Camp Johnny Reb

  Picket Duty

One of the most hazardous undertakings during the Civil War was picket duty. Usually a picket detachment consisted of 7 officers (1 lieutenant, 2 sergeants, 4 corporals) and 40 enlisted men. Their duty was to watch out for any enemy activity outside of his army’s encampment, a sort of advanced warning system. Since there were no radios, radar, satellite tracking, helicopters, drones or night vision goggles back then, it was difficult to know in advance when the enemy was about to attack. When they did attack, pickets were the first ones on the receiving end, which usually meant being killed or captured. Pickets were often attacked or “driven in” to conceal an opposing army’s movements, just like bombing a radar installation. They were also captured to gather intelligence or killed because they were easy targets; they were alone without a close backup. Needless to say, it wasn’t a popular duty and had to be rotated among the assigned regiment. For greater range, picket duty was performed by the cavalry. 

During lulls in the fighting, especially during the winter months, Union and Confederate pickets would meet, exchange goods (usually Confederate tobacco for Union coffee), and engage in good natured trash talk. Even though it was against regulations, officers winked at the practice as long as their men did their duty afterwards. One of the more interesting exchanges took place between Col. John McIntyre of the 4th Ohio Cavalry and a member of the 8th Texas Cavalry, Terry’s Texas Rangers. When asked which Confederate unit was the toughest, McIntyre replied, “The Texas Rangers. They have killed over seven hundred men for me; I have had to go back to Ohio and recruit four times.” 
  Terry’s Texas Rangers were masters of the picket line. General Braxton Bragg stated, “There is no danger of a surprise when the Rangers are between us and the enemy.” In addition to being on a well cared for horse, a Ranger had a lot of firepower which included a shotgun and several pistols located on his hip and saddle. So much firepower that it was more dangerous for the attacker than it was the target. 

Despite the hazards, pickets were a vital necessity. The importance of pickets was aptly demonstrated at Chancellorsville. where Union General Oliver Howard failed to deploy pickets near his encampment. The result was a surprised and routed corps courtesy of Stonewall Jackson.


Without a doubt, the main staple of the Confederate soldier was cornmeal.    It was fried, baked or boiled in every conceivable fashion using every conceivable utensil.  Because there was no refrigeration, military fare on the march had to be nonperishable.  That means you had to be able to carry it in a haversack, saddlebag, or wagon for extended periods without it rotting.  Vegetables had to be eaten off the vine within a few weeks after picking them.  Unless it was heavily salted or dried, meat had to be eaten soon after slaughter.  You couldn’t have fresh food unless kindly civilians provided it, you bought it from a sutler, shot it while hunting, or you scavenged it from a nearby farm.  Cornmeal fit the bill nicely.

In the temperate South, corn was more plentiful and easy to produce.  Alongside the vast acres of cotton, most farms had cornfields.  So many in fact, it was not uncommon to find yourself fighting in a cornfield.    Southern Native American tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw celebrated corn in their annual “Green Corn Dance.” Most authentic Southern recipes call for corn meal, especially when it comes to frying.  The ubiquitous hominy grits are made from corn.  

In Texas, corn was an integral part of daily life.  In addition to food, corn cobs served as tool handles, jug stoppers, smoking pipes, back scratchers and fuel to smoke meat.  The husks served as food packaging (How many native Texans would tolerate a tamale not wrapped in a corn husk ?), writing paper, material to make dolls, and mattress stuffing. Corn and corn liquor served as mediums of exchange during the early days of the republic.

Southern cornmeal is white not yellow.  That yellow stuff is what they ate up North.  In the South, yellow corn was what you used to feed the livestock. However, close to the border in South Texas, Hispanic cuisine used yellow corn.  It’s very likely Confederate soldiers in that region consumed yellow corn in the form of tortillas.  

Confederate soldiers mixed cornmeal with boiling water, compressed them into cakes, and fried them over campfires in bacon grease.  These fried delicacies were called “hoecakes.”  In a smaller, crunchier form they were referred to as “dodgers.”  A quicker way to consume corn meal was combine it with water, bits of pork, and grease to form a thick batter called “cush.”  If it was thick enough you could cut the “cush” into squares and fry them.  Many wrapped the “cush” around a rifle ramrod and cook it over a campfire.  If you had no utensils; you placed the batter in corn husks, tied the ends, and buried them among hot coals.  These were called “ash cakes.” Mmmmmmmm ! Good stuff huh?  With all that bacon grease consumed on a daily basis, with dirty hands, and in unsanitary camps, you can imagine what it did to your health.  It’s little wonder so many suffered from dysentery. 

Here’s a down and dirty recipe for hoecakes:

1. Mix the cornmeal with boiling water and a little buttermilk (if you have it) to create a batter.

2. Add a little salt.

3. Press the batter into cakes.

    4. Fry the batter in pork grease until golden brown

If you don’t have an iron skillet, you can use half of a metal canteen.

Bon Appetite boys !

The Colt Naval Revolver

Of the myriad of firearms used during the Civil War, the most popular handgun was the 1951 Colt Naval Revolver.  In Texas, Colt revolvers and frontier life went hand in hand.  In 1847, the Texas Rangers ordered 1,000 of them.  That order put Samuel Colt, the revolver’s inventor, in business.  You could say Texas was born out of the barrel of a Colt.  The Colt Naval Revolver got its name because of a Texas naval battle (the Battle of Campeche) etched on its cylinder. 
Samuel Colt was the first U.S. industrialist to use the assembly line and interchangeable parts.  A stickler for quality, he managed his factory through military discipline; employees worked 10 hour shifts and were fired for tardiness, sub-par work, or offering their own ideas.  Colt was one of the first to use advertisements, corporate gifts and celebrity endorsements to mass market his product.  Unfortunately, The Colt Armory was in Hartford, Connecticut which precluded any Confederate purchases during the war.

 In the Confederacy, a number of Colt inspired versions were produced despite the lack of quality materials and experienced gunsmiths.  Because of the shortage of graded steel, brass frames and iron cylinders were often used in producing revolvers. Over a period of time, the bare iron cylinders often rusted.  A substantial number of revolvers were turned out, but never enough to satisfy the ever increasing demand.     

The two main Texas revolver manufacturers were Tucker and Sherrard in Lancaster and the Dance Brothers in East Columbia (later in Anderson when Union forces invaded Brazoria County).  The Dance Brothers revolver was noted for its quality but only 400 were produced.  Today, it’s a very highly prized collector item.

How to Load a Naval Colt:
  1. Half cock the hammer to unlock the cylinder.  Load the revolver from the front of the cylinder, not the rear as you would with present day revolvers.
  2. Pour 21 to 23 grains of black powder in to each chamber using a powder flask.  You push the tab near the tip of the flask’s dispenser to release the powder.
  3. Place a lead ball into each cylinder.  The ball should fit snuggly into the chamber.  Use the revolver’s loading lever to press the balls down into the chambers.
  4. With your finger, place a dab of vegetable oil, Vaseline, or Crisco over the top of each chamber.  This prevents chain firing within the cylinder.  Lock the loading lever back in place.
  5. Place a cap over each chamber’s nipple at the back of the cylinder.
  6. Pull the trigger while keeping your thumb on the hammer.  Let the hammer down gently to lock the cylinder.  You are now ready to holster your weapon.
  7. When you are ready to fire, pull the hammer back all the way with your thumb. Aim and pull the trigger.
Because of the cumbersome load process (even more so on the back of a horse), most cavalrymen used four or five pistols during battle.  Holsters were affixed to the saddle as well as the cavalryman’s belt to keep extra loaded revolvers on hand.  Like beer at a barbeque, it was a good idea to have more than enough.  


When it comes to Confederate uniforms, the only consistency is inconsistency. They could range from homespun civilian clothes to tailor made regulation uniforms.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Texas.  You basically wore anything provided by quartermasters, capture or home.  Sometimes individual preferences came into play; former Texas Ranger and Confederate General Benjamin McCulloch hated uniforms and wore a black velvet suit instead.

 Sewn to a cadet gray uniform, Confederate guidelines required uniform trim to be one of the following colors:

Yellow for Cavalry

Sky Blue for Infantry

Red for Artillery

Among Texas infantrymen, Black was sometimes used instead of sky blue.  With cavalry units, it could be anything.  Instead of yellow, Terry’s Texas Rangers used the red trim used by artillery units.  Wide brimmed or slouch hats were the general preference for headgear.  The regulation, French inspired Kepis offered minimal protection against the sun.

Early in the war, ladies’ aid societies produced many of the uniforms.  Otherwise, Confederate recruits had to wear their flannel shirts from home or purchase a tailored uniform in route to their base camp.  In 1862, Confederate quartermasters took over the duty of supplying uniforms.  With Houston being the largest, just about every major town in Texas had a Confederate supply depot for the gathering of clothing.  Availability and distribution, however, was a vexing problem.  Confederate forces often went for long stretches barefooted and in tattered rags.  Mud, sweat, weather, and tree branches took a heavy toll on apparel.

In the East, where Confederate units were in close proximity to the Confederate capital, members of John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade were supplied (when possible) with standard gray uniforms.  The Western Theater offered a wider array of uniform design.  The 2nd Texas brigade, for example, donned uniforms of undyed wool, giving them a strange white, ghostly appearance.  One Federal prisoner asked, “Who were them hell cats that went into battle dressed in their grave clothes?”  Later in the war, as supply lines broke down, captured Union apparel became the norm.  In the remote areas of the Trans-Mississippi, Confederate captors simply exchanged their thread bare uniforms for the newer uniforms of their captives.

Texas cavalry units showed the greatest degree of diversity.  Some wore fringed buckskins while others donned colorful saddle blankets or ponchos.  Wide brimmed hats and sombreros were preferred for protection against the sun and rain.  Part of the brim  was usually pinned up to the side or front of the hat with a metal lone star pin.  Almost all wore knee high boots with oversized Mexican spurs, a fearsome trademark of mounted Texans.  In deference to their Southwest heritage, metal conchos were sewed to the seams of their pants. 

Most of the uniform cloth in Texas came from an unlikely source, the state penitentiary at Huntsville.  To bolster the sagging Texas treasury, a textile mill was set up at Huntsville before the war.  The cheap prison labor was a tonic for the state coffers.  Both wool and cotton jean cloth were manufactured for the Confederacy.  Due to shortages brought on by the Union naval blockade, tree bark, nuts and berries had to suffice for uniform dyes.  Otherwise, uniforms were not dyed at all.

 Shoes were the biggest problem, especially for the infantry.  Long marches wore them out quickly and they were never available in great quantities.  Since there were no paved roads, mud would suck them right off your feet. You want shoes?  You took them from the dead or received them from home.  In desperation, soldiers constructed crude moccasins made of bloody, raw animal skins or wrapped their feet in rags.  Unlike today with its dizzying array of formal and leisure footwear, there were no comfort arches, no gel-filled soles, nor were there right and left shoes.  Comfort was not a consideration.  Sometimes the shoes were so uncomfortable that the soldiers actually preferred going barefoot.  Just imagine what Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry could have done in a pair of Air Jordan Nikes.

Water is life. Our bodies are made of it, we are baptized with it, we farm with it, civilization began near it, and we consume it every day in every conceivable fashion.  Nevertheless, there never seems to be enough clean drinking water, especially during times of war.  The Civil War was no exception.  Marching or riding all day can build a powerful thirst.  The problem was water consumed on the march was usually not the cleanest.  Unless the water was boiled for coffee, there was a fair chance the water you drank would make you sick.
Water in those days was collected through underground wells and cisterns.  Though not as safe as the tap water we use today, it was certainly safer than ponds, streams and rivers exposed to the sun and teeming with microscopic life.  It was worse if you got the water at a stream or pond near your camp.  Sanitation was not a big concern in those days; bacteria had not yet been discovered.  Camp sewage would trickle down to the water source after it rained or carried there by men bathing and washing their laundry.  As a result, typhoid fever and dysentery, not bullets, became the biggest killers of the war.

On the battlefield, thirst overrode purity.  During the summer months, hundreds became victims of heat exhaustion; canteens had to be filled.  If wounded, the thirst was simply unbearable.  Thousands spent their final hours near a pond or creek seeking relief.  At Shiloh, “Bloody Pond” got its name from all the blood the wounded spilled along its banks and into the water.

The most popular canteen on both sides was the 1858 U.S. Army or “bullseye” canteen made of tin. Its circular, corrugated pattern gave it its strange “bullseye” appearance.  Both sides liked it because it was lighter and easier to carry on a belt or strap.  The “bullseye” also featured a cloth covering which kept the water cool and muffled the clanking sound metal canteens made while marching.

Because metal was such a scarce commodity, the Confederacy manufactured their canteens out of cedar wood with metal straps to hold it together.  A cork stopper held the contents inside.  The wooden construction enabled the canteen’s owner to carve his name or initials on the surface for identification.

In addition to food and arms, another chronic shortage for the Confederate Army was shelter. Unlike their northern counterparts, they often found themselves without tents; a problem that grew more acute as the war progressed. Like everything else, canvas was in short supply. Blockade runners and battlefield spoils made up for some of the shortfalls but it was never enough. In addition, tents were difficult to carry into battle and were discarded to lighten the load. Depending on the weather, you just had to adapt and improvise. Living in a state where residents suffered the effects of bone chilling “blue northers” and soaring heat waves within a few weeks, that was nothing new to the Texas troops.

Early in the war, most tents came courtesy of captured Federal supplies in forts and arsenals that dotted the South. Portions of General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters tent bore the markings of the U.S. Army. The typical soldier carried an oil cloth, carpet piece, blanket or half section of canvas for rudimentary shelter. Union rubber or “gum” blankets were highly sought as ground cloths to keep the morning dampness from soaking your uniform. If fortunate, you had a fellow trooper or infantryman that carried another canvas half. By buttoning together the two halves, you had a “dog” tent (similar to today’s “pup” tent), just enough room to house two people in relative comfort with no standing room. If you didn’t have that second half section, and you had the energy after a long march, you constructed a simple “lean to” of tree limbs, branches, and your half section of canvas.

For extended stays, crude “shebangs” were constructed of logs and fence rails. During the long winter months, chimneys made of mud or barrels were added for warmth. In the Indian Territory, where there were shortages of every essential, the solution was simple; the men just simply went home and reassembled in the spring.

For officers, the “wall” tent was the most accommodating for sleeping and performing administrative duties. You could stand inside and include a desk and chairs. A tent fly could be added to provide a shaded entrance. A larger hospital version could hold up to eight patients. “Wall” tents were carried in wagons that followed the army, so there was less chance they would be discarded.

The Enfield Rifle

Of all the rifles used by the Confederate infantry, the most popular was the British made Enfield rifle.  Favored for its long range accuracy, seventy five percent of Confederate troops were armed with the 1853 model Enfield.  Manufactured by British contractors, the Enfields were often shipped in through blockade runners.

The term rifle comes from "Rifling," the technique of putting grooves inside a gun barrel.  After the rifle is fired, the hot gas expands the lead bullet as it travels up the barrel.  The grooves put a spin on the bullet, thus giving it its deadly accuracy.   

The loading and firing of a single shot Civil War rifle was easy enough.  The problem was loading and firing while the enemy was firing back.  Especially when you're standing upright, in formation,  and totally exposed.  Firing quickly and efficiently required a constant regimen of drilling.  In fact, that's all you did in camp when you weren't fighting. You ate, slept and drilled. 

Here's the loading procedure:

1.  Take the cartridge, which consists of a lead bullet and gunpowder wrapped in wax paper, and bite off the end.  Pour the contents into the barrel. 

2.  Pull out the ramrod from below the barrel and tamp down the bullet and powder in the barrel.  Use the knobbed end of the ramrod.  Make sure the cone shape of the bullet is facing up.  Slide the ramrod back beneath the barrel.

3.  Pull back the hammer until it locks. 

4.  Place a cap of fulminated mercury on the nipple.  This is the spot where the hammer strikes after you pull the trigger.

5.  Aim and fire.  Brace yourself for one hell of a recoil.

Now try to do all that within 30 seconds under fire.  That's why you drilled.  During the stress of battle, it was not uncommon to put more than one cartridge in the barrel or forget to take the ramrod out before firing.

All right.  Let's fix those bayonets and get out there.


For every Confederate soldier killed in combat, three would succumb to illness.  Bacterial infections and disease carrying mosquitoes were not yet discovered.  It was especially worse among rural- born Southerners, who had no immunity built up against a vast armada of diseases.  

The early months of the war were the worst as thousands of men were herded into training camps.  Measles plagued the Texas units with a vengeance. Though few died from measles alone, the subsequent complications brought on other ailments that killed hundreds.  During the summer of 1861, one out of seven came down with measles in Virginia.

The biggest killer was dysentery and diarrhea.  Poor sanitation and a constant diet of bacon fat was a guarantee for hard times on a hospital cot.  The treatment was as dangerous as the disease.  The prescribed treatment was usually "Blue Mass," a mercury laced pill or liquid used for everything from tuberculosis to childbirth.  The ingredients varied, but all the pills contained a heavy dose of mercury.  A daily dose of two pills provided a patient with over a hundred times the daily mercury limit set by today’s EPA.  In other words, patients were being slowly poisoned.

In the deep, humid South, the ever present mosquito led to malaria.  Unlike the other diseases, physicians had an effective treatment for its effects, Quinine.  Though it was effective, it was not available in great quantities because of the naval blockade.  Malaria was so prevalent, that most Confederates were probably unaware they had it and simply went about their duties in misery.

Pneumonia was second on the disease hit parade.  It killed Stonewall Jackson and countless others.  Growing up, you were always told to change out of your wet clothes when you came out of the rain.  In the Confederate Army, where there was a dearth of tents, clothing and blankets, men slept out in the open.  You stayed perpetually damp and therefore at risk of getting sick.  The only relief was to huddle up to a campfire and look forward to the dry summer months.

The most common medical treatments for disease were: liquid opium or laudanum,  whiskey, and bleeding; a medieval practice that entailed cutting a patient’s arm open and collecting a pint or two in a bowl.  All of these usually led to addiction or a further weakened state. In a world where medical science had advanced little since the Dark Ages, the best way to fight illness was prayer, dry weather and a good immune system. 

No comments:

Post a Comment