You hear it in movies like “Apocalypse Now,” when Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, says, “Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
But what did a Civil War battle smell like?
Think about it. You often hear about the sights and sounds of the war, the roar of the cannons and the flash of the guns, but you rarely hear about the smell of it.
You’ve heard the joke about taking a bath once a week whether you need it or not. During the Civil War, a bath once a week wasn’t a joke. It was fact. The Customs of Service handbook, an early field manual, stated that officers should try to make sure soldiers get one bath a week, two if possible. But when armies are on the move, that might not be possible, and streams and rivers sometimes made up defensive positions between the lines and couldn’t be used for bathing.
Take for example the Battle of Gettysburg. You have 60,000 to 90,000 troops on each side marching non-stop for several days straight. That means something like 150,000 sweaty, stinking, unwashed men, and their clothes, gathering in one area for battle. Talk about ripe, but this is just the beginning.
The next problem is the call of nature, or as the Customs of Service says, “Inattention to nature’s calls is a frequent source of disease. The strictest discipline in the performance of these duties is absolutely essential to health, as well as to decency. Men should never be allowed to void their excrement elsewhere than in the regular-established sinks.”
Sinks were trenches dug a set distance away from the camp and any fresh water supply. Hopefully, the trenches would be screened from sight with wood poles and sheets, but this wasn’t always done. The sinks were inspected daily, and a layer of dirt was thrown in from time to time, along with some lime, in an effort to keep the smell down. It was the duty of the surgeon to alert the commanding officer if the conditions of the sinks became too bad.
So now we have those thousands of sweaty, stinking, unwashed men, maybe 100 or more at a time, squatting over a trench and having what my seventh-grade basketball coach would have called a “good old country crap.” An ugly sight for sure, and the smell must have been beyond belief. And we haven’t fired a shot in battle yet.
And then there are the horses. Horses for the cavalry, the officers, the artillery, the supply wagons and the ambulances to carry the wounded. Thousands of horses, and they don’t bother to use the “sinks.”
On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Gen. James Longstreet countermarched his men back to another road to avoid being seen by the Union soldiers on the Round Tops, wasting precious hours. Artillery officer E. Porter Alexander wondered why the general just didn’t follow the droppings of the artillery horses to a route a few hundred yards away rather than marching all the way back to where he started from.
Now the fight begins. Charge and countercharge with no side gaining an advantage. A no-man’s land forms between the lines where the wounded and dying lie with little chance of help. Some of the dead may lie there for several days and their bodies begin to bloat and rot. Think of a thousand dead skunks on the field.
Photographers Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and James F. Gibson arrived four days after the battle was over and were able to photograph dead soldiers still on the field.
Even the wounded who made it back to the lines added to the smell. Doctors were amputating arms and legs left and right, with the severed parts placed in buckets and in piles outside the hospital tents. Those too begin to rot and smell before they could be buried.
The battle ends and another problem arises. What to do with all the dead horses.
While almost 700,000 soldiers were killed in the Civil War, more than one million horses and mules were killed as well. While long mass graves could be dug for the dead troops, the effort to bury one horse could equal the effort to bury 10 or 20 men.
What to do? Burn them.
Dead horses were dragged into piles or one central trench and then set on fire.
So here is the smell of a Civil War battle. Tens of thousands of unwashed, stinking men facing each other in two lines of battle. Behind each line are trenches of their waste cooking in the sun. Between the two lines are the rotting bodies of the dead. Somewhere near the two lines, the smell of amputated limbs rotting is joined with the odor of burning horseflesh.
The sulphur smell of the gunpowder from the firing of the guns must have seemed like perfume.
It was said you could smell the Gettysburg battlefield miles away even weeks after the battle ended. Clouds of black flies drawn by the scent filled the air in and around the town.
Let’s face it, war just plain stinks.
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.