Eighteen months after the first shot at Fort Sumter, there were certain truths that the soldiers had come to know. Death in war was neither picturesque nor peaceful, and dying bravely didn’t make you any less dead, or mean that you would not be dumped into the cold earth of a mass grave with everyone else, brave and not brave. Nor was there likely to be anyone to hear your last miserable words. People of the era cherished the idea of a “good death”—a peaceful, dignified passing wherein God was embraced and sins repented and salvation attained, preferably in your own bed with your family gathered devotedly around to hear your last murmurs of Christian resignation. War made a mockery of all that. War made a mockery of the idea of a benevolent God. It replaced the family home with the rank, powder-scorched horrors of the battlefield. These were the new truths. In war you lived outdoors like a wild animal. You lived in blistering heat, drenching rains, and knifelike cold. You were exposed and vulnerable. The majority of men who died did not even have the honor of dying in a fight. Two out of three were carried away by diseases that killed them just as surely as minié balls. Those who survived did so on a quarter pound of bacon and eighteen ounces of flour a day—one-third the regular meat ration—with the infrequent small issue of rice, molasses, or sugar. (The rice ration was an ounce.) Men lived without shoes or coats or blankets. Food was short all over the South. Soldiers hunted up sassafras buds and wild onions to ward off scurvy. Horses died for lack of forage. In Richmond, where much of the eastern army’s fare was gathered and transshipped, there were bread riots….
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The featured image is an 1862 photograph of the field at Antietam, American Civil War: Confederate dead by a fence at the Hagerstown Turnpike, looking north, taken by Alexander Gardner. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpb.01097. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.