets, medicines such as quinine and laudanum, and the precious chloroform no longer available to the wounded of the army they will face.

… and one final burden

The collective burden of the massive army marches and rolls inexorably forward over corduroy roads — highways built out of forests. Sappers fell the trees and lay them crosswise over the mud, building a road toward the final battle. By this time, after marching from Atlanta to Savannah and from there past Columbia, they are experts at their work: They lay down 12 miles of road every day. They carry each log to the road and fit it into the lengthening ribbon, physically hauling the war into North Carolina.

And as Sherman’s army streams across the border, not just too big to stop, but also too fast to catch, the country people who watch it pass feel the weight of war pushing over them like a slow landslide. The army fills every road in two vast wings, the wagon trains snaking along behind it for miles.

And it is clear: This army carries force. It simply has more — more guns, more horses, more food, more medicine, more ammunition. More confidence, more hope.

More stuff — a word that itself bears a weight of accumulated meaning in war: a body of soldiers, in Middle English. The baggage and munitions of an army. Food and stores. Items of value. The material of which something is made — a kettle, a saddle, a rifle, a soldier, a commander, an army.

All of it, the whole burden that victory requires of strong backs and sturdy legs and a willing heart.

The country people — farmers and slaves, the free and soon-to-be free — watch miles of wagons, and more miles of marching troops, which leave behind them a wake of discarded equipment, broken souvenirs of their passing: brass buttons, cracked pipes, leather cartridge boxes, worn-out harnesses, sole-less shoes, ragged overcoats no longer needed in the gathering spring warmth. Just the trail of what this army throws away amounts to a treasure for people who have been living on sawdust bread and chicory coffee and whatever they could hoard through the winter. What they see is an army that cannot be defeated any more than you can defeat an earthquake or a hurricane.

You can only endure it, wait for it to pass, and leave behind one final burden, the burden of defeat.

Selected Sources

The author is indebted to Gloria Gulledge at the Averasboro Battlefield Commission Museum, and The North Carolina Division of Archives and History. Published sources include John G. Barrett’s Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas (The University of North Carolina Press, 1956); Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr.’s Bentonville (The University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and My Dearest Friend, The Civil War Correspondence of Cornelia McGimsey and Lewis Warlick, edited by Mike and Carolyn Lawing (Carolina Academic Press, 2000).

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was just published by Hub City Press.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit https://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

This story was published on Jul 31, 2012

Philip Gerard

Philip Gerard was a historian, professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the author of 14 books, including Cape Fear Rising. He was also a longtime contributor to Our State, and was the author of the Civil War series and the Decades series. In 2019, he received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.