Information and Articles About Union (Northern) Soldiers of the American Civil War
Union Soldiers summary: The number of Union soldiers is estimated to be between 1.5 million and 2.4 million. Though the majority of the Union Soldiers were volunteers, estimates are that 5 to 6 percent were conscripts. A fourth of the Union soldiers came from outside of America. Of all soldiers, about 1,600,000 were males born in this country. Another 516,000 were either born in Germany or of German origin. Two hundred and ten thousand soldiers formed the United States Colored Troops and consisted of freed slaves from the north as well as the south. Ireland’s contribution was 200,000 soldiers and the Dutch gave 90,000. Canadians and British-born soldiers numbered 50,000 from each country. Many other countries and ethnic groups made up the rest.
Union Soldiers Come Together To Form An Army
Soldiers of that time were categorized by what they could do best. For the first time ever, a signal corps was among the armed forces. They were commandeered by either a colonel, or sometimes a lieutenant colonel. Even majors had been known to lead the troops.
Average Age Of The Union Soldier
The average age of Union Soldiers was very young, the early twenties. Most of them had been married and many had children at the time they volunteered or were drafted. They came mostly from an agrarian background and had to be trained for warfare.
Passing The Time In The Union Army
Life of the Union soldier, when not engaged in battle, was often quite boring. A favorite game was Dominoes. Playing cards or Chess was another way to pass the time. Even when they had received orders, they would prepare and then they would have to wait. Communication was much slower at that time. To get one order to be followed by a more precise one could take several days. During that time, soldiers would write letters to their families, wash and mend their uniforms cook their meals and played games to pass the time.
To learn more facts and statistics of the common soldier of the American Civil War, please see our Civil War Soldiers page.
Articles Featuring Union Soldiers From History Net Magazines
Murder and Mayhem Ride the Rails – Union Soldiers Rampage in Virginia
Smoke and fire filled the skies south of Petersburg in December 1864 as the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps targeted the Weldon Railroad. During a raid along this vital supply line linking southeastern Virginia with North Carolina, liquor-fueled Federals went on a rampage in a corner of the Old Dominion that thus far had been largely untouched by war.
Over an appalling two days, drunken soldiers began looting a number of houses and farms along the raid route near Hicksford, Va., and a few men even resorted to violence, destruction and rape. These shameful incidents inevitably sparked more brutality as locals bent on retribution caught and killed some Union stragglers. The Confederate victims would long remember their humiliation at the hands of “Federal troops who burned their furniture, home and crops, then left women and children in the snow with no food or animals.”
Attitudes toward the demolition of private property had changed notably since the opening years of the war. When Athens, Ala., was sacked in May 1862, for instance, Union brigade commander Colonel John Turchin—who had, as he put it, “shut my eyes” for two hours during the looting—was court-martialed for failing to prevent the destruction, and his division commander was transferred to a backwater garrison. Although President Abraham Lincoln later promoted Turchin, the incident provoked widespread controversy at the time. When Union troops looted the old colonial city of Fredericksburg, Va., on December 12, 1862—the day before the historic battle there—the moral outrage resounded on a national scale, even though no one was actually prosecuted after the fact. But by the end of 1864 the widespread destruction practiced by William T. Sherman’s and Philip Sheridan’s Federal armies gave tacit cover for the depredations committed by Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s soldiers during the Weldon Railroad raid.
The Weldon Railroad, known formally as the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, was a legitimate military target, since it supplied General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which Union troops had besieged at Petersburg at the conclusion of the Overland Campaign in June 1864. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was concerned that the railroad remained a crucial supply source for Lee even after the Union victory at the Battle of Globe Tavern in August, which had cut the line near Petersburg.
The Confederates had continued to run supplies along the railroad to Stony Creek Station, about 20 miles south, then hauled them the rest of the way by wagon along the Boydton Plank Road, the target of unsuccessful Federal offenses the previous September and October. Hoping to “destroy so much of the railroad that it would no longer be practical for Lee’s commissariat to run a wagon line to the end of the track,” Grant on December 5 issued orders to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac: “You may make immediate preparations to move down the Weldon railroad for the purpose of effectually destroying it as far south as Hicksford, or farther if practicable. Send a force of not less than 20,000 infantry, sixteen or twenty guns, and all your disposable cavalry. Six days rations and twenty rounds of extra ammunition will be enough to carry along….”
Meade selected Warren’s V Corps, reinforced by a division of the II Corps and a cavalry division—altogether nearly 27,000 troops—to conduct the raid. The plan was for Warren’s force to travel light and fast, with as few wagons as possible. Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, commander of the V Corps artillery, recorded in his diary, “As speed of movement will be our main reliance for success, I am to take but four batteries of four guns each along.”
Warren was known as a conservative, professional soldier. The V Corps had been only minimally involved in the looting of Fredericksburg’s colonial city two years earlier, having spent that December day across the Rappahannock River at Falmouth. Of course, the soldiers had long made it a regular practice to supplement their rations on the march by foraging for livestock or firewood, but that was a far cry from what was about to happen in one little corner of Sussex County.
On the morning of December 6, 1864, the Union men moved from their camp toward the rear, halting near Fort Stevenson. Brigadier General Regis de Trobriand, a brigade commander in Brevet Maj. Gen. Gersham Mott’s division, noted, “The weather had become more mild; it was one of those autumn days in which it is a pleasure to march, and the spirit is exuberant.” The following day the Federals marched about 15 miles before crossing the Nottoway River at Hawkinsville.
Confederate scouts quickly reported the movement of the Union soldiers, and Lee warned Confederate guard units stationed along the railroad, as well as Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s cavalry. He also ordered a counterstriking force, under Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill in Petersburg, to attack the Union raiders. The previous August, Hill and Hampton had mauled a similar force of the II Corps at Ream’s Station, another point along the Weldon Railroad.
Major General David Gregg’s cavalry was the first to approach the railroad at Jarratt’s Station, where the first real skirmishing during the raid took place. The outnumbered Confederate horsemen briefly put up a spirited defense before withdrawing. That night Wainwright observed the suffering that the war had brought to even this relatively unscathed part of Virginia, describing the plight of a six-person family living in the home where he camped. Foraging Union soldiers had already killed and eaten the farm’s last two large hogs.
December 9 would mark a major change in the character of the expedition. While the infantry mustered at 6:30 a.m. that day, Gregg’s cavalry rode south toward the major railroad bridge across the Meherrin River at Hicksford. After a brief skirmish at Three Creek, the Federal horsemen destroyed the bridge there and rode the final six miles to the river.
At the village of Belfield north of the river, across from Hicksford, the Union troopers encountered a hodgepodge group of Confederate defenders commanded by the talented Hampton. In addition to a division of veteran cavalry that had raced around the Union column to reach Hicksford by daylight, he had with him some garrison infantrymen who had been quickly summoned from across the North Carolina border, including several companies of underage Junior Reserves and nine cannons. Hampton had ordered some of his infantry to dig in on the Belfield side to protect the road and railroad bridges. He planned to check the Union advance there, to give A.P. Hill’s pursuing infantry column enough time to catch up and possibly trap Warren’s entire force.
Upon contact, Gregg sent five regiments forward under stiff fire and pushed the Belfield defenders out of their rifle pits. The Union troopers were then checked by intense artillery and small arms fire from across the river, and the Confederates burned the wagon road bridge across the Meherrin. A heavy exchange of fire continued for some time, resulting in the death of the commander of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.
Later that day Warren and Wainwright arrived to assess the situation. Wainwright recorded in his diary that “After a small attempt to get down to the [railroad] bridge, it was given up as likely to cost more loss of life than it was worth….” Warren reluctantly concluded that another day’s delay to take the crossing and destroy the bridge would jeopardize the safety of his entire expedition.
Meanwhile the infantry continued their work, tearing up and burning the railroad to the north. After each division destroyed one section, it would leapfrog the next division’s sector, moving south and commencing work again in a fresh location. The 83rd Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Ed Whittelsey wrote home, “It was a fine sight to see the line of fire for ten miles.” By late afternoon, the soldiers were nearing exhaustion as a result of marching combined with manual labor. In addition, the weather had worsened, with temperatures falling and heavy rain turning to sleet.
When the men broke for camp that evening, they sent out parties to forage nearby farms for livestock. The troops found this section of Sussex County rich with provisions. Virtually all the regimental histories, in fact, speak of the region’s bounty.
The foraging parties soon resembled an unruly mob, as more and more men discovered quantities of applejack whiskey stored nearby. The regimental historian of the 120th New York Volunteers noted: “No special order having been issued against pillaging and the devastation to private property, there was from the first much straggling for those purposes. On the second and third day [December 8-9], this was carried to a shameful extent, every house within sight and some far beyond being visited….Although the troops were amply supplied with food, houses were ransacked and stripped of everything eatable, while women and children wept their protestation.”
The whiskey-fed breakdown in discipline would spread this unruly behavior and set off a tragic cycle of events. Captain Amos Judson, in his History of the 83rd Pennsylvania, wrote that “Almost every man in the brigade filled his canteen and coffee pot, and by midnight we had a drunken brigade.”
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Matters quickly unraveled. “The disorder reached such an extent that a regiment of cavalry was sent to suppress it,” wrote historian John J. Pullen in The 20th Maine, “but the cavalrymen, too, were overcome and only added to the uproar.” In the increasing chaos, a few white and black women were raped, including one in the final stages of pregnancy.
The next morning most of the army was in no shape to march, but necessity forced Warren to push his troops—A.P. Hill’s Corps was rapidly approaching. Had Hill cut more aggressively across Sussex County at Jarratt’s Station instead of swinging south through Hicksford, the Union expedition could have been in serious trouble.
At the same time, local citizens as well as roving bands of Confederate cavalry had begun to retaliate against the marauding Federals. Some Union stragglers captured by the Southerners were summarily executed.
Two members of the 83rd Pennsylvania were among those lost that day. Both Privates James Flynn and Louis Schilling were apparently too drunk to march on the morning of the 10th. Flynn was captured and sent to Pemberton Prison in Richmond. Finally paroled in March 1865, he would suffer mental problems as a result of his captivity for the rest of his life, and was confined to insane asylums from 1870 until his death in 1903. As for Schilling, he simply disappeared and was never heard from again. He almost certainly died at the hands of the Confederate cavalrymen.
General de Trobriand wrote a letter on December 14 describing the return march: “During the night between nine and ten, the snow changed to ice and during all the following day, we marched on the ice and in a frozen landscape. I never saw anything like that. There wasn’t a blade of grass, nor a leaf, nor a branch which wasn’t covered by ice a quarter of an inch thick. It was curious, magnificent to see, but hellishly cold.”
As the day warmed slightly, the Union men found themselves marching in icy, ankle-deep mud. Many of the troops had thrown away some of their warm clothing during the first balmy days of the raid, a decision they now undoubtedly regretted.
A harsh fate awaited some Federals who became separated from their commands. Eyewitnesses recalled seeing bodies that had been stripped naked and mutilated, with throats slashed from ear to ear. Some of the corpses had been hung up along the road.
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At Sussex Court House the nude bodies of half a dozen Union soldiers were reportedly found lying on the courthouse grounds, while another dead Federal had been discovered pinned to the ground by a stake driven through his mouth. Enraged by these horrific scenes, the Union men began torching the homes of civilians.
It is unclear whether anyone ordered such measures, and Warren later indicated in his official report that he had tried to stop it. In all probability, the Federals’ actions were spontaneous, with some officers participating and others looking the other way. Comparatively few men claimed to have actually seen the bodies at the courthouse, and the numbers reported range from two to six actually laid out. Despite unconfirmed details, news of the killings spread like wildfire down the line of march, spurring more Yankees to get out their firebrands.
Meanwhile the scouts in Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry division “were instructed that when they caught Yankees in the act of robbing and burning to take the vandals by the arms and legs and swing them into the flames, drunk or sober. Such are the terrors of war.”
Not all Union men took part in the pillage, and many unwilling observers believed such harsh retribution was unconscionable. Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, who commanded a brigade in Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin’s V Corps division during the raid, later expressed his frustration over the scene: “This was a hard night….I saw sad work in protecting helpless women and children from outrage….I invariably gave them protection which every man of honor will give any woman as long as she is a woman. But I have no doubt they were all ‘burnt out’ before the whole army got by. It was a sad business. I am willing to fight men in arms, but not babes in arms.”
The chaplain of the 120th New York also signified his revulsion at what he had witnessed in Sussex County: “Such Savage atrocity [the murder of the Union stragglers] cannot be too severely punished; but a wholesale and terrible retaliation, for the most part upon the innocent and helpless for acts, wicked as they were, were incited by the wanton outrages of our own men, could not but be a bad lesson in morals to the troops.”
Wainwright praised his own artillerymen for their discipline during the difficult march, but noted that despite great provocations against the Union soldiers, “it was not enough to justify their acts at all.” He continued:
But now comes the worse. The story spread almost instantly through the column, and the sight of the burning house seemed to raise devil in the men at once. Scores of men left the ranks, and seizing brands from the burning house, fired every building in sight. None escaped, large and small, pig sties and privies, all were burnt, with barely time allowed for the people themselves to get out, saving nothing. The Negroes fared no better than the whites….For this barbarism there was no real excuse, unless exasperation and the innate depravity of mankind is one….So pitiable a sight as the women and children turned adrift at nightfall, a most severe night, too. I never saw before and never want to see again. If this is a raid, deliver me from going on another.
When Warren arrived at Sussex Court House, he ordered a stop to the burnings. He mentioned only one instance of finding a soldier with his throat cut, but acknowledged that “it soon became the belief of all the men in the command….Every effort was made by the officers to stop this incendiarism (which most likely punished only the innocent) and with partial success.” Finally the darkness, heavy rain and exhaustion ended the burnings.
A nervous Grant had been very concerned about the safety of the expedition from the outset. As early as the afternoon of December 7 he had sent inquiries to Meade, and on the 10th to the Union commander occupying the seaboard area of Suffolk, Va., for information about Warren’s status. That same day he requested that Meade “move all the force you can to Warren’s relief….I don’t think there should be any delay in sending out reinforcements.” Later that afternoon, Meade ordered Maj. Gen. Robert Potter’s IX Corps division south toward Sussex in an attempt to find and perhaps even rescue Warren.
On December 11 Warren’s troops began another difficult day’s march back toward the safety of the Petersburg lines. The Confederates under Hill never caught up, and Hampton’s cavalry broke off harassing the rear guard before the Union men had recrossed the Nottoway.
How much damage the Union men had actually done to civilian property in Sussex County is unclear. According to some accounts, hundreds of homes were probably destroyed—and many of the Federal witnesses certainly believed that was the case. But the Sussex County Land Book records for 1865 list only 28 properties that had their assessments lowered as the result of damage done by the Northern raiders.
This is very close to the figure that General de Trobriand gave in his December 14 letter: “We have burned about thirty plantations and taverns, besides barns and forage in retaliation for those of our stragglers, who were…murdered.” Given the county’s rural character and the fact that the return march was made on just two roads, however, the soldiers’ perception of utter destruction is understandable. Almost all they saw was indeed burned out.
The December raid severely damaged the brittle system that supplied Lee’s army. Throughout that winter thousands of Confederates deserted to Union lines with tales of little food and inadequate clothing, while thousands of others simply slipped away from their units, returning to their homes. The Weldon Railroad had served as the army’s principal source for animal fodder, so the cavalry and artillery especially suffered.
Within days of the Hicksford raid, the Confederates began repairing the destroyed tracks. Hampton placed Butler in charge of the process, and with 1,000 of his cavalrymen he managed to rebuild about six miles in two weeks. The railroad’s superintendent impressed 300 slaves to continue the work, and by early March 1865 the railroad was open from Weldon to Stony Creek. The restored line was in operation for only a brief period, however, before events at Petersburg made the rail link irrelevant.
Casualties stemming from the expedition were not specifically reported, but we know that the Union lost approximately 200 infantry and 130 cavalry, including 225 missing. Confederate losses were unrecorded.
Soon after the raid, several circulars from various Union headquarters were issued noting the success of the offensive and singling out specific units and individuals for commendation. Only Warren’s official report mentioned the killing of stragglers or the burning of civilian homes. All other reports were completely silent on those subjects.
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How to explain the uncharacteristic violence of the V Corps men at Hicksford? Two rationales are immediately apparent: The rowdy drunkenness of thousands of soldiers resulted in a breakdown in military discipline, and retaliation by angry locals clearly brought about even more violence.
Deeper insights may be found if we examine the stresses inherent when troops are operating deep inside enemy territory. As historian James McPherson puts it: “An essential component of the masculine code of honor was revenge for insult and injury. Hatred of the object of vengeance often accompanied this code….As the Civil War escalated in scope and intensity, the fury of hatred and revenge against perpetrators of death and destruction crowded out Christian charity.”
George E. Deutsch, who writes from Catonsville, Md., is the co-founder of several historical organizations in his hometown of Erie, Pa., related to the Civil War and the War of 1812. He is the co-author of One of the Very Best Regiments: The 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers From Petersburg to Appomattox, to be published in late 2010.
By Jeffry D. Wert