While performing your family research, covering the period of the Civil War, April 12, 1861-April 9, 1865, keep your mind and eyes open to the possibility that your relative(s) may have served in the Civil War in a role you may have not considered.
It’s not unusual to discover a family photo of a male soldier wearing their Civil War uniform, posed next to their rifle. But have you found a photo of a relative who participated in the war as a non-combatant? Perhaps you did see a photo and did not recognize it for what it truly represented.
You might be surprised to learn that most of the participants in the Civil War were not fighters, but rather individuals who served in non-combatant military branches or as civilian volunteers and aides.
The Demand for Military Support
Warfare during the Civil War was complex, multi-layered and geographically widespread. There were many activities that happened before and after the battles — in the camps, factories, hospitals, prisons, farm fields, and on the roads and rivers. This high level of activity generated an immense demand for support personnel.
The military troops were huge consumers of goods and services, they needed uniforms and other clothing, food and fresh water, soap, medicines, tents and blankets, transportation, personal gear, weapons and ammunition, healthcare, etc.
The armies also needed roads, bridges, railroads, and deep canals. In addition, they had tens of thousands of animals, mostly horses, mules, oxen, and cattle, that required care and forage.
Intense combat during the Civil War left between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers dead on the battlefields, along with an undetermined number of civilians. It is estimated another 750,000 died from wounds, injury, sickness, accidents, starvation, and disease. It was the deadliest military conflict in American history.
It was the non-combatant regiments and civilians who were tasked with the gruesome job of burying the dead when time and battle conditions permitted.
Roles of Non-combatants
During the war, someone had to make and transport every cannonball that was fired. Someone had to stitch the uniforms and make the shoes and harnesses. Someone had to butcher the meat, cook the meals, and forage for edible plants and berries when rations ran low.
Someone had to raise the crops, transport the forage, and then feed and water the livestock daily.
Someone had to nurse the sick and wounded in the battlefields and hospitals.
Someone had to make the soap and clean the lice-infested wool blankets.
Someone was responsible for picking up the axe and shovel to build the roads and bridges over mosquito- and disease-infested swamps. Someone gathered the corpses that laid for days in the frozen ground or sweltering sun.
I could go on, but you get the idea of the enormous amount of work and human sacrifices the non-combatants made supporting and caring for others.
Diversity Among Non-combatants
Black, white and Native American men, women and children, some willingly and others unwillingly, served side-by-side as non-combatants in some of the most grueling and undesirable roles. Like combat soldiers, many lost their lives.
Women. Thousands of women in the North and South, many with their children by their side, joined the volunteer brigades, The volunteers included mostly working-class white women (from diverse immigrant and ethnic groups) and free and enslaved African-Americans. They worked as camp cooks, untrained nurses, chambermaids, housekeepers, laundresses, and seamstresses.
Among the more well-known women was Harriet Tubman, famous for her experience leading slaves along the Underground Railroad. She worked for the Union army as a nurse, cook, and spy. Also well-known was Union nurse and writer Louisa May Alcott.
Women organized auxiliaries and ladies’ aid societies to supply the troops everything they needed, from food to clothing to medical supplies and other necessities. They wrote letters to soldiers and cared for the wounded in their homes.
In June 1861, the federal government created a “preventive hygienic and sanitary service” known as the United State Sanitary Commission. Their role was to combat preventable diseases and infections by improving conditions in the army camps and hospitals. Women washed sheets and cloth dressings, and mopped bloodied surgery rooms and patient sleeping areas.
Black men and women. Approximately 180,000 free and formerly enslaved black men served during the Civil War as soldiers in the artillery and infantry colored troops. Black men also performed non-combatant support functions, such as: carpenters, blacksmiths, cooks, camp guards, laborers, scouts, personal aids, spies, teamsters, boatmen, among many other tasks. Black men and women worked in factories, hospitals, and armories.
Native Americans. Early in the Civil War, acceptance of Native Americans in the army was uneven. But it was not long before both the U.S. government and Confederate Army welcomed Native Americans.
Nearly 30,000 Native Americans participated in the Civil War, in both the Union and Confederate military, with a majority loyal to the South. Some Native American tribes, such as the Creek and Choctaw, were large slaveholders and they politically aligned themselves with the Confederacy.
It was during the Civil war that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, within the War Department, was established. The Bureau was led by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs who acted as an envoy to the Native Americans and negotiated treaties.
Like other families and communities, there were tribal members who fought on opposite sides of the war. Native Americans who joined the Union Army, served as part of the U.S. Colored Infantries.
Non-combatant Native Americans served in roles such as civilian pilots for warships and transports, land guides, spies, hunters, and trappers.
Sources and Resources for Further Information: Native Americans in the American Civil War, Noncombatant Military Laborers in the Civil War, How Did Civilians Suffer, Black Soldiers in the Civil War, Women in the Civil War.