Civil War (detail of painting 'First Battle of Bull Run' by Kurz & Allison)

A Large Cast of Characters

Many became involved in the Civil War. Musicians, nurses, spies, and vivandières all had their parts to play. Before the war ended, many soldiers also became prisoners of war.


Drums and shrill fifes called out orders in camp. In the heat of battle, the bright melodies of brass bands rallied spirits.

Drummers and fifers conveyed critical information. In camp, they announced the routines of the day: reveille, assembly, surgeon’s call, lights out. On the move and in battle, they relayed orders: slow march, quick time, halt, commence firing, march in retreat.

Many regiments boasted uniformed brass bands. They played in camp, sometimes even in the midst of battlefield cannonades. Sentimental favorites, patriotic airs, jigs, and polkas cheered and united the troops and, reported one battlefield observer in 1865, “revived the drooping spirits of many a weary soldier.”


Several thousand women worked as nurses in Union and Confederate military hospitals, caring for and comforting the wounded.

Necessity forced armies on both sides to add women to their corps of male nurses. The U.S. Army specified that recruits be “plain” and directed them to dress simply, not in hoop skirts. Some women were commissioned, many volunteered; others were relatives of the wounded or members of private aid societies.

They worked far behind the lines, struggling to keep hundreds of patients washed and fed—with lemon juice, beef-tea, and milk porridge. They changed dressings and packed deep wounds with cotton lint. Often they could do little more than comfort the dying.

Confederate Spies

Spies for the Confederacy slipped in and out of Northern cities and Union strongholds, easily obtaining information on war plans.

The government in Richmond loosely coordinated espionage efforts, but most spies for the Confederacy were passionate amateurs. Many were women. Most had little trouble passing through the lines. Sometimes they used their charms on government or military officials to obtain information on planned troop movements or battle strategies. Other times they simply eavesdropped on conversations in hotel lobbies, or bought the latest edition of the newspaper. Some were notorious, but most were never detected. Even those revealed to be spies were simply sent on their way; few were imprisoned.

Daughters of the Regiment

Vivandières—often the daughters or wives of officers—accompanied and provided support to many Union and Confederate regiments.

Early in the war, newly raised volunteer regiments often appointed local women to accompany them to keep the troops supplied with necessities. Vivandières sold tobacco, coffee, identification tags, oil lamps, hams, and whiskey. They did laundry, sewed, and cooked. They were quasi-military, often wearing skirted uniforms and sometimes drawing a salary from the regimental paymaster. The name and role of the vivandière originated with the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars, when one woman was assigned to each regiment in order to reduce the numbers of women following the army.

Prisoners of War

Nearly 195,000 Union soldiers were held in Confederate prison camps; more than 210,000 Confederates were Union prisoners of war.

Early in the war, captured soldiers were returned in negotiated exchanges at the end of each battle or released on parole, promising not to rejoin the fight. But by 1863, prisoner negotiations were abandoned and thousands were sent to prison camps instead.

Union prisoners were crowded into converted cotton factories and tobacco warehouses, even open stockades. Confederates were packed into coastal forts, barracks, and tent camps. Prisoners on both sides suffered horribly—living in filth, malnourished, and plagued by disease. Thousands died; those who survived wasted away to living skeletons.


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