What was hygiene like for the average, lowest-ranking private?

Joined
Aug 30, 2016
Messages
984
Location
Bartlett, TN
#1
Anything from grooming to dental care to bathing. I've gathered that hygiene was poor compared to modern standards, but I'm still interested in details of basic hygiene for troops. I know there's a lot of variation to this question, so all I'm asking is for army/regional-level answers such as "troops in the far western theatre generally..." or "there are accounts of troops in the Army of the Potomac..."

I'm excited to hear your answers, thank you.
 

(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)

Pvt.Shattuck

Sergeant Major
Joined
Oct 8, 2011
Messages
1,835
Location
Tampa, FL
#6
No flouride and no floss but they did brush on occasion. The boys ate a lot less sweets so teeth lasted longer than you might expect even though dental care was mostly just extractions.
Washing was hands and face mostly with baths a rare luxury. No deodorants yet but plenty of scented pomade and cologne. Clothes were laundered a lot less often as well. Dry cleaning was not yet invented so woolens were just beaten and brushed out.
Lice were rampant in the field. Body odor they thought was normal would gag us today.
 

WJC

Brigadier General
Moderator
Thread Medic
Answered the Call for Reinforcements
Joined
Aug 16, 2015
Messages
11,608
#7
Anything from grooming to dental care to bathing. I've gathered that hygiene was poor compared to modern standards, but I'm still interested in details of basic hygiene for troops. I know there's a lot of variation to this question, so all I'm asking is for army/regional-level answers such as "troops in the far western theatre generally..." or "there are accounts of troops in the Army of the Potomac..."

I'm excited to hear your answers, thank you.
When not in the field, soldiers had time and access to water for bathing and washing clothes. On campaign it was probably pretty much hit or miss.
I think you can get some idea from soldiers in more recent conflicts. For example, many WW2 soldiers in almost constant contact with the enemy, had little time to take care of basic hygiene. In some cases they defecated and urinated in their clothes, unable to get from the safety of their shallow foxhole to a latrine or other safe place in the rear. They might wear such soiled garments for a month before being rotated to the rear and issued new uniforms.
Ask a combat veteran (they don't bite) or you can read some discussion of this in George Wilson, If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer's Riveting True Story. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987).
 
Joined
Sep 16, 2008
Messages
657
Location
South Jersey
#8
I imagine that if they were on the move, any river or stream they waded through would've sufficed for a bath. If they were in the rear or nowhere near the enemy, they might've taken a bath in the nearest river, pond stream or a bath house if near a town of some proportion. Just guessing here.:thumbsdown::whistling:
 

AUG

Brigadier General
Moderator
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Messages
7,356
Location
Texas
#10
Confederate troops washing clothes at the siege of Petersburg:
We washed our clothes in the trenches; dried them there; ironed them there, by rubbing them around a smooth pole; and got our fuel from the slashings in front of the works, with which to boil the clothes, to kill the vermin, and then when boiled enough the kettle would be rinsed out. . . . We could not get soap, handy, and generally traded on the picket post with the Federals.
- Frank H. Foote's reminiscences.


With the 5th Company Washington Artillery in the AoT, 1863-64. Some excerpts from Philip D. Stephenson's memoirs:
I do not recall much straggling as we went through these mountains, although the dust and heat of the road became intense. The last two or three days were long stretches of marching, and weary, weary, weary was the word. . . . Caked with dust and perspiration, our clothes a solid brown, panting and dripping, we shuffled along. . . .

Second, Sgt. Tom Maloney and I, down in a ravine washing our faces in the little brook there, one early morning, and my wringing his little old red cotton handkerchief into two pieces in an attempt to get it dry after wiping my face. It was the only rag we had to use as a towel. . . .

In our movement to the right, our battery halted under the hill behind New Hope Church. I went up to the firing line and utilized the halt to wash my only shirt in a little run that trickled by in the rear. Taking it off of my back to do so, and putting it on again wet, for the column moved before it was dry. . . .

The majority of the men preferred to keep clean but on Kennesaw Mountain the task was a hard one. Our washings were as a rule confined to the face and scant at that, the water being brought in and poured out of our canteens. Sometimes a wash basin was in evidence, sometimes a bucket. We of the artillery were always compelled to have one bucket (the leather or heavy rubber one belonging to a piece, and used for swabbing out the gun during an engagement), so, sometimes that was utilized. One of our greatest inconveniences was in regards to our teeth. How to keep them clean when water was so scarce. Tooth brushes were plentiful enough, for they were made with twigs, generally of gum tree, one end being split into a sort of brush. But the question was, to spare the water! Such as refinement seemed a superfluous luxury.

- Civil War Memoir of Philip Daingerfield Stephenson, D.D.


As mentioned by Stephenson, the dust kicked up on the march in dry weather if often overlooked.
Troops on the march were generally so cheerful and gay that an outsider, looking on them as they marched, would hardly imagine how they suffered. In summer time, the dust, combined with the heat, caused great suffering. The nostrils of the men, filled with dust, became dry and feverish, and even the throat did not escape. The "grit" was felt between the teeth, and the eyes were rendered almost useless. There was dust in eyes, mouth, ears, and hair. The shoes were full of sand, and the dust, penetrating the clothes, and getting in at the neck, wrists, and ankles, mixed with perspiration, produced an irritant almost as active as cantharides. The heat was at times terrific, but the men became greatly accustomed to it, and endured it with wonderful ease. Their heavy woolen clothes were a great annoyance; tough linen or cotton clothes would have been a great relief; indeed, there are many objections to woolen clothing for soldiers, even in winter. The sun produced great changes in the appearance of the men: their skins, tanned to a dark brown or red, their hands black almost, and long uncut beard and hair, burned to a strange color, made them barely recognizable to the home folks.
- Carlton McCarthy, Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia.
 

Cavalry Charger

Captain
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Messages
5,880
#11
I'm wondering if they ever had to shave the men's heads due to the issue of lice. I'm surprised to find there were so many with beards for the same reason, although limitations in attending to issues of hygiene could have been the reason for this as well. I know they had razors to attend to shaving, but not sure how well they managed that without soap.
 
Joined
Jul 30, 2016
Messages
3,899
Location
berlin
#12
I imagine that if they were on the move, any river or stream they waded through would've sufficed for a bath. If they were in the rear or nowhere near the enemy, they might've taken a bath in the nearest river, pond stream or a bath house if near a town of some proportion. Just guessing here.:thumbsdown::whistling:
how would a bathhouse handle a regiment of infantry? if they could how long would that take?
 

Pvt.Shattuck

Sergeant Major
Joined
Oct 8, 2011
Messages
1,835
Location
Tampa, FL
#13
My father told me at the end of a month of continuous combat during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII the soldiers of the 84th Division were taken to a coal mine in Germany. There were hot showers for thousands of men and clean uniforms. He said it was the best shower of his life and he never forgot it.
Many times, huddling in a frozen foxhole, he had shaved with cold water in his steel helmet and when he had to, pooped in it as well. He always kept a pair of dry socks under his blouse to rotate and avoid trench foot, scourge of the infantryman. Trench foot and frost bite took more Americans out of combat than enemy fire.
He blamed his dental problems later in life on poor care during his Army service.
 
Joined
Aug 30, 2016
Messages
984
Location
Bartlett, TN
#15
how would a bathhouse handle a regiment of infantry? if they could how long would that take?
"At last we got to Warm Springs. Here they a nice warm dinner waiting for us. They had a large bath house at Warm Springs. A large pool of water arranged so that a person could go in any depth he might desire. It was a free thing, and we pitched in. We had no idea of the enervating effect it would have upon our physical systems, and as the water was but little past tepid, we stayed in a good long time. But when we came out we were as limp as dishrags. About this time the assembly sounded and we were ordered to march."

- Pvt. Sam Watkins, Co. Aytch
 

captaindrew

Captain
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Mar 13, 2017
Messages
5,347
Location
West Palm Beach Florida
#16
I'm wondering if they ever had to shave the men's heads due to the issue of lice. I'm surprised to find there were so many with beards for the same reason, although limitations in attending to issues of hygiene could have been the reason for this as well. I know they had razors to attend to shaving, but not sure how well they managed that without soap.
This was a big consideration. You will see photos of officers taken in studios with long hair and beards but if you look at photos of enlisted men in the field, casualties and prisoners, for the most part they are clean shaven and short hair, if they have beards they are usually fairly short. I'm sure this goes out the window toward the end of a long hard campaign when they didn't have the energy or time for a shave and a hair cut but it definitely was an issue they had to deal with.
 
Joined
Jun 24, 2015
Messages
621
Location
Talladega, Alabama
#19
Then of course when the men of either army reached a creek, river or waterever type watering hole, did you go bath and wash or did you refill your canteen first?
What I have read was, the commanders forbidded taking baths and washing of cloths at those places for clean water for drinking, cooking was more important than bathing and washing. When those watering sources were to be allowed for bathing and such, they posted guards downriver to warn any other soldiers that just above them were men doing such and the water might not safe to drink.
Of course you might not know what was happening 5 miles or even less upstream, so really when you have 50,000+ nasty, dirty soldiers who cares what happens downstream.
 
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Messages
7,955
Location
Denver, CO
#20
On both sides, an army that became stationary was in trouble. Clean water was hard to find. On the move, most of the armies were good foragers, but when an army became stationary the natural greenery disappeared quickly.
Camp diets were not diverse. Sherman wrote that his soldiers preferred potatoes and cabbage as sources of fresh food.
Skirmishes were fought over blackberry patches and battles began over the deep pools of water left in a river that was disappearing in a drought.
 



(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)
Top