The soldiers Pennsylvania sent off to the Civil War drew from every walk of Pennsylvania life, including backwoodsmen who were deadly marksmen, hardworking farmers and educated, gentlemen from Philadelphia who led troops with distinction and valor.
Pennsylvanians were the first to respond to President Lincolnâ€™s call for 75,000 troops following the shots at Fort Sumter. These “First Defenders” marched from Harrisburg to protect the nationâ€™s capital in mid April of 1861. Pennsylvania eventually contributed over 360,000 soldiers to the Union cause, including more African American soldiers than any other state. Only New York contributed more men total.
The average Pennsylvanian soldier, like most in the Union or Confederacy, was a Protestant farmer between 18 and 29 years old, 5â€™6” to 5â€™8” in height, and 130 to 135 pounds. However, a broad cross-section of Americans served in Civil War armies, including numerous ethnicities and religions and perhaps several hundred women in disguise.
Pennsylvanians joined the Union army for various reasons. Patriotism, a sense of honor or duty, familial pressure, devotion to liberty and democracy, the promise of steady pay, the thrill of adventure, and, later, conscription and bounties compelled men to enlist.
Several thousand other Pennsylvanians served in Confederate uniform. These men generally chose the Confederacy because of marital affiliations, economic ties, or ideology.
Ninety percent of Pennsylvanians were mustered into an eastern army, most commonly the Army of the Potomac, and often camped first at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg. Most of the Union army was literate and many a Pennsylvanian dutifully wrote letters home. They slept in tents, or the occasional log cabin, and ate unappetizing portions of soft bread or hardtack, beans, rice, meat, and coffee. When they actually received their monthly pay on time (which was generally $13 for privates), the men also purchased fresh foods and delicacies, though some preferred to forage for supplementary fare. Soldier “sins” were not uncommon during camp life. Many played cards, gambled, drank, smoked, swore, or hired the occasional prostitute to break up the tedium. Others piously attended weekly sermons and small revivals, though the Confederate armies were better known for army-wide revivals.
Difficult conditions, exposure, and close quarters bred disease. Of the approximately 2 million men who served in the Union armies, over 360,000 perished, more than 250,000 from disease. While the most common killers were diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, and malaria, soldiers also suffered from pneumonia, measles, mumps, chicken pox, sexually transmitted diseases, and many others. Because the Army of the Potomac was the second largest “city” to New Orleans in the South, its Pennsylvanians were particularly plagued by poor hygiene and infrastructure.
In combat these Pennsylvanians had their patriotism tempered and their fury strengthened by the bitter realism of war. Surrounded by the roar of MiniÃ© balls, the sights of mangled bodies, and the scent of gun powder, most soldiers learned to contain their fear and sorrow and perform their duties, although perhaps around 24,000 Pennsylvanians eventually deserted.
The new Civil War weaponry wreaked extraordinary havoc on the human body, and most wounds to the head or abdomen were fatal, while wounds to the extremities were routinely treated with amputation. Many wounded soldiers lay on the ground for hours calling for water before the ambulance corps could remove them to field hospitals or hospitals further from the front. Hospital life was poor relief, as it often exposed the weakened man to neglect and disease due to limited staff, supplies, and sanitation. Of the estimated 200,000 Union soldiers unlucky enough to be captured on the battlefield, around 30,000 perished amidst the cruel conditions of prison camp, where men were mistreated, starved, or simply not strong enough to withstand the exposure and rampant disease.
Still, many Pennsylvanians served in distinguished units. The lumberjack “Bucktails” of the thirteenth reserve regiment were famous marksmen who wore white deer tails on their caps. The distinguished 114th Pennsylvania donned the Zouaves d'Afrique uniform of its many Frenchmen. Post war, white and black Pennsylvanian veterans joined the Grand Army of the Republic to help memorialize their wartime contributions.