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

Tom Elmore

1st 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

Sergeant Major
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

First Sergeant
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??
 

Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
Part 2

-June 14, at Winchester, Virginia. Private Reed rummaged through an abandoned enemy caisson and found some clean underwear, two blankets and some stationery. The next day, at the Five-Mile spring, Reed washed and put on his clean clothes. His next recorded wash-day was July 18. (A Private in Gray, by Thomas Benton Reed, Company A, 9th Louisiana)

-June 16, in camp at Centerville, Virginia. I washed my shirt today in a creek that was all mud. (Diary of George W. Downing, Company K, 6th Wisconsin)

-June 18, camp near Martinsburg, Virginia. Dear Sister, we got here yesterday evening and we are resting today, and I have just washed my shirt and drawers. Just give them a cold-water wrench. (The Civil War Letters of Bryant Folsom, 26th Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, ed. by Roscoe E. McLeod)

-June 28. Reached Monocacy Junction at 4 p.m. and pitched our tents on the bank of the Monocacy River, near the railroad bridge, where we had a good wash. (June 28 letter of Corporal Manley Stacey, Company D, 111th New York, to his father)

-June 28, orders came to prepare for a hard campaign, to wash and mend our clothes, as we would probably be there all day. I washed my clothes and had just got back to camp when we were ordered to move. (A Regiment Remembered: The 157th New York Volunteers, From the Diary of Capt. William Saxton - a sergeant at Gettysburg)

-July 2, around noon. After their breastworks were completed on Culp’s Hill, many men of the 3rd Wisconsin went down to Rock Creek to bathe, the skirmish line being posted just east of the creek. (With the 3rd Wisconsin Badgers, The Living Experience of the Civil War Through the Journals of Van R. Willard)

-July 8, in camp near Hagerstown, Maryland. Our clothes very dirty. Like the little boy who would not have a dozen shirts we have to go without while we have the ones we have on washed. (Diary of Lt. William Burns, Company B, 52nd Virginia)

-July 9. It is almost four weeks since we broke camp at Aquia and we have been on the go ever since except a few days at Edward’s Ferry. We haven’t had a chance to wash our clothes and we are getting very dirty and lousy. We will draw some new clothes in a day or two. (July 9 letter of Charles Engle, Company B, 137th New York, to his wife, http://members.aol.com/jcoy13/630709.html, 10/23/2002)

-July 10, my socks have given out. … It is a matter of impossibility to get a piece of clothing washed. I am lousy and dirty, and have no hope of changing flannel for weeks to come. (July 10 letter of Chaplain Florence McCarthy, Jr., 7th Virginia, McCarthy Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond)

-July 18, I haven’t had a clean shirt for a month, nor drawers for two months. My pants are worn out. I have them mended as often as I can. July 22, I expect to draw some [clothes] soon. The wagons have been away from us ever since we went into Pennsylvania, they will come to us tonight. (July 18 and 22 letters of Robert H. Depriest to his wife, Company I, 2nd Virginia, Library of Virginia, Richmond)
 

Tennis

Corporal
Joined
Sep 11, 2020
Needless to say, maintaining cleanliness during an active campaign was difficult,...

Enjoyed your post.

I get that 3 weeks of backpacking is NOT CW, but we always insisted on cleaniness
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Needless to say, maintaining cleanliness during an active campaign was difficult,...

Enjoyed your post.

I get that 3 weeks of backpacking is NOT CW, but we always insisted on cleaniness
"I get that 3 weeks of backpacking is NOT CW, but we always insisted on cleaniness"

As much as possible, anyway. On climbing trips I've always been amazed by the gender difference. Every time I've encountered a NOLS group on the standard 30-day trek through the Wind River Mountains, the guys look like they've been sleeping in a dumpster and the girls look like they just stepped outside for a walk. (And I'm certain how my appearance struck them). Of course, there's little incentive to go for a cleanup dip in a lake whose southern end still has a remnant ice cap.
 

Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
Part 3:

-June 6, Aquia Creek on the Potomac. The notable event was an order from General Barlow, directing every man to go to the brook and wash himself, and change his underclothing. (Journal of Pvt. William H. Warren, Company C, 17th Connecticut)

-June 15, near Aquia Creek. We halted, got dinner, and several of us went down to Aquia Creek and took a bath. (History of the Men of Company F, with Description of the Marches and Battles of the 12th New Jersey Vols., by William P. Haines, Private, Co. F, Mickleton, NJ: 1897)

-June 16. I managed to wash my clothes so as to have a change, for there was no telling when we would lay still [in camp] another day. A soldier must watch his opportunity and improve every spare moment to keep himself in proper condition. (Diary of Elon Francis Brown, Company H, 2nd Wisconsin)

-June 16, halt on Bull Run. After supper we took advantage of the rare opportunity of enjoying a fresh wash in the stream [Bull Run]. (Music on the March, by Frank Rauscher, 114th Pennsylvania, pp. 76-77)

-June 17, in camp along Bull Run. Washed myself and clothes today. /// June 20, at Gum Springs, Virginia. Washed clothes. /// June 22, at Gum Springs. Washed myself all over in the branch. /// June 28, near Middletown, Maryland. Washed at a little creek. /// July 1, near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Washed myself and clothes this morning. /// July 7, in a hospital near Philadelphia. Up very early, had a good wash. (Diary of Sergeant Thomas White Stephens, Company K, 20th Indiana)

-June 18, in camp one mile from Fairfax Station. I washed my shirt and a pair of stockings. /// July 11, 1.5 miles from Tilghmantown, I went down to a stream close by and took a good wash. I also washed a shirt. (Diary of Musician Charles H. Peterson, Company A, 12th New Jersey)

-June 25, two miles north of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I had a nice bath in a creek today. /// July 18, Darkesville, (West) Virginia, went to the branch and took good bath, put on clean clothes. (Samuel Pickens, Voices from Company D [5th Alabama], ed. by G. Ward Hubbs)

-June 26. When we saw the river [Monocacy] at hand we were so glad to get the chance to have a swim that some of us didn’t wait to get supper, but took to the water like so many ducks and had a good wash, and when we got back to camp I was too tired to eat. (George Kelly, 57th New York, National Tribune, August 30, 1894, p. 3)

-July 16, Sandy Hook, Maryland. I get some new clothes and had a great wash. (Journal of Chauncey A. Cronk, Company D, 64th New York)

-July 18, near Hillsborough, Virginia. I took the opportunity of doing some washing this afternoon, which was needed very badly. (Diary of Edwin B. Weist, 20th Indiana)
 

Tom Elmore

1st Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Joined
Jan 16, 2015
Part 4:

-June 15. Halted at Bull Run and had a bath, feel much better for it. (Diary of Sgt. John Boudwin, 13th Massachusetts, Navarro College Archives, Corsicana, Texas)

-June 16. Near Occoquan Creek. Take a good wash. (Diary of Edgar S. Ely, Company G, 14th Connecticut)

-June 16. Camped at 6:15 p.m. on left bank of the Occoquan River, we bathe in the river. (Diary of I. L. Taylor, 1st Minnesota)

-June 19. Our men are washing themselves in the pure waters of Broad Run [about 10 miles from Leesburg, Virginia] and so are feeling fresh and more cheerful. (June 19 letter of Col. Rufus R. Dawes, 6th Wisconsin)

-June 23. Camped near the Shenandoah River. General McLaws has given orders for all to wash. (A Life for the Confederacy, as Recorded in the Pocket Diaries of Pvt. Robert A. Moore, Company G, 17th Mississippi)

-June 26. Reached banks of Monocacy. Here the river afforded an excellent opportunity for bathing and the troops made good use of it. (July 16 letter of Joseph W. Yocum, Company C, 116th Pennsylvania)

-July 9. Near Rohrersville, Maryland. I have but one shirt with me, a calico one. Every night I have gone to a stream, taken it off, washed it, wrung the water out of it and put in on again, letting it dry on me. (The Civil War Letters of Robert Cruikshank, Company H, 123rd New York)

-July 16. East of Funkstown, Maryland. Washed clothes. (Diary of Henry H. Chaffee, 4th Vermont)

-July 16. Near Berlin, Maryland. Our wagons came up and we had the first change of clothing since leaving Washington [on June 25]. (History of the Twelfth Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, by Martin D. Hardin, New York: published by the author, 1890, p. 163)

-July 17. Near Sandy Hook, Maryland. I washed the only shirt that 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. (July 17 letter of (William) Clark McLean, Company G, 123rd New York, New York State Library, Albany)
 

Jantzen64

Private
Joined
Aug 10, 2019
Cowboy adage: NEVER drink downstream from the herd.
As a kid I remember watching "The Horse Soldiers" with John Wayne, which had the follwing observation by Major Kendall (who was a doctor assigned to the expedtion and played a foil to Wayne's Colonel Marlowe and everyone else):

Major Kendall [to Marlowe] : As usual, I'm just presenting the grim facts. Colonel Secord doesn't seem to understand that the coffee tastes better when the latrines are dug downstream instead of upstream. How do you like *your* coffee, Colonel?

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052902/characters/nm0000034
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
I've read here on CWT that Procter & Gamble had a contract during the war to supply the Union Army with soap and candles. Were those distributed to individual soldiers or just to hospitals, etc. And would they be available in regular rations/supplies or from sutlers?
 
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