Infantryman in the American Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands volunteered to fight. Later, conscription was successfully introduced in the Confederate South; it was less effective in the Union states of the North, where the wealthy often evaded service by paying others to fight in their place. Both Confederate and Union troops were hard-bitten characters unused to obedience, but they showed tenacity, sticking to the fight when casualties were high and conditions awful. From April 1861 to April 1865, 3 million men joined the forces of the Union and the Confederacy. Most were infantrymen who walked or marched everywhere, carrying equipment, ammunition, personal items, and a field pack. The main weapon used by the infantryman was the muzzle-loaded Enfield rifle-musket, firing Minié bullets, but he could also carry a .40-caliber Le Mat revolver. Although an advance over the flintlock musket, it still required infantry to fire in volleys from a standing position.

On the offensive, the infantryman had to advance steadily across open ground in the face of withering fire from riflemuskets and artillery that decimated their ranks. Both sides used the same basic weaponry, but the North was far more successful in equipping its armies. Union infantrymen were well supplied with standard uniform, boots of the right size, bullets, and powder, while the Southern infantry were short of everything but courage. Around 620,000 soldiers lost their lives, more through disease than combat. The first major battle of the American Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run, which was a chaotic affair; confederate Jeb Stuart led the war’s only significant cavalry charge. Exotic Zouave uniforms were worn by some volunteers on both sides, adding to the confusion.

At the start of the Civil War, African Americans were excluded from combat by both sides. During 1862 Union officers advanced from using escaped slaves as laborers to arming them. The first regiments of black volunteers were officially raised in the North in 1863. Around 180,000 exslaves and free black men served in the Union forces, in segregated regiments and mostly under white officers. Many distinguished themselves in combat, the 54th Massachusetts regiment, for example, performed outstandingly in the storming of Fort Wagner in 1863. The black troops’ contribution to victory helped win Union support for the abolition of slavery.

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Thor is Carlos Benito Camacho, the manager and writer of this blog.