“A most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves”: Perceptions of Confederate soldiers during the Maryland Campaign

by James Brookes

Following a series of stunning successes by the Army of Northern Virginia in the Seven Days’ Battles and the Northern Virginia Campaign during the summer of 1862, General Lee’s Confederate army began an excursion into the border state of Maryland on September 4th. Yet the forces that began crossing into Maryland in September “hardly looked the part of a conquering army.”[1] Those who recorded their impressions in letters and diaries during the campaign gave testimony to the infamously ragged nature of the Confederates’ appearance, including the Rebel soldiers themselves, who agreed this was the most motley of armies.

The appearance of the Army of Northern Virginia on the Maryland Campaign asserts itself as remarkable in the history of the war, and countless eyewitness descriptions allow us to evoke the popular image of the ragged Rebel in September of 1862. Uniforms were in shreds and tatters, described more appropriately as “multiforms”; faces were unshaven, unkempt hair stuck through slouch hats of all shapes and sizes, and the dusty roads only served to cake the soldiers in further filth. Throughout the war, soldiers had often complained that uniforms were ill-fitting; sleeves were too short, trouser legs too long, only adding to their multifarious appearance. Lee’s men were particularly deficient in shoes, underwear and blankets, and “Their coats were made out of almost anything you could imagine, butternut color predominating.”[2] Their lack of shoes led to scores of footsore soldiers, and in many regiments the barefooted seemed to outnumber those with footwear.[3] The weight of soldiers had also debilitated; a supposed diet containing large amounts of green corn and apples for subsistence ensured the Rebels became hollow-eyed and sullen-faced. James Steptoe Johnston, Jr. of the 11th Mississippi wrote that “it had become quite natural for us to starve.”[4] Further evidence was given by a Sharpsburg resident who remembered that “They were half famished and they looked like tramps.”[5] This diet exacerbated a frequent plague amongst Civil War armies; diarrhoea and dysentery and did nothing for their already dilapidated appearance and stench. However, it was noted that despite all of these drawbacks in their image, the Confederate infantry had ensured good care of their small arms; one unnamed citizen in Frederick, Maryland wrote that “the filth that pervades them is most remarkable… They have no uniforms, but are well armed and equipped.”[6]

Numerous civilians of Unionist sentiment experienced a sense of mortification when they observed the columns of Rebel infantry for the first time. For many, it was simply unbelievable that such a ghastly army had bested the legions of the North. One witness said she felt “humiliated at the thought that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance”, but professed a certain sympathy “for the poor, misguided wretches, for some were limping along so painfully, trying to keep with their comrades.”[7] Dr. Lewis Steiner, an inspector for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, certainly no stranger to the worst aspects of dirt and depravation in military life, wrote of the arrival of Stonewall Jackson’s vanguard on September 6th in Frederick; “A dirtier, filthier, more unsavory set of human beings never strolled through a town – marching it could not be called without doing violence to the word… But these were the chivalry – the deliverers of Maryland from Lincoln’s oppressive yoke.”[8] It would be acceptable to assume that these were merely exaggerated descriptions of an invading army by a resentful citizenry, but considering the fact that so many Confederate diaries and memoirs testify to this shabby image, it is perhaps wiser to conclude that the Army of Northern Virginia was in fact in an extremely miserable condition. As well as this, considering that Lee’s forces had put Union armies into flight on several occasions during the preceding months, it is unlikely that Unionist sympathizers would desire to extenuate the condition of the Rebel army.


Confederate soldiers in Frederick, Maryland – though it is unknown as to whether this image was taken during the Maryland Campaign in 1862, or during Jubal Early’s march on Washington, D.C., 1864

The days of the early conflict were now over. The Maryland Campaign and the months preceding it had required a much more base approach to equipment and camping than previous months. Confederate soldier David E. Johnston recalled that “The method of carrying our few assets was to roll them in a blanket, tying each end of the roll, which was then swung over the shoulder. At night this blanket was unrolled and wrapped around its owner, who found a place on the ground with his cartridge box for a pillow. We cooked but little, having usually little to cook. The frying pan was in use, if we had one.”[9] His sleeping “quarters”, a rough patch of ground in a Maryland pasture or by the side of once quiet lane, would leave him open to exposure from rain and wind. It is no wonder that Jedediah Hotchkiss wrote that during the campaign “Our soldiers [were] as dirty as the ground and nearly the same color.”  In an army where concepts of sanitation and hygiene were still in their infancy, the daily, monotonous lives of Confederate soldiers could well have been the greatest contributing factor for their grimy appearance in September 1862.

General Lee’s army entered Maryland following months of brutal campaigning in Virginia, and these operations set the stage for the wretched condition of the invaders. As early as the Seven Days’ Battles Confederates had bemoaned their state; with the aforementioned issue of diarrhoea at the apex of their issues. Following the series of clashes around Richmond, one soldier wrote to his wife that “it is a very rare thing to find a man in this army who has not got the diorreah.”[10] From Richmond, Lee’s force marched northwards, fighting a series of bloody battles which wore out his men and left their uniforms in tatters from the exposures of campaigning. Following the victory at Second Manassas in late August 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia was blessed with a pause after two harrowing weeks of nonstop marching and fighting. It was noted that there was “a particular hunt among the Union dead for shoes to replace those worn and broken down from the prodigious marching of the past weeks.”[11] A member of the 55th Virginia wrote to his sister and boasted of his requisition; “we took Manassas and got just what we wanted. I got pants, a nice oil cloth and various other things.”[12] Another member of the regiment, the famed artist Allen Redwood, broke into the baggage of the major of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry and claimed his spare underwear.[13] On their route to Maryland, the Rebels advanced towards Leesburg, and the march was characterized by “thousands of shoeless men… tortured by bruised and bleeding feet and other thousands enervated by diarrhea resulting from the steady diet of green corn and apples.”[14] On arrival in Leesburg, the men were given some chance to revive their spirits and to attain a certain degree of comfort. One soldier that recalled that an elderly woman was moved to tears by the sight, and raising her arms aloft cried out “The Lord bless your dirty ragged souls.” He added that his company was no dirtier than the rest of the army, “but it was our luck to get the blessing.”[15] The ravages of war had been experienced by the Army of Northern Virginia before they began their excursion into Maryland, and without an effective resupply system to shod and clothe them, many ventured North in the same tattered garments they had worn during the summer campaign.

However, periods of rest and recuperation allowed some soldiers the time to wash themselves and their clothing, and the more fortunate were able to purchase new drawers, undershirts and shoes. A creek or stream could provide some relief. William Judkins wrote that on arrival in Frederick, he and his comrades had time to wash “our clothes in the [Monocacy] river and put them on wet”, they were “trying to drown some of the lice of which we had plenty.” he noted that “We had not washed our clothes in about a month, and the bugs were getting unbearable.”[16] For Judkins and others, the rest in Frederick was their first extended spell of rest in months, and as a result some Confederates began to take on an improved appearance and smell. As well as this, they had chance to boil or roast the fresh-picked ears of corn that still made up a large part of their diets. One of Jackson’s officers wrote “The ragged were clad, the shoeless shod, and the inner man rejoiced by a number and variety of delicacies”.[17]

Ultimately, using the evidence presented here it is apparent that the Confederate soldiers who embarked on the Maryland campaign of September 1862 were in a terrible condition with regards to their physical appearance. The absence of a unified, direct system of government supply forced the Army of Northern Virginia to rely on uniforms and equipment from a variety of sources, from European imports to homespun garments. Thus, even if garrisoned in a stationary camp, the soldiers would have already taken on a varied appearance. Their image was influenced greatly by the nature of campaigning, taking an already multiform presentation and rendering it ragged and motley. The lack of particularly necessary items and clothing such as boots and under-drawers ravaged the ranks with even further discomfort. Without the assurance of regular resupply, Confederate soldiers had to adapt remarkably to endure the rigors of the excursion into Maryland; those who could not are evident in the thousands of stragglers who were unable to be designated as combat effectives. Although anomalies do exist of soldiers who were better dressed than the preponderance, their numbers were apparently few and only yield inconclusive evidence on uniformity and cleanliness amongst the ranks. An army already made motley from the Seven Days’ Battles and the Northern Virginia campaign thus embarked on a brutal excursion into enemy territory, which climaxed at the Battle of Antietam, America’s bloodiest day. The men who took part in this military operation became infamously remembered as “a most ragged, lean, and hungry set of wolves.”


[1] Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, (New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1983), p. 83

[2] Angela Davis, September, 1862, in Kathleen Ernst, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), p. 81

[3] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 83

[4] Johnston, Jr., James S. in Priest, John M., Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle, (Shippensburg, PA: This White Mane Publishing Company, 1989), p. 4

[5] Johnson, Clifton, Battleground Adventures: The Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915), p. 119

[6] Duyckinck, Evert A., National History of the War for the Union: Civil, Military and Naval, (University of Michigan: Scholarly Publishing Office, 2006), p. 638

[7] “Kate” to “Minnie”, September 13, Southern Historical Society Papers, X (1882), p. 509

[8][8] Steiner, Dr. Lewis H., Report of Lewis H. Steiner, M.D., … Containing a Diary Kept During the Rebel Occupation of Frederick, MD., in Harwell, Union Reader, pp. 159-62

[9] Johnston, David E., The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War, (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2007)p. 137

[10] A. N. Erskine to his wife, July 27, 1862, manuscript, University of Texas

[11] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 63

[12] Rouzie, William, Rouzie Family Papers, (Swem Library Special Collections: William and Mary College, VA)., Richard O’Sullivan, The Wearing of Federal uniforms by the Army of Northern Virginia, August 1862 to April 1865

[13] Johnson, Robert U., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. II, (Castle Books, 1985) p. 621

[14] Ibid., p. 70

[15] Johnson, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. II, p. 533

[16] Judkins, William, Co. G, 22nd Ga., Wright’s Brigade, personal diary, September 1862

[17] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, p. 87