Dirty Bodies and Dirty Clothes - Washing and Bathing During the Gettysburg Campaign

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Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
Needless to say, maintaining cleanliness during an active campaign was difficult, if not impossible, for soldiers of both armies. For one thing, the essential elements were often missing. Let’s examine each one separately:

Access to a fresh water source. A relatively clear stream near an encampment or extended rest stop was ideal. On the other hand, wading a muddy river like the Potomac would wash away much body grime, but merely resulted in an exchange of dirt once dry. Upon exiting the water, negotiating a slippery river bank might also result in a fresh application of mud to the lower extremities.

Sufficient time. Time being precious, sleeping and eating took precedence. A full day of a planned encampment was perfect, but these were quite rare, particularly in the Federal army, which often had to endure forced marches to catch up to the Confederates, who were already in Pennsylvania. A couple of hours spent at a rest stop would suffice if water was handy, but having that amount of time was scarce, and was liable to be interrupted at any moment by orders from above to resume the march.

Access to clean clothes. Most soldiers possessed an extra set of clean clothes, but they were most often kept in the regimental baggage wagons, which were usually in the distant rear of a marching division, or moving separately on a parallel road. Approaching a battlefield, baggage wagons were considered superfluous and were sent to wagon parks generally far to the rear, where they might not be accessible again for many days. In addition, the Confederates lost a substantial number of baggage wagons during their retreat due to Federal cavalry raids. Those who rode a horse would fare better because they could pack a few items of spare clothing into a saddle bag, or in the case of the artillery, in an accompanying vehicle.

We will not even consider the luxury of having soap.

With the above considerations in mind, let’s now hear from the infantrymen who recorded their efforts to maintain personal hygiene:

-Fording rivers had become no more a hardship, but rather a comfort, cooling and cleansing in its effects on our hot and dusty bodies. (History of Clarke County, Virginia, by Thomas D. Gold, 2nd Virginia)

-June 16, this day in camp at Centerville, washed our shirts. (Diary of Horace Currier, Company I, 7th Wisconsin)

-June 16, crossed Bull Run, halted upon the banks for nearly two hours and took dinner. With hundreds of others I took a refreshing bath in its clear waters, a luxury which the fatigued and footsore soldier well knows how to appreciate. (22 June letter of Rush P. Cady, Company K, 97th New York)

-June 17, marched to Goose Creek, had a good wash. (Private William A. Clark, Company C, 17th Connecticut)

-June 17, camped at Goose Creek, four miles from Leesburg and four miles from the Potomac. No rain had fallen since May 8, and it is not hard to imagine the delighted eagerness with which the dusty and wayworn soldiers availed themselves of the excellent bathing facilities which they found in this Virginian creek with the unpoetic name. (154th New York, History of Cattaraugus County, New York)

-June 17, sundown, crossed Hazel River and camped. Took a good bath in the river. (Sergeant Charles E. Hutchinson, Company H, 48th Mississippi)

-June 18 … forded the Potomac and … went into camp a short distance from the river. [The next day] Lt. [James S.] Franklin and myself took a bath in the Potomac. (Diary of Lt. Samuel Thomas McCullough, Company D, 1st Maryland Battalion, Manuscript Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville)

-June 18, a mile or two below Shepherdstown, stripped entire, as the ford was quite deep, we forded the Potomac, compensated by a refreshing and much needed bath. (Charles A. Rollins, 27th Virginia)

-June 25, ordered to wash clothes, that we would not leave camp today. (Diary of Sergeant George E. Cary, Company G, 49th Virginia)

-June 25, 1 p.m., stopped at the side of a brook for dinner two hours after crossing Monocacy Creek. Here we bathed and got water for our canteens and for coffee, bathing and drinking at the same time. (Journal of William H. Warren, Company C, 17th Connecticut)

-June 28, in camp near Fayetteville, washed and cleaned guns. (Diary of Private William A. Mauney, Company B, 28th North Carolina; Diary of Chaplain Francis Kennedy, 28th North Carolina)

-June 29, [while encamped beyond Taneytown] the fellows had a chance to wash up, which was needed, as they had got rather lousy. (C. W. Bardeen, A Little Fifer’s War Diary, 1st Massachusetts)

-June 30, wash in a rapid stream northwest of Union Mills, Maryland. (Diary of John M. Bancroft, 4th Michigan)

-July 4, I washed the only shirt I have here (I have one in my pack in the wagon) in the brook, and wrung it out dry as I could and put it on wet. (William Clark Mclean, 123rd New York)

-July 5 … not had a change of shirt for over four weeks. (July 5 letter of C. H. Beal, Company E, 107th New York)

-July 7, washed my clothes. (Diary of Samuel A. Firebaugh, 10th Virginia)

-July 8, the Quartermaster has brought up my baggage, therefore washed, brushed my hair, got on clean socks, but am without a clean shirt. (Lt. John B. Woodward, Company G, 13th New York State Militia)

-July 12, we hardly get time to wash even our hands and faces. I expect to get lousy now for I have had no change of clothing, had hardly a dry thread in my shirt for two weeks. (July 12 letter of A. C. Smith, 20th Connecticut)

-July 16, rested near Bunker Hill, washed up first for over one month. (Diary of James Thomas McElvany, Company F, 35th Georgia)

-July 16, our wagons have come up and I have soon a chance at fresh garments. July 17, we have got our tents, clean clothes and are again personally comfortable. (Major Alexander Biddle, Papers, 121st Pennsylvania)

[Around July 19] while at Martinsburg, I ran into my haversack with the Yankee shirt and underclothes change which I had grabbed off when we licked Milroy, and was able to make a full change. Believe me the change was needed, as I had been wearing the same clothes since we had marched away from Winchester [June 15] on our way to Pennsylvania. The old clothes, dirty, black from the mud and the grime of battle, were thrown away. (A Rebel’s Recollections, Private John G. White, 1st Maryland Battalion, The Handley Library, Winchester, Virginia)
 
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DBF

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
What an insight into a side of the war that I personally do not like to think about. (not had a change of shirt for over four weeks) - I can't imagine the feeling of wearing it or the smell from it.

And remember this is all dated in the summer months so the agony is twice as tough. No wonder lice was such a problem in camps.

-July 16, our wagons have come up and I have soon a chance at fresh garments. July 17, we have got our tents, clean clothes and are again personally comfortable. (Major Alexander Biddle, Papers, 121st Pennsylvania)
The appreciation of the simple things in life.
 

CowCavalry

Corporal
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
What an insight into a side of the war that I personally do not like to think about. (not had a change of shirt for over four weeks) - I can't imagine the feeling of wearing it or the smell from it.

And remember this is all dated in the summer months so the agony is twice as tough. No wonder lice was such a problem in camps.


The appreciation of the simple things in life.
I always think about these type of things; what their teeth were like, other things I won't mention, etc. Can you imagine the aromas coming off a marching column in mid July??
 
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