Experience and Supplies
Uniforms in the Union army were more standardized than those of Confederates or the Missouri State Guard. While many soldiers wore a regular army uniform some, such as a special guard chosen by General John C. Frémont, dressed in a more European style. Some other soldiers dressed in imitation of Zouave soldiers—the French fighting in North Africa. Others wore no uniform at all.
Arms were often in short supply. New recruits could sometimes wait months before receiving arms. William Dennis in a letter to his brother said “Word is that we will stay [at Camp Butler] till we get our arms and that will be about forty days.” The industrial capacity of the North allowed for quicker production of weapons than in the South.
The daily life of a Union soldier from Missouri involved a recycling pattern of camp and march with brief periods of intense fighting.
Camp involved frequent drilling. In 1861, Captain William Dennis, a member of the 7th Illinois Cavalry and who fought for General Ulysses Grant in southwest Missouri, wrote his father, saying, “I wish you could come and see us all drill in company, drill in the fare moon and regimented drill in the after noon, wish you could see a regiment of Cavalry on drill they fairly make the ground shake.” Camp life consisted of many other activities as well, from morning reveille to building horse stables, gathering wood, and eating.
Marching was also a key part of army life. Soldiers had to be ready at all times to pack up quickly and move. Marches could be very long and hard. They would be interrupted at times with halts. This was when soldiers could stop and attend to personal duties like doing laundry or writing home. The Civil War is one of the earliest wars in which a large proportion of literate soldiers sent word back to family and friends.
The diet of soldiers appeared to be made up primarily of salted meats, hard crackers or “hardtack,” and coffee. While supplies sometimes ran low, William Dennis remarked “there was plenty of whiskey and food.” When food was short the Union army sometimes resorted to foraging. This practice of taking from the land and from those deemed enemies developed along with the war. Early on, commanding officers did not allow foraging, believing that if they respected property they could win enemies back into the Union. Eventually, the practice became normalized and those suspected of being enemies of the Union might have their property taken. Over time this practice became corrupted, and many innocent people lost their property.
Finally, periods of combat were always on the horizon. William Dennis describes his experience in the capture of Island No. 10, saying, “last Sunday out about 20 miles from here in a swamp was fired on and 5 wounded which 2 died the next morning.” This line was written to his brother on March 27, 1862. William Dennis was killed in action a few months later.
Foraging - the act of searching for supplies of any kind.