When nations had a civil war or a war with other nations, men and women were prepared to be sent to the worst conditions: gunshots, maybe summer heat or long winter nights, all sorts of creepy crawlies, and almost nonexistent good hygiene.

Do you fancy taking long, hot showers and wearing fresh clothes? Well, too bad you can’t have that on the battlefield. So how did civil war soldiers handle hygiene? 

Camps Surrounded With Filth, Slop, and Excrement

During Civil War, it was supposed to be an official requirement that soldiers take a complete bath once or twice a month. This is not only to prevent them from smelling like fermented meat but also to prevent them from contracting hygiene-related diseases.

However, many still went a long time without cleaning themselves. Interestingly, the requirements were not as frequent as we imagine: daily washing of hands and face, washing of feet at least once per month, and a complete bath once or twice per month. Brushing teeth? Don’t even think about it.

Civil War camp scene, showing company kitchen
Civil War camp scene, showing company kitchen. (Civil War Glass Negatives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The camps were far from being clean. Union camps, for instance, were “littered with refuse, food, and other rubbish, sometimes in an offensive state of decomposition.” Not only that, but “slops deposited in pits within the camp limits or thrown out of broadcast; heaps of manure and offal close to the camp.” One could only imagine the stench of the combined body odor and filth that lingered throughout the camps.

Diseases Killed More Than Bullets

How annoying would it be to have survived the bullets and explosions only to die from the diseases in the camp? That sucks, for sure.

Given the poor personal hygiene of the soldiers, the unsanitary conditions of their living space, and their lack of awareness about how diseases spread, troops were more likely to die from diseases and infections than from combat.

Medicine was not as advanced at that time. The doctors and nurses did not know any better how to control the spread of illnesses like measles, chickenpox, and the worst one, dysentery. Dysentery alone was said to be the cause of death for about 45,000 people in the Union army and around 50,000 on the side of the Confederate army.

According to American Battlefield Trust, estimates of soldiers who lost their lives “on this less gallant of stages” were between 400,000 and 500,000. Fortunately, we already have ample information on how to prevent and stop the spread of such diseases.

Soldiers Wore Used Uniforms

One of the highlights of being a soldier is wearing the uniform for the first time and looking sharp and neat. Tough luck during the Civil War because recruits received uniforms that were often used and already falling apart that they did not even keep the soldiers warm.

Soldiers were lucky to receive reused boots from fallen and imprisoned enemy troops because not everyone had access to shoes. For instance, one-third of the Confederate soldiers marched in the conflict barefooted. An article written by National Park Service gives us a glimpse of how desperate the situation was during that time,

Taylor, young drummer boy for 78th Colored Troops Infantry, in rags. (Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

That said, lice on their clothes and bodies were also common. Whenever they had the chance, the troops would boil their clothes and bedding to rid of them. Those on their body were tougher to eliminate, given their lack of access to clean water they would instead use for drinking, if ever.

This is not to say that things are no better for our soldiers today. The main point is that those sent to conflicts and battles had to sacrifice many things and face all these inconveniences and risks.