What Did the Soldiers of the American Civil War Have in Common?

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, was a pivotal moment in United States history that left a lasting impact on the nation. 

The conflict pitted the Union (Northern states) against the Confederacy (Southern states) over states’ rights, slavery, and regional identity (Read more about the Main Causes of the American Civil War).

Yet, despite their differences, soldiers shared many common experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds. 

This blog will explore the similarities between soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy, shedding light on the human side of this bloody conflict that still resonates in American society today.
If you’d like to visit the key Civil War battlefield sites of Virginia, consider joining us on one of our Virginia Civil War Tours.

Private Robert Archer Cheatham, Company C, 1st (Field's) Tennessee Infantry

Private Robert Archer Cheatham, Company C, 1st (Field’s) Tennessee Infantry

Background and Demographics

Soldiers who fought in the American Civil War came from diverse backgrounds, yet they shared many similarities in age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The typical age range of soldiers was between 18 and 35 years old, with the average age around 25. This meant that many were young, unmarried men with little life experience and absolutely no experience in warfare.

Regarding regional and ethnic backgrounds, the majority of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies were of European descent, predominantly English, Irish, and German. However, it’s important to note that there were also African American soldiers in the Union Army and even some Native American soldiers who fought on both sides.

Socioeconomically, many soldiers came from farming backgrounds, as agriculture was the dominant industry in the North and the South. 

Additionally, many soldiers from both sides were laborers, craftsmen, or merchants. It is worth mentioning that while Confederate soldiers were fighting to protect the Southern way, including the institution of slavery, few were engaged in the trade or ownership of enslaved peoples directly.

Henry Howe Cook, C.S.A.

Henry Howe Cook, C.S.A.

Motivations for Enlistment

The reasons for enlisting in the Civil War were numerous and often complex. For some, patriotism and regional loyalty played a significant role. 

Many Northerners enlisted to preserve the Union, while Southerners joined to defend their states’ rights and independence. 

Economic incentives also played a part, as the Union and Confederate governments offered enlistment bounties, land grants, and other financial rewards to encourage volunteers.

Social pressures and expectations were another driving force for enlistment. Peer pressure and societal norms encouraged young men to join the military to prove their manhood and fulfill their civic duty. Additionally, many soldiers saw the war as an opportunity for adventure and camaraderie, as they would be fighting alongside friends, neighbors, and family members.

Overall, the American Civil War soldiers had much in common, from their demographics to their motivations for enlisting. These similarities serve as a reminder that, despite the political and ideological differences that drove the conflict, the soldiers on both sides were fundamentally human, facing similar challenges and experiences.

Officers of the Union Quartermaster's Department

Officers of the Union Quartermaster’s Department

Military Training and Experiences

Soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies shared similar military training and experiences during the war. Most new recruits underwent basic training, learning to march, drill, and use their weapons. 

Officers and non-commissioned officers played a crucial role in maintaining discipline and morale among the troops, and their leadership often determined the outcome of battles.

The shared hardships endured by soldiers from both sides were immense. Diseases like dysentery, typhoid fever, and malaria were rampant in the unsanitary conditions of the camps, and more soldiers died from illness than from combat. Malnutrition and exposure to the elements also took a heavy toll, as supply shortages and inadequate clothing made life in the camps a struggle for survival.

Combat experiences were harrowing and left deep psychological scars on the soldiers. The carnage of battle, the loss of friends and comrades, and the constant threat of injury or death weighed heavily on their minds. Nevertheless, these experiences often forged strong bonds between soldiers, as they relied on one another for support and camaraderie in the face of adversity.

Benjamin Franklin Ammons and Raiford Franklin Ammons of the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, C. S. A.

Benjamin Franklin Ammons and Raiford Franklin Ammons of the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, C. S. A.

Letters, Diaries, and Personal Accounts

Soldiers from Union and Confederate armies frequently communicated with their loved ones back home through letters and maintained diaries to record their experiences. These documents reveal many common themes, such as homesickness, concern for family, and life’s difficulties on the battlefield.

Religion and spirituality played a significant role in helping soldiers cope with the war. Many turned to prayer and sought solace in their faith, seeking comfort and guidance in the face of the brutal realities of war.

 Personal accounts from soldiers of both sides often include references to God, divine intervention, and the hope for a better future.

Prisoners of War

The experience of being a prisoner of war during the Civil War was a harrowing one, and soldiers from both sides shared similar struggles while in captivity. Overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and limited food and medical supplies contributed to high mortality rates in prison camps.

The exchange and parole system, established to facilitate the release and exchange of prisoners, was a shared experience for many soldiers. This system allowed some captives to return home or rejoin their units, although it was fraught with bureaucratic issues and ultimately broke down as the war progressed.

Despite the hardships of captivity, many prisoners of war formed bonds with fellow captives, relying on one another for support and camaraderie. These connections transcended regional and political affiliations, as soldiers from both sides recognized their shared humanity and struggle for survival.

Legacy of the War

The enduring legacy of the American Civil War lies not only in the political and societal changes it wrought but also in the shared experiences of the soldiers who fought on both sides of the conflict. 

Their common backgrounds, motivations for enlistment, and the challenges they faced on and off the battlefield serve as a reminder of the humanity that underpinned the war.

By recognizing the similarities between the soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy, we can better understand the complexities of the Civil War and appreciate the sacrifices made by those who fought in it. 

Furthermore, the lessons learned from their experiences can inform our understanding of contemporary conflicts and guide future generations in pursuing peace and reconciliation.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We would also love to continue this conversation during one of our Civil War Tours as you delve deeper into the places and the stories of people who changed the course of history.

*All copyright-free images were taken from the Tennessee Virtual Archive*

Want to continue reading about American Civil War history? Next, read Was the American Civil War Avoidable?.

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