Winter Quarters a welcome respite in a bloody war
After months of being on campaign, exhausted soldiers – Union and Confederate – welcomed the respite that the order to winter quarters generally promised.
At Endview Plantation during a living history program dubbed Christmas in the Field, local re-enactors gathered recently to offer the public a glimpse of what life in the field was like for Civil War soldiers in camp during the cold winter months.
“Christmas in the Field used to be an annual re-enactment,” said Tim Greene, educational coordinator at historic Endview Plantation. “In the past couple of years, the guys have asked when we were going to bring it back,” said Greene. “We thought we’d try it out as a living history this year. There seems to be enough interest to bring it back now.”
The armies of the era typically moved by foot and on horseback. Supplies traveled by wagon. Most of the roads were dirt roads. Winter weather with cold rain, ice and snow turned the roads into impassable quagmires. It was difficult to move an army – especially a large army – in wintry conditions. Armies would generally settle into winter encampments and wait until it was time to move again – in the spring.
“Both sides would have hunkered down and stopped fighting for the holidays. Their wagon trains caught up with them so they had their tents. They started settling in for the winter,” said Captain Armand Dufresne of the 41st Virginia. “Being Christmas time, they would have tried to make some decorations to celebrate the holiday,” he said. “They’d pool all their food together and try to put on some kind of feast with what they had.”
Dufresne enjoys re-creating winter quarters to share the season with fellow re-enactors and to show the public how soldiers lived in the field during the holiday season. It was a tough time, but it was also a good time according to Dufresne.
“They never knew when – or if- they were going to be attacked,” stressed Dufresne. “They had to be ready for anything, but it was a chance for the guys to get some much needed rest, especially if they’d been on campaign,” he said. “Campaigning began again in the spring. When warmer weather came, they would have broken camp and been on the move.”
Camp discipline was often an issue. Commanders tried to keep the soldiers busy. Building and improving their quarters occupied the men in a productive way and would provide for their well being during the cold months ahead. They drilled when the weather permitted. Pickets and guards were always posted. Some men were allowed furloughs. Some were not.
Commanders also tried to provide diversions and entertainment to break up the monotony of camp life, to discourage gambling, and dissuade desertion. Creating camp decorations, writing letters home, listening to regimental bands and dancing to music in camp, participating in snowball fights, and swapping tobacco for coffee all helped make camp life more tolerable for the rank and file soldier.
“Some of the guys would have gone AWOL. They would have been watching out for the ladies of the night,” said Dufresne. “A lot of the boys in this area would have gone to help at home with the harvesting in the fall and the planting in the spring. Then they’d find their companies and go back to them,” he noted. “During the first part of the war, they were often shot as deserters, but Lee decided shooting them as deserters was not a good idea. Since they came back, they weren’t really deserters.”
Armies would use whatever materials or buildings that were available to build shelters – huts called shebangs – to help them survive the winter – in as much comfort as possible.
“That church over there, for example, they might have removed the pews and used them for firewood and housed the cavalry and their horses in the church,” said colonel Tom Foster, a veteran re-enactor from Gloucester, Virginia. “The house over here might have been used as a headquarters or a hospital.”
Soldiers would build log walls several feet high – install a plank floor if the lumber was available – and throw their canvas tents over frames with battens to keep the winter weather out. They’d chink the gaps between the logs with wood chips and daub to keep out the wind, rain, ice, and snow. They’d build fireplaces with sticks and mud to provide warmth inside their shebangs. Firewood was often in short supply and often rationed to encourage efficient use.
“Being out in the weather all the time – getting cold – was the worst part of winter camp. It was hard – if you weren’t around a fire – to get warmed up,” said Foster. “Uniforms were often worn thin and there weren’t enough blankets – depending on what side you were on. The Union was pretty well fixed unless their wagon train and supplies were captured by the Confederates.”
Having soldiers packed into in close quarters, resulted in disease breaking out. Soldiers who became ill in camp were often quickly removed to hospitals in an effort to keep their sickness from spreading to their comrades in arms. More soldiers died of diseases – typhoid, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and pneumonia – than of wounds inflicted on the battlefield.
Sanitary conditions could get out of hand quickly – depending on the size of the army. Commanders and surgeons learned from experience to dump waste and locate latrines downstream from the supply of potable water.
Drinkable water and firewood were among the most valued commodities in winter encampments. Food – especially for the Confederate Army – was a scarce resource. A regular diet of corn meal, fatback, and hardtack only contributed to the monotony and misery of camp life.
“For troops that were camped in this area, local people would have helped them out – with food,” said Foster. “Ladies might come out to help – to write letters for the soldiers who couldn’t write and send them home, especially at Christmas time and holidays,” he said. “Women might come out to mend clothes and read to the soldiers who were sick and in bed.”
Endview Plantation was owned by Dr. Humphrey Harwood Curtis when the Civil War broke out. Dr. Curtis organized a volunteer infantry company – the Warwick Beauregards. Curtis was elected captain. His unit soon became the 32nd Virginia Company H. Endview served briefly as a Confederate hospital before being occupied by Federal troops.
“Our Company was formed here – right on this site. Tents wouldn’t have been in common use because at this time of the year they were going to be going into winter quarters,” said Richard Bowen with the 32nd Virginia Company H. “A tent –even in the winter – is better than nothing, but it’s not going to provide much protection when it’s super cold. Here we can make out with tents, but it did get cold last night,” Bowen observed. Usually six or eight men would live in one structure – a shebang. “By the spring, the tent that was used as the roof was done. It rotted because it stayed wet so much.”
Fortunately, for the men of the 32nd Virginia and their brothers in arms – Confederate and Union – mild winter weather with daytime temperatures in the mid-70’s helped event participants wrap up another year of the re-enactments and living history. here so we can make out with tents. But it did get cold last night.
It’s always a good way to end the year – and the season,” said Captain Evan Aaron of the 32nd Virginia. “It’s a good time to go over what we need to and get ready for the next season,” he said. “It brings us all together – like the other events do – especially for the holidays.”
Note: Endview Plantation is located in Newport News, Virginia. The plantation house dates to the 18th century.
-By Bob Ruegsegger
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