A Soldier’s Life: Jesse Hyde’s Story

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

HydeBy Emily Farley, Sacopee Valley Middle School, Hiram, ME

The Civil War brought death, destruction, tragedy, and confusion to Kentucky. While Kentucky remained a Union state during the war, many citizens also fought for the Confederacy. Although the horrors of battles during the war are known and present in the minds of people as they tour battle fields such as Perryville, the hardships of camp life are not as recognized. In a diary written by Jesse Hyde, a Union soldier from Kentucky during the Civil War, one can see the hardships endured by soldiers off the battlefield.

Food was certainly a concern during a soldier’s time spent in the camp. On March 12, 1862, Hyde reported that a baker put arsenic in the bread he was baking for the troops but luckily it wouldn’t rise and they were able to catch him.[1] In The Life of Billy Yank, Bell Irvin Wiley reported that food was a major cause of illness for the troops in the North. He stated that many soldiers bought pies and cakes from sutlers during their time in camp so there was a deficiency in fruits and vegetables.[2]  Government issued food was usually always in short supply and many soldiers wrote home to talk about the hunger they felt.[3]

The physical condition of the actual camp was another concern among soldiers. In his diary, Hyde talks about the environment of his camp as  being muddy from rain. On February 4, 1863 Hyde discussed how the camp received a considerable amount of snow and the night was very cold. In Soldiers Blue and Gray, James I. Robertson, Jr. writes, “When mud was not reducing the status of the camp to a swamp, dust was stifling.” This indicates that the troubles Hyde wrote about are similar to other soldiers in the North and even in the South. He goes on to talk about how when soldiers walked around camp their mouths would completely fill with dust. On the contrary, Robertson talked about how when soldiers had to march in the rain many men would fall and were unable to get up. The loads they carried were so wet it made the men extremely tired.[4] Hyde reported in his diary on June 25, 1863, that his unit marched six miles through rain and mud and were not able to make it to camp[5]. This was between battles.

Another major concern for soldiers off the battlefield was disease. In the Life of Billy Yank, Wiley says there were no inspections at camps so sanitation remained very poor. There was a major lack of personal hygiene, which caused sicknesses.[6] Clothing and shelter also played a role in the poor health of soldiers. Dysentery ran wild through the camps, often causing soldiers to miss battles. Whiskey, which was often given to soldiers to “cure” them, further irritated their bowel system and made it worse.[7] The average soldier was sick two and a half times a year.  A smallpox vaccine was known but not required of a soldier.[8] In Soldiers Blue and Gray, Robertson talks about how improper clothing, along with exposure to the elements like snow and rain, contributed to disease. Fleas and lice were also very common occurrence in camp life[9].

Soldiers of the Civil War suffered immensely. Much is written about the horrors of battle, which were unmistakably nightmares that no man ever wishes to experience. However, camp life in itself was quite a hardship, especially after being promised the glorious luxuries of the war. In his diary, Jesse Hyde consistently talked more about his time in camp and the hardships he endured more than he talked about what happened on the battlefield. It is possible that what happened on the battlefield was at times too difficult to write about, but historians have corroborated Hyde’s writing that camp life was indeed a worse existence than even the poorest man’s own household and the family he left behind.

[1] Jesse Hyde Diary, 12 March, 1863, Kentucky Historical Society, SC1274.

[2] Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008, 127.

[3] James I. Robertson, Soldiers Blue and Gray. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1988, 71.

[4] Ibid, 61.

[5] Jesse Hyde Diary, 25 June, 1863.

[6] Wiley, 127.

[7] Ibid, 137.

[8] Ibid, 133.

[9] Robertson, 155.

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