They were a relentless enemy with innumerable reserves. They followed men around camp, down dusty Southern roads, to the “sinks” (latrines) and under tents and gum blankets. In small mobile battalions and quick- moving armies, they scurried up crusty sleeves, dashed across armpits and darted through matted hair. Nothing, it seemed—sharp fingernails, boiling water, flames—could kill them all. While soldiers blue and gray struggled across battlefields with each other, they also dealt unceasingly with a less lethal but far more irritating enemy: lice.
By the time young recruits finished their training and joined an army in the field or in camp, their dusty woolen uniforms covered bodies matted with sweat and dirt. Even carefree teens used to the grime of farms or cramped city neighborhoods quickly got sick of waking each morning in the same dank duds of the previous day. And when an occasional itch suddenly became a persistent, fullbody irritation, horrified young soldiers made the acquaintance of the omnipresent “grayback.”
Mosquitoes, fleas and other puny pests added to a soldier’s discomfort, but none earned the reputation of the infamous grayback. Campaigning armies unwittingly made life harder for their men by reusing campsites settled purely out of military convenience. Poorly located latrines, garbage and the presence of animals—live and butchered—drew vermin and spawned disease. But each man in uniform was also a walking oasis for lice.
For the Civil War soldier, personal hygiene was more often than not a matter of varying degrees of filth. Soap was as scarce as baths (at best, quick dips in local streams or ponds) were rare. Limited during hot weather to one often ill-fitting “suit” of clothes—undergarments, socks, pants, a homespun or flannel shirt and perhaps an army-issued “blouse” or light coat—out of scarcity and their own propensity for traveling light, soldiers could rarely change clothes, even if they had wanted to. They marched, fought and slept in the same dusty wool for months at a time. Encamped units sometimes benefited from the presence of laundresses, often wives of soldiers who remained in camp and drew rations along with the men. These women washed and mended uniforms for a fee—which money-starved soldiers were not always inclined to pay.
The army recruit already had his hands full getting used to long marches with heavy gear, foul weather, loneliness, exhaustion, sore feet and irritable bowels. The sudden onset of war against the itch was almost enough to drive him mad with aggravation.
Repulsed and embarrassed by their new “tenants,” unclean recruits sometimes tried to deal with lice in private, retreating to nearby woods to do their “skirmishing” or “knitting”—rooting out and killing the critters one by one. Turning shirts inside out brought only temporary relief. Greenhorns soon turned to more lethal weapons established by the veterans—scalding water and fire. Boiling or singeing killed the unwelcome guests by the score, but they were quickly replaced when soldiers put their shirts and trousers back on their grubby bodies.
Soldier accounts of battles with the bugs were often colorful. “When we were on the march,” a Yankee infantryman wrote, “we had to every time we stopped, take off our shirts and drawers and kill the lice, to keep them from carrying us off.” A Confederate remembered, “I pulled off a Shirt last night and threw it down; this morning I saw it moveing first one way then another; I thought at first that there was a rat under it, but upon inspection found it was the lice racing about hunting for a soldier.”
The Civil War ended, armies dispersed and legions of lice remained unvanquished. By then, experienced soldiers had come to terms with their opponents’ unlimited numbers and changed their tactics in their common fight against the insects from attempted eradication to containment. They had learned to live with the enemy by limiting the crawling hordes, as best they could, to manageable and bearable numbers. Only the icy air of winter ensured a full grayback retreat, a fact that made even supply-starved Rebels “prefer six winters in camp to one summer on the march.”
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.