“The cleaning operation is one that must have become fearfully needed”: Personal hygiene at Cold Harbor

For some, the Battle of Cold Harbor was all about twenty or thirty minutes and a fruitless assault on June 3, 1864.  The reality is Cold Harbor was a battle lasting longer than a week.  It was not a “one assault and we are done” battle.  And what was done on the days after June 3 tells us much about how the leaders approached the war in its third year.  It also tells volumes about how the soldiers adapted and lived in these situations.

With the Army of the Potomac now firmly entrenched, facing an adversary who likewise entrenched, the battlefield was not as crowded … say as compared to some of the shorter, likewise bloody, open field battles of 1863.  Somewhat as occurred on Morris Island during the previous July, a military formation can afford to thin the front lines where earthworks are employed. (Though, let’s be quick to point out – Morris Island was mere yards of frontage, not miles. So a portion of a regiment might hold the entire front, and share in a rotation of the combat duties.  At Cold Harbor, with longer lines, the responsibilities were grander by arithmetic portions.)

This situation allowed the troops to correct, perfect, and clean their trenches.  It also allowed the commanders to pull men off the front lines to more comfortable settingsAccording to Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, Artillery Chief of the Fifth Corps, June 6, 1864 was a “cleaning day.”

The cleaning operation is one that must have become fearfully needed by the line officers and the men of the infantry.  What with the mud and dust which they have alternately been called upon to march through and sleep in, and the fact that for a week at a time they have stood or lain in line of battle, night and day, the amount of dirt accumulated must be great. The men have been really better off than their company officers, for there have been time when they could get an hour or two to strip, wash themselves and their clothes, and so prepare for another spell.

Wainwright went on to provide a description of how the situation impacted the hygiene and habits of the line officers:

The officer cannot strip by the roadside in the midst of his men; the operation is too familiar if he wishes to maintain his position. Nor is he even so well off as to change of clothing, for being required to move about more, his overcoat, canteen, and small haversack are about all he can carry; while his servant, who in theory is supposed to carry his master’s change of clothing, five days’ rations, and cooking utensils, besides what he needs himself, being a contraband soon loses everything intrusted to him except eatables and frying pan. …

He went on to describe how the officers really needed a pack mule to help with the load bearing, “as in the French army.”  But, channeling Brigadier-General Rufus Ingalls, a mule per company would add even more traffic on the line of march.  Speaking of Ingalls, what about the baggage train of the Army of the Potomac?

Today all the baggage waggons are up, which have been miles away from us since we crossed the Rapidan, and everyone is fitting himself out for another spell of hard work.

During most of the previous three years, the army was seldom more than a few miles from the baggage.  When folks speak of the “change” seen in the Overland Campaign, they often focus – however right or wrong – on the earthworks.  I think we should also bring into mind how different the spring 1864 campaign was in terms of service support activities.

Wainwright also provided us a comparison of life in the infantry to that in the artillery – among the officers:

Almost every day on this campaign I have been obliged to remark, even more than ever before, how superior is the position of a light battery officer to even a colonel of infantry, so far as comfort goes, in times of general discomfort.  They have a mechanic and tools always close at hand, and their little cart to carry the mess-chest, a bag each, and the company desk, while either a tent is struck on top of the forage waggon, or if their battery is in position, they have their paulins.  All these enable them to go through a month as this last with quite as much comfort as a general officer with his spring waggon, and at times they are better off, as their cart, being ordnance property, and part of the battery, is never sent to to the rear, but moves with the battery at all times.

Join the cavalry?  I think not!  I’ll stay with the guns, thank you!

Keep this observation in mind, however, when considering the battlefield decisions that took place 150 years ago. Dirty and fatigued, men – and as Wainwright holds, particularly the officers – were not in their best sorts.  After just over a month on the march, the wear and tear on the army could be measured by more than shoe leather.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 407-8.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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